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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Freud was right about some things

Sigmund_Freud_LIFE

Max Halberstadt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

You’ve probably heard the joke:

“What is a Freudian slip? It’s when you say one thing, and mean your mother…..”

Well this was my version (paraphrased – my memory’s not that good!) in therapy last week:

Therapist (talking of the upcoming summer break): “Breaks are necessary because otherwise you would have a very tired therapist!”

Me: Silence

Me: More silence (What I’m consciously thinking is, “Therapist, she used the word therapist. That’s what she is, but hearing it feels formal, impersonal, and it hurts“)

Therapist: “Where are you?”

Me: “Ummm….when you said I would have a retired therapist…..OH….”

Therapist: starts laughing (in a lovely, cheeky, warm and kindly sort of way – like this is an ‘in’ joke, which of course it is)

Me: puts head in hands with embarrassment at having ‘fallen for’ the Freudian slip (not that one can avoid a Freudian slip – that’s the point)

Me (protesting mightily – okay, lamely): “But I wasn’t thinking about that, about ‘the end’, at all!”

Therapist: “But your unconscious was…..”

Me: “Oh.”

Therapist: “Freud was right about some things!”

Hmm….. I guess he was.

 

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I admit it – I need a rainbow butterfly unicorn kitten too

cat unicorn

Once again I appear to be behind the times – this picture has been spreading across the internet like wildfire for quite some time, but I only came across it recently. Apologies to whoever is responsible for the image, for the lack of attribution – I can’t find one anywhere!

The picture made me smile as soon as I saw it – and then I felt silly for smiling, as part of me thought it was quite plainly one of the most ridiculous pictures I had ever seen. And I had never quite understood what appeared to be the mental health world’s fascination with unicorns. (I make this gross generalization based on the fact that when I first started reading mental health blogs, I came across captioned images of unicorns on a very regular basis).

But the fact remains – I still smile every time I see this picture. It actually makes me happy to look at it. Maybe it’s just that I love kittens. To the extent that I can almost ignore the fact that this kitten has an odd sort of protrusion on its forehead. But in this context, even that seems apt and appears to have a place – if anything can be said to ‘have a place’ in this bizarre creation of ridiculous (some might take that literally) cuteness.

To be serious for a moment – if that is possible under the circumstances; this one picture brings together some powerful symbolism, and that, undoubtedly, is part of its appeal, particularly in relation to mental health. Depending on the context, rainbows symbolize hope and/or freedom; unicorns remind us of gentleness, innocence, mystery, beauty – or, indeed, of almost any positive virtue. They are a symbol of ‘the good’ – and at the same time their mythical and mystical nature is a representation of our longing for something perfect and unattainable. As for the butterfly – it is a powerful symbol of transformation, and in the mental health world it is also associated with recovery and self-care; the ‘butterfly project’, for example, aims to support and motivate individuals who wish to stop self-harming. As for the kitten – well, a kitten is a kitten. It’s adorable – who could resist? (I’m going to ignore the dream interpretation website I saw, that claimed that kittens are a symbol of sexual fantasies and irrational beliefs. If you start believing that the rainbow butterfly unicorn kitten is real, I will direct you to that website).

So, sometimes, it seems you really do need a rainbow butterfly unicorn kitten. Or, at least, I do. How did I never realize this before?!

 


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A room of my own: a tale of coincidence and carving out a space for myself

Sometimes it really does feel as though the universe is trying to deliver a message. As with the message on a coin (see my post ‘Money talks‘) that I pulled out of my purse as I was about to go into a therapy session without a clue what I was going to talk about.

Today as I drove home from work, for some reason I started thinking about the fact that I don’t really have a space within my house, of my very own. I spend a great deal of time in the lounge: whether that’s playing with the children; watching TV (rarely); writing blog posts in an extremely bad ergonomic position with my laptop on my knee; or surfing the internet aimlessly, trying to fool myself that I am not just avoiding going to bed.

I spend quite a lot of time in the kitchen; not because I love cooking or because I am a fantastic chef – far from it. But because domestic life seems to be an almost never-ending cycle of all the various things that need doing there. I certainly don’t think of it as ‘my space’ –anymore than I think of the lounge or the bathroom as ‘my space’ (though the bathroom is certainly somewhere I retreat to when I need to escape the kids!). And the bedroom is a shared area too: my husband’s and my clothes and books vying for space; my side permanently messier and more impassable than his. And just two tiny drawers with ‘personal things’, such as jewellery boxes, postcards or poems.

My husband, on the other hand, has a study. Not by virtue of the fact that he works in it (for he never does); but by virtue of the fact that his parents descended (unbidden) with all his things when we got married, and so his entire collected history of ‘stuff’ (of which there is a lot, as he is genetically predisposed to being a hoarder) is now in our house, occupying a space bigger than my children’s bedrooms. It is very much ‘his space’, where he spends much of his time, surrounded by his things. And so I started to think…..what about my space? What about a space for me?

I suspect this train of thought has its origins in the fact that I have been exploring the contents of our loft and some of the things that I brought to our house when we got married. I had almost forgotten it was there, but I recently realised when looking around our house that I could see nothing from before the time I got married. Part of what I am trying to do through therapy is to explore my past, to try and understand it better, and to reconnect with parts of myself that I effectively buried. I buried them because I felt that reinvention and becoming someone completely different, was the only way to avoid the pain and the tumultuous nature of my late teens and early twenties. And it worked, for a while. For quite a long while. But the arrival of children, as well as being a major life change in itself, is guaranteed to make you think about what you were like as a child, and it is unavoidable that you will start to reconnect – both in pleasant and far less pleasant ways – with the person you were then, and with the experiences that you had.

Perhaps it was the rediscovery of these items from my past, and their location – out of sight, out of mind – that prompted me to think about the lack of a space within my house, that I truly feel is my own. A space for my things, my memories, and my thoughts. The room in my therapist’s house where we have sessions is full of knick-knacks, books, postcards – most of which I suspect carry significance for her, and remind her of people or places. That is the sort of space I used to have when I was growing up, and at university. But I lost that when I started to share the space with somebody else, and I lost it even more so in the chaos that became our house and lifestyle, when the children came along. And along with the space, I think I also lost a sense of myself.

And so it was with these thoughts in mind that I was absolutely staggered when I opened a parcel that arrived for me today, and found this inside:

room of my ownI have no idea how to explain a coincidence like that – we will all have our own explanations, and maybe it doesn’t need one. After all, unless we are to say that there is no such thing as coincidence, the word was presumably invented for occurrences such as this. But message from the universe or not, I think this has given me the conviction that I should try to make a change; that I should try to create a space of my own, though I am not sure how. It will probably involve a difficult conversation with my husband – but I want to have it, because all of a sudden I feel a tremendous urge to create a space for myself in which I feel special. I do not have that at the moment. Sometimes, in therapy, I feel special; but although the space is emotionally ‘my space’, it is not physically ‘my space’. It is not where I live, much as I would like to.

So, thank you, universe, or happenstance, or whatever you want to call it. Though in actual fact, the real thanks must go to Penguin Random House UK and Mind the Mental Health Charity for the box of goodies that included this mug; the box being a runners up prize for the 2015 Mind Creative Writing Competition – more about that, shortly! I was incredibly grateful for the recognition of my entry – but now I am just as grateful for the timing, and the inspiration, of this part of the prize. With her title ‘A room of one’s own’, Virginia Woolf was referring, at least in part, to her own desire for artistic liberty and creative license. It may have taken a mug to make me see it – but I am grateful for the prompt to try and create a space where I will have the license to express who I am, and to rediscover it anew.

 


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Unapologetic about making everything about therapy

You would be forgiven – and entirely justified – in accusing me of trying to turn almost any piece of writing or poetry into something about therapy or the therapeutic relationship. If there is even the glimmer of the possibility for drawing the parallel, I will do so with unashamed enthusiasm, however tenuous the connection.

I recently finished reading ‘Unapologetic’ by Francis Spufford, and wanted to share with you another example of this, my favourite past-time of imbuing everything with the one thing that often seems to take over my life and my every thought. ‘Unapologetic’ is, as it says on the cover, all about “why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense“. Now, this is not at all a post about religion, Christian or otherwise, though if you are interested in such things, I can highly recommend the book. Any text which talks about the relationship between God and the universal HPtFtU as the author calls it – the Human Propensity to Fuck things Up – in an amusingly irreligious but also searingly honest and abundantly compassionate way, has my vote. It has certainly helped me to come to a renewed emotional understanding of the faith I have been struggling with so much with over the last few years, and it has challenged me to try and be more loving, not just towards others (however difficult the circumstances), but also towards myself.

And that challenge summarises one way in which, for me, the book is full of resonances with the therapeutic process and relationship. Themes of unconditional acceptance, love and compassion, in the face of the ever-constant HPtFtU; themes of self-hatred and self-sabotage and the struggle to feel loved, by ourselves or by another. I’m not suggesting my therapist in any way resembles God – though I must admit that in the past, some of the language I have used to describe my feelings for her, has had distinctly religious overtones. My therapist, I have come to grudgingly accept, is just as prone as the rest of us – though perhaps a little more forgiving of it than most – to the Human Propensity to Fuck things Up.

If you think this is all sounding a bit far-fetched, I wouldn’t blame you. But consider these passages, which jumped out at me today – and just replace the word ‘forgiven’, with something akin to ‘the process of therapy’, or to the concept of ‘progress in therapy’:

What does it feel like to feel yourself forgiven? I can only speak for myself, but, speaking for myself: surprising. Just as it comes from a direction you hadn’t considered, viewing your life from an angle you hadn’t expected, it also comes with a sensation that isn’t necessarily one of conventional release or relief. In my experience, it’s like toothache stopping because a tooth has been removed. It has the numb surprisingness of something that hurt not being there any more. You explore the space where it was, and you feel slightly changed, slightly self-alienated. Something has been reconfigured a bit. There’s some unfamiliarity close in. You’re glad, of course, that it doesn’t hurt, but you can find that you almost miss the familiar signal of your own distress, especially since the memory of how much it hurt fades fast, and it’s difficult to go on rejoicing positively over an absence. You may find, in fact, that you feel a sly temptation to restore the status quo ante, by going out and doing again the thing you needed forgiving for, whatever it was. After all, you’ve just discovered it was survivable, that there was a route out of desperation and self-reproach; and this way you won’t have to deal with the unsettling open-endedness of being changed.”

It’s hard to wait and stay in the tremulous uncertain state grace puts us in, not knowing what its changes may mean, not knowing where they may take us. Forgiveness has no price we need to pay, but it exposes our illusions of control. Forgiveness is not flattering. Forgiveness reminds us that our masks are masks. Forgiveness starts something, if we let it. Forgiveness comes with an invitation to find out what else we may become that we hadn’t suspected. Forgiveness carries you into new territory. Forgiveness is disconcerting.”

Go on, I dare you. Tell me I’m trying to make something out of – well, something very different. Tell me I’m trying to  draw a parallel where none exists – where the concepts are non-intersecting and where, therefore, ironically enough, ‘parallel’ would be a mathematically apt description of them. All I know is that this is exactly how it feels when I am running scared because of the progress I seem to be making in therapy. I feel slightly changed and slightly self-alienated. I miss the familiar signal of my own distress; the possibility of creating a rupture in therapy in order to experience the familiar and reassuring intensity of the ‘repair’, is very tempting; and unsettling is an understatement for how it feels to know that more therapy means more of the same – an open-ended capacity for change.

As for the second extract – if you’ve been in therapy for some time, I challenge you to replace the word ‘forgiveness’ with ‘therapy’, and tell me that this doesn’t accord with your own experience of the process. Therapy is not flattering. Therapy reminds us that our masks are masks. Therapy starts something, if we let it. Therapy comes with an invitation to find out what else we may become that we hadn’t suspected. Therapy carries you into new territory. Therapy is disconcerting.

Therapy has no price we need to pay….okay, so you got me there. It’s costing me a fortune, though it isn’t buying me anything (because understanding and acceptance cannot be bought), as much as it affords me an opportunity – an opportunity which is priceless.

But hey, no parallel is perfect, right?


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Recovery

Recovery diagram SANE

I absolutely love this picture, which was shared through Facebook today via the mental health charity SANE. I wish I could credit the picture, but although it pops up in a miriad places on the internet when you google it, I cannot find an attribution anywhere!

I’m not sure my expectations of recovery ever had such a steep and rosy gradient, but my own reality of recovery is definitely as messy as that illustrated here. In fact I would go as far as to say that in terms of how it feels (even if that does not reflect what is actually happening) it is more like this:

recovery life in a bind

The scary cliff-edge at the end represents the fact that it is pretty much impossible for me at the moment to visualise a future in which recovery has actually happened. Alternatively, think of this picture as the random walk of therapy, with the cliff-edge representing the terrifying prospect of ‘termination’.

Or imagine recovery as a battle – that’s easy to do. For many people with mental health difficulties, every day feels like a fight: a fight against your thoughts; a fight against your feelings; a fight against your impulses; a fight against other people and their perceptions; a fight against your own self, or a version of yourself that wants to keep you trapped in misery, fear and self-loathing. Sometimes recovery can feel as though your enemy is shooting arrows as straight as the ones on the left of the top picture, that pierce straight through, leaving you bleeding out. Whereas it feels as though you are shooting arrows as twisty as the ones on the right – even if they hit their target they penetrate a little way and then get stuck, or simply dislodge and fall to the ground.

If you’re a soldier at war with mental illness, you might like this track called ‘Recovery’, by James Arthur. The video contains an interesting visual for another feeling that I sometimes associate with recovery – the sense that I am stuck on a particular track, going round and round in circles, not able to break out of the infinite loop of my experience, but desperately wanting to. This song reminds me that however helpless I may feel, and however trapped in that loop I may feel, recovery is possible and it is within my hands and my direction – even if that direction resembles a tangled trail of spaghetti.


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My therapy family

mother carrying child FINAl

For my ‘therapy-mother’ – thank you for knowing when I need you to ‘carry’ me

Siblings who I want to be; half-siblings who I hate; a father that I don’t know and never want to meet; and a mother who I sometimes have inappropriate feelings for. No, not my actual family– just my complicated ‘therapy family’.

Many months ago, my therapist and I were talking about names and designations. I think she prefers ‘patient’ to ‘client’ – as she said, ‘client’ has certain connotations, though perhaps the connotations in her own mind were not quite as insalubrious as the ones in mine! Patient, on the other hand, is what one needs to be during the therapy process and is an appropriate (and for me challenging) description of the person sitting in the ‘exposing’ chair.

I am constantly amazed and grateful at my therapist’s calm acceptance of topics that cause me great embarrassment and some shame, whether that’s talk of sex, talk of googling her, or, in this case, talk of how much I wish she could be my mother, and how difficult I sometimes find it to think of her in that way. However, she seemed to think it perfectly acceptable to be regarded as a ‘therapy-mother’ and for me to think of myself as a ‘therapy-daughter’ – and in my mind, at least, that nomenclature has stuck, and has been incredibly ‘safe’ and helpful.

I had a friend at school whose brothers seemed to really have it in for her – they used to drown her homework in the sink and occasionally threatened her with knives. It seems as though they had about as much time and liking for each other as I imagine I might have if I ever came across the multitude(?)/handful(?) of other clients who I grudgingly think of as my half-siblings in this bizarre familial mix. I know that my therapist would claim not to have favourites: but it’s hard enough to maintain that position with one’s own children, and I find it quite difficult to believe that even she (amazing though she is) can achieve that with a disparate group of non-blood ‘relations’, some of whom she surely has more in common with than others. It’s hard not to believe there is a ‘pecking order’ of sorts – I made a comment the other day about how I feared and dreaded the day she might eventually become a grandmother, because it would mean I moved one more rung down the ladder of her affections.

As for my ‘siblings’ in this scenario, her own children: although I’m jealous of the time they get to spend with her, the hugs and the ‘I love you’s that they receive from her -my fantasy is not usually of jealousy (strangely), but of friendship. How would we get on if we met? How much would we have in common? What ‘standards’ does my therapist expect of her children, and do I meet them? Is that the precisely the kind of question that is part of the reason why I’m in therapy in the first place? Yes, probably.

And then there’s that elusive ‘father’ figure….Occasionally I hear him downstairs (or rather the impact he has on his surroundings) when I am in therapy on a weekday evening. Can he hear me and my therapist laughing sometimes, and what does he think? Does he hear what I say as I go down the stairs and say goodbye at the door? Does he wonder about me? I try not to wonder too much about him – there are too many mixed feelings where he’s concerned. I can’t hate him because she loves him; and because he takes care of her (though of course, she can take care of herself – I know that she’s reading, I must be careful what I say…!). But at the same time, he feels like a threat in the way that her children do not. He is the one who has constant access to her; who shares everything with her. Her life, her history, her thoughts, her feelings, her bed – there’s that ‘inappropriate’ pre-oedipal twist that I mentioned.

What a strange, strange world is this therapy-universe that some of us live in. Oh, and I seem to have acquired a trans-atlantic therapy step-father as well – or maybe more of a therapy-uncle. One of those ‘uncles’ who isn’t actually related but for whom one has affection and one thinks of as part of the family. I’ve never met him either, though we’ve chatted online. I’ve acquired him in my mind, rather than in reality – that is, he hasn’t in fact consented to be thought of in this way, but he seems to be almost as level-headed, accepting and pragmatic as my own therapist, and so I’m hoping he will find it all rather amusing and take it as the compliment it’s meant to be. I’m guessing he is recognising himself as he reads – I’m not sure whether I’m enjoying that thought or finding it terrifying. My therapist and I had a lovely discussion about it the other day – I felt guilty and thought she might find this new member of the family an imposition or a threat. Far from it – she thinks that I’ve brought him into our therapy and she jokingly referred to the situation as an ‘oedipal triangle’. She laughed out loud when I admitted that I couldn’t help wondering how the two of them would get on if they met. I think she likes his writing and has a consonance with where he’s coming from, therapeutically speaking, so that’s a good start. If you think this is starting to sound very bizarre, I would completely agree with you…

The words we use to talk about things can shape how we think about them – how do you see yourself in your own therapy relationship? Client, patient, child? Does it change depending on the stage of therapy you’re in at the time? Do certain designations cause more inner conflict than others, and how do you think of the other relationships in your therapist’s life?

As for my own ‘therapy-family’, I think this quote by J R R Tolkien, from ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ is rather apt: “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.”

 

 


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Money talks…

…and when I took out a coin to pay the parking metre just before my last therapy session – having worried all the way there about the fact I hadn’t planned what I was going to talk about – it said this:

be prepared for therapy final

Which is bang on the money, I’d say.