My therapy journey, recovering from Borderline Personality Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I write for welldoing.org , for Planet Mindful magazine, and for Muse Magazine Australia, under the name Clara Bridges. Listed in Top Ten Resources for BPD in 2016 by goodtherapy.org.
This weekend, my therapist is at the same conference, at the same place, as she was when I wrote this post. So much has changed in the last couple of years – for one thing, email correspondence is no longer a part of our therapy – but she hasn’t changed. Her love, and her giving, haven’t changed. My appreciation and gratitude for that love and that giving, grow every day. It’s a privilege to know her and to do this work together….
And since I wrote this post, her love of gardens and gardening has led me into this area for myself – a gift of herself and her influence that will last a lifetime, and makes life more beautiful, for all the hours that that life affords.
This weekend my therapist is at a residential conference – strangely enough at a conference centre I have stayed in myself. I have been dreading this weekend for months, remembering how I felt last time she went to a similar event. I have been dreading the feelings of exclusion, of jealousy, of knowing that she will be interacting with strangers who for these three days will have a greater insight into the minutiae of her life – what does she have for breakfast? – than I will ever have. They will be in company without the company of the clock; they will talk and laugh uninterruptedly; they will take a walk and talk – or not. They will capture the moment, in a picture. Oh to be a fly on the wall and to be able to observe her interacting in a carefree way with those around her. And yet…
I made what looked like a very small decision last week, but it felt as though it carried particular significance.
A few years ago I was one of a number of runners up in a writing competition, and part of my prize was a book on particular hobby – for the sake of anonymising details of this story, let’s say it was baking! I’m not a baker, and it’s not something I can see myself developing an interest in, in the foreseeable future. However, I am aware that one of my therapist’s daughters is a keen baker, and I thought of her as soon as I saw the book.
Over the last few years I have wondered, on and off, about what to do with the book. I’ve tried to think of friends of mine who might appreciate it and only came up with one name. A number of times I was on the verge of mentioning it to that friend, but something always held me back.
Every time I saw it on my shelf I would think of my therapist’s daughter, and how much I thought she might like it. Perhaps I simply wanted to hold onto any reminder of my therapist, however oblique, and however uncomfortable (because after all, the book was also a reminder of the family of which I was not a part). Part of me wondered whether one day, in the far distant future, I might actually take up baking myself. I know that that part of myself was the one that wanted to please and thought that the way to do so was to conform to another’s way of being, or a way of being that was admired or approved of. My therapist is also a baker, and I imagined this was a precious link between her and her daughter, something that she would observe in her daughter, and feel moved, or proud. I have an enormous ache for her to feel proud of me, to feel moved by me.
On the other hand, the part of me that indulges fantasy still held onto the hope and the desire that I might actually be able to give the book to my therapist to give to her daughter. The logical part of my brain knows how unrealistic that is, and also how strange and uncomfortable that could be, from the point of view of my therapist’s daughter. But my mind was holding onto the idea of a tangible expression of my desire to belong to and be a part of my therapist’s family – a hope and desire that is a perfectly legitimate and interesting subject for discussion in therapy, but one that cannot get played out in reality, because it is at odds with reality. It doesn’t fit with the facts, or with what is possible.
Last week I decided to give the book to the daughter of a friend of mine, who though still at primary school, loves to bake and is already impressively proficient at it! Giving it to ‘a daughter’ (albeit not my therapist’s daughter) rather than to a friend, somehow felt like the right thing to do. It made me more conscious of the ‘divided role’ my therapist’s daughters play in my fantasies, as either sisters, or daughters. But more than that, I was aware that giving away the book felt like a significant parting – a parting with a way of thinking and being, as well as a parting with an object. It signified acceptance of reality as it is, and the impossibility of the fantasy I had held on to. It is one thing to know reality, and another thing to attempt to come to terms with it. Giving away the book was a small victory, but it wasn’t completely easy and straightforward, even after all this time and work – there was a tug, a wrench, in giving it away, even though I knew I needed to do it.
Giving the book away also signified acceptance of the fact that the reality of my relationship with my therapist does not in any way rest or depend on these oblique and tangible connections, which have little meaning in the context of the relationship, and neither do they add anything to it. The only things that carry weight and create a greater sense of internalisation of the relationship, are the things that transpire in the room or are closely connected with them. That might include tangible objects (for example, the stone my therapist gave me, or perhaps objects I have given to her), but on the whole they live in the interactions, moments, and memories shared, and the ways those become absorbed into oneself.
The decision I made last week therefore felt as though it flowed out of the work I was doing in therapy just before Christmas, both in relation to acceptance of the nature of the therapeutic relationship (including its time-limited aspect), and the decision to ask my therapist to destroy my ex-therapist’s notes of our sessions, without me reading them (a decision almost three years in the making, while my therapist acted as the ‘custodian’ of the notes for me). It felt like a small victory, and both a sign of and an outpouring from the larger internal victory that had come before. Though I was not consciously trying to do ‘therapeutic work’ over the Christmas therapy break – and in fact I was trying to take a break from it! – it’s good to know, through small victories such as this, that the work continues anyway, in the subconscious. Much as, I imagine, mysterious things were happening underground which led to my first snowdrop appearing in my garden, just a few days after the new year……….
My therapist and I spent a number of sessions discussing what might lie behind my decision to obtain a copy of the notes, what meaning it might carry, and how I should come to a decision about whether or not to read the notes. Jane and I only saw each other for fifteen sessions, as the counselling service she worked for only offered short term therapy. Though I tried to enter private therapy with her a few months later, she decided to take early retirement for health and family reasons, and the hope of seeing her again, never came to pass. In a number of different ways, therefore, our work together was artificially constrained and cut short, in ways that perhaps neither of us would have chosen, and some of which we could not have foreseen.
Obtaining the notes was a way of exercising control over this particular ‘ending’ in a way that I couldn’t over previous endings. It was a way of guarding against the spectre of regret if I didn’t ‘save’ the notes and could never read them, and against the fear that I would lose my memories of Jane and our sessions, in the course of time. The notes held the possibility of gaining a glimpse into her thoughts, and a validation of my struggles. They held the possibility of seeing myself through her eyes, and the hope that she would be the non-distorted mirror that my parents never were.
But I also knew that the notes held the possibility of disappointment; of not finding what I was hoping for, or of finding things that would be hard to understand, difficult to accept, and impossible to go back and query or clarify. I knew that they held not just the possibility, but the likelihood that reading them would do more harm than good. Having taken eighteen months to fully grieve losing Jane, and having reached a state of acceptance and being able to treasure and feel nourished by positive memories, it was difficult to see any way in which reading the notes could add, rather than detract, from that. And yet, the draw towards reading them was very strong. So strong, in fact, that I put the notes in an envelope and gave them to my therapist, asking her to keep them safe for me, until such time as I made a decision about whether or not to read them. That session, when I gave her the notes, was a wonderfully connecting hour – I had a desire, which she seemed to share, that reading the notes should be something that, if we did it, we should do together. That the role of the notes was to be worked out within my therapy and in the context of our relationship, and not outside it.
My therapist didn’t press the point, but I knew that her view was that I didn’t need to read the notes. That my memories of my relationship with Jane, my experience of my sessions with her, was enough, and would sustain me, and would be there for me to call on internally. Even now, my therapist still points out that I put a great deal of emphasis on the external, rather than being nourished by my ‘internal objects’. It reminds me of a section of a podcast I listened to recently by the wonderful ‘This Jungian Life’, on the subject of ‘Slobs’! In a discussion about hoarding, and the value placed on external objects, the point was made that we have the tendency to want to ‘concretise’, and it can be difficult to let things go and to appreciate that there is a space between an object and the feelings that are connected with it – the feelings do not depend on the object for their existence. Jungian analyst Joseph Lee made the point that sometimes we do not have “a confidence in our psyche’s ability to keep us in relationship to the thoughts and memories that accrete around the objects; so we falsely fear that if the object goes away then my feelings and memories that relate to the object will no longer be accessible to me “.
A similar point was made incredibly beautifully and poignantly by blogger ‘Reflections of a Mindful Heart and Soul’ who commented on Part 1 of my series of posts. I will quote parts of her comment here, again, as when reading them back this evening they seemed to encapsulate entirely and truly the nature of my dilemma, in a way that I couldn’t completely understand and certainly wasn’t ready to accept at that time, but see with much greater clarity, now:
“What is true, whether we like it or not, is relationships change. Who we are, and who we are becoming, changes…..Perhaps another question may be: Am I fighting acceptance of what is? If the search is to find out whether or not you were special, what was real or not in the therapeutic relationship, the notes may not tell you that……..If you had a good relationship, remember the good memories. When it is all said and done, what we truly remember years later is the essence of someone and that is what matters. When you are old, good memories do come back on their own when you least expect them to. The task at hand is learning acceptance, not fighting it, and learning to let go of what was and cherish that as well as moving into the present, day by day and to keep learning and growing. It is never easy. Nature teaches us this is the pattern- the seasons come and they go. That doesn’t mean there has to be forgetting. It just means there is only so much we can deal with effectively in the present or enjoy.”
She said of her comment ‘I usually don’t do this [comment at length], but I feel you are at a crossroads in your growth’. She was right – and I think that my positive decision to trust my therapist, to focus on our therapy, and to put aside Jane’s notes at least for a time, was a key turning point and the start of what soon became a period of vital change and insights in my therapy.
I can see now, that my decision to obtain Jane’s notes, and also to postpone reading them, had much more to do with my current therapy, than it had to do with my therapy with Jane. Whatever worries, fears, anxieties, and motivations that I felt I had in relation to the notes and to Jane, they might have been real but they also represented the same set of feelings, but magnified, in relation to my current therapist. And absolutely core to that set of feelings, was the question posed by ‘Reflections’: “Am I fighting acceptance of what is?”
I had another two and a half years of therapy to go before I could truly experience, and not just intellectually be aware of, the answer to that question. Two and a half years of fighting acceptance of what is. And then a serious act of sabotage to the therapeutic relationship in the middle of a period of important dreams and active imaginations, propelled me into a period of hard but rewarding work, and significant realisations. As described in ‘Therapy, choice, and our internal fight’, I realized that:
“Every time I choose to confront the part of me that wants to stay stuck, every time I make conscious efforts to feel better rather than accepting my place in the pit of despair and closing my mind off to other possibilities – I am actively accepting, all over again, the inevitable truth that I am changing and that therapy will end. “
“Ultimately, radical acceptance of reality as it is, is what’s left when my Resistance fades away”.
Two and half years is a long time, but I’m learning that working with the subconscious is a tricky and time-consuming business, and it is not just the conscious parts of my personality that can be stubborn! I need no more evidence of the incredible power of the subconscious, than the fact that the act of sabotage to my therapy that I mentioned, took place just hours after I came to a very important decision – the decision, finally, two and half years later, to ask my therapist to shred Jane’s notes, without me reading them. I realized that I had reached the point where I could trust in my memories of Jane, and what I carried of her, within me. I could trust my internal sense of the relationship I had had with her, and that was enough for me. I had reached the point where I could see clearly that what we experienced together in our sessions, was what was ultimately real, and was what constituted our relationship. What we created between us was the only reality that mattered and that could meaningful for me, and I was finally able to let go of the possibilities (both for good and for ill) that I used to think were contained within the notes.
Dimly, at the back of my mind, I was aware that there was an important lesson in there that I could transfer to my current therapeutic relationship. In the back of my mind I knew that this decision had come about not because of anything to do with Jane, but because of progress within my current therapy. In the back of my mind was a realization that the reality and significance of my therapeutic relationship lay in mine and my therapist’s direct experiences of each other, and that I needed nothing outside of this to confirm the reality and significance of that relationship, either now or in the future. But I didn’t consciously reach for that lesson, and I didn’t bring that realization into my awareness. And hours later I found myself, for the first time in eighteen months, engaged in a serious act of internet sleuthing as regards my therapist. A serious act of looking for something outside my direct experience of the relationship, to make it somehow more real, and longer lasting. A last-ditch attempt by my subconscious either to subvert the realization, or, if one were to be charitable to it, to hasten its awareness. Though in the past I have fought my therapist’s emphasis on the powerful agency of my subconscious, this time I had absolutely no doubt of its role in this incident, and in the connection of those two events – my decision to let go of Jane’s notes, and my subversion of the equivalent path with regard to my therapy.
When I did finally step onto that path, and when I did finally transfer that lesson, this is what I became aware of, and it bears a striking resemblance to what ‘Reflections of a Mindful Heart and Soul’ wrote to me, two and half years ago:
“It seems to me now that I can choose to focus either on being, or on remembering, but I cannot give equal attention to both. My heart has to be turned toward one or the other. The more I focus on gathering memories, the less I focus on immediate relating, and the less I’m able to internalise her. Ultimately, my deepest desire is for the therapy and the relationship to be something that I am, not just something I remember. And for that I need to accept that the remembering may consist primarily in seeing her and hearing her in who and what I am becoming, knowing that what I’m seeing is her influence, and what I’m hearing is her voice, woven into my thoughts.”
I told my therapist I would like to destroy Jane’s notes, that I was ready to let them go. She asked if I wanted to do it, and I said that I was happy for her to shred them. She said they would go on her compost heap along with all her other shredded paper – I think that’s a rather fitting end for them, considering plants and gardens are an important point of connection between us, and my therapist often uses garden related metaphors in our work. I like the idea of Jane’s shredded notes, eventually helping my therapist’s garden to grow! My work with Jane was the starting point and catalyst for my current therapeutic work, and she was also the one who referred me on to my therapist.
A number of readers and bloggers said at the time, that they were interested in how the tale of this thing that I had done, would eventually turn out, and that they were contemplating a similar course of action, or were caught in a similar dilemma. If any of them are still reading, I’m sorry it’s taken this long to come to a resolution! But I also hope this resolution is an encouragement – an encouragement to look within and beyond the immediate desire to take a course of action, and an encouragement to wait until you reach your own conviction, however long that may be. And an encouragement I hope, that however scary it may be, to quote ‘Reflections’, “Who we are, and who we are becoming, changes”.
[The 5-minute Youtube clip is from the film ‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’, and I would recommend watching it before reading the post, if possible, as so much of the content of the post relates to the imagery of the clip. You don’t need to have watched the film, but the following synopsis of the clip might be helpful. The scene takes place towards the very end of the film; Arthur is fighting his uncle Vortigern, who through sacrificing loved ones to magical creatures, gains the ability to temporarily become a demon-warrior. In the past, Vortigern killed Arthur’s father and mother in order to become King, but Arthur, as a child, escaped, and was raised in a brothel and on the streets. The clip of the battle contains a flash-back while Arthur is lying on the ground, knocked down by Vortigern. In the flash-back, Arthur is standing watching the scene of his father’s murder, and himself as a small child.]
This is my Resistance, my inner saboteur.
Underneath, just a person, a part of me, but when it rises up against me, a more than merely human force, armoured up through years of moments of sacrificing the best parts of me in the name of self-preservation.
This is my Resistance. It rises up as backlash after progress and insight. It rises in my moments of victory and says: “You have won – now play with me”. But toying with Resistance is playing with fire. It is a dangerous game because it is not really a game at all; Resistance is the reaper of destruction.
For a long time, I was afraid of my Resistance. When it rose up against me, I ran. When it got too close, I looked away. I let it claim me as its own belonging.
To my Resistance I say, “I am here now, because of you”. Because your fortress is not my fortress, because your tower needs tearing down. You violated me, and you cut me, and over a lifetime, you co-created me. But you don’t own me – my Self is mine to take hold of. I don’t need to run anymore, and I don’t need to look away. I can make a choice to stay and fight, and to stop a repetition of the past. I am no longer small. I became big, because you, Resistance, gave me something big to think about, and I have learned how to douse your flames.
This was the second time in my therapy when I connected immediately to an image on screen that felt as though it represented a part of me. The first was when I saw the video for Sia’s song ‘Chandelier’ – it was if I was seeing my inner child dancing around, in pain, in front of me. Both times, externalising something that had previously felt hard to grasp and relate to, was a powerful, change-motivating experience, that enabled something different to happen. As I wrote in a post called ‘Inner child and past child’, watching ‘Chandelier’ (repeatedly) enabled me, for the first time, to feel love and feel compassion for my inner child. Previously I had wanted only to blame and hurt her, for ‘failing’ as I saw it, to prevent me from feeling pain, both in the past and in the present.
Watching this battle between Arthur and Vortigern, the enormous exhaustion that had surrounded me for the last few days, and the feeling of resentment with regard to a recent therapy session, lifted. The exhaustion stemmed from having fought my Resistance almost constantly for weeks; the resentment stemmed from a session which I felt had needlessly thrown me back into the battlefield, when all I wanted was a respite from fighting. My therapist asked if the film clip had helped me to feel that victory was possible – I replied that I believed deep down that it was, but that seeing my saboteur ‘in the flesh’ and not just feeling him in my mind, gave me the motivation I needed to keep fighting. And I absolutely had to keep fighting – I learned that a very hard way, a few weeks ago.
I allowed a serious act of sabotage of self and the therapeutic relationship to happen. I allowed it, I did it – it was shocking, shameful, and I couldn’t understand how it had happened. But trying to figure out how it had happened, was a fundamental part of trying to repair the relationship with my therapist, who was still committed to our work – an act of love on her part, full of grace.
Whenever I thought about what had happened, this thought struck me most – that it happened almost without thought, and very quickly. That it happened without a fight. Thinking back on it, I felt very strongly as if my Resistance turned up, and everyone fled the building. There was no fight because no part of me stayed to fight. No one could bear to look on what I ultimately had to look upon anyway – the shame of what I was thinking of doing which turned into the shame of what I did do. No one could stand and look the ‘monster’ in the eye, let alone stay long enough to do battle. And so it was as if my Resistance simply turned up and said: “I think this body and this mind, belong to me now”.
For the last few months my dreams and active imagination have been urging me to face the parts of me that I find unacceptable. In dreams the parts appeared as monsters of one kind or another, that chased me – hurting, raping, or killing. In one active imagination a ‘wise woman guide’ told me she couldn’t work with me or take me any further on my journey until I’d found and dealt with my inner saboteur, who I named Tempest.
In another active imagination I saw a doorway standing in the sand, with twins who looked just like me, standing on either side of the doorframe. Behind the closed door was a monstrous but still recognisably human looking creature, which also resembled me. I stood in front of the door but did not want to open it and look at what I knew was there. I tried to turn and walk away but another door – the same scenario – appeared in front of me. I asked my wise woman guide if she could turn the monster into a frog. “Why would you want to turn yourself into a frog?” she asked me. Later on in the same active imagination, I was giving birth, flanked by the same twins. I swore loudly, wanting to keep the baby inside, preventing it from being born because I knew it was a monster. The perspective shifted from first to third person, and I saw not me, but the monstrous figure from earlier, lying on the bed in labour. My wise woman guide said: “Are you sure it’s the baby that’s the monster?”
When the urge to self-harm rises up in me, I engage in battle with it. I face it, I feel it, I argue with it. I don’t just acknowledge to myself what I want to do, I let myself feel the full hunger of it, I let myself remember what draws me, and what it used to feel like. I accept the part of me that wants to self-harm, and I am not ashamed of it. I do not judge it. At the same time I know that when I oppose it, I need to use a strength that matches the strength with which it draws me; and I can only do that if I acknowledge its power to start with. I need to bring as much of it as I can into my awareness, so that it does not have a hidden power with which to overcome me later, by surprise. If I try and minimise it or hide from the temptation, it is as if I am also minimising myself and my power to deal with it effectively. If I try and suppress it altogether, long experience in therapy has taught me that its self-destructive power becomes manifest in other ways, and I become the destruction that I was seeking to suppress.
In my therapy session just before the Christmas break, my therapist and I talked about how significant these last few months have been. She asked me what I felt I’d learned, and I said that I’d found a new way of approaching things in therapy, and also outside it, that will stand me in good stead for the rest of my life.
I’ve learned to not flee the building. I’ve learned the vital importance of opening the door to the monster, facing it, bringing it into my awareness, and doing battle with it. After the flashback in which Arthur realises that he doesn’t need to look away from Vortigern, that he doesn’t need to run anymore and that he can act to stop a repetition of the past – he doesn’t just get up to carry on fighting Vortigern, he battles with him verbally, as well as physically. Unlike the first part of the battle, he engages with him on an emotional level – he acknowledges Vortigern’s power, and its inherent link to his own. At the climax of the battle, he recognises who he is and how he is made, and ultimately, that is how he overcomes his adversary.
I’ve learned that when I face my darkness – which involves accepting it rather than feeling ashamed of it – I don’t just resist temptation, or feel better, I gain insight. When I hang around for long enough, I realise things that were hidden before; motivations that lay under wraps, desires that went denied or unacknowledged. Some of those motivations and desires are described in the post that I wrote after my recent act of self-and-therapy sabotage. Ultimately, radical acceptance of reality as it is, is what’s left when my Resistance fades away, like Vortigern’s power disappearing in a writhing black mist.
The film clip ends before the final two lines of the scene – but I think they’re worth paying attention to. Arthur said to Vortigern: “You created me” – but his words didn’t end there. He went on to say: “And for that, I bless you. You make sense of the devil”.
Psychologically speaking, making sense of the pain and destruction that we encounter during the course of our lives, is I think only possible if we locate and come to terms with the dark parts of ourselves. It’s what makes acceptance possible, and forgiveness possible. It’s what allows gratitude to be felt and flow out of us, and what allows us to bless and receive blessing. I’ve talked a great deal about fighting, because that is what it so often feels like, day to day – but perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I’ve learned a way of making sense of things, and I hope that that will be an ongoing blessing. I hope that it will be an encouragement to remember that we are indeed, “fearfully and wonderfully made”.
[I know that I have mentioned the ‘shadow’ in the title of this post, but not in its body, which is poor technique for one thing (!) – but I also wanted to clarify its meaning, for those not familiar with the term. Carl Jung used the term ‘Shadow’ to refer to the unconscious parts of the personality – they needn’t be ‘dark’ parts of the personality, but they are difficult in the sense that they are parts that there is an unwillingness to acknowledge.]
[The final quote is from Psalm 139, verse 14, and I include it because it came to mind as I was writing. I appreciate it is taken completely out of context and in a way that could cause offence, for which I apologise, and I hasten to add that I am making no direct connection between those words and the characters or occurrences in the film clip. But I am making a connection between how it feels for me to individuate and grasp hold of who I am, as a whole person, and the sense that there is something awesome, mysterious, and wonderful both about that process, and its result.]
[King Arthur: Legend of the Sword did not do particularly well at the box office, and though this may not have been the film’s main intention (!), I personally think it works well as a portrayal of one person’s journey working through their trauma, and growing into their true self. Metaphorically, there is a therapist in the form of a mage, and at one point Arthur has to enter the ‘Badlands’ where he wrestles with various creatures, before he recovers some of his memories about what happened to his father.]
Susie Orbach wrote, in a beautiful article (from 2016) on the poetry of therapy, that “Words are the most exquisite example of the unity of mind and body”. They are also powerful; language matters. “The limits of language are the limits of my world”, wrote Wittgenstein. The meaning of words is in the use we make of them, but our language is not only the filter through which we see the world, but also, linguistic relativists would argue, the structure that circumscribes the limits of what it is possible for us to conceptualise and think about. Language is deeply cultural – which is one reason why the notion of a ‘private language’ – one that can only be known by myself – is impossible. It is cultural at the level of nations and of tribes; but also at the level of families, and within an individual home. To those who are alien to a nation, tribe, or family, the lack of a shared language and way of being, is a key factor in the sense of not being at home.
In the film ‘Arrival’, the aliens (literally, beings from another galaxy), far from home, build a relationship with linguist Louise Banks through shared efforts at communicating and acculturating – learning each other’s languages, and making adaptations to compensate for the enormous practical difficulties involved when one species has a mouth and vocal chords, and the other looks like a giant squid! Unlike the poetry of therapy, there were no recognisable words being interchanged by both parties – but there was still a creative beauty involved in what was a profoundly personal and relational experience. An experience so fundamental to the process of language learning that it was essentially an example of neuroplasticity, and the brain’s ability to rewire itself in response to new and different experiences. That rewiring was both a response to Louise’s immersion in the process of relational language learning, and also an enabler of the learning itself. The narrative element of an alien encounter brings home in a strangely believable way, the radical nature of the change that took place within Louise – an alteration in the limits of her world which she could never have foreseen and would never have believed possible.
By the end of the film the aliens have departed for their own home. Their arrival on earth was short-lived, though ultimately crucial both for their own the human species’ survival. And yet the film’s key arrival that we are meant to focus on, is Louise’s own – her arrival at acceptance of what her life-changing encounter has shown her about herself and her life. That vision was not a one-time gift – the changes in her brain are permanent, the language she has learned is now a part of herself, emotionally and physically; the limits of what is possible for her, forever altered. This is the power and poetry of language learning (in its broadest sense) through relationship, on an extraordinary and of course fictional scale. But within the tribe, family, or therapy room, its impact is no less life-changing. Susie Orbach writes that “The therapist’s language is particular to encounters with that individual. It is not therapy speak or psycho-babble. It is a bespoke relationship with a bespoke language. And within that bespoke relationship, as words are discarded and new words found, the therapeutic couple create an aesthetic with its own unique colour, temperature and shape.” There is both a lovely accuracy and a moving underplaying in her statement that “Amid the pain, sweat, struggle, times of confusion and misunderstanding, small pleasing connections and new understandings occur which have their own beauty”. An accumulation of such small pleasing connections, with their own beauty, are what have their own neuroplasticity effects as the poetry and power of therapy work chiefly through relationship experienced by the hard work of finding a way to communicate, and fashioning a bespoke language together.
If the film Arrival examines this matter from the perspective of a successful inter-species encounter, the book ‘Home’ by Marilynne Robinson shows the other side of the coin, both in a community and a family context. In Gilead, a town that has forgotten the reason for its existence, and has lost its ability to empathise with the ‘alien’ in its midst, the prodigal son, Jack Boughton, returns to his childhood home and dying father, after a prolonged absence of more than twenty years. It is but a temporary arrival, to a home whose language and way of being was never his own, and so was never truly home at all. In his wonderful talk on both ‘Gilead’ (the first in the Marilynne Robinson trilogy) and ‘Home’ (the second book in the trilogy), the ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, talks about the painful inarticulacy between Jack and his father. “Jack cannot use the ‘script’ of unselfconscious family intimacy; but equally it is clear that….this script is presented to him both as an obligation and also as conditional on behaving appropriately”. Jack does not feel that he ‘deserves’ to use this family script, and his father is forever waiting for him to do so, while at the same time expecting not to hear it. Jack’s father is too conscious of what he wants to hear, while Jack is too conscious of how others hear him. Neither is open to true and transforming relational communication – to unselfconscious surprise, to unexpected connection, to acceptance of reality as is, both in the world and in the other. There is stalemate and stagnation, not poetry and creativity.
Louise Banks’s experience of bespoke language learning within relationship was profoundly freeing, in extraordinary ways. In contrast, Jack Boughton’s experience of the accepted and acceptable language of his town and family, was paralysing. The ‘science fiction’ element of Louise’s story facilitates an enormity of experience which breaks through the conventional boundaries of her mind and body, but it is also an experience in which she is completely immersed – vulnerable, spontaneous, and accepting. Jack is guarded, defended against the smallness of his surroundings, forever analysing the impact of his words and actions, standing just outside his experience, feeling rejected.
Both Arrival and Home pull the counter-intuitive move of demonstrating the enormous power of freedom and self-actualisation within the context of a deterministic universe (from a human point of view). Whether the context is time-transcending aliens, or Calvinist theology, the possibility of radical acceptance of living moment by moment and choosing to bring the future to pass, however foreseeably painful or unknowably hopeless it seems – suffuses both stories. But one doesn’t have to believe in determinism to see the value of allowing oneself to be changed, moment by moment, through relational discourse that accepts rather than expects, and which allows the limits of one’s understanding to expand in world-shifting ways. Whatever one believes about religion or the workings of the universe, as Rowan Williams noted in his talk, change, from our side, is always imaginable. Acceptance of the ‘alien’ in the other and in ourselves, is always imaginable. But it takes a willingness to immerse oneself vulnerably and unselfconsciously in relationship, and to be open to surprise. It takes finding ways to communicate that transcend what is unknown and unknowable in self and other, and to build a new language. That is what therapy can make possible; that is the beautiful dynamic that can play out within the room. As Susie Orbach wrote: “In everyday chatter we can on occasion be surprised by what we say, but the structure and purposeful endeavour of the analytic hour creates a space in which surprise can occur frequently. One notices what one says and what one cannot say”. And what we gain when we allow that to play out within the room, is described in another quote from Rowan Williams (modification my own!):
“the knowledge that the stranger whose perception of me I cannot control, is – finally – not my enemy or my competitor but the generative source of myself. What I cannot master, the perspective I cannot by definition attain or imagine….. is the presence that makes me alive and that also makes welcome possible – not only a being at home but a creation of home for the human [or, in the case of Arrival – alien] other.”
Peace. For the last few mornings, as I’ve woken up and the first feeling I’ve been aware of is a heavy sadness inside my chest, all I’ve wanted to feel is peace. Not just peace and respite from pain and internal battles, but a sense of being at peace with myself – contentment, calm, safety, a sense of feeling loved and having a place in the world. What some authors, researchers, and therapists (writers such as Brene Brown and Hilary Jacobs Hendel) might call an open-hearted or whole-hearted state, a state of the authentic, vulnerable, Self.
What struck me a few mornings ago – when it wasn’t Christmas day and I was still at home and not surrounded by family and therefore still had the capacity to reason – is how different my desires and longings are now, to how they used to be. I remember how, in 2012, I described to a CBT therapist the intense emotional highs of obsessive relationship. She asked if I could think of different, better, feelings, and I looked at her genuinely baffled by how anyone could think there was something better than emotional intensity. Why feel less, when you could feel more? Guiltily, as it somehow felt wrong, I told her it was the best feeling in the world.
The next couple of years were horrendous. I was more unwell than I’ve ever been, and though I hated many aspects of the emotional rollercoaster I was on, emotional intensity still felt like a drug that I needed, and sometimes I used self-harm as a way of administering it. In time, I think I came to know that emotional intensity wasn’t ‘the goal’, in the same way that I knew that self-harm was not a healthy coping strategy; but the intellectual knowledge didn’t translate into emotional knowledge, and I hadn’t yet replaced either intensity or self-harm with solid, deep-seated, internalised alternatives.
What struck me a few mornings ago was how firmly and how deeply I now know that there is a better feeling than obsessive relationship, a better feeling than emotional intensity in general. How indubitable is the knowledge that calm, quiet, deep respect, love, and regard for a separate other, both in its giving and in its receiving, is far more fulfilling than an ecstatic loss of sense of self and merger with an ideal. Intensity is about height of feeling – about taking a particular emotion and squeezing it into a peak as narrow and as tall as possible and spearing oneself on it, at a dizzying height. Whereas I’ve discovered through therapy, that what I cherish and long for is a depth and breadth of life and emotion, which has more options, more colour, more shades discernible within it, than are available within a blinding point of intense white light. I want a prism, not a magnifying glass. But much more than that, I want to love and be loved in this new way that simply honours, accepts, and enjoys the other. I want to feel the warmth, joy, and security of knowing I love and am loved for who I am – as is the case with my therapist – and that because of that I have the ability to enjoy and take in the world, and experience myself and others, in a different way. And I want to experience much more often the deeply fulfilling contentment and peace that comes with those things.
What struck me a few morning ago, was not a new realisation, but one I had started to come to gradually, a couple of years ago, and which over time has settled, and deepened, and gained even greater conviction. What was a new realisation – or at least more recent, from the last couple of months – was the thought that intensity takes me away from who I am. It is one of the very many things – which includes internal resistance, self-sabotage, projection, envy, resentment – which take me further from myself, and which separate me from my true Self. Emotional intensity is not just contrary to the kind of emotional experience I now deeply value, it also separates me from an open-hearted, whole-hearted state in which I am vulnerably, authentically me. And therefore it also prevents me from acting in accordance with who I am, and in a way that honours the people and things I hold dear.
There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with strong feeling – strong anger, strong sadness, grief, or joy, for example. There is nothing wrong with a strong, genuine awareness of our authentic self. But what I realised fairly recently is that intense emotion is a state of ‘being caught up’ in something ‘other’, whereas genuine strong emotion comes from deep within our core, and grounds us to ourselves. Strong emotion that comes from within our core, shows us something valuable about ourselves, whereas the first thing that happens when we get caught up in intense emotion, is that we completely lose ourselves. Intense emotion is about disconnection from self; whereas strong feeling, focused activity, or passionate endeavour, can be about immersion in something that aligns with, and connects and gives expression to, who we really are. That seems more obvious now, than it ever has done. And yet I still remember the times when it seemed as though to feel intensely was the same as to feel more truly. But intensity, as I now understand it, has very little to do with truth.
Changes. Peace. I’m grateful for them; I yearn to experience more of them. I also can’t help thinking that much much more of this inner peace, contentment, vulnerability and authenticity, could result in much more of the peace that is wished for and talked about at Christmas time. I wish you both kinds, wherever you are in the world right now.
I’m honoured and excited to have had a guest blog published on Rachel Kelly’s website towards the end of November, on the subject of writing, and in particular on how writing poetry has been so significant for my well-being. I’m immensely grateful to Rachel for her support and her kind words, and for her inspiration and motivation to keep going both with self-care and with writing! And I’m grateful for the opportunity she gave me to share this – I hope you enjoy it!
I think this is the most important thing I’ve ever written. I think it’s also the most inward looking, the most esoteric, the least relatable – unless you happen to be in a very similar place to me. Albert Camus wrote that “bad authors are those who write with reference to an inner context which the reader cannot know”. Bad or good – it will depend on how much of my inner context, you know from your own experience.
Tucked at the back of a pocket in my purse, I have a small piece of paper with the following words: “We suffer at our sense of loss, we are frightened by her rage, we are guilty in the face of her rejection, we are hurt by her choice of isolation, and we are confused by her message”. It’s a reminder of what I don’t want to become, of what I don’t want to be said of me.
The words are from the eulogy at the funeral of Christine Chubbuck, an American TV news reporter who took her own life live on air in 1974. I watched the powerful film of her life a few months ago, and then read an in-depth article written shortly after her death, which contained descriptions of her from family, friends, and work colleagues. Like the manner of Christine’s death, it was haunting and disturbing, and made for uncomfortable reading, not least because of the implication that Christine’s death was a choice that amounted to a denial of the support available around her, a rebellious message to those she felt had rejected her.
No one knows exactly how she felt in the lead-up to her death, or what the complex mix of factors and motivations was – conscious and unconscious – that led her to take her life, in that way. My own response to the film and the article, what I take from them, are only my personal attempt to derive from them that which will be most helpful for my own journey. They should not be taken as my own interpretation of what was going on for her. All I can say is that for me, what is most helpful at this point in my own therapy, is one word above all others, in that extract from Christine’s eulogy – it is the word ‘choice’.
At a certain point, when we are far enough down the road of reflection, self-examination, and recovery, I think that long-term therapy becomes a moral matter. I had begun to believe that before I watched “Christine”, but the film and article brought that message home with a vengeance.
I think the phrase ‘moral matter’ needs some explanation, so that it is not misunderstood. I don’t mean morality in its religious, cultural, or judicial sense; I mean personal morality, the way in which we choose to live our lives – ‘the place from which we act’, as my therapist would say. Eventually, when you’re no longer in mental crisis day after day, when you’re no longer in deep despair more often than not, when you’re no longer self-harming, or suicidal, or living constantly with the ghosts of projections; when you’re ‘well enough’ and understand enough to see your patterns of behaviour and to know where they come from – at that point, a greater awareness of personal responsibility for recovery starts to set in, and decisions from the small to the large become much more consciously about choosing to act from a place that is not ruled by past patterns, a place of freedom and integrity.
This is a difficult topic – you might even call it offensive, in some ways. It was offensive to me when my therapist first started suggesting I could choose how I felt about certain things. I would insist that I couldn’t help feeling sad or depressed, that I couldn’t help, for example, dwelling on the pain that came from feeling excluded from her life. Yet she would keep telling me that I had a choice about how much attention I paid to those feelings, and how much room in my psyche, I allowed them to take up. I was upset and offended by the implication that I was choosing pain and depression over thankfulness and joy – a subconscious choice, perhaps, but exhibited consciously in the overt belief that I had no control over my emotions. And yet we all have more choice than we think we do, and others, particularly our therapists, can see that in us, before we are aware of it.
I remember the first time I came starkly face to face with this in session. My therapist and I had been discussing some difficult self-sabotaging behaviour, and I’d identified a pattern in the behaviour, and an explanation for it. My response was to simply affirm that now I understood what the behaviour was about, I could see how and why it would continue to occur.
Sometimes it really is the case that one has to be cruel to be kind, and my therapist left me in no doubt of the seriousness of my statement and the threat it represented to the therapeutic process. If I’d identified a pattern and understood its origins, I was no longer powerless or without choice. It was not a fait accompli that the behaviour would continue – I could work hard, take responsibility, and try and stop it. It might take me a long time, and progress might be slow; but there is a crucially important gulf between turning one’s face and one’s heart towards progress and committing to change, and deciding to stare only at one’s feet, and where they are currently planted.
My therapist didn’t put it this way, but retrospectively I would say I was faced with a choice of personal morality. Do I move with integrity and responsibility to make a change and act from a different place, or do I continue to act in a way that is damaging to myself and others, and allow myself to believe that that’s just how things are, and that I have no choice in the matter?
I changed my behaviour in the way I needed to back then, but it wasn’t the only time my therapist has had to remind me of the weight of that responsibility for change, and of the implications for therapy, of refusing – whether actively or passively – to bear the weight of that responsibility. She reminded me again, only a few weeks ago, when I seemed adamant that I simply could not see a way forward towards a happier, more fulfilled life, and towards an image of myself that was even remotely positive. It’s almost as if I was saying – ‘do something, because I can’t do it, or I won’t’. But of course without my agency, she has no agency to help me; she cannot do her work without me doing mine.
I’m sure I read somewhere that Carl Jung said that people in therapy are far more willing to confront the skeletons in their closets, than to face the good inside themselves. I’ve seen it often enough within myself, and it makes intellectual sense – resisting recovery is natural, because change, even for the good, is frightening, and the familiar feels safer and more predictable. Encouraged by my therapist, I’ve tried to turn this ‘head knowledge’ into an active struggle to try and identify what advantage those resistant parts of me gain, by remaining stuck in old patterns. The parts of the picture come slowly, small pieces at a time, and even thoughts that feel like revelations are sometimes only one aspect of a much bigger whole.
If remaining with old patterns feels safer, what do we gain by refusing to remain stuck? The difficulty is that the skeletons in the closet have a habit of breeding – we add to them – when we refuse to confront and own their ugliness as our own, and also at the same time refuse to accept and own our goodness and our ability to change. We act from a place of fear, and shame, and defensiveness, and in ways that are damaging to ourselves and others. We act from our unconscious without an awareness of what drives us; we act through the fog of projection, rather than from a clear vision of who we and others are. We act from fear of loss – of so many different kinds.
There are many examples from my daily life. In therapy, this action is made manifest in behaviour that negatively impacts my process and therapeutic relationship, whether that is shutting down in a session because of resentment at not having a perceived need met, or intruding into my therapist’s space in some way, because of a need to feel close. It is made manifest in many, many different ways – many human ways. Because at this stage in my therapy, I’m there less because I am ‘ill’, than because I human, and all of us have circumstances and hurts that we are trying to get to grips with in order to live a life of greater freedom and depth. For me, a key part of that is learning to deal with loss in a way that doesn’t frighten, destroy, or overshadow everything else in my life. It means learning to accept that I am significant and loved purely for who I am.
After a difficult therapy session this week, I posted on Twitter that I was sitting in a café rather than going home to be alone with my self-harming thoughts. As I was sitting there, I kept thinking, ‘I need to feel better, I need to feel better, I need to feel better’. A kind and thoughtful therapist suggested I reframe these thoughts as ‘I would like to feel better and I can, I have before and I can again’. She suggested that words such as ‘should’ and ‘need’ put too much pressure on myself, and that there is a difference between motivating myself, and pushing myself too hard. The encouragement towards self-compassion is an important one, particularly when it comes to my emotions, and to how I feel about myself. But when it comes to my ‘internal orientation’, to the direction in which my heart and mind are set, to my actions and to what I do, I realised that I need more, even, than self-motivation. I need determination, utter commitment and resolve, a sense of importance and urgency. I realised, as I was still pondering the matter a few hours later, that what I needed to keep uppermost in my internal struggles, were the words ‘I can and I must’.
‘I can and I must’. Does this constitute putting too much pressure on myself? At first glance, it looks like it. At first glance it seems the very opposite of what had been suggested to me. But I don’t believe that it needs to be. I wouldn’t apply ‘I can and I must’ to the desire to feel better – accepting and sitting with my feelings, whatever they may be, can be a positive thing. There is no contradiction between feeling despairing and hopeless for a while, and staying in my integrity. But feelings don’t happen in a vacuum, they happen within a worldview, within a locus of control, bounded by action or inaction. I won’t tell myself that I ‘must’ feel better. But when it comes to trying to face and fight my inner resistance to feeling better, my internal saboteur who wants to keep me stuck feeling bad, and who wants me to stay in the pit of despair – that’s when I need to say ‘I can and I must’. I can and I must stand and fight. Choosing not to fight, postponing the fight, ignoring the fight, telling myself the fight doesn’t matter, or will be won another day – that’s not staying in my integrity.
As I continued to think things through many hours later, and tried to see the ‘I can and I must’ aspect of the situation I was in, the following became abundantly clear. Every time I choose to confront the part of me that wants to stay stuck, every time I make conscious efforts to feel better rather than accepting my place in the pit of despair and closing my mind off to other possibilities – I am actively accepting, all over again, the inevitable truth that I am changing and that therapy will end. Every time I fight my internal saboteur I am affirming my walk on a path that ultimately leads to readiness to say goodbye, physically at least, to the dearest, most important adult in my life, and to the one who has shaped me these last few years and will continue to do so internally, for the rest of my life.
I can continue to delude myself that I am at risk of losing my therapist’s care, or her good opinion, or that I don’t matter to her as much as others, or that I don’t belong in some way in her life; and I can continue to seek reassurance and try and build up a store of as much concrete comfort and as many wonderful words as I can, before therapy ends, in the hope that those things will sustain me afterwards. Or I can stop deluding myself and just accept what she shows and tells me. Accept that I am loved and wanted and significant, and that I belong. And if I accept those things, I have no reason to seek reassurance, or to seek ways to keep adding to that externally sourced, concrete ‘store’.
I can delude myself that that concrete ‘store’ is vital to my survival, or I can open my eyes to the fact that I have been neglecting my ‘internal store’ of my experienced and lived relationship with her – indefinable, not concrete, impossible to capture in words, as it is – and I have been minimising it, making it vulnerable, weak, and small, in order to provide myself with a reason to keep stockpiling my external store. And that is far outside my integrity, and a cruel act against myself. I can and I must stop doing that. I can and I must stop bankrupting my internal relationship so that I can keep adding to my memory bank.
It seems to me now that I can choose to focus either on being, or on remembering, but I cannot give equal attention to both. My heart has to be turned toward one or the other. The more I focus on gathering memories, the less I focus on immediate relating, and the less I’m able to internalise her. Ultimately, my deepest desire is for the therapy and the relationship to be something that I am, not just something I remember. And for that I need to accept that the remembering may consist primarily in seeing her and hearing her in who and what I am becoming, knowing that what I’m seeing is her influence, and what I’m hearing is her voice, woven into my thoughts.
This is the hardest, most brutal, most challenging, most exhausting thing I have ever done. I had not the slightest idea, when I started, that this is what therapy would mean for me. That I would reach a point when this wasn’t just about feeling better, but about being better. It’s so easy to take umbrage, in the days of fighting expectation and perfectionism, and accepting that one is ‘good enough’, to the idea of being ‘better’ – but there is no contradiction between being ‘good enough’ and still striving to be more fully human. Who wouldn’t, in the final instance, say that they were living, in some form of another, to serve love (for themselves, for others, for their passions); and which one of us wouldn’t say we would like to better and more fully give and receive love. We are all either advantaged or disadvantaged to a varying degree in that capacity to give and receive love, depending on our nature, our nurture, and our past and present experiences. Growing in this area, getting better at giving and receiving love, can be a tremendous joy – therapy can be a tremendous joy. But it is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It really has been, and continues to be, both the worst of times and the best of times, both the season of darkness and the season of light, both the winter of despair, and the spring of hope.
I’ll end very near the place where awareness of this ‘moral journey’ started for me, even before I saw the film ‘Christine’. As well as with the words and influence of my therapist, it started with this extract from a book by Ann Belford Ulanov, a Jungian analyst, and what ties it to the quote from Christine’s eulogy, is once again the word ‘choice’:
“In the world of neurosis and psychosis there inevitably comes a time in treatment when moral choice presents itself to the person involved. The terms come clear. Choose life – being, bits and pieces of goodness – or choose to fall away into illness, into non-being. This is a choice one lives toward. It does not come quickly or all at once. It is certainly not something manufactured ‘for the good of the patient’. The choice cannot be hastened, nor produced at will. But if the psychotherapeutic treatment achieves any success, sooner or later this choice will present itself in the most intimate of personal terms to the person involved and demand a response. Side with goodness, the patient will be told from within, even though it is a shadowed goodness, an ambiguous goodness; side with it or turn away from it’.
[Though not mentioned explicitly, I am also grateful for Brene Brown and her books on vulnerability and shame which I have been reading and listening to over the last few months, and her own emphasis on courage and faith and acting from integrity.]
I wrote this article for welldoing.org more than a year ago, but didn’t post it as I was concerned in case it was seen by the person who prompted it to be written. However, I had cause to think of it again recently, and I believe enough time has passed that it is ‘safe’ to now share it here. I am still passionate in my belief that therapy is a sacred space, and that we have an ethical responsibility to honour that space, including in our interactions online:
I’m sharing a link to a post I wrote for World Mental Health Day four years ago. I love the words of this song, and I’m still so grateful for the online community in which we share our darkness and become a light for each other…