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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Never enough? BPD and the need for connection

I have been reminded quite forcefully this week, of the fact that I have BPD. Not that it’s particularly easy to forget; but I think it’s fair to say that over the last year or so, the ‘label’ I clung onto so fiercely before (as without it I felt I lacked definition), has seemed a little less important. In therapy I feel I have moved away from trying to understand my ‘symptoms’, to trying to understand my own set of circumstances and past experiences, which are ultimately unique to me. Similarly, my blog posts have moved, I think, from being primarily about my experience of BPD, to being more about my experience of therapy and of life, of which BPD symptoms are a part.

But this week, I feel I am a walking example of a ‘textbook borderline’ – without meaning to cause offence, and in full recognition of the fact that generalisations are often not helpful. Though I know I have made progress in therapy, put me in particular situations and they are guaranteed, it seems, to provoke certain feelings and reactions within me which are par for the course for my ‘condition’. I believe in recovery – but more and more I’m coming to realise that it’s not about symptom elimination; but about managing symptoms and a gradual reduction in their intensity and duration. I think perhaps I will always have a propensity to react in certain ways – but perhaps in future those reactions will not be as painful or as long-lasting as they are now.

I hate the emotions that I am having. And I hate that they are happening to me. I hate feeling so incredibly needy, and I hate it even more when that neediness is directed at others apart from my therapist. For one thing, I cannot talk to those others about how I am feeling. For another, it feels like a betrayal of my therapist. In a painful double-bind, I am yearning to feel special to those others, and at the same time I yearn for my therapist to know how special she is to me. I have an urge to be mothered by those others – to be wrapped up in their arms. But I feel guilty because it is my therapist’s mothering touch that I am most desperate for, and it feels as though I am diminishing that desire by daring to feel it in relation to someone else.

What I suddenly realised this week, is that these emotions have hit me so forcefully not because they went away and have suddenly come back; but because for quite a long time now, they have been focused almost exclusively on my therapist, who has helped me to talk about them and work through them. But now they have spilled out, once again, onto others, and the ease with which that has happened, has shocked me. This week reminded me what a powerful trigger ‘confession’ can be – and that allowing myself to trust people and open up to them, can pull me into a powerful web of emotions. It can open up a ‘pit of need’ (as described in my post ‘BPD and emptiness‘) that feels utterly bottomless and futile. And because it feels so futile, my impulse is to do whatever I can to push it away. It’s been a long time since I deactivated my Facebook account in an attempt to pull away from interaction and to try and deny that sense of need – but I did it again this weekend.

The neediness and the desire for closeness are very painful, and they have been ever present during this last week. But at least I don’t feel as ashamed of those emotions, as I do of the ones that accompany them. I want to feel mothered; but I also want to feel special and unique. Which I can just about accept, were it not for the fact that this leads to a sense of ‘competition’ that feels completely wrong. In order to feel special and to be loved I have to be ‘more than’ any others who might also be vying for attention. Because of my parents’ emphasis on achievement when I was growing up, ‘more than’ has often meant ‘more intelligent’ or ‘more able than’. But – and I find this utterly reprehensible about myself – it can also mean, when it comes to those who know about my diagnosis, ‘more disturbed, more ill, more troubled’. As if I won’t merit others’ attention or their interest if I am well, or doing better than I was. And of course, as well as the desire to be ‘mother’s favoured child’, there is a feeling of jealousy and sibling rivalry towards others in a similar position. I find this particularly difficult as I have no siblings and have never dealt with these emotions before – and yet is it unmistakable that that is what they are. It seems bad enough to feel that jealousy in relation to my therapist’s other clients, who I don’t know – it seems even worse to feel it towards friends or acquaintances. I should emphasize that this is how it seems to me  – I am not suggesting that it is actually wrong or shameful to have these feelings. I know that my therapist would encourage me to stop judging myself for having them.

And yet I have a mental picture of my ‘neediness’ which illustrates how I feel about it, emotionally– it is an insect crawling along, with its antennae always searching for someone who might be able to fill that need, and its tail ready to trap and sting. It feels like a parasite, and though my emotional storm is entirely internal, I am so fearful that if any hint of it escapes, it will be repellent to others. It feels as though so many of my human interactions this week have been tinged with the sense that they can never be enough – and that makes me incredibly sad. Whether that’s the intimate session with my therapist which ended with a lovely sense of connection; or the fun, exciting and affirming email exchange with a fellow-blogger; or the interesting discussions on mental health with friends and colleagues. Interactions that felt caring, satisfying and enriching; and yet also left me feeling empty, and needing something more. Interactions that left me wondering: if you knew that while we were engaged in casual conversation, I was wishing that you would take me in your arms and hold me – would you still want to be in the same room as me tomorrow? If you knew that behind the sense of fun and the stimulating conversation, was a powerful desire for emotional connection – would you risk that conversation again? And if you knew that sometimes when I’m close to you, I just want to climb inside your heart and be kept safe there…..

My therapist DOES know. And she still’s there. But I’m not so sure about everybody else.


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What’s in a name?

*TRIGGER WARNING – SELF-HARM*

I am in the grip of something that I don’t understand. It’s happened before, and it’s always disquieting, as unlike many of the symptoms or feelings I experience, this is one for which I don’t have a name. For a while I wondered whether it was a type of dissociation, but I thought dissociation was meant to protect you from painful emotions, and this is one of the worst feelings that I know.

There is something within me to which I don’t have access, and the frustration that this inaccessibility engenders, builds and puts increasing pressure on my insides. Sometimes the frustration builds and builds until the force of it is so strong I feel as though I need to explode outwards but I can’t. Sometimes I am dimly aware of it  – it builds for a day or two and then dies down, without any explanation, either for its arrival, or its departure. There is the feeling and the meta-feeling- the ‘inaccessible’ emotion, and the unbearable frustration.

My school friend who also has BPD was telling me that she feels bereft because she is struggling so much and yet is completely unable to put her feelings into words. I feel very grateful that for me, writing is not daunting, but a delight, and that it is one of the very few ways in which I am able to communicate emotion. But although I had to admit that I could not directly empathise with her ‘writers’ block, I do know how it feels to be ‘emotionally blocked’.

She struggles to capture feelings in words and to make them known to others; ‘inaccessibility’, for me, means struggling to capture emotions in feelings, and to make them felt to myself. And because I know that that sounds all but incomprehensible, I will try and explain it a little bit more.

This is what I wrote to my friend, when she told me about feeling bereft:

“I think I can understand the utter frustration of not being able to express something, though I don’t necessarily experience it in relation to words. Not being able to express something leaves you feeling deprived, because you can’t let ‘it’ out; and neither can you let someone else in to see ‘it’, because you cannot paint a picture for them. ‘It’ is inexpressible and incommunicable and that leaves you utterly isolated, with no bridge to another mind.”

That sense of being ‘cut off’, bereft, not being able to paint a picture of what is wrong, or to transfer the information to someone else where it can be understood and felt  – that is how I experience ‘inaccessibility’, but in relation to myself. That is how I experience ‘inaccessibility’ in relation to an emotion that I can sense but cannot feel; a disquiet that I can intuit, but that does not reveal itself to me.

‘Inaccessibility’ is always connected, for me, with a strong desire to self-harm. It is part of what grips me and intrudes upon my thoughts. It may be intended as an ‘antidote’ but it’s also part of the poison, as it feeds the meta-feeling with its own brand of frustration. My cutting has almost always been restricted to a small and easily concealed area of my body, in order to be able to keep it absolutely hidden. The need to be restrictive has always been frustrating, and occasionally that frustration spills over into minor cuts on more visible parts of my body.

In these times, the need within me is to start cutting and not to stop. The desire to be able to keep going, to fill up all of me with pain, and to blood-let out of every pore, is intense. The fact that I cannot do so  – that my life, as it is now, depends on not doing so – just adds fuel to the fire, and deepens the compulsion. In these times, the self-harming serves a double purpose. It tries to block and distract from the frustration by creating pain that is louder, more immediate. At the same time, it tries to make the ‘inaccessible’ present by removing the vacuum and giving me something concrete to feel.

I never know when the disquiet is going to arrive – and I never know how much it will build, or how long it is going to stay. I felt it when I visited that same school friend two years ago, and we spent an intense weekend closeted in her flat, sharing our experiences and talking about our relationship. By the end of the weekend, my internal state reflected the pressure-cooker environment we had immersed ourselves in, but I had no release valve and I felt as though I was bursting at the seams with anguish.

I felt it grow for about ten days last year, when I was having counselling sessions with my ex-therapist, Jane. It started off as pain that I could sense was there but could not feel or express, and it grew into something so unbearable that every day, I wanted to die. Our session over-ran a little one day, as I desperately clutched my arms around my body, folded over double in my chair, needing frantically to feel and cry but not being able to give birth to a single tear.

This time, my mind keeps coming back to a recent therapy session where I was describing thoughts and dreams I’d had, related to what it would have been like to be my therapist’s daughter. I can’t really describe why it felt like such a ‘special’ session. Particularly because other than ‘special’, I’m not sure it felt like anything much at all. I’ve been feeling ‘high’ following on from my recent Escape into suicidal ideation, but this seems to go hand in hand with a sense of not connecting with my emotions, and of being detached from them. But I keep wanting to come back to that ‘special’ session – to dwell in it. I want to talk about it all again, even though I’ve got nothing to new to say. Something powerful is drawing me, but it wants to stay unnamed and unfelt. And this ‘inaccessible’ something has flicked a switch inside my mind that keeps the same sentence playing on repeat: ‘I need to cut; I need to cut’.

I can’t pretend to understand it, though I do want to ‘name it’. I want to be able to look it up, to read about it, to have someone say ‘This, this, is what you are experiencing, and this is why it happens’. I want to know whether it is a fundamental part of my diagnosis, or something unrelated. I want to know whether others experience it too.

But would I really feel more in control of it, be better able to deal with it, if I knew what this ‘inaccessibility’, this ‘disconnect’ was called? Knowledge is power – I believe that. But at the same time, ‘a rose by any other name….’ – or perhaps by no name – would still be the same bloody set of thorns.


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The unbearable insubstantiality of being – BPD and identity

More often than not, there is a distance of time in my writing, between the events or feelings that prompted it, and the recounting itself. Sometimes, that time can be as little as twenty-four hours, as was the case for my post on suicide. More often, it tends to be a number of days, weeks, or even of months. In general, my writing tends to be a way of reflecting on events, rather than processing them. The processing happens in my head, as the precursor to the writing, although it’s still true to say that in the writing, new revelations or new interpretations can sometimes be unearthed. But it’s fair to say that most often, when I’m in the thick of emotions, I cannot write about them until I have some perspective on them. I may write as a way of coping – but I write about something else.

But this time, I have to write ‘in the moment’. I have to write through it and write it through. I have to write it out. Perhaps it is because this moment, this emotion, keeps returning. There is no getting rid of it, and if I wait to gain some distance or perspective on it, I may wait too long, and never give it expression.

I have often heard others with BPD talk about feeling ‘unreal’, and wondered exactly what they meant, or how they would describe it. I would still like to know. ‘Anxiety Care UK’ describes ‘derealisation’ as feeling dissociated from one’s environment. To quote from their website: “The experience might include perceiving objects as unsolid, diminished in size or two-dimensional; and the self as perhaps being inside some glass-like container or peering at the world through a fog, with the world unreachable and meaningless.”

No, I don’t think that describes the emotion I’m referring to, although I often feel that life is hopeless and meaningless. I have felt the world as being ‘out of kilter’; I have felt as if I were living on my own speeding train, on a parallel track with the rest of the world, never to intersect; but I’m not sure I have felt ‘derealisation’, as described above. ‘Depersonalisation’- yes, I have felt that. The same website describes it as: “people will experience changes in self-awareness, which might include feeling as if their thoughts and actions are not their own, perhaps as far as experiencing the sensation as watching themselves from the outside.”

But this feeling that I have – it’s not depersonalisation either. My inner voice keeps offering up the phrase ‘I feel unreal’, and it is quickly quashed by my inner critic who still regularly persists in accusing me of fraud, and of ‘making up’ my mental health difficulties. “What do you mean you ‘feel unreal’? You have no right to use that phrase because those who use it actually do feel unreal – as if they don’t exist, as if they are ethereal. You’re lying to yourself. You’re not ill. You don’t feel unreal.” But I do – I do feel unreal. I don’t think it’s necessarily in the same way as some of those with BPD ‘feel unreal’, but the phrase still feels appropriate to me. It still rings true. I may not know exactly what others mean when they use it, but I know what I mean  – and this is it.

It’s not that I feel ‘physically unreal’, or that my physical being feels ethereal, far from it. My physical existence weighs me down – its heaviness makes it hard to ignore. I try to escape it by retreating inside my head, but I continue to travel through time and space while I wish that I could be less bounded; that I could somehow leave my body behind to live my life, while I inhabit a different, purely mental world. Give me the blue pill Morpheus, and let me live in my matrix of dreams.

No, it’s not that I feel physically unreal. It’s that I feel devoid of content. I’m not sure if I feel empty – but I feel I am empty. I feel as though there’s nothing there. My outer being may feel heavy, but my inner being feels utterly insubstantial. And like many aspects of BPD, that feeling is particularly present in the turbulence of the relationships with those I am closest to – my husband, in particular.

I am spirit, and every criticism blows apart my atoms like wind rushing through a cloud of smoke. Every harsh word annihilates me. With every argument and insult I lose integrity – in both senses. My decency, my character (do I have any?) are undermined; any sense of wholeness and cohesion are swept away. I am nothing, I am worth nothing. I grasp at a sense of identity but when being undermined rather than being underpinned, it feels as though there is nothing there to grab hold of. Like Schrodinger’s Cat, my state of being – full or empty, worthy or worthless – is undetermined until your looks and words give it actuality.

Perhaps, then, this sense of unreality is much more about identity, than it is about physicality or dissociation. In the landscape of the DSM IV criteria for BPD, perhaps we’re in the terrain of criterion 3: “Identity disturbance – markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self”. And science knows what happens to unstable elements – they self-destruct and either reject or convert parts of themselves, in order to become something else.

Sometimes, I wish my response to feeling devoid of content was to feel devoid of emotion. Given how much I crave intensity of feeling, that’s saying something. Instead, feeling devoid of content makes me want to be devoid of life. A book of blank pages is a lifeless book. How joyless feels the task of turning every page, until the end. Feeling devoid of content looks like Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’, but on the inside. Feeling devoid of content feels like cutting across the canvas of my skin to let the sunset of ‘The Scream’ seep out. As Munch wrote, “Suddenly the sky became blood – and I felt the breath of sadness”.

Sometimes I feel like a useless sack of skin. That description chills me  – it feels horrifyingly dehumanising. One could argue that self-consciousness, a sense of identify and of who we are, is part of the essence of being human. If that is unstable, no wonder we can sometimes feel less than human. No wonder we can sometimes feel unreal. It’s not that we feel as though we don’t exist. It’s that we exist, but incompletely. It’s that we exist, but without a core. No wonder we are so afraid of caving in, and that ‘being’ is sometimes so unbearable.