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.


10 Comments

Acceptance (changes)

Or, ‘The resolution to the tale of this thing that I have done’

Almost three years ago, in March 2016, I wrote a series of posts called: This thing that I have done – Part 1’; ‘This thing that I have done – Part 2’; andA twist in the tale of this thing that I have done’. They were about the fact that I had obtained a copy of the notes of my sessions with my ex-therapist Jane, just before the service through which I had seen her, was due to shred them.

My therapist and I spent a number of sessions discussing what might lie behind my decision to obtain a copy of the notes, what meaning it might carry, and how I should come to a decision about whether or not to read the notes. Jane and I only saw each other for fifteen sessions, as the counselling service she worked for only offered short term therapy. Though I tried to enter private therapy with her a few months later, she decided to take early retirement for health and family reasons, and the hope of seeing her again, never came to pass. In a number of different ways, therefore, our work together was artificially constrained and cut short, in ways that perhaps neither of us would have chosen, and some of which we could not have foreseen.

Obtaining the notes was a way of exercising control over this particular ‘ending’ in a way that I couldn’t over previous endings. It was a way of guarding against the spectre of regret if I didn’t ‘save’ the notes and could never read them, and against the fear that I would lose my memories of Jane and our sessions, in the course of time. The notes held the possibility of gaining a glimpse into her thoughts, and a validation of my struggles. They held the possibility of seeing myself through her eyes, and the hope that she would be the non-distorted mirror that my parents never were.

But I also knew that the notes held the possibility of disappointment; of not finding what I was hoping for, or of finding things that would be hard to understand, difficult to accept, and impossible to go back and query or clarify. I knew that they held not just the possibility, but the likelihood that reading them would do more harm than good. Having taken eighteen months to fully grieve losing Jane, and having reached a state of acceptance and being able to treasure and feel nourished by positive memories, it was difficult to see any way in which reading the notes could add, rather than detract, from that. And yet, the draw towards reading them was very strong. So strong, in fact, that I put the notes in an envelope and gave them to my therapist, asking her to keep them safe for me, until such time as I made a decision about whether or not to read them. That session, when I gave her the notes, was a wonderfully connecting hour – I had a desire, which she seemed to share, that reading the notes should be something that, if we did it, we should do together. That the role of the notes was to be worked out within my therapy and in the context of our relationship, and not outside it.

My therapist didn’t press the point, but I knew that her view was that I didn’t need to read the notes. That my memories of my relationship with Jane, my experience of my sessions with her, was enough, and would sustain me, and would be there for me to call on internally. Even now, my therapist still points out that I put a great deal of emphasis on the external, rather than being nourished by my ‘internal objects’. It reminds me of a section of a podcast I listened to recently by the wonderful ‘This Jungian Life’, on the subject of ‘Slobs’! In a discussion about hoarding, and the value placed on external objects, the point was made that we have the tendency to want to ‘concretise’, and it can be difficult to let things go and to appreciate that there is a space between an object and the feelings that are connected with it – the feelings do not depend on the object for their existence. Jungian analyst Joseph Lee made the point that sometimes we do not have “a confidence in our psyche’s ability to keep us in relationship to the thoughts and memories that accrete around the objects; so we falsely fear that if the object goes away then my feelings and memories that relate to the object will no longer be accessible to me “.

***

A similar point was made incredibly beautifully and poignantly by blogger ‘Reflections of a Mindful Heart and Soul’ who commented on Part 1 of my series of posts. I will quote parts of her comment here, again, as when reading them back this evening they seemed to encapsulate entirely and truly the nature of my dilemma, in a way that I couldn’t completely understand and certainly wasn’t ready to accept at that time, but see with much greater clarity, now:

“What is true, whether we like it or not, is relationships change. Who we are, and who we are becoming, changes…..Perhaps another question may be: Am I fighting acceptance of what is? If the search is to find out whether or not you were special, what was real or not in the therapeutic relationship, the notes may not tell you that……..If you had a good relationship, remember the good memories. When it is all said and done, what we truly remember years later is the essence of someone and that is what matters. When you are old, good memories do come back on their own when you least expect them to. The task at hand is learning acceptance, not fighting it, and learning to let go of what was and cherish that as well as moving into the present, day by day and to keep learning and growing. It is never easy. Nature teaches us this is the pattern- the seasons come and they go. That doesn’t mean there has to be forgetting. It just means there is only so much we can deal with effectively in the present or enjoy.”

She said of her comment I usually don’t do this [comment at length], but I feel you are at a crossroads in your growth’. She was right – and I think that my positive decision to trust my therapist, to focus on our therapy, and to put aside Jane’s notes at least for a time, was a key turning point and the start of what soon became a period of vital change and insights in my therapy.

I can see now, that my decision to obtain Jane’s notes, and also to postpone reading them, had much more to do with my current therapy, than it had to do with my therapy with Jane. Whatever worries, fears, anxieties, and motivations that I felt I had in relation to the notes and to Jane, they might have been real but they also represented the same set of feelings, but magnified, in relation to my current therapist. And absolutely core to that set of feelings, was the question posed by ‘Reflections’: “Am I fighting acceptance of what is?”

I had another two and a half years of therapy to go before I could truly experience, and not just intellectually be aware of, the answer to that question. Two and a half years of fighting acceptance of what is. And then a serious act of sabotage to the therapeutic relationship in the middle of a period of important dreams and active imaginations, propelled me into a period of hard but rewarding work, and significant realisations. As described in Therapy, choice, and our internal fight’, I realized that:

“Every time I choose to confront the part of me that wants to stay stuck, every time I make conscious efforts to feel better rather than accepting my place in the pit of despair and closing my mind off to other possibilities – I am actively accepting, all over again, the inevitable truth that I am changing and that therapy will end. “

And I also realized, as described in ‘Resistance in therapy – facing the dark parts of the shadow’, that:

“Ultimatelyradical acceptance of reality as it is, is what’s left when my Resistance fades away”.

***

Two and half years is a long time, but I’m learning that working with the subconscious is a tricky and time-consuming business, and it is not just the conscious parts of my personality that can be stubborn! I need no more evidence of the incredible power of the subconscious, than the fact that the act of sabotage to my therapy that I mentioned, took place just hours after I came to a very important decision – the decision, finally, two and half years later, to ask my therapist to shred Jane’s notes, without me reading them. I realized that I had reached the point where I could trust in my memories of Jane, and what I carried of her, within me. I could trust my internal sense of the relationship I had had with her, and that was enough for me. I had reached the point where I could see clearly that what we experienced together in our sessions, was what was ultimately real, and was what constituted our relationship. What we created between us was the only reality that mattered and that could meaningful for me, and I was finally able to let go of the possibilities (both for good and for ill) that I used to think were contained within the notes.

Dimly, at the back of my mind, I was aware that there was an important lesson in there that I could transfer to my current therapeutic relationship. In the back of my mind I knew that this decision had come about not because of anything to do with Jane, but because of progress within my current therapy. In the back of my mind was a realization that the reality and significance of my therapeutic relationship lay in mine and my therapist’s direct experiences of each other, and that I needed nothing outside of this to confirm the reality and significance of that relationship, either now or in the future. But I didn’t consciously reach for that lesson, and I didn’t bring that realization into my awareness. And hours later I found myself, for the first time in eighteen months, engaged in a serious act of internet sleuthing as regards my therapist. A serious act of looking for something outside my direct experience of the relationship, to make it somehow more real, and longer lasting. A last-ditch attempt by my subconscious either to subvert the realization, or, if one were to be charitable to it, to hasten its awareness. Though in the past I have fought my therapist’s emphasis on the powerful agency of my subconscious, this time I had absolutely no doubt of its role in this incident, and in the connection of those two events – my decision to let go of Jane’s notes, and my subversion of the equivalent path with regard to my therapy.

When I did finally step onto that path, and when I did finally transfer that lesson, this is what I became aware of, and it bears a striking resemblance to what ‘Reflections of a Mindful Heart and Soul’ wrote to me, two and half years ago:

“It seems to me now that I can choose to focus either on being, or on remembering, but I cannot give equal attention to both. My heart has to be turned toward one or the other. The more I focus on gathering memories, the less I focus on immediate relating, and the less I’m able to internalise her. Ultimately, my deepest desire is for the therapy and the relationship to be something that I am, not just something I remember. And for that I need to accept that the remembering may consist primarily in seeing her and hearing her in who and what I am becoming, knowing that what I’m seeing is her influence, and what I’m hearing is her voice, woven into my thoughts.”

***

I told my therapist I would like to destroy Jane’s notes, that I was ready to let them go. She asked if I wanted to do it, and I said that I was happy for her to shred them. She said they would go on her compost heap along with all her other shredded paper – I think that’s a rather fitting end for them, considering plants and gardens are an important point of connection between us, and my therapist often uses garden related metaphors in our work. I like the idea of Jane’s shredded notes, eventually helping my therapist’s garden to grow! My work with Jane was the starting point and catalyst for my current therapeutic work, and she was also the one who referred me on to my therapist.

A number of readers and bloggers said at the time, that they were interested in how the tale of this thing that I had done, would eventually turn out, and that they were contemplating a similar course of action, or were caught in a similar dilemma. If any of them are still reading, I’m sorry it’s taken this long to come to a resolution! But I also hope this resolution is an encouragement  – an encouragement to look within and beyond the immediate desire to take a course of action, and an encouragement to wait until you reach your own conviction, however long that may be. And an encouragement I hope, that however scary it may be, to quote ‘Reflections’, “Who we are, and who we are becoming, changes”.

 

 

Advertisements


21 Comments

Staying connected to my therapist – and trying to be kind to myself

I drove past the house of Jane (my ex-therapist) again last week. It was only a very short detour this time, as I happened to be in the neighbourhood. It was the first time I had driven past since writing ‘Have you googled your therapist?’ and the difference, on this occasion, was that it was the first time I didn’t feel shame or fear at doing so. I didn’t feel I was doing something wrong – and although I think I was still nervous that she might see me, the thought didn’t worry me quite so much.

This happened only a couple of days after I received an email from someone who had read my blog and was wondering whether to tell her therapist about how attached she felt to him, and of how she ‘stalked him online’ (her words). Her email resonated so much with the feelings of guilt I used to experience over such ‘stalking’, and it brought home to me how much had changed over the last few months, in how I view this subject. And that change is due entirely to the way in my therapist has responded, and the conversations we have had about it.

On every occasion on which I have mentioned trying to get close to her outside of session (whether online, or in terms of physical distance), her response has surprised and amazed me. Take a couple of weeks ago, for example, when I told her that in the middle of our summer therapy break, on the day that I knew she was going on holiday, I happened to drive very close to her house and had an enormous urge to turn off the main road and drive right past it. But I didn’t. And instead of saying ‘well done for resisting the urge and not driving past’ (which was the sort of response I was expecting), she implied that it would have been fine, and perfectly reasonable, had I done so. I was completely taken aback and wasn’t sure what to say, until ‘you’re amazing’ slipped out, because that was exactly how I felt.

She had responded in a very similar way when I told her, as few months ago, that I had spent the day with my children in the playground and by the river near her house. I walked them to within fifty metres or so of her house, and then turned back. Her response was to call me ‘creative’ – I had found a way not just of spending special time with the kids, but of bridging the gap between sessions and continuing to feel connected to her. Far from commenting on or being displeased about how close I’d come to her house, she remarked on the fact that I hadn’t closed the gap all the way and walked right past her front door. In her mind, it showed that I was learning to tolerate some distance and I was becoming more able to bridge that gap myself, while still keeping her real.

Her understanding and her tolerance might seem extraordinary (they certainly did to me), but I think it’s easy to forget that not only have our therapists worked with many clients (who no doubt have had similar feelings), they have also been clients themselves. They may well have experienced the same feelings, and acted in similar ways. And so perhaps they don’t feel threatened by our behaviour (as we imagine they may do) and perhaps they understand it better than we think. Although she didn’t tell me of her own experiences, my therapist did mention that she had once had a colleague (another therapist) who took a certain route to get to town in order to drive past her own counsellor’s house on a regular basis. It was a huge relief to hear that – and suddenly I felt as if my behaviour was not so unusual or so unacceptable after all.

Having been clients themselves, our therapists hopefully also understand the process by which dependence and attachment and a need for the therapist’s physical presence, turn, over time, into greater independence and the ability to ‘internalise’ the therapist and carry them within, even when they are not present. This, as I understand it, is where my therapy will eventually lead me; up to the point where I have internalised my therapist and the process sufficiently, that I will be equipped to manage on my own. However, she has pointed out that until this happens, therapy (and the therapist) are strongly tied to the tangible factors that surround them. And so we ‘place’ the therapist in a particular location in which they exist powerfully, with their reality diminishing the further we get from that point. We associate therapy with the room in which it happens; with the objects in that room, the colour of the walls, or the view outside the window. And if any of those things changes it can be incredibly unsettling, even if our therapist is still there, because the person and the process are so bound up in our minds with one particular set of co-ordinates in three-dimensional space. And so it’s natural, when wanting to feel close to our therapists, that we seek out the place where they feel most real.

I found that hearing it explained in this way, went a long way towards enabling my feelings of guilt and shame to melt away. And I think very similar arguments can be applied to trying to stay connected to one’s therapist via ‘virtual’ means as well. In the months after I stopped seeing Jane, I used to find that googling her and seeing her name in print was immensely important in keeping her alive in my mind, in what I had originally assumed was a gap of few months until I could return to therapy with her again.

“But” – you might respond – “there is a big difference between something being understandable and it being right. It feels wrong to violate someone’s privacy in that way – whether that happens in the ‘real world’ or online”. It’s why my discussions with my therapist on this topic have felt so much like ‘confessions’ – I felt I had ‘morally transgressed’; that I had ‘sinned against her’. But in response to this, my therapist made a very valuable observation which really struck home and provided a great deal of food for thought. She said that it was almost as though I was placing something ‘out of bounds’ – even though it wasn’t – in order to recreate an old dynamic in which I wanted desperately to reach out for something that was inaccessible or forbidden. By making something forbidden that was not in fact so, I was guaranteeing that if I did reach out for it, I would be hurt by the burden of guilt and self-reproach that I would then feel.

This made immediate sense – but why would I recreate such a situation, and why would I invent a moral imperative for myself that I then felt bound to transgress? I realised that the guilt and shame I felt was not so much about driving past my therapist’s house, or googling her; but about the overwhelming desire to be close, which itself led to those behaviours. In many ways, it is easier to deal with punishing ourselves for violating someone else’s boundary (as we see it) than to deal with the neediness, dependence and desire for connection that we may feel for our therapists. Perhaps there is even a sense in which that neediness feels self-violating – it impinges on our solitariness and the sense that we should manage life alone, without the fear of being hurt. It seems easier to try and replace that sense of self-violation (which we may feel we have no defences against, or any idea how to handle) with the more familiar sense of ‘doing the wrong thing’. It makes the problem an external one – we have defined the line that has been crossed; and there is a difficult but obvious solution – confession and the hoped for absolution.

I don’t fully understand this yet – and I’m not sure what exactly the dynamic is that I am recreating from my past. However, this is one area in which I am incredibly grateful to my therapist for helping me to see things in a way which enables me to be kinder to myself. The challenge for me now, I think, is to apply this to other areas of my life. I suspect that there are a number of ways in which I needlessly place things ‘out of bounds’ or in some sort of ‘moral category’, which just enables me to criticize or punish myself if I ‘reach for things I shouldn’t’ or act in ways I perceive as ‘wrong’. I also suspect there are a number of circumstances in which my feelings (for example, shame or anger) relate to the underlying motivations driving my actions, rather than to the actions themselves. But if there is one thing that continues to inspire me to try and be kind to myself, it is her own kindness to me, and her openness to the ways in which I express my needs and my desire to stay connected. And for that, I will always be grateful.

 


12 Comments

Have you googled your therapist?

My husband was away today and I spent a lovely sunny day out with the kids, exploring fields and paths, playgrounds and pubs we weren’t familiar with; taking in the scenery and people watching. I drove nine miles from our house so that we could spend five hours doing all of this within a mile (or less) of my therapist’s house. On the way there I tried to navigate a slightly circuitous route, map on lap, that took me past Jane’s (my ex-therapist’s) house – both on the way there and on the way back.

I’m not proud of either action, though to be fair (and partly by way of an excuse), I love the part of the city near my therapist’s house – it’s one of the ‘gut-instinct’ reasons it ‘felt right’ when I had to choose a therapist when my sessions with Jane were ending. It’s the sort of area I would love to live in and so spending time there, with the added bonus of activities for the kids, would be a pleasure whether or not my therapist lived nearby. But I would be lying if I said that feeling physically closer to her wasn’t a factor.

As for driving past Jane’s house – it’s been a very long time since I last did that, and I’m somewhat surprised that I did it today. Particularly given the fact that as described in ‘Progress can be painful’, I have finally accepted that, important though she is to me, she is a part of my past, and though I certainly miss her, I don’t think I’m grieving her in the same way. But as I drove past her house and saw the same car in the driveway, I felt some reassurance and relief, and I realised that I am still worried about her health (which was one reason she decided to retire and could not take me on as a private patient). Although logically the presence of her car means absolutely nothing at all, it felt as though it was some sort of indication that she was still okay.

A few months ago, ‘Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers‘ wrote a wonderful post about searching for her therapist on Facebook. I was struck not just by how much I related to how she felt and acted, but also by her honesty and courage in writing about it so openly. It challenged me to write about my own experiences in this area, and to be honest about events I had not yet dared write about.

Judging by what I have read on other blogs, trying to find out about one’s therapist (most often online), is not unusual. Technology, search engines and social media make this so much easier than it has ever been before, and it must be an extremely rare therapist these days who has virtually no online presence at all. I suspect too, that it is extremely rare for a therapist not to realise or perhaps even to expect, that many of their clients will behave in this way. I think it’s important to remember that the online searching is not just about information: it’s about trying to become closer and feeling connected; and keeping the therapist ‘real’ in between sessions. That’s why the ‘searching’ does not just happen online – behaviour can extend to walking or driving past the therapist’s house, or waiting around places where he or she is expected to be, for example. The client may even dread what they could see or find out, or they may dread being seen; but the feeling of greater physical proximity may over-ride that dread.

Leaving my children out of the equation (because to try and put them on one side or the other would make me feel like an even worse parent than I already do) –  my therapist is the most interesting person in the world to me, and I have a very strong desire to know more about her. ‘Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers‘ called this a ‘craving’ and sometimes, that is exactly how it feels. Most of the time I can control the craving – if I want to know something and if I decide I dare to ask, I do so in session, fully expecting (though at the same time dreading) not receiving an answer. But occasionally that craving takes hold and I feel I’m in the grip of an urge too powerful to withstand. That has happened a couple of times in my current therapy, and both times I ‘confessed’ and we had a very helpful discussion about my ‘googling’ activities. My therapist took it remarkably well – if she was perturbed, she didn’t show it. If anything, she seemed completely un-phased by it – for which I am extremely grateful, as my behaviour carries with it both feelings of great shame, and great fear that she will want to leave, or at least withdraw and close herself off from me. Today was the second time I found myself on a walk near her house – when I told her about the first time, she commented not on how close I’d come, but on how I’d stayed away. I was within sight of her house – but turned and went back. In her words, I didn’t ‘close the gap’ – and perhaps tolerating that distance was more significant than trying to narrow it a little in the first place.

I am grateful for my therapist’s approach to this issue – and for the fact that I can bring these occurrences to session, and deal both with the feelings that lead to them, and the feelings of fear and shame that result. But there are some situations that can’t be resolved in that way. I wish I could say that the story of my therapy relationship with Jane ended with the ‘love letter’ I wrote to her in June last year, and with that recent realisation of the gradual passing of my grief. But it didn’t – in between those two events is a story about which I still feel great regret, and which I fervently wish I could change. That story took place on the first anniversary of our last session together, a day I knew I would find immensely difficult, but wanted to use to ‘honour’ her and the work we’d done together.

However, far from honouring either her or our work, I found myself caught inside an intense desire to find out more about her (triggered by accidentally finding out more than I had before, when I googled her to simply get that sense of her existence and reality that seeing her name ‘in print’ had so often brought me, when I was grieving her). I succeeded in finding a few additional details, but it didn’t stop there – I actually paid money to a well-known and widely-used directory enquiries website to receive a brief report compiled from ‘public information’ (e.g. company director listings and census data) which listed individuals of the same name, and current and previous addresses. To cut a long and rather distressing story short, I thought I’d discovered a couple of things which didn’t fit with the picture of Jane I had created in my mind, one of which I soon realised was an error, the other of which I still find hard to believe. I remember rocking backwards and forwards, repeating the phrase ‘I don’t understand’ to myself – it was a fairly minor fact about her professional life, but it felt as though my world had been turned upside down.

But even worse than the ripples in the picture I had formed of Jane, were the feelings of guilt and betrayal that I felt. I hated myself for letting her down; for acting in a way that I was sure she would not approve of, and that I was sure would have disappointed her; for invading her privacy in way that I found abhorrent, despite the fact that the information was essentially publicly available. I was deeply ashamed for what I saw as my betrayal, and deeply upset about the way in which I saw this as ‘sullying’ what I had previously seen as a very honest and trusting (and yes, perhaps a little perfect) relationship.  Looking back, I find it hard to ‘let myself off the hook’ and to have sympathy for how I felt. My situation was entirely of my own making – if I didn’t like what I had found, I had only myself to blame. And yet, I have a sincere sympathy for others who are going through the same thing. I know how hard it is to have that intense desire to know more, and to feel so very bad for having it and for acting upon it.

It occurs to me that this post is a logical follow-up to my recent post on how it feels to be excluded from your therapist’s life. Although separate issues, I think that the sense of exclusion and the harsh reality of the boundaries of therapy, can certainly fuel the desire to know more and the need to draw closer. If there’s one thing I hope to achieve by writing these posts, it is to try and encourage others to talk to their therapists about these feelings – however painful they may be and however much shame and embarrassment may be involved. When it comes to those feelings, I think that our fear of retribution and rejection leads us to greatly underestimate out therapists’ capacity for understanding and acceptance; and our twisted desire for uniqueness (I am uniquely ‘bad’ in my feelings or behaviour) leads us to think that we are our therapist’s ‘worst’ client, and least deserving of his or her love.

Whereas in fact what I’m coming to realise through exploring these issues in therapy, is that my therapist’s caring is neither conditional on me being able to please her by knowing more about her and what she likes; nor limited by her need to maintain boundaries and the restricted nature of our contact. This is progress painfully won, but I humbly submit that it is worth it. And I would suggest that the true value in trying to find out more about our therapists’ lives lies not so much in what we discover about them, but in what we discover about ourselves, and about our relationship with them, and theirs with us.