Life in a Bind – BPD and me

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.


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Fear and fantasy

In a couple of previous posts, I have talked about my ‘yoga imaginings’ – images and scenes, a little like waking dreams, that come into my mind when I’m in Yin yoga class. Last night’s class focused on the ‘kidney meridian’, and I was a little apprehensive because I don’t think I’ve yet managed to get through a kidney meridian practice, without crying. My yoga theory is almost non-existent, but for those who possess even less than I do, a meridian in yoga and in Chinese medicine, is considered to be a pathway in the body through which vital energy is said to flow. The various pathways are associated with key organs, and the key organs are associated with various senses and emotions. After a couple of occasions of tears streaming down my face during ‘kidney meridian’ yoga classes, I did a little reading online and discovered that the ‘negative’ emotion most associated with the kidneys, is fear. I certainly have a huge amount of that.

In a ‘standard scene’ from these imaginings, I’m standing on a beach, often with my therapist. The beach is an image of my inner safe space – my yoga teacher said that she imagines herself in a cave, but that feels far too claustrophobic for me. Last night, I was standing on the beach with my therapist, and God was with us. Probably because he’s the only other person I’m letting near me and into my head at the moment, and that’s after many years of keeping Him at arms’ length. He was at least a foot taller than me, thin, and he wore a black suit, which seems a rather odd image to associate with Him – particularly when standing on a beach.

I looked behind me and saw a long line of people, standing in pairs – a little like the animals waiting to go into the Ark. I had the impression that they were people who loved me – or were waiting to love me. And I just crumpled into a heap, held up by God on one side, and my therapist on the other. I was appalled, and scared; I felt overwhelmed.

Getting to know aspects of my subconscious over the last few months in therapy, has been painful, disappointing, shocking, surprising, and demoralising. I know there are parts of me that don’t want to change; I know that on some level, I don’t want to like myself, or see any good in myself, or believe that I matter. But I think last night was the first time I understood how much fear I hold, at the thought of being loved by people. I have always known that I wanted to be loved by one person – and I always believed that that would be enough. Over the last year or so, I have attributed that to my mother’s emphasis on exclusivity – that all other love than hers was inferior, replaceable, and fleeting. In the past, I have felt contemptuous of those who I thought loved me ‘too much’  –  whether that was the little boy at school who complemented me on my outfits, or one of my relatives, who used to shower me with gifts and money when I was growing up. But this sense of fear and overwhelm at the thought of being loved not just by one, but by many (or even a few), was a new realisation. Though I haven’t really had the chance to process it yet, I think that part of what underlies the fear is a question – what do they want from me? – and the belief that they will somehow carve me up and take me for themselves, and that there will be nothing of me left.

The bell for the end of the yoga pose rang, and that image ended, but the next scene took place on the same beach. I saw two characters which had been absent from my imaginings for a long time, though they were some of the first to make an appearance when I started yoga. They were ballerinas, dressed in white tutus – a little Afro-Caribbean girl of around five or so, and a blond woman in her twenties. They were both aspects not of a person, or of me, but of what I thought of as spirit, or something external and more powerful than me and my internal parts. I never called this set of characters ‘God’ (though they were trinity – the third being a dark haired teenage ballerina), but they exuded wisdom and commanded a sense of awe and respect from every other character in my imaginings. When they danced, everyone else fell silent, and simply watched.

This time, however, I realised despairingly that the ballerinas were not actually present. Their image was static, and flickered, like the picture on an old TV screen. It was as if, having been absent for so long, they were now simply a memory; a faded, flat, insubstantial presence. I hated it. I wanted them to become real, to walk out of the screen on which it now appeared, their images were projected. I willed it, with all my strength, but the picture still flickered, still stayed flat. With mounting frustration, I grabbed a knife and ripped the fabric projection screen, from top to bottom.

In the quiet of the front row of the yoga class I gasped, audibly, and tears welled up as I reached out my hand, eyes still closed, for a tissue. I think that for a split second I had imagined that the ballerinas would walk out, bodily, from behind the curtain screen. Instead, I looked out through the tear, and onto an enormous and consuming storm. I’m not sure how to describe it:  hurricane, tornado, wind, lighting, thunder, chaos, devastation – all on a massive scale. No structures were visible, only the sheer tumult, confusion, force, and destruction of the elements. I know how ridiculous this all sounds – while you picture us sitting there on our yoga mats with quiet music and in (almost) perfect stillness – and yet I cannot describe how shocking, horrifying, and real it felt, in the moment, gazing through that curtain in my head.

Re-reading what I’ve described, it seems that the words I have put to my experience are these: I tried to look through my projections to get to something real, and what I glimpsed was terrifying, destructive, and chaotic. I encountered, amongst other things, a visual, visceral, representation of my last few months of struggle in therapy. I have been lost, emotionally, and grappling, intellectually – trying to find approaches, solutions, answers. Everything sounds persuasive, but nothing seems capable of breaking through, to my feeling core. Well, if what I saw is what’s waiting to be broken through to, quite frankly, I’m not surprised.

That image only came once. The yoga pose ended, and during the next one, I saw myself sewing up part of the tear in the curtain screen. My therapist was sealing up other parts of it, only – don’t laugh – she didn’t need to use needle and thread, as the torn edges stuck together simply at the touch of her hand. There was a sense of closing up something painful, for another time. For a time when I might be more equipped to deal with it. My mending left visible scars, reminding me of my self-harm. My mending took great effort, and the outcome was ugly. My therapist’s mending was effortless, and after it, everything looked just like it did before. I thought of the power of her metaphorical touch, which I have wonderfully benefited from, and about the potential power of her physical touch, which I will never experience. Now there’s a storm that brewed and then simmered, and doesn’t need stirring.

Perhaps God on the beach would tell me that I gazed on an image of eternal destruction; if not of the ‘after-life’ sort, then either on the current state of the destructive and self-hating parts of me, or on the damage that they are capable of inflicting. Which may as well be eternal – from my perspective – if they lay waste to the rest of my life. In the religious imagery of my sub-conscious, it requires a death to rend that curtain into two that divides us from relationship, and there is a darkness to be walked through before restoration is possible. For the last few months my whole being has felt like either a battlefield or a desert – and I have no idea who it will be, ultimately, who ends up biting the dust.

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Barriers to being seen

The Remarkable Impact of Being Seen’ is the first part of the title of one of Dr Stein’s recent posts. The remainder of the title is ‘More on Erotic Transference and Love’. I have written both about erotic transference and love for my therapist, but it’s not this aspect of the post that I felt compelled to write about.

When I read Dr Stein’s beautifully written (as usual) piece, I felt angry. Not at him, but at myself. I recognised the truth of what he wrote – that there can be a remarkable impact indeed in being seen, in being truly understood, listened to, and accepted. To quote from the post: “You experience less emptiness in his [the therapist’s] presence. Indeed, you might believe you have been newly minted because, for the first time in forever, someone perceives you with fresh eyes.” And then this:

When you look in his eyes you see your reflection. In a flash the disjointed world takes form. For the first time. At last.”

But I also recognised that what sounds so beautiful, so logical, so persuasive, and so inevitable, is proving so very difficult for me. I was angry at myself for ‘failing’ – or at least for not being able to manage not just the expected, but what would be healthy and healing for me. When you look in her eyes you see your reflection. In a flash the disjointed world takes form. But what if it doesn’t? And what if instead of seeing your true reflection, you continue to see as through a glass darkly?

Perhaps I am even angrier at myself because I know that sometimes, I have the ability to see clearly. But that ability does not feel mine to command; I do not know how to call it up at will. The ability to see clearly involves seeing both myself, and others, as far as possible, without distortion. It involves being open to seeing; to seeing what is there, even when it is not obvious. It involves drawing generous, more accurate conclusions about myself and others, based on memories of relationship, and on previous interactions. It involves feeling clear-headed, and on an even keel. Seeing clearly generally means seeing well, and knowing all is well – with me, with my therapist, with our relationship. Crucially, it means being open to seeing myself in a true mirror, without the distorting mirror of the past, getting in the way. It means being able to feel – and not just know – that I am delighted in. It means being able to see myself as someone else sees me, who sees me clearly – not for who they want me to be, but for who I really am. And so sometimes – in some therapy situations and with reference to certain subjects – the disjointed world takes form.

But at other times – and for the most part, over the last few weeks – I have been unable to know myself as I am known. The distorting mirror of my parents, continually gets in the way. Two related subjects have dominated my thoughts since just before Christmas – loss (particularly of the therapeutic relationship, in due course), and ‘daughterhood’ (primarily the difference between being a ‘therapy-daughter’ and a biological daughter). It feels as though my heart and mind return, with increasing frequency, to the sadness that permeates those subjects. It feels as though they return, because they do not yet feel accepted or understood. When they return, I feel bad about myself – as though if I were stronger, or more grateful, or less self-centred, I would be able to simply put the sadness to one side, and focus on the things I do have, in the here and now.

I think my therapist believes that the feelings return because I feel bad about myself. That on some level, my sadness reflects a belief that I do not deserve ongoing relationship, or a fulfilling ‘daughterhood’. I don’t know. I can’t tell whether that’s the case. When it comes to these subjects, I can’t tell very much at all, because every time I talk about them, and cry about them, I end up feeling unseen. And when I look into my therapist’s eyes I see kindness, and I see caring, and I see a desire to help, but I don’t see my reflection. And I am angry, not because there is a fault in her vision, but because there is a fault in my own.

I know that my sadness is seen, understood, and accepted. She has told me, and shown me, that that is the case. But the sadness recoils from any attempt she makes to help me understand it; it feels like rejection. It feels like not allowing the sadness to exist or be seen. The problem is that in my psyche, and because of past experience, loss and being unseen are experiences that are fundamentally bound up together. And that makes it so much more difficult for my therapist to touch my loss with her gaze.

***

I have realised that I am heavily invested – subconsciously – in not seeing myself in an undistorted way. I am realising more and more how right my therapist is when she talks about all of us inevitably internalising the environment and worldviews we grew up with, even if consciously we believe the opposite and want to be the very opposite. I asked her what I’m supposed to do if my brain simply isn’t wired to move from experiencing acceptance, to accepting myself. She talked about how it’s not simply exposure to acceptance that does the work – we need to unpick and undo those internalised interlopers that aren’t congruent with who we really are or want to be.

Realising the existence and power of those internal interlopers has been a real eye opener for me in therapy this past week. It has been one of those lightbulb moments that it’s easy to want to live for, and that it’s important to remember was enabled by the difficult, painful and frustrating weeks leading up to it. It was so key, that it really needs to be the subject of another post. But what it helped me to realise was that my psyche is emotionally convinced of the message my mother worked so hard to instil in me – that she was the source of all my validation and wellbeing, that she alone cared for me like no one else ever could, and that others and their feelings were only ever temporary and fleeting, whereas she would be around for always. I hate the fact that despite the minimal degree of contact that I have with her now, and despite the fact I have emotionally cut myself off from her, she is indeed still around, internally, in a real and powerful way that I didn’t truly appreciate until a few days ago.

I’ve realised that subconsciously, at a core emotional level, I believe that I have no purchase on the concept of liking myself or defining myself in terms of certain qualities. Who am I to say that I am this way, or that way? It is others who must decide, who are qualified to say what it is that they perceive. My mother sought an emotionally exclusive relationship with me, in which she minimised the role of others in my life, and I have inadvertently internalised the belief that I can only take in validation from one significant person. I have to assume that as a child, I would have believed that to be my mother, even though my conscious memories are only of needing to resist her negative perceptions of me. Later on, as a teenager, this belief manifested as a yearning for a future partner to love me unconditionally. Now, it is from my therapy mother that I would love to hear positive words to describe who I am – words that I feel I would believe, coming from her. And yet even from her, I know I would need to hear them many times before I could believe them without doubt, and without fear that they were changeable.

At the moment, I feel as though I don’t know how to change the fact that others’ views of me don’t seem to change the way I feel and think about myself. My mother has ‘done a real job on me’ – to quote my therapist. She very effectively cut me off from being able take in the regard of others, however much I might want to. I have friends I care about deeply, whose kind and lovely words I appreciate. The words enter my ears, and my head, and at some level, my heart. But they don’t settle at a deeper level or change those long-internalised emotion-beliefs that don’t belong to me, but to my mother.

I know I need to find a way to change this, but I’m not sure how. Practice, practice, practice – my friends and therapist would say. Practice needs to be intentional – and perhaps now that I’m aware of the presence of my internalised biological mother, I can truly practice in a way that I haven’t been able to before. Perhaps I can practice in a way that will ensure that my internalised therapy mother ‘wins out’ more frequently and more easily than my internalised biological mother. Ultimately, that is what needs to happen in order for me to be able to fully take in the positive experiences available to me in therapy, and also to live a more fulfilling life after therapy.


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Mother’s Day runaway

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:

https://welldoing.org/article/im-mother-mothers-day-isnt-me


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Post-session poem

I arrived at therapy this morning all prepared to plunge straight into where we left off at the last session. But my therapist’s daughter’s car was parked outside – and so something rather different happened.

I’m used to there being other people in the house when I have my sessions – my therapist’s husband, her daughter. But on Friday mornings they’re both usually at work, and I love how it feels knowing the house is empty, and it’s just the two of us. There’s this feeling of ‘having her to myself’, of feeling somehow that we are both more free to be who we are. There’s the sense that when I leave the house we can linger at the front door a little longer than a split second, that we can exchange casual words without being ‘overheard’. For a split second, leaving, I feel less like a patient, and more like – I guess, a daughter.

There was an immediate sense of having that taken away today. Utterly unexpectedly, all those feelings I know so well, of exclusion and of loss, came flooding into the session, taking over. It was about this morning – and I was aware that the experience was bringing in aspects of my childhood, when I ‘shared’ my mother with various others in the house. But it was also about the weekends, and about holidays and therapy breaks, and about the end of therapy and after – it was about all the times, now and in the future, when others will be there, and I won’t.

In a way, I’m glad that she got to see. Since returning to therapy after Christmas, I’ve felt secure enough to share a number of feelings I was too afraid to share before. That experience has been wonderfully connecting, up-building, and sustaining, and I love where we have got to in our relationship. And so the experience today felt like being able to share a level of grief and pain with her, that so far I have only been able to experience at home, alone. It was more contained, a bit quieter, a bit less messy, shorter-lasting, than it is at home. But it was physically and emotionally painful, and strong, and present. Most of all, it was shared. And for that, I am thankful.

I’m at a coffee shop, trying to ‘recover’ before I have to go into work. I know that by the time I’ve ‘written it out’ I will be calmer, and ready to face others and be a ‘different me’. I wrote this poem in a couple of minutes, in the middle of trying to write my ‘therapy journal’, so that I don’t forget everything that’s happened in therapy this week. It’s rough around the edges, and in the middle, and it’s missing words here and there. A bit like how I feel.

 


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This work is hard

Not for the first time, a quote from the TV series ‘Dexter’, really hit home. Earlier today I’d been talking in therapy about my marriage, and the fact that I have no idea how to proceed. I’m not after an ideal – but now that I understand what relationship is, I want to love and be loved in a way that honors that, and the person I am becoming. I don’t believe the grass is always greener – but perhaps sometimes, it is.

I ran from a parental home into a married home, taking the damage of my childhood with me. Not seeing that, then; but being unable to see through it, now. Nowhere feels safe, apart from the refuge of my therapeutic relationship that feels more like home than anywhere else. I know that there I am accepted, and there I can be who I am. It’s the only place where I can think clearly; where my sense of self does not feel under threat.

Outside that relationship, I’m not sure which way to run. But I think my therapist would say that ultimately, whether the marriage survives or not, there is no need to run. If I can internalise that place where I feel accepted unconditionally and where I can be who I am, then my sense of self is not really under threat. It can bear with the past, stand in the present, and be open to the future.

But right now I’m just too scared and confused. This work is hard.