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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Update and a story by 12 year old me

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….


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BPD and parenting: Sitting with your child’s strong emotions

A few weeks ago I spent more than half an hour sitting in a room with my youngest child while he was having an almighty tantrum. He was trying to get out of the room, and I was trying to keep him contained until the storm passed. To be honest, I don’t actually remember how it started – I think it may have been my persistent but calm refusal to let him any more crisps after lunch. Given how exhausted he was at the time, his frustration and anger quickly escalated and he started hitting me. We were in a room with a group of friends and I sensed this would go on for a while, so I carried him into another room, shut the door, and prepared to ride it out.

He screamed and cried. He grabbed hold of my clothes, my jewellery, my hair, and tried to pull them. He tried to scratch me, to hit me and to kick me. At one point he tried to whip me repeatedly with a cuddly toy, which I put outside the room and told him he could have it back when he had calmed down. He kept trying to turn the door-handle and to get me to move away from the door, and then he tried standing on my ankles with all his weight, while I held them against the door so that he couldn’t open it.

All the while, he was screaming ‘mummy’, and ‘mummy, stop it’, and ‘mummy, you’re hurting me’ – though I didn’t touch him other than to occasionally gently hold an arm that was about to hit my face. I held my hands under his as he flailed them around while he was lashing out – a fun game of landing ‘high-fives’ under any other circumstances. Part of me was wondering what the neighbours were thinking through the not-very-thick-walls and whether they were getting concerned about what I was doing to my child – and then I put the thought out my mind. My child was my focus – and I was trying to do what was right by him.

A number of times I offered him a cuddle or stroked his back; or I held out my arms inviting him to step into them. I was present with him in his anger, and I listened to his cries and his complaints. I regret not saying a little more to show him that I could see how angry he was, that it was okay, and that I loved him and would stay with him in his emotions, for as long as it took. When he said ‘mummy, you’re hurting me’, I regret saying ‘I am not hurting you’ – because in his mind, I was. Maybe not physically, but I was setting a limit that he found immensely frustrating and his anger was scary for him and it appeared to him as though I was inflicting that on him. I wish I had said something like ‘I can see that you are angry and perhaps scared and I want to help you feel better’.

I gave him a different soft toy to cuddle. Eventually I gave him a second soft toy. And suddenly, with no warning, the mood changed, he stopped crying, and he climbed into my lap for a cuddle. I let him know how much I loved him and how wonderful he was, and told him it was okay to be angry and that I understood how scary that could be, but that it was not okay to hit me. We joined everyone else in the other room, but I was hyper-vigilant for anything else that might spark off another melt-down.

I’m not saying all of this to show off my parenting skills – which, much of the time, are very far short of where I would like them to be. I came across a quote on Facebook recently, which said “Parenthood is……whispering ‘for fuck’s sake’ before answering to your name”, and often that is me, with a whole load of impatience and shouting thrown in. What I am describing above is a new thing for me – a new way of approaching things. Up until now my tactics have been the fairly common ones of threats, consequences, time-outs, and counting to three (using halves and quarters where necessary!). But these do not work well for my high-energy and strong-willed children, and things have been getting increasingly difficult, with them often seeming to spend more time in time-out, than outside it. And I have not been feeling good about my parenting, and have been doubting how loving or validating it has been.

So what has made the difference? It may seem strange to say it, but BPD has. BPD, examined in the light of therapy and a parenting website I found recently (Hand in Hand Parenting), which really resonates with me and just ‘feels right’ for our situation, at this time. If you google ‘BPD and parenting’, you won’t find many positive references – much of the ‘literature’ or comment seems to be about how to guard against the negative effects that a parent with BPD can have on their children. And I have no doubt that unreflective parenting, with or without the complication of BPD, will not always generate the most optimal results for our children. But experience, when reflected upon, is a great teacher; and what many people with BPD know a great deal about, is emotional invalidation. When you understand how that feels, and what effects it can have, it gives a powerful motivation to do things differently and to avoid repeating familiar patterns from your own childhood.

In my own therapy, my therapist and I have spent much time about the fact that I fear the impact that my emotions will have on others. That I can’t simply ‘report’ how I feel, without it ‘doing something’ to those I report it to. Often, when I’m really struggling with something outside of session, I will take it to someone else first. A close someone, a trusted someone – but still someone else. It’s as if it doesn’t feel safe to take it to her; and it feels as though I would be placing a burden on her, and I don’t want to do that. At those times, she is allied too closely to ‘mother’ –  my own mother who was, and is, unable to just sit with the emotions that I bring, and to contain them. My emotions have an impact on my own mother – nothing I say is just ‘for report’. She becomes upset or anxious by any hint that there may be something wrong or that things aren’t going well – and she does nothing to disguise it. In fact, quite the opposite – she seeks reassurance, and she seeks it from me. As an adult, I have reached the stage where this just makes me very angry. But the way in which I feel desperate to protect my therapist from the ‘negative consequences’ of my emotions, is a clue, I think, to how I might have felt about it as a child.

Perhaps that is why the concept of letting my child express his emotions, and just sitting with them while that happens, feels so important. I need him to feel confident that he can tell me how he feels and that I will be able to handle it. That I will still be there, I will stay calm, and I won’t fall to pieces. That I will be the same, before and after. And the next time, and the next. I want him to feel safe, and to know that the only impact he has on me is to elicit love and understanding, when he needs it most.

Borderline Personality Disorder has done that for me – and for him; but BPD when reflected upon with the help of my therapist and in the context of my own experience. I keep worrying that time is ‘running out’ for me to do things differently rather than repeating mistakes my own parents made; and I am thankful for my therapist’s repeated reassurance that it is never too late, that repair, if needed, is always possible, and that every instance of breaking old patterns and doing things differently is an important step for me and for my children. She believes in my ability to be a good mother; and after sitting with my child’s strong emotions and holding him close when those emotions had subsided, I am starting to believe in it too.


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Brain scan selfie – and a parenting realisation

brain scan selfie 2Okay, so the title is a bit of a misnomer – clearly, I didn’t take a picture of my own brain! But I must admit to being strangely excited about being able to see the inside of my own head……

I recently had an MRI scan as part of a research study, and this is the picture I came away with. I think it’s always nice when they give you a souvenir for taking part in medical research…! Not being a physician or radiographer, I can see the picture but I don’t really know what I’m looking at, and I certainly don’t know what the researchers are looking for. But what  I found even more intriguing than the brain scan itself, was one of the exercises that I did alongside it. Although I don’t know what they were looking for from the exercise, or what questions they were seeking to answer, it certainly had something to teach me, and what I took from it was a mental picture and a lived experience of something I have read about many times in parenting books.

The exercise in question involved choosing one of a number of stimuli based on whether you got a ‘positive’, ‘negative’ or ‘neutral’ response to your choice. Responses changed, and you had to try and figure out the rules to get the maximally positive result. I found that when the tests involved either ‘positive and neutral‘ or ‘negative and neutral‘ responses, I was able to keep focused; to remember what I was doing as I went along; to try and figure out the rules; and to stay motivated to ‘get it right’. The positive responses were encouraging, and the negative responses just brought out my competitive nature and my determination to figure it out and ‘beat the system’! However, the difference in my reaction to those responses, compared to my reaction to mixed ‘positive and negative‘ responses (with no ‘neutral’), was immense. It was as if my brain just went into meltdown: I couldn’t concentrate; I kept forgetting what I was doing; I couldn’t figure out the rules or try and follow the ‘logic’; I felt confused and incredibly demoralized and demotivated.

I’m not sure what the ‘point’ of the exercise was – or what the researchers were trying to learn. But the first thing I thought of straight after that experience, was the parallel with the way in which I sometimes behave towards my children. I try to be consistent with my children – both in terms of discipline and also in terms of how I react to them in different situations. But, as with any parent, I don’t always succeed. And I think that at the moment, BPD means that I don’t succeed anywhere near as often as I might otherwise. Emotional dysregulation and emotional lability are at the core of BPD, and I do often find my mood switching very quickly between calm and angry; or between happy and irritable.The changes in my mood also mean that one day I might find something very triggering which on the previous day, did not affect me at all. I try not to let this volatility affect my children, but neither can I fool myself that they don’t notice it, or that it doesn’t sometimes affect them. A major reason for my being in therapy, is to try and ensure that I minimize the impact of my mental health difficulties on my children.

And so the experiment struck me because I wondered whether this is how my children feel, when presented with rapidly changing reactions; when there seems to be no rhyme or reason why their choices or behaviour receive a ‘positive’ response one moment, and a ‘negative’ response the next. A consistent and predictable environment helps children to work out ‘the rules’ of social interaction and acceptable behaviour – when that consistency isn’t there, do they find it as confusing, demoralizing and demotivating as I did? When presented with constantly changing reactions, I felt as though my brain was in meltdown and I couldn’t function – could that be related to how my children feel when they are visibly having a meltdown?

I’m not sure if it’s legitimate to extrapolate from my own feelings and worldview, to that of  my children – not only are they different people, but the way in which they see the world is probably very different at this stage in their lives. But  – what if there is something in that extrapolation? If there is, it gives me an important insight into some of their behaviours and the feelings that might underlie them, and it shows me just how difficult it might be for them to respond to me in a positive way sometimes, when they do not know what to expect.

This may sound sobering – and it is. But the reverse side of this particular coin is that although the change in my reactions was dramatic, it was also temporary. I sometimes switch rapidly from one emotional state to another, and sometimes that change is very visible to my children. But, as my therapist has told me on a number of occasions, my children and I will continue to work on our relationship all of our lives – we will be constantly building and rebuilding and repairing.

I am excited to have taken part in this research study for a number of reasons – but most of all, I am grateful for the fact that a different perspective on what goes on in my own brain, may have given me new insight into what goes on in theirs.

 

 


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A lesson in boldness from my child

“Depression and low self-esteem often go hand-in-hand. Low self-esteem leaves individuals vulnerable to depression. Depression batters self-esteem.” *

“With low self-esteem you also might believe that you don’t have rights or that your needs don’t matter, especially emotional needs, such as for appreciation, support, kindness, being understood, and being loved.” ** 

I felt a strange sort of pride in my eldest child the other day. It wasn’t over something he had done, but something he had said. It wasn’t because it was something clever, or something witty, or something kind. It was definitely beautiful, but that wasn’t why I was proud. And to him it was probably ordinary – but to me it was immensely brave.

My child asked me directly, in the moment, to meet an emotional need. We were discussing colours and he told me that his favourite colour was peach, because it was the colour of my skin, and that my skin was beautiful. It was a wonderful compliment and I thanked him and told him it was lovely. Then a moment later he said: “Mummy, can you say something nice about me too?”

I was awed, humbled and mortified all at the same time. I quickly responded to his question with a number of things I loved about him, and reassured him that they were true and I thought them, even if I didn’t mention them in a particular moment. But I was ashamed I hadn’t brought them up immediately, and ashamed of my reasons for not doing so. I failed to differentiate him as a separate human being – I assumed that his world-view would be the same as my own. If someone gives me a compliment in response to my own, I assume that they are doing it out of obligation; that is it not genuine. I didn’t want him to feel that way, but that was my assumption, based on my insecurities. He is a child, he does not think that way – yet. Hopefully, he never will.

I hope he also never has reason to doubt whether his needs deserve to be met. I hope his self-worth is such that he never doubts that there are innumerable positive aspects to himself. I hope he never has reason to feel staggered by something that should be so simple but which for me, is so very challenging. I find it so difficult to communicate my emotional needs – or even to acknowledge that having them is legitimate. I cannot conceive of being brave enough to ask someone to say something nice about me – particularly someone I care about.

What if they couldn’t think of anything to say? Not only that, what if they felt put out by the fact I had put them in a difficult position by asking the question? What if they felt compelled to say something nice? What if they said something and didn’t mean it? What if they thought I was self-centred and proud? What if they thought of something to say but that something felt small and insignificant? What if, what if, what if….Fear, pure fear. The question just feels too risky.

I envied my child his lack of fear. He had the confidence and the security (I hope) to ask the question without fear of rejection. It appeared as awesome courage to me – I wonder how it felt and what it meant to him? Whether or not it constituted ‘boldness’, most of all I was proud of the fact that he realised he needed something, emotionally, and then he asked for it. He wasn’t ashamed, embarrassed or scared of that need. He just asked.

The lessons that our children have to teach us can be some of the most inspiring but also some of the hardest to learn. They may involve ‘unlearning’ ways of being and thinking ingrained in us since our own childhoods; and they could involve accepting that we may have lost some vital and affirming experiences along the way. We need to be conscious not to try and ‘live through’ our children. But perhaps we could all benefit, sometimes, from trying to see the world – and in particular trying to see ourselves – through their eyes.

 

Margarita Tartakovksy, from an article published by PsychCentral called ‘8 suggestions for strengthening self-esteem when you have depression’

** Darlene Lancer, from an article published by PsychCentral called ‘Low self-esteem is learned’.