My therapy journey, recovering from Borderline Personality Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I write for welldoing.org , for Planet Mindful magazine, and for Muse Magazine Australia, under the name Clara Bridges. Listed in Top Ten Resources for BPD in 2016 by goodtherapy.org.
For various reasons I have been really anxious about this week, for quite some time. The weekend before last was very similar in many ways to the one I wrote about in my post ‘Why taking a pledge to talk about suicide, can be so powerful‘. I was feeling utterly worthless, trapped, and didn’t want to carry on any longer. Once again, I ended up crying through the service at church on Sunday and then dissolving in an even bigger heap in the arms of a friend at the end of the service, and telling her how much I wanted to die. At the same time, work became particularly stressful, and therapy also hit one of those frustratingly familiar and painfully gut-wrenching brick walls where I felt stuck and very very alone. At that stage, when I looked ahead to this week, it all seemed very very scary. Knowing that there would be a number of triggers this week that could potentially make things worse, and knowing how isolated and desperate I was already feeling, I felt more than a little unsafe.
And so it’s very strange to be sitting here now, in a rather different frame of mind. And it was particularly strange to find myself on Sunday, in contrast to the weekend before, making a mental list of people and things that I was grateful for. I remember the difficult feelings that were triggered when ‘100 Happy Days’ became the latest craze on Facebook last year, and my newsfeed was filled up daily with things that my friends were thankful for. Much like the situation described in my post ‘Mental health and the holidays’, I was glad that they had things they were grateful for, but at the same time I was desperately sad and also angry; not just because of the ways in which I was struggling, but also at the fact that those very struggles lessened my ability to even be able to see or appreciate any of the things I might otherwise feel thankful for. And so prior to Sunday, I think it was a long time since I had managed to feel grateful for a few small things, without that gratefulness being mixed either with feelings of being ‘undeserving’ or feelings of an impending loss (that whatever it was I was grateful for, would be taken away).
And so with a few potential triggers still to come this week, I just wanted to make a small list of some of those people who I have felt particularly grateful for recently. They were all I think, responsible for the fact that I feel so differently now, to the way I imagined last week that I would be feeling. They are:
the person whose random act of kindness on ‘World Kindness Day’ has stayed with me, and still keeps me feeling warm
the friend who asks me how I really am when I say that I’m okay
the person who last week gave me their time when they had other things to do, and told me it was the most important thing they would do that day
the friend who held me when I thought nothing of myself, and told me I was special
the blogger who was a friend, who became a friend who is a blogger, and whose words were even more up-building when spoken across a coffee table than across the internet
my therapist who encourages me to stand up for myself and not to let my self-worth be defined by others. Ultimately, her words helped me to take a small step over the weekend which made a big difference. A small dose of self-worth coupled with a little kindness and affection from others, can go a very, very, long way.
I want to thank them all and to let them know they helped me to feel better, and they helped me to feel grateful. In essence, they helped me to feel as though I matter – and that’s a million miles away from where I was just a few days ago.
‘He hesitated, struggling to find the words he wanted. “You see, there’s a fundamental connection between seeming and being….We understand how dangerous a mask can be. We all become what we pretend to be…..It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.
….listen. I’ve got it now. You meet a girl: shy, unassuming. If you tell her she’s beautiful, she’ll think you’re sweet, but she won’t believe you. She knows that beauty lies in your beholding…..And sometimes that’s enough.
….But there’s a better way. You show her she is beautiful. You make mirrors of your eyes, prayers of your hands against her body. It is hard, very hard, but when she truly believes you….Suddenly the story she tells herself in her own head changes. She transforms. She isn’t seen as beautiful. She is beautiful, seen.” ‘
― Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind
I often ask my therapist for verbal reassurance. She often refrains from giving it directly and gently tells me that it is important that I come to know things through experience. This is a constant struggle for me, and I have written about it before (‘How do we come to know things?‘). It’s still hard for me to accept that words, which I value so highly, may not have the same power as experience. But I trust her, and her judgement, and so I have tried to be more accepting of her approach and not to resent it, even if I don’t fully understand it.
Butthis– this quote above, which I found by chance on the internet, from a book I’ve never read, struck me immediately because it seems to directly address this question of experience being more important than words, in a way that is both extraordinarily beautifully expressed, and which also makes complete sense to me.
I have always told my therapist that I feel strongly that words are concrete and not open to interpretation in the way that actions can be; and that they are helpful because I can remember them and bring them to mind whenever I need reassurance in future. However, although words may be powerful, their power is temporary, which ispreciselywhy I so often need to remind myself of them. They don’t remove the need for future reassurance, even if they deal with it very effectively in the moment. Why?
Because others’ words can allay our fears, but they cannot rewrite our own internal scripts for us. They provide no motivation to change the story that we tell ourselves, about ourselves, inside our heads. For example, they may tell us that at this point in time, someone loves us – but they can’t convince us that we’re intrinsically lovable. We feel lovable only in so far as someone else feels that way about us – the quality is vested in their perception of us, and not in our own being. Which is why the message needs such constant re-enforcing – we need to check that their perception hasn’t changed.
I used to argue that if my therapist reassured me with words, at least for a while, I would eventually reach the stage where I no longer needed to ask her for reassurance because I would have a ‘bank’ of words and phrases to remember and to bring to mind. I would have internalised her reassurance. I thought that was the goal; that when I reached that point, I would have achieved the holy grail of being able to provide my own validation and reassurance.
Reading that now, my argument seems fundamentally flawed. Internalising her words is not self-validation – I am not ‘doing it for myself’. She is simply doing it for me, but in absentia. It is ‘other-validation’, but one step removed. I am still lovable only because she cares; and not because she has seen something in me that is worth caring about.
It IS hard – extraordinarily hard – to change those stories that we tell ourselves, about ourselves. It won’t happen without an internal fight – it certainly won’t happen when there is no incentive; or, indeed where there is an active disincentive in the form of a powerful feel-good remedy which gives us a temporary high.
Words are powerful, but they are also easy to say. There is no hard graft, either in saying them, or in receiving them. But it takes effort to demonstrate to someone how they are seen, and effort to be open to that demonstration, and to receive it. Coming to know something by experience – being shown something rather than told it –is a difficult road; but perhaps the very effort is part of what has the power to change our own internal perceptions of ourselves. To change the story that we tell inside our minds.
‘She transforms’ – yes, but the transformation is different, depending on your viewpoint. In her own eyes, she has gone from being a person who was thought beautiful by some, to being a beautiful person. For others, she has transformed into someone who can see her beauty for herself, and not just through the eyes of others.
She was always beautiful – and perhaps now even more so, because she believes it too.
“I had thought one aspect of BPD was feeling too much.”
This was a comment made by Roderick Hart, of ‘Fragmented Mind’ on my previous post, ‘Waiting room of the world’. That post contained a quote from the film ‘Shadowlands’, which described the anticipation of spring as being like a ‘nothing time’, a ‘waiting room of the world’. It reminded me of the difficult state of ‘emptiness’ in between intense emotions. That state which feels like nothing because (metaphorically) it is neither full of the blizzards and storms of winter, nor of the intense heat of the summer sun. If it comes as a surprise to hear that many with BPD can often feel that they experience too little, rather than too much, then I hope that this post will be helpful. It is based on my reply to Roderick Hart, and as he was kind enough to indicate that my explanation was useful, I wanted to share it more widely, and to elaborate a little (okay, a lot!).
‘Chronic feelings of emptiness’ is the seventh of the DSM IV criteria for BPD. I have often wondered what it feels like to have this symptom, and what exactly the criterion means. How do I know if I have experienced it? As with a number of DSM IV criteria, I think that my initial understanding of what it involves, was too narrow. I was defining ‘emptiness’ in a very limited way, which was restricting my ability to see how it applied to me. I had the same experience with how I initially defined anger (‘externally-aimed’ aggression); abandonment (physical abandonment); and black and white thinking (intellectual inflexibility and being very categorical about one’s views). It took me a while to see anger as also involving silence, denial and withdrawal; abandonment as also involving feeling left alone to deal with one’s emotions; and black and white thinking as being more about how one feels about a person, than about how one approaches an intellectual argument. Once I broadened my definitions, it became much easier to how the DSM criteria applied to me.
I used to think of emptiness as being equivalent to ‘nothingness’, and I used to think of that nothingness as being absolute. It was an easy linguistic trap to fall into – I construed ‘feeling empty’ as ‘empty of feeling’. I was forgetting that an empty glass may have no liquid in it, but it is still full of air – it is not true to say that there is nothing at all inside.
Chronic emptiness means a number of different things to me, and the way I experience it changes. I suspect the same may be true of others with BPD, and there may be no single definition of what chronic emptiness entails. But for me, it can be captured by the following four states. Others with BPD may be able to relate to some, all or none of these. Some may be able to relate to them but may not describe these states as ‘emptiness’. For them, it may feel like something else entirely. But I hope that for at least some people, the following descriptions will strike a chord. For me, all of these states are associated with a strong desire to self-harm, and that desire is described in some of the posts that are referenced below.
Feeling cut off. Sometimes I feel as though I have no access to my emotions. I know that there are feelings – quite powerful feelings even – swirling below the surface, but I feel completely separated from them. I know that they are there, but I can’t feel them. I can sense their presence, but it’s almost as if they belong to someone else. When I’m in this state it can feel incredibly frustrating and difficult to cope with, and I wrote about it my post ‘What’s in a name’, although I didn’t think of it as a type of emptiness at the time.
Lack of identity.Although this is a separate BPD criterion in its own right – ‘markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self’ – for me, it is also connected to chronic emptiness. In my post ‘The unbearable insubstantiality of being – BPD and identity’ I described how I may not ‘feel empty’, but I feel that I am empty – that I am devoid of content and have no substance. Therapy has been particularly challenging recently, with a great deal of trying to ‘dig below the surface’ and figure out what’s behind my various behaviours, thoughts and actions. The process is confusing, exhausting and difficult – but it’s also scary. Not just because of what I might find, but because of the fear that I may find that there is nothing there at all. That I’m all surface – and no substance.
Craving intensity. Much as intense emotions may be incredibly, almost unbearably painful, I crave intensity. Sometimes with every ounce of my being. It’s like a drug that I just can’t get enough of and a tiny taste of it leaves me desperate for more. Sometimes I fear its power and the hold it has on me, but I fear its absence, more. It is the single strongest reason why I am not on medication, despite feeling very guilty for not trying it (as, conceivably, it could benefit not just me, but my husband and children too). Intensity makes me ‘feel full’ – full to the brim of emotion. But as a consequence, when I’m not feeling things intensely, I feel empty. I tried to describe this in my post ‘Waiting to fall – BPD and obsessive attachments’. It’s almost as if my scale of emotions is skewed – I am so attuned to high intensity that lower intensity emotions just don’t seem to register very much. They certainly don’t feel satisfying. If I’m not feeling intensely, it’s almost as if I’m not feeling at all. It’s either hugely powerful – or it’s nothing.
Immense longing. Of all the states I am describing, perhaps this is the one that most readers with BPD will be able to relate to as being closest to their own experience of chronic emptiness. And yet it wasn’t until I read an excellent and moving post called ‘Hollow’ by Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers, that the penny finally dropped and I realised that what I was feeling was emptiness. The author described her feelings of ‘profound loneliness and longing’, which her therapist said related to the emptiness which is a symptom of BPD.
‘Hollow’ seemed to perfectly describe the way I feel when I am visited by what I refer to as my ‘pit of need’. Sometimes, it feels as though a giant chasm opens inside me – a bottomless black hole of need that is longing desperately to be filled and made whole. It seems as though I would do almost anything to fill that chasm. It’s frightening how completely without boundaries I feel at those times. Sometimes the pit of need opens up when I’m in the presence of people I feel very vulnerable with; sometimes it comes out of the blue when I’m separated from someone (for example, my therapist). The immense longing is what used to make me hesitate about describing it as ‘emptiness’ – if I was feeling such longing, how could I be empty? But I was falling into that linguistic trap I spoke of earlier. After I read ‘Hollow’ I realised that it’s because I was feeling so very empty of what I needed, that I felt such immense longing. What is it that the ‘pit of need’, needs? Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers says “…..I do not know”. And I’m not sure I do either. That’s what my journey through therapy is all about. But to quote from ‘Hollow’ again, whatever it is, the feelings associated with its lack, are “horrible, and overwhelming”.
The emotions of those with BPD often swing between polar opposites, occupying the extremes, with little room for middle ground. The psychiatrist who diagnosed me said ‘at least you’re able to feel intensely – some people with BPD feel empty all the time’. Although I have no evidence one way or the other, I suspect that most people with BPD are familiar both with feeling too much, and feeling empty. Maybe, however, one mode dominates more than another, and perhaps that is person dependent; but that is purely speculation on my part. What isn’t speculation, is that both modes can be painful, and both can involve emotions of different kinds. Feeling empty does not mean feeling nothing. It means awareness of a gaping hole; but without necessarily knowing what is missing. It means longing to be filled, but without necessarily knowing with what. It means feeling as though you could collapse inwards, because you are without a core. It means feeling like this – a very short poem I wrote when I was right in the middle of the experience.
Looking back over this post, I realise I have linked to a number of my own past posts. It was not intentional; it’s not an attempt at self-promotion. I am genuinely surprised by how much I appear to have already written about emptiness, without realising it. I am surprised at how much a part of my experience it has been, without me until just recently, having been able to give it a name. I thought I was writing this post to help others understand how emptiness could be a facet of BPD. But I think I have ended up teaching myself, most of all.
People come to therapy with a variety of issues, and with their own individual goals. But whatever the particular difficulty, at the heart of therapy there are often twin tasks: to reveal the ways in which we really think about ourselves; and to ‘make up for’ what has been missing. Or, to put it in even more general terms, the twin tasks of therapy are concerned with content (or process) and with relationship – and both are important.
But even when it comes to content, and uncovering the nature of our thoughts and assumptions about the person we thought we knew best – that too, at heart, is about relationship. But in this case, it is the relationship we have with ourselves, that is being explored.
In my experience, and on the basis of reading numerous blogs by others with BPD, there is nothing more likely to elicit feelings of embarrassment and wanting to run away (fast), than talk of self-love and self-acceptance. And yet self-love seems to be the cornerstone of any and every therapy or process concerned with recovery, growth and personal development. A recent article in PsychCentral, says that “Learning to feel your own flow of love energy inside, without detaching or exploding, is critical to your own healing journey“. And in discussing the difficulties of communication within relationships, the same article goes further, and says: “Truly, the biggest obstacle to cultivating the authentic intimacy you desire with the special person in your life has to do with the part(s) of your self that you do not love, accept, value, and that, as a result, stays hidden, disowned, rejected out of fear, shame.”
However, the challenge for many of us, before we can even begin to contemplate self-love and repairing our relationship with ourselves, it to identify those parts of ourselves that we do not love and accept. In some cases, we actually need to try and see through the protective veil of self-deception that we have created, in order to realise that we don’t, in fact, love ourselves at all. The deeper I get into therapy, the more I am starting to realise the ways in which I actually think about myself – and it’s a big shock. It seems almost unbelievable that I can have come this far through life, without realising how radically different my actual self-perceptions are, from the way I like tothink that I think of myself.
What is becoming clearer is that the way that I like to think that I think about myself – is actually a defence. What I’m seeing is a false self, but it’s so convincing that it has completely pulled the wool over my eyes. Perhaps this is an incredibly early example of the BPD tendency to adopt another’s identity, or in this case, to adopt an expected and acceptable identity – that of a confident, competent, happy and carefree person. Or perhaps this is connected to the psychoanalytic concept of a ‘false self’ in which an infant builds up a false sense of identity and false relationships, based on the overriding and encroaching importance of its carers’ expectations.
Until recently, I believed that for much of my life, I thought I was an ‘okay’ sort of person; that I didn’t dislike myself; and that I had relatively healthy levels of self-esteem. I thought that my ability to get through bullying, criticism or lack of acceptance, was to do with strength of character and not caring what others thought, rather than an expert ability to compartmentalise, to ‘put on a face’, and to suppress negative thoughts and emotions. But that circle seems impossible to square with the things I am now realising about myself.
I have a big desire to please, and an equally enormous desire not to disappoint. I hate to let people down and to be anything other than what they expect me to be or what I think I should be. I will sacrifice anything to the fear of offending, and to the need to ‘do things right’. In therapy, I am constantly putting myself down, saying that what I think or feel is ‘stupid’ or ‘silly’ or ‘nonsensical’ or ‘not important’. I expect my therapist (and others) to disapprove or think the worst.
When in conversation with my therapist, I am quick to defend others, to excuse them and to try ‘not to paint them in a bad light’, regardless of how they may have hurt me. I defend my parents’ invalidating behaviour; my husband’s hurtful comments; my friends’ insensitivity. In my head, I defend the behaviour of the school bullies and of the boyfriend who intimidated me into having sex. I try and minimise their behaviour and suggest that they had reasons for doing what they did; reasons that were understandable and that I had given them, because of the ways in which I had behaved.
Conversely, every time my therapist makes an interpretation that is sympathetic towards me and paints me in a ‘good light’, I am quick to try and show her how she has misrepresented me, and how I’m not ‘as good as she thinks’. I know that this is at least partly rooted in my desire for her to know ‘the worst of me’ and to still accept me. In my mind, ‘seeing the best’ gets conflated with ‘not accepting the worst’, and that is a big trigger for me. But all in all, whether I am defending others or belittling myself, I constantly end up as my own worst critic and invalidator of my emotions.
Even more uncomfortably, I am starting to uncover the assumptions I make about my friendships. The feelings I have of being an outsider in a group; of surprise when someone I’d known for eight years told me I was a ‘good friend’; my sense of wonder when another friend painted my nails one afternoon – they all come down to a difficulty in accepting that I actually matter. I am slowly coming to realise that I believe that my friendships are not just the product of chance, of circumstance and of being thrown together (in terms of how the friendships started) – but that this is their ultimate basis.
Fundamentally, I do not believe that I have been chosen. In a circle of friends, I believe that others ‘put up with me’, but would not seek me out or choose me. I see no reason why it would be any other way. And in some ways, that is not surprising. My relationship with myself is clearly far from healthy. To quote another article on ‘Self-love’ from PsychCentral: “If you do not love yourself for all you are (and are not), is it reasonable to expect the other can do so?”
The difficulty with therapy bringing to light my unconscious self-beliefs, is that now the mask of self-esteem is paper thin. The gradual erosion of my compartmentalisation means that I can no longer just bury painful feelings and pretend that I don’t care. I have been going through a difficult situation in a friendship recently, and with the grip of my ‘false self’ having been loosened, it has left me feeling attacked, rejected, and completely worthless, to the point of suicidal ideation. And as was the case a couple of months ago, when I had similar feelings, the two motivators of my suicidal ideation are linked to the twin tasks of therapy. They are to do with uncovering a powerful self-belief of worthlessness and nothingness, and a belief that what I need in terms of relationship, love and acceptance, will never be realised.
The difficulty is, that I know, in theory, how to square that circle. It’s with that ‘flow of self-love’ and with a belief that only I can provide what I need, in terms of acceptance, and that that will feed into a greater sense of self-worth. But that belief still seems counter-intuitive – or at least, ‘adult-intuitive’, and I’m very much stuck in ‘child-intuitive’ mode, where the most compelling principle is “to matter is to be loved“. And to be loved not because of biology, obligation, or through chance – but by choice.
Sometimes life feels like a throw-back to the playground. It feels like wanting to be chosen for the sports team because I have something to offer and somebody wants me on their side – and not because I am the last one left in line.
More often than not, there is a distance of time in my writing, between the events or feelings that prompted it, and the recounting itself. Sometimes, that time can be as little as twenty-four hours, as was the case for my post on suicide. More often, it tends to be a number of days, weeks, or even of months. In general, my writing tends to be a way of reflecting on events, rather than processing them. The processing happens in my head, as the precursor to the writing, although it’s still true to say that in the writing, new revelations or new interpretations can sometimes be unearthed. But it’s fair to say that most often, when I’m in the thick of emotions, I cannot write about them until I have some perspective on them. I may write as a way of coping – but I write about something else.
But this time, I have to write ‘in the moment’. I have to write through it and write it through. I have to write it out. Perhaps it is because this moment, this emotion, keeps returning. There is no getting rid of it, and if I wait to gain some distance or perspective on it, I may wait too long, and never give it expression.
I have often heard others with BPD talk about feeling ‘unreal’, and wondered exactly what they meant, or how they would describe it. I would still like to know. ‘Anxiety Care UK’ describes ‘derealisation’ as feeling dissociated from one’s environment. To quote from their website: “The experience might include perceiving objects as unsolid, diminished in size or two-dimensional; and the self as perhaps being inside some glass-like container or peering at the world through a fog, with the world unreachable and meaningless.”
No, I don’t think that describes the emotion I’m referring to, although I often feel that life is hopeless and meaningless. I have felt the world as being ‘out of kilter’; I have felt as if I were living on my own speeding train, on a parallel track with the rest of the world, never to intersect; but I’m not sure I have felt ‘derealisation’, as described above. ‘Depersonalisation’- yes, I have felt that. The same website describes it as: “people will experience changes in self-awareness, which might include feeling as if their thoughts and actions are not their own, perhaps as far as experiencing the sensation as watching themselves from the outside.”
But this feeling that I have – it’s not depersonalisation either. My inner voice keeps offering up the phrase ‘I feel unreal’, and it is quickly quashed by my inner critic who still regularly persists in accusing me of fraud, and of ‘making up’ my mental health difficulties. “What do you mean you ‘feel unreal’? You have no right to use that phrase because those who use it actually do feel unreal – as if they don’t exist, as if they are ethereal. You’re lying to yourself. You’re not ill. You don’t feel unreal.” But I do – I do feel unreal. I don’t think it’s necessarily in the same way as some of those with BPD ‘feel unreal’, but the phrase still feels appropriate to me. It still rings true. I may not know exactly what others mean when they use it, but I know what I mean – and this is it.
It’s not that I feel ‘physically unreal’, or that my physical being feels ethereal, far from it. My physical existence weighs me down – its heaviness makes it hard to ignore. I try to escape it by retreating inside my head, but I continue to travel through time and space while I wish that I could be less bounded; that I could somehow leave my body behind to live my life, while I inhabit a different, purely mental world. Give me the blue pill Morpheus, and let me live in my matrix of dreams.
No, it’s not that I feel physically unreal. It’s that I feel devoid of content. I’m not sure if I feel empty – but I feel I am empty. I feel as though there’s nothing there. My outer being may feel heavy, but my inner being feels utterly insubstantial. And like many aspects of BPD, that feeling is particularly present in the turbulence of the relationships with those I am closest to – my husband, in particular.
I am spirit, and every criticism blows apart my atoms like wind rushing through a cloud of smoke. Every harsh word annihilates me. With every argument and insult I lose integrity – in both senses. My decency, my character (do I have any?) are undermined; any sense of wholeness and cohesion are swept away. I am nothing, I am worth nothing. I grasp at a sense of identity but when being undermined rather than being underpinned, it feels as though there is nothing there to grab hold of. Like Schrodinger’s Cat, my state of being – full or empty, worthy or worthless – is undetermined until your looks and words give it actuality.
Perhaps, then, this sense of unreality is much more about identity, than it is about physicality or dissociation. In the landscape of the DSM IV criteria for BPD, perhaps we’re in the terrain of criterion 3: “Identity disturbance – markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self”. And science knows what happens to unstable elements – they self-destruct and either reject or convert parts of themselves, in order to become something else.
Sometimes, I wish my response to feeling devoid of content was to feel devoid of emotion. Given how much I crave intensity of feeling, that’s saying something. Instead, feeling devoid of content makes me want to be devoid of life. A book of blank pages is a lifeless book. How joyless feels the task of turning every page, until the end. Feeling devoid of content looks like Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’, but on the inside. Feeling devoid of content feels like cutting across the canvas of my skin to let the sunset of ‘The Scream’ seep out. As Munch wrote, “Suddenly the sky became blood – and I felt the breath of sadness”.
Sometimes I feel like a useless sack of skin. That description chills me – it feels horrifyingly dehumanising. One could argue that self-consciousness, a sense of identify and of who we are, is part of the essence of being human. If that is unstable, no wonder we can sometimes feel less than human. No wonder we can sometimes feel unreal. It’s not that we feel as though we don’t exist. It’s that we exist, but incompletely. It’s that we exist, but without a core. No wonder we are so afraid of caving in, and that ‘being’ is sometimes so unbearable.