Life in a Bind – BPD and me

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


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The powerful metaphor of dance

As soon as I saw this dance footage, I knew I really wanted to share it with you. It is a clip of Jacob Lang, one of the competitors in the Contemporary Dance final of the recent BBC Young Dancer 2017 show. This is one of his solo pieces, entitled ‘FrankAIstein‘, danced to music from the film ‘Shutter Island’. The music itself is haunting, both in its words and in its moving strings – it is a beautiful blend of Dinah Washington’s ‘This bitter earth’ and Max Richter’s ‘On the nature of daylight’.

The dance is about an Artificial Intelligence ‘being’. When interviewed about the piece, Jacob Lang said this – and his words are for me, the perfect depiction of the dance – or rather, the other way around. If this is what he was seeking to communicate, in my view, he communicated it powerfully, and left me almost on the point of tears:

“I think the character is almost alive, but not quite. And I think the character has a conflict going on. And I think its experience of being is quite painful.”

These words, and the dance itself, resonated for me as powerful metaphors for my experience. You can substitute the psychoanalytic concept of the ‘false self’ or the ‘artificial self’, for the AI, but the conflict, and the painful experience of being, are just the same. Who am I? Am I real? If there is a ‘true self’, how can its spontaneity and freedom be expressed or show through this artifice that has been created? The painful sense of fighting with oneself, of trying to figure out one’s true nature, of being taken prisoner or being taken by surprise by one’s own being – I think they are all there in the dance. I know that for many of you reading, this will be your experience too, which is why I wanted so strongly to share this.

Sometimes we struggle to come up with external realisations or depictions of our conflicts and our pain; and sometimes it’s easier to see them, to feel them, and to process them when we can do that – when they are ‘out there’, rather than ‘in here’. Our therapists help us to do that  – but so can creative expressions such as this heart-rending dance:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04zvgr5

 


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Easter therapy break – Part 2

The first part of the Easter therapy break was, after all, okay. I was pleased that, after an unexpectedly difficult last session (described in Part 1 of this post), I ‘pulled it back’ and felt connected, secure, and held in mind, for the first week. Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat is not something I’m used to, relationship-wise. I tend to catastrophize if things don’t start out well, or as I expect them to be. The relationship with my therapist is my first in which things were rocky (understatement) at the start, and then blossomed over time. For many months it was difficult to believe that whatever might ultimately be gained, would not be weaker, or somehow permanently sullied, because of the fact it began in adversity. It shows how wrong I can be.

I was also wrong about needing to start the therapy break in a particular way (a supremely positive way, of course), in order to be able to feel connected. The first few days were difficult, and I was much more unmotivated than I have been at the beginning of the last few breaks. As with the last two breaks, I daily-tweeted my way through this one, despite my initial reluctance to do so. By Day 4 my #therapybreak tweets were showing a return to openness, vulnerability, security, and connection.

But as with all good stories, things had to get worse before they, um…..got even worse.

***

To cut a long story short, my therapist went away without telling me – which of course she has every right to do. That is, she went on holiday and was out of email contact for a week, and I had no idea. And when there was no reply to an email I sent, for several days, sadness and catastrophizing set in. Although the major part of me continued to believe in her caring and in our connection, I had to fend off the part of me that didn’t. For the first time in a long time, there was a physical dimension to my distress – I had difficulty falling asleep, and I had vivid and complex dreams. I know that the situation was intensified by a number of other factors I had been worrying about over the break, but in essence, I just didn’t understand my therapist’s thought process behind acting as she did.

It was another example of the unexpected throwing me for a loop. It happened at the start of the break, and it was happening at the end. It was not how I imagined my therapist would act – in the past she had told me (as far as I know) when she would be out of contact. But we had no explicit agreement that that would always happen, and in the absence of her telling me otherwise, I simply assumed she would be spending the break at home. I never thought to check my assumption. I told a wise friend, who thought my expectations of my therapist were unrealistically high – he put it more kindly than that – and though I hope that’s not as true as it used to be, perhaps I still fall into the trap of idealisation.

When I found out my therapist had been away, my mind came up with several possible options for why she might not have told me, and eventually settled into the firm belief that she had gone away to look for a house to buy for her retirement, in another part of the country. I was so fearfully convinced of it, that it was quite difficult not to go into my first session back and say “So, you bought a house then?”.

As far as I know, she hasn’t bought a house. Instead, it seems that she simply had confidence in me, and the progress that we have made over the past year. I think she thought that I would be okay, based on how the previous three breaks have gone. I’m very glad that she believes in me – though I did object that she ‘took the risk’ without my permission. She used the metaphor of a parent taking their hand off the bike seat to show their child that they can manage for themselves without stabilisers. I did the same to my own children, so I could understand that – is the decision wrong, and the confidence negated, if the child falls over and ends up in a heap? I don’t know….but they may well be scared of trying again.

***

At least the way the break ended meant that my first session back was a very different story to the versions of it that I imagined during the first part of the break. As you may be able to tell by now, I run scenarios in my head – a lot. And as a lucid dreamer, I’m used to stepping in and changing direction when things aren’t working out so well – in my daydreams, as well as in my night-time dreams.

*

“So, I brought a list of questions”, I said, as I handed over a sheet of paper. My therapist reached for her glasses, and I felt apprehensive; the last time I had a list to work through, she wasn’t that enthralled at the idea and felt it got in the way of the session. And as for asking her questions – on the whole that doesn’t tend to go too smoothly either.She started to read the questions silently to herself.

I said, “These are things I thought about a great deal over the break, and that I really need to talk about. They’re on my mind a lot, and I’m anxious about them, and it would help to have some answers….”.

I went over the first couple of questions in my mind: “is your daughter still living here?; how many years do you think it will be until you retire?”. Gulp. What was I thinking?

“What were you thinking?” she said.

No, hang on a second, she wouldn’t say that. And this is clearly a really bad idea…..

*

“So, I had a list of questions, but I decided it would be a bad idea to bring those and hand them over”. She looked at me quizzically, waiting for me to go on. “They were things I really wanted to have answers to, because I needed reassurance, I needed to feel better”. More waiting for me to go on. “But I didn’t bring them…..”.

“Why did you decide not to bring them?” .

“Um, because I didn’t think you’d answer them? And because it didn’t feel like the right thing to do – it would get in the way”.

“Get in the way of what?”

“Of speaking freely about what was on my mind, of seeing where the session takes us….”.

“What sort of questions had you wanted to ask?”.

I went over the first couple of questions in my mind: “is your daughter still living here?; how many years do you think it will be until you retire?”. Gulp. What was I thinking?

“What are you thinking?” she asked, as I went silent for a while.

HHmmm……not quite sure this version will go any better.

*

“So, I think she should take the questions in with her”.

“No, she won’t do that, she knows it’s a bad idea”.

“Still, I think she’ll do it. It’s what she wants to do, and she needs the answers, the reassurance”.

“As if your judgment can be trusted – you wanted to send her into session two weeks ago, with no underwear on”.

“I won – partly. No bra”.

“Not that therapist noticed….”.

“Well, I say she’ll take the list of questions in anyway – betcha”.

Oh, seriously, come on – are my ‘internal voices/parts’ really going to start taking bets on how much I can humiliate myself at my first session back?

*

After that, it was a strange sort of relief to spend the first session back, talking about why my therapist went away without telling me.


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To my therapist – the roads half-taken

I told you during sessions last week that I had an image in my mind of what the last few weeks of therapy have felt like. I tried to draw it, but I can’t draw, and so I gave up. You asked me to describe it in words, but giving it expression didn’t erase the image from mind. And so I have put it together from some pictures that I found, so that I can show you how it feels. But I still don’t think that it will go away.

If I had to summarise the last few weeks of therapy, I’m not sure what I would say. My memories of them are patchy and I really have to reach to pick out the various threads. I have experienced an internal inertia to writing things down. I’ve had a large number of dreams that felt interesting, relevant and significant, but again there was the same inertia to trying to record them. It feels as though so much has faded and been lost, and all that is left is a sense of having gone down many paths, but stopping on each, part-way. I get so far, and then another occurrence, another topic, presents itself – uppermost for discussion. We change course, and it feels as though things have been left hanging.

I know we’ve spoken before about the fact that if things are important, they will inevitably resurface, perhaps in a different way. I’ve seen it happen, and I know it’s true. But it feels as though the number of ‘loose ends’ and the number of paths traveled down, is overwhelming.

And at each part-way-point, it feels as though I leave a hurting younger part of myself, with no resolution. A part whose presence I acknowledge, but only briefly before I have to say ‘wait here, I need to go and attend to something or someone else’. Often I will divert onto another path, where I leave another mourner. Sometimes, I am the mourner – when the path leads to the raging inferno of turbulence and anger in my marriage; or to what feel like the dying embers of its future. I feel as though I’m either firefighting (or in some cases, fire-starting), or chasing down rabbit holes. Sometimes it even feels as though I have nothing to say – until I find myself, for a time, on another path to….where?

I feel as though I’m crying out for a thread to follow, for some sort of coherence. I want to look back over the last few weeks and be able to see a journey that I’ve been on; a journey that makes sense, with milestones that I can cling onto. I want to see the progression from the ‘me-then’, to the ‘me-now’. And yet my own actions have been working against me; the lack of a written record, a smaller than usual number of blog posts, hardly any dreams recorded or discussed. I have reinforced this lack of coherence, my self.

***

Somehow this all reminds me of the discussion we were having last week, about wanting to know, and to be known. It feels painful when I ask questions about you, that you refuse to answer. It feels painful knowing there is so much about you I don’t know. And you were absolutely right when you said that there is far too much that goes on in my life and in my head, to be able to make all of those things fully known to you within three hours per week – and that is very painful too. You spoke of the difference between knowing a person and knowing things about them; the former being an experience, and the latter being a collection of facts. I think you wanted to reassure me that I can be known even if you do not know everything that happens in my life; and that I can know you despite knowing relatively few facts about you.

And yet I have a strong desire to know some event-facts and some feeling-facts about you, and in particular about the time in your life before you trained to be a therapist. I want to understand who you were as a teenager and young adult; I want to know how you felt, what experiences you had. If there was one big question that encompasses all of the others, it is this: what happened to you and in you, what did you do, in the journey of your own becoming? What has made you, you? How did you travel, emotionally and physically, from you-then, to you-now?

My first ever blog post was about the moving experience of reading Susan Hill’s ‘Howards End is on the landing: A year of reading from home’. It is an autobiographical tour through Susan Hill’s personal library – a memoir hung on books, using her discovery and rediscovery of her collection to tell of the stories and memories they evoked. . What made the book powerful for me, was the compelling idea of being able to look back on a what seemed like a coherent life; the sense that the same person (albeit perhaps with different characteristics) travelled from one point in life, through such-and-such set of formative experiences, to arrive at another point – changed. But still, in some mysteriously fundamental way, the same.

***

The only thing that ties all of these meandering thoughts together, is the sense that I have no origin, no coherence, no permanence through time. No wholeness. It’s why I was fascinated, recently, when I had a long email conversation with an old school friend I hadn’t spoken to for twenty years, to hear her accounts of us as children, and her view of me then, which persisted for her, now. She had numerous memories and I had virtually none, and it was like hearing her talk about a different person – save that some of her recollections of my words and actions, rang very true.

There are things here I cannot yet grasp. Confusion about origins, about identity, about being and coming to be. And it feels as though all of my actions over the last few weeks- the jumping from path to path, the lack of a written record – have been half-consciously aimed at reinforcing or acting out those confusions. There was an incident recently, where it felt as though my reactions to a difficult session were like a greatly fast-forwarded version of a way of reacting to (or guarding against) events, that probably took years to develop as a child. In some ways, these last few weeks feel like a sped-up replaying, a mirror, or a condensing, of life as it has been over the years. It’s my way of showing it to myself – and this is my way of showing it to you.

 

 

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Twitter chat 6 March: Connecting in therapy – do touch and love have a place?

It’s been ten months since psychotherapist Alison Crosthwait and I held a Twitter chat on the subject of therapy breaks; we said then that we enjoyed it so much we would do another one, and finally, we’ve set a date, time and subject!

Our next chat will be called ‘Connecting in therapy – do touch and love have a place?‘  and it will take place on Monday 6 March at 9pm GMT/4pm EST. We will be using the hashtag #therapyconnection.

I believe these are difficult and contentious topics, for both therapists and clients, and I’m very much looking forward to discovering Alison’s take on them. From a personal perspective, they are subjects I have struggled with in my own therapy, and touch, in particular is a ‘live issue’ for me at the moment. But I won’t be bringing my therapy into the chat – the aim of these chats is that they are an ‘equal’ exchange of views, looking at a subject from different perspectives. They are about therapy, but they are not therapy, and both Alison and I are careful to avoid ‘falling into’ our respective roles of therapist and client, which, as I personally discovered during our last chat, is a real temptation!

We would love for you to join us in our chat, and let us know your thoughts, whether you are a therapist or a client. Please do just ‘turn up’, even if you feel more comfortable observing rather than joining in. If you’re interested in the chat but will not be around during that time, we will be publishing a ‘transcript’ using ‘Storify’, shortly after the chat.

We look forward to seeing you there!


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Tweeting my way through the Christmas therapy break

As I did over the summer therapy break, I have been tweeting my way through this #therapybreak as well! Last time I found it helpful for a number of reasons – as a way of sharing how I was feeling, reaching out for support, recording how the break was going (so that I could look back on it, if I wanted to), taking in the positive moments, giving voice to the horrible moments, counting down, surviving…..Most of all I think it was a method of self-care and trying to create something memorable, beautiful, and ‘out of the box’-y, out of the break. Personally, I have never really liked the idea of a ‘gratitude jar/journal’, or the ‘100 Happy Days’ concept, but only because the ‘enforced’ nature of it – having to find something positive or something to be grateful for each day – doesn’t really work for me. And yet there were many moments of gratitude, I think, in those tweets, but they were there amongst the moments of pain and depression, too. All recorded, a true picture of a break. As this is, I hope, too – I have put together the tweets so far for this Christmas break into a Twitter ‘story’, which you can find here:

https://storify.com/lifeinabind/christmas-therapy-break

The ‘story’ also introduces you to one of my more recent ways of staying in touch with the ‘child part’ of me  – the acquisition of a number of ‘Lottie’ dolls, which in a way represent different parts of me, or remind me of different aspects of myself, or of my therapy.

I hope you enjoy the story, and I will see you in 2017……

 


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A new experience of mother, Part 4

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!]