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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What now, marriage?

On Thursday night I was waiting for my husband to get home – waiting to have what seemed likely to be one of the most important conversations of our marriage. I was waiting and watching an episode of my favourite TV show, Grey’s Anatomy, and it happened to be Season 12, Episode 11, ‘Unbreak my heart’: a series of rewinds and fast-forwards through the on-again, off-again relationship of two of the main characters, April and Jackson – an episode that ends with them signing their divorce papers. Though I didn’t know exactly what my husband was going to say when he got back, I knew he wasn’t going to mention divorce, but I was expecting almost anything else. And so much of that episode hit notes – off-key notes, discordant notes, sour notes, familiarly mutually destructive notes.

Very different circumstances, yet I recognised the reactions. I recognised the wildly different expectations and perspectives.

April: “It just seems like you are looking for an excuse to walk away instead of putting in any of the work.”
Jackson: “You left me. You walked away. You ran halfway across the world – ”
April: “Because I was dying, Jackson. Samuel died and I died. Until Jordan, until I was able to go over there and – ”
Jackson: “And what? You think I was somehow just fine after Samuel? You don’t think I was dying too?”
April: “No, no, okay. You weren’t. Not like me. You were coping. You were okay. I couldn’t even – And then I found something. I found something over there that I needed so badly, and I thought that you understood that.”
Jackson: “I wasn’t coping. I was covering for you. To take care of you.”
April: “And now you’re punishing me over and over because I dared to take things into my own hands because I recognized the spiral I was falling into and I went and did something about it?”
Jackson: “I was putting you first. That’s what you do in a marriage. Or I guess that’s not what you do.”
April: “I took care of myself so that I would survive, and all that does is make you angry. Look at you. What is it, Jackson? What pisses you off so much, that I chose to go after the thing that I needed to heal or that the thing I needed wasn’t you?”
Jackson: “The thing that I needed was you. I survived. You survived. But I do not think we can survive this.”

My mental health difficulties hit us hard, very hard. I got lost in depression and in BPD and withdrew, and withdrew some more, and I know that it was hurtful and upsetting for him and he didn’t understand it and didn’t know what was due to my disorder and what might be something to do with him, something to take personally. He felt unloved and that would put anyone’s defenses up, and it did, because he had to guarantee that one of us could survive well enough to look after the kids. Things hit what felt like rock bottom, with him completely disengaging emotionally in order to protect himself. Though he wouldn’t go to therapy I tried to use my therapy for the both of us, hoping I could make sufficient progress for myself, that it would help our marriage.

Imperceptibly slowly, things felt as though they were shifting a little. Incremental, tiny steps. I became ‘a better flatmate’ – to me, that was an achievement, but to him it was still a very long way from a ‘good marriage’. But still things continued to improve, in my eyes at least, and I saw myself taking more risks, more chances, being a little more vulnerable, a little more open, and a little more self-assured– pushing back a little when I thought there was a problem, instead of absorbing the problem and the blame and falling into a spiral of dark and hopeless thoughts.

I had much more of an ‘off week’ a couple of weeks ago – work has been horrendously stressful and I wasn’t able to stay in ‘adult mode’ as much as I would have liked. I was more irritable, less forgiving. It felt like a step backwards but I tried to ignore it, and things didn’t fall apart. In fact, bizarrely, quite the opposite.

All of a sudden it was as if someone took the incremental change and decided to speed it up one thousand fold. I was hugged almost every time I entered a room – or at least it felt that way. There were kisses, compliments, kind and caring things said which were very different to the more practical and pragmatic responses he’d previously had to my difficulties. I should have been pleased- but I felt overwhelmed.

He was clingy and I couldn’t stand it. I didn’t want to be touched or kissed all the time, even though he ‘asked permission’ first. It all felt too much and I felt myself pulling away. I tried to explain that I was finding it hard to adjust to, and that it wasn’t necessarily anything to do with him. Though I didn’t say so, he was triggering me on multiple levels, and ‘acting like my mother’. Wanting more physical touch and closeness than I wanted; clinging onto me both emotionally and physically. The change itself didn’t feel safe, it was so sudden – how did I know he wouldn’t change back just as quickly? My mother’s volatility was in my mind, and I found it hard to believe any of the lovely words he was saying, when they were a contrast to the words that still hung between us from the past. How could I trust the new words? He couldn’t really explain the change either – save to say that he had been feeling more loved recently.

A few days of this change, followed by a triggering visit from my mother, resulted in another ‘off-day’ where I was more irritable and less thoughtful than I could have been. But somehow what two weeks ago was just another argument, this time turned into some sort of enormous turning point – apparently one of the worse nights of my husband’s life, for reasons than I simply could not understand and that no one event could explain. He told me later that something crystallised for him that night – that lots of pieces had suddenly fallen into place and he’d realised something he hadn’t seen before.

When he came back, when I was waiting, he gave me several pages that he’d written containing his realisations. Not all of them are accurate – at least, not as far as his assumptions or statements about me are concerned. But I think he’s come to the conclusion that though I might be turning into a more functional person than I was before, he’s not sure if that person is compatible with him, and with his fundamental needs and desires.  I know he doesn’t want that to be the case. And I don’t know if it is.

So I find myself confused. About what’s real and what’s not. About what’s true, and what’s not. What am I meant to take out of therapy, and what can only ever exist in the room? Is unconditional love only for parents and therapists, and do grown-ups love only if they feel loved? Should I trust, even though things (and people) change; and when does compromise turn into self-suppression? What do I really think and feel, and how can I tell? How did we get here, and what does it mean?

April: “We talk about the mechanism of injury, about where it all started, but the truth is, it’s sort of a myth. We can’t boil every injury down to one single blow. What hurts us is cumulative. It happens over time. We absorb blow after blow, shock after shock, painful hit after hit. But even then, even if we know exactly how we got here, it doesn’t mean we can fix it. You can’t heal every wound, and that’s okay. I have to believe it’s okay. I have to believe that even if something seems like it cannot be fixed, it doesn’t mean it’s broken.”

 

 

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The importance of saying goodbye

When I saw this clip, it immediately reminded me of the first person that I lost to death. I was a child and they were a close family member who went through a fairly brief battle with cancer. I wasn’t there at the end and I can’t remember whether it was days or weeks between the last time I saw them, and their death; and yet this was someone who until their hospitalisation, I saw several times a week. There was no goodbye and I was not allowed to go to the funeral. There was also no grieving on my part; the unconscious decision not to, had already been made, and the adults around me were far too preoccupied with their own grief and with seeking reassurance from me, to notice. Though I have no memory of most of my feelings at that time, the way I responded to this clip made me wonder whether deep inside I had wanted a ‘good ending’ and a chance to say goodbye.

By the time the scenario was repeated with a second close family member, my emotional defenses were already in place to absolutely guarantee that the pain would be minimal. I didn’t want to say goodbye or go to the funeral, even though this time I had to. People commented on the fact that I didn’t cry; but at least they weren’t asking me to try and negate their long-held atheism with reassurances of the existence of an after-life. All that I knew was that life after a death was a place of blackness, crying, desolation and lack of joy. There was no celebration of either of those lives, and that made the endings – unresolved as they were – so much worse.

A couple of years ago I read ‘Family’ by Susan Hill. It is a moving account of the author’s struggles to complete her family, following the birth of her first daughter, Jessica, in 1977. A few years later Susan Hill gave birth to a little girl prematurely, and she survived for only five weeks. The account of her brief life, and her death, is heart-breaking; but what struck me most of all was the way in which Jessica was fully involved and had the chance to say a proper goodbye to her sister. Just like her parents did, she held the little girl’s lifeless body in her arms, and gave her a last cuddle.

I know many people might disagree with Susan Hill’s decision, thinking that it would have been too distressing for a young child – my parents certainly would have thought so. When I first read about it I was shocked and surprised – but now I hope I would have had the courage and conviction to do the same, in that situation. Though not yet in double figures in age, Jessica encountered death face to face – and I like to think that she may have grown up into a woman who is less afraid of it as a consequence. A woman with loving memories of someone that she lost, that may bring pain, but also joy at what was gained before it was lost. Of course that’s all speculation; but if it’s true, I also like to think that what made it possible, was the fact that she had a chance to properly say goodbye.

***

Stepping back, after two years, into the counselling service where I used to see Jane (my ex-therapist), felt strange. For the first few months after our therapy ended, even driving past the building was painful. The prospect of entering it again had filled me with apprehension; and before I could do it I had to check with the service manager that Jane had indeed retired, as she had planned, and that the room I would be attending a meeting in was not the one in which I had had sessions. I was afraid of how I might feel if I were to bump into her again; and of what it would be like to sit in that room. If there were a choice of chairs, which would I choose? I couldn’t risk sitting in the ‘patient’s’ position in case it was too triggering; I couldn’t sit in the therapist’s chair as that had been her space. It would have to be another seat – but there was still the worry that even being in the room would be too difficult and too distressing.

Though I felt unsettled, I managed to concentrate during my meeting and the next time I went back it was a little easier. During my most recent visit, I got up the courage to ask the service manager if I could go into ‘Jane’s’ room and take some photographs. For a while I had had a nagging desire to take a picture of the view out of Jane’s window – the view I spent so much time looking at because I found it so difficult to maintain eye contact. I remembered the view well, but was motivated – as was the case with wanting a copy of Jane’s notes of our sessions – by the fear of losing that memory one day. Having a picture of the view felt more important than having a picture of the room itself; perhaps because it was a memory of my vantage point and a direct recollection of my experience, rather than of the context in which it took place. In some ways the view was evocative of the therapeutic relationship itself. I was surprised when the service manager agreed to my request, and that she left me to it, albeit with the door open.

The room was smaller than I remembered, and less bright; though perhaps that was because I was visiting at a different time of day. I sat in ‘my’ chair – it didn’t even occur to me to sit in Jane’s, though when I think about it now, I wonder if perhaps I should have done….I took a picture of the view, which hadn’t changed, and of Jane’s chair and the wall behind it, which had. They seemed more drab and less interesting, somehow; but then again, I’m sure she was the only thing I noticed when she was there, and so they may well have been much the same.

The biggest and most reassuring change in the room, was that Jane wasn’t there. The room was empty; or at least, empty of her. I’m pleased I took the photos; I don’t need them now, but I may be glad of them in the future. And if there’s one thing that consistently drives me, it’s guarding against regret and the fear of mistakes, and at least this way even if I never look at them again, I cannot regret not taking them. But what I’m most glad of is that going into the room showed me the truth of the point my therapist has been trying to make all along – the same point she made in connection with Jane’s notes and that I’m sure she would have made it in connection with taking the photos, had I asked her before I did it. The point being that memories can be enough; that we remember what we need to. That I carry Jane and what she meant to me, with me. That the lived experience of the relationship is not something I can hang onto either via a bland record of it, or a picture of the place in which it unfolded; but that it is something I have internalised.

Going into the room and finding that Jane wasn’t there, and that that felt okay, showed me that my therapist was right. I had what I needed, and it wasn’t in that room.

***

When I spoke to my therapist about this a few days later, I told her it had been a relief to find that the room hadn’t been haunted by Jane. That I hadn’t been haunted by her presence, in it. I think that’s what I had been expecting, and was afraid of.

I realised, quite suddenly, that that fear went back to my first family loss. I remembered how on occasion, my parents and I would stay the night in that family member’s house. How I had to sleep in their room, in their bed, and that I was terrified. On the one hand, there was an irrational fear of ‘contamination’ – that somehow the illness and suffering they had been through, could be catching. By that stage I think I’d already acquired the belief that is still firmly rooted inside me today – that I will go through the same thing myself, at a similar and comparatively young age. And then there was the terror of waking up in the middle of the night and finding their ghost standing at the end of the bed. I was afraid to go to sleep and afraid to lie there in the dark. The whole room felt haunted by their presence, and by sickness and death.

My therapist said that she associated the word ‘haunted’ with an unresolved or somehow negative ending. One definition of the phrase, is ‘to be repeatedly troubled’, and both this meaning and my therapist’s, were certainly true for those early family losses which involved neither grieving nor good-byes.

Although my therapeutic relationship with Jane did not have a chance to run its course – as I saw her through a service that offered only short to medium term support – we had the vitally important chance to prepare for our ending, and to say goodbye. And so though at the time it was heart-breaking, and though it took a full eighteen months before I felt as though I had fully grieved her loss, it turned out to be a ‘good ending’. My only ‘good ending’ – so far.

What this short clip doesn’t show you, is what happened immediately afterwards. Meredith is gripped by anguished tears – presumably, with the realisation of what she unthinkingly denied Amelia. Sometimes, we act without thought; sometimes, with the best of intentions. But I hope, if nothing else, this post can be encouragement to us to try and ensure we do not deny ourselves or others (most commonly, our children), the chance to say goodbye before a loss: whether that be the loss of a loved one to death, the loss of a friend due to a change of school, the loss of a pet, the loss of a house due to a move – even the loss of a therapist. Along with allowing ourselves, or them, to grieve, it gives us all the best chance that we will come to feel it as a ‘good ending’ – even if it feels anything but ‘good’ at the time – and that is a priceless gift.

 


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“Mummy” makes me cry

This didn’t happen to me. Not exactly like this. I had family at my wedding – though I don’t know most of my extended family very well. My parents were there. But so were the threats – of not being there. The disapproval of my choices – lots of different kinds of choices – was there. The trusting me, the having faith in me – or at least pretending to do so – was not there. There are lots of ways of being abandoned; many forms of being left at the altar.

Every time I watch this, when Amelia says “Mummy” I can’t help but cry. It’s a desperate sound, and it tears at me. The tearing must be an echo of something not remembered, because these days it’s a word that means little when I say it to my own mother. A word that in my mouth often sounds angry, or feels uncomfortable, or wrong.

But it’s also a word that sometimes slips out in my thoughts when I am talking to my therapist in my head. If only it could belong to her, my usage of that word. I worry in case I accidentally say it out loud – while at the same time wishing that I could, and that it was legitimate or okay. I wonder how it would feel for it to have a gentle sound, and to be spoken in closeness and in love. Not a desperate sound, but a trusting whisper, held safe in the air between us, and folded into our hearts.  I would like that.

But instead, “Mummy” makes me cry.


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What lies beneath

We hope for healing – but at the same time we are afraid when we realise it might actually be happening. We’re used to being wounded – what will it feel like to be whole?

grey's healing wound