For those in the US trying to get through this Mother’s Day ♥️
Mother’s Day can be difficult, in so many different ways, but it still feels as though only some of those ways are publicly acknowledged, or socially acceptable. It hit me again this morning, when I was listening to the radio and the presenter played a song for those who find the day painful – it was a song about a son’s grief at the loss of his mother. There are no songs that I know of, about a child’s grief at the presence of a parent; or at not having a different one. There is nowhere to hide from Mother’s Day and nowhere to run to, for those who find it difficult because they have, to use Dr Terri Apter’s phrase, ‘difficult mothers’. If this is you, I hope my post for the therapy website welldoing.org is helpful, or at least is a reminder, during the many triggering moments that this day can bring, that there are many others who feel the same, even if we cannot voice it:
Here is my response to yesterday’s inflammatory article in The Guardian, which has now thankfully been removed. Many thanks to welldoing.org for publishing this, and please share and retweet on social media, if you can:
[The first part of this post (without which this Part may not make as much sense!) can be found here. Though originally I thought this would be a two-part post, it has now become clear it is at least a three-part (and possibly a four-part!) post. Part 3 will follow next week….]
When I got home I was still reeling from the shock of my therapy session. I was intensely hurt, upset, angry, confused, afraid……I sent this email to my therapist:
“I clearly made a mistake in addressing my email as I did at the weekend. But if you think I was looking for a particular response, you’re wrong. Right now I really really don’t want to come back on Thursday. You know I will, anyway. But I’m in shock and it feels like everything is under threat and about to come tumbling down.”
It felt as though everything had been destroyed – or was on the verge of being so. It felt as though I had built a convenient fabrication around our relationship, and that she had let me do it, only now to try to jettison her ‘therapy mother’ role when it had become too uncomfortable, and when I got too close. Suddenly I didn’t really know what was real anymore. I felt as though she had lied, if not directly, then by omission. I didn’t see how we could possibly carry on working together when the picture I had built up of our relationship, and what I thought I had been experiencing – which formed the supporting structure of the therapy – had just been torn down. Or at least, that was what I was afraid had just happened. I recalled the many occasions when my therapist had herself used the terminology of ‘therapy-mother’ and ‘therapy-daughter’, and wondered how I could trust her when she was apparently trying to tell me that I was ‘seeing her all wrong’ (my words)?
And yet…….this is when I first noticed something was different – about me. Because though my feelings were very intense, and though part of me wanted never to see her again, I still went to sleep that night, as I always do, holding onto the small stone that she gave me as a transition object just before our long summer therapy break last year.
I woke with the same intense feelings that I had experienced the night before. I felt lost in a fog, circling the edge of a chasm that I could not see. My therapist replied to my email, to say that she could see that this was difficult for me. She also said that I did not make a mistake in addressing my email, and that “therapy is not about getting it right, but about discovering about yourself”. I was at work and could not reply – and I did not feel like replying, at that stage. I suspected that she wasn’t really aware of the enormous impact her words had had on me.
Strangely, as the day wore on, I began to feel a little better. On the one hand, this was not surprising, as I switch very quickly and effectively into ‘work mode’, compartmentalising and shutting off other parts of me, and their feelings. In addition, it’s routine for me to simply shut off very painful feelings and prevent myself from feeling them.
But I sensed that my feeling better was not simply a result of those two factors. I sensed that it wasn’t just that I had locked the intense feelings away, but that they were actually becoming less intense. The thoughts that the night before had seemed so all-consuming that they felt like a certainty, felt more like frightening possibilities (even perhaps probabilities), which were laced with doubts. The sense that my therapist had not been honest with me, that I needed to run because our relationship had been undermined, was slowly changing into the rational thought that I knew her and trusted her, and there must be some explanation for what had happened. Gradually – though with lightning speed compared to the rate at which my reactions would have changed two years ago – I was coming round to the idea that I needed to stay open and vulnerable. I needed to face whatever it was that she had meant by her words on Tuesday, and to go forward from there, with her, whatever that ‘with her’, looked like.
The night before, I had experienced two mental images, two choices that were open to me. On the one hand, my ‘internal parts’ (my inner child, teenager, and others) were ‘putting my therapist to death’ – removing her, that is, from my inner world, from my thoughts and my feelings. On the other hand, there was an image of my therapist destroying that ‘internal family’ – which is what I was afraid would happen, if I continued to ‘let her in’.
That evening, I sent my therapist the following email (only extracts are included here). I started off by replying to her statement that I was finding things ‘difficult’:
“No, it was more than difficult – it felt catastrophic. Last night it felt as though between us we may have undone almost four years’ worth of work. It felt as though everything I had built up or been allowed to think or believe was a lie, or just my own fabrication. I didn’t want to see you again, or I wanted to end therapy soon – because I didn’t trust you and therefore how could we carry on. Strangely, I didn’t cry. I think my protective side jumped in immediately to stop me feeling too much. I started to dismantle my inner world and images – it felt as though you had no place in it anymore. Something can only be internalised, if there is a corresponding external something, to internalise in the first place. Otherwise it’s just a construction and a fabrication. If what I thought I was internalising didn’t actually exist….then the internalised version had no claim on that inner space.
……I want to trust you and I don’t want confirmation that I have been deluding myself or that you have been lying by omission. But I do want you to be honest with me, at the same time.
I’m just trying to convey what it felt like last night and this morning. I wouldn’t be writing this if part of me didn’t still trust you and didn’t still, strangely, feel a bit connected, despite what felt like a threat of annihilation….”
Amazingly, I did still feel connected, and I rapidly followed up my email with this one:
“I keep thinking about all of this, I can’t switch my mind off. I think I want to work through this with you, whatever the outcome. Because you’re the same person that you were before; even if you think my perception of you or how I think of things, is not quite right. And so it feels as though I stand to lose a huge amount- stuff without which I’m not even sure how I would make sense of things/therapy anymore. But you would be there and would be the same person even if I felt as though I’d lost you. Whatever was left would still be worth a lot. I don’t know if any of that makes any sense…..”
My abiding sense, as I went to sleep that night, holding my therapist’s stone once again, was that I knew her, and she was the same person now, as she had been before. She was the person that I loved, respected, and trusted, and with whom I had shared so many difficult and joyful times in therapy, and who had been there for me and present with me, supported, upheld, and accepted me, and cared about me. That hadn’t changed, I felt absolutely sure of it – irrespective of what had happened, or how I felt. My core inner view of her stayed constant, and I wasn’t ‘splitting* her’. In that respect, at least, it was as if I hardly recognised myself anymore.
[* – In splitting, an individual may see themselves, or another person, as either entirely good, or entirely bad. Fundamentally, ‘splitting’ is all about a difficulty in holding opposing feelings, thoughts or beliefs about oneself or about another person, and an inability to bring opposing attributes together, and to see them as part of a cohesive whole. Splitting is one of the nine DSM IV criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder, and the criterion is worded as follows: “A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation”.]
Sometimes progress shows itself in really really small ways.
Living by your values can mean making significant decisions such as standing up for human rights, or acting in accordance with religious principles, or putting honesty before career or progression. But it can also mean buying a kettle just because you like it and because you value beauty over utility. It can mean valuing yourself enough to give weight to your own preferences and opinions.
Today my husband and I were looking at kettles on Amazon. I liked the aesthetically pleasing ones and he liked the practical ones. He pointed out the downsides of the ones I liked. Normally, I would have given in and gone with his ‘better judgment’, and then regretted it later. Today I just said that that was the type of kettle I’d always wanted, and I asked him to look into the different models with similar features, and order one that he thought had the best reviews and was not too expensive. So the pretty but impractical kettle will be arriving tomorrow.
This small thing is a big deal. I’m the person who, in the canteen at work in my early twenties, paid for a chocolate bar that I’d brought from home, because I was so conflict-averse I couldn’t bring myself to challenge the person who was charging me. I’m the person who gave in to having a more ‘practical’ engagement ring than the one I’d dreamed of all my life (there was little difference in cost, but my husband thought that the one I wanted would damage more easily). I agreed to a fruit cake at my wedding because it was ‘traditional’ even though I hate fruit cake and I didn’t eat any of it. Two years running I’ve got an air brush tattoo on holiday and both times I came away with a different colour to the one I wanted, just because the tattoo artist kindly made some suggestions about what might look good, and I went with her judgment over my instinct.
I know what I want – but all my life I’ve been used to being told that what I want is not right, or not sensible, or immature, or silly, or fanciful, or unwise, or impractical, or not traditional, or not well regarded. I’m so used to being told that I am easily led and follow others, by people who don’t see the contradiction in the fact that they just want me to follow what they want. And so I side-line what I want – I doubt it. Is it really what I want? Should it be what I want? Is it the right thing, the best thing, does it make sense? How do I really know what I want, anyway? Perhaps they are right, and I am wrong. In any case, I don’t feel strong enough, or self-assured enough, to stand up for my point of view. That is the route to conflict and invalidation, or at best to a lengthy debate in which I feel I have to justify everything I say, and to ‘make the case’ for my opinion. That’s how it’s always been – until very recently.
But I’m starting to see that there is a third option between ignoring my viewpoint, and getting involved in a lengthy argument. There is the option to not buy into a worldview which requires this kind of justification in the first place. A couple of weeks ago my husband and I were having a different debate, in which he wanted me to state which I though was more important, the intention behind a statement, or how it was interpreted. He couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t make a choice and he didn’t want to settle for my answer that I thought both were important. So in the end I simply told him that I refused to buy into his way of thinking that required categorising things in that way; that is not my way of thinking, and that’s okay.
So today I stood up for myself without engaging in debate. I refused to buy into the worldview that everything must be justified and that efficiency and practicality are more important than how the look of something makes me feel. I refused to buy into that worldview, and so I bought a kettle. And by God I’m going to enjoy watching it boil, and knowing that it’s a symbol of progress, and of valuing myself enough to live according to my values.
Simple pleasures; small step; big deal.
[I should add that none of this is about refusing to compromise, or wanting to ‘get my own way’ without any consideration of what someone else wants. In this particular instance, other than generally always favouring practicality, my husband had no strong feelings about, or interest in, the type of kettle we have. If this had been a matter about which he felt strongly, we would, I hope, have had a different sort of conversation about it. This is about acknowledging and valuing difference, and valuing ourselves enough to think our opinions can have validity, even in the face of disagreement. It is about not getting drawn into a debate carried out entirely on someone else’s terms and according to their own rules of engagement – if you disagree with those terms and those rules. It is about speaking up if there is something that is important to you – even if you are afraid of how it will be received, or whether it will be thought worthwhile; and even if you can’t exactly explain why it is important, but you just know that it is. ]
I’ll be glad when this day is over.
My marriage is at a new low where our Christmas cards now simply read ‘To…..love….’. Whereas they used to contain a paragraph or two, now even a brief ‘I love you’ is missing.
Though I’m profoundly grateful for the insight and self-awareness therapy has brought me, being with my parents-in-law now brings new triggers in the form of my awareness of every nuance of behaviour and interaction which echoes (indeed moulded) the behaviour and interactions I find so triggering in my husband.
I miss my therapist, and I wonder how Christmas with her family is going. I know she is not a perfect mother, but I believe she is a ‘good enough’ mother, and I envy her daughters that; and I know I need to grieve the lack of ‘good enough mothering’ in my own past, but it’s hard.
Last night I went to midnight mass, alone. Doing things alone is not a problem for me, and I enjoy it as I’m naturally an introvert. But when the Bishop’s address started off on the subject of loneliness, I felt the tears rise all too quickly to the surface. When he spoke about feeling all alone when surrounded by people, it hit home. I felt alone – not because I had come to midnight mass unaccompanied, but because other than in therapy (and to some extent within myself), I have no emotional home, no family (other than my children) in any sense other than because of a ‘technical’ connection through blood or marriage.
After the address, we stood to sing ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’; I was still in a daze, and though it was clearly marked in the order of service, I didn’t realise it was the offertory hymn and a collection basket was about to be passed around. As I was at the start of an aisle it came to me first, and I reacted in complete surprise, suddenly coming up out of my introspection and that place within my head. The church warden who came to me with the basket must have been bemused by my reaction, because he put his arm around me and gave me a big hug, as if to say, affectionately, ‘come here you silly thing, what are you like?!’. He was considerably taller than me and when he pulled me in against him my glasses smudged against his chest and his smart suit jacket. I fumbled in my pocket and pulled out whatever change I had, and he, and the basket, moved on.
But that hug shook me and I found it harder and harder to keep it together, until the beauty of the last verse, the cathedral choir and organ, the sheer volume of sound and being part of it, broke my defenses and I was crying rather openly, but as discreetly as I could; as relieved at letting go, as I was embarrassed at the tears.
He was a stranger – and I know that for many people, what happened might have seemed inappropriate, or unwelcome, or unwise. And though it probably meant little to the man who gave it, to me the hug felt warm, genuine, affectionate, and compassionate. And what hit me forcefully was the thought that this was the only hug or physical contact I would receive from any adult over this Christmas period, with the exception of my parents (and in that instance the contact is not something I want or like, and I try to minimize it as much as possible). In that hug I felt an odd sort of fleeting (but powerful) closeness – though we were strangers and knew nothing of each other, we shared that one moment of my surprise and his amusement, and that briefest moment felt more genuine and revealing of each other than any moment I’ve had with my husband, parents-in-law, or parents today.
The absence of closeness, and the presence of loneliness, is one present that I would rather have given back this Christmas. But that one moment in the very early hours of this morning stands out for me as an example of the well-known and simple truth that the kindness of strangers can make a real difference, whether they are aware of what they do, or not – ‘for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts’ (Middlemarch, George Eliot).
Although I try to be as open in my blog as I can, there are still some things that feel too private to speak about. Sometimes a moment feels so special and precious I just want to keep it close to my heart where only I have access to it, rather than sharing it. And sometimes a moment feels difficult – really, really shockingly, life-changingly difficult, and I need to hide it away because it is also precious, but in a different way.
A few months ago I wrote about a very difficult weekend when I felt disconnected from my therapist. Though this was hardly unusual (!) it did come after a run of encouraging and affirming sessions, and a really positive break over Easter and subsequent ‘reunion’. I felt (and so did my therapist, I think), that a corner had been turned and some real progress was being made. In that context, then, the internal chaos and the ‘acting out’ that ensued (in the form of a string of emotionally volatile emails to my therapist), was a surprise and seemed like an unexpected step backwards.
In my post ‘A tale of three houses – therapy, progress and internal conflict‘, I wrote about my reflections on that weekend. I realised that: “Part of me wanted that sense of disconnection and separation – it showed that I still needed her, and it also held the promise of reconciliation. A sense of comfort and drawing close after a fight. I hadn’t realised until after that weekend, how close the connection is for me, between love and pain. And how much I need that sense of conflict, to feel alive. Not just because of an addiction to the intensity of feelings; but also because for me, individuating is associated with a struggle. And if I’m not fighting then I fear ‘not being’, or simply ‘being someone else’. ”
That incident of rupture and repair was a major turning point in my therapy. Or rather, it turned me back onto the road of progress that I had been traveling on for the last few weeks. But the way in which it did that was something I’ve never managed to write about – until now. And the reason I’m writing about it now is because I’ve been shocked into remembrance by this post, called ‘Between the chaos’, by blogger ‘Girl in Therapy’. I’m not suggesting that her situation is the same as mine, and I’m certainly not writing this by way of giving her or anyone else ‘advice’. However, it did remind me how crucial that turning point was for me, and it made my blood run cold thinking what might have happened had I not listened – really listened – to what my therapist said to me then.
The first session after my chaotic weekend back in May, was preceded by an email from my therapist asking me to please think about what had happened over the weekend and what I was ‘doing to the therapy’, so that we would have the best chance of learning from it. The first part of the session felt surprisingly light-hearted – almost in the way that hindsight sometimes lends a laughing air to something that could have been very serious. Half-smiling, my therapist told me that she had actually felt very cross when she’d read my string of emails – I suspected she really meant ‘angry’. It occurs to me now that perhaps smiling is sometimes a defense mechanism for her, just as it is for me. I was apologetic, really apologetic. I knew that I had indeed ‘done something’ to the therapy, and that the ‘acting out’ was semi-consciously chosen (for the reasons mentioned above). And so the first part of the session was tough, but not hostile or frightening. We were engaged in a ‘repair’ and I was feeling connected.
The mood changed abruptly when I made a light-hearted comment about the fact that I was glad we were able to repair things, but that I knew myself and this was bound to happen again. I was almost saying ‘we’re fine now, until the next time……’. And all of a sudden her facial expression changed – I don’t know to this day whether the line of her mouth was hiding anger and disappointment, or sadness and pain. Perhaps it held both – it certainly felt as though she was holding in some strong emotion, and I’ve wondered whether she was also holding back tears.
She didn’t say ‘you’re not taking this seriously’, but at the same time I think my comment was evidence enough that the seriousness of what I was doing hadn’t really sunk in. She had no choice, I think, than to do what she did, which was to lay her cards out on the table and to make clear to me the situation as she saw it.
In my post ‘Addicted to feeling torn’, I’d written: “Perhaps the most difficult thing about moving forward in a particular direction is giving up the addiction to feeling torn. It feels like the only satisfaction that lasts. It is endlessly repetitive and effortless to engender…”. My therapist told me that she was glad I’d used the word ‘addiction’ – that she’d reached the same conclusion a little while ago, but felt that I needed to come to that realisation myself. I will never forget the way she spoke: the most serious tone I have ever heard her use, almost urgent in its earnestness as she said to me ‘this is a serious addiction’. She said it was as serious as any other addiction, and needed to be treated as such. It had an impact not just on me, but on those around me, including my family.
It felt deadly serious – literally, it felt as though what she was talking about was a matter of emotional life or death, and I was shocked at the turn the conversation had taken. And then came the moment that I’m sure any therapy client dreads, but which many therapy clients with BPD not only dread, but on some level feel is inevitable. She told me that the weekend’s events had even led her to think about whether she had reached the limits of her experience and expertise, and whether she was the right person to help me.
It is impossible to describe what that felt like, and how devastating it was to hear. And yet I want to make this completely clear, particularly for those who fear such a loss, or who have suffered one – I am absolutely sure that she hadn’t ‘had enough of me’, she wasn’t fed up, and she wasn’t ‘getting her own back’. I told a handful of people what was going on, and my husband said something that was probably the single most insightful and helpful thing he’s ever said to me in relation to my mental health difficulties. He told me that the reason she might be thinking of referring me on, was that she cared about me and if she couldn’t help me, she really wanted me to be with someone who could. In a subsequent conversation a few sessions later, she did refer to the fact that it wouldn’t be ethical of her to continue to see me if she wasn’t helping me, and that she was also conscious of the wider context – my husband and my children. In essence she was aware of the fact that by helping me, she was also helping them, and that the reverse was also true.
It was clear that she said what she did because she cares about me and my progress – as she has said on a number of occasions since, she considers our work really important. She was never about to abandon me – but she was seriously concerned that she wasn’t helping me, and from both a human and an ethical perspective, she couldn’t let that continue indefinitely.
Those memories and emotions all came flooding back when I read this section in ‘Girl in Therapy’s post, ‘Between the chaos’:
“I am progressing, growing…. This is growth! All our hard work is paying off. And…… it’s boring! Yup. Boring.
When you’ve lived your entire life at an elevated level of fear and chaos, when your brain has literally been wired to live in a constant freeze/fight/flight zone… when the people who are meant to look after you and keep you safe are the ones hurting you and their love can’t be trusted….. Well, you start living your adult life that way too, because it’s all you know. My emotions are used to fluctuating wildly, everything feeling more intense and dramatic, that’s where I live. That is my normal. This solid place where everything is okay is a nice place to visit but I can feel the pull of “home”. “
The pull of home – the connection between love and pain, the need for conflict and intensity – reminded me so much of my addiction to feeling torn. I felt shocked, worried, sick, and afraid. Danger was screaming at me, and that is why I’m writing this post. Yet at the same time I want to say again that I’m not suggesting that what happened to me, will happen to ‘Girl in Therapy’ or to anyone else reading this, though ultimately what happened to me was a very very good thing indeed. But when I read that paragraph and it all came flooding back, I knew it was the right time to write about what happened – not because someone else needed to hear it, but because I’d finally found the words.
Having said that, I do really want to convey, with the same urgent seriousness that my therapist did (while knowing, like she did, that only self-realisation can have a lasting impact) – that BPD and addiction don’t just go hand in hand, BPD is in many ways, an addiction. The precise nature of what you are addicted to may be different to the precise nature of what I am addicted to. But the whole nature of BPD is that it tries to keep us trapped and coming back for more – more intensity, more love, more pain which seems like the only route to love, more chaos. Its draw is undeniable; without it we do not feel alive, and we don’t know who we are.
But we fail to see that it’s actually the beauty and the stability and the love between the chaos that is what we really crave. And yet we’ve learned no healthy route to get there, and we’ve learned that it doesn’t last, and things change. And so we feel we have to test its reality and show that it’s still intact, via the bizarre mechanism of breaking it and putting it back together again, repeatedly. For me, the turning point that I’ve described seemed to accelerate progress in therapy, and among all the markers of progress has been a realisation and conviction I’ve never had before: that genuine, deep joy and connection, trust and security make me feel better, happier, more fulfilled and alive, and are much more worth having, than any degree of intensity or cycles of rupture and repair. And those are things that I have found through therapy, and through my relationship with my therapist.
A few years ago, when a different therapist asked me whether I could think of any feelings which were better than the intense highs of BPD, it seemed obvious to me that the answer was ‘no’. Whereas now, whenever I’m tempted by the ‘pull of home’, the memory of that realisation and conviction makes a liar of my addiction, and reminds me there is something better – and that I have a new home.