Life in a Bind – BPD and me

Borderline Personality Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and my therapy journey. Listed in Top Ten Resources for BPD in 2016 by goodtherapy.org. I write for welldoing.org and for Muse Magazine Australia, under the name Clara Bridges.


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Sitting to feel safe

*TRIGGER WARNING – SUICIDAL IDEATION*

I’ve sat pretty motionless for the past hour and a half, because if I don’t move, even if I’m not doing something to actively try and distract from these thoughts, at least I’m not doing anything to act on them either.

I can still move my fingertips on the keyboard, as I’m doing now. Twenty minutes ago I typed in the Samaritans’ email address in an open window in my Gmail account, but I haven’t typed anything else in it yet. I got distracted by opening up a private browser window and looking up more information on a particular way to die. As with most ways to die, there appeared to be numerous downsides. And then I came across this:

https://www.victoriahealth.com/editorial/suicide

It is an incredibly poignant article by the late Sally Brampton, who tragically took her own life a few months ago. It is moving, funny, and brutally honest.

I wish I had a suicidal soulmate, like Sally did. Yet somehow I can’t bear the thought of ‘inflicting’ my suicidal ideation on friends, even on those who might on some level be able to relate to how I’m feeling. I don’t want to burden anyone with my thoughts, or cause them to feel as though they are somehow responsible for my safety. I don’t want to talk to anyone; but at the same my inner critic is busy invalidating me and telling me I have no right to share this with anyone. It tells me I have no right to take my feelings seriously; that if they were serious I would have made an attempt on my life already. That if they were serious then my ‘mood states’ would last longer, rather than often being intense but fairly fleeting. I know my inner critic is a liar. I believe my inner critic.

In her article, Sally wrote that when you are in the midst of depression, “the senseless makes sense”. I don’t know whether or not it’s a consequence of neuroplasticity, but I can certainly attest to the fact that over time and given prolonged suicidal ideation, the concept of suicide acquires its own twisted type of logic. I recognise that it is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, and I recognise the devastation it can leave in its wake. But it’s still as if the phrase ‘suicide is logical’ has been rewired into a tautology in my brain. Most of the time I can hold it alongside the concept ‘suicide is not a good solution’. But sometimes I really struggle with that. Like tonight.

I felt such a strange mixture of shock, sadness and relief, when I read how in her darkest times, Sally began to imagine dying together with her daughter, who also suffered from depression; lying side by side, holding hands, and drifting off into an endless sleep. A couple of years ago in one of my own lowest patches, I half-jokingly half-seriously suggested to a close childhood friend of mine who also suffers from depression, that we usher in our next decade together in a similar fashion; holding hands while drifting off into a place of no pain. She called me ‘sick’ and hasn’t spoken to me since. I told another good friend what had happened and she discouraged me from writing about it, saying it wasn’t really one of my better moments. It wasn’t, and I was ashamed of it. But I think I’d always been hoping that behind the ‘sick suggestion’, my friend would be able to see the fact that I loved her, and if there was anyone I wanted to share the terror and intimacy of death with, it was her. She didn’t see it – she didn’t see the strange sort of logic that suicidal ideation sometimes constructs. Thank you Sally for helping me feel a little less ashamed of the fact that sometimes the senseless makes sense to me.

And yet I’m lucky, very lucky. Lucky because I’m able to root myself to the spot and somehow convince myself to ride it out while letting my fingers do the job of trying to bring me back into safety. Lucky because at this juncture in time, this moment is a moment; intense and almost unbearable, but likely to pass relatively quickly. I am not in the midst of a prolonged period of depression; and even when I am, unlike Sally’s months and years of hell, my worst periods tend to last three or four weeks at a time.

It’s been almost two and a half hours now, of sitting in one spot, waiting to feel safer. I feel a bit safer. Maybe safe enough to risk moving. My inner critic berates me for wasting hours doing nothing. Previously, not making an attempt on my life was evidence of a lack of seriousness; now it’s evidence of a lack of productivity. Another bizarre sort of logic.

At the end of her article, Sally wrote: “So, and I say this with all my heart, hold onto hope, because if we keep it grasped tight, then summer will surely come”. I’d be lying if I said I was trying to hope for summer. Right now I’d like to be able to hope for a crisp, sunny, sparkling day in winter. Right now, that will be more than enough.


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Mental health and the holidays: we’ve survived Christmas, but what about New Year’s Eve?

And….it’s that time of year again. And once again I’m dreading it, and this post from the end of December last year describes why, and is just as true then, as it is now. If anything, I am even more frightened of the depths of January this time, than I was last year.
The challenges of the holiday season are far from over, and if you either are someone, or know someone with mental health difficulties, please do reach out to receive or give support this New Year’s Eve. An understanding text (that doesn’t just say ‘Happy New Year’!) can make all the difference….

Life in a Bind - BPD and me

My heart sank when I saw the first of the ‘It’s been a wonderful year!’ type pictorial summaries pop up in my Facebook feed. It seemed to start even earlier this year, and just as the equivalent gimmicks did over the last couple of years, it’s spreading like wildfire; like some sort of contagion. In addition, I know that come 31 December, my feed will start filling up with expressions of festive cheer, thankfulness and the highlights of my friends’ lives over the last year.

fireworks new yearIf there were a Scrooge of the New Year season, I would probably be it. If there were a New Year’s alternative to ‘Bah humbug’, I would probably use it. But at the risk of losing those of you at this point who think I’m simply a mean and grumpy party-pooper – I have a serious point to make.

As soon as Christmas is over…

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Staying afloat

A friend shared this poem with me and I wanted very much to share it with you. I have read that it is about a father teaching his daughter how to swim – but it feels as though it is about so much more as well. Perhaps this will be particularly poignant if you have a daughter; if you are a daughter; or if you are aching to be the daughter of someone who is trying to teach you to keep your head above water in life, rather than sinking under its weight. Someone who is gently guiding you and buoying you up, until such time as that ability has grown inside you, light as air.

I’m a terrible swimmer and I can’t tread water for more than a couple of minutes before tiring; but I know how to float. It’s a question of remembering to lie back and lie still; remembering to look upwards; remembering to open my arms up in a wide embrace; and remembering the voice of one who tells me I am safe and I am held. And that even in fear and absence – especially in fear and absence – I am held. I hope you enjoy these beautiful words…

First lesson, lie back


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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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Feeling grateful

For various reasons I have been really anxious about this week, for quite some time. The weekend before last was very similar in many ways to the one I wrote about in my post ‘Why taking a pledge to talk about suicide, can be so powerful‘. I was feeling utterly worthless, trapped, and didn’t want to carry on any longer. Once again, I ended up crying through the service at church on Sunday and then dissolving in an even bigger heap in the arms of a friend at the end of the service, and telling her how much I wanted to die. At the same time, work became particularly stressful, and therapy also hit one of those frustratingly familiar and painfully gut-wrenching brick walls where I felt stuck and very very alone. At that stage, when I looked ahead to this week, it all seemed very very scary. Knowing that there would be a number of triggers this week that could potentially make things worse, and knowing how isolated and desperate I was already feeling, I felt more than a little unsafe.

And so it’s very strange to be sitting here now, in a rather different frame of mind. And it was particularly strange to find myself on Sunday, in contrast to the weekend before, making a mental list of people and things that I was grateful for. I remember the difficult feelings that were triggered when ‘100 Happy Days’ became the latest craze on Facebook last year, and my newsfeed was filled up daily with things that my friends were thankful for. Much like the situation described in my post ‘Mental health and the holidays’, I was glad that they had things they were grateful for, but at the same time I was desperately sad and also angry; not just because of the ways in which I was struggling, but also at the fact that those very struggles lessened my ability to even be able to see or appreciate any of the things I might otherwise feel thankful for. And so prior to Sunday, I think it was a long time since I had managed to feel grateful for a few small things, without that gratefulness being mixed either with feelings of being ‘undeserving’ or feelings of an impending loss (that whatever it was I was grateful for, would be taken away).

And so with a few potential triggers still to come this week, I just wanted to make a small list of some of those people who I have felt particularly grateful for recently. They were all I think, responsible for the fact that I feel so differently now, to the way I imagined last week that I would be feeling. They are:

  • the person whose random act of kindness on ‘World Kindness Day’ has stayed with me, and still keeps me feeling warm
  • the friend who asks me how I really am when I say that I’m okay
  • the person who last week gave me their time when they had other things to do, and told me it was the most important thing they would do that day
  • the friend who held me when I thought nothing of myself, and told me I was special
  • the blogger who was a friend, who became a friend who is a blogger, and whose words were even more up-building when spoken across a coffee table than across the internet
  • my therapist who encourages me to stand up for myself and not to let my self-worth be defined by others. Ultimately, her words helped me to take a small step over the weekend which made a big difference. A small dose of self-worth coupled with a little kindness and affection from others, can go a very, very, long way.

I want to thank them all and to let them know they helped me to feel better, and they helped me to feel grateful. In essence, they helped me to feel as though I matter – and that’s a million miles away from where I was just a few days ago.

 

 

 

 


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It feels like time running out

A few weeks ago, Sarah Hughes @donteducateblog tweeted the link to the video of Jamie Lawson’s ‘Wasn’t expecting that’. At that stage, I hadn’t come across the song at all, although it was soon to top the UK charts. I subsequently heard it on the radio a number of times, but am grateful for having been pointed to the video, which I almost certainly would not have looked for, otherwise.

As the tweet had indicated it would be, I found it incredibly moving and ended up watching it a number of times, in tears. The song is a beautiful but tragic (in an all-too-common way) love story of a couple who meet young, get married, have children, and lead a fulfilling life together, which is cut short by cancer. The video tells the story in reverse order to the lyrics, starting with the couple in late middle-age, and working back to their meeting as youngsters. At the end, and in accordance with the lyrics of ‘Wasn’t expecting that’, the video cuts to the image of a wife and mother taking her last breath, caught by a relapse despite an earlier, but temporary reprieve. It’s only as you hear the lyrics unfold that you realise what it taking place in the video – you recognise the words that you have already heard, enacted in the scenes that are taking place.

Cancer is in my family – as it is in everyone’s – and I first came across it at a fairly young age. I lost close relatives and I was in close proximity during the progression of the illness. The video was a hard watch because it triggered memories. But more than that, it was a hard watch because it triggered fears about the future. It wasn’t so much my relatives that I saw in that dying wife and mother, but myself.

Growing up, I had an intense fear of death and the paraphernalia of death. I found it deeply uncomfortable being around serious illness; I found it distressing visiting family gravesides and would do almost anything to avoid it. Being in the rooms of those who had died left me feeling literally ‘haunted’ by their presence. And somewhere along the way, I picked up and internalised an unwavering belief that, like those who had gone before me, cancer would consume me and I would die young. I was often compared with one of my relatives who died in middle-age; somehow the genetic traits or accomplishments we shared because indicative of a common destiny, a shared manner of dying.

This has been very much on my mind lately. In the not-too-distant future I will entering a new decade. My therapist jokingly said that it ‘wasn’t too bad’ and that the decade after that was ‘the real killer’. I told her that her comment was unwittingly apt, because part of me firmly believes that I won’t make it beyond this next decade and into the one after. Entering a new decade feels like the start of a ten year countdown to the end of my life.

And neither is my belief completely without foundation. A few years ago, following discovery of a breast lump, I was told I had lobular neoplasia, the ‘polite’ name for lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS), what some might call ‘Stage 0’ cancer, though some tend to argue that in the case of LCIS it shouldn’t technically be regarded as cancer at all. However, my chances of developing ‘actual’ breast cancer are now more like 1 in 3 or 1 in 4, and combined with other instances of breast cancer in the family, those are not the most promising odds. I feel as though I am playing a waiting game – waiting for Stage 0 to develop into Stage 1, or worse. According to my internalised timescale, I believe that that will happen at some point within the next decade. And yet, I am doing absolutely nothing to try and prevent it. My diet is appalling and I do virtually no exercise. Part of it is due, I think, to an inherently poor appreciation of risk. But I’m beginning to realise that it is also partly because I believe that whatever I do will make no difference – that this illness will kill me in the short or medium term, and there is no escaping that scenario.

I think that this belief is in large part responsible for an aspect of my mental health difficulties that has troubled me for a very long time, and which was present even during the period when my BPD symptoms were somewhat in remission. I get very anxious and distressed at the idea of ‘time running out’ and I am constantly worrying about ‘making the most of my time’. This anxiety is such a core part of the way that I am now, that every decision on how to spend my time involves an automatic calculation of whether I can ‘afford the time’ and how I will ‘make up for it’ , if necessary, at another point. A friend of mine realised suddenly when I described this to her a few months ago, that ‘this is why I never see you’! She was right – it took me two years to meet up with another close friend because it took that long to persuade myself that I could allow myself to take a day away from the children. In the few months before my second child was born, I became virtually house-bound when I wasn’t at work, because I wouldn’t let myself interact with anyone else in order to maximise the remaining one-on-one time I had left with my elder child. In addition, I always find the first few days of any holiday exceptionally stressful, until I reach the point where I feel I have ‘made some memories’ and made ‘good use of my time’.

These days, right in the midst of BPD, when I think about the possibility – in my mind, the certainty – of getting ill, I am petrified and appalled at the thought of having to go through that experience feeling as completely alone and isolated as I do now. I simply don’t feel capable of fighting serious physical and mental illness at the same time, whilst also in the midst of a relationship in serious trouble; and I would not want my children to watch me go through what I watched my own family experience. Though suicidal ideation is something I experience on a fairly regular basis, I am afraid of having my ‘hand forced’ in that way – though I know that for as long as I breathe I have a choice, however difficult the choice to live may be. And I am afraid because sometimes it feels as though that choice will present itself not even in ten years, or five years, but in ten months, or five months, or five weeks, or tomorrow. However much my heart breaks when I think about the fact that one day therapy will end and I will lose my therapist, at the same time part of me believes that she will lose me first.

To the extent that my BPD allows -perhaps instead of being so focused on making memories, I should be more focused on one day being remembered. Because that would involve being really present and alive to someone else, in the moment, rather than living constantly in the shadow of the future, while trying to turn the present into a memorable past. And then, if and when something happens, I can say ‘I was so busy living, I wasn’t expecting that’. Rather than ‘I was so busy expecting that, I wasn’t really living’.

 


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Who is that girl I see?

I have recently given in to letting my children play Christmas songs in the car, but before that, ‘Now Disney’ was frequently on repeat (though I banned disc 4, the Christmas album – I draw the line at cartoon characters singing Jingle Bells)! I remember the Disney songs of my own childhood, and I know tracks from the latest films, as my children are now old enough to enjoy the cinema. ‘Let it Go’ is still a firm favourite, but it took me a while to figure out what my children were doing, when they started singing the ‘Banana’ song from the Minions movie!

However, there are a couple of decades in between , where I have missed out on a swathe of wonderful Disney films and beautiful songs, which I am now gradually coming to know through my children’s music and DVDs. I have a soft-spot for ‘Tangled’, an interesting retelling of the Rapunzel story, with a wonderful soundtrack that is both moving and disturbing – for anyone who has experienced an intrusive, controlling or narcissistic mother, it is hard to listen to the reprise of ‘Mother knows best’ without feeling extremely uncomfortable.

But recently, I have been particularly struck by the words to ‘Reflection’, a song from the 1998 film ‘Mulan’. It was covered by Christina Aguilera, and it became her debut adult contemporary single. Though the lyrics are about questions of identity and acceptance for a young girl struggling to find her true self in a male dominated and culturally restrictive China of times past, they are in other ways universal, and they are certainly relevant to questions of identity and acceptance in mental health.

Although I am becoming more open about my mental health difficulties, I do still need to hide them from work and from family, and I often come up against an intense internal frustration at the fact that I am so routinely ‘in hiding’ and that in most contexts, I cannot be ‘seen’ and therefore accepted, for who I am. And that sense of lack of acceptance goes right back to before the development of my BPD, and to the feeling that I was expected by my parents to be a particular way, and that acceptance, therefore, was in some sense conditional, and that I had to hide a great deal about how I really thought and felt.

If you have not come across this song before, I hope it resonates with you, as it did with me. These verses, in particular, stand out for me:

“Look at me
You may think you see
Who I really am
But you’ll never know me
Every day
It’s as if I play a part
Now I see
If I wear a mask
I can fool the world
But I cannot fool my heart….

…..Who is that girl I see
Staring straight back at me?
Why is my reflection
Someone I don’t know?
Must I pretend that I’m
Someone else for all time?
When will my reflection show
Who I am inside? ….

…..Why must we all conceal
What we think, how we feel?
Must there be a secret me
I’m forced to hide?
I won’t pretend that I’m
Someone else for all time
When will my reflection show
Who I am inside?
When will my reflection show
Who I am inside?”

[From ‘Reflection’ – written and produced by Wilder and Zippel, recorded by Christina Aguilera]