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:
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.
I haven’t been managing to stick to my usual ‘posting schedule’ – and for some reason I feel I’m letting myself down, even though I know that that’s not the case. The ‘schedule’ has gone awry because of huge pressures of time, and sheer mental and physical exhaustion and low mood and motivation.
Things continue to be very difficult on the marriage front, and they continue to deteriorate. Following on from the situation described in my post ‘What now, marriage?‘, my husband and I are at an impasse. I have written a response to his ‘letter’ describing his fears for the future and the person he thinks I am becoming; but it is very long, I haven’t quite finished it, and so I haven’t yet given it to him. And so as we wait for the next hand (my own) to be played, I sink further into sadness and I think we’ve both stopped trying. It’s hard to try when you’re in limbo and you don’t know where you’re going.
Though work is a survival tool and a distraction, it’s been incredibly stressful and is about to get worse, in the worst possible way – I find personnel issues harder to cope with than big deadlines or volume of work. And I feel stuck in therapy, unable to really access the adult part of me that relates in a really positive way to my therapist. Either the ‘child’ or the ‘teenager’ in me have been more at the forefront, and given everything that’s going on at home which is triggering in a host of different ways, they are feeling a great sadness and a lack of love. There have been a few wonderful and connecting sessions, mainly involving the ‘child’; but on the whole I’m in that ‘teenage space’ where I’m struggling to know what to do or say, struggling to know where I’m heading in therapy, and struggling to know how to feel connected to my therapist while I feel so ‘stuck’.
On the positive side, I feel as though I’m managing to find new ways to make connections with my children, and I feel as though I’m more actively looking for those opportunities. I am still a much much ‘shoutier’ parent than I would like to be, but I hope that is balanced out by moments of fun, spontaneity, and affirmation. I am learning how to relate to them in ways that wouldn’t have been possible before I started therapy, because I wouldn’t have had the words, or concepts, or understanding (either of them, or of me). I’m also managing to exercise a bit more self-care – which unfortunately has resulted in less time to write! Though I’m still very undisciplined when it comes to getting enough sleep, I’m managing to book in events or treats for me or for the family, to add to my collection of ‘positive memories’ to hang onto, and to simply create space to be more myself.
I also try and respond creatively to opportunities to ‘do something different’ and be kinder to myself than I might have been in the past. After a painful therapy session a few days ago in which I was in a very ‘young’ and vulnerable state, I hung around the river near my therapist’s house watching and listening to a large group of swans in the peaceful quiet of the night. Somehow the sounds they were making were comforting and made me feel in good company – I wasn’t the only one being non-verbal and making strange little noises (as I had done in session, when I felt unable to speak).
Amongst all of this, I discovered some more early writings in an old box in the roof. As a child I wrote the opening chapter of many many ‘novels’ – I rarely made it past chapter two before becoming disillusioned or moving onto another story. Looking back on them now, I think they served the same function as the poetry of my teenage years – they were an expression of how I was feeling, a way of processing the emotions I kept hidden, or perhaps even the emotions I didn’t really know were there. This time, I found the very short first chapter of a book called ‘Anna’s paradise‘. Though there is no date on it, for various reasons I suspect it was written when I was around twelve years old, though it could have been earlier. The language and the style make me cringe – I wrote in the style of what I was reading, and so ‘frock’, ‘parlour’ and ‘eiderdown’ make an appearance, despite the incongruence in terms of times and culture!
When I look back on some of the things I wrote when I was younger, what strikes me most are the emotions I no longer remember, and the extent to which it seems I felt alone. I know intellectually that I dealt with all of my emotions myself, including those relating to loss and death, change and bullying. But I don’t know to what extent I thought of myself as alone at the time; I don’t remember what it felt like not just to deal with those emotions (or not to deal with them), but to deal with them with no support. I don’t know if I was self-aware or aware enough to know that that was a problem, rather than just accepting it as the way things had to be. Loss, sadness, and feeling alone – Anna’s tale is full of those things, but there is a perplexing note of hope at the end of the short first chapter. Perplexing because I have no idea what was about to happen next, and my twelve year old self is not around to tell me. I wonder what story I came up with, then, to deal with that sadness – and I wonder if it would help me to deal with my sadness now…..
Anna’s Paradise – Chapter 1
The evening sunset stretched out its long arms and embraced the cold grey stony building with its shattered glass and destroyed walls, which was Anna’s home. Usually when you look at such a building you get the feeling that the people living there are moody, unfeeling, sad. This was the case at Greyhall House.
Anna was a thin, short child of eight years old. If her green eyes had contained a sparkle, she could have been called beautiful, since she had a frame of wavy auburn hair round her face. Her cheeks were pale and you could see that her mouth had forgotten how to smile. Her clothes matched her mood; she wore dark colours, unbecoming of her. She rarely got a new frock, maybe once in three years. Anna had once been a happy child, full of laughter and overflowing happiness which she shared with her father, once…..but her father was now dead and she was living with her father’s sister, Aunt Elmira – sour, strict, old-fashioned Aunt Elmira. I can’t say Aunt Elmira was happy, being called out to look after Anna, and Anna felt it. It was really the mood of the people that changed the look of the house.
Greyhall House had once been called Flower Vale House. It used to be Anna’s Paradise, her dream place of delights. The gardens were always full of flowers and the forest behind the house was her chief delight. But now, even the little tree house in the forest had lost its charm and dream-like look and the thrill it used to give her every time she saw it. All Anna did nowadays was to sit in the long grey parlour with its covered furniture and china…..and think. There wasn’t much to think about, either, but Anna, blessed with an imagination that helped her at the worst of times, found plenty of things to think about, or dream about. Sometimes she might lie on her bed in her room, basking in the morning sunlight, which filtered through the shutters early on in the day. Her room was the only one in the house that was not painted grey – it was painted pink. She had a pink eiderdown and soft rosy pink curtains to match. She felt happier gazing at the pink around her and imagining she was living on the pink road of the rainbow. Altogether, Anna led a very sad and lonely life…..until….
On Thursday night I was waiting for my husband to get home – waiting to have what seemed likely to be one of the most important conversations of our marriage. I was waiting and watching an episode of my favourite TV show, Grey’s Anatomy, and it happened to be Season 12, Episode 11, ‘Unbreak my heart’: a series of rewinds and fast-forwards through the on-again, off-again relationship of two of the main characters, April and Jackson – an episode that ends with them signing their divorce papers. Though I didn’t know exactly what my husband was going to say when he got back, I knew he wasn’t going to mention divorce, but I was expecting almost anything else. And so much of that episode hit notes – off-key notes, discordant notes, sour notes, familiarly mutually destructive notes.
Very different circumstances, yet I recognised the reactions. I recognised the wildly different expectations and perspectives.
April: “It just seems like you are looking for an excuse to walk away instead of putting in any of the work.”
Jackson: “You left me. You walked away. You ran halfway across the world – ”
April: “Because I was dying, Jackson. Samuel died and I died. Until Jordan, until I was able to go over there and – ”
Jackson: “And what? You think I was somehow just fine after Samuel? You don’t think I was dying too?”
April: “No, no, okay. You weren’t. Not like me. You were coping. You were okay. I couldn’t even – And then I found something. I found something over there that I needed so badly, and I thought that you understood that.”
Jackson: “I wasn’t coping. I was covering for you. To take care of you.”
April: “And now you’re punishing me over and over because I dared to take things into my own hands because I recognized the spiral I was falling into and I went and did something about it?”
Jackson: “I was putting you first. That’s what you do in a marriage. Or I guess that’s not what you do.”
April: “I took care of myself so that I would survive, and all that does is make you angry. Look at you. What is it, Jackson? What pisses you off so much, that I chose to go after the thing that I needed to heal or that the thing I needed wasn’t you?”
Jackson: “The thing that I needed was you. I survived. You survived. But I do not think we can survive this.”
My mental health difficulties hit us hard, very hard. I got lost in depression and in BPD and withdrew, and withdrew some more, and I know that it was hurtful and upsetting for him and he didn’t understand it and didn’t know what was due to my disorder and what might be something to do with him, something to take personally. He felt unloved and that would put anyone’s defenses up, and it did, because he had to guarantee that one of us could survive well enough to look after the kids. Things hit what felt like rock bottom, with him completely disengaging emotionally in order to protect himself. Though he wouldn’t go to therapy I tried to use my therapy for the both of us, hoping I could make sufficient progress for myself, that it would help our marriage.
Imperceptibly slowly, things felt as though they were shifting a little. Incremental, tiny steps. I became ‘a better flatmate’ – to me, that was an achievement, but to him it was still a very long way from a ‘good marriage’. But still things continued to improve, in my eyes at least, and I saw myself taking more risks, more chances, being a little more vulnerable, a little more open, and a little more self-assured– pushing back a little when I thought there was a problem, instead of absorbing the problem and the blame and falling into a spiral of dark and hopeless thoughts.
I had much more of an ‘off week’ a couple of weeks ago – work has been horrendously stressful and I wasn’t able to stay in ‘adult mode’ as much as I would have liked. I was more irritable, less forgiving. It felt like a step backwards but I tried to ignore it, and things didn’t fall apart. In fact, bizarrely, quite the opposite.
All of a sudden it was as if someone took the incremental change and decided to speed it up one thousand fold. I was hugged almost every time I entered a room – or at least it felt that way. There were kisses, compliments, kind and caring things said which were very different to the more practical and pragmatic responses he’d previously had to my difficulties. I should have been pleased- but I felt overwhelmed.
He was clingy and I couldn’t stand it. I didn’t want to be touched or kissed all the time, even though he ‘asked permission’ first. It all felt too much and I felt myself pulling away. I tried to explain that I was finding it hard to adjust to, and that it wasn’t necessarily anything to do with him. Though I didn’t say so, he was triggering me on multiple levels, and ‘acting like my mother’. Wanting more physical touch and closeness than I wanted; clinging onto me both emotionally and physically. The change itself didn’t feel safe, it was so sudden – how did I know he wouldn’t change back just as quickly? My mother’s volatility was in my mind, and I found it hard to believe any of the lovely words he was saying, when they were a contrast to the words that still hung between us from the past. How could I trust the new words? He couldn’t really explain the change either – save to say that he had been feeling more loved recently.
A few days of this change, followed by a triggering visit from my mother, resulted in another ‘off-day’ where I was more irritable and less thoughtful than I could have been. But somehow what two weeks ago was just another argument, this time turned into some sort of enormous turning point – apparently one of the worse nights of my husband’s life, for reasons than I simply could not understand and that no one event could explain. He told me later that something crystallised for him that night – that lots of pieces had suddenly fallen into place and he’d realised something he hadn’t seen before.
When he came back, when I was waiting, he gave me several pages that he’d written containing his realisations. Not all of them are accurate – at least, not as far as his assumptions or statements about me are concerned. But I think he’s come to the conclusion that though I might be turning into a more functional person than I was before, he’s not sure if that person is compatible with him, and with his fundamental needs and desires. I know he doesn’t want that to be the case. And I don’t know if it is.
So I find myself confused. About what’s real and what’s not. About what’s true, and what’s not. What am I meant to take out of therapy, and what can only ever exist in the room? Is unconditional love only for parents and therapists, and do grown-ups love only if they feel loved? Should I trust, even though things (and people) change; and when does compromise turn into self-suppression? What do I really think and feel, and how can I tell? How did we get here, and what does it mean?
April: “We talk about the mechanism of injury, about where it all started, but the truth is, it’s sort of a myth. We can’t boil every injury down to one single blow. What hurts us is cumulative. It happens over time. We absorb blow after blow, shock after shock, painful hit after hit. But even then, even if we know exactly how we got here, it doesn’t mean we can fix it. You can’t heal every wound, and that’s okay. I have to believe it’s okay. I have to believe that even if something seems like it cannot be fixed, it doesn’t mean it’s broken.”
Just before our summer break started, my therapist told me that she now has an ‘internal ally’ – who is my ally too – and I know that she feels that that is making all the difference. This ally advocates for her and reminds the various parts of me that she exists and that she is on my side. My therapist knows that when she is trying to get through to me, particularly when I am distressed, there is now someone inside me who is also reaching out for her, and wants to take in what she has to offer. However many parts of me are angry with her, or feel betrayed, or want to act out or push her away, she knows that there is also a part that is capable of noticing, analysing, standing back, and keeping close to her. A part that wants to talk to her about what is going on, and who sees her as an unwavering ally, too. That part is the one who has the task of trying to be my own ‘new mother’ to my younger parts, as described in the previous ‘installments’ of this post.
I think it’s also true to say, however, that there is another aspect to this internal ally. I’m now better able to internalise my therapist herself, and to hold on to her and keep her real as ‘new mother’, even when she is absent. The sense of her ‘within’, is a powerful comfort and motivator; and one of the ways in which my own ‘new mother’ part reassures my other voices, is to remind them of my therapist’s caring. My therapist as ‘new mother’ sustains, builds and nurtures my own growing ‘internal mother’, and she in turn reminds the other parts of me, of my therapist’s presence, because she can hold onto it, even when they can’t.
In ‘A new experience of mother, Part 4‘, I said that these experiences of a ‘new mother’, both between me and my therapist and me and my ‘younger parts’, were completely interlinked. But they are not just interlinked, they each make the other possible. And what makes both of those things possible, is the very concept of seeing myself as consisting of various ‘parts’, in the first place. As highlighted in ‘A new experience of mother, Part 3’, it is my own ‘internal re-organisation’ that has facilitated these ‘new mother’ relationships. Before I was aware of those parts, I inhabited each of them, in the moment, as if they were ‘fully me’ and as if their viewpoint was my only reality. There was no distance or distinction between my feelings, my perceptions, and what I believed to be true. Seeing myself as composed of certain ‘parts’, has created a new and bigger space, a space with more possibilities. It has created the possibility of lots of different perspectives existing at the same time, even if one particular one is at the fore in a specific moment. It has created the possibility of a vantage point from which to observe the parts and their interactions with each other and the outside world, and to think about them and talk about them.
This then, finally, is the difference between ‘talking about things’ and ‘acting them out’, that my therapist has been trying to get across to me for so long, and which I never quite understood. Without an awareness of the different parts, and without the existence of an ‘internal ally’, there was nothing to stop the child, or the teenager, from taking the wheel and communicating what they had to say in whatever way they wanted. Their ways were sometimes indirect, provocative, self-centred, resentful, testing, boundary pushing, and completely driven by their experience of ‘old mother’. This not only made it difficult for my therapist to respond to me – on occasion it actually manoeuvred her into responding in exactly the ‘old mother’ way I was expecting. She sometimes spoke of me creating traps for her to fall into – traps that were essentially recreations of dynamics I was familiar with and was unconsciously trying to re-enact. This was illuminating, for a while, in that it showed her quite vividly what my previous experience had been like. But there is only value in that information, if it can be used to help break the pattern and find a new way of relating. And my own experience of these ‘parts of me‘ gave me a way to break the cycle of ‘acting out’, and instead to start talking about what I was feeling.
This has been a five-part post – I’ve spent a great deal of time and a great many words talking about something that is one of the most significant parts of my therapy so far. But I don’t want to give the impression that now that I’ve taken on board this concept of a ‘new mother’, everything is suddenly ‘fixed’. Having an internal ally and being able to keep hold of new mother has definitely made a difference to my summer therapy break. I’m half way through the six week break and for the first two weeks I felt connected to my therapist every single day and there were no resistant or resentful murmurings at all from my ‘inner parts’.
But more recently I have struggled again with internal battles, though on a much less intense scale than before. Although I still feel connected to my therapist, last week it felt as though my inner parts ‘woke up’ and I could feel them going on the defensive (or offensive, depending on the part). I wasn’t sure what to do about them; even worse, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do something about them. The internal ally felt weak, and the temptation to let whoever wanted to, act out whatever they wished, was definitely there. But the ally was weak, not non-existent; and in many ways this reaction did not surprise me. I always feel much more antagonistic towards the end of a break, in the expectation and frustration of waiting to seeing my therapist again; I get the sense that it’s a form of backlash from the parts who resent the separation and who have spent the break feeling ‘unheard’. Although I am only half way through this break, my therapist and I had a couple of phone sessions this week, and so I think that this waking up of my various parts occurred in anticipation of this ‘reunion’ of sorts.
Though I had been afraid that these internal battles might mean that I would sabotage the phone sessions (or at the very least, that I wouldn’t fully engage with them), they ended up feeling comforting and productive. As described in ‘A new experience of mother, Part 4‘, what made the difference was an ability (which I still have not got used to) to be completely open about how I was feeling; and therefore to stay in that new space, the place of perspective, rather than inhabiting a ‘part’. I talked about the specific ways (which I felt ashamed of) in which a part of me had been thinking of sabotaging our phone sessions. I said later on in the conversation that I was worried about how to bring this powerful and frightening part into sessions in September. My therapist pointed out that by talking about her and her thoughts and desires, I had already done that. Bringing her into session, in this ‘new mode’ in which we’re operating, doesn’t mean turning all my thoughts, actions and feelings over to her; it means ensuring she is heard and that she has a chance to speak – and this new ‘internal ally’ is the best interpreter she could have.
One of the most significant things that my therapist pointed out during our phone conversations, is that my internal landscape has changed, a new part has been introduced, and that is bound to stir things up a little. I hadn’t really thought of it in that way, even though we had talked about this ‘internal ally’ before. I think I had thought of this persona as some sort of ‘overarching identity’ that I was trying to build, rather than as a ‘part of me’, similar to the others. And perhaps both pictures are equally valid. It is certainly the case that I can feel the internal landscape being redrawn and rebalanced, and I understand it better; and I think the presence of this ‘ally’ is making that possible.
This growing part is allied very closely to my therapist; and she has formed a much better relationship with certain parts of me – the inner child and teenager, for example. But there are still parts that are ‘out on a limb’ as my therapist put it – aspects of myself I have never really accepted as belonging to me, who still have the ability and desire (as they quite clearly showed me during this break) to undermine, disrupt, and destroy. Parts with which I have little relationship and as yet little understanding of how to reach. But I know that these alliances and experiences of new mother, both within myself and with my therapist, are going to enable me to reach those parts and build those relationships, even if the process is painful and slow. We just have to get through the September post-break ‘reunion’ onslaught first – given that I’m anticipating it, that almost guarantees it will come in a form and from a direction that I’m not expecting! I must admit, I am more than a little afraid – but also curious to see how the next year of therapy will unfold. Most of all, I’m looking forward to what this developing and fulfilling experience of new mother (both internal and external) will bring.
At the end of ‘A new experience of mother, Part 3’, I wrote about how my therapist’s own words about the ‘mothering’ that she offers me, have been a constant source of comfort and security, and a reminder of who she really is.
It’s important to add to this that they are also an indirect reminder of who she is not. The concept of experiencing my therapist as a ‘new mother’ really sunk in for me when I finally realised that she is not like my own mother; that she does not and will not behave towards me, in the way that my own mother did and does. And that realisation precisely mirrors the way in which I first made a positive connection with the ‘teenage part’ of myself (as described in ‘A new experience of mother, Part 1‘). She (my inner teenager) finally realised that I am not like my own mother, and that I don’t behave like her either (or at least, not most of the time!).
As I was writing ‘A new experience of mother, Part 1’, I was frequently struck by the parallels between my relationship with my inner parts, and my therapist’s relationship with me. I realised that these two experiences were not separate, but completely interlinked. We were both trying to be ‘new mother’ to an often distrustful and angry child with a short memory, who acted out to feel loved – and all of a sudden I could feel a great deal more sympathy (and empathy) for what I had been putting my therapist through!
In Part 1 of this post, I spoke about the fact that although I had forged a better relationship with and between my ‘inner parts’, there was an occasion on which the different ‘parts’ went back to being strangers to each other (and to me). This situation lasted a few days, and I mentioned that the key to my ‘inner reconciliation’ was my interaction with my therapist. What happened in that interaction was that instead of turning up to session in sarcastic and stand-offish mode (which I had been expecting to do), I somehow managed to keep sufficient control of that teenage side of me and instead went in with complete openness and a determination to be honest and vulnerable. In the past, I would have tried to keep up the appearance of co-operating while being internally resistant and closed off to my therapist. Instead, I said that I felt as though I really didn’t want to be there; my therapist simply asked if I could say something about why.
And we talked. We talked honestly, clearly, and compassionately, and it was warm and connected and completely different to how I’d been feeling a few hours before. I realised that approaching with honesty and vulnerability had only been possible because I had also approached without fear. And approaching without fear was only possible because I was able to see her as ‘new mother’, or at least allow for that possibility. In the past I would have been too scared of her response and what she might think of me, to tell her that I didn’t want to be there. More than that, I would have worried that she would think I didn’t love her anymore. Because that is how my own mother would have interpreted the situation.
I approached without fear of her response, but most importantly, without any sense of needing or wanting to control her response. I used to spend so much time worrying about what to say or do, in relation to her. What impact would it have, on her or on me? What was she likely to do or say in response? What would she think of me? Is saying ‘such and such’ too risky? Could I get hurt? Will she get angry? In the past, this never seemed like an attempt at control – in fact, I would have been horrified at the suggestion that that might be what I was doing. I have such an intense reaction against being controlled, that the thought of me doing that to someone else feels appalling. But the more I think about it, the more it seems that for years I poured my energy into attempts to try to indirectly control others’ responses, in an effort to feel loved and to stay ‘emotionally safe’. By endlessly analysing and trying to work how others might respond, I’d hoped to discover what I needed to say or do so as to minimize the negative impact both on me and on them. Looking at it now, it seems like an elaborate way of trying to feel less at sea, less helpless, and less at the mercy of others – a necessity when I have so little confidence in either them or me.
This incident showed me that when I come to my therapist as ‘new mother’ – with a complete openness in terms of what I tell her, and a complete openness to her response rather than fear of it – what takes place in the room is beautiful and healing. And that is not simply about the words that are used, it is about the experience of relating in a new, safe, and intimately connected way. And that connection is internal as well as external – my ‘inner parts’ and I found our way back to each other because by being open about how they were really feeling, I gave them a chance to be fully heard, and to be responded to compassionately.
The incident was also one in which my therapist and I talked about how our communication was changing, following my acceptance of her as ‘new mother’. In Part 1, I said that I made a connection with my ‘inner teenager’ as soon as she was able to see me differently (that is, to see that I was not the ‘old mother’ that she expected me to be). Thereafter, it became much easier for me to talk to her, and for her to hear me. Exactly the same was happening between me and my therapist. My therapist observed that if we have a misunderstanding and I don’t feel heard, this can trigger my fear (and expectation) of the presence of ‘old mother’. I will then see her in that role (along with all the judgment, disappointment and crossness that I expect), and this makes it almost impossible for my therapist to say or do anything right. Nothing she says or does can get through to me, because I can no longer hear it as it was intended. Everything is interpreted through the lens of my past knowledge and experience of ‘old mother’.
Over recent weeks however, now that I am able to see her differently (much of the time), it is not just easier for me to talk to her (because of lack of fear), but also easier for me to hear her. It’s not that the words that she is using have changed, or that her facial expressions are different; it is that without the veil or fog of ‘old mother’ in the way, I can hear what she is really saying and intending, and I can see her for who she is.
Just before the summer therapy break, I gave my therapist a CD with five pieces of music that were important to me; one of them was the track ‘Now I see the light’ from the Disney film ‘Tangled’. Although it is overly ‘sweet’ and idealised, as one might expect from the ‘happily ever after’ world of Disney, the track has a number of lines that remind me of the wonderful ways in which things can shift in therapy, following a large or small realisation or change in perspective. And so as I was wondering how to end Part 4, and recalling what I had written about the fog of ‘old mother’ and the fact that I can now see my ‘new therapy mother’ for who she is, these words from the song came to my mind:
“And at last I see the light
And it’s like the fog has lifted
And at last I see the light
And it’s like the sky is new
And it’s warm and real and bright
And the world has somehow shifted
All at once everything looks different
Now that I see you.”
[‘A new experience of mother’ has grown and grown, each time I have sat down to write about this subject. Originally it was going to be one post; then two, and then three. I thought this would be the fourth and final part, but when it turned into a two and half thousand word post, I knew there had to be a Part 5. But Part 5 is written, and so I can promise that it will be the final part!]
I wrote these words, and placed them on this image, during the winter of 2014. I think it may have been shortly after writing ‘My borderline mind‘, which itself was written following some very emotionally challenging and intense therapy sessions. They were sessions in which I was testing my therapist, in which I was agonising over seeing everything through the lens of ‘obsessional attachment’, and in which I was despairing over ever being able to ‘do therapy right’. But they were also the sessions that culminated in the wonderful and precious occasion, described in ‘Waiting revisited‘, when my therapist mentioned her caring for me – something I was so desperate for and had doubted so often.
Though I don’t remember the details of the sessions that followed, I wrote the following to a friend of mine, very shortly after that occasion: “What I am finding really interesting at the moment (and I think it is really important) is the fact that she didn’t realise she’d said something that was that huge for me. Or rather, she didn’t remember exactly what she’s said, and that really does show me that she’s not in my head (!) and I think, eventually, it’s going to teach me something about people’s ‘otherness’ and freedom to be authentically themselves while still being able to be there for me…..but that’s a long way from being internalised or even properly accepted.“
Those sessions were indeed the start of a lesson about the possibility of being cared for and caring for someone else deeply, while remaining separate people, and without the need for the complete ‘merger’ that I had always longer for. This lesson continued to be cultivated and embedded over many many months of sessions, and different experiences of conflict and misunderstading, caring and ‘repair’, with my therapist. Around eight months later, I wrote the following, as part of a different post: “I used to want so much to merge indivisibly with Jane, my ex-therapist. But it occurs to me now that if I’m swallowed up by my therapist, I cannot see her – and I really, really want to see her. And to be seen. And that’s only possible if we do not occupy the same space.”
The truth that began to dawn on me in December 2014 is now much more an accepted and lived out part of my life. I still have a deep and intense hunger and need to be loved, but that’s no longer associated with merger with another person, in the way that it used to be. It feels okay, even desirable, for that love to exist between two independent people who can truly see each other and have the freedom to care for each other because of their separateness, and not in spite of it. When it comes to my feelings for my therapist, I love her and I want to be loved by her; I want to walk alongside her and be with her, as we work together. And I want to be part of her in so far as I want her to keep me in mind and to remember me, and I want to be a significant part of her experience and her memories, just as she is, for me. But I don’t feel the need for the kind of ‘metaphysical’ merger that I used to crave; a merger that involved some kind of mingling of our atoms and a complete absorption of me into everything that she is. I used to want to lose myself in people; but now it strikes me that that defeats the point of wanting to be loved. I want to be found, seen, accepted and loved as a separate and special person, and I want to return the same feelings – and that requires separateness, and the freedom to be authentically ourselves.
What follows is a bridge – a bridge between the ‘new mother’ relationship between the parts of myself described in Part 1 of ‘A new experience of mother‘, and the ‘new mother’ relationship between me and my therapist, which I will talk about in Part 3. This bridge is a post that I wrote last weekend, but never published. I didn’t publish it because I realised as I wrote it, that it was coming from a ‘teenage’ place of resentment and that it was an indirect means of communicating with my therapist. As sometimes happens, my thoughts and understanding were working themselves out in the very process of writing; and what I understood was that the post was serving the function of repeating old patterns. It was self-sabotaging, and it was also passive aggressive. And as I’ve realised since, I think it was also an unconscious attempt to show my therapist how it feels (by creating similar emotions within her) to have your hands tied and to have no choice – about a therapy break (in my case), or about not being able to respond to a cry for help (in hers).
This is what I wrote:
“I’m meant to be practising.
In two weeks begins a 45 day therapy break – my longest since I started with my current therapist almost three years ago. A few weeks ago we were in the middle of some very difficult and valuable material, and I was also discovering what it felt like for her to connect with different parts of me, and I wanted more. So my therapist very kindly offered to give me more – more time and more of that connection – in the form of an extra session per week in the run-up to the break, to hopefully better prepare me to get through it.
The extra session means that I now see her on a Friday and a Monday, and so the break over the weekend feels shorter. Given that, my therapist suggested that I try to get through the weekend without email, as a form of ‘practice’ for when she will be out of contact for large portions of the break.
The first couple of weekends without email were okay, and last weekend I made it through even though it followed on from an incredibly difficult and triggering week which resulted in an intense and distressing session on the Friday. I fought every urge to email, as well as a strong desire to self-harm. My mind fought feelings of hopelessness and thoughts of endings. The resentful and resistant part of me was in the driving seat, and yet drove past my therapist’s house. I’ve only done that once before but I had to close the distance between us, even momentarily. Somehow, the situation righted itself by the second session of the week; somehow I shook off the obscuring cloud of ‘past mother’, and the resentful part of me was just too plain exhausted to be resentful anymore. I found the more adult me again, and the sessions that resulted were honest, helpful and connected.
But yesterday I found myself stuck in and brought down by painful thoughts and feelings of exclusion – not unusual for me, in the face of a break, but more worrying given the length of time for which I will have to try and rationalise them away. And then a brief ‘argument’ and flare-up at home took me right back into the distressing feelings of the week before and it was a case of staving off the urge to self-harm again. I really, really wanted to email her. I didn’t, though I did reach out to a friend.
This morning I drove a few hours to see some friends and was either crying or fighting back tears for much of the way. The hopelessness and suicidal ideation were back. I really, really, really wanted to email her. I didn’t, though now I’m writing this. I’m speaking to her indirectly, though I don’t know if she will see it.
I don’t think she will like what I’m doing. I think she will see this as ‘acting something out’ rather than talking about it. I want to contact and connect with her but am doing it in a way that is guaranteed to mean she can’t respond. She doesn’t have a choice. I don’t want to disappoint her by not being able to get through without email, so I guarantee feeling like I’ve disappointed her, but in a different way.
I tried to rationalise emailing her by thinking that by doing so I would be giving myself a different experience of mother – one in which I wasn’t afraid of being judged or disapproved of. But I was too wary of the possibility that that might be just a convenient excuse, and couldn’t shake off the obscuring cloud of ‘past mother’ sufficiently to just go ahead and do it. And so instead of a different experience of mother I have guaranteed myself the same old experience all over again, at least in my head, if not in reality.
I want to put off fear and take up a different experience of mother, but I’m meant to be practising. I’m meant to be practising but I love her and part of me feels like I’m losing her early. I know I’m not losing her, and that’s what I’m meant to be practising holding on to.
I hate practising.”
By the time I finished writing, something had changed. The ‘teenage self’ was a little less in charge, the urge to ‘act out’ a little less strong. And after a struggle with myself I made the decision (quickly, before I could change my mind) to send my therapist an email with the post, instead of publishing it. I wrote: “Attached is a draft post, that probably shouldn’t be a post, at least not now (the reasons being obvious in the post, I think)….so I’m emailing it – which is not as good as managing to not email at all, but is at least more direct and honest than posting the post….I hope…”.
It was a leap of faith – an attempt to take hold of that possibility of a new experience of mother, and also a relinquishing of attempting to determine the way mother responds (even if that is by cutting off the possibility of a response altogether). It might have been a leap, but it wasn’t a leap into the dark; it wasn’t blind faith. I know her, as much as I can; after all the time we have spent and the work we have done together, I know that she is there not just to ‘catch me’ but also to ‘hold me’, metaphorically.
And, once again, she did…..