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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Chasing cars around my rocky island – and other therapeutic conundrums

I think I’m finally starting to realise that my therapist might actually be interested in me. Not just interested in what I have to say from a therapeutic perspective, or because it’s her professional duty to be interested, or because she gets job satisfaction from it, or because she satisfies her curiosity by being interested. But interested in who I am as a person – not for her own reasons or her own gain, but just for the sake of it.

It’s infuriating when she turns my questions back onto me – when she won’t immediately tell me what her favourite piece of music is, or her favourite colour, or why she enjoyed a particular book. But I think I’m finally starting to see beyond the frustrations of ‘therapeutic technique’ and rather than feeling ‘fobbed off’, I’m starting to accept that she genuinely wants to ensure that therapy is my space, and that we focus on me rather than her. She knows that I have a strong people-pleasing streak, and has guessed that behind my questions often lies a desire to find out what she likes so that I can do something to please her, whether that’s play a piece of music that she likes, or discuss a book that she finds interesting. Instead, she tries to persuade me that she wants to know what I think, what I like, why things are important to me. Maybe I’m starting to buy it – but it’s hard to overcome the inbuilt belief that people generally want something from me, rather than wanting me to be me.

Overcome by warm and fuzzy feelings of acceptance, I decided to email my therapist a link to my favourite song, ‘Chasing Cars’ by Snow Patrol:

There are a number of things I love about this song, including the simple repeating nature of the tune, and the way it builds and builds towards the end. But the words capture that part of me that longs for finding and merging with that one person who can be everything and everyone to me. In other words, it captures my longing for that which does not exist – for the ideal, for the perfect.

When we next met, my therapist said the song had prompted her to think of another song, by Simon and Garfunkel, called ‘I am a rock’. My assumption was that it was a song along similar lines, and so I was rather surprised when I listened to this:

Should I be offended?! What is she trying to say?! On the one hand, I can see exactly why she was reminded of the song; why I reminded her of that song. It speaks to the ways in which I try and protect myself from pain and close myself off from other people because of a fear of being vulnerable. But I was confused about how and why she’d made the link between two such different songs.

However, it later occurred to me that in some ways, the second song follows on from the first. That the ‘way of being’ described in ‘I am a rock’ is the consequence of my beliefs and longings as captured in ‘Chasing Cars’. If I am desperate for the one person who can meet my every need to the exclusion of everyone else, and who can do it without hurting me, I am bound to end up as a human island. That one person does not exist and when I try and build someone in that image, they invariably fail to live up to it, and I am devastated by that disappointment. I may push them away, or I may shut them out. Either way, I am left feeling cut-off, and building defences against it happening again. Either way, as the song says, “I am alone”.

For me, there is an idyll of ‘perfect togetherness’ in Chasing Cars. An idyll of emotional vitality and vigour; a landscape with a ‘garden that’s bursting into life’. But it is almost within the definition of an idyll that it is unsustainable or unrealistic. Trying to superimpose it on our feet of clay can lead to the completely contrasting picture of emotional death, which is painted in ‘I am a rock’:

“A winter’s day
In a deep and dark December;
I am alone,
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.
I am a rock,
I am an island.”

I’ve had some very difficult sessions in therapy recently, where I have felt completely cut-off from my therapist, feeling that she was unwilling or unable to respond to me as I would like. I have her words ringing in my ears: “I have the sense that you feel I’m not giving you what you need”; “I’m only human”; “by focusing on the things you can’t have in therapy, you’re not able to make the most of the things you can have”; “allow yourself to experience therapy rather than want it to be as you imagine it”. She wants me to be myself and accepts me for who I am – I want to be able to experience and accept her as she is too, albeit what she shows me will be very much more limited than what I reveal of myself. It’s hard living on my rocky island and I’d rather be in that garden – but I need to try and accept the weeds and the shade, along with the flowers and the light.

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The paralysis of perfectionism

*WARNING – SUICIDAL IDEATION, SWEARING, AND LACK OF AN UP-BEAT ENDING*

I am in a bad place writing-wise. I have a stack of posts I want to write, but none of them are making an appearance. Not so much as a witty first line or a poetic ending – and certainly not a coherent middle. My head is swimming with thoughts, realisations, connections, important ideas and understandings from therapy, all of which I’d like to capture – for one thing, I’m very worried I will forget it all and the work will be ‘wasted’. Worse than that, if all that will eventually be left of my relationship with my therapist are the memories of our sessions, I’m absolutely terrified that I’m letting her slip away by not recording everything, and that eventually nothing will be left of what we had.

Gone seem to be the days when I used to look forward to the end of the week and ‘discovering’ what it was I wanted to write about. Sometimes the subject matter took me by surprise and it was only a few hours before writing that it became obvious what I wanted to say. Sometimes I could feel it brewing and gathering distinctness during the week, until it became a half-formed (hopefully not half-baked) idea that could start to take shape once my fingers starting working on the keys.

Writing was easier, I think, when I used to have one, rather than two, therapy sessions a week. In a way, writing was a bit like having a session – it was a way of processing thoughts, digging deep, bridging the gap between sessions, and keeping my connection with my therapist alive. On the face of it then, perhaps having a second session has simply obviated some of the need to write. What I would have processed on paper, I can process in person. But no – I think in fact the opposite has happened. Having two sessions a week means there’s now a great deal more to process than there was before. The result? Mental and physical exhaustion towards the end of the week that means sometimes I can barely keep my eyes open as I try and type; less time for a single idea to turn over in my head and to take shape before the next set of thoughts takes it over and we’re onto something else. The pace is faster; the feelings are more intense; the depth is – well, deeper.

I think this all means we’re onto something. So many of the ideas come from different directions but end up feeling connected, and that feels like a good sign, as if it’s all coming together. But it also means that when it comes to writing about it, I don’t know where to start. In a way, it’s a bit like art imitating life. I talk about something in therapy but I’m not sure, come the first silence or come the next session, how to develop it or how to take it further. I’m paralysed by the sense that there must be a ‘right way’ to proceed; I panic at not knowing what that ‘right way’ is; I change the subject because that topic now feels a little lame and as though it must have run its course. Otherwise why would I not be able to think of anything to say, or why would my therapist not be asking me more questions about it? I used to sit down and write and see where it took me. Now, unless the idea feels fully formed and structured to start with, it’s hard to get going at all. Perhaps doing something for longer breeds more performance anxiety, not less. There is the idea that ‘standards’ must at the very least stay the same, if not improve. As with many things in life, I find it hard to do something simply for the joy of it – sooner or later something inside me wants to sacrifice joy to some sort of self-defined and self-defeating sense of achievement.

A few weeks ago I turned up to therapy without a plan (yes, I was brave enough to do it again!) and we had a lovely meandering session in which we filled in  few more of the details of my past, and which felt intimate and personal and special. At least, it did until near the end when I said that next time I would make sure I came with a plan. Given the implication of my comment (that things had not gone so well without one), my therapist asked me what I thought the session had been lacking. In fact, it had been lacking nothing – it had been beautiful, just as it was. Except for the fact that I couldn’t enjoy what it had been, because I didn’t feel I had achieved something. Things can’t go to plan if there is no plan. They can just go. But that feels uncomfortable – because I have no standard with which to judge that, or my performance against it.

I want to be fucking free. Of the anxiety I feel every time I think I may have said something wrong; of the fear of pushing people away; of the hatred of making mistakes; of the inability to cope with being dreadfully and inevitably ‘let down’; of the belief that what I say doesn’t matter or isn’t interesting to others; of the absolute conviction that I need one person, just one, to be everything and everyone in the whole wide world to me.

I may be in a bad place writing-wise, but I’m in a bad place life-wise, and that worries me more. Therapy is helping me to understand a great deal about myself, about others, about the way I relate to them and to the world. It is revealing the origin of past patterns and of enduring present beliefs. It is helping me to try and figure out little bits of who I am (I recently discovered I was an introvert – who knew?). But I find that the more I understand, the less I want to live. The more I see about what motivated some of my choices in the past, the less I want to live with them. The more I feel what I missed out on and will continue to miss out in future, the less I want to inhabit that future. The more I understand about how things are, the more powerless I feel to change them. I thought things were supposed to be the other way around? Someone please send me some radical acceptance – but it better come with precise installation instructions so that I can’t get it wrong.

In the past, I coped with life by changing the things around me, rather than changing me. Now, I can’t cope with changing the things around me, and although I could try and change me, I don’t think the things around me could cope. I’ve got myself into a little life-conundrum, and my brain is looking for a way out. As I was driving along yesterday, I was convinced that I saw a sign by the side of the road that said ‘Kill yourself, not your speed’. Thank you brain – as if you don’t distort the way I see the world enough, you try and give me little ‘signs from the universe’ to urge me on my way.

I can‘t see a way out of this experience, and in a rather restrained and understated British way, it’s a little worrying. I’m not sure I feel quite safe – and that’s unsettling. Someone very wise once said to me that “it is essential to change how one goes about daily life, much more than it is important to understand anything”. But here’s what I’m not sure about – is ‘how one goes about daily life’ about the actual living, or about one’s attitude while one does the living? I’m not sure I have the means or the courage to change the former; and I still have no idea how to change the latter. So far I’m only at the stage of realising that change is necessary – but that’s a bit like seeing the prison walls for the first time, when you had no idea they were there, and feeling as though they are falling in on you. It feels as though there’s a timer running – will I be able to figure out how to dig myself out, before they crush the air out of me?

I want to go back and do it all again – differently. I want the tattoo and the belly-button piercing, the outrageously coloured hair and the courage to make my own decisions, despite the belief that my opinions did not matter, and the feeling that I was not accepted for who I was. I want to go back and do it right, damn it. Maybe the second time around, I won’t be such a fucking perfectionist. Maybe the second time around, I’ll be happy to just do okay. Or maybe to just do.

Sigh….I’ll feel a damn sight safer when I can read that last sentence without my murderous brain shouting ‘WHO ARE YOU KIDDING?’ in response…..