Life in a Bind – BPD and me

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


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Fear and fantasy

In a couple of previous posts, I have talked about my ‘yoga imaginings’ – images and scenes, a little like waking dreams, that come into my mind when I’m in Yin yoga class. Last night’s class focused on the ‘kidney meridian’, and I was a little apprehensive because I don’t think I’ve yet managed to get through a kidney meridian practice, without crying. My yoga theory is almost non-existent, but for those who possess even less than I do, a meridian in yoga and in Chinese medicine, is considered to be a pathway in the body through which vital energy is said to flow. The various pathways are associated with key organs, and the key organs are associated with various senses and emotions. After a couple of occasions of tears streaming down my face during ‘kidney meridian’ yoga classes, I did a little reading online and discovered that the ‘negative’ emotion most associated with the kidneys, is fear. I certainly have a huge amount of that.

In a ‘standard scene’ from these imaginings, I’m standing on a beach, often with my therapist. The beach is an image of my inner safe space – my yoga teacher said that she imagines herself in a cave, but that feels far too claustrophobic for me. Last night, I was standing on the beach with my therapist, and God was with us. Probably because he’s the only other person I’m letting near me and into my head at the moment, and that’s after many years of keeping Him at arms’ length. He was at least a foot taller than me, thin, and he wore a black suit, which seems a rather odd image to associate with Him – particularly when standing on a beach.

I looked behind me and saw a long line of people, standing in pairs – a little like the animals waiting to go into the Ark. I had the impression that they were people who loved me – or were waiting to love me. And I just crumpled into a heap, held up by God on one side, and my therapist on the other. I was appalled, and scared; I felt overwhelmed.

Getting to know aspects of my subconscious over the last few months in therapy, has been painful, disappointing, shocking, surprising, and demoralising. I know there are parts of me that don’t want to change; I know that on some level, I don’t want to like myself, or see any good in myself, or believe that I matter. But I think last night was the first time I understood how much fear I hold, at the thought of being loved by people. I have always known that I wanted to be loved by one person – and I always believed that that would be enough. Over the last year or so, I have attributed that to my mother’s emphasis on exclusivity – that all other love than hers was inferior, replaceable, and fleeting. In the past, I have felt contemptuous of those who I thought loved me ‘too much’  –  whether that was the little boy at school who complemented me on my outfits, or one of my relatives, who used to shower me with gifts and money when I was growing up. But this sense of fear and overwhelm at the thought of being loved not just by one, but by many (or even a few), was a new realisation. Though I haven’t really had the chance to process it yet, I think that part of what underlies the fear is a question – what do they want from me? – and the belief that they will somehow carve me up and take me for themselves, and that there will be nothing of me left.

The bell for the end of the yoga pose rang, and that image ended, but the next scene took place on the same beach. I saw two characters which had been absent from my imaginings for a long time, though they were some of the first to make an appearance when I started yoga. They were ballerinas, dressed in white tutus – a little Afro-Caribbean girl of around five or so, and a blond woman in her twenties. They were both aspects not of a person, or of me, but of what I thought of as spirit, or something external and more powerful than me and my internal parts. I never called this set of characters ‘God’ (though they were trinity – the third being a dark haired teenage ballerina), but they exuded wisdom and commanded a sense of awe and respect from every other character in my imaginings. When they danced, everyone else fell silent, and simply watched.

This time, however, I realised despairingly that the ballerinas were not actually present. Their image was static, and flickered, like the picture on an old TV screen. It was as if, having been absent for so long, they were now simply a memory; a faded, flat, insubstantial presence. I hated it. I wanted them to become real, to walk out of the screen on which it now appeared, their images were projected. I willed it, with all my strength, but the picture still flickered, still stayed flat. With mounting frustration, I grabbed a knife and ripped the fabric projection screen, from top to bottom.

In the quiet of the front row of the yoga class I gasped, audibly, and tears welled up as I reached out my hand, eyes still closed, for a tissue. I think that for a split second I had imagined that the ballerinas would walk out, bodily, from behind the curtain screen. Instead, I looked out through the tear, and onto an enormous and consuming storm. I’m not sure how to describe it:  hurricane, tornado, wind, lighting, thunder, chaos, devastation – all on a massive scale. No structures were visible, only the sheer tumult, confusion, force, and destruction of the elements. I know how ridiculous this all sounds – while you picture us sitting there on our yoga mats with quiet music and in (almost) perfect stillness – and yet I cannot describe how shocking, horrifying, and real it felt, in the moment, gazing through that curtain in my head.

Re-reading what I’ve described, it seems that the words I have put to my experience are these: I tried to look through my projections to get to something real, and what I glimpsed was terrifying, destructive, and chaotic. I encountered, amongst other things, a visual, visceral, representation of my last few months of struggle in therapy. I have been lost, emotionally, and grappling, intellectually – trying to find approaches, solutions, answers. Everything sounds persuasive, but nothing seems capable of breaking through, to my feeling core. Well, if what I saw is what’s waiting to be broken through to, quite frankly, I’m not surprised.

That image only came once. The yoga pose ended, and during the next one, I saw myself sewing up part of the tear in the curtain screen. My therapist was sealing up other parts of it, only – don’t laugh – she didn’t need to use needle and thread, as the torn edges stuck together simply at the touch of her hand. There was a sense of closing up something painful, for another time. For a time when I might be more equipped to deal with it. My mending left visible scars, reminding me of my self-harm. My mending took great effort, and the outcome was ugly. My therapist’s mending was effortless, and after it, everything looked just like it did before. I thought of the power of her metaphorical touch, which I have wonderfully benefited from, and about the potential power of her physical touch, which I will never experience. Now there’s a storm that brewed and then simmered, and doesn’t need stirring.

Perhaps God on the beach would tell me that I gazed on an image of eternal destruction; if not of the ‘after-life’ sort, then either on the current state of the destructive and self-hating parts of me, or on the damage that they are capable of inflicting. Which may as well be eternal – from my perspective – if they lay waste to the rest of my life. In the religious imagery of my sub-conscious, it requires a death to rend that curtain into two that divides us from relationship, and there is a darkness to be walked through before restoration is possible. For the last few months my whole being has felt like either a battlefield or a desert – and I have no idea who it will be, ultimately, who ends up biting the dust.

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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

 


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A day in the life – Day 3

In December and May I wrote posts giving links to my first two entries for the ‘A Day in the Life‘ project. The project involves writing a short piece about everyday life on four different days spanning a whole year. Anyone who experiences mental health difficulties can get involved, and not everyone submits an entry for each of the four days. The fourth and final day covered by this project is 26 August 2015 – if you would like to contribute, even if you haven’t done so before, please do visit the site and have a look. You will be able to register if you would like to take part.

On 7 November I wrote about being at home with the children, and how it turned out to be an ordinary day – even a good day – despite the fact that it started less than ideally, and I spent quite some time catastrophizing. It reminded me that we aren’t defined by our mental health difficulties, and neither are those difficulties invalidated by the fact that we can experience joy as well.

On 10 February I wrote about my day at work, and the ‘burden’ of apparent competence. The fact that I often feel trapped by my ability to carry on even when everything inside feels like it’s screaming and on the verge of collapse. I feel trapped by the necessity to carry on and the fear that if I don’t, those two parts of my life that I have held separate for so long – work and non-work – will come together and my world will quite literally fall apart.

The third day was Sunday 10 May. This time I wrote about going to church with my family, and about faith. The fact that I find it hard to have faith in God, in other people, and in myself. That often I sit in church and feel resentful of the fact that I am hiding who I am, even though that is entirely my own choice. It is a function of my lack of faith which means I don’t trust how people might react, who they might tell, and how they might respond to me in future. But sometimes it only takes a little faith – or, in this case, a little one’s faith – to restore some hope, and to bring some comfort and a sense of being loved.

Here is my account of Day 3.

(Please ignore the 10 February heading – this really is my account of 10 May!)


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Faith

god parent final I find it difficult writing a post about religion. I think it’s at least partly because religion was such a controversial topic between my mother and me that it’s always been a discussion best avoided, other than when tackled in a purely philosophical, non-personal and non-emotive sense.

However, I have come across a number of mental health bloggers with a strong faith, which I have both envied and admired. And which, I have to say, made me very conscious of the fact that it’s a subject that has so far never figured in my posts. Which is itself indicative of the fact that it’s a subject that has figured very little in my life over the last few years. But it’s time I tackled it, at least in overview, both in the spirit of my commitment to self-disclosure and being open about all aspects of my BPD; and also in the hope that others might identify with these feelings, and that what I say might be helpful, at least to some. I hope it is of general interest – for those with a belief in God, for those without, and for those who are not sure. I think that BPD can make having faith in anything very hard – and as such, I hope that this post speaks to all those who struggle to keep faith with anyone or anything that used to be important to them.

I have always had a faith – apart from when I almost lost it during my final year of school. In that year, I went to bed every night not caring whether I lived or died, but counter-intuitively, I seemed to care very much, whether my faith lived or died. That faith has had different types of ‘flavours’, at least partly dependent on who I was with, or the major influences in my life at the time – but it has always been there. However, I have noticed that time and time again, my worst times as regards my BPD and my depression, have coincided with crises of faith of one kind or another. At the times when conceivably, I needed it the most, it has either abandoned me, or I it. It has either left me in agonising doubt, or I have left it on the scrapheap.

I think it’s true to say, that for the last few years, I have been ‘keeping God on the back burner’. I’m a little worried that He might not like to be put in that position, but I’m hoping that, under the circumstances, He might make allowances. The unfortunate reality of mental illness is that it can be so all-consuming, that it leaves little room for anything else. For me, self-absorption increases, my attention turns inward, and more and more of my life starts to be lived in my head. Relationships suffer – including spiritual ones. It’s not that I no longer believe – it’s that belief, in anything, simply does not feel relevant.

Like my husband, God has also suffered from me putting him, inadvertently, in the ‘parent box’. ‘The parent box’ is a very bad place for anybody to be. If you are in the ‘parent box’, it means that I transfer all of the negative feelings I have towards my parents, onto you. It means that things that you do that remind me of things that they do, or did, trigger disproportionate and excessive reactions. If you are in the ‘parent box’, you will not be allowed within a light-year of my emotions, and my communication with you will be at best monosyllabic. My communication with God is not even monosyllabic – I haven’t been able to pray in almost two years. In a way of thinking that is typical of my own BPD, I feel as though I have to give God everything or nothing. I don’t feel that I can pray while there are areas of my life I’m not yet prepared to be challenged on – self-harm, for example.

It’s unfortunate that my BPD is currently aligning the image of God as a ‘parent figure’ with my own experience of parental figures, rather than holding Him up as the ‘perfect parent’. Perhaps this is partly because I find it hard to relate to the concept of a ‘perfect parent’ – unlike my husband and a number of friends that I have spoken to about this, I don’t remember a time when I thought my parents were perfect. In particular, I am extremely sensitive to issues of control, and to the threat of engulfment. My two most recent therapists have called my mother ‘intrusive’ – she believed that nothing should be private between parent and child and has always failed to understand how we could ever be anything other than ‘of like mind’ with each other. It’s partly that same fear of being controlled and of being taken over, that is holding me back at the moment from trying to re-engage with my faith.

But there are other reasons for my being wary of ‘throwing myself back into religion’. I am aware that pursuing my faith more actively, will in all likelihood help me. It has done so before, and every temporary ‘recovery’ has been associated with a period of revitalised connection with God, with some periods lasting longer than others. But none of those has prevented a re-occurrence of old problems, or a relapse and flaring up of BPD symptoms again. I’m not blaming religion for this and I’m not saying that I adhere to the idea that religion is some sort of panacea. But for me, I think it has acted as part of a reinvention of self and a taking on of a new identity. That process, and that ‘escape route’, has in the past placed a temporary sticking plaster over a very deep seated and enduring problem. And that is precisely what I would like, this time, to avoid.

That is precisely why I am putting myself through the very painful process of therapy, at a time in my life when I feel that it is costly. When I feel as though I should be spending more mental energy on my children while they are still young, rather than expending so much of it in the therapy chair and being absorbed both in the process of therapy, and in my relationships with my therapists. However, part of me suspects that it is vital to do it now, because the next big life-change or emotional challenge, particularly if it concerns my parents as they get older, could be the one that precipitates an even more significant crisis for me, and therefore for my children too.

When all of this is over (or at least, when my life is more under control), I would very much like to come back to God – if He will have me. But I would like to come back because I have found myself, and not because I want to lose myself again. And if he’s guiding me behind the scenes; if I’m being held by an invisible thread, then I’m very grateful, really I am. Getting Him out of the ‘parent box’ might feel nigh-on impossible sometimes – but luckily He’s known for the odd miracle or two.