Life in a Bind – BPD and me

Borderline Personality Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and my therapy journey. Listed in Top Ten Resources for BPD in 2016 by goodtherapy.org. I write for welldoing.org and for Muse Magazine Australia, under the name Clara Bridges.


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The importance of saying goodbye

When I saw this clip, it immediately reminded me of the first person that I lost to death. I was a child and they were a close family member who went through a fairly brief battle with cancer. I wasn’t there at the end and I can’t remember whether it was days or weeks between the last time I saw them, and their death; and yet this was someone who until their hospitalisation, I saw several times a week. There was no goodbye and I was not allowed to go to the funeral. There was also no grieving on my part; the unconscious decision not to, had already been made, and the adults around me were far too preoccupied with their own grief and with seeking reassurance from me, to notice. Though I have no memory of most of my feelings at that time, the way I responded to this clip made me wonder whether deep inside I had wanted a ‘good ending’ and a chance to say goodbye.

By the time the scenario was repeated with a second close family member, my emotional defenses were already in place to absolutely guarantee that the pain would be minimal. I didn’t want to say goodbye or go to the funeral, even though this time I had to. People commented on the fact that I didn’t cry; but at least they weren’t asking me to try and negate their long-held atheism with reassurances of the existence of an after-life. All that I knew was that life after a death was a place of blackness, crying, desolation and lack of joy. There was no celebration of either of those lives, and that made the endings – unresolved as they were – so much worse.

A couple of years ago I read ‘Family’ by Susan Hill. It is a moving account of the author’s struggles to complete her family, following the birth of her first daughter, Jessica, in 1977. A few years later Susan Hill gave birth to a little girl prematurely, and she survived for only five weeks. The account of her brief life, and her death, is heart-breaking; but what struck me most of all was the way in which Jessica was fully involved and had the chance to say a proper goodbye to her sister. Just like her parents did, she held the little girl’s lifeless body in her arms, and gave her a last cuddle.

I know many people might disagree with Susan Hill’s decision, thinking that it would have been too distressing for a young child – my parents certainly would have thought so. When I first read about it I was shocked and surprised – but now I hope I would have had the courage and conviction to do the same, in that situation. Though not yet in double figures in age, Jessica encountered death face to face – and I like to think that she may have grown up into a woman who is less afraid of it as a consequence. A woman with loving memories of someone that she lost, that may bring pain, but also joy at what was gained before it was lost. Of course that’s all speculation; but if it’s true, I also like to think that what made it possible, was the fact that she had a chance to properly say goodbye.

***

Stepping back, after two years, into the counselling service where I used to see Jane (my ex-therapist), felt strange. For the first few months after our therapy ended, even driving past the building was painful. The prospect of entering it again had filled me with apprehension; and before I could do it I had to check with the service manager that Jane had indeed retired, as she had planned, and that the room I would be attending a meeting in was not the one in which I had had sessions. I was afraid of how I might feel if I were to bump into her again; and of what it would be like to sit in that room. If there were a choice of chairs, which would I choose? I couldn’t risk sitting in the ‘patient’s’ position in case it was too triggering; I couldn’t sit in the therapist’s chair as that had been her space. It would have to be another seat – but there was still the worry that even being in the room would be too difficult and too distressing.

Though I felt unsettled, I managed to concentrate during my meeting and the next time I went back it was a little easier. During my most recent visit, I got up the courage to ask the service manager if I could go into ‘Jane’s’ room and take some photographs. For a while I had had a nagging desire to take a picture of the view out of Jane’s window – the view I spent so much time looking at because I found it so difficult to maintain eye contact. I remembered the view well, but was motivated – as was the case with wanting a copy of Jane’s notes of our sessions – by the fear of losing that memory one day. Having a picture of the view felt more important than having a picture of the room itself; perhaps because it was a memory of my vantage point and a direct recollection of my experience, rather than of the context in which it took place. In some ways the view was evocative of the therapeutic relationship itself. I was surprised when the service manager agreed to my request, and that she left me to it, albeit with the door open.

The room was smaller than I remembered, and less bright; though perhaps that was because I was visiting at a different time of day. I sat in ‘my’ chair – it didn’t even occur to me to sit in Jane’s, though when I think about it now, I wonder if perhaps I should have done….I took a picture of the view, which hadn’t changed, and of Jane’s chair and the wall behind it, which had. They seemed more drab and less interesting, somehow; but then again, I’m sure she was the only thing I noticed when she was there, and so they may well have been much the same.

The biggest and most reassuring change in the room, was that Jane wasn’t there. The room was empty; or at least, empty of her. I’m pleased I took the photos; I don’t need them now, but I may be glad of them in the future. And if there’s one thing that consistently drives me, it’s guarding against regret and the fear of mistakes, and at least this way even if I never look at them again, I cannot regret not taking them. But what I’m most glad of is that going into the room showed me the truth of the point my therapist has been trying to make all along – the same point she made in connection with Jane’s notes and that I’m sure she would have made it in connection with taking the photos, had I asked her before I did it. The point being that memories can be enough; that we remember what we need to. That I carry Jane and what she meant to me, with me. That the lived experience of the relationship is not something I can hang onto either via a bland record of it, or a picture of the place in which it unfolded; but that it is something I have internalised.

Going into the room and finding that Jane wasn’t there, and that that felt okay, showed me that my therapist was right. I had what I needed, and it wasn’t in that room.

***

When I spoke to my therapist about this a few days later, I told her it had been a relief to find that the room hadn’t been haunted by Jane. That I hadn’t been haunted by her presence, in it. I think that’s what I had been expecting, and was afraid of.

I realised, quite suddenly, that that fear went back to my first family loss. I remembered how on occasion, my parents and I would stay the night in that family member’s house. How I had to sleep in their room, in their bed, and that I was terrified. On the one hand, there was an irrational fear of ‘contamination’ – that somehow the illness and suffering they had been through, could be catching. By that stage I think I’d already acquired the belief that is still firmly rooted inside me today – that I will go through the same thing myself, at a similar and comparatively young age. And then there was the terror of waking up in the middle of the night and finding their ghost standing at the end of the bed. I was afraid to go to sleep and afraid to lie there in the dark. The whole room felt haunted by their presence, and by sickness and death.

My therapist said that she associated the word ‘haunted’ with an unresolved or somehow negative ending. One definition of the phrase, is ‘to be repeatedly troubled’, and both this meaning and my therapist’s, were certainly true for those early family losses which involved neither grieving nor good-byes.

Although my therapeutic relationship with Jane did not have a chance to run its course – as I saw her through a service that offered only short to medium term support – we had the vitally important chance to prepare for our ending, and to say goodbye. And so though at the time it was heart-breaking, and though it took a full eighteen months before I felt as though I had fully grieved her loss, it turned out to be a ‘good ending’. My only ‘good ending’ – so far.

What this short clip doesn’t show you, is what happened immediately afterwards. Meredith is gripped by anguished tears – presumably, with the realisation of what she unthinkingly denied Amelia. Sometimes, we act without thought; sometimes, with the best of intentions. But I hope, if nothing else, this post can be encouragement to us to try and ensure we do not deny ourselves or others (most commonly, our children), the chance to say goodbye before a loss: whether that be the loss of a loved one to death, the loss of a friend due to a change of school, the loss of a pet, the loss of a house due to a move – even the loss of a therapist. Along with allowing ourselves, or them, to grieve, it gives us all the best chance that we will come to feel it as a ‘good ending’ – even if it feels anything but ‘good’ at the time – and that is a priceless gift.

 


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Therapy Tales No. Etc- Death and Trauma. Fun.

This wonderful post captures thoughts and feelings I have always had – am having right now – but have not yet articulated. Over the last two years I have been doing incredibly important work in therapy, but I’ve always wondered when I would be able to start talking about death, and about time, and about the fact that the latter is always running out, and running towards the former. Though I have spoken about some incredibly difficult and painful topics in therapy, I have always been conscious of those topics I have been trying to keep at bay. And yet, the amazing thing about therapy is that, eventually, you come at those topics obliquely. They may be too hard to face talking about, but eventually, the process of therapy, and the therapeutic relationship itself, bring them to the forefront of your mind – one way or another.

So many of the sentences in this post resonate with me, and stick in my mind: “Losses, fears, love – that’s basically it”. Yes, that’s basically it for what I’m experiencing in therapy right now. And somehow the loss of a cancelled session turns into the loss of therapy (eventually), which turns into the loss of my therapist (eventually, through death), and suddenly every loss going back decades is present in the imagined but real grief of those future losses.

“Memory is important to me. Memory is evasive to me”. I have so few concrete memories of my past; I find it so hard to remember. But because I’m petrified of death and of ‘time running out’, I am consumed by making the most of my time, and the way that I know I have done that, is by ‘making memories’. I find the first few days of any holiday incredibly stressful and put a huge amount of pressure on myself to ‘do stuff’. Once I have ‘made some memories’ I calm down a little. But it is for me, as the author of this post has written: “….he thinks ‘experiences’, I think ‘memories’. Already living in the past tense”. And when I think of the future, it’s about how the future will become the past, and must be ‘captured’ and ‘stored’ – forgetting about the fact that the most important thing is for it to be experienced.

But when memory is so important to you, it is so painful when it is also evasive. Because it becomes another form of loss – loss of memory, of the very thing that links you to the object or person you lost in the first place. My therapist often talks about the importance of memories, particularly when I am very distressed about the fact that our therapy will end at some point, and I will lose her. She talks about how I will have internalised her, and will have our memories to hold onto. “Memory is all we have, really”. But what if I cannot remember? What if all those memories of her, become evasive too?

I love the phrase: “…[we’ve] pulled a thread, and I want the jumper back”. I have wanted certain things to stay covered up. I have wanted not to tackle the things that may unravel me. But a few months ago I started pulling that thread, and more and more, death and loss keep staring out at me through the growing holes in the jumper. I can’t evade them anymore; but perhaps I will discover some memories that I thought I’d lost – and create some new ones in the process.

The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive

Therapy is ending soon.

Losses, fears, love- that’s basically it. Losses of things I loved- including animals (I know pets die, but mine in sudden, cruel ways I can’t go into here but which haunt me) and people. They all died lonely, premature, unfair, painful deaths. As soon as I really understood what death really was (which happened when I had another loss- my friend who killed herself when I was 15), I have been completely heartbroken ever since. Of what life is. Of feeling. Of finality. Of memory. I can’t bear it, any of it. That’s when the fear really started. I’d always been afraid of my parents’ death, i obsessed over it. But that was my first big loss, of someone I’d seen so recently, so young, so similar to me. We were all steeped in bullshit pop music mythology, playing with self harm. But she died. Alone…

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Trigger-unhappy: BPD and abandonment

Trigger – unhappy: that is me. The DSM-IV Criterion 1 for Borderline Personality Disorder has really been getting me down recently, and has been firing up the synapses in my brain left, right and centre (or maybe that should be just left and right).

Criterion 1, ‘Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagine abandonment’ is manifesting itself as hypersensitivity to anything that might be construed (or misconstrued) as rejection, being ignored, misunderstood, sidelined, or not being cared for. And as usual, it’s some of those who I feel closest to, those who I have ‘let in’ and confided in, who are setting off these chain reactions in me. I observe those reactions and responses within myself, and I find them on the one hand self-centred, irrational and abhorrent, and on the other hand completely irrefutable. ‘Intellectual knowledge’ of the reality of the situation doesn’t seem to affect how I feel about it, or the way in which I interpret it. I know one thing – but I feel another.

Triggered: A school friend who I told about my blog several weeks ago, has not yet mentioned it, and seems to be oblivious to the fact that I’m reliving the pain and grief of losing my ex-therapist all over again. I know that she hasn’t had a great deal of time to read it recently, as she has been away, and at my own request is reading posts in chronological order and may not have encountered the relevant entries. But I cannot feel what I know. Instead, I feel hurt and resentful. Instead, I regret ever telling her about my blog, or about my mental health difficulties in general, and I see this as just another reason why my pain should be kept private after all.

Triggered: Another school friend, who also has BPD, was meant to call last week for a chat but didn’t, because she was numbing her own pain with alcohol. A few days later she failed to call again, because she was taking a friend in trouble to the Minor Injuries Unit. I know that she had received some bad news on that first occasion, and that she could not have foreseen the situation with her friend, who obviously needed her. But I cannot feel what I know. Instead, I feel as though it’s just another example of how she responds to others and is emotionally available to them when they need her, but not to me. Instead, I feel angry at myself and at her for needing her, and for feeling helpless in the face of that need.

Triggered: My husband came back from a weekend away, and didn’t give me a hug or any indication that he cared or wanted to know how I had got on while he was gone. I know that he was just reacting to the fact that I was withdrawn and silent. I know that each one of us was waiting for the other person to act and speak first, and that the months and years of inadvertently misunderstanding and hurting each other, has led us each to try and protect ourselves first and foremost, from further hurt. Instead, I felt suicidal – utterly desolate and alone. I felt unreal and unloved and unworthy. I felt rejected and I retreated further into myself. He thought I was ignoring him and that I didn’t care. I was trying to cope with wanting to die, because I felt he didn’t care.

Triggered: My therapist took what felt like an age of silence to think and phrase an answer to the fact that I had just told her that I had been experiencing difficulties with our therapy for some time, and that I had a decision to make about whether we should continue. I know that she was just thinking, and trying to assimilate what I had revealed, and reply in the way she thought best. But I cannot feel what I know. Instead, I felt as though I was on the knife-edge of abandonment – that as I had just revealed that I was thinking of leaving her, she would decide that she could no longer see me. It took every ounce of effort not to break the silence and tell her how unbearable the knife-edge was. How I was both shattering inwardly and at the same trying to burst out of my skin to escape the feelings of rejection, disapproval, and uncertainty of what was coming next.

Triggered: My ex-therapist, Jane, responded to my frantic efforts to avoid the very real ‘abandonment’ of never seeing her again, by saying that she did not think it was advisable to have just a couple of sessions without the prospect of ongoing work, and did not maintain contact or have friendships with those she had seen in a professional capacity. I had followed ‘numbness and denial’ with a desperate plea for something more, though with the very real fear and expectation that it would come to nothing.

I know that Jane had to reply the way she did. I know that her reply, though devastating in its finality, was necessary, and everything I have come to expect from her. It was professional, maintained boundaries, and was written in the spirit of keeping us both safe. I asked her to be honest – and she was. But I also asked her to be gentle – and she was. Her reply was reassuring, validating, clear, and above all, caring. Not in any obvious way – I can only wish that she would come out and say it! But it was there, in every other way – in the things that she didn’t say, as well as in the things that she did. And here’s the curious thing. I do feel what I know.

I knew Jane for weeks, not years. I have had virtually no contact with her for months. But, despite all the odds, and despite the difficulty that I (and many others with BPD) have with object constancy, and holding on to the reality of another individual, in their absence – I still believe that she understood and cared about me. That she cares about me. Perhaps almost as much as being abandoned by her in the present, I was terrified her reply would shatter my perfect and idealised view of her. That I would be abandoned by that sense of caring and the reality of the work we did together. The sense of self-acceptance that she gave me has vanished. But the sense that I was cared for by her, is, miraculously, still there.

I’m not oblivious to the fact that I may be particularly trigger-unhappy at the moment because I could be splitting off any negative emotions I may have had about Jane’s ‘abandonment’ and am transferring them onto others. I have always been passionate about ‘protecting Jane from myself’ and from any possibility of devaluing her, or reducing the height of her pedestal even by a millimetre. I don’t feel angry at her. I don’t feel rejected by her.

But do I know what I feel?

 


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Draining The Lake

Beautiful words; beautiful imagery.
I find it hard to write about the things that I’m ‘in the thick of’, when I’m ‘in the thick of things’. I rely on others’ words that really resonate with where I am right now – songs, poems, posts.
I still can’t accept the finality of loss. I know I need to ‘drain the lake’ but it feels as though I’m drowning in an ocean that’s immeasurably deep; that is impossible to drain. I can’t cry the fear away. But I also fear that one day I will stop crying. And what will it mean if I do?

Thoughts. Musings. Electrical Synapses.

I had therapy today, I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much before. A knife was being twisted inside me and the pain was unbearable.

I didn’t want to accept things I knew were true. What didn’t let me do it was fear, a paralyzing fear that I now feel has been shattered.

Tears can remove self imposed veils and I’ve cried enough already, it’s time to drain the lake.

image

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Numbness and denial – but somewhere underneath there’s this…..

“……I have been waiting until the end of this week to reply to you as I have been finalising some decisions about, in effect, moving towards retirement…………..I am thus sorry to let you know that I will not be able to offer you any ongoing sessions and I wanted to let you know when I had clarified this.

I am sorry if this is disappointing but I hope that you will be able to continue with any sessions that you may still be undertaking.

In any case with my very best wishes to you for the future

Jane”

No. Air.

 


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All about Jane – Postscript

All about Jane. That was what I had originally wanted to call my blog, as it seemed to sum up my life for the past year or so. Jane, my ex-therapist – despite an absence of many months, she still feels like the mainstay of my life. How can that be possible when all the time we had together was fifteen one-hour therapy sessions, spread over a few months? Yet I started to grieve her from the very first day, when she completed a sentence I was struggling with, with a word that perfectly captured what I was reaching for. I knew our therapy was time-limited, and I still remember the contradictory aftermath of that first session vividly. Self-harming to distract from and give expression to the pain I was feeling at the thought of losing her, eventually. And an intense, burning desire to fill up my whole body, every inch of it, with pain, at the frustration of not being able to feel enough.

I wanted my post on losing Jane to stand alone. I wanted the grief to stand alone. But I also had a nagging need to write a postscript. Because I feel such guilt and shame at writing and sharing how I feel about that loss. I feel guilty for my grief. I feel condemned.

Jane is still alive, and I barely knew her (though I felt she knew me intimately). I don’t feel entitled to my grief. I feel I have no right to that emotion. I feel that it must be a slight on the grief of those who have lost enduring and long-standing loves to death.

I have lost in that way, as well, but Jane’s is the only loss that I have allowed myself to feel since my aunt died when I was ten. In two years of therapy, I haven’t dared to broach the subject of death. It’s entirely possible that unfelt grief of losses since, have become transferred onto and wrapped up into, how I feel about Jane. It’s just a theory, because I haven’t dared to explore it. Or maybe it’s just an excuse, to alleviate the guilt, and to justify the pain. I do  wonder why I was so adamant that I would allow myself to feel Jane’s loss, and not close myself off from it. Perhaps there is a degree of emotional safety in grieving when you know that you do not necessarily have to accept finality as part of the loss.

Some time on, and the possibility of resuming therapy with Jane, privately rather than through a free service, is now available. The possibility, but not yet the reality, as there is no space for me, yet. My life has become a series of markers in the sand  – a list of ‘not yets’ and ‘contact me again’, in two months or three, or after Easter. Now it’s after Easter. Now I’m waiting for another reply. I’m waiting to lay down another marker, preparing to live a little longer without the air I feel I need to breathe. I’m waiting to put down anchor. I’m waiting to come home.

In the meantime, my grief feels stolen – stolen from those who have more right to feel this way. And so I had to write a postscript, to say sorry, in case I stole from you.

 


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All about Jane – attachment and loss

I have a spent a great deal of time trying to write this post, but like grief itself, it just feels wrong. Like grief itself, it feels senseless, jumbled, confused, meandering. I go over it and over it, and just can’t make it right. So I have to let it be. I have to let the words, such as they are, communicate as best they can.

I wear a silver ring to remember her by. She liked silver jewellery, as I used to when I was growing up. Silver rings on every finger and silver bracelets on her wrists. I need a constant reminder of her, something to keep the memory of her alive, something to keep her real. But the ring wasn’t enough. I also wear a silver bracelet – maybe the more items that remind me of her, the more real she will feel, and more I can try and keep her with me.

The day I lost her was the first and only time in my marriage that my husband and I slept in separate rooms. I couldn’t describe what I was going through – I just needed space and time to grieve. I didn’t want to be touched, to be spoken to, to be with anyone else. I needed to be alone and to try and give it all expression, to pour it all out in tears, if I could. It was only a few hours later, but I felt as if my memory of her was already fragmenting, and as if I was already losing the reality of her. I felt as if I would shatter violently, as if I wanted to break out of my body, because there was just too much hurt to hold inside. The one week anniversary of the last time I saw her was a powerful re-experience of the devastation.

Over the next few weeks and months I put her name into Google repeatedly, even though I knew the result would always be the same, and that I would find nothing. I looked at the one document I had that had her name in it – somehow seeing it written down made her feel more substantial, confirmed the fact that she had actually existed, brought her closer in some very small way. Seeing her name, repeating her name in my mind was a strange kind of attempt to self-soothe, to fill the void left by her absence.

When I was out in town, I looked for her in crowds, searching for her face amongst those of strangers. Every day, driving past the windows of the building that we met in, I felt physical pain at the reminder and memories of her, as I looked up at the windows and imagined her inside. I felt a little angry at her for abandoning me – ‘a little’ was all I could let myself feel. I was still determined to keep her on her pedestal, still determined to halt the idealisation/devaluation cycle indefinitely, and keep her in an idealised state forever.

Any attempts by another, to provide the support that she used to provide, served only as a reminder of what I was now without, and brought fresh despair and anguish. I no longer had a ‘safe place’, an ‘anchor’. The sense of self-acceptance that had started to grow within me, entirely due to her acceptance of me, was fast fading away, and any little self-esteem I had left, could be pummelled into the ground by the weight of a feather.

As the months wore on the pain turned from a raging fire to constant burn  – a permanent ache but also a strange emptiness. Often, unless I’m feeling intensely, it doesn’t feel like I am feeling at all. But every so often, for no clear reason, an intense sadness and a missing of her, comes upon me and makes me utterly desperate for her again. In those times, the need for her is overwhelming. In those times, I cling pathetically (and thankfully, at a distance), to my two closest friends, transferring the unbearable need for her, into a desperate neediness towards them. And even outside those times, when I mention her name, the tears are never far behind. It takes just four little letters, spoken out loud, to reconnect me to the hurt.

In her absence, there is no longer anything to tie down the reality of her, or to keep me grounded. When she was in my life, she occupied her own space within it. That space was so large, that sometimes it left room for little else. And within that space she was adored, obsessed over, but still an idealised person of human proportions. But now that she’s gone, she has started to become less self-contained and the image of her is losing its integrity and coherence. It is as if the black hole of her absence has sucked in all meaning from elsewhere and attached it solely to her. The ways in which I have begun to think of her are quasi-religious. She is my Alpha and my Omega – my only hope, the only one who can ‘save me’. She stands for all that is good, noble, compassionate, caring, and for a million other things besides. Forgive me, for I have fucked up my life. Absolve me of my iniquities.

In her ‘elevated’ state in my mind, she has become less a person of flesh and blood, and more a philosophical construct, a concept of ‘the ideal’.

I want her to be human. I want her to be here. I want to feel again – intensity and love. I want her physical, perfectly imperfect presence. And it kills me that I’m grieving for someone who is still alive. That we could continue to share the same city air, until one of us dies, without me ever seeing her again. Trying to grieve, while living with the possibility of reconnection – is this what purgatory feels like?

Just as it was the last time I saw her, I don’t know how to end. I think a close friend of mine summed it up as well as anyone could ever do, in four short words.

Darling, grief does you.