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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Acceptance (changes)

Or, ‘The resolution to the tale of this thing that I have done’

Almost three years ago, in March 2016, I wrote a series of posts called: This thing that I have done – Part 1’; ‘This thing that I have done – Part 2’; andA twist in the tale of this thing that I have done’. They were about the fact that I had obtained a copy of the notes of my sessions with my ex-therapist Jane, just before the service through which I had seen her, was due to shred them.

My therapist and I spent a number of sessions discussing what might lie behind my decision to obtain a copy of the notes, what meaning it might carry, and how I should come to a decision about whether or not to read the notes. Jane and I only saw each other for fifteen sessions, as the counselling service she worked for only offered short term therapy. Though I tried to enter private therapy with her a few months later, she decided to take early retirement for health and family reasons, and the hope of seeing her again, never came to pass. In a number of different ways, therefore, our work together was artificially constrained and cut short, in ways that perhaps neither of us would have chosen, and some of which we could not have foreseen.

Obtaining the notes was a way of exercising control over this particular ‘ending’ in a way that I couldn’t over previous endings. It was a way of guarding against the spectre of regret if I didn’t ‘save’ the notes and could never read them, and against the fear that I would lose my memories of Jane and our sessions, in the course of time. The notes held the possibility of gaining a glimpse into her thoughts, and a validation of my struggles. They held the possibility of seeing myself through her eyes, and the hope that she would be the non-distorted mirror that my parents never were.

But I also knew that the notes held the possibility of disappointment; of not finding what I was hoping for, or of finding things that would be hard to understand, difficult to accept, and impossible to go back and query or clarify. I knew that they held not just the possibility, but the likelihood that reading them would do more harm than good. Having taken eighteen months to fully grieve losing Jane, and having reached a state of acceptance and being able to treasure and feel nourished by positive memories, it was difficult to see any way in which reading the notes could add, rather than detract, from that. And yet, the draw towards reading them was very strong. So strong, in fact, that I put the notes in an envelope and gave them to my therapist, asking her to keep them safe for me, until such time as I made a decision about whether or not to read them. That session, when I gave her the notes, was a wonderfully connecting hour – I had a desire, which she seemed to share, that reading the notes should be something that, if we did it, we should do together. That the role of the notes was to be worked out within my therapy and in the context of our relationship, and not outside it.

My therapist didn’t press the point, but I knew that her view was that I didn’t need to read the notes. That my memories of my relationship with Jane, my experience of my sessions with her, was enough, and would sustain me, and would be there for me to call on internally. Even now, my therapist still points out that I put a great deal of emphasis on the external, rather than being nourished by my ‘internal objects’. It reminds me of a section of a podcast I listened to recently by the wonderful ‘This Jungian Life’, on the subject of ‘Slobs’! In a discussion about hoarding, and the value placed on external objects, the point was made that we have the tendency to want to ‘concretise’, and it can be difficult to let things go and to appreciate that there is a space between an object and the feelings that are connected with it – the feelings do not depend on the object for their existence. Jungian analyst Joseph Lee made the point that sometimes we do not have “a confidence in our psyche’s ability to keep us in relationship to the thoughts and memories that accrete around the objects; so we falsely fear that if the object goes away then my feelings and memories that relate to the object will no longer be accessible to me “.

***

A similar point was made incredibly beautifully and poignantly by blogger ‘Reflections of a Mindful Heart and Soul’ who commented on Part 1 of my series of posts. I will quote parts of her comment here, again, as when reading them back this evening they seemed to encapsulate entirely and truly the nature of my dilemma, in a way that I couldn’t completely understand and certainly wasn’t ready to accept at that time, but see with much greater clarity, now:

“What is true, whether we like it or not, is relationships change. Who we are, and who we are becoming, changes…..Perhaps another question may be: Am I fighting acceptance of what is? If the search is to find out whether or not you were special, what was real or not in the therapeutic relationship, the notes may not tell you that……..If you had a good relationship, remember the good memories. When it is all said and done, what we truly remember years later is the essence of someone and that is what matters. When you are old, good memories do come back on their own when you least expect them to. The task at hand is learning acceptance, not fighting it, and learning to let go of what was and cherish that as well as moving into the present, day by day and to keep learning and growing. It is never easy. Nature teaches us this is the pattern- the seasons come and they go. That doesn’t mean there has to be forgetting. It just means there is only so much we can deal with effectively in the present or enjoy.”

She said of her comment I usually don’t do this [comment at length], but I feel you are at a crossroads in your growth’. She was right – and I think that my positive decision to trust my therapist, to focus on our therapy, and to put aside Jane’s notes at least for a time, was a key turning point and the start of what soon became a period of vital change and insights in my therapy.

I can see now, that my decision to obtain Jane’s notes, and also to postpone reading them, had much more to do with my current therapy, than it had to do with my therapy with Jane. Whatever worries, fears, anxieties, and motivations that I felt I had in relation to the notes and to Jane, they might have been real but they also represented the same set of feelings, but magnified, in relation to my current therapist. And absolutely core to that set of feelings, was the question posed by ‘Reflections’: “Am I fighting acceptance of what is?”

I had another two and a half years of therapy to go before I could truly experience, and not just intellectually be aware of, the answer to that question. Two and a half years of fighting acceptance of what is. And then a serious act of sabotage to the therapeutic relationship in the middle of a period of important dreams and active imaginations, propelled me into a period of hard but rewarding work, and significant realisations. As described in Therapy, choice, and our internal fight’, I realized that:

“Every time I choose to confront the part of me that wants to stay stuck, every time I make conscious efforts to feel better rather than accepting my place in the pit of despair and closing my mind off to other possibilities – I am actively accepting, all over again, the inevitable truth that I am changing and that therapy will end. “

And I also realized, as described in ‘Resistance in therapy – facing the dark parts of the shadow’, that:

“Ultimatelyradical acceptance of reality as it is, is what’s left when my Resistance fades away”.

***

Two and half years is a long time, but I’m learning that working with the subconscious is a tricky and time-consuming business, and it is not just the conscious parts of my personality that can be stubborn! I need no more evidence of the incredible power of the subconscious, than the fact that the act of sabotage to my therapy that I mentioned, took place just hours after I came to a very important decision – the decision, finally, two and half years later, to ask my therapist to shred Jane’s notes, without me reading them. I realized that I had reached the point where I could trust in my memories of Jane, and what I carried of her, within me. I could trust my internal sense of the relationship I had had with her, and that was enough for me. I had reached the point where I could see clearly that what we experienced together in our sessions, was what was ultimately real, and was what constituted our relationship. What we created between us was the only reality that mattered and that could meaningful for me, and I was finally able to let go of the possibilities (both for good and for ill) that I used to think were contained within the notes.

Dimly, at the back of my mind, I was aware that there was an important lesson in there that I could transfer to my current therapeutic relationship. In the back of my mind I knew that this decision had come about not because of anything to do with Jane, but because of progress within my current therapy. In the back of my mind was a realization that the reality and significance of my therapeutic relationship lay in mine and my therapist’s direct experiences of each other, and that I needed nothing outside of this to confirm the reality and significance of that relationship, either now or in the future. But I didn’t consciously reach for that lesson, and I didn’t bring that realization into my awareness. And hours later I found myself, for the first time in eighteen months, engaged in a serious act of internet sleuthing as regards my therapist. A serious act of looking for something outside my direct experience of the relationship, to make it somehow more real, and longer lasting. A last-ditch attempt by my subconscious either to subvert the realization, or, if one were to be charitable to it, to hasten its awareness. Though in the past I have fought my therapist’s emphasis on the powerful agency of my subconscious, this time I had absolutely no doubt of its role in this incident, and in the connection of those two events – my decision to let go of Jane’s notes, and my subversion of the equivalent path with regard to my therapy.

When I did finally step onto that path, and when I did finally transfer that lesson, this is what I became aware of, and it bears a striking resemblance to what ‘Reflections of a Mindful Heart and Soul’ wrote to me, two and half years ago:

“It seems to me now that I can choose to focus either on being, or on remembering, but I cannot give equal attention to both. My heart has to be turned toward one or the other. The more I focus on gathering memories, the less I focus on immediate relating, and the less I’m able to internalise her. Ultimately, my deepest desire is for the therapy and the relationship to be something that I am, not just something I remember. And for that I need to accept that the remembering may consist primarily in seeing her and hearing her in who and what I am becoming, knowing that what I’m seeing is her influence, and what I’m hearing is her voice, woven into my thoughts.”

***

I told my therapist I would like to destroy Jane’s notes, that I was ready to let them go. She asked if I wanted to do it, and I said that I was happy for her to shred them. She said they would go on her compost heap along with all her other shredded paper – I think that’s a rather fitting end for them, considering plants and gardens are an important point of connection between us, and my therapist often uses garden related metaphors in our work. I like the idea of Jane’s shredded notes, eventually helping my therapist’s garden to grow! My work with Jane was the starting point and catalyst for my current therapeutic work, and she was also the one who referred me on to my therapist.

A number of readers and bloggers said at the time, that they were interested in how the tale of this thing that I had done, would eventually turn out, and that they were contemplating a similar course of action, or were caught in a similar dilemma. If any of them are still reading, I’m sorry it’s taken this long to come to a resolution! But I also hope this resolution is an encouragement  – an encouragement to look within and beyond the immediate desire to take a course of action, and an encouragement to wait until you reach your own conviction, however long that may be. And an encouragement I hope, that however scary it may be, to quote ‘Reflections’, “Who we are, and who we are becoming, changes”.

 

 

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This thing that I have done – Part 2

[This is the second of a two-part post – Part 1 can be found here, and describes this thing that I have done, and my original reasons for doing so].

My therapist questioned me – wanting to knowing more, wanting me to understand more about why it was so important to me to get a copy of Jane (my ex-therapist’s) notes. And the more I thought about it, the more my reasons for asking for Jane’s notes seemed to be multi-layered, and more numerous than I had imaged. Months ago, I had only been aware of two; now, a number of other possibilities come to mind. The reasons that were most important to me then, are not the ones that are uppermost in my mind now. Perhaps because the reasons then, were concerned with preserving something; and now that it is ‘preserved’, it is more about discovering something.

The reasons that felt most powerful before, are very different to the ones that speak to me now that the notes are in my possession. But the latest ones are all linked, too. And, as before, they are reflected in more areas of my life than just my relationship with Jane. My therapist feels that all of this chimes with everything that’s been in the air between us over the last few months – issues of control, of fighting boundaries, and of pushing for reassurance.

It’s certainly true that I want to give myself time to decide what to do with the notes. I don’t want them to be destroyed by someone else, on someone else’s schedule. And so yes – I think it is important to me that I have control over this particular ending. I had no control over how or when things ended with Jane – neither when I left the service through which I saw her, nor when she decided to retire. If allowing myself to ‘grieve her’ was part of trying to have a ‘proper ending’, then perhaps so is this. It feels as though the notes would be far less important if our therapeutic relationship had been able to run its course. And maybe this is reminiscent of other relationships that haven’t run their course; other endings over which I had no control.

Now that I have the notes, this all feels more as though it is about me, than it is about Jane. It feels more about keeping me real, than keeping her real. The need for validation is a strong motivator – possibly the strongest motivator present right now. All those thoughts I still have about ‘making this up’, ‘being a fraud’, ‘bringing it upon myself’, ‘being overly dramatic’, ‘being attention seeking’- perhaps I can banish them by reading the notes. Perhaps then I will finally know that what is going on for me is real. Not just now, but for always. Because just as I am afraid that my memories of Jane will become insubstantial, I’m also afraid that my memories of what I am going through, will feel unreal in ten or twenty years’ time. It feels as though I need to read Jane’s notes to validate my experience; to make it count, now and in the future.

But this is also a chance not just for validation, but to really see myself through someone else’s eyes. Moreover, the eyes of someone who really ‘saw’ me, understood me, and accepted me. What would that be like? In some ways, it won’t be the same as having that knowledge communicated through relationship; in other ways, I feel as though it could be a more direct communication. Jane’s words, about Jane’s observations, about me. It feels irresistible – utterly so. As I was rapidly flicking through the pages before I reluctantly put the notes away, I caught sight of the odd word and sentence, though I was trying hard not to actually read them. I spotted the words ‘very low’ and ‘suicidal’. And that reminded me that the last time my therapist and I talked about suicide, she asked whether I felt that I was taken seriously, and I said ‘no’. I meant to come back to it – I had wanted to since the Christmas break – but something else took over, and the matter still doesn’t feel resolved. I find it hard even to take my own suicidal ideation seriously; the critical voice in my head tells me that if I was really suicidal, I would try to do something about it. But what if Jane’s notes show that she took it seriously? How would that feel? I want to know how it feels.

After I flicked quickly through the notes I turned to the last page – our ending. I tried not to read it, but the signature and the date at the bottom of the page caught my eye, as did Jane’s last sentence: “I thanked her for her card and her thoughtfulness”. If I read nothing else, that one sentence will have made the whole experience worthwhile. When I try to think of positive things that I heard about myself growing up, they mainly centre around intellectual capability and my figure (not looks in general, but specifically the shape of my body). There may well have been other positive adjectives sent my way, but what I tend to remember are things like: ‘following others like a sheep’; ‘being thoughtless’; ‘thinking only of myself’; ‘being hard and cold’. I know that some of those ‘accusations’ came because of the way I refused to show emotion to my parents and acted in a way that protected myself from their intrusion, and in that sense they feel ‘justified’. But I wish so much that I had a bank of memories and words that painted me in a different light, and one that I would rather be seen in. I can’t say a ‘truer’ light – because it feels as though the truth of it depends on someone else seeing it. That is why it feels so important to grab this opportunity to see myself through Jane’s eyes – what other sentences could be found in those notes, to give me a better sense of who I am?

But if this is a unique opportunity to see myself through Jane’s eyes, it is also a unique opportunity to see behind her own. I don’t expect the notes to tell me much about her as a person – but they may give me a window into her thoughts during our sessions. Is this not the fantasy of many a therapy client? Sometimes, when silences go on a little too long, and I am lost inside the thoughts inside my head, my therapist asks me ‘What are you thinking?’. Sometimes, I am brave enough to ask that question of her. Sometimes, she answers it. Often, she smiles; and the thoughts that I saw pass behind the smile are left unspoken, and I am left to wonder. I never knew Jane long enough to feel that I could ask her what she was thinking; or even to think of asking her what she was thinking. But perhaps the notes would give me a glimpse of a tiny minority of those thoughts.

I suspect this is what my therapist meant by saying that this chimes with what has been in the air between us. The frustration of not knowing; of not touching; of feeling excluded; of feeling distant; of not being directly reassured. The frustration of boundaries and of things that I can never have. This comes up so often in my therapy that I am afraid that you, and I – and possibly she – might become rather bored of it soon. Bored and frustrated; but this is all clearly not resolved. Clearly this keeps coming round and around because it will take time and effort, and more time and more effort, to resolve.

My therapist once wrote in an email that when it comes to therapy, ‘there are no shortcuts’. Although I no longer fear the contents of Jane’s notes in the way that I did before, I am afraid that by reading them, I would be attempting to take some sort of a shortcut. I am afraid that it might somehow be undermining to my current therapy. And I don’t want to miss the opportunity to grow, or to learn a vital lesson. Given the innumerable helpful and wonderful conversations I have had with my therapist both in person and over email, I worry about why I should imagine that Jane’s words will have a particular power to validate and affirm? Perhaps the answer is that my relationship with Jane is frozen in time – and aspects of it, at least, are impervious to change. Her opinion of me is fixed – and therefore her potential validation of me, is ongoing. Though there are many occasions on which I feel powerfully validated and cared for by my therapist, my fear of having an impact upon her and on her caring, and changing it by something I do, is always there in the background.

My therapist questioned me – but what am I to do? Where will this new understanding, lead me? I want to end by copying here a comment on Part 1 of this post by ‘Reflections of a Mindful Heart and Soul‘ that I was very moved and grateful to receive. The comment struck me for several reasons: because of its thoughtfulness, its wisdom, its experience, and because it contained so many of the points that I had written about (here, in Part 2) but had not yet published. She had seen more reasons for this thing that I have done, than I had ‘spoken’ about – she had even seen more than I had thought about.

It is almost Easter – and Easter is an important anniversary for me. It is the time when Jane told me that she would be retiring and so the hope that I had been clinging on to, that I would return to therapy with her, became an impossibility. That was the ‘final’ ending, even though I had stopped seeing her six months previously. Easter last year was also the time when I realised, for the first time, that grieving had turned to acceptance, and that even if it were possible to return to therapy with Jane, I would say not do so. Anniversaries can have a powerful impact upon us, even if we are not consciously aware of them, and the comment by ‘Reflections of a Mindful Heart and Soul‘, reminded me of that. A number of you have told me that you are considering doing something similar to this thing that I have done; this comment has given me pause for thought, and I hope it is helpful for you too – I hope its author does not mind me sharing it here:

“I think people are triggered by anniversaries. Connections are important for all of us. It may be the fear of being abandoned, left, or forgotten, is still a part of you wanting to hold on to, instead of learning to let go. Sometimes it entails wanting what we can’t have, and sometimes it’s about trying to fix things you wanted to end differently.

What is true, whether we like it or not, is relationships change. Who we are, and who we are becoming, changes. What is important is discovering why you now have a dialectical dilemma and how are you going to effectively deal with it. Even more important is asking yourself why it is happening now, what do I want to be the outcome, and is that realistic or more hurtful in the end? Perhaps another question may be: Am I fighting acceptance of what is? If the search is to find out whether or not you were special, what was real or not in the therapeutic relationship, the notes may not tell you that. Notes and what is put down is different for everyone. Mostly they reflect diagnoses, a treatment plan, a list of goals and objectives, and whether or not they are being met or what obstacles are getting in the way of progress and how to address them and help you effectively cope with them. You risk disappointment, misunderstandings, and it may create more problems than solving them. Jane will not be able, probably, to explain, interpret what you find. That would leave you in another dilemma. If you had a good relationship, remember the good memories. When it is all said and done, what we truly remember years later is the essence of someone and that is what matters. When you are old, good memories do come back on their own when you least expect them too. The task at hand is learning acceptance, not fighting it, and learning to let go of what was and cherish that as well as moving into the present, day by day and to keep learning and growing. It is never easy. Nature teaches us this is the pattern- the seasons come and they go. That doesn’t mean there has to be forgetting. It just means there is only so much we can deal with effectively in the present or enjoy.”


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This thing that I have done – Part 1

[This is a two-part post – Part 2 will follow next weekend and will speak about how my reasons for ‘This thing that I have done’, have changed.]

I’ve done something. And I was nervous about sharing it with you because I don’t know if it was a bad thing or a good thing or a somewhere-in-between thing to have done. And I wouldn’t want you to think about doing it, before I really know how it turns out.

I went on the internet and typed in “Should I…..[do this thing that I have done]”? Out of fifteen responses to a similar question on a forum, all but one said “No“. Why would you do it? What could you gain? Leave it alone. I haven’t left it alone though I still have opportunity to let it lie. But, hidden underneath my bed, the temptation is stronger than I thought it would be.

A few months ago I approached the service through which I saw my ex-therapist, Jane, to ask them if and when they destroyed ex-client notes. It turns out that they did, and that I had a few months left before Jane’s notes would be gone. A few weeks ago I put in a request for those notes; a few days ago I picked them up. For some reason I had always imagined receiving them in a brown, sealed envelope; one that I didn’t intend to open for a very long time, if at all. Instead, they came in a yellow loose-leaf folder; a quick flick through (frantically trying to avoid reading the contents), showed me that they were longer than I expected. I had imagined a few lines, a short paragraph; little time for Jane to write much more, during the ten minutes following our fifty minute session. I think I was relying on that envelope to be my biggest ally against temptation; the glue reinforcing my willpower a hundred fold. But now my willpower struggles on alone; a tiny, weakling part of me, whose main ally now is the fear of disappointing my therapist and doing something she would disapprove of.

I told my therapist months ago, that I was thinking about asking for Jane’s notes. Though she would never say it directly, I know she thinks this thing I’ve done is not a good idea. I know she doesn’t really understand it, though she really wants to work with me to understand me and why this is important to me. There has been a generational shift – from a time when a therapist’s notes, unlike other medical records, were made for the professional’s eyes only, written with the client in mind, but never as the intended reader; to a time when your records belong to you because they are about you, and you are the ‘owner’ of your data. At the service where I saw Jane, some therapists go through their notes with their clients at the end of treatment; these days some therapists even put their notes and resources on secure websites for their clients to access after every session.

But this isn’t really about a change in culture, it’s about me. It’s about me and trying to figure out why I did what I have done, and what it means. I didn’t ask for Jane’s notes because I am the owner of my data. I didn’t even ask for them so that I could read them; part of me felt very strongly that I shouldn’t read them, at least for many years, and certainly well beyond the end of my current therapy. I asked so that I would have the option of reading them, should I want to in future. I asked so that I could postpone making the decision about whether I should ever read them, rather than having that decision made for me.

My therapist asked me what I would gain by reading the notes. And like the responses on the website that I found, I have to say that in some ways I see far more potential for loss than for gain. I have wonderful, warm memories of Jane and our sessions together, and I can’t see how anything in the notes could add to that. It seems far more likely that they might detract from those memories, and leave me unsettled. What if the notes feel clinical and cold? What if the way she comes across in writing is very different to the way she came across in person? What if I read something I don’t like, either about me or about the way she thought about me? But then I try and remind myself that this is Jane we’re talking about – someone I trusted and someone that I trusted cared about me. Could the notes really contain something that might hurt me, particularly as she knew it was possible for me to have access to them? And why are my reasons for wanting them, so difficult to understand?

***

I want to guard against forgetting. All along, this is what the notes have been about. Right now, I remember Jane: how she looked, how she sounded, some of the things she said. She still feels real, though absent. I have more than just a ‘sense’ of her left; and that is very special. But I’m scared that it won’t always be so – that one day, I won’t be able to recall those things. I’m scared that one day she won’t feel real, or substantial; that all I will have left is a vague memory and a concept that she existed, that we interacted, and that she was important. If that is the shape that my memories of key figures in my childhood have taken, why should the same not happen to my memories of Jane?

My therapist says that we remember who and what is important; and that we never know how and when memories might come back to us. During my very first session with her, when I was in floods of tears over losing Jane, she told me that Jane was still with me; and she makes the same point now. When someone is important, we absorb the relationship into ourselves so that it becomes a part of us. I think she would say that if all we have left is a ‘sense’ of someone, then that is more than we think it is and it is also all that we need.

But still I feel the need to guard against forgetting, and I have a great fear of destroying the notes (or allowing them to be destroyed) and then regretting it. I find it very difficult to live with regret and wrong decisions, and will do anything I can to avoid them. None of this is unique to this situation – it is how I live my life, every day. Worrying about not making notes after sessions, in case I forget; anxious about missing moments and not making memories; scared I will lose the memories I have.

And so I did what many of us do when we want something to remember someone by – I acquired an object that would help to connect me to them. A tangible reminder of Jane, and what she meant. This is really just another way of guarding against forgetting, and trying to keep her real. I asked my therapist why having Jane’s notes was any different to the many objects that she has in her ‘therapy room’ that are clearly important to her, and that remind her of people or of places. She said that the difference was that those things were given and received in the context of a relationship; I think she is saying that although Jane’s notes might be about our relationship, they were not really a part of it, or significant within it.

Neither of these related reasons for wanting the notes, actually require me to read them – at least, not for a long time. Simply having them can provide a sense of connection; and as I haven’t yet forgotten, there is no need to read to remember. In some ways these reasons are motivated primarily by fear: fear of forgetting; fear of regret; fear of the uncertainty of whether I will regret or forget.

I felt so strongly that I should not read the notes; that they would even be an ‘intrusion’ into my current therapy. I worried about the possibility of bringing back intense feelings from the past, and what effect that might have on my current therapeutic relationship, which I very much want to protect. But now I feel just as strongly that I want to read them. And who can tell whether our judgment, if motivated by fear, is any sounder than our judgment in the face of temptation? I don’t know how to tell what the right thing is. All I know, is that this is what my head is telling me: “Everything you want is on the other side of fear”*.

 

*Quote by Jack Canfield