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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Memory Monday – “Swallowing up the storm – BPD and anger”

*TRIGGER WARNING – SUICIDAL IDEATION*

For many people with BPD, changes in mood and can be sudden and dramatic, particularly when precipitated by a powerful trigger. In my own experience, my resistance to particular triggers wears down over time, so that rather than becoming gradually ‘immune’ through exposure, the opposite happens – the more often I become triggered in a certain way, the more easily and more quickly I spiral down into incredibly negative thought patterns. It’s as if the feeling of being ‘trapped’ and the belief that the situation can’t and won’t change, is reinforced every time I find myself at that point.

I haven’t said a great deal about my marriage in my blog – out of a sense of ‘propriety’, wanting to protect my husband’s privacy, and to avoid any awkwardness given that a couple of friends who know us personally, read my blog. However, I don’t think it would be too ‘disloyal’ to admit that unfortunately, my husband is one of my greatest triggers – or rather, his words, and our arguments, are. I think it would also be fair to say that the triggers are as powerful as they are, because of the way in which I have come to associate him, and certain patterns of behaviour, with my mother and how I felt when I was younger. After these arguments, I am left feeling worthless, annihilated, and despairing. My mind turns to suicidal ideation, and the phrase ‘I can’t live like this’ repeatedly presents itself to me.

Last Friday was one such triggering evening, which led to me, for the first time, to begin to act on thoughts I had had for a long time, of driving to ‘the place in my plan’ (if I can put it that way). Not necessarily because I had definitely decided to end my life, but because I felt I needed to know what it would be like to be there. How would I feel? I also had a vague thought I might phone the Samaritans but didn’t want to do that from home. I picked up by bag, put my coat on, told my husband I was going out, and went out of the door – at which point my husband said something perfectly ordinary, but something that made me hesitate and come back in.

Sunday night was also triggering – but that time things were different. I think it was probably one of the briefest spikes in intense despair I have had, dying down almost as quickly as it appeared. The suicidal ideation was there and for a short period I felt very unsafe, despite being at home with my husband and children still around. But the feelings of worthlessness did not continue all evening and rather than being consumed by sadness, I was angry – I still am. And I think that made a difference. Rather than absorbing it all into myself as I had done on Friday night, and turning it into a different, self-critical emotion, I gave my anger outward expression. Perhaps not in the best or most productive or most helpful way, but not in the worst way, either. It involved some fridge door slamming, and some use of swear words, and some heavy sarcasm (though directed self-mockingly at myself, rather than at him). But it seemed to work – at least with regard to reducing the desire to inflict pain (or worse) upon myself.

And so given recent events, I thought it would be timely to link to a post from the summer of 2014, on BPD and anger:

https://lifeinabind.com/2014/08/17/swallowing-up-the-storm-bpd-and-anger/

Re-reading it now, the idea that  ‘disappointed expectations’ might lie behind at least some of my anger, seems very persuasive. Friday was even more of a blow because it came so soon after an evening when for the first time we had spoken more openly about how we felt about our marriage and what we wanted to change, in the presence of a couple from church. For a short time it felt like a step forward – and then on Friday it felt as though nothing had changed. Opening up and being vulnerable was incredibly difficult for me – I spent a good part of the meeting physically shaking with the effort. And yet to have ‘business as usual’ occur on the Friday night felt as though everything I had said had gone unacknowledged and unheard. I’m sure he feels the same about me – and that we both have a lot to learn about ourselves, each other, and the way we relate to one another. But in the meantime, I will try to give expression to my anger a bit more often – not in deliberately hurtful or vengeful ways, but in ways that allow me to express something, rather than internalise something, and in ways that aren’t likely to be as risky to my well-being.

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Reacting to responsibility – BPD and being an adult

A few weeks ago, on a Monday, I sent my therapist a brief email asking whether it would be okay to bring in some more photos to look at during one of our sessions that week. I had brought some in on the Friday before, and was keen to look through some others (of myself as a child) that I had recently found. However, as usual, I wanted to know what ‘the rules’ were – I wasn’t sure whether it was okay to bring in more photos, so soon after we had already spent time looking at some. It had been okay on one occasion – but what if it wasn’t okay again?

She replied very briefly, saying that we could talk about it in session, as she wasn’t quite sure why I was asking. My reaction, was, quite simply: “What the f**k”? Excuse my thinly disguised swearing – but its presence is as unavoidable as it was when it was going around my head almost constantly for the following twenty-four hours until my next session. I couldn’t believe her reply – and I was very angry. And behind the anger, though I couldn’t feel it for the red behind the eyes, was a great deal of hurt.

In my mind, it was a perfectly simple and straightforward question – why could she not just answer it? More importantly, why could she not just answer it, given the circumstances? I had had a very difficult weekend, and was still feeling vulnerable, having confided to her over email the details of some behaviour I was ashamed of. I was still feeling anxious about how she would view that behaviour, and in need of reassurance – how could she not realise that?

I was very much the angry and resentful teenager in my next session, and as usual it came out visually (in what I wore to session) perhaps even more than in my words. And just as I was taken by surprise by her comment, she was taken completely by surprise by my reaction and had no idea, initially, where it had come from. She had felt unsure why I thought I needed her permission to bring in some photos, particularly when it had clearly been okay the previous time we had looked at some. She also suspected that my desire to look at photos may have been a way of trying to ignore the events of the weekend, and jump right back in to where we had been before those events happened. And rather than begin that discussion over email, she suggested we talk about it during the next session.

Once the teenager had had her say, over the next couple of sessions we had some incredibly productive discussions both about my therapist’s email, and about the events of the previous weekend. It was one of those sequences of sessions that leaves you rather mind-blown, and which I have still not processed. It felt ‘so big’ that rather than letting it go round in my mind, or writing about it, I felt I had to put it ‘on ice’ for a while. The processing could occur subconsciously – but at that point I felt I needed a break, and to step back a bit. This is the first time I am coming back to just one small but important part of those discussions.

My therapist told me that given the series of emails we had had over the weekend, she believed I had thought through and at least partly rationalized the events of the weekend. What she had been trying to do with her reply was to challenge me to take my thinking further, and to consider for myself the reasons behind my question about the photos. She thought her email would encourage more thinking to take place. Instead, it shut thinking down all together. There was only one thought in my brain from that point on (yes, the WTF one), and my emotions (particularly anger and resentment) dominated completely.

I think it’s always difficult for a therapist to know who they are addressing at any one time. Is the adult or the child present? Or the teenager perhaps? And even if one appears to be dominant, how close to the surface is an ‘other’ lurking, waiting to be triggered? I’m not talking about distinct identities here, but about aspects of ourselves, and the experience that many people have, of feeling ‘different ages’ at different times in their therapy. I think my therapist thought that she was addressing ‘the adult’ in her email – and that I would respond as an adult to her encouragement to take responsibility for thinking through my motivations.

What I realised during that week, thanks to an insight that came from her, was that the requirement to be an adult and to behave like one, can in itself be very triggering for me. It can feel unfair, or like an imposition; like rejection or like a burden; like not being taken care of. It can make me feel resentful and angry; hurt and abandoned.

I think that the reason for this can best be described in an unfinished short story I wrote when I was a teenager, and which I  posted here a few weeks ago. I think it’s because I’m only now uncovering (or, given the feelings described in that story, perhaps acknowledging rather than uncovering), the resentment and anger I felt, and still feel, at having to behave in some respects like an adult, when I wasn’t one. When there were deaths in the family, the adults sought reassurance from me, not the other way around. They talked about it in my presence – but they didn’t talk to me, other than to criticise how unemotional I seemed in comparison with everyone else. But being openly emotional was not an option – it was clear that others found it hard enough dealing with their own feelings, and I knew from experience that my own unhappiness just made them more anxious. That, in turn, would have exacerbated my own distress. Even before I hit double figures in age I had decided that as far as possible, I was not going to show any negative emotion around my family – extending that even to positive emotion, came later.

This meant that experiences of death (not grief, because I wouldn’t allow myself to feel it); panic; fear of death and going mad; bullying; heartbreak; depression – were never shared with anyone as I was growing up. At the time it was ‘just the way it was’, though my short story, written when I was around seventeen, shows that at least part of me was in touch with how resentful I really felt about having to take responsibility for looking after others’ emotional well-being and also my own, well before I was technically ready.

Understanding where this resentment comes from – where it came from in my response to my therapist – is helpful. But the potential for growth – which I still haven’t come to grips with and fully thought through – is in trying to apply it outside the therapy room. How often, for example, could my reaction to my husband’s requests, be at least partly a function of being triggered in this way? How often could my resentment be about ‘having to be a grown-up’ and ‘having to take responsibility’, rather than about the specific thing that he is asking, or the way in which he is asking it? And what about interactions with close friends? How are they affected? The knowledge that for me, the very idea of an adult interaction may be associated with hurt and resentment, seems like a very valuable and transformative piece of information to have.

Transformative – in the long run. Events even over this last weekend have shown that I still have a very long way to go. But I’m holding onto this golden nugget of information until I feel strong enough to start to make a little better use of it. Unlike the Las Vegas casino of the same name, I am hoping It will pay out abundantly, at ever diminishing costs (of courage and emotional energy), the longer time goes on!

 


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Total impact – BPD, helplessness and power

I’ve realised that I’m very nervous about sharing my most recent post (‘Seeking reassurance – when the story in your own head changes’) with my therapist. Not because of what she might think  – on the contrary, the people-pleasing side of me that wants to do well and seeks praise, is hoping that I’ve written and realised something that she will ‘approve of’. But I am worried that what I have written will change how she behaves towards me. She already withholds reassurance on a number of occasions, for the reasons I described in my post. And although in writing the post I really felt I understood the benefits of her approach – at the same time I am scared that she will with-hold any and all reassurance in future. That she will take my new-found understanding as licence to never give me what I sometimes desperately feel I want and need.

Standing back from that fear and from those thoughts going around in my head, I was struck by the extent to which I believe my words and actions impact upon her. Not just on this occasion, but almost all of the time. I worry frequently that what I say or do will lead her to withdraw from me, or change the way she responds during session, or will motivate her to discontinue email contact. I also project my own insecurities and ways of thinking, onto her – I assume that she will react adversely towards me, because that is how I would react in a similar situation.

But it suddenly occurred to me a couple of days ago, that there is a bizarre kind of tension in all of this. When I am worrying about the impact I am having, I feel anxious and helpless – she will change how she behaves, and there’s nothing I can do about it. But there’s an almost narcissistic quality to the view that my every word and action impacts her in that way. My anxiety implies a hidden belief that my words and actions have power over her – to the extent that I make no conceptual room for the fact that she has her own thoughts and beliefs, and for the possibility that they may be unaffected by my actions. I am never conscious of this hidden belief – in fact, I find the idea abhorrent. All I’m conscious of is a helplessness in the face of the possibility that she will change, and a desperate desire to make it better and to find a way to ensure that her reaction does not end up being the one I fear.

I remember many months ago, being caught completely by surprise by both my therapists’ words and the strength of my reaction against them. I cannot remember the exact context, but she had said something along the lines of me feeling powerful or wanting to exercise power in the context of my family dynamics when growing up. I was almost trembling with tears of protest at the suggestion that I might want to control or have power over somebody. It felt like an insult and completely anathema to who I was. But there’s no smoke without a fire, and where there’s vehement denial, there’s probably something deeper to understand.

I find the desire for control and power over others, ugly. I hate to think that that desire might be a part of me. I find it hard to believe it could lurk within me, particularly given how sensitive I am to being controlled. The idea of me being the perpetrator of what I hate, sickens me. I see myself as a ‘live and let live’ sort of person. I feel as though I have no interest in controlling others. Not only that, but part of the violence of my reaction against the thought of me wanting to exert power over others, is a strongly held belief that forced words or actions are meaningless. I have written before about how difficult it is for me to ask for what I want or need, because I feel that if I have to ask, the other person doesn’t really want to give, and the gesture is invalidated.

And yet….I would like my needs to be met – but without me having to ask. And I do hate the sense that my plans are being frustrated. If there’s something I really want to do or have put together a plan or proposal I really believe in – I hate it when someone else puts an obstacle in the way, or points out reasons why the plan may not be the best idea. It’s not that I want to ride rough-shod over someone else’s desires, but I do desperately want to be ‘allowed’ to do the things I really want to do. Is that trying to exercise power or control over someone else? I don’t know…..

And in so far as I want others’ views of me to remain positive, and in so far as I fear the impact I may have on others’ actions –  I suppose you could say there is a sense in which I want to control those adverse reactions and mitigate against them. But it seems to me that many with BPD, myself included, are caught in two different power-struggles, neither of which they have chosen. Those power struggles may have their origins in childhood, but they continue to play out in all sorts of adult relationships, until they can be explored and hopefully resolved through therapy.

I think that as a child, I had a power I didn’t want (over others) but not the power I wanted (over myself). I didn’t choose either situation, and in that sense, felt helpless in both. My parents were strict, and my mother very intrusive; I felt that my views were not respected or taken seriously. I didn’t feel free to believe what I wanted, or to be who I wanted. At the same time, I was aware that I was the centre of my mother’s universe and that everything I did or said affected her. If I fell over and hurt myself, she panicked. If I expressed sadness, I made her sad. If I didn’t listen to her, I made her angry. If I expressed a very different viewpoint to her own, I disappointed her. She needed me to be happy: she needed me in order to feel happy; and she needed me to be happy so that she was too. I didn’t want – still don’t want – to be at the centre of her universe. I hate the responsibility (and yes, the implied power) that comes with that.

A number of those with BPD have experienced relationships with care-givers who wanted to maintain early enmeshment, and to resist the child individuating and finding their own sense of self, which could be very different to that of the care-giver. This may be one of the reasons for the unstable sense of self that is one of the diagnostic criteria for BPD in the DSM IV. It may also be a reason for the blurring of boundaries between oneself and others, or oneself and the world. It’s easy, in that context, to see why many with BPD project their own fears and worldview onto other people; and also to see why they may unconsciously believe that everything they do impacts (usually negatively) upon others and upon their environment.

This may come across as people with BPD being self-centred, arrogant or un-empathetic. As if they believe that everything in the world is to do with them. But a child’s world is very small – and someone with BPD may have been unable to ‘outgrow’ the very real sense that everything in their own world was to do with them. I was an extension of my mother – and she didn’t just absorb everything I said and did, she reflected it back at me. If I disappointed her, she might use emotional blackmail to obtain compliance. If I expressed sadness she might ask for reassurance that everything was okay. What I did had an effect; the effect was negative; and I had to try and make up for it in some way. Either that, or give up interacting at all.

I don’t want to be responsible for everything that someone else feels or does. I don’t want that sort of power, and I really wish I didn’t feel or act as if I had it. There is no safety in being with someone who is as changeable and susceptible to my emotions, as I am. Even though I am afraid of not impinging upon someone else  – because how will I know if I matter, if nothing I do affects others? – I want the other to be robust and separate enough to hold my emotions without either absorbing them completely or giving them back to me in a way that makes me feel responsible for both of us.

I do want power over myself – whoever that may be – and to feel acceptance when that self is expressed. Next time I worry over the impact I may have had upon my therapist, I need to remember that she encourages that self-expression – and accepts it, rather than reacts to it. Accepts me. Acceptance is empowering  – and that is the only kind of power I truly want or need.

 


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Tell me we’re okay – BPD and conflict

‘Wanted to check that we are still okay….’

‘From my side we are…..it is all part of the work….’

This was the start of a brief email exchange with my therapist following our session last week. The hour was a bit of post-mortem of the previous session, and I felt as though I was continually criticizing her, and so I left feeling predictably anxious about what effect that might have had on our relationship. Leading up to last week’s session I had felt angry, withdrawn and resentful, but as usual, I found it almost impossible to take the intensity of those emotions into session. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t express them, they seemed to melt away in her presence. Nevertheless, I still felt hurt and separated as I explained how angry I had felt over the last few days, and how I had wanted to shut her out and not talk to her at all.

We talked about the session that had resulted in those feelings, and about why they might have come about. I had finally worked up the courage to delve deeply into a difficult topic, but she had stayed on the surface while all the while a part of me was crying out to be heard.* A case of lack of attunement or lack of communication? Whichever it was, the key question, it seems to me, is what does it mean, to the client, when that happens?

I think it’s fair to say that I see ‘conflict’ where perhaps others may see disagreement or misunderstanding. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that for me, disagreement is conflict. It’s conflict when I feel anger; conflict when I feel like I’m criticizing; conflict when I have a different opinion to someone I care about or whose opinion I value. And to me, conflict is always a negative thing, as are the emotions that accompany it. There are three keys ways in which my views of conflict are unhelpful and which therapy is enabling me to address.

Conflict is about me. When it comes to work, I know that there is such a thing as a difference of opinion, and that chances are it’s not personal. However, when it comes to those I care deeply about, this concept doesn’t even enter my head. It is always personal. My husband gets frustrated because he finds it almost impossible to have an adult argument with me. I withdraw immediately into silence, because it feels like an attack. When he disagrees with something I believe in strongly, or is completely uninterested in something I am passionate about, it feels as though he is rejecting me, however much he emphasizes that he is not. If I am caught up in a conflict, it is because there is something wrong with me. It’s about something I have done or not done; it’s about a way in which I fall short, or a way in which I haven’t pleased someone. Conflict means that I have made a mistake – and I find it very hard to live with making those. Alternatively, and more rarely, it means that someone else has made one – and being hurt by another’s ‘falling short’ is a risk I’d rather avoid.

Conflict is a disaster. It’s not just uncomfortable, it’s a threat. It’s never just minor – the fact that it happened at all is indicative of something wrong – not just in me, or in the other person, but in the relationship itself. I can never understand how quickly my husband seems to recover after an argument. While I wallow in self-hatred and despair over our marriage, he will appear to be fine within a few minutes or hours, and certainly by the next day. For him, the argument was not about him as a person, and the fact that it happened did not signify a catastrophe in our relationship (there are plenty of other signs of that, but that is for another post!).

Conflict is terminal. It is something to be survived – or not. My first response to conflict is often to want to turn and run and to never have to face a similar situation again. The shame of making a mistake or ‘behaving badly’, or the pain of being hurt, both drive me in the direction of wanting to turn my back on the relationship in question. One strike and you’re out, or I am – the result is the same. For example, my relationship with my mother-in-law changed a few years into my marriage, the moment we had our first argument. For a few years I had felt ‘adopted’; like a princess who could do no wrong. But that ‘minor’ argument felt like a betrayal – she showed that she could be displeased with me, that she could be critical of something I had done. It hurt, and since then I have been emotionally distant – and I will never let her in again.

But even when I want to repair conflict, I find it very difficult to know how. Talking about it, as I did with my therapist, feels as though I am criticizing and attacking the other person. That is how it would feel to me, and it’s hard to grasp that they may feel differently. Will they hate feeling criticized and consequently hate me? How will our relationship survive, and how much damage will I have done? This brings out my strong need both to reassure, and to be reassured that everything is okay. Hence the email exchange with my therapist – both damage assessment and damage limitation.

‘Blaming the parents’ feel like a therapy cliché, but with this particular issue, I think the origins of my feelings and reactions are clear. Expressing anger was a negative thing in my family, particularly if I was the one expressing it (which happened increasingly rarely, as a result). Even feeling anger, if it was towards a family member (my parents in particular), was quite clearly never justified. Whatever had transpired, the view put to me was that my parents acted only ever out of love. Not only was there no justification for anger or conflict, it was quite clear that it made my mother upset, and ‘how could I do that to her’? Our disagreements therefore felt as though I was attacking her (or at least I thought that she perceived it that way) and that therefore what I was doing was wrong. Conflict, disagreement, anger – they seemed to have no place within a happy, harmonious, family. They seemed unnatural – interlopers to be feared and discouraged, rather than opportunities to express oneself and to ‘clear the air’.

It is not surprising therefore, that conflict with my parents was never really resolved – and the same holds true now. Days and days can go by with no telephone contact after an argument, and by the time we next speak it’s all been swept under the carpet and completely ignored. When I lived at home and it was less easy to avoid communicating, it always felt as though it was a case of my mother being able to reach a point where she could either dismiss my view or try and control my behaviour. That might be by telling me I would see things from her point of view when I got older; or by saying that although I might hold a particular belief, she wanted me to promise not to act in accordance with it.

It’s not surprising that arguments with my husband feel like a disaster; or that I am very anxious about upsetting my therapist if I talk about having ‘negative’ feelings towards her. But for me, one of the most rewarding, helpful and emotional aspects of therapy, has been the repeated cycle of ‘rupture and repair’ – of conflict of one type or another, which is worked on and resolved. It is helping me to modify my views about what conflict is and what it means – or doesn’t mean. At the moment, I can only really take those lessons on board and apply them, if at all, in the context of my relationship with my therapist, though I am taking very small steps in the direction of testing things out with my husband. It feels as though the risk of confronting and resolving conflict is still too great to take unless I feel a huge amount of safety, trust, security and acceptance in the relationship. But I hope that that will eventually change, though that time feels almost impossibly far away at the moment.

Part of the reason I chose my current therapist was a gut instinct that she was robust enough, and I could be open enough, for us to resolve difficulties together. That instinct was borne out the first time we tried to resolve such a difficulty, by her wonderful response – her openness to criticism, her lack of defensiveness, and her apology for a comment that had upset me. Over much of our therapy I have spent long hours worrying over instances of apparent lack of understanding or attunement between us, but now I feel that being able to discuss and resolve difficult situations together is much more valuable than always striving to be on completely the same wavelength. Not just valuable, but more realistic as a template for relationships outside of therapy.

Rupture and repair – working through conflict – is also ultimately beneficial in creating a closer bond, counter-intuitive though that may seem. I have written before, about the desperate desire to be known by and to better know, one’s therapist. In working through conflict, you come to know something about the other person, which you might never otherwise have seen. Whereas a perfect understanding, a perfect mirror, shows you only your own reflection.

 

[* Dr Stein recently published a post called ‘The Unsung Value of Denial and Distraction: Where Therapists Can Go Wrong‘. It illustrates just how difficult it is for both therapists and clients to tread the line between going too quickly and too slowly in therapy, and neither one’s judgement on the matter, can be relied on absolutely. They will both get it wrong, some of the time, but talking about the feelings this engenders, can be very illuminating.] 


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Inner child and past child

I can’t stop thinking about her – the girl in Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ video, which I wrote about in my “Intensity” post. I have tried and tried to write about other things – important posts about topics I have been wanting to cover for a while – but I just can’t do it. The words simply won’t write themselves and the image of the eleven-year-old Maddie Ziegler just dances into the path of my best endeavours to think about something else.

Sia_-_Chandelier_(music_video_screenshot)It feels strange how a completely random occurrence – happening upon a song and a video that I could have come across at any time over the last few months – has turned into the most pivotal event in my therapy since Christmas. But I guess that’s life. The ordinary can have extraordinary significance, and a chance event can alter the course of a life.

I have been trying to understand what it is about the song and the video that is so powerful, and what it is that it is tapping into. The question that intrigues me most, is “why a child”? The song appears to have an adult theme – the pain and emptiness of substance abuse and losing oneself in a partying lifestyle – but that pain is depicted by a child whose age is only just in double digits. The blonde ‘Sia’ wig and Sia’s description of her video for ‘Elastic Heart’ – in which the same young girl appears alongside a male actor/dancer – as a depiction of her ‘self-states’, implies that it is her ‘inner child’ who is the centrepiece of Chandelier.

I think the power of the song and the video operates on two levels for me: it has resonances with one of the worst periods of my life, when I completely ‘lost myself’ as an adult, but when I suspect that the inner child was in control (or rather, she was uppermost, but out of control); and it also reminds me of childhood itself.

My therapist said that for her, Maddie’s dance was indicative of someone who just didn’t know what to do with themselves. Reviews that I have read, described her as depicting someone ‘barely in control’, almost literally ‘climbing the walls’. I know that feeling. In my early twenties I went through a period which I can only describe as ‘losing touch with reality’. It was a ‘party period’, and sometimes when I describe it, people simply see it as ‘experimentation’. But nothing can shake my conviction that that was not what it was. Looking back on that time, even a few months afterwards, I couldn’t recognise myself. I had no sense of myself, of my values, or of any boundaries. Things that would ordinarily have been important to me  – for example, the opinion of those in positions of authority – were not so much unimportant, as not remotely in the picture.

I partied, I drank, I acted out – mostly with people I had little interest in or attraction to. For a while, the more I lost control, the more powerful I felt. Though never confident in my appearance, I developed bizarre delusions of grandeur in that I thought I could have anyone I wanted. But as time went on, the loss of control didn’t feel like power anymore. I was on auto-pilot – the acting out became habitual, not something I wanted to do, but something I just did. And although for a while ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ were simply immaterial, as time went on I was disturbed by vivid ‘religious experiences’ in which I felt as though God and the Devil were battling it out for my soul. I was in a lot of pain – and doing my very best not to feel it. Eventually it got to the point where I think I was dissociating a lot of the time. I remember occasions when I felt as though I was simply watching myself (or at least, someone who looked like me), from outside my body.

Whatever it was that my ‘inner child’ was searching for – affirmation, validation, love, acceptance, something to fill an emptiness – she wasn’t finding it. And throughout all that time I think that she was inwardly desperate for someone to put the brakes on; to challenge her and to set her some boundaries. I felt betrayed by the fact that no one did  – neither my friends, nor my church family, even though they were all witnesses to what was going on. I saw the looks of disapproval and pity – but no one cared or dared enough to speak their mind. Until one day someone did – someone who I barely knew and who certainly didn’t care about me. But they did what needed to be done, and for that I’m grateful, as it was the starting point of a change.

For me, the song’s connection with that period of my life and with the ‘inner child’s’ needs that were driving the adult behaviour, was the first interpretation that came to mind. But the more I watched the video, the more conscious I became of the connection with my emotional experience growing up. The thing about Sia’s ‘child state’, is that she is performing a dance, but she is also, in quite a different sense, ‘putting on a performance’. One commentator described sections of the video as involving a party, with the dancer entertaining her ‘invisible guests’. For me, this is almost like looking at a negative. In one sense, it is the guests who are ‘real’ and the ‘performance’ that is a lie, the cover-up for something hidden – but what we see is the picture pulled inside out, revealing the emotions underneath. What this brings out for me, more than anything else, is how alone she is with her emotions. ‘Help me, I’m holding on for dear life’. A room full of party guests but each one as insubstantial, vacuous and transparent as thin air – there is no meaningful connection anywhere. She is barely holding on, but no one can see it, and all she can do is try and numb the pain, push it down where she can’t feel it, and carry on pretending and putting on a fake smile.

What affected me more than anything, I think, was her alone-ness. The fact that she was on her own with her intense emotions. Whether you see that as being literally alone, dancing in an empty flat, or alone amidst a room full of invisible guests – there was no one alongside her in her experience. It reminded me of myself: whether it was experiencing loss, massive upheaval, bereavement, rejection, fear or panic – I kept it all inside. I think the song and video were powerful triggers of that sense of feeling alone with my experience – with no one ‘safe’ enough to share it with. No one who could properly validate it or accept it and who wouldn’t belittle or dismiss it. No one who could contain it in such a way as to ensure that their own reactions didn’t overwhelm me even further. My life was full of people – parents, relatives, friends – but when it came to being present with me in my internal struggles, they were essentially invisible.

But I’ve also come to believe that my reaction to the video is not just about what the child in the video reminds me of. It’s what the child means to me. When your mind tells you something you know cannot be true, you have to question why. I love that little girl – which is clearly impossible, as I do not know her. I can only think that watching her on screen, relating to some of the emotions that she is portraying, allows me to project myself onto her in some way. In the last episode of Season 2 of ‘My Mad Fat Diary’ (a UK drama series from a couple of years ago), the female protagonist is asked by her therapist to imagine talking to her younger self. By revealing the compassion she has for the child she used to be, and by showing her that she is still the same person she was then, the therapist tries to encourage her to have love and compassion for herself in the present. I have tried this thought experiment myself – but instead of feeling compassion or love for the ‘younger me’, all I feel is dislike, resentment and anger. I think that I blame her – if she had been stronger, more resilient, if she had been different somehow, perhaps I wouldn’t be where I am now. Perhaps my life would have been different. She could have saved me; but she failed.

But when I see little Maddie Ziegler on screen and identify with her emotions, I want to let her know that she is loved. While she out there on a screen, two-dimensional though still incredibly full of life, I can have a sense of validating and caring for the parts of me that she is representing. But the moment I try and bring that image inside me; the moment I try and internalise it and really look at the ‘child within’, those feelings completely disappear. I’m back to viewing her through that other lens – the one that has picked up the dirt and discolourations of the attitudes I was surrounded by when growing up.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have listened to the song and watched the video. The experience has shifted from the sheer power of emotion, to the power of analysis and interpretation. It’s a goldmine of therapeutic material. Interestingly, in a most appropriate ‘freudian slip’ of the written kind, I mistakenly wrote ‘minefield’ rather than ‘goldmine’, in the first iteration of that sentence. To be honest, either will do – both are equally true. I have a feeling I will be exploring that goldmine/minefield for some time to come – I just hope I can survive the experience.

 

Image attribution: “Sia – Chandelier (music video screenshot)” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sia_-_Chandelier_(music_video_screenshot).jpg#mediaviewer/File:Sia_-_Chandelier_(music_video_screenshot).jpg


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Separation anxiety – BPD and emotional development

I hate going back into the world after a therapy session. All I want is to remain suspended in that sense of comfort and connection. All I want is that relatedness, that safety, that mutuality. I want to stay in that therapy bubble so very badly, that leaving it is heartbreaking.

I feel guilty; selfish and self-indulgent. I feel as though by wishing myself so strongly back into that therapy room, with my therapist, I am rejecting not just the good things in my life, but the people in my life. I have a husband, children, a good job, relative material comfort. There is so much that I could hope for, wish for, and live for – how can that ‘bubble’ be the most attractive thing in the world to me? How can that be the thing I feel I want more than anything else? As a mother, with her children’s lives ahead of her, how can that possibly be true? And if it is, what does that say about me?

There is only one way that I can rationalise it to myself, that releases me from some of that guilt and feeling of self-centredness. And that is to try and argue that perhaps these are not adult dreams, or adult desires. That perhaps it’s not the adult who wants to be in the therapy cocoon forever; that the adult is not rejecting her own children. Those are the child’s desires, and she would be happy if the entire world disappeared as long as she was safe and held in that ‘unconditional positive regard’ that is the bedrock of the therapy relationship.

I’ve been aware for some time, of the fact that I feel different ages at different times, and with different people. I cannot help but feel around twelve years old whenever I am in the presence of our vicar’s wife, and it takes a constant effort to remind myself that she sees me as an adult, and not as the child that I feel when I’m around her. She feels motherly – not in some stereotypical way, but simply in the sense that she is the kind of mother I would have wanted to have.

But nowhere am I more aware of the adult and the child parts of me, than in therapy. In her excellent post ‘Mind Blown’, Half of a Soul commented that her therapist had asked her what age she felt when she was distressed, and that she had realised that it was the age at which she had started to suppress emotion, rather than allowing herself to experience it. I too, tend to feel much more child-like when distressed, and the age that I associate with those feelings, has been getting younger. Therapists have a difficult task in that they have to identify ‘who’ (adult or child) is engaging with them at each point in the session, and they have to decide how best to respond in a way that meets the needs of the one, without invalidating the other.

The idea of ‘regressing’ during therapy while re-experiencing events or feelings of childhood, is a common one, but the difficulty with BPD is that it’s not just a case of going back to childhood, but a case of being stuck there. There are a number of factors that contribute to the development of BPD, but some have argued that BPD is at least partly due to early ‘developmental arrest’. Individuals continue to grow physically and intellectually, but their emotional and psychological development is impaired, and key developmental stages are interrupted and never properly negotiated. Comparisons between some BPD behaviours and characteristics and those of toddlers, is common. These behaviours and characteristics include: splitting (black and white thinking); projection (of disturbing emotions onto others instead); difficulties with object constancy; lack of boundaries or a distinct sense of self. Given these theories of developmental arrest, it is easy to see why such comparisons are made – to a greater or lesser extent, those with BPD have never really outgrown those early defence mechanisms and ways of seeing the world.

Toddlers want to be ‘grown up’ but their desire is for a superficial adulthood and a responsibility that provides temporary excitement and a sense of control, but has no real consequences. Their real desire and satisfaction is in the land of fantasy and play, and being burdened with inappropriate levels of adult responsibility too soon, leads only to insecurity, anger, distrust and emotional pain. That is why being an adult can weigh so heavily on someone with BPD. There are so many ways in which our ability to relate to and to deal with the world, is compromised. What should be ‘normal’ adult interactions can be laden with confusion and pain because the adult response feels ‘wrong’ even though intellectually one may appreciate that it is ‘the right thing to do’.

I recently asked the advice of a school friend of mine, on how to deal with a situation in which I was feeling triggered by the lack of contact from another friend. The adult, non-BPD response would be to just go ahead and make contact. I recognise that that is the right thing to do, but it is a giant struggle against my BPD to actually try and do that. My inner toddler is sulking, but not only that – she has big insecurities and a great need for reassurance. I don’t want to contact my friend first – if I do, how will I ever know whether she would have contacted me at some point? How will I ever know whether she would have thought of me – whether she cares? My school friend replied that those are the risks of adult life  – but part of me hates adult life, and has difficulty in engaging with it.

The weight of ‘being an adult’ falls heavily back onto me when I leave the therapy room. Even if the interaction with my therapist on a particular day was more ‘adult-like’ than child-like, going back into the world feels like a burden. Can I really ‘blame’ that intense desire to stay, purely on the child within, and divorce it from all other parts of myself? It’s one thing for the desires of the child to be uppermost; my concern is that I cannot find the adult. Where is she, and what are her desires? If I want to ascribe to the child the desire to ‘live in fantasy and play’, I have to be able to separate it out from the desire of the adult, and be able to show that it is different. But I’m not sure that I can. Perhaps it is because the adult is here in body, but in a very real sense, she has not fully come to be.

And so I am left, every time I leave, with the sense that I want to stay forever, and with the guilt that I should be wanting something else. I’m left with ‘separation anxiety’ and crumbling memories of that precious hour, until they can be recaptured again when I am back in that room. Leaving the therapy bubble is heartbreaking – but I have to keep on doing it, time and time again. Perhaps when the separation becomes a bit more bearable, I’ll know that there is a bit less growing up to do.


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Swallowing up the storm – BPD and anger

“I am angry enough to die”. The words jumped out at me from the page whilst I was skim-reading the chapter, and they brought me up short and made me pause. It’s perhaps a strange thing to say – why should anger make one want to die? But I connected with the familiarity of the emotion straight away. Not just familiar to me, but familiar from the writings of other BPD bloggers as well. Only a few days before I had been reading a blog post by ‘Big Battles, Small Victories‘, where the author spoke of immense hurt and anger at being disappointed, and wrote “I want to not live”.

“I’m hurt and angry…..I want to not live”. “I am angry enough to die”.

Those words seem so connected. But they are separated in time, if not in emotion, by more than 2,400 years.

I read those words, from the last part of the Old Testament Book of Jonah, while I was sitting in church a few Sundays ago listening to a talk on the earlier part of the book. I confess, I was not paying as much attention as perhaps I should have been, and I also wanted to turn to the end and see what was in store.

For those with faith (of whatever persuasion), or those with none – I should say straight away, as I’ve noted in a recent post, that my own faith is ‘on the rocks’; this is not a sermon and this post is not about Jonah. You don’t need to know or believe anything about him, in order to, I hope, find something helpful in it. This post is about BPD and anger: the reference to Jonah provides only the context for a look at that subject, and it does so only because it was helpful to me personally, in starting off a chain of thought on this issue that touches the lives of so many with BPD. If the context seems irrelevant or makes you uncomfortable, I can only apologise – that is certainly not my intention. Equally, if you have sympathy with the context, but are uncomfortable with some of the interpretations towards the end of this post, I must also apologise. It is not my intention to be irreverent in any way. I am not ‘taking scripture lightly’ – perhaps I am, however, allowing myself to give in to the temptation that we sometimes have, to project our ‘difficulties’ outside ourselves, and to see them everywhere. In the lyrics of a song, behind the story of a film, in the pages of a book. And in the person of someone that we meet (or read about).

The first part of the DSM-IV Criterion 8 for BPD reads: “Inappropriate, intense anger, or difficulty controlling anger.”  Until a couple of years ago, I always thought of myself as someone who never got angry, and as with a number of the DSM-IV criteria, it took me a while to really understand how this one applied to me. And I have realised that the reason for that, is that I have been defining the criteria in very particular ways.

I defined abandonment purely in terms of physical abandonment, rather than emotional abandonment and being left to cope on my own with what I was feeling. I defined ‘black and white’ thinking purely in intellectual terms and the ability (or lack of) to appreciate all sides of an argument, and the grey areas in between. It took me a long time to realise that ‘black and white’ thinking is in some ways much more about ‘black and white’ feeling, and is fundamentally emotion-centred, rather than being about intellectual flexibility. And anger? I defined anger in terms of physical or verbal manifestations – being physically violent or verbally abusive. I didn’t do those things. I was never angry. How wrong I was.

I remember one instance of ‘feeling angry’ (as I originally defined it) when I was growing up. That instance stands out because it was unique. It was the time, when I was around seventeen, when I became convinced my mother had read my diary. Although my memory of the event is patchy, I think I shouted. I think I told her that I hated her.

You might argue that that is a relatively common thing for a teenager to tell her parents. But not for a teenager who grew up with a whole suite of things she was not supposed to say or feel. Some of those things brought disapproval or dismissiveness; others brought emotional suffocation. Feeling or expressing anger; needing or expressing a wish for privacy of thought and emotion; being depressed or admitting to depression – those were all among the former. Fear, sadness, pain, loss – those were all among the latter. They were emotions which, should I ever have admitted to them, would have led to similar emotions in my mother, which she would then have allowed to flood over me.

So I expressed neither the things that would have been disapproved of or dismissed, nor the things that would have been too difficult, emotionally, for others to bear. And so I always thought of myself as someone who was never angry, and passed, incredibly successfully, for someone who was never sad. And yet for years, I was both sad and angry, and didn’t realise quite how much. For years, my mind was filled with imaginary conversations and scenarios between me and the one or two people at those times in my life, who I jokingly thought of as those I ‘loved to hate’. People who I now understand that I had ‘split’ into ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’, and was at that time devaluing. Hateful and vengeful thoughts and words – how could I have been so oblivious to the fact that what lay behind them was anger, pure and simple?

Over the last few years I have been more conscious of the emotion of anger within me – particularly as it relates to how I feel about my parents – and the vehemence of it  sometimes takes me by surprise. Nevertheless, as I never gave it expression, I still thought of myself as someone who ‘did not get angry’. I have even been conscious of the inappropriate nature of it, set off sometimes by the smallest disappointment or hint of criticism or control – and yet I have still, somehow, managed to sideline it and failed to appreciate it as a part of myself.  Perhaps it is because I always have, and still do, find anger and confrontation very scary. I hate them. I feel battered by them. They feel like an assault on me and on my emotions. They drive me emotionally underground and behind a barricade. Perhaps it’s unsurprising then, that I find it difficult to acknowledge that anger may have a seat within me.

As well as being more conscious of the emotion of anger within me, I am also becoming more conscious of where it comes from, and how it affects my behaviour and my sense of self. And as with many an emotion within the BPD landscape, I have come to the conclusion that at least for me, anger too, is intimately connected with the issue of expectations. I talked about BPD and expectations in a recent post, in which I said that I agreed with blogger Cat Earnshaw (‘Half of a Soul – Life with BPD’), that ‘great expectations’ were at the core of BPD. They seem to me to form the hub from which hang the rusty and twisted spokes of abandonment, depression, disappointment, hurt, and anger, amongst others. What makes BPD anger ‘inappropriate’ is not just the degree of its intensity, but also the nature of the ‘expectations not met’ that underlie it, and the impact it has upon the sense of who we are.

And that is precisely what struck me about those two stories, more than 2,000 years apart, that I came across within the space of a few days. “I’m hurt and angry…..I want to not live”. “I am angry enough to die”. I may feel ‘battered’ by another’s anger – but my own anger assaults me too. Occasionally, it makes me want to die. But often it makes me want to hurt myself. Is it because I’m so ‘conditioned’ not to turn it outwards? Is it because I always saw anger as a ‘bad thing’ to feel? Does part of me feel that I have to punish myself for it?

I always thought that the reason I persisted, when I was a child, in winding up my mother when she was cross, to the point at which she became so angry that she smacked me, was because I saw it as a ‘victory’ to push her to a point where she acted in a way she did not like. That belief (though ‘retrospective’) has allowed me to retain the sense that I was in control of the situation, and that I was punishing her – (or was that her thought, rather than mine?) – but I’ve recently started to wonder if there was something else going on. Awareness of the self-destructiveness in me now, makes me wonder how long it might have been there for, and how much it might have been responsible for. If I was arguing with my mother, was I angry? And if I was angry, was I, even if I did not realise it at the time, so angry that I needed it to hurt?

I think that Jonah needed it to hurt. Jonah was angry because God hadn’t acted in the way that he had expected him to act. It seems to me that Jonah’s expectations were at the root both of his anger, and of his original decision to run away from God. He knew that God would disappoint his (one might say ‘unreasonable’) expectations – and he would rather run than face that disappointment and despair. When he was faced with it, he wanted to die. He went out into the desert in what feels like an incredibly familiar attempt to both test the one who had disappointed him, and to inflict further pain on himself. It’s clear that the scorching desert sun was wearing him down, but it was the blazing heat of his anger that continued to consume him.

We’re not told how the story ends. And, much though I would like to, I’m afraid I don’t have ‘an ending’ either. I wish I had some wise words to say about anger, some advice to give, some ways of dealing with it or working through it. When it comes to trying to understand anger, I’m right at the beginning of my own story. It’s a story in which I hope that, contrary to usual belief, anger will be redemptive (and I don’t mean that in a religious sense). I hope that by acknowledging and accepting my anger, and even (though I shudder to think about it) by giving it some sort of appropriate expression, I can build a healthier relationship both with myself and with those closest to me.

Being able to say ‘I feel angry’ would be a good start. Maybe I will try it on my therapist – goodness knows it’s often very apt. But that’s the subject of another story…..