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.


18 Comments

BPD and parenting: Sitting with your child’s strong emotions

A few weeks ago I spent more than half an hour sitting in a room with my youngest child while he was having an almighty tantrum. He was trying to get out of the room, and I was trying to keep him contained until the storm passed. To be honest, I don’t actually remember how it started – I think it may have been my persistent but calm refusal to let him any more crisps after lunch. Given how exhausted he was at the time, his frustration and anger quickly escalated and he started hitting me. We were in a room with a group of friends and I sensed this would go on for a while, so I carried him into another room, shut the door, and prepared to ride it out.

He screamed and cried. He grabbed hold of my clothes, my jewellery, my hair, and tried to pull them. He tried to scratch me, to hit me and to kick me. At one point he tried to whip me repeatedly with a cuddly toy, which I put outside the room and told him he could have it back when he had calmed down. He kept trying to turn the door-handle and to get me to move away from the door, and then he tried standing on my ankles with all his weight, while I held them against the door so that he couldn’t open it.

All the while, he was screaming ‘mummy’, and ‘mummy, stop it’, and ‘mummy, you’re hurting me’ – though I didn’t touch him other than to occasionally gently hold an arm that was about to hit my face. I held my hands under his as he flailed them around while he was lashing out – a fun game of landing ‘high-fives’ under any other circumstances. Part of me was wondering what the neighbours were thinking through the not-very-thick-walls and whether they were getting concerned about what I was doing to my child – and then I put the thought out my mind. My child was my focus – and I was trying to do what was right by him.

A number of times I offered him a cuddle or stroked his back; or I held out my arms inviting him to step into them. I was present with him in his anger, and I listened to his cries and his complaints. I regret not saying a little more to show him that I could see how angry he was, that it was okay, and that I loved him and would stay with him in his emotions, for as long as it took. When he said ‘mummy, you’re hurting me’, I regret saying ‘I am not hurting you’ – because in his mind, I was. Maybe not physically, but I was setting a limit that he found immensely frustrating and his anger was scary for him and it appeared to him as though I was inflicting that on him. I wish I had said something like ‘I can see that you are angry and perhaps scared and I want to help you feel better’.

I gave him a different soft toy to cuddle. Eventually I gave him a second soft toy. And suddenly, with no warning, the mood changed, he stopped crying, and he climbed into my lap for a cuddle. I let him know how much I loved him and how wonderful he was, and told him it was okay to be angry and that I understood how scary that could be, but that it was not okay to hit me. We joined everyone else in the other room, but I was hyper-vigilant for anything else that might spark off another melt-down.

I’m not saying all of this to show off my parenting skills – which, much of the time, are very far short of where I would like them to be. I came across a quote on Facebook recently, which said “Parenthood is……whispering ‘for fuck’s sake’ before answering to your name”, and often that is me, with a whole load of impatience and shouting thrown in. What I am describing above is a new thing for me – a new way of approaching things. Up until now my tactics have been the fairly common ones of threats, consequences, time-outs, and counting to three (using halves and quarters where necessary!). But these do not work well for my high-energy and strong-willed children, and things have been getting increasingly difficult, with them often seeming to spend more time in time-out, than outside it. And I have not been feeling good about my parenting, and have been doubting how loving or validating it has been.

So what has made the difference? It may seem strange to say it, but BPD has. BPD, examined in the light of therapy and a parenting website I found recently (Hand in Hand Parenting), which really resonates with me and just ‘feels right’ for our situation, at this time. If you google ‘BPD and parenting’, you won’t find many positive references – much of the ‘literature’ or comment seems to be about how to guard against the negative effects that a parent with BPD can have on their children. And I have no doubt that unreflective parenting, with or without the complication of BPD, will not always generate the most optimal results for our children. But experience, when reflected upon, is a great teacher; and what many people with BPD know a great deal about, is emotional invalidation. When you understand how that feels, and what effects it can have, it gives a powerful motivation to do things differently and to avoid repeating familiar patterns from your own childhood.

In my own therapy, my therapist and I have spent much time about the fact that I fear the impact that my emotions will have on others. That I can’t simply ‘report’ how I feel, without it ‘doing something’ to those I report it to. Often, when I’m really struggling with something outside of session, I will take it to someone else first. A close someone, a trusted someone – but still someone else. It’s as if it doesn’t feel safe to take it to her; and it feels as though I would be placing a burden on her, and I don’t want to do that. At those times, she is allied too closely to ‘mother’ –  my own mother who was, and is, unable to just sit with the emotions that I bring, and to contain them. My emotions have an impact on my own mother – nothing I say is just ‘for report’. She becomes upset or anxious by any hint that there may be something wrong or that things aren’t going well – and she does nothing to disguise it. In fact, quite the opposite – she seeks reassurance, and she seeks it from me. As an adult, I have reached the stage where this just makes me very angry. But the way in which I feel desperate to protect my therapist from the ‘negative consequences’ of my emotions, is a clue, I think, to how I might have felt about it as a child.

Perhaps that is why the concept of letting my child express his emotions, and just sitting with them while that happens, feels so important. I need him to feel confident that he can tell me how he feels and that I will be able to handle it. That I will still be there, I will stay calm, and I won’t fall to pieces. That I will be the same, before and after. And the next time, and the next. I want him to feel safe, and to know that the only impact he has on me is to elicit love and understanding, when he needs it most.

Borderline Personality Disorder has done that for me – and for him; but BPD when reflected upon with the help of my therapist and in the context of my own experience. I keep worrying that time is ‘running out’ for me to do things differently rather than repeating mistakes my own parents made; and I am thankful for my therapist’s repeated reassurance that it is never too late, that repair, if needed, is always possible, and that every instance of breaking old patterns and doing things differently is an important step for me and for my children. She believes in my ability to be a good mother; and after sitting with my child’s strong emotions and holding him close when those emotions had subsided, I am starting to believe in it too.


28 Comments

Trigger troubles – BPD and parenting, Part 1

triggers parentingAs with every book, I believe there is a time for every post. And given the day I have had looking after my children on my own, while my husband is away, today is definitely the day for this post. More than once, I felt like putting my head in my hands, and dissolving into tears.

For some time now, I have been semi-consciously avoiding writing a post about parenting. Part of it is due to an illogical belief that by keeping my children out of my blog, I am keeping them away from the darker side of my world, even though in reality, they live with it every day. But it is also due to a fear that they might someday find my blog, and I don’t want them to see anything there that might ever lead them to doubt how I feel about them, or to blame themselves for anything that I may have said or done.

However, it occurs to me that if they ever were to read my blog (strictly R rated –so not for a while!), they might in fact find it helpful in explaining some of the things they have seen or the ways in which I behave. It may be a relief to understand, rather than a burden. And given the importance of the topic, I do feel a need to write about it: not just for those with BPD who have children and who might understand; but particularly for those with BPD who don’t have children, and who might want to understand the implications for their condition – and vice versa – of becoming a parent.

Let me first say this: I believe parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the world, and it is challenging for everyone. It is immensely hard whether you have mental health difficulties or not; whether you are a working parent or a stay-at-home parent. Nevertheless I think there are some particular challenges to parenting if you also have BPD, and those are to do with the fundamental characteristics of the disorder, and of its origins. I am going to split my post on parenting into three parts: Trigger troubles; Toddler troubles; and Transported troubles. Parts 2 and 3 will follow in subsequent weeks, but for now, I wanted to focus on the ways in which parenting can be a minefield if you have BPD – and your children can be the triggers that set off the explosions and the pain within you. The ways in which we may react to those triggers, because of BPD, will be covered in Part 2.

I was recently struck by a post called ‘Help! I have borderline personality disorder and my dog betrayed me!’, by Jeremy Medlock (and his dog Frankie!), of the ‘Out of the Box’ project. The post included the following lines:

“A relatively small event can trigger a huge emotional response, completely uncontrollable and unstoppable……once Frankie has ignore me, she’s instantly triggered the borderline and I have to hold control for what happens next”.

These words resonated with me immediately – and not just because one of my closest friends (also a dog owner) keeps telling me how alike dogs and toddlers are. I struggle with parenting because my children continually trigger the borderline, and it’s a constant battle to try and keep my reactions under control. I will admit that my children are towards the naughtier end of the scale, but this is not the only reason I find them triggering: children will always (to a greater or lesser extent) trigger their parents with BPD, because of aspects which are inherent to being a child.

Some of the most common triggers for those with BPD are: loss of control or feeling controlled; not being listened to; not feeling understood; being criticised; being emotionally invalidated; having one’s needs ignored; feeling engulfed and having one’s boundaries violated; and feeling abandoned.

Children are constantly acting in ways that trigger those feelings, and it’s not their fault – it’s part of what being a child is all about. My children do it in a million ways:

  • Acting in ways which I am powerless to change (for example, waking up early);
  • Vying with me for control over every little thing;
  • Constantly ignoring me and not listening to what I ask them to do;
  • Making constant demands on me and not understanding that I have needs of my own;
  • Ignoring or minimising my emotions or criticising my behaviour;
  • Clinging to me or losing emotional control (which can feel like I am being engulfed or ‘attacked’ by their turbulent emotions, and those emotions feel as though they are going to overwhelm me);
  • Growing up – which leaves me always conscious of the fact that one day, they will abandon me, and I have to try and live with the certainty of inevitable loss.

These things are an expected and usual part of children’s behaviour, and I’m sure every parent finds them frustrating and difficult to deal with. For someone with BPD the emotional response to those frustrations is instant, enormous, and it can feel uncontrollable and overwhelming. I can appreciate, intellectually, that my children are just being children, and are not ‘out to get me’, but as with so many aspects of BPD, the intellectual appreciation has little power to moderate my emotional response. And unfortunately, however powerful my love may be for my children – and it is – love doesn’t moderate my emotional response either. You can love your child intensely – and they can still trigger you intensely.

There is a fair amount of sobering literature out there, on the ways in which borderline parents can be ‘damaging’ for their children, and I have tried to avoid reading most of it, simply because I find it too difficult and too upsetting to think about, and also because I know that it would be too easy for me to forget that there are positive stories too. I am not denying or trying to make light of the pain that some of those with BPD can and do inflict on their children, knowingly or unknowingly, and I am not excusing it.

But if you are a parent or soon-to-be-parent with BPD, I would like to say this to you, by way of encouragement. I believe that someone with BPD who has self-awareness and insight into their difficulties, can have a real advantage in terms of putting themselves in their child’s shoes and empathising with their emotions and behaviour. If you have BPD you also more-than-likely have a deep understanding and appreciation of the importance of emotional validation and unconditional acceptance, as many with BPD have grown up in an invalidating environment and have not felt accepted for who they are. And there is nothing like feeling invalidated, to make you determined not to do the same to someone else.

Validation: ‘causing a person to feel valued or worthwhile’. If you can show that – and teach it – to your children, you will have given them a supremely important and a lifelong gift. And if you can remember that while you are navigating the minefield and negotiating your trigger troubles, you can more easily hold onto hope that you and your children can emerge on the other side, more or less intact.


Leave a comment

“Feelings are real and legitimate.” -Unknown

Often I find I am incapable of articulating my feelings: sometimes because of how vulnerable I am feeling inside and because of the reaction that that articulation might bring from others; sometimes because I have no idea what I’m feeling; and at other times because I have trouble distinguishing thoughts from feelings. That’s where having a ‘feelings vocabulary’ can help – too often, it seems easier to describe a situation or my thoughts about a situation, than to look inside and identify how I feel about it. Having a set of ‘feelings words’ in front of me can help to direct my attention inward, and can help me to connect with my emotional state, rather than to intellectualise it.

I find this post incredibly helpful because it both provides a ‘feelings vocabulary’, and reminds us that our feelings, in and of themselves, are neither right nor wrong. Our feelings simply ‘are’ – they are valid and legitimate, and being able to ‘own’ them is one of the biggest challenges that we can face. We can so easily get entrenched in the pattern of judging both our feelings and ourselves for having them (often because of messages that we were given in the past, either consciously or unconsciously, by others). Accepting our emotions, and allowing ourselves to feel them, can have immense healing power. I hope that being able to identify those emotions, and having a range of words with which to describe them will help me, and hopefully others as well, to take the first steps on the road towards that acceptance.


41 Comments

Constant craving – BPD and the need to feel understood

Wanting to be understood is part of the human condition. For someone with BPD, that can be a craving so strong that it eclipses almost everything else, save what I’m coming to see two sides of the same coin – wanting to be loved.

Wanting to be understood can be the force that drives us so strongly to connect with another individual that it tries to push all boundaries, physical and emotional, out of the way. I remember vividly, when in the grips of an obsessive attachment, the sense of wanting to be ‘in another person’s head’ and ‘under their skin’, or, conversely, the sense of wanting to be ‘taken over’ and ‘subsumed within another’s identity’. I’ve heard it described as ‘the urge to merge’, and I think it has its source in the desire for a perfect connection, a perfect understanding. A union so metaphysically powerful there is no need for words in order to convey meaning.

However, wanting to be understood can also be the force that drives us to put up barriers and build barricades behind which we hide ourselves. The desire is so strong, that when it is not met, or met ‘imperfectly’, the inevitable result is devastating pain and disappointment. We dare not take the risk of making ourselves vulnerable, or trying to explain how we feel, because we could not bear the pain of being misunderstood, particularly by those we most yearn to be close to. It’s the reason my husband still knows virtually nothing of what has been going on in my head for the last few years, and why my marriage is essentially in crisis. I cannot bear the thought of opening up, and not being understood. It’s the reason why I’m contemplating leaving my current therapist – because I have opened up, and because I don’t feel understood, and that has been a source of great distress, on a number of occasions.

Wanting to be understood is part of the human condition, but that doesn’t mean that we all experience it in the same way. Many individuals with BPD are acutely sensitive to any sense of being invalidated, and being told that everyone has these feelings and reactions, but perhaps not quite to the same extent, can feel like a minimisation of their difficulties. On the other hand, it is also hugely painful and isolating to feel as though your thoughts and feelings are so out of kilter with society’s ‘norms’, that you may as well be inhabiting a different planet to everyone else. I remember a mild dissociative episode in which I felt as if life was going on on another train, while I was stuck alone on my express train to ‘who-knows-where’, my reality frame-shifted onto a parallel, un-intersecting track.

I think I’m coming to realise that both of the above positions can be true. That the borderline’s experience can be a more intense and perhaps a more ‘extreme’ version of a standard, human reaction, without this being invalidating; but that those experiences can take place within the context of a BPD worldview that does not just frame-shift the way that ‘most people’ see things (if I may make a gross generalisation), but completely turns it on its head.

Feeling as though my therapist and I are worlds apart, is not normally a positive experience. However during my last session, I came up against the stark realisation that parts of my world-view that I do not question and assumptions which I assume that everyone makes, are far from universal – and it was a breath-takingly powerful experience. According to my therapist, ‘most people’ go around feeling understood ‘most of the time’, and don’t find it difficult to trust in that understanding, even when it is not being made explicit. That may sound like an obvious point, but it was genuinely news to me. As was the realisation that my default position is precisely the opposite – why would I assume, let alone trust, that I was understood by anybody? It seems like an utterly bizarre way to approach life, and other people.

And yet, why so bizarre? It makes perfect sense that those who have grown up feeling understood and accepted, not only come to expect or assume understanding and acceptance from others, but also feel they have little need to hide who they are, and are therefore open to giving others the opportunity to understand them. But the experience of so many with BPD is one of growing up in an invalidating environment in which understanding and acceptance were in short supply. And those who experience pain over not being understood or accepted for who they are, very quickly learn to close themselves off and present only a version of themselves to others, which they feel will be acceptable. My assumption of a lack of understanding is therefore based on a worldview created through my earliest lived experiences. However, it is also reinforced by the fact that I am not giving others the opportunity to understand me, because I am not allowing myself to be truly ‘seen’.

Sitting diagonally across from each other, in our small therapy room, the obvious disconnect in worldviews was palpable, almost comical. My therapist said I found it hard to trust and believe that I was understood. To her, the significant and profound realisation was the fact that I do not assume that I am understood. To me, the significant and profound realisation was the fact that other people do.  Thus demonstrating that in fact,  she had not really understood me at all. Alanis Morissette, take note – there’s something that’s actually ironic.

 

 


17 Comments

BPD invalidation – standing accused of fraud

 

Image

The poem above was recently posted on the Facebook page for the mental health charity SANE, by Michael, a supporter of the charity. It’s about the differences in how people react to mental and physical illness. I think it makes the point briefly but powerfully, and what particularly resonated with me, was the effect that others’ reactions have, on the individual with the illness. The question ‘Am I a fraud?’ is one that has plagued me for some time, and continues to play on repeat in my head, on a regular basis.

It’s as if there is a very small but very annoying and hurtful person living inside my head, who keeps up a running commentary trying to counter-act any feeling, thought or belief related to my diagnosis and my mental health difficulties. The voice likes to level accusations such as ‘you’re making it all up’, ‘you’re pretending’, ‘it’s not really that bad’, ‘you’re just being dramatic’ and ‘you just want to be ill’. All of which is accompanied by a secondary commentary along the lines of ‘what sort of person must you be if you’re doing all of this deliberately….’. A typical example of how the voice likes to operate is this. I can be driving in my car, feeling an oppressive yet somehow inaccessible sadness somewhere within me, and I will think ‘I feel really sad’. Immediately, the voice chips in with ‘you’re not really sad, don’t be silly. You’re not crying, you can’t possibly be sad. You just think that you’re sad. The reason you can’t access the feelings of sadness is that they’re not really there. Stop pretending.’

So powerful is this voice, that it even pops up in my dreams. On one occasion, I’d dreamt that I was in the process of travelling to an appointment, and one moment I was in my car, and the next I was standing in front of a house. It felt incredibly frightening, because I had no recollection of how I had arrived there, and I remember having the thought, in my dream, ‘I wonder if I don’t remember, because I dissociated’. Immediately the voice retaliated with ‘you just want to believe you’ve experienced dissociation in order to reinforce your belief that you have BPD. You’re just making it up’.

Those sorts of voices that many of us carry with us, are the ultimate invalidators, because we can’t just avoid them, or shut ourselves away from them – we have truly internalised them. They are often the offspring of real-life human invalidating influences in our pasts (or presents). It is well recognised that growing up in an invalidating atmosphere, where one’s thoughts and feelings are constantly being belittled or ignored, is a key environmental risk factor for the development of BPD. (Of course the causes of BPD are many and varied and the inter-play of contributing factors, both genetic and environmental, can be very complex, and is not well understood. However, for those who do go on to develop BPD, one can often trace a prior climate of invalidation).

Because of this history, many people with BPD are acutely sensitive to invalidation, whether perceived or actual. The sense that my feelings are being invalidated is a powerful trigger for me, and can result, depending on the situation, in acute distress, anger, feeling uncared for, or wanting to hurt myself. Feeling invalidated and worrying about potential invalidating reactions from others, is one of the key reasons why it took me so long to tell a few key people in my life, about my diagnosis. The voice inside my head, telling me I was a fraud, was so powerful and created so much doubt within me, that I couldn’t see why other people wouldn’t agree with that voice as well.

I have found it incredibly hard to accept my diagnosis – not because I found it shocking or disturbing, though I know this is the case for some – but simply because it is so hard to keep believing it to be true in the face of internal accusations and self-doubt. Even the fact that my husband thinks that ‘Stop walking on eggshells’ could have been written about me, simply reinforces, as far as ‘the voice’ inside my head is concerned, what a good job I have done of convincing myself and others of a lie.

In my own case, the ongoing sense of invalidation was exacerbated by the circumstances surrounding my diagnosis. A little while ago, I formed one of those very strong, quite obsessional attachments, that for me has been one of the hallmarks of my BPD. Having spent most of my life telling no one about my mental health difficulties, I decided to confide in one of my closest friends, who herself has severe mental health difficulties. Typically for me, it had to be an ‘all or nothing’ approach, and the process of completely ‘unburdening’ myself drew me in, and before I’d realised what was happening, I found myself on the roller-coaster ride of BPD attachment and the idealisation/devaluation cycle.

‘Identity disturbance/an unstable sense of self’ is one of the key diagnostic criteria for BPD, and one of the implications of this is that people with BPD often mould to their environment and take on the characteristics or tastes of other people, particularly when they are in a relationship with someone. They attempt to take on another’s identity, in the absence of a solid and determinate identity of their own. This has certainly been true of me in the past. When your partner is into opera, or hill-walking, or is a writer or a musician, that may not be too much of a problem. But when the object of your obsession has BPD, you’ve just handed your ‘critical inner voice’ the perfect weapon and means of invalidation. My ‘critical voice’ took advantage of the fact that I was desperate to get closer to my friend, and accused me of ‘bringing BPD on myself’, or ‘pretending I had the symptoms’ in order to achieve this aim. Never mind the fact that this was a circular argument in any case, as the obsessional desire to get closer and the taking on of another’s identity, were themselves symptoms of the condition!

Invalidation, or perceived invalidation, can take many forms. Sometimes, and with some people, I experience it as a lack of respect or acceptance of my views or feelings, or a sense that I’m not ‘allowed’ to have a different viewpoint – that I’m expected to be an extension of someone else, and conform to their expectations. This is particularly true for me, when it comes to my relationship with my parents. On other occasions, and with other individuals, I experience it as the sense that there is no point in putting an alternative viewpoint across in a debate or a discussion, as the other person will simply keep coming back with a counter-argument in an attempt to get me to agree with them, and this sets off another significant BPD trigger for me – the sense and fear of being controlled. Sometimes, almost anything that isn’t complete agreement with, or assent to, what I am doing or asserting, will be construed as invalidation.

I am far from  coming to a realisation or understanding about  how to address these issues of invalidation, and they continue to be daily struggles for me. For a time, the ‘inner critical voice’ rose up less frequently and was less intrusive, and, at least as far as my diagnosis was concerned, it seemed as though I was coming to a very gradual acceptance of its reality – I was starting to ‘let myself off the hook’. This was a time in which I was in therapy with someone who I felt truly understood me, accepted me, and cared for me. She understood how I struggled with the sense of ‘being a fraud’, and every now and then – not too often, but often enough – she would indicate that she could see how my behaviour or my feelings made sense in the context of my diagnosis. I don’t know if she would have done this anyway – I felt that she did it because she recognised what a difference it made to me – but it was incredibly validating.  Her acceptance of my diagnosis and what I was going through was the one thing, more than anything else, that had an impact on the ‘critical voice’, on my sense of invalidation, and on the degree to which I felt I could ‘accept myself’.

The progress I made during that therapy, in that one respect, was one of the yardsticks by which I measured its success and the ”fit’ that I had with my therapist. It brought me a greater degree of peace, a greater sense of acceptance – it helped me validate me, which at the end of the day, is where one’s sense of validation, ultimately, needs to come from. It was as if, held by that most intense and intimate of bonds between therapist and client, I was able to finally face my inner accuser, stand accused of fraud, hear the charge against me and say, with belief rather than self-doubt – not guilty…..NOT GUILTY.