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.

Connection is hard

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The theme of Mental Health Awareness Week this year is ‘Relationships’. Strong relationships are vital to good mental health; but intimacy, vulnerability and connecting with another human being can be very difficult for many with a mental health condition, and in particular, for those with Borderline Personality Disorder.

Life in a Bind - BPD and me

connecting with others dexter quote

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Wants, needs, and reaching out – some more lessons from therapy

My eldest child sobbed in front of me, desperate for something I was refusing to give him. He felt an overwhelming need, and I wasn’t meeting it. Worse than that, he couldn’t understand why. He kept saying ‘why, mummy, why?’. And all I could do was repeat what now felt like a stupid and arbitrary rule of behaviour that had served its purpose a couple of years ago, but now felt cruel and out of place. And yet I felt trapped by it, and the more I said ‘no’, the more entrenched that ‘no’ became, and I felt at the same time both captive and dictator – bound by the rule, but exercising it on a whim. It was hurting him, and it was hurting me, and I felt powerless to kneel down, hug him, and end the power struggle we were caught up in.

***

As I sat opposite my therapist, in tears of desperation, I remembered that power struggle and felt as though I was trapped in it again, only on the other side. I felt an immense need for her to reach out to me, and I simply could not understand why she wouldn’t. It felt as though she was holding back; as if I was subject to her whim and at the mercy of whether or not she chose to respond to my needs. She seemed cruel; and I felt I was waiting, helplessly, for any words of comfort or encouragement that might come my way.

Of course, they did come my way; they had come. They had come during previous sessions and in the form of emails in between sessions. They had come in response to my own words, but did that make them any less an act of ‘reaching out’? They had come in the form of echoing others’ comforting words – but I wanted her words instead. When I couldn’t see a single positive thing about myself, I wanted to hear her tell me what she saw. And that ‘want’ became a feeling which felt like a ‘need’, and that need felt as though it had an inalienable right to be met. Who could refuse to meet the need of a seeming-child in distress? Who apart from someone cruel; or someone incapable, as I had been, of escaping the patterns of their own past, in order to respond differently in the present? I had written to her in an email a few days before: “You hold me in mind and you were really there for me tonight – but I still just want you to reach out to me.

***

For two years, we slowly built a raft together. It was painstaking work. In the early days we would sometimes come back to find that the sea had washed our pile of wood away, or the wind had smashed the tiny platform against the rocks. Later on, we found that some of the rope we used to bind the branches would come undone, and we would spend hours fastening them together again. Or, frustrated at the slow progress we appeared to be making, I would take up the axe and swing it at the raft – afterwards checking frantically for serious cracks and breaks, while you tried to tell me that it would take more than that to render our work unseaworthy.

Sometimes we laughed while we worked; sometimes we cried – or rather, I cried. Hot heavy tears falling onto the raft we were building, until it seemed that those tears were preserving it, and preparing it for its time at sea. We worked in the thankless heat, and in the pouring rain, and we learned that we could survive both, and so could our raft. We discovered new techniques for binding the branches together; with your help I learned how to tie knots more firmly, and how to make repairs much faster. Sometimes when I became frustrated and picked up the axe to swing it, I would catch your eye, eyebrow raised as if asking ‘why?’, and I would pause. At that point, we might take a walk along the beach together; or I might simply drop the axe. More rarely I might decide to swing it anyway – more confident, now, in the strength of the raft, than nervous about my own ability to destroy it.

And then one day I thought I might take it out to sea just for a while, but not too far from shore. You stood watching and smiling as I enjoyed the sunshine on my face. But then, all too quickly, the clouds rolled in and the wind whipped up. The sky turned dark, and I was scared, and before I knew what was happening I found myself in the water.

I shouted to you on the shore, a child’s inflatable life-ring by your side: ‘throw me the life-ring – pull me in to shore!‘. You called out: ‘hold on to the raft!‘. I felt heavy, starting to sink – why couldn’t you see that I needed the ring? I floundered wildly, shouting again: ‘why are you letting me drown? I can’t see the raft, I need the ring –  just reach out and throw me the ring!‘. You picked up a megaphone, your voice reaching out across the water: ‘the ring will not fit, it is not for you; but the raft is there, turn around and you will see it; you can wait out this storm – just hold on to the raft that we built“.

***

It was hard to hear her say that whatever she did it would never be enough. However many sessions we had, however many emails in between times – I would never feel that it was enough. It was hard to hear her say that I was an adult, even when I felt like a child. That I had the ability to think about that feeling of ‘need’ and to try and understand it; and perhaps even to recognise that it may not represent a ‘need’, though it may represent a ‘want’. It was hard to hear her say that my sense of her holding back and of me being ‘at her mercy’, were about feeling a lack of control over others’ actions and reactions. What I perceived as ‘being dependent on the whim of others’, was simply me coming up against the self-determination and spontaneity of other human beings, separate to me. She was separate, and not an extension of me.

It was hard to hear her say those things, and hard to know that she was right. Hard to think that much as I value even the smallest gesture on her part, part of me always wants more. Hard to realise that many of these lessons are lessons I thought that I had already learned. And yet……I would risk drowning, it seems, for the sake of her throwing out a life-line that could not really hold me, rather than depending on what I know we’ve built together. The big question, it seems to me, is WHY……


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Selective hearing – and all that jazz

pushchair finalI think I need a new pair of ears. I’m quite attached to my current ones, and there is not a great deal wrong with them cosmetically; nor are they more than usually clogged up with wax. Nevertheless there seems to be a rather serious fault with my hearing, which I think I have been ignoring for some time.

The problem seems very much like the one my children are inflicted with. It’s called selective hearing. The selectivity can depend either on the content of the message (‘please get dressed’ versus ‘there’s cake in the kitchen’); or on the person uttering it (me versus anyone else in the universe). The selectivity may also depend on the emotional state of the child at the time. For example, feeling angry involves hearing nothing at all – although in fairness this applies to anyone within a hundred yards, given the volume at which my children voice ‘being angry’. Alternatively, feeling hungry for cake and therefore being open to bribery, entails hearing everything, even if it is only spoken once.

Lastly, the selectivity also depends on expectations. If my children are expecting me to give them cake before bedtime (if, for example, I have been foolish enough to promise them such a thing in exchange for five minutes of peace in the car on the drive home), absolutely nothing I say regarding a lack of cake will be heard at all. If I burn the buns, if there is no flour in the house, if all the supermarkets in the world are shut – none of that will matter. Instead, I will be expected to magic some cake into existence to satisfy their all-consuming need, or else I risk facing their impressive explosions of irrational rage.

A few days ago, I resumed therapy after a few weeks’ break over the summer holidays. As often happens after my sessions, I tried to remember particular parts of the conversation, or particular things that my therapist said, but struggled to do so. But in trying to remember, I did recall a couple of phrases which brought me up short and which really made me conscious for the first time, of how great my hearing problem really is.

I had challenged my therapist over a sentence which I had found upsetting, in one of her recent emails. During the course of her explanation of what she had been hoping to convey, she mentioned that I ‘used words well’ and that she had been trying to show that I was ‘held in mind’ during the break. I had clearly heard the words (in a purely auditory sense), and I had even remembered them. But at the time, they simply washed over me, neither heeded nor absorbed. They made no impact, and yet on reflection, that fact astounded me.

In my post ‘Good therapy’, I referred to the fact that fellow blogger BPD Transformation had said to me that it’s possible to train yourself to ‘look for signs’ that your therapist cares about you. My intense and all-consuming attachment to my previous therapist, Jane, meant that I didn’t really have to try ‘look for signs’ – I found them readily, in precious, remembered phrases that still serve to uphold my conviction that she did, in fact, care about me. When thinking about my current therapist’s words, it occurred to me that from Jane, those words would have been gold. I would have clung onto them, absorbed them, taken them to heart and held them. They would have been a ‘sign’ of the fact that she cared, and the fact that she thought about me and thought well of me (or at least, of my writing!).

But as described in some of my other posts on the subject of therapy, I have been struggling for some time now to feel cared for, understood and accepted by my current therapist. There has been progress on all those fronts; and I still have Hope. But I remain desperate to know and to feel that she cares about me; and I have been dying for some praise, whether that concerns my writing, or some progress or realisation I might have made in therapy. So how could those words of hers have passed me by so blithely?

When it comes to selective hearing it seems to be a case of ‘Jane versus the rest of the world’. It’s not that my hearing wasn’t selective when it came to Jane – it was that it was selective in a diametrically opposing way. My rigid determination to keep her on her pedestal ensured that my mind filtered out anything remotely negative or less than perfect, and completely ignored it. Whereas with all other people, I suffer from quite a common BPD tendency to notice the negative much more than positive, or to construe the neutral in a negative way, wherever possible. In large part, I think that’s a function of the fact that I project how I feel onto others; and also a function of assuming that everyone else sees the world through my own particular brand of borderline lens. But with my current therapist, the situation appears to be even worse – it seems to be a case not just of noticing the negative more, but of barely noticing the positive at all.

When it comes to selective hearing it seems to be a case of my feelings being either the amplifier or the attenuator of what is heard. If I am worshipping someone, I hang off their every word, and their words sustain me. If I am feeling rejected and misunderstood by someone, then it’s very difficult for anything they say to get through, and to be truly heard. Difficult, that is, unless it happens to live up to my expectations of what I think I need to hear. Difficult, unless it happens to match up to my script.

Perhaps the problem with my hearing is that it is like one of those badly designed internet search engines which will not find what you are looking for unless you happen to guess almost exactly, the correct combination of words or phrases to search for.

I’m coming to realise that, at least with those closest to me, when I’m in distress and in need of validation and reassurance, I expect it to arrive in a certain way. I expect others to reassure me using words that are part of a script that exists only in my mind. And I expect them to intuit it word perfectly, without any help or clues, or without even the knowledge that the script exists. These expectations are not necessarily conscious, and the script may not even exist until I think about what I needed ‘after the fact’. But the after-effects as described in my posts on communication and on anger – the disappointment, hurt and the rage of expectations not met – are there none-the-less.

This is ‘magical thinking’ at its worst. It doesn’t just rob me of the ability to ask for what I need; it robs me of the ability to receive what I need, unless it is delivered in ‘exactly the right way’.

My post on the relationship between BPD and expectations, and the difficulties that this results in, in terms of communication, was entitled ‘Are you receiving me?’. However, it seems to me that I am the one who needs to be receptive. I need to widen my channels of communication, and allow more than one route in. I need to scrap the script, and allow for the possibility of improvisation.

And with careless disregard for mixing my metaphors – when it comes to therapy, I need to remember that it is more like jazz, than a piano duet. I found the following wonderful words online: “Playing jazz is as much about listening as it is being able to play your instrument. In that kind of situation, a player isn’t thinking about ‘what should I play next’, but rather ‘what is the music, at this moment in time, missing that I can provide?’” .

Turning this on its head, perhaps for me, in therapy, I should be thinking not so much ‘what am I expecting to hear?’ but ‘what are the words, at this moment in time, providing for me, that I am missing?’

 

 

[‘Magical thinking’  is a phrase that my ex-therapist Jane used, to refer to my expectation and assumption that others could (and should) be able to know what I’m thinking and how I’m feeling, without me having to tell them.]


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Are you receiving me – BPD, communication and expectations

I may write blog posts and enjoy giving presentations, but in many ways, I have a BIG problem with communication. I think the difficulty is two-fold: on the one hand it stems from the desperate desire to be understood (which I described in a previous post) and the fear that communication will not result in the understanding or acceptance that I crave.

On the other hand, my difficulty with communication also stems from something which, just like fellow blogger and friend Cat Earnshaw from ‘Half of a Soul – Life with BPD’, I believe is at the core of BPD. And that is the issue of EXPECTATIONS. ‘Expectations’ writ large – the way they are inside the minds of so many with this diagnosis. We withdraw and stop communicating when we feel betrayed and disappointed because our expectations are not met; and sometimes we don’t realise we need to communicate how we think or feel, because our expectation is that the other person does, or should, already know.

Cat Earnshaw titled her post on expectations, “If you’re going to read one post I write, please let it be this one”. If you’re going to read one post on expectations, please let it be that one. (Although I admit I’d also appreciate you coming back to this post!). It’s one of those wonderful pieces of writing that, at least for me, describes a phenomenon exactly as I experience it.

So what is it, exactly, that we expect? In some cases, it is nothing short of perfection: someone who is perfect for us; a perfect relationship; perfect patience; perfect words; perfect understanding; perfect care. Someone who will always be there, who will put our needs first, and who will never let us down. I would suggest that few of these are conscious expectations – our logical brains know that perfection is unattainable and human beings are fallible. But our hearts, and our emotion-minds, and those very young parts of us that have not yet been able to grow up, think and feel very differently. They still believe that perfect care is possible – they still need it to be true.

That need gives rise, I think, to an incredibly heightened sensitivity and reactivity to others’ words and actions, to the extent that everything someone says, does, doesn’t say or doesn’t do, can become evidence of that person’s lack of caring. Much though I hate it, I know that when I’m in that frame of mind and being triggered by my expectations, regardless of what may be going on in someone’s life that influences the way they relate to me, in my mind it all becomes about how they feel about me. This leads to me being much more likely to become wary or suspicious of them; to misinterpret or read things into what they say; to feel wronged by them; to feel jealousy towards them, particularly with respect to their attention and time; and to want to test them, or more accurately, to test their caring for me. My instinctive reaction to these feelings is often to want to blame others and to ‘punish’ them for the crushing disappointment and rejection that I feel. And the greatest punishment I can inflict is the one I fear the most myself – distancing, pushing away, and withdrawing communication.

But for me, the greatest threat to communication is not withdrawing it, but assuming it. Undoubtedly one of the largest and most crippling expectations that I have, is what my ex-therapist called the expectation of ‘magical thinking’. That is, the assumption that others could (and should) be able to know what I’m thinking and how I’m feeling, without me having to tell them. ‘Half of a Soul – Life with BPD’ referred to this as someone being able to telepathically intuit my every need, for ever. The expectation of magical thinking plays havoc with communication and with relationships and its poison lies not just in its assumption of another’s knowing how I think or feel, but in the importance and meaning that is attached to that assumption.

Put simply, part of me holds this unshakable belief. That if someone really understands me and cares about me, they should know what I need without me having to ask, and they should know what I’m thinking and how I’m feeling, without me having to put it into words. And consequently, if they don’t know, they don’t really care or understand. Moreover, part of that unshakable belief is that if I have to ask for those things (for example, if I have to ask for reassurance, or ask for a hug), it diminishes their value, in two ways. Those things can no longer serve as ‘evidence’ of caring and understanding; and I can no longer be sure that they are ‘freely given’. Part of me feels that if I have to ask for something, emotionally, then it is not my due, and I do not deserve or merit it. If I have to ask for something, emotionally, I feel that the giving is in response to my coercion, and not to a genuine feeling within the other person.

It’s a fallacy. I know that it is. But it feels so incredibly logical. It feels so incredibly true.

And as with any other of these seemingly logical expectations, when they are not met, the accompanying feelings are a whirlwind of rejection, blame and hurt. I spoke about blaming and punishing others, but we also blame and punish ourselves. Just tonight, I read a post on ‘Big battles, small victories’, which I think was also, at root, about expectations (apologies to the author, if this is not the case!), and which contained the line “I want to hurt myself again”. Every time I feel crushed because my expectations are not met, I want to hurt myself again.

I suspect that for almost everyone reading this who has BPD, the phenomenon of ‘great expectations’ is a familiar one. But it’s also worth saying that it’s possible to carry on with life and with relating to people for years, without realising the powerful force that lies within, waiting to be triggered. ‘So Illuminate Me’ said, in one of her posts, “My BPD often comes out more, when I genuinely care for someone”. And so it is with BPD and the expectations we have of people. Our exceptionally high expectations, and the thoughts, feelings and behaviours that flow from those, seem to manifest mostly in relation to those we feel closest to. In my own case, they manifest in relation to those to whom I have made myself vulnerable, and those to whom I have made myself more fully known. And because I spent the majority of my life being determined never to be fully known, it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve experienced the painful phenomenon of BPD expectations on a much more regular basis.

Although I’ve made progress over the last couple of years in terms of revealing more of myself to a very small number of friends, I’m still very wary of widening that ‘inner circle’. Part of me doesn’t want to add yet another person to the list of those who trigger me in this way. I’ve tried to understand how it happens – how someone can go from being outside that circle one minute, to crossing the line into the centre of it, in an instant. I think it’s a complicated picture involving a number of factors: it’s about me sharing a great deal of myself, and my feelings and thoughts; it’s about the other person having either explicitly or implicitly given some sort of commitment to ‘be there’ for me; it’s about trust; and it’s about me testing that trust and commitment by revealing ever more ‘difficult’ things. Sometimes the very process of ‘unburdening’ myself to someone can lead to an immediate and invisible bond being forged between us, which may be very real to me, but which the other person may be completely oblivious to.

Given the fact that my expectations tend to be triggered by the factors described above, it’s unsurprising that I experience these feelings with respect to my therapists (both past and present). This is particularly true of me at the moment, and as it is such a recurring theme in my therapy, I intend to write about it separately.

In the meantime, however, I wanted to leave you with a quote from an excellent post I came across on ‘Tracing the rainbow through the rain’. Although it is mainly about BPD and ‘competence’, it describes how I experience the problem of expectations so exactly, and so completely, that I wanted to quote the relevant paragraph in full. In particular, it talks about the expectation of magical thinking, and about how it applies in the context of medical professionals and service users. I hope you came back from Cat Earnshaw’s post to this one, if only to read this paragraph:

“Paradoxically, whilst constructing a mask of competence and coping with excessive levels of stress and responsibility, I would vilify those closest to me along with medical professionals for not seeing my real needs. Effectively, I would blame everyone around me for not being mind readers. This is one of the greatest challenges to professionals trying to help those with BPD who display apparent competence. I will not openly tell you about my emotional distress, but I will hold you accountable for not seeing ‘through’ my mask of competence and I will make you ‘suffer’ as a consequence. My outward co-operation as a service user was tempered by a harsh assessment of those seeking to help me, particularly if I felt they couldn’t see through my outward competence. If anyone failed to ask the ‘right’ question, or misread my mood on any given day, then progress for that day would be painful if not halted.”

The tragedy of expectations is how self-defeating they are: we are so desperate for someone to truly ‘see’ us, that we pull down the blinds simply because they fail to ‘see through us’. We make ourselves invisible, by not accepting the inherent invisibility of our minds.

Somewhere deep down, we are still the infant who believes that she and mother are one being; we are still the toddler who believes that everyone else knows and sees what she does. These are the growing pains of BPD. 

 

 

[If you read the comments on Half of a Soul’s post ‘If you’re going to read one post I write, please let it be this one’, you may notice a strong similarity between my post above, and the comments of ‘Still Hiding’. That is because ‘Still Hiding’ was the ‘name’ I used before I started blogging and before I created ‘Life in a Bind’!]


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“Feelings are real and legitimate.” -Unknown

Often I find I am incapable of articulating my feelings: sometimes because of how vulnerable I am feeling inside and because of the reaction that that articulation might bring from others; sometimes because I have no idea what I’m feeling; and at other times because I have trouble distinguishing thoughts from feelings. That’s where having a ‘feelings vocabulary’ can help – too often, it seems easier to describe a situation or my thoughts about a situation, than to look inside and identify how I feel about it. Having a set of ‘feelings words’ in front of me can help to direct my attention inward, and can help me to connect with my emotional state, rather than to intellectualise it.

I find this post incredibly helpful because it both provides a ‘feelings vocabulary’, and reminds us that our feelings, in and of themselves, are neither right nor wrong. Our feelings simply ‘are’ – they are valid and legitimate, and being able to ‘own’ them is one of the biggest challenges that we can face. We can so easily get entrenched in the pattern of judging both our feelings and ourselves for having them (often because of messages that we were given in the past, either consciously or unconsciously, by others). Accepting our emotions, and allowing ourselves to feel them, can have immense healing power. I hope that being able to identify those emotions, and having a range of words with which to describe them will help me, and hopefully others as well, to take the first steps on the road towards that acceptance.