Life in a Bind – BPD and me

Borderline Personality Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and my therapy journey. Listed in Top Ten Resources for BPD in 2016 by goodtherapy.org. I write for welldoing.org and for Muse Magazine Australia, under the name Clara Bridges.


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Twitter chat 6 March: Connecting in therapy – do touch and love have a place?

I’m really looking forward to my Twitter chat with Alison Crosthwait today, on the subject of connection, love and touch in therapy. Please do join us at 9pm GMT/ 4pm EST if you can, using #therapyconnection !

Life in a Bind - BPD and me

It’s been ten months since psychotherapist Alison Crosthwait and I held a Twitter chat on the subject of therapy breaks; we said then that we enjoyed it so much we would do another one, and finally, we’ve set a date, time and subject!

Our next chat will be called ‘Connecting in therapy – do touch and love have a place?‘  and it will take place on Monday 6 March at 9pm GMT/4pm EST. We will be using the hashtag #therapyconnection.

I believe these are difficult and contentious topics, for both therapists and clients, and I’m very much looking forward to discovering Alison’s take on them. From a personal perspective, they are subjects I have struggled with in my own therapy, and touch, in particular is a ‘live issue’ for me at the moment. But I won’t be bringing my therapy into the chat – the…

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Being excluded from your therapist’s life: you’ve read the reasons – this is how it feels

[The ‘reasons’ referred to in the title of this post are described in an excellent post by Dr Stein, reblogged here]

The thing about feeling excluded from your therapist’s life – it’s triggered by the smallest things.

I was usually early for my appointments with my ex-therapist, Jane, and I was used to the feeling of annoyance and jealousy when the client before me walked out of her office, saying ‘goodbye mate’ (‘mate’ – how dare he?!) as he left. On this occasion, though, he had what could have been no more than a ten second conversation with Jane on his way out of the door. I heard her interact with him – she said something kind and empathetic, as you might expect, though I can’t quite remember what.

She started our session in the usual way, asking me how I was and how my week had been. I went to pieces and started sobbing. I couldn’t talk – it physically hurt, right in the pit of my stomach. The emotional pain was intense, but so was the shock, surprise and embarrassment of what I was experiencing. It was the first time I’d had those powerful feelings of exclusion with regard to therapy, which seemed to just rise up instantly the moment I heard that interaction.

It wasn’t long before I had a similar reaction before another session. This time, thankfully, the client who called her ‘mate’ was absent, and Jane and one of the other therapists started talking while waiting for the next ‘therapy hour’ to begin. It was the end of the day, and there were no other clients or counsellors around. The conversation was perfectly innocuous – I don’t think they had met properly before. Jane explained she only worked a few hours a week and they spoke about attending some kind of staff event in the coming weeks. As I listened, the pain mounting, I put my finger against the glowing lightbulb of the reading lamp on the side table in the waiting room, drawing it quickly back when the pain hit, and replacing it with the next finger, and the next in turn.

***

A few weeks ago, my therapist mentioned that she would be out of email contact over the weekend as she would be at a conference. I normally find the gap over the weekend difficult, but this time, knowing where she would be, interacting with lots of other people, powerful feelings of exclusion kicked in and the pain and desperation were intense.

The following week, I arrived early for my appointment, and so I parked my car across the road from my therapist’s house and took out a book to read. Occasionally I glanced in the rear view mirror and stopped short when I suddenly saw her coming out of her gate and start walking in the direction of my car. She passed by, headed for the post-box further down the street, letter in hand. I don’t think she saw me – and I pretended to read, not taking in single word of the paragraph my eyes kept skimming over.

My therapist normally waits for me to start sessions, but this time I felt even more lost and incomprehensible than usual. I started to cry, just feeling like a jumbled mess of emotion. Feeling ridiculous because I was so upset, and because my upset my triggered by the fact that I had seen my therapist outside the context of a session, walking to a post-box to post a letter.

***

It’s like the feelings you had last week, when I was away. I’m sending a letter to someone – there are other people in my life’. Posting a letter; chatting with conference delegates; meeting a colleague; talking to a client. In his helpful post about the reasons behind the ‘exclusion’ of clients from therapists’ lives, Dr Stein (a retired psychotherapist), states that it is not unusual for clients to feel jealous of those who claim more of the therapist than they have access to. Yes, I feel jealous. But I feel so, so much more as well. Intense desperation, longing, frustration, helplessness. And pain. So much pain.

I want to scream and cry. I want to claw my way out of my body. I want to try and understand, but also fight desperately against the fact that what might in other circumstances be simple and ordinary human interactions, are completely outside the bounds of the unique (and in this case, uniquely tortuous) nature of the therapeutic relationship. It’s not just those that have more of my therapist that trigger these feelings. What drove my frustration and pain during the time when my therapist was at a conference, was the fact that complete strangers would have the opportunity of spending time with her without the stricture of the clock; engaging her in conversation about topics of mutual interest in which she would talk about herself and her views, as much as they would talk about theirs; asking her questions which she would reply to without holding back or wanting to know why they were asking.

My therapist sometimes speaks, in the context of my high and often unrealistic expectations, of finding meaning in the ordinary, particularly, for example, when it comes to evidence of her caring. But it is precisely the lack of opportunity to be involved in the perfectly ‘ordinary’ aspects of her day to day life that causes me so much pain. Unlike those strangers at the conference, I can’t strike up a conversation in which I ask her how long she’s lived in this city; whether her children are nearby; what type of food she likes or what sorts of things she gets up to at the weekend. I don’t know what her favourite colour is, or if she has one; whether her children grew up in the house in which she’s now living; what book she read last week; or where she goes to church.

I know I can’t be her daughter – however much I might desperately want to be. I know I can’t share in her life in the way a partner might. All of those things cause a great deal of hurt – but it’s difficult to be resentful of those whom she loves, and it’s more difficult to argue against genetics than it is to argue against the boundaries of therapy. But to know that in theory, every other person on this planet apart from me and her other clients (how many, I wonder – another question I cannot have an answer to) has access to her in a way that I can never have – that’s incredibly difficult to deal with and to face full-on. Clients aside, everyone else is a ‘potential’ friend – from the person she meets in a hotel on the other side of the world, to the person who lives in the house next door. They wouldn’t need to worry about asking her whether she actually hates the colour purple – the colour which, for some reason, I have come to associate with her. Clients aside, there is no one else who knows, with absolute certainty, that their relationship with her has a definite end (not related to both parties’ inescapable mortality), after which point further contact will not be possible. She might put her arm around someone she’s known for a few months – but even if I see her twice a week for the next few years, that will never ever happen to me.

***

I don’t understand why this exclusion is so painful – where it comes from, and what it means. I have a feeling it will take some time to get to that. And so in the meantime, I keep trying to hold on to the words my therapist said when we discussed these feelings in session. Rather than focusing on the things that being a client excludes me from, I am trying to remind myself of the things it gives me access to. Although I don’t get to know all of my therapist, what I do see is real. As she said to me, she may only see me for two hours a week, but that is more than she sees her very best friends. And as Dr Stein also mentions in his post, clients experience the individual as ‘therapist’ – an aspect that comparatively few people will come to know. In that capacity, therapists may only give their clients a limited amount of their time, but in that time, they are focused exclusively and intently on their client, giving them their full and undivided attention. Much more than that, giving them their unconditional acceptance, and listening with empathy and without judgment. And even more than  that – sitting with them in all their strong emotions, whatever they may be, holding those feelings and keeping the client safe.

And though I may not be able to talk with my therapist about all the ‘ordinary things’ I want to ask her about – when she does share something about herself with me, it feels very special, and it creates a deeper bond and a sense that she trusts me too. That’s not something that happens simply in ‘ordinary’ conversation. And often when she tells me something about herself, because it’s in the context of a session it may not be something that would come up in casual conversation. It’s a memory about an event or a feeling, it’s an association, it’s a recollection about her own therapy, or about her own children. It feels more intimate, more as if it came from a deeper place. Maybe I do have more of my therapist – more than many, and certainly more than any ‘potential’ friend. Not in terms of volume of information, but in terms of meaningful, important memories and thoughts. Does it feel like enough? No, no of course it doesn’t. I’m not sure anything short of actual kinship would feel like enough, and Dr Stein makes some very good points about why that kind of relationship may start to lose its appeal! But in time, but I hope it will be enough to reduce the pain, frustration and desperation that comes with the feelings of being excluded from my therapist’s life.

I am a ‘therapy-daughter’ – member, by adoption, of a bizarre but special sort of family. All families have their limitations – goodness knows that’s one of the reasons that brings so many of us to therapy in the first place. But the quirky intimacy and joy of this unique relationship is one I wouldn’t be without – and I just have to keep reminding myself of that. Over, and over again.


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Good therapy

For Jane

A fellow blogger said that I should write more about Jane, my ex-therapist, because she sounded like a good therapist. I said that I wanted to – that I wanted to write about all the things she did that made her such a good therapist, and more importantly, such a good therapist for me, as ultimately, I think that it’s the therapeutic relationship that is the key to how well a therapy works. But I also said that part of me was afraid. Afraid that if I wrote about it, there would be nothing else left to say. That all we went through and the work we did together, will make up just a few words on a page. That that will be the end of that.

But the reality is, that is the end of that, and in a way, that’s another reason for writing. Not just to show why she was indeed such a good therapist, but as a way of saying goodbye. And that is something I find it so hard to do. So hard, that my reply to Jane’s last email was a ‘holding reply’, while I tried to gather my thoughts and feelings enough to figure out what it was I truly wanted to say. That was two weeks ago, and the longer I wait, the more apparent it becomes that I’m simply postponing two things that feel impossible – finding the perfect words, and bringing our relationship to a conclusion. I can’t promise that this will be my final word on the subject of Jane, but it will be my final word to her.

And if this ‘final word’ sounds a bit like a love letter, I guess that’s what it is.  But if there’s one thing that therapy has helped me to realise about love over the last few months, is that it is complicated, and so are its origins. That although the Ancient Greeks may have tried to carve it up and separate it out  into four different types of feelings, it defies simple definition, compartmentalisation or categorisation. I don’t try to analyse my feelings about Jane. Not just because they scare me (though that is true), but because I don’t need to. My feelings just are – and they don’t have to be of one type, or another.

So how do I answer my fellow blogger? What did Jane do, that was such ‘good therapy’?

She held me. Figuratively. By which I mean, that she held and contained everything I was and felt, without judgment and without becoming overwhelmed by it. She was a vessel into which I could pour out everything that was hurting me, but without diminishing either her, or me, in the process. Her capacity to contain me was intimately linked to her capacity to stay bounded. I was acutely aware (in a way that was both painful and reassuring) of a gentle but unyielding boundary – of the fact that I was ‘fully known’ but that she was ‘hidden’ from me. She reassured me that what I did see of her, was real, and not a mask. That ‘Jane the therapist’ was part of who Jane was, and not a pretense, or a role. And I was grateful for that reassurance. But I was even more grateful for both the infinite containment and acceptance, and the immoveable boundaries that made it possible. Because of those things, she was the ultimate safe place.

She gave me permission. She gave me permission to feel the things I felt, and to talk about them. And she gave it explicitly – she said, “I give you permission”. At first this sounded strange, but now I know she did it because she knew what I needed to hear, even when I didn’t know. She knew I didn’t, in reality, need her permission (or anyone else’s) – but she also knew that I couldn’t give it to myself, because there were certain things I had never been ‘allowed’ to feel or be. And hearing her say it, made it feel okay. It made the feelings themselves, okay to be felt.

She finished my sentences. She really saw me, into the depths of me, and the words that she used, demonstrated that. My hunger for intensity; my need to ‘merge’ with her – she saw, and spoke, about them both, without me needing to say very much by way of explanation. For that hour every week, we shared the same mental space, as well as the same physical space. If ever there was someone who I felt was ‘on my wavelength’, it was her.

She walked alongside me. She knew that it was my journey, to be taken at my pace. She told me that it was okay that I couldn’t yet commit to wanting to get better, because it felt as though for that to happen, part of me would have to die. She took subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) cues from me about what I was prepared or ready to talk about, and she opened up painful areas slowly, carefully, and so very gently. She was happy for me just to ‘be there’, wherever ‘there’ was – I didn’t have to do, or say, or feel, anything that I wasn’t ready for.

She related to the different parts of me. I often felt I had two ‘modes’ in therapy: the adult who relished what felt like a truly ‘equal’ relationship for the first time in her life; and the twelve year old who felt completely vulnerable and just wanted to be guided, protected and sheltered. She made them both feel valued, and gave them what they needed. She praised and encouraged the child, for example, by letting her know that she ‘led’ the conversation, far more frequently than she thought she did. And she reminded the adult that therapy was a partnership, that they worked well together, and that she was making progress. At the same time, when the adult (or was it the child?) was desperate to lay certain ‘victories’ at her door, she saw that need and desperation, and graciously accepted those victories.

She wasn’t afraid of how I felt about her. Even though I was terrified that my attachment and my intense feelings for her would repel her, and would drive her away, she repeatedly reassured me that nothing I said or felt, changed her view of me. And she understood that even though I truly believed her when she gave me those assurances, I still doubted and panicked that I would lose her and that she would end therapy with me, when I was out of her presence.

She reached out to me. In the silences, when I could not talk because I was so ashamed or afraid of how she would react to what I was thinking and feeling, she let me know that I could do it. That I could talk to her. She always gave me time, but she didn’t just leave me drowning in wordless space – was it because she knew that the space would have felt horrifically empty, and full of abandonment?

She cared about me. Professionally, of course. But she cared about me. The same blogger who said that I should write about Jane, also said that you can train yourself to look for cues or signs that your therapist cares about you. I don’t think I trained myself to look for them – although I think it’s fair to say that my idealisation of her probably led me to look for those signs, wherever I could find them. I cannot list all of the ways in which she made me feel cared for – there are too many. Even the fact that she was always up-front and direct with me, which I had originally seen ‘just’ as evidence of the fact that she realised how important these qualities were for me in order to establish trust – I now look at as another form and demonstration of caring.

But there are two instances that I cling onto, dearly, when it comes to reminding myself of that care. Two phrases that I will never forget, that she didn’t need to say, but that meant, and mean, the world. Our penultimate session was charged with emotion, and somewhere along the way, wires got crossed – I thought she’d misunderstood something I’d said, and she thought I’d misunderstood something she’d said. When that became clear, she replied: “we were afraid that we had hurt each other”. “We were afraid that we had hurt each other”. She was worried about hurting me. It took my breath away.

But perhaps not as much as when I said that I wanted a hug but knew I couldn’t have one, and she said that I could have a “metaphorical hug”. A metaphorical hug, a ‘safe embrace’ – the most that she could legitimately give me. But in giving me that, she gave me so much more – she gave me the sense that when it came to holding me, she would have, if she could have. I hope she will forgive me if I’m misinterpreting her words. I hope she can allow herself to be misinterpreted if she knows what it means to me  – if she knows that it will allow me to hold myself in her caring and in her regard, indefinitely.

To me, this was all ‘good therapy’. It was all good therapy for me. And all of it, ultimately, amounts to this. She validated me.

Validating: ‘causing a person to feel valued or worthwhile’.

She ‘held me’. She gave me permission. She finished my sentences. She walked alongside me. She related to the different parts of me. She wasn’t afraid of how I felt about her. She reached out to me. She cared about me. She validated me. Validation – so much more than the sum of its parts. So intrinsic to the source of borderline pain; so intrinsic to its solution.

All we went through and the work we did together is so much more than the words on this page.

This is my final follow-up to the ‘holding reply’ I sent to Jane’s last email.

“I want to say ‘thank you’ for being held. So gently, so honestly, so safely. So acceptingly, so caringly, so validatingly. You will always mean so very much, and I am so very grateful for you.

Just this last time, I won’t end by saying ‘with love’. Just this last time, I’ll say what I never had the courage to say to you before.

I love you.”

 

 

 


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All about Jane – Postscript

All about Jane. That was what I had originally wanted to call my blog, as it seemed to sum up my life for the past year or so. Jane, my ex-therapist – despite an absence of many months, she still feels like the mainstay of my life. How can that be possible when all the time we had together was fifteen one-hour therapy sessions, spread over a few months? Yet I started to grieve her from the very first day, when she completed a sentence I was struggling with, with a word that perfectly captured what I was reaching for. I knew our therapy was time-limited, and I still remember the contradictory aftermath of that first session vividly. Self-harming to distract from and give expression to the pain I was feeling at the thought of losing her, eventually. And an intense, burning desire to fill up my whole body, every inch of it, with pain, at the frustration of not being able to feel enough.

I wanted my post on losing Jane to stand alone. I wanted the grief to stand alone. But I also had a nagging need to write a postscript. Because I feel such guilt and shame at writing and sharing how I feel about that loss. I feel guilty for my grief. I feel condemned.

Jane is still alive, and I barely knew her (though I felt she knew me intimately). I don’t feel entitled to my grief. I feel I have no right to that emotion. I feel that it must be a slight on the grief of those who have lost enduring and long-standing loves to death.

I have lost in that way, as well, but Jane’s is the only loss that I have allowed myself to feel since my aunt died when I was ten. In two years of therapy, I haven’t dared to broach the subject of death. It’s entirely possible that unfelt grief of losses since, have become transferred onto and wrapped up into, how I feel about Jane. It’s just a theory, because I haven’t dared to explore it. Or maybe it’s just an excuse, to alleviate the guilt, and to justify the pain. I do  wonder why I was so adamant that I would allow myself to feel Jane’s loss, and not close myself off from it. Perhaps there is a degree of emotional safety in grieving when you know that you do not necessarily have to accept finality as part of the loss.

Some time on, and the possibility of resuming therapy with Jane, privately rather than through a free service, is now available. The possibility, but not yet the reality, as there is no space for me, yet. My life has become a series of markers in the sand  – a list of ‘not yets’ and ‘contact me again’, in two months or three, or after Easter. Now it’s after Easter. Now I’m waiting for another reply. I’m waiting to lay down another marker, preparing to live a little longer without the air I feel I need to breathe. I’m waiting to put down anchor. I’m waiting to come home.

In the meantime, my grief feels stolen – stolen from those who have more right to feel this way. And so I had to write a postscript, to say sorry, in case I stole from you.

 


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All about Jane – attachment and loss

I have a spent a great deal of time trying to write this post, but like grief itself, it just feels wrong. Like grief itself, it feels senseless, jumbled, confused, meandering. I go over it and over it, and just can’t make it right. So I have to let it be. I have to let the words, such as they are, communicate as best they can.

I wear a silver ring to remember her by. She liked silver jewellery, as I used to when I was growing up. Silver rings on every finger and silver bracelets on her wrists. I need a constant reminder of her, something to keep the memory of her alive, something to keep her real. But the ring wasn’t enough. I also wear a silver bracelet – maybe the more items that remind me of her, the more real she will feel, and more I can try and keep her with me.

The day I lost her was the first and only time in my marriage that my husband and I slept in separate rooms. I couldn’t describe what I was going through – I just needed space and time to grieve. I didn’t want to be touched, to be spoken to, to be with anyone else. I needed to be alone and to try and give it all expression, to pour it all out in tears, if I could. It was only a few hours later, but I felt as if my memory of her was already fragmenting, and as if I was already losing the reality of her. I felt as if I would shatter violently, as if I wanted to break out of my body, because there was just too much hurt to hold inside. The one week anniversary of the last time I saw her was a powerful re-experience of the devastation.

Over the next few weeks and months I put her name into Google repeatedly, even though I knew the result would always be the same, and that I would find nothing. I looked at the one document I had that had her name in it – somehow seeing it written down made her feel more substantial, confirmed the fact that she had actually existed, brought her closer in some very small way. Seeing her name, repeating her name in my mind was a strange kind of attempt to self-soothe, to fill the void left by her absence.

When I was out in town, I looked for her in crowds, searching for her face amongst those of strangers. Every day, driving past the windows of the building that we met in, I felt physical pain at the reminder and memories of her, as I looked up at the windows and imagined her inside. I felt a little angry at her for abandoning me – ‘a little’ was all I could let myself feel. I was still determined to keep her on her pedestal, still determined to halt the idealisation/devaluation cycle indefinitely, and keep her in an idealised state forever.

Any attempts by another, to provide the support that she used to provide, served only as a reminder of what I was now without, and brought fresh despair and anguish. I no longer had a ‘safe place’, an ‘anchor’. The sense of self-acceptance that had started to grow within me, entirely due to her acceptance of me, was fast fading away, and any little self-esteem I had left, could be pummelled into the ground by the weight of a feather.

As the months wore on the pain turned from a raging fire to constant burn  – a permanent ache but also a strange emptiness. Often, unless I’m feeling intensely, it doesn’t feel like I am feeling at all. But every so often, for no clear reason, an intense sadness and a missing of her, comes upon me and makes me utterly desperate for her again. In those times, the need for her is overwhelming. In those times, I cling pathetically (and thankfully, at a distance), to my two closest friends, transferring the unbearable need for her, into a desperate neediness towards them. And even outside those times, when I mention her name, the tears are never far behind. It takes just four little letters, spoken out loud, to reconnect me to the hurt.

In her absence, there is no longer anything to tie down the reality of her, or to keep me grounded. When she was in my life, she occupied her own space within it. That space was so large, that sometimes it left room for little else. And within that space she was adored, obsessed over, but still an idealised person of human proportions. But now that she’s gone, she has started to become less self-contained and the image of her is losing its integrity and coherence. It is as if the black hole of her absence has sucked in all meaning from elsewhere and attached it solely to her. The ways in which I have begun to think of her are quasi-religious. She is my Alpha and my Omega – my only hope, the only one who can ‘save me’. She stands for all that is good, noble, compassionate, caring, and for a million other things besides. Forgive me, for I have fucked up my life. Absolve me of my iniquities.

In her ‘elevated’ state in my mind, she has become less a person of flesh and blood, and more a philosophical construct, a concept of ‘the ideal’.

I want her to be human. I want her to be here. I want to feel again – intensity and love. I want her physical, perfectly imperfect presence. And it kills me that I’m grieving for someone who is still alive. That we could continue to share the same city air, until one of us dies, without me ever seeing her again. Trying to grieve, while living with the possibility of reconnection – is this what purgatory feels like?

Just as it was the last time I saw her, I don’t know how to end. I think a close friend of mine summed it up as well as anyone could ever do, in four short words.

Darling, grief does you.