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 under the name Clara Bridges.


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“Predestination” – not really a film review

Usually when I write about literature, art, music or film that has made an impact upon me or inspired me in some way, I try to explain why. Usually, the context in which I encountered it, and the other things going on in my life and in therapy at the time, play a vital role in why the piece hit home, the way I interpreted it, and the significance I attached to it. But on this occasion, things are more complicated…..

I watched the film ‘Predestination’ in May, and it immediately became one of my top two or three favourite films – I wanted to watch it again as soon as it was over. My husband and I have quite different tastes but we’re both happy to watch thrillers and science fiction/fantasy. The description on the back of the ‘Predestination’ DVD therefore looked ‘suitable’ and was very similar to this paragraph, from www.rottentomatoes.com: “PREDESTINATION chronicles the life of a Temporal Agent (Ethan Hawke) sent on an intricate series of time-travel journeys designed to prevent future killers from committing their crimes. Now, on his final assignment, the Agent must stop the one criminal that has eluded him throughout time and prevent a devastating attack in which thousands of lives will be lost“.

Half an hour in, and my husband was rather regretting the choice of film, and I was absolutely riveted and completely drawn in. Towards the start of the film two characters meet in a bar, and one tells the other a story – a story about a baby girl left on the doorstep of an orphanage, and what happens to her as she grows up. There are flashbacks throughout the telling, and the telling does take up a considerable portion of the film. But the story and the telling are absolutely vital to the impact of what happens later on.

As this review by Ben Rawson-Jones points out, this is a film that benefits from a lack of advanced knowledge. You may work out the ending as you watch- there are certainly clues – but to say very much may well spoil your enjoyment. What I can say is that though the mind-bending time travel elements are fascinating, that is not the reason why I love this film. Aside from the fantastic acting by the female lead, Sarah Snook, I love this film because it is fundamentally a story about identity. In addition, the way in which the story unfolds had huge resonances for me, with the process of therapy, and in particular with the point I was at in my own therapy story. To try and explain any more about ‘the plot’ and about why the film was so important to me, would give away vital components; and so all I can do is encourage you to see it for yourself!

At some stage I will write a fuller post about this – with an obvious spoiler alert up front! But in the meantime, I wanted to whet your appetite with the following quotes from reviews (and how can you resist a movie described as solipsistic?!):

Questions of identity infuse the intricately plotted Predestination, a smart sci-fi thriller that packs a powerful emotional punch thanks to its sensitive treatment of emotive themes and an incredible, multi-layered performance from Sarah Snook.Ben Rawson-Jones

Don’t expect car chases or crowd scenes. The Spierigs — German boys, Michael and Peter (they made Daybreakers) — keep things moody and intimate. This is a deeply solipsistic movie, but how deep is something you’ll need to find out for yourself”. David Edelstein

 

[For those with an interest in science fiction, the film is based on a (very) short story by Robert A. Heinlein called ‘All You Zombies’. Heinlein was a leading science fiction writer and the book (and film) have nothing to do with zombies, though the phrase is part of a quote by the lead character towards the end of the book, and in that context, its use is interesting….]


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Inner child and past child

I can’t stop thinking about her – the girl in Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ video, which I wrote about in my “Intensity” post. I have tried and tried to write about other things – important posts about topics I have been wanting to cover for a while – but I just can’t do it. The words simply won’t write themselves and the image of the eleven-year-old Maddie Ziegler just dances into the path of my best endeavours to think about something else.

Sia_-_Chandelier_(music_video_screenshot)It feels strange how a completely random occurrence – happening upon a song and a video that I could have come across at any time over the last few months – has turned into the most pivotal event in my therapy since Christmas. But I guess that’s life. The ordinary can have extraordinary significance, and a chance event can alter the course of a life.

I have been trying to understand what it is about the song and the video that is so powerful, and what it is that it is tapping into. The question that intrigues me most, is “why a child”? The song appears to have an adult theme – the pain and emptiness of substance abuse and losing oneself in a partying lifestyle – but that pain is depicted by a child whose age is only just in double digits. The blonde ‘Sia’ wig and Sia’s description of her video for ‘Elastic Heart’ – in which the same young girl appears alongside a male actor/dancer – as a depiction of her ‘self-states’, implies that it is her ‘inner child’ who is the centrepiece of Chandelier.

I think the power of the song and the video operates on two levels for me: it has resonances with one of the worst periods of my life, when I completely ‘lost myself’ as an adult, but when I suspect that the inner child was in control (or rather, she was uppermost, but out of control); and it also reminds me of childhood itself.

My therapist said that for her, Maddie’s dance was indicative of someone who just didn’t know what to do with themselves. Reviews that I have read, described her as depicting someone ‘barely in control’, almost literally ‘climbing the walls’. I know that feeling. In my early twenties I went through a period which I can only describe as ‘losing touch with reality’. It was a ‘party period’, and sometimes when I describe it, people simply see it as ‘experimentation’. But nothing can shake my conviction that that was not what it was. Looking back on that time, even a few months afterwards, I couldn’t recognise myself. I had no sense of myself, of my values, or of any boundaries. Things that would ordinarily have been important to me  – for example, the opinion of those in positions of authority – were not so much unimportant, as not remotely in the picture.

I partied, I drank, I acted out – mostly with people I had little interest in or attraction to. For a while, the more I lost control, the more powerful I felt. Though never confident in my appearance, I developed bizarre delusions of grandeur in that I thought I could have anyone I wanted. But as time went on, the loss of control didn’t feel like power anymore. I was on auto-pilot – the acting out became habitual, not something I wanted to do, but something I just did. And although for a while ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ were simply immaterial, as time went on I was disturbed by vivid ‘religious experiences’ in which I felt as though God and the Devil were battling it out for my soul. I was in a lot of pain – and doing my very best not to feel it. Eventually it got to the point where I think I was dissociating a lot of the time. I remember occasions when I felt as though I was simply watching myself (or at least, someone who looked like me), from outside my body.

Whatever it was that my ‘inner child’ was searching for – affirmation, validation, love, acceptance, something to fill an emptiness – she wasn’t finding it. And throughout all that time I think that she was inwardly desperate for someone to put the brakes on; to challenge her and to set her some boundaries. I felt betrayed by the fact that no one did  – neither my friends, nor my church family, even though they were all witnesses to what was going on. I saw the looks of disapproval and pity – but no one cared or dared enough to speak their mind. Until one day someone did – someone who I barely knew and who certainly didn’t care about me. But they did what needed to be done, and for that I’m grateful, as it was the starting point of a change.

For me, the song’s connection with that period of my life and with the ‘inner child’s’ needs that were driving the adult behaviour, was the first interpretation that came to mind. But the more I watched the video, the more conscious I became of the connection with my emotional experience growing up. The thing about Sia’s ‘child state’, is that she is performing a dance, but she is also, in quite a different sense, ‘putting on a performance’. One commentator described sections of the video as involving a party, with the dancer entertaining her ‘invisible guests’. For me, this is almost like looking at a negative. In one sense, it is the guests who are ‘real’ and the ‘performance’ that is a lie, the cover-up for something hidden – but what we see is the picture pulled inside out, revealing the emotions underneath. What this brings out for me, more than anything else, is how alone she is with her emotions. ‘Help me, I’m holding on for dear life’. A room full of party guests but each one as insubstantial, vacuous and transparent as thin air – there is no meaningful connection anywhere. She is barely holding on, but no one can see it, and all she can do is try and numb the pain, push it down where she can’t feel it, and carry on pretending and putting on a fake smile.

What affected me more than anything, I think, was her alone-ness. The fact that she was on her own with her intense emotions. Whether you see that as being literally alone, dancing in an empty flat, or alone amidst a room full of invisible guests – there was no one alongside her in her experience. It reminded me of myself: whether it was experiencing loss, massive upheaval, bereavement, rejection, fear or panic – I kept it all inside. I think the song and video were powerful triggers of that sense of feeling alone with my experience – with no one ‘safe’ enough to share it with. No one who could properly validate it or accept it and who wouldn’t belittle or dismiss it. No one who could contain it in such a way as to ensure that their own reactions didn’t overwhelm me even further. My life was full of people – parents, relatives, friends – but when it came to being present with me in my internal struggles, they were essentially invisible.

But I’ve also come to believe that my reaction to the video is not just about what the child in the video reminds me of. It’s what the child means to me. When your mind tells you something you know cannot be true, you have to question why. I love that little girl – which is clearly impossible, as I do not know her. I can only think that watching her on screen, relating to some of the emotions that she is portraying, allows me to project myself onto her in some way. In the last episode of Season 2 of ‘My Mad Fat Diary’ (a UK drama series from a couple of years ago), the female protagonist is asked by her therapist to imagine talking to her younger self. By revealing the compassion she has for the child she used to be, and by showing her that she is still the same person she was then, the therapist tries to encourage her to have love and compassion for herself in the present. I have tried this thought experiment myself – but instead of feeling compassion or love for the ‘younger me’, all I feel is dislike, resentment and anger. I think that I blame her – if she had been stronger, more resilient, if she had been different somehow, perhaps I wouldn’t be where I am now. Perhaps my life would have been different. She could have saved me; but she failed.

But when I see little Maddie Ziegler on screen and identify with her emotions, I want to let her know that she is loved. While she out there on a screen, two-dimensional though still incredibly full of life, I can have a sense of validating and caring for the parts of me that she is representing. But the moment I try and bring that image inside me; the moment I try and internalise it and really look at the ‘child within’, those feelings completely disappear. I’m back to viewing her through that other lens – the one that has picked up the dirt and discolourations of the attitudes I was surrounded by when growing up.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have listened to the song and watched the video. The experience has shifted from the sheer power of emotion, to the power of analysis and interpretation. It’s a goldmine of therapeutic material. Interestingly, in a most appropriate ‘freudian slip’ of the written kind, I mistakenly wrote ‘minefield’ rather than ‘goldmine’, in the first iteration of that sentence. To be honest, either will do – both are equally true. I have a feeling I will be exploring that goldmine/minefield for some time to come – I just hope I can survive the experience.

 

Image attribution: “Sia – Chandelier (music video screenshot)” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sia_-_Chandelier_(music_video_screenshot).jpg#mediaviewer/File:Sia_-_Chandelier_(music_video_screenshot).jpg


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The unbearable insubstantiality of being – BPD and identity

More often than not, there is a distance of time in my writing, between the events or feelings that prompted it, and the recounting itself. Sometimes, that time can be as little as twenty-four hours, as was the case for my post on suicide. More often, it tends to be a number of days, weeks, or even of months. In general, my writing tends to be a way of reflecting on events, rather than processing them. The processing happens in my head, as the precursor to the writing, although it’s still true to say that in the writing, new revelations or new interpretations can sometimes be unearthed. But it’s fair to say that most often, when I’m in the thick of emotions, I cannot write about them until I have some perspective on them. I may write as a way of coping – but I write about something else.

But this time, I have to write ‘in the moment’. I have to write through it and write it through. I have to write it out. Perhaps it is because this moment, this emotion, keeps returning. There is no getting rid of it, and if I wait to gain some distance or perspective on it, I may wait too long, and never give it expression.

I have often heard others with BPD talk about feeling ‘unreal’, and wondered exactly what they meant, or how they would describe it. I would still like to know. ‘Anxiety Care UK’ describes ‘derealisation’ as feeling dissociated from one’s environment. To quote from their website: “The experience might include perceiving objects as unsolid, diminished in size or two-dimensional; and the self as perhaps being inside some glass-like container or peering at the world through a fog, with the world unreachable and meaningless.”

No, I don’t think that describes the emotion I’m referring to, although I often feel that life is hopeless and meaningless. I have felt the world as being ‘out of kilter’; I have felt as if I were living on my own speeding train, on a parallel track with the rest of the world, never to intersect; but I’m not sure I have felt ‘derealisation’, as described above. ‘Depersonalisation’- yes, I have felt that. The same website describes it as: “people will experience changes in self-awareness, which might include feeling as if their thoughts and actions are not their own, perhaps as far as experiencing the sensation as watching themselves from the outside.”

But this feeling that I have – it’s not depersonalisation either. My inner voice keeps offering up the phrase ‘I feel unreal’, and it is quickly quashed by my inner critic who still regularly persists in accusing me of fraud, and of ‘making up’ my mental health difficulties. “What do you mean you ‘feel unreal’? You have no right to use that phrase because those who use it actually do feel unreal – as if they don’t exist, as if they are ethereal. You’re lying to yourself. You’re not ill. You don’t feel unreal.” But I do – I do feel unreal. I don’t think it’s necessarily in the same way as some of those with BPD ‘feel unreal’, but the phrase still feels appropriate to me. It still rings true. I may not know exactly what others mean when they use it, but I know what I mean  – and this is it.

It’s not that I feel ‘physically unreal’, or that my physical being feels ethereal, far from it. My physical existence weighs me down – its heaviness makes it hard to ignore. I try to escape it by retreating inside my head, but I continue to travel through time and space while I wish that I could be less bounded; that I could somehow leave my body behind to live my life, while I inhabit a different, purely mental world. Give me the blue pill Morpheus, and let me live in my matrix of dreams.

No, it’s not that I feel physically unreal. It’s that I feel devoid of content. I’m not sure if I feel empty – but I feel I am empty. I feel as though there’s nothing there. My outer being may feel heavy, but my inner being feels utterly insubstantial. And like many aspects of BPD, that feeling is particularly present in the turbulence of the relationships with those I am closest to – my husband, in particular.

I am spirit, and every criticism blows apart my atoms like wind rushing through a cloud of smoke. Every harsh word annihilates me. With every argument and insult I lose integrity – in both senses. My decency, my character (do I have any?) are undermined; any sense of wholeness and cohesion are swept away. I am nothing, I am worth nothing. I grasp at a sense of identity but when being undermined rather than being underpinned, it feels as though there is nothing there to grab hold of. Like Schrodinger’s Cat, my state of being – full or empty, worthy or worthless – is undetermined until your looks and words give it actuality.

Perhaps, then, this sense of unreality is much more about identity, than it is about physicality or dissociation. In the landscape of the DSM IV criteria for BPD, perhaps we’re in the terrain of criterion 3: “Identity disturbance – markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self”. And science knows what happens to unstable elements – they self-destruct and either reject or convert parts of themselves, in order to become something else.

Sometimes, I wish my response to feeling devoid of content was to feel devoid of emotion. Given how much I crave intensity of feeling, that’s saying something. Instead, feeling devoid of content makes me want to be devoid of life. A book of blank pages is a lifeless book. How joyless feels the task of turning every page, until the end. Feeling devoid of content looks like Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’, but on the inside. Feeling devoid of content feels like cutting across the canvas of my skin to let the sunset of ‘The Scream’ seep out. As Munch wrote, “Suddenly the sky became blood – and I felt the breath of sadness”.

Sometimes I feel like a useless sack of skin. That description chills me  – it feels horrifyingly dehumanising. One could argue that self-consciousness, a sense of identify and of who we are, is part of the essence of being human. If that is unstable, no wonder we can sometimes feel less than human. No wonder we can sometimes feel unreal. It’s not that we feel as though we don’t exist. It’s that we exist, but incompletely. It’s that we exist, but without a core. No wonder we are so afraid of caving in, and that ‘being’ is sometimes so unbearable.


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Even the hairdresser’s made me cry

It was with completely unexpected pleasure and excitement that I re-found a copy of Susan Hill’s ‘Howard’s End is on the Landing’ on the bookshelf this morning, as I was about to dash out of the door to the hairdressers. I was looking for a ‘back-up’ book, in case my tablet malfunctioned (not an unusual occurrence) and I was unable to access one of the many half-read books on it. I knew there were a couple of weighty Ken Follett tomes somewhere, and apart from the challenges of fitting one in my handbag, I wasn’t particularly taken with the idea of starting something I wasn’t likely to finish for the next year. So finding the slim and enticingly entitled Susan Hill (which I had forgotten I had received for Christmas) was the perfect start to my long-awaited annual three-hour session to have my full head of highlights done. (Three hours? I have long hair).

It’s hard to describe the way in which I look forward to my annual trip to have my hair done. It’s not vanity, though I do enjoy the way my hair looks good for all of a day or so while the shape that’s been blow-dried into it is still there, and while the colours are still vibrant and before they fade into my very dark natural shades. I have small children, and borderline personality disorder. The first is common to many, who will immediately understand why three hours out, just sitting, drinking coffee, and reading a book, is a pure luxury. The second is not quite so common, and you can’t take time out of it, but if you know, you’ll understand the value of getting away with your thoughts, and getting some space from your triggers. And of doing something that helps you to feel cared for, even if you are the one having to do it, for you.

There’s a particular type of book I look for on these occasions, but it’s difficult to articulate what that is. I just know it when I find it. Past highlights (what a very poor attempt at a pun) have included Bill Bryson’s wonderful biography of Shakespeare and Jon Ronson’s ‘The Psychopath Test’. My books for these trips must be not-too-long, so that I can read a sizeable portion while I’m actually there, and can truly immerse myself in them and have them take me over. For me, there’s no better way to read a book, than in one sitting. They must be interesting page turners, and something I may not normally have thought of reading. I’m not particularly interested in Shakespeare, and ‘The Psychopath Test’ was something my husband was given for his birthday. But the writers of both books carried me along on a fascinating and funny journey, which I look forward to reliving when I pick up the books again in a few years time.

On this occasion, I had imagined that I would be flitting between the various partially-read books on my tablet, including a Jodi Picoult and an interesting volume entitled’ The Buddha and the Borderline’. Deborah Meaden’s book, ‘Common sense rules’ was also on there and would have qualified as a ‘highlights’ book, had I not already been half-way through it, and so the excitement of opening the pages, starting out afresh, and finding out what it had to hold, was already in the past, and my reading of it had already become very fragmented. I was already feeling the disappointment of not being able to make the best use of the upcoming precious reading time, when my hand brushed over ‘Howard’s End is on the landing’, while I my eye was looking for ‘The Pillars of the Earth’.

Susan Hill has been one of my favourite authors since I fell in love with “Strange Meeting” as a teenager. Some of my most vivid memories are of intense feelings felt as a result of reading a book, or reading a poem, or watching a film. ‘Strange Meeting’, and the central relationship within its pages, triggered that intensity for me.  More recently, I have greatly enjoyed her crime novels, and it was in looking on Amazon to see if she had published another, that I came across this particular offering. ‘Howards End is on the landing: A year of reading from home’, is an autobiographical tour through Susan Hill’s personal library – a memoir hung on books, using her discovery and rediscovery of her collection to tell of the stories and memories they evoked.

I’m not surprised that I loved it from the very first sentence. It was interesting, it was funny, it was warm, it was honest, it was beautifully written, and intimately revealing of its author. What surprised me, is that I read it with tears barely held back and lingering constantly just below the surface. What surprised me is that reading it was filled with poignancy and pain, and although the first was at least to some degree present in the book, the second was mostly present within me.

How could a book that some reviewers called ‘light-hearted’, evoke such sadness? I think it was the ‘looking back’. I think it was the idea of a full-life, long-lived; the idea of being able to pick memories off a book shelf, that could be pondered with contentment, and made sense of in the context of a coherent life, true to some underlying core. Those things, in themselves, are the very opposite of sad – but they are things that I find it impossible to believe can be true of me either now or in the future, and that is where my sadness lies. It also lies, very much so, in the resonances that ‘looking back’ has for me at the moment. I have been doing a great deal of ‘looking back’ – in therapy, and outside it. It’s a painful process, and I know there’s much worse to come. The key Pandora’s boxes have been skilfully avoided – my grief over having to cease therapy with my previous counsellor being a very genuine, but also very convenient, distraction from those things that I would rather not talk about.

Though it’s all leading to the same place in the end – grief is loss, and loss is everywhere. It bubbled up occasionally in Susan Hill’s accounts of authors that she knew, but it bubbled up continually as I was reading, in my sense that ‘the past’ is defined by what I have lost or never had, and that ‘the future’ is defined by the losses to come. What should have joined the two, a stable thread of enduring identity, is shaky at best. When I hold up a mirror to the past, or try to look into a crystal ball, what I see depends entirely on who I was mirroring at the time, or who I am longing to ‘merge’ with now. The ‘therapy-honed’ eye of self-awareness picked up on it even as I was reading – the more I lost myself in the text, the more attracted and the closer I felt to its author. Its author who, like many of those who I have felt drawn to recently, is an older woman. Yet another source of sadness. Yet another closed box waiting to be opened.

The time passed all too quickly. I had read half of the book, and knew that the other half would probably have to be read in toddler-attention-span-sized chunks, or far too late at night when I knew I should be sleeping. I had beautiful hair – I’d been well looked after. When I got home no one commented, and I tried not to feel too hurt. Another borderline day – but with a difference. I wonder what my memories of this day will be, when I ‘re-discover’ the book in two, five, ten, twenty years from now? Will the actual memory be, as the prospective memory was, laden with sadness? Maybe. But I hope that I will remember that this was a day when I was able to conceive of a future; that an existence beyond the immediate chaos made sense and held, if not promise, at least possibilities. And that’s a little way further on than where  I have been in the past.