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 under the name Clara Bridges.


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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.

 


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Together again (to my therapist, on return to therapy)

together-again

Illustration by Paul Howard, from Jill Tomlinson’s ‘The otter who wanted to know’

“As for me, I implore fate to give me the chance to see beyond myself, and truly meet someone” – from ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’, by Muriel Barbery

Things have changed. It feels so strange, on one level. In another way things are much the same – work, school, tantrums (sometimes mine), birthday parties, after school activities, deadlines, arguments, tears, depression, anxiety, therapy. Therapy. Therapy has changed. And it doesn’t work pretending that it hasn’t, because part of what has changed is a deeper level of awareness. I can’t pull the wool over my new ‘inner eye’; my subconscious can’t trip me up quite as much because I have my own little ‘spy’ in there – this new, more grown-up part of me that knows my internal characters and the wily ways of the ones who like to steer me into trouble.

But sometimes the more grown-up me still gets side-lined. When I saw you for the first time after our six and a half week therapy break, I came in with less hostility than I had been expecting, given how cut-off from you I’d been feeling over the last few days, but still with a hefty amount of defensiveness. I resented the lack of an email to reassure me before we met up again; and the fact that I’d had to cope alone for so long.

I brought you a few small things from my holiday, but if I was hoping they would help to re-establish a connection, the attempt felt flat, and I wondered if you minded what I’d done. We had a conversation about the latter part of the therapy break, and why it was so difficult, and the conversation was…….okay. You talked, though nowhere near as much as I wanted you to. I talked, though nowhere near as honestly as I could have done. And when I left it was with an oppressive, despairing and enraged sense that if we were going to re-establish a connection, I was going to have to do the work all by myself. The session was ‘business as usual’, but I had wanted it to be ‘unusual’, and to explicitly recognise what I’d done in managing to get through the break fairly positively (on the whole). You were amazing in all the ways you helped me to prepare for and cope with the break; I wanted you to ‘go the extra mile’ in welcoming me back, too. I wanted to know that I was wanted. That you were glad to see me back. That you missed me – of course you wouldn’t tell me as much, but perhaps there would be something in something that you said or did, that would let me know.

By the time I got home the anger was consuming me. I was desperate to draw a picture of it, but I can’t draw. Instead I ‘doodled words’ onto a piece of paper: ‘I hate you’, ‘sometimes I never want to see you again’, ‘you feel cold’, ‘you made no attempt to reconnect with me after the break’, ‘get the fuck out’, ‘time to shut the vulnerability the fuck away…….’. And in small writing, in a couple of the corners, where a part of me was dying to get out and make herself heard, I wrote: ‘I love you’, ‘I’m desperate to reconnect with you’, and ‘I want things to go back to how they were’. Then I sent you a couple of one-line emails; I asked whether it was okay to us the ‘f’ word in session. Implication – I want to use the ‘f’ word in session. Passive aggressive communication – I want to convey how f***ing mad I am with you right now.

When I came back to session the next day, I brought my doodles with me. I felt anxious about showing them to you, but the mood from the day before had definitely shifted. I talked about the traffic; it broke the ice. And then I said that I was really sorry about the emails I had sent you, and you just smiled and asked who sent them. I loved that question – somehow, it simultaneously told me that all was okay and that you understood that different parts of me were trying to communicate with you, and it also validated those voices and their feelings. And so I handed over the doodles straight away and explained that she sent the emails – the one who drew those words and wrote ‘I hate you’. Though I couldn’t really bear to look at you while you looked at them, I could tell that all was well – that you were warm, interested and perhaps a little amused; certainly not upset or cross. And I knew that I’d now definitely crossed over into more adult mode – which also meant completely vulnerable and trusting mode, and that the conflict, such as it was, was effectively over.

***

It feels simultaneously pathetic, extraordinary, wonderful, moving and frightening, that my negative and defensive response to a forty-six day therapy break lasted one day. ONE DAY. One day is a change – a massive change. And much as I hated you for not ‘doing something’ to actively help me to feel better when we saw each other again, and much as I resented the fact that I would need to do all the hard work of reconnection on my own – you must be lovingly laughing, just a little, at the fact that ‘new mother‘ was right. Because in fact, as you’d already told me, we were still very much connected even if I couldn’t feel it, and the hard graft (as I called it a dejected ‘tweet’) was over very quickly. I’m sure I will be back in that angry, hating and ‘stuck’ place again at some point in future – I should really find out what the answer to my question about the ‘f’ word is, just in case…..But it feels staggering that the second and third sessions back felt just like the wonderfully connected sessions before the break.

When I think back to previous therapy breaks and the days and days, and weeks and weeks it sometimes took to ‘recover’……what a change. In the past, I would have come in with the same resentful attitude in the first session after the break, and gone home with the same feeling that you had done nothing to help me reconnect. I would have felt misunderstood and unheard but I would have felt too polite or too worried or too angry to say anything. And so we would have gone on, session after session, with me feeling further and further away from you, and more and more upset at not being heard, and yet trying to ‘carry on regardless’ while numbing myself against the pain of doing so. Until at some point the hurt would have become unbearable and I would have reached emotional meltdown. I would have needed you to ‘rescue’ me (and our relationship); and through the process of repairing the rupture and seeking reassurance that we were still okay, I would have – eventually – come to feel connected to you again. Perhaps it was only in being able to really see the process of repair in action, and to see the threads being rebuilt (on my side, even if they were intact on yours), that I could really believe that they were holding us together.

There are so many differences now, but what underlies them all, is a lack of fear. When I keep that more ‘adult me’ in the driving seat, then all these things are true. I am not afraid of you, or of you hurting me. If you do hurt me I’m not afraid of what it means or of whether it will happen again. I’m not afraid that you will judge me or change how you think about me. I’m not afraid of you misunderstanding me, and if you do misunderstand me, I’m not afraid it means you don’t care or weren’t paying attention. I’m not afraid of how you will react to something I say or do, and I’m not afraid that I might do or say ‘the wrong thing’ or that I might hurt you or upset you in some way.

I love you but I’m no longer trying to play the guardian all the time – either of my heart or yours. I’m no longer holding back from saying certain things in case you ‘don’t respond well’ and I get hurt; or in case I offend you, upset you, or cause you pain. Instead, I think that if we trust each other we also know that we do not want to hurt each other. And if we hurt each other we can talk about it and things will not be irretrievably (or even moderately) broken. Nothing will have changed because of it, except for an opportunity having been gained and a memory having been created, of working things through and feeling closer at the end of it.

I trust you, and I no longer see that as the one-dimensional concept it always was to me in the past. I no longer think it is about discretion, and keeping a confidence, and the safety of knowledge and information in the hands of another. Now I trust you with me , and not just with ‘stuff about me’; and that’s such a radical departure from what that word has ever meant to me in the past, that I cannot conceive of applying it, in that form, to anyone else at the moment, though I know that that’s one of the eventual aims of our work.

Things have changed, and I see it in the little things now that we’re together again, as well as in the ‘big thing’ of the speed of recovery after the break. I see it in my willingness to share my hate-filled doodles; in my lack of hesitation in telling you if I don’t want to change direction or topic in session, or that I do; in my openness in telling you if you’ve misinterpreted something I’ve said. I see it in the way I tell you what I’ve been thinking or feeling not in two sessions’ time or over email the next day, but in the moment or in a few moments’ time. I see it in the way I haven’t come with a written list of things to talk about, in many many weeks; and if we meander far from where our conversation started, I don’t feel anxious, I just look for the deeper reason why we ended up where we did, because I’m sure there is a reason.

Not for the first time over the last few days, I’m sitting here thinking that you make me happy; our relationship makes me happy, and happiness is not a feeling that has been much a part of my life, for the last few years. I feel as though by looking deep within myself, with your help, I’ve seen beyond myself and truly met someone. Two someones. Thank you. And thank you for the things that have changed. I can see them more clearly, now that we’re together again.

 

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Addicted to feeling torn

Lyveden_New_Bield

Lyveden New Bield – Photograph by Ed Brambley, sourced from Wikimedia Commons

When you feel caught in painful tension between two choices, two ways of seeing things, two manners of unfolding, you have to ask yourself: is it the choices that you are really struggling with and that feel as though they are both calling and immobilising you? Or is it the state of being in tension, itself, that is holding you there, and that is the chief attraction?

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; particularly when you can turn anything into a moral dilemma by changing ‘could’ into ‘should’. Besides, who are you without something to fight against, even if that something is your own self? When comfort is predicated on conflict (because closeness comes from conciliation), and freedom to ‘be’ rests on a fight; it’s not surprising that what others call ‘self-destructive’ behaviour is simply an attempt to preserve the only self you’ve ever known.

A half-house stands on a hill: but is it an unfinished house, or a ruin? Which are you, and which do you want to be? The problem with trying to preserve that conundrum, and being addicted to feeling torn, is that the unfinished house – with so much potential – is transmogrifying moment by moment into a ruin, the longer it is left unattended to. If we can’t get past our love-affair with conflict long enough to work hard to put a roof on the house and glass in the windows, our only comfort will be cold comfort, and the self we’ve tried to preserve, will remain only an empty shell.


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Twitter chat: #therapybreak – what does it mean to you?

I am very excited about the fact that Alison Crosthwait (from ‘The Good Therapists‘) and I will be hosting a Twitter chat next Monday 25 April, at 9pm BST/4pm EST, on the subject of therapy breaks, and we would love it if you could join us – whether you are a therapist, a therapy client, both or neither! The hashtag we will be using for the chat is #therapybreak (nothing beats obvious!).

We chose the subject of therapy breaks for a number of reasons, including the fact that many people will recently have experienced such a break over the Easter holidays. We were looking for a subject that would be of interest both to therapists and clients, and was broad enough to allow discussion to range over a number of different themes. We thought about our most popular blog posts, which for Alison centre around change, and for me centre around attachment, including attachment to a therapist. We realised that thinking about therapy breaks provided the perfect opportunity to explore both areas, as such breaks can be the cause of considerable distress for clients who may experience feelings of loss, abandonment, or exclusion; but they can also be very powerful opportunities for reflection, consolidation, and change. Speaking personally, as a client, I have experienced both these aspects of a therapy break and I am intrigued to hear what Alison has to say on the subject, both from a therapist’s perspective, but also as a client herself. Other than agreeing the subject of the chat, Alison and I have decided to keep each other in the dark regarding the questions we would like to raise – we thought it would be more interesting and spontaneous that way (and I quite like the idea of us surprising each other!). And of course it would be great to be surprised by all the questions you might bring as well, if you are able to join us.

Alison and I discovered that we enjoyed each other’s writing and that our interests are complementary – and I think it’s fair to say that as therapist and client respectively, we share an interest in hearing ‘the other perspective’ in writing – though I tend to feel that often as ex-clients themselves, therapists have rather an advantage here, in terms of understanding how it feels to sit in the ‘other chair’…..

We are greatly looking forward to this ‘little experiment’, and have a couple of other ideas up our sleeve if it goes well. If you have an interest in the topic and would like to chat, please do join us! I’ll be online with a cup of tea and a comfy cushion, fervently crossing my fingers that the kids stay soundly asleep in bed……!

 

[For any novices at Twitter chats, don’t do what I did during my first ever Twitter chat – I spent half the chat in conversation with a lovely Twitter user, which was really interesting, but I didn’t realise that I was actually on my ‘Notifications’ page rather than on the main page containing all the tweets for the hashtag. I was therefore completely oblivious to the chat that was happening all around me!]

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Where fear and courage join hands

As mentioned in my post ‘Unapologetic about making everything about therapy‘ I have a tendency, wherever possible, to use pieces of writing, poetry, or quotes, as a metaphor for therapy and for understanding this wonderful, painful and life-changing process I am going through. And so I wanted to share with you another example of this, which seems to encapsulate so many of the concepts I have struggled with over the course of the last couple of years, and in particular over recent weeks. As well as some beautiful lines there are a number of key words within this, which are meaningful but also very challenging for me, including: waiting; vulnerability; and change.

This is a prayer, creed or affirmation – but I hope it has something universal to offer, irrespective of whether or not you hold a religious faith of some kind. As I described in a previous post, my own Christian faith very much feels as though it is on the back burner at the moment, and for now, it is the comparisons with therapy that speak to me more powerfully and more immediately, than the Christian content.

How many of those in therapy would see themselves and their struggles in these beautiful lines?

“…in the waiting and uncertainty

where fear and courage join hands,

conflict and caring link arms….

or

…that takes us beyond the safe place

into action, into vulnerability…

or

We commit ourselves to work for change

and put ourselves on the line;

to bear responsibility, take risks;…

I do not wish to deny the beauty and significance of these words for the Christian context for which they were written. I believe them in that context, even if that belief feels very intangible at the moment; and many others who read this may relate to them on that level as well.

But taken as a metaphor for therapy, these words remind me that committing to therapy means committing to change. It means taking the risk of being open and laying out our thoughts and feeling before our therapists; and taking responsibility for our part in the work. These words remind me that there is an end-point beyond therapy; that the purpose is to live life more freely and more fully, but that this involves moving beyond the safe space of therapy and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable with others and to really engage with difficult process of translating everything we have learned, into action. And these words remind me that there is no manual for ‘doing therapy’ and that waiting and uncertainty may be hugely uncomfortable and unsettling, but they are part of life, and part of the work. They remind me that it takes immense courage to uncover our deepest wounds, and face our biggest fears. And finally, they speak to the painful reality that conflict and caring can and do go hand in hand, and do not need to be enemies. Somehow we have to balance the hurt of conflicts that arise with our therapists (particularly during times of intense transference) with the knowledge – could we only keep it in heart and mind during those times! – that here is someone who cares for us, is committed to us, and accepts us without question or judgment, and will continue to do so. All of this requires faith, and belief in a process that we do not fully understand, and that is unique to each of us. I hope you enjoy these words, in whatever way you may take them and use them…

Iona therapy