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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Arriving home – the language of therapy

Susie Orbach wrote, in a beautiful article (from 2016) on the poetry of therapy, that “Words are the most exquisite example of the unity of mind and body”. They are also powerful; language matters. “The limits of language are the limits of my world”, wrote Wittgenstein. The meaning of words is in the use we make of them, but our language is not only the filter through which we see the world, but also, linguistic relativists would argue, the structure that circumscribes the limits of what it is possible for us to conceptualise and think about. Language is deeply cultural – which is one reason why the notion of a ‘private language’ – one that can only be known by myself – is impossible. It is cultural at the level of nations and of tribes; but also at the level of families, and within an individual home. To those who are alien to a nation, tribe, or family, the lack of a shared language and way of being, is a key factor in the sense of not being at home.

In the film ‘Arrival’, the aliens (literally, beings from another galaxy), far from home, build a relationship with linguist Louise Banks through shared efforts at communicating and acculturating – learning each other’s languages, and making adaptations to compensate for the enormous practical difficulties involved when one species has a mouth and vocal chords, and the other looks like a giant squid! Unlike the poetry of therapy, there were no recognisable words being interchanged by both parties – but there was still a creative beauty involved in what was a profoundly personal and relational experience. An experience so fundamental to the process of language learning that it was essentially an example of neuroplasticity, and the brain’s ability to rewire itself in response to new and different experiences. That rewiring was both a response to Louise’s immersion in the process of relational language learning, and also an enabler of the learning itself. The narrative element of an alien encounter brings home in a strangely believable way, the radical nature of the change that took place within Louise – an alteration in the limits of her world which she could never have foreseen and would never have believed possible.

By the end of the film the aliens have departed for their own home. Their arrival on earth was short-lived, though ultimately crucial both for their own the human species’ survival. And yet the film’s key arrival that we are meant to focus on, is Louise’s own – her arrival at acceptance of what her life-changing encounter has shown her about herself and her life. That vision was not a one-time gift – the changes in her brain are permanent, the language she has learned is now a part of herself, emotionally and physically; the limits of what is possible for her, forever altered. This is the power and poetry of language learning (in its broadest sense) through relationship, on an extraordinary and of course fictional scale. But within the tribe, family, or therapy room, its impact is no less life-changing. Susie Orbach writes that “The therapist’s language is particular to encounters with that individual. It is not therapy speak or psycho-babble. It is a bespoke relationship with a bespoke language. And within that bespoke relationship, as words are discarded and new words found, the therapeutic couple create an aesthetic with its own unique colour, temperature and shape.” There is both a lovely accuracy and a moving underplaying in her statement that “Amid the pain, sweat, struggle, times of confusion and misunderstanding, small pleasing connections and new understandings occur which have their own beauty”. An accumulation of such small pleasing connections, with their own beauty, are what have their own neuroplasticity effects as the poetry and power of therapy work chiefly through relationship experienced by the hard work of finding a way to communicate, and fashioning a bespoke language together.

If the film Arrival examines this matter from the perspective of a successful inter-species encounter, the book ‘Home’ by Marilynne Robinson shows the other side of the coin, both in a community and  a family context. In Gilead, a town that has forgotten the reason for its existence, and has lost its ability to empathise with the ‘alien’ in its midst, the prodigal son, Jack Boughton, returns to his childhood home and dying father, after a prolonged absence of more than twenty years. It is but a temporary arrival, to a home whose language and way of being was never his own, and so was never truly home at all. In his wonderful talk on both ‘Gilead’ (the first in the Marilynne Robinson trilogy) and ‘Home’ (the second book in the trilogy), the ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, talks about the painful inarticulacy between Jack and his father. “Jack cannot use the ‘script’ of unselfconscious family intimacy; but equally it is clear that….this script is presented to him both as an obligation and also as conditional on behaving appropriately”. Jack does not feel that he ‘deserves’ to use this family script, and his father is forever waiting for him to do so, while at the same time expecting not to hear it. Jack’s father is too conscious of what he wants to hear, while Jack is too conscious of how others hear him. Neither is open to true and transforming relational communication – to unselfconscious surprise, to unexpected connection, to acceptance of reality as is, both in the world and in the other. There is stalemate and stagnation, not poetry and creativity.

Louise Banks’s experience of bespoke language learning within relationship was profoundly freeing, in extraordinary ways. In contrast, Jack Boughton’s experience of the accepted and acceptable language of his town and family, was paralysing. The ‘science fiction’ element of Louise’s story facilitates an enormity of experience which breaks through the conventional boundaries of her mind and body, but it is also an experience in which she is completely immersed – vulnerable, spontaneous, and accepting. Jack is guarded, defended against the smallness of his surroundings, forever analysing the impact of his words and actions, standing just outside his experience, feeling rejected.

Both Arrival and Home pull the counter-intuitive move of demonstrating the enormous power of freedom and self-actualisation within the context of a deterministic universe (from a human point of view). Whether the context is time-transcending aliens, or Calvinist theology, the possibility of radical acceptance of living moment by moment and choosing to bring the future to pass, however foreseeably painful or unknowably hopeless it seems – suffuses both stories. But one doesn’t have to believe in determinism to see the value of allowing oneself to be changed, moment by moment, through relational discourse that accepts rather than expects, and which allows the limits of one’s understanding to expand in world-shifting ways. Whatever one believes about religion or the workings of the universe, as Rowan Williams noted in his talk, change, from our side, is always imaginable. Acceptance of the ‘alien’ in the other and in ourselves, is always imaginable. But it takes a willingness to immerse oneself vulnerably and unselfconsciously in relationship, and to be open to surprise. It takes finding ways to communicate that transcend what is unknown and unknowable in self and other, and to build a new language. That is what therapy can make possible; that is the beautiful dynamic that can play out within the room. As Susie Orbach wrote: “In everyday chatter we can on occasion be surprised by what we say, but the structure and purposeful endeavour of the analytic hour creates a space in which surprise can occur frequently. One notices what one says and what one cannot say”. And what we gain when we allow that to play out within the room, is described in another quote from Rowan Williams (modification my own!):

“the knowledge that the stranger whose perception of me I cannot control, is – finally – not my enemy or my competitor but the generative source of myself. What I cannot master, the perspective I cannot by definition attain or imagine….. is the presence that makes me alive and that also makes welcome possible – not only a being at home but a creation of home for the human [or, in the case of Arrival – alien] other.”

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Peace (Changes)

Peace. For the last few mornings, as I’ve woken up and the first feeling I’ve been aware of is a heavy sadness inside my chest, all I’ve wanted to feel is peace. Not just peace and respite from pain and internal battles, but a sense of being at peace with myself – contentment, calm, safety, a sense of feeling loved and having a place in the world. What some authors, researchers, and therapists (writers such as Brene Brown and Hilary Jacobs Hendel) might call an open-hearted or whole-hearted state, a state of the authentic, vulnerable, Self.

What struck me a few mornings ago – when it wasn’t Christmas day and I was still at home and not surrounded by family and therefore still had the capacity to reason – is how different my desires and longings are now, to how they used to be. I remember how, in 2012, I described to a CBT therapist the intense emotional highs of obsessive relationship. She asked if I could think of different, better, feelings, and I looked at her genuinely baffled by how anyone could think there was something better than emotional intensity. Why feel less, when you could feel more? Guiltily, as it somehow felt wrong, I told her it was the best feeling in the world.

The next couple of years were horrendous. I was more unwell than I’ve ever been, and though I hated many aspects of the emotional rollercoaster I was on, emotional intensity still felt like a drug that I needed, and sometimes I used self-harm as a way of administering it. In time, I think I came to know that emotional intensity wasn’t ‘the goal’, in the same way that I knew that self-harm was not a healthy coping strategy; but the intellectual knowledge didn’t translate into emotional knowledge, and I hadn’t yet replaced either intensity or self-harm with solid, deep-seated, internalised alternatives.

What struck me a few mornings ago was how firmly and how deeply I now know that there is a better feeling than obsessive relationship, a better feeling than emotional intensity in general. How indubitable is the knowledge that calm, quiet, deep respect, love, and regard for a separate other, both in its giving and in its receiving, is far more fulfilling than an ecstatic loss of sense of self and merger with an ideal. Intensity is about height of feeling – about taking a particular emotion and squeezing it into a peak as narrow and as tall as possible and spearing oneself on it, at a dizzying height. Whereas I’ve discovered through therapy, that what I cherish and long for is a depth and breadth of life and emotion, which has more options, more colour, more shades discernible within it, than are available within a blinding point of intense white light. I want a prism, not a magnifying glass. But much more than that, I want to love and be loved in this new way that simply honours, accepts, and enjoys the other. I want to feel the warmth, joy, and security of knowing I love and am loved for who I am – as is the case with my therapist – and that because of that I have the ability to enjoy and take in the world, and experience myself and others, in a different way. And I want to experience much more often the deeply fulfilling contentment and peace that comes with those things.

What struck me a few morning ago, was not a new realisation, but one I had started to come to gradually, a couple of years ago, and which over time has settled, and deepened, and gained even greater conviction. What was a new realisation – or at least more recent, from the last couple of months – was the thought that intensity takes me away from who I am. It is one of the very many things – which includes internal resistance, self-sabotage, projection, envy, resentment – which take me further from myself, and which separate me from my true Self. Emotional intensity is not just contrary to the kind of emotional experience I now deeply value, it also separates me from an open-hearted, whole-hearted state in which I am vulnerably, authentically me. And therefore it also prevents me from acting in accordance with who I am, and in a way that honours the people and things I hold dear.

There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with strong feeling – strong anger, strong sadness, grief, or joy, for example. There is nothing wrong with a strong, genuine awareness of our authentic self. But what I realised fairly recently is that intense emotion is a state of ‘being caught up’ in something ‘other’, whereas genuine strong emotion comes from deep within our core, and grounds us to ourselves. Strong emotion that comes from within our core, shows us something valuable about ourselves, whereas the first thing that happens when we get caught up in intense emotion, is that we completely lose ourselves. Intense emotion is about disconnection from self; whereas strong feeling, focused activity, or passionate endeavour, can be about immersion in something that aligns with, and connects and gives expression to, who we really are. That seems more obvious now, than it ever has done. And yet I still remember the times when it seemed as though to feel intensely was the same as to feel more truly. But intensity, as I now understand it, has very little to do with truth.

Changes. Peace. I’m grateful for them; I yearn to experience more of them. I also can’t help thinking that much much more of this inner peace, contentment, vulnerability and authenticity, could result in much more of the peace that is wished for and talked about at Christmas time. I wish you both kinds, wherever you are in the world right now.


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Breaking and remaking

This process happens repeatedly during therapy. Even after three, four, five years, the breaking and the remaking happens. The shattering and the putting back together.

After time, it becomes a little easier to bear. Familiar in its recurrence, less shocking in its predictability. Maybe a little less painful – as if the pain has had its edges knocked off by repetition.

If only it were the mirror that could shatter and by putting itself back together could show me a different me. Instead the mirror stays steadfast and it is I who must repeatedly break and reconfigure until what I see reflected bears more resemblance to the truth. Or at least, what my mirror tells me is the truth – my breaking is far from finished.

The mirror flashes back at me all the different shards of myself; the ugly, jagged parts which I have to hold gingerly, but firmly, like infant selves, to fit them back into a whole.

The trouble with being broken in order to be righted, is that it can feel like the old breaking – the one that left us scarred and misaligned. The solution can feel a little like the cause, until we see that it’s the presence of the mirror, waiting to show us our true reflection, that makes the difference between the two.

It never fails to hurt me, this breaking. It never fails to amaze me, either.

 

 


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The importance – and danger – of resistance in therapy

[Or, ‘When I realised how much therapy has helped me change – Part 4’]

After progress comes resistance. I’ve experienced it time and time again, both in little ways – a slip of the tongue during a session – and in big ways, such as those described below.

I’ve often read that resistance is at the core of psychotherapy – even that understanding it and working through it, is the treatment itself. I think the problem with that formulation is that doesn’t mention the primacy of the therapeutic relationship in doing that working through, and the fact that change happens through that relationship. Nevertheless, I can see why resistance is given such a prominent role – although it stands in the way of progress, neither can progress exist without it.

Resistance is the sub-conscious trying to protect itself from that which may overwhelm or hurt it. Progress means change, which goes hand in hand with greater openness and vulnerability. But many of us have spent years or decades closing off or pushing down those things we want least to address, and we have built sky-high walls and fortresses to protect ourselves. No wonder part of us fights so hard against any penetration of that barrier, and any letting in of light. The sub-conscious is powerful; the bigger the therapeutic change, the bigger the backlash and the assault upon us.

Resistance won’t always look or feel like resistance.  It can seem more like a benign friend, than an enemy – it can be so persuasive that it can fool us into believing that it is our ‘better self’ speaking. At other times it really can appear as ugly as it is  – but somehow we are irresistibly drawn to it anyway. It seems to be simply a mirror of how we see ourselves – with shame and disgust – and we fall into its arms because it is such a familiar place to be.

It laughs at me tonight, as I write this post. How easy it is to catch you out, it says. How easy it is to use your good feelings and security for cover, your writing and your research as bait, and to lead you into trouble. How ironic, it laughs, that writing about resistance should make you less resistant to it. Writing, I guess, is a kind of ‘summoning’ – and you don’t always know what words or feelings are going to answer the call.

***

A little over a year ago, there was a noticeable step-change in the progress I was making in therapy. Just before the Easter therapy break I started to feel a great deal more compassion towards myself than I had ever done before, and I experienced that in the form of a feeling of connection with my ‘inner child’ (who I had previously hated), and a much deeper sense of trust and connection with my therapist. The therapy break that followed was the first in which I managed to sustain that feeling of connection without it feeling like an exhausting daily battle against myself.

But the break was followed by the very distressing events described in my post ‘BPD as addiction’. Despite the progress I had made, part of me clung onto the cycle of rupture and repair that I was so used to; and onto the connection between love and pain that had previously made sense to me. It led my therapist to question whether she was really helping me, and it was an enormous wake-up call for me. However, the problem with a full-scale assault is that it’s not exactly subtle. My resistance could no longer trip me up from the side-lines; I had changed and raised the stakes too high. At least now I was self-aware enough to be able to see what I was dealing with.

***

More recently, I described another similar step-change when my therapist helped me to realise that I still sometimes kept her at arms’ length, and that I was engaging with her more in my imagination, than I was when we were face-to-face in session. I became absolutely determined that I would strive to allow her closer, and that I would try and stay present and engaged in session. I started to make some changes, including in how I thought and acted in relation to email outside session.

My determination to be vulnerable and engaged led to an intense session where I tried to get to grips with the content of a dream I’d had, in a way that I don’t think I have done before. Instead of just ‘reporting it’ to my therapist, I tried to let my mind wander onto what it made me think of, what it might connect to, what it brought to mind. What it brought to mind was a whole load of shame and anger, and those feelings traveled with me out of session, and made me want to destroy myself. Instead, almost without thinking – more as a distraction, initially, but then more as an obsession – I started another episode of ‘googling’ my therapist. It’s something I rarely do these days, and when I do, it is at times I feel less secure or more resistant.

This particular episode ended up being extremely distressing because I felt very strongly that it was a betrayal. Though I hadn’t been looking for it, my searching inadvertently resulted in me discovering something about her that, when I had once asked her a direct question about it, she had refused to tell me. It was big shock, and I stopped googling immediately; but the damage – in terms of how I felt about myself, and how I thought she would now feel about me – was done.

We worked through it in the next two sessions – she focused on trying to help me understand what had motivated me and why it had happened. She seemed less personally disturbed by the events, than I was afraid she would be. Though I felt very strongly that I deserved ‘punishment’, nothing like that was forthcoming. I had acted in a way that made me fear my therapist might be so upset or angry with me, that it could seriously jeopardize our therapeutic relationship and the ongoing work – which was presumably, as far as my resistance was concerned, the point. However, somehow I ended the week with a renewed determination to continue being open and engaged, despite what felt like an enormous step backwards and a clear incidence of self-sabotage.

But the beast is not so easily slayed, and the first session of the following week found me sitting in silence, feeling completely stuck, and unable to speak. I wanted – really, really wanted – to carry on as I had done in the session where I spoke about my dream. I wanted to talk, to grapple with my difficulties, to free-associate. I wanted to work together with my therapist, to feel close to her. Instead, she felt far away and I felt empty of material. She encouraged me to try and tolerate not knowing what to say, and to wait and see what came up, whereas I desperately wanted her to do something or say something to help me move forward. I couldn’t tolerate the waiting; and that re-opened the door to the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

***

This time, I thought I was helping, not destroying myself. This time, I thought I had the upper hand – over myself. I should have become suspicious when that somehow turned into something like wanting to have the upper hand in therapy, or at least to try and influence the way my therapist interacted. I did what I used to do in the first couple of years of sessions, when I felt I didn’t really know how the process worked or what I was doing – I read a book about therapy. I had stopped doing this as much, when my therapist pointed out it would be helpful to focus on my own unique therapeutic journey, rather than on the tales of others. It’s too easy to start seeing yourself in the stories of others, and to get drawn down a path that isn’t truly your own.

However, I picked up another Irvin Yalom, and was particularly struck by the story of a resistant patient, mired in grief, who tried to show Yalom how he was failing to see her and engage with her grief, by giving him a long poem to read that she felt mirrored their therapeutic struggle. As soon as I finished reading the story, I emailed my therapist and asked her to read it, because I was hoping we could discuss it. About an hour later I realised with a very great deal of embarrassment that I had simply repeated what I had read – I had sent my therapist something to read that I felt mirrored what we were going through.

Nevertheless, I persisted in talking about it at my next session, in a way that I was afraid would sound rather critical – which, indeed, it did. My motivation, however, at least so far as I was conscious of it, was a positive one, and I felt well-intentioned and still connected to my therapist. I thought that I was simply trying to figure a way out of the ‘stuckness’ so that I could carry through my determination to engage more with her in session. I didn’t see the problem, at the time, of the fact that my strategy seemed to involve telling her she didn’t always engage with me. I tried to emphasize the fact that it wasn’t that I wanted her to be a different sort of therapist to the one she was; what I simply wanted was more of the times when I felt she ‘got her hands dirty’, and ‘gave more’. I think to myself now, and I say to my own self of only a couple of weeks ago: if you want to know whether resistance is at play, look at who it is you are asking to change – however good the reasons might seem.

***

I am back on track in therapy – but the beast is always biting at my heels. Resistance, thy name is bloodhound, terrier, shape-shifter, chameleon. Sometimes you use tools that are well-worn and sure-fire winners; other times you come up with something new and entirely unexpected. I would enjoy your creativity if you weren’t such a ravenous and soul-destroying bitch.

There is a saying in popular culture – “Resistance is futile”. Futile can mean pointless, but resistance always has a point – it is its own end-point. But futile can also mean ‘fruitless’, and resistance, if it cannot be worked through and becomes its own end-point, can rob therapy of the fruit of its labours. Ultimately, we are in therapy to change, whether in major ways or minor ones. For some of us, the change could be so big that the quality – if not the outward appearance – of our life after therapy, can be radically different. And so it is, that:

Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.” *

 

* quote by Steven Pressfield

 

 

 


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When I realised how much therapy has helped me change – Part 3

[Please click on the hyperlinks for Part 2 and Part 1 of this post – the parts follow on from each other.]

Thursday

By the time I arrived at my therapy session, I felt absolutely determined to stay open and vulnerable to whatever it was my therapist had to say. I needed her to explain what she had meant when she said that part of me wanted a replacement mother and that I wasn’t seeing her as herself. The immense fear that her words would undermine the way that I had come to see our relationship, as ‘therapy-mother’ and ‘therapy-daughter’, and therefore undermine what I felt was the basis of the changes that had taken place over the last couple of years, as well as the foundation of ongoing work, was still present. But there was also a determination to accept her words, whatever they meant, and to continue to work with her. I felt a deep trust, and a conviction that she was still just as committed to me, and cared just as much. I was also, of course, hoping that my fear was without foundation.

She smiled, and thanked me for holding on and coming back, despite how I had been feeling. I wish I could remember more of the details of the session, so that I could describe how it all unfolded. But it became evident quite quickly that she had no intention of ‘doing away with therapy-mother’. She was still ‘therapy-mother’; and I should add that she had always been clear, and I had always understood – however painful it felt to try and accept – that this was a different sort of relationship to a biological mother-daughter relationship, and was not a replacement for what was missing either in the past or in the present. Even as she was talking, I was still waiting for the ‘bad news’ which I had been fearing, and had to ask for reassurance on that point in fairly direct terms. I had to feel sure that she had not somehow changed her mind or felt uncomfortable about the role I saw her in – that I thought she saw herself in. I had to feel sure that I could continue to think of her as ‘therapy-mother’ without wondering whether I was deceiving myself. She did reassure me, but that still left the question – what did she mean by her words on the Tuesday, and in particular, what did she mean when she said that I wasn’t seeing her as herself?

***

It turns out that though I had been terrified that what she wanted was to put a little more distance between us, what she actually wanted was for me to allow her to come closer. When she spoke about me not seeing her as she was, she was referring to the fact that I seemed to have a very active ‘relationship’ with her in my head, but often kept her at arms’ length during session. I imagined how sessions would go and had conversations with her in my mind; I sent her long emails describing my dreams or daydreams; I often talked about feeling connected over the weekends. But then in session things would go differently to how I had imagined and that would get in the way of relating to her; when I referenced my dreams I simply presented them rather than engaging with her in trying to understand them; and I often sat in silence, not knowing what to say, unable to simply say what came to mind (or freezing with fear of not having anything to say).

I was relating to a version of her that lived in my head – but what she really wanted was for me to relate to the therapy-mother who sat in front of me three times a week. She wanted me to try and overcome the resistance to therapy that was sometimes present in me, and to try not to shut her out – something I am sure that I subconsciously find a million and one creative ways of doing. She wanted to try and keep more of our work actually in the room, rather than outside it. I asked her if it was a problem that I emailed her with updates or dreams. She said it wasn’t the fact that I emailed the material that was the problem, but what I then did with it (or, by implication, didn’t do with it), when I brought it to her in person.

Her words to me on the Tuesday were a natural consequence of how she had experienced me during the previous week in therapy, and over the last weekend (described in Part 1). After I passive-aggressively resisted working with her on some dreams on the Friday, she admitted that she had then felt unconnected over the weekend; whereas I, for various reasons which she couldn’t have known about, felt extremely close to her. When I addressed her in an email over the weekend in terms that made it clear how connected I felt, it was completely discordant with how she had experienced our last interaction.

As well as being very reassuring (she wasn’t trying to push me away), her words struck me deeply and made a huge impression. Hearing that she sometimes felt kept at arms’ length, and that I sometimes didn’t really engage with her in person, was upsetting because it was the opposite of what I really wanted. It was the opposite of what the more adult, non-resistant parts of me wanted, even if other aspects of myself tried to sabotage therapeutic relationship and change. She gives me her full attention, which is part of herself, for three hours every week; she holds a safe space for me, she accepts me, she cares about me, and she wants to help me help myself to change. She wants to really work with me, to grapple, to engage, to ‘get to grips with’ – I feel ashamed now, thinking that I accused her of sometimes not doing those things, the very next week (more of that to come!). Given all of that, it seemed inconceivable that I should spend more time relating to her in my head, than deeply relating to her in person. For someone who has a dread of loss and running out of time, it was clear to me that I was nevertheless missing out on an enormous amount.

***

After my session, I sent the following email to my therapist (only extracts are given here):

“After today’s session I was amazed (and still am) at how differently this has gone, to how things would have been a couple of years ago. It’s hard to convey how strange but wonderful it feels to know that despite the initial reaction and feelings on Tuesday and Wednesday morning, I felt connected still throughout it all, I was aware of a very deep-seated sense of trust, and felt sure that you were still the same, you hadn’t changed, and you were fundamentally good and well intentioned, and I trusted in that….connection and belief in your ‘goodness’ was strong enough to over-ride those immense issues of survival and the huge fear of extinction/destruction.”

And with regard to my therapist telling me that she had felt unconnected over the preceding weekend (something that would have caused me a great deal of alarm and pain in the past, as I would have felt rejected and would have feared abandonment):

“I think it’s the first time you’ve said you hadn’t felt connected, and again I’m glad you told me – it’s helpful to know that you can sometimes feel that way too (and I think it’s good I don’t find that frightening – because I trust in what you’ve told me so many times, that the connection is there, even when I don’t feel it, so I trust you apply those words to yourself, too)”.

Post-Thursday

Since then,  I have felt determined to try and stay open and vulnerable and not keep my therapist at a distance – though the subconscious is an incredibly powerful thing, as I discovered (anew) in the following week. I have also felt determined to try and keep more of the work in the room (rather than in my head or over email), and to really engage with what I’m bringing, even if it’s only to express the fact that I really want to engage but don’t know where to start – often that’s the first step to getting into a conversation that might otherwise have not happened, or might have been preceded by a lengthy and unhelpful silence. In fact, though it’s difficult to define, I have noticed that this feeling of ‘determination’ (and that does seem to be the best descriptor) is a key factor that enables me to stay in a more vulnerable and engaged place in therapy. I don’t feel as though I am entirely in control of it, and sometimes I think of it as a key characteristic of the more ‘adult’ part of me. But I remember its presence strongly from pivotal moments in therapy last year, and I have felt it repeatedly over the last few weeks. In the context of therapy, it is a word that is linked to many other things in my mind – to commitment, acceptance, courage, vulnerability, and love – but determination seems to be what allows the other things to come to the fore. Or perhaps it destroys the resistance, which tries to hold the other things down.

Ironically, given that one of the triggers for these events centred around my handling of dreams, I had a revealing dream the night before I saw my therapist on the Thursday. I dreamed that I was hiding in the toilets of a large building, from a marauding T-Rex who was about to destroy the crowds of people in a large hall. My immediate association to the T-Rex was that it was my therapist, about to annihilate the foundation of our therapy, and my internal world. But perhaps it would be more accurate to see it as a part of me, as my resistance, preying on myself. Certainly, in the light of what happened next, the picture couldn’t have been more appropriate – my subconscious resistance is no docile, slow-moving, herbivore, but a swift, powerful, and destructive predator.


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When I realised how much therapy has helped me change – Part 2

[The first part of this post (without which this Part may not make as much sense!) can be found here. Though originally I thought this would be a two-part post, it has now become clear it is at least a three-part (and possibly a four-part!) post. Part 3 will follow next week….]

Tuesday

When I got home I was still reeling from the shock of my therapy session. I was intensely hurt, upset, angry, confused, afraid……I sent this email to my therapist:

“I clearly made a mistake in addressing my email as I did at the weekend. But if you think I was looking for a particular response, you’re wrong. Right now I really really don’t want to come back on Thursday. You know I will, anyway. But I’m in shock and it feels like everything is under threat and about to come tumbling down.”

It felt as though everything had been destroyed – or was on the verge of being so. It felt as though I had built a convenient fabrication around our relationship, and that she had let me do it, only now to try to jettison her ‘therapy mother’ role when it had become too uncomfortable, and when I got too close. Suddenly I didn’t really know what was real anymore. I felt as though she had lied, if not directly, then by omission. I didn’t see how we could possibly carry on working together when the picture I had built up of our relationship, and what I thought I had been experiencing – which formed the supporting structure of the therapy – had just been torn down. Or at least, that was what I was afraid had just happened. I recalled the many occasions when my therapist had herself used the terminology of ‘therapy-mother’ and ‘therapy-daughter’, and wondered how I could trust her when she was apparently trying to tell me that I was ‘seeing her all wrong’ (my words)?

And yet…….this is when I first noticed something was different – about me. Because though my feelings were very intense, and though part of me wanted never to see her again, I still went to sleep that night, as I always do, holding onto the small stone that she gave me as a transition object just before our long summer therapy break last year.

Wednesday

I woke with the same intense feelings that I had experienced the night before. I felt lost in a fog, circling the edge of a chasm that I could not see. My therapist replied to my email, to say that she could see that this was difficult for me. She also said that I did not make a mistake in addressing my email, and that “therapy is not about getting it right, but about discovering about yourself”. I was at work and could not reply – and I did not feel like replying, at that stage. I suspected that she wasn’t really aware of the enormous impact her words had had on me.

Strangely, as the day wore on, I began to feel a little better. On the one hand, this was not surprising, as I switch very quickly and effectively into ‘work mode’, compartmentalising and shutting off other parts of me, and their feelings. In addition, it’s routine for me to simply shut off very painful feelings and prevent myself from feeling them.

But I sensed that my feeling better was not simply a result of those two factors. I sensed that it wasn’t just that I had locked the intense feelings away, but that they were actually becoming less intense. The thoughts that the night before had seemed so all-consuming that they felt like a certainty, felt more like frightening possibilities (even perhaps probabilities), which were laced with doubts. The sense that my therapist had not been honest with me, that I needed to run because our relationship had been undermined, was slowly changing into the rational thought that I knew her and trusted her, and there must be some explanation for what had happened. Gradually – though with lightning speed compared to the rate at which my reactions would have changed two years ago – I was coming round to the idea that I needed to stay open and vulnerable. I needed to face whatever it was that she had meant by her words on Tuesday, and to go forward from there, with her, whatever that ‘with her’, looked like.

The night before, I had experienced two mental images, two choices that were open to me. On the one hand, my ‘internal parts’ (my inner child, teenager, and others) were ‘putting my therapist to death’ – removing her, that is, from my inner world, from my thoughts and my feelings. On the other hand, there was an image of my therapist destroying that ‘internal family’ – which is what I was afraid would happen, if I continued to ‘let her in’.

That evening, I sent my therapist the following email (only extracts are included here). I started off by replying to her statement that I was finding things ‘difficult’:

“No, it was more than difficult – it felt catastrophic. Last night it felt as though between us we may have undone almost four years’ worth of work. It felt as though everything I had built up or been allowed to think or believe was a lie, or just my own fabrication. I didn’t want to see you again, or I wanted to end therapy soon – because I didn’t trust you and therefore how could we carry on. Strangely, I didn’t cry. I think my protective side jumped in immediately to stop me feeling too much. I started to dismantle my inner world and images – it felt as though you had no place in it anymore. Something can only be internalised, if there is a corresponding external something, to internalise in the first place. Otherwise it’s just a construction and a fabrication. If what I thought I was internalising didn’t actually exist….then the internalised version had no claim on that inner space.

……I want to trust you and I don’t want confirmation that I have been deluding myself or that you have been lying by omission. But I do want you to be honest with me, at the same time.

I’m just trying to convey what it felt like last night and this morning. I wouldn’t be writing this if part of me didn’t still trust you and didn’t still, strangely, feel a bit connected, despite what felt like a threat of annihilation….”

Amazingly, I did still feel connected, and I rapidly followed up my email with this one:

“I keep thinking about all of this, I can’t switch my mind off. I think I want to work through this with you, whatever the outcome. Because you’re the same person that you were before; even if you think my perception of you or how I think of things, is not quite right. And so it feels as though I stand to lose a huge amount- stuff without which I’m not even sure how I would make sense of things/therapy anymore. But you would be there and would be the same person even if I felt as though I’d lost you. Whatever was left would still be worth a lot. I don’t know if any of that makes any sense…..”

My abiding sense, as I went to sleep that night, holding my therapist’s stone once again, was that I knew her, and she was the same person now, as she had been before. She was the person that I loved, respected, and trusted, and with whom I had shared so many difficult and joyful times in therapy, and who had been there for me and present with me, supported, upheld, and accepted me, and cared about me.  That hadn’t changed, I felt absolutely sure of it – irrespective of what had happened, or how I felt. My core inner view of her stayed constant, and I wasn’t ‘splitting* her’. In that respect, at least, it was as if I hardly recognised myself anymore.

 

[* – In splitting, an individual may see themselves, or another person, as either entirely good, or entirely bad. Fundamentally, ‘splitting’ is all about a difficulty in holding opposing feelings, thoughts or beliefs about oneself or about another person, and an inability to bring opposing attributes together, and to see them as part of a cohesive whole. Splitting is one of the nine DSM IV criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder, and the criterion is worded as follows: “A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation”.]

 


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BPD as addiction

Although I try to be as open in my blog as I can, there are still some things that feel too private to speak about. Sometimes a moment feels so special and precious I just want to keep it close to my heart where only I have access to it, rather than sharing it. And sometimes a moment feels difficult – really, really shockingly, life-changingly difficult, and I need to hide it away because it is also precious, but in a different way.

A few months ago I wrote about a very difficult weekend when I felt disconnected from my therapist. Though this was hardly unusual (!) it did come after a run of encouraging and affirming sessions, and a really positive break over Easter and subsequent ‘reunion’. I felt (and so did my therapist, I think), that a corner had been turned and some real progress was being made. In that context, then, the internal chaos and the ‘acting out’ that ensued (in the form of a string of emotionally volatile emails to my therapist), was a surprise and seemed like an unexpected step backwards.

In my post ‘A tale of three houses – therapy, progress and internal conflict‘, I wrote about my reflections on that weekend. I realised that: “Part of me wanted that sense of disconnection and separation – it showed that I still needed her, and it also held the promise of reconciliation. A sense of comfort and drawing close after a fight. I hadn’t realised until after that weekend, how close the connection is for me, between love and pain. And how much I need that sense of conflict, to feel alive. Not just because of an addiction to the intensity of feelings; but also because for me, individuating is associated with a struggle. And if I’m not fighting then I fear ‘not being’, or simply ‘being someone else’. ”

That incident of rupture and repair was a major turning point in my therapy. Or rather, it turned me back onto the road of progress that I had been traveling on for the last few weeks. But the way in which it did that was something I’ve never managed to write about – until now. And the reason I’m writing about it now is because I’ve been shocked into remembrance by this post, called ‘Between the chaos’, by blogger ‘Girl in Therapy’.  I’m not suggesting that her situation is the same as mine, and I’m certainly not writing this by way of giving her or anyone else ‘advice’. However, it did remind me how crucial that turning point was for me, and it made my blood run cold thinking what might have happened had I not listened – really listened – to what my therapist said to me then.

***

The first session after my chaotic weekend back in May, was preceded by an email from my therapist asking me to please think about what had happened over the weekend and what I was ‘doing to the therapy’, so that we would have the best chance of learning from it. The first part of the session felt surprisingly light-hearted – almost in the way that hindsight sometimes lends a laughing air to something that could have been very serious. Half-smiling, my therapist told me that she had actually felt very cross when she’d read my string of emails – I suspected she really meant ‘angry’. It occurs to me now that perhaps smiling is sometimes a defense mechanism for her, just as it is for me. I was apologetic, really apologetic. I knew that I had indeed ‘done something’ to the therapy, and that the ‘acting out’ was semi-consciously chosen (for the reasons mentioned above). And so the first part of the session was tough, but not hostile or frightening. We were engaged in a ‘repair’ and I was feeling connected.

The mood changed abruptly when I made a light-hearted comment about the fact that I was glad we were able to repair things, but that I knew myself and this was bound to happen again. I was almost saying ‘we’re fine now, until the next time……’. And all of a sudden her facial expression changed – I don’t know to this day whether the line of her mouth was hiding anger and disappointment, or sadness and pain. Perhaps it held both – it certainly felt as though she was holding in some strong emotion, and I’ve wondered whether she was also holding back tears.

She didn’t say ‘you’re not taking this seriously’, but at the same time I think my comment was evidence enough that the seriousness of what I was doing hadn’t really sunk in. She had no choice, I think, than to do what she did, which was to lay her cards out on the table and to make clear to me the situation as she saw it.

In my post ‘Addicted to feeling torn’, I’d written: “Perhaps the most difficult thing about moving forward in a particular direction is giving up the addiction to feeling torn. It feels like the only satisfaction that lasts. It is endlessly repetitive and effortless to engender…”. My therapist told me that she was glad I’d used the word ‘addiction’ – that she’d reached the same conclusion a little while ago, but felt that I needed to come to that realisation myself. I will never forget the way she spoke: the most serious tone I have ever heard her use, almost urgent in its earnestness as she said to me ‘this is a serious addiction’. She said it was as serious as any other addiction, and needed to be treated as such. It had an impact not just on me, but on those around me, including my family.

It felt deadly serious – literally, it felt as though what she was talking about was a matter of emotional life or death, and I was shocked at the turn the conversation had taken. And then came the moment that I’m sure any therapy client dreads, but which many therapy clients with BPD not only dread, but on some level feel is inevitable. She told me that the weekend’s events had even led her to think about whether she had reached the limits of her experience and expertise, and whether she was the right person to help me.

It is impossible to describe what that felt like, and how devastating it was to hear. And yet I want to make this completely clear, particularly for those who fear such a loss, or who have suffered one – I am absolutely sure that she hadn’t ‘had enough of me’, she wasn’t fed up, and she wasn’t ‘getting her own back’. I told a handful of people what was going on, and my husband said something that was probably the single most insightful and helpful thing he’s ever said to me in relation to my mental health difficulties. He told me that the reason she might be thinking of referring me on, was that she cared about me and if she couldn’t help me, she really wanted me to be with someone who could. In a subsequent conversation a few sessions later, she did refer to the fact that it wouldn’t be ethical of her to continue to see me if she wasn’t helping me, and that she was also conscious of the wider context – my husband and my children. In essence she was aware of the fact that by helping me, she was also helping them, and that the reverse was also true.

It was clear that she said what she did because she cares about me and my progress – as she has said on a number of occasions since, she considers our work really important. She was never about to abandon me – but she was seriously concerned that she wasn’t helping me, and from both a human and an ethical perspective, she couldn’t let that continue indefinitely.

***

Those memories and emotions all came flooding back when I read this section in ‘Girl in Therapy’s post, ‘Between the chaos’:

I am progressing, growing…. This is growth! All our hard work is paying off. And…… it’s boring! Yup. Boring.

When you’ve lived your entire life at an elevated level of fear and chaos, when your brain has literally been wired to live in a constant freeze/fight/flight zone… when the people who are meant to look after you and keep you safe are the ones hurting you and their love can’t be trusted….. Well, you start living your adult life that way too, because it’s all you know.  My emotions are used to fluctuating wildly, everything feeling more intense and dramatic, that’s where I live. That is my normal. This solid place where everything is okay is a nice place to visit but I can feel the pull of “home”.

The pull of home – the connection between love and pain, the need for conflict and intensity – reminded me so much of my addiction to feeling torn. I felt shocked, worried, sick, and afraid. Danger was screaming at me, and that is why I’m writing this post. Yet at the same time I want to say again that I’m not suggesting that what happened to me, will happen to ‘Girl in Therapy’ or to anyone else reading this, though ultimately what happened to me was a very very good thing indeed. But when I read that paragraph and it all came flooding back, I knew it was the right time to write about what happened – not because someone else needed to hear it, but because I’d finally found the words.

Having said that, I do really want to convey, with the same urgent seriousness that my therapist did (while knowing, like she did, that only self-realisation can have a lasting impact) – that BPD and addiction don’t just go hand in hand, BPD is in many ways, an addiction. The precise nature of what you are addicted to may be different to the precise nature of what I am addicted to. But the whole nature of BPD is that it tries to keep us trapped and coming back for more – more intensity, more love, more pain which seems like the only route to love, more chaos. Its draw is undeniable; without it we do not feel alive, and we don’t know who we are.

But we fail to see that it’s actually the beauty and the stability and the love between the chaos that is what we really crave. And yet we’ve learned no healthy route to get there, and we’ve learned that it doesn’t last, and things change. And so we feel we have to test its reality and show that it’s still intact, via the bizarre mechanism of breaking it and putting it back together again, repeatedly. For me, the turning point that I’ve described seemed to accelerate progress in therapy, and among all the markers of progress has been a realisation and conviction I’ve never had before: that genuine, deep joy and connection, trust and security make me feel better, happier, more fulfilled and alive, and are much more worth having, than any degree of intensity or cycles of rupture and repair. And those are things that I have found through therapy, and through my relationship with my therapist.

A few years ago, when a different therapist asked me whether I could think of any feelings which were better than the intense highs of BPD, it seemed obvious to me that the answer was ‘no’. Whereas now, whenever I’m tempted by the ‘pull of home’, the memory of that realisation and conviction makes a liar of my addiction, and reminds me there is something better – and that I have a new home.