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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We are incomplete stories

I recently encountered the second person, over the lifetime of my blog, who has had a less than complimentary view of what I do and how I approach life. I feel very fortunate to have had so little criticism; in fact the individual I just mentioned believed that their comment would not be published because they couldn’t see any negative comments and therefore assumed I simply deleted them all. That is not the case – I’m very happy to have an open discussion with anyone holding views either similar or very different to my own, and I’m happy to be challenged. But I believe that that conversation should be respectful, and always mindful of the fact that while differing views on therapy abound, no one knows really knows a therapeutic relationship apart from the two individuals engaged in it, and I believe strongly in choosing words carefully such they uphold rather than undermine that relationship. On the couple of occasions I haven’t published comments, it was because they were not made respectfully, but aggressively, and because I believed that they had the potential to undermine not just my own, but others’ therapeutic journeys as well.

On this occasion, the commenter said (amongst other things!) that they were concerned that my posts would encourage readers to live in a fantasy world and not try and make any changes to their lives; the fantasy world in question, was the way in which I see my therapeutic relationship. Though I disagree with the individual’s point of view, I think it is, in part, understandable. It’s impossible to gain a complete picture of my therapeutic journey, even if one were to read every post I’ve written over the last four years; not just because one cannot capture the essence of a relationship, in writing, but also because I write about only a fraction of what takes place either within session, or outside it. Someone reading a handful of posts without the context of what came before or after, might gain an inaccurate or partial picture of what I believe, what my life and therapeutic process are like, and how (or whether) things have changed. I have written posts when feeling hopeful and optimistic, but I have also written posts in the midst of suicidal ideation or profound despair and grief. Drawing broad conclusions about my beliefs, attitudes, or worldview, from these snapshots into my life, is like opening the pages of a book at random, and making assumptions about the characters and the ending of the story, based on what happens in a single chapter.

I would be saddened and mortified if I thought that what I’ve written implies that change in therapy isn’t vital or necessary. It isn’t a point I make overtly, or in a directive way, because I believe that everyone has to take change at their own pace. We cannot force ourselves – let alone others – to be open to the enormous shifts involved in therapy, before we are truly ready. For my own part, I believe that I have made significant progress in therapy over the last few years, and I hope that that is evident in at least some of what I write; some of the comments I have received, indicate that that is so. But this particular commenter’s barbed remarks did prick my conscience, and brought again into the foreground, the uncomfortable feelings I sometimes have when I think about how my blogging has developed over time.

It’s a pattern that I see not just in myself, but in a number of others who write about their therapeutic journeys. And it’s fundamentally a positive pattern, indicating recovery, growth, and a necessary deepening of relationship and trust within therapy. But how does that pattern impact upon others?

It seems to be, that as we get better, and as we bring more of ourselves into therapy, we put less of ourselves out there in our writing. Sometimes this is a conscious decision; often it is not. Some like to claim that suffering and creativity go hand in hand – I don’t necessarily agree, but it’s certainly true that I wrote most, when my mental health was at its lowest point. Another way of looking at it is that writing can be a coping mechanism, a way of releasing and processing powerful emotions, particularly when there is no other mechanism for release. It can be a source of comfort and solace, a means of expression. It can be many things, that is, that therapy can also be – which is why in many ways, it can be a helpful companion to therapy. But it also runs the risk of taking the place of some of those things that therapy should be providing instead, potentially diluting both the process and the relationship, or at least circumventing some of its lessons and the bonding quality of spontaneous relating.

It seems to be that we write less as we recover more, and as our therapeutic relationship deepens. We want to take things to our therapist, rather than to the page. We want our therapist to be the first to know what we’ve discovered; perhaps the only person to know, for a little while, about some important aspect of us that has changed. It is a private, bounded, intimacy – not just because of the vulnerability present within it, but because it is so precious, and many of us keep our most precious things, close to our hearts. Many of us do our growing up within the context of our therapeutic relationship; we grow into different people, or at least, whole people, living life from a different place. Who wants to do all of their growing up in public? We want to share aspects of our stories, we want to give and receive support; but we also want to cherish the safety and privacy of our intimate therapeutic relationship, as others might cherish the safety and privacy of family.

There is so much I haven’t written about over the last couple of years. Significant therapeutic ruptures, and even more significant repairs. Many lessons learned, but few written down. Important milestones, and even more important small, ordinary steps towards wholeness. And an absolute confidence and trust – not yet in myself, that is a huge work still to be done – but in my therapist, and in who she is. Projections still get in the way sometimes. Sometimes I still react as if she were like my biological mother, rather than reacting from a place of knowing who my therapy mother is – and she is very different. But I’ve reached the point where I feel there are no walls, and no fear – just a deep trust that I know her and can tell her anything, and we will be okay.

And so the picture that I’ve put forward in my writing, is incomplete. I can remember avidly reading blogs in the early years of my diagnosis and therapy, and that wonderful feeling when you find someone who seems to see right into your head, and puts down on the page the very things you’ve thought and felt. Comments from readers of my own and others’ blogs, shows how common this experience is. And so sometimes I feel guilty that I’m not offering up to someone who might need it, the encouragement of knowing that for every difficult and painful time I wrote about, there are many other moments of precious connection and progress. And there is a constant – sometimes bizarrely and frustratingly meandering, but still life-giving – thread of change and growth. And for my own part, I feel worried that if I need something to look back on, I will be missing, in words, the very best bits of my story. But that is part of my inner work that has still to be done – to develop trust in myself, in recollection, and in the presence of this experience, lasting through time, sustained internally and eternally, without the need for an external reference point.

And it occurs to me, too, that just as I have written less over the last couple of years, I have also been reading less about therapy, and about others’ experience of it. Honouring the precious intimacy of the relationship means not just keeping cherished moments within the bounds of the space, but to a certain extent, keeping other influences out of it. I don’t mean that therapy is a bubble, apart from the world – that would be to reinforce the commenter’s criticism about living in a fantasy. It is to say that therapy is about authenticity and finding our own way through the process – and that it is very easy to be influenced by others’ stories, and even to use them as vehicles for saying something about ourselves, thus circumventing tougher but ultimately more useful and personal forms of expression.

It is also true, I think, and demonstrated throughout life, both within therapy and outside it, that people don’t really hear or see what is being said, until they’re ready to do so. Many of us know that when on the very edge of despair, having someone meet us where we are, can sometimes be more encouraging than being shown the person who has already made it through. It’s difficult to relate to who we might be in future, when we cannot envisage a future; but relating to someone who experiences a similar present, helps us to feel another’s presence, and to feel less alone. In my earlier years of therapy, I would have found it very difficult to envisage and accept that things would change in certain ways; just as I find it difficult to accept even now, that the eventual end of therapy might be less traumatic than I currently imagine it will be.

And so perhaps it does not matter that I haven’t written much about how things have changed over the last couple of years. Perhaps this guilt and unease that the commenter triggered in me, is misplaced. Perhaps my posts are meeting people where they are, at a particular period in their therapy; and when that period is over, they no longer seek the same sort of meeting. My story is presented incompletely, and it is still incomplete – as all of our stories are. And if you don’t see change in its pages, perhaps that is because you have dipped into it at a point when change is moving incrementally slowly, inching its way into my being. Or perhaps you missed the lightning flash of revelation that came a couple of pages before, or that awaits you in the next chapter. I’m awaiting that one too – but who knows how things will unfold…..

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Mary Oliver

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Negative blog comments – the risks and responsibilities of blogging

In two and a half years of blogging I have been extremely fortunate not to have received any adverse or critical comments on my posts – until now.

I think I would have been naïve had I believed this wouldn’t happen, and in a way I’m surprised it has taken this long. I think that if we choose to put our lives in our writing and to put our writing ‘out there’, even anonymously, we have to be prepared for the fact that some people will not only not like it or will disagree with us, but will also make that known in ways that are hurtful, unpleasant or aggressive.

The comment in question was left on my post ‘Who do you call ‘mother’?’. The comment ‘informed me’ that my therapist is not my mother and that I should ‘deal with it’, and moreover that the reader had never heard anything more ridiculous. I haven’t published the comment – not because I want to censor negative comments, but because it was also scathing about my therapist. Not only do I strongly disagree with what was said about her, I don’t feel it’s fair to publish something to which my therapist doesn’t have the opportunity to respond. Although my blog is anonymous I’m still very careful to protect her privacy in any way I can; she didn’t choose to be part of my blogging journey.

Receiving that comment was an unpleasant shock, and I’ll admit that despite the security I feel and the strength of the relationship I have with my therapist, it triggered a tiny voice which sided with the reader in accusing me of believing in an illusion. But that voice was easily dealt with by the other parts of me and by talking it through with my therapist, and the biggest effect of the comment was that it made me think again about the risks that we take and the responsibility that we bear, if we blog or if we read or comment on others’ blogs, particularly perhaps, in the field of mental health.

I have always been a firm believer in the need to protect my therapy, in the way that I might protect a marriage or a friendship from temptation or threat. I am always conscious that although blogging can be a very positive means of self-expression, processing and ‘working things through’, there are also risks involved. There is a risk from myself, that I will do something to undermine and unsettle the work of therapy, and there is a risk from others, as was demonstrated by the comment I received.

When we blog about our therapy, we are writing about the most vulnerable parts of ourselves, and about a unique and uniquely important relationship with our therapists. We are laying those things bare in front of an audience of unknown size and unknown characteristics – friend or foe, compassionate or scathing, hurting or wanting to hurt. We are fragile and yet with every post we take the risk that as well as being helped and encouraged, we could be harmed and torn down. We hope it is the former, but sometimes, regrettably, it is the latter.

I am as open and as honest in my writing as I can be, but I do sometimes hold back, and it tends to be about the most intimate and precious things that happen in therapy. Sometimes I hold back because the moment feels too new and too private still, to share – it may never be shared, or I may write about it several months later. Sometimes I hold back because of that wish to protect my therapist’s privacy. Interestingly, the post that drew the negative comment, ‘was right on the edge of what I felt able to write about. This was because the subject matter felt so precious and intimate and therefore I felt even more strongly I had to be conscious of my therapist’s privacy. Perhaps the fact that I received that comment, shows that I did in fact ‘step over’ that edge, and my worries about intimacy and privacy may have been justified.

As for the ways in which we can pose a risk to ourselves, with our writing, Alison Crosthwait, a psychotherapist, writer and blogger based in Canada, put it beautifully in her collection of essays entitled ‘What it feels like to change’. I find this section so helpful that I wanted to quote it in full:

“I sometimes think of therapy as a steam kettle  – over time, the emotions rise. If I talk about what is happening for me in therapy with someone other than my therapist, it is like taking the cover off the steam kettle. All the energy is released. The problem is that this energy is the heart of the work. So if I release it outside the room, all that potential could go to waste. For example:

My therapist tells me that she is going away for two weeks in March. I go home and I tell my partner “My therapist is going away. I can’t believe she is going away again – she was away for three weeks over Christmas. It is like she is never here long enough for our work to deepen.”

What have I done here? I let me anxiety and anger and upset bleed out of the therapy room. When I see my therapist again I am no longer so upset – I have expressed my feelings and been heard. But not by her. Something important has ben said, but it has been said outside the room. And as a result the feelings that I have about her holiday are not expressed in the context of our relationship. So I can’t learn what the feelings mean. And I don’t get the opportunity to experience my therapist’s response to my feelings. “

This doesn’t mean that we can never talk to anyone else about what is going on in therapy, or that we can never write about it either. As Alison also wrote, “There is a difference between keeping a secret and holding on to something for the place it belongs.” For me, this means being very aware never to use blogging as a way of communicating with my therapist, when I should be talking to her instead. I will sometimes hold off writing or publishing a post if it concerns material that I have not yet raised with her in session. She reads my posts, and though I’m happy for her to read about my processing of material that she is already aware of (and where I don’t feel the need to do substantial further processing ‘in the room’), I would never want to raise ‘new’ material in a post, that she is completely unaware of. To me, that is a very important part of protecting the therapy and not undermining it, as well as ensuring that I don’t miss out on the opportunity to deepen the therapy relationship itself, and to experience everything it has to offer.

For me, protecting the therapy is also about what I read, as well as what I write. There are a few blogs that I love to read but was determined to avoid over the summer therapy break. I knew I was likely to be particularly vulnerable to the parts of me that wanted to protest against my therapist ‘leaving’ and I was worried that reading about others’ therapeutic relationships, particularly if they were going through tough times, would be triggering. I have also read fewer books about therapy recently, as I know that I am tempted to look for ‘the right answer and the right way of doing things’, whereas there is no ‘right answer’ and I need to find my own way through. For example, I am for the moment avoiding reading about Schema based therapy, despite the great value I find in thinking of myself in terms of ‘parts’. I am worried that reading about it will divert the development of my own thoughts and finding the expression of this ‘parts idea’ that works best for me.

Reading about others’ experiences can be comforting, valuable and supportive, but there is also the risk that it will introduce ‘interlopers’ into our own therapy, and that we will become involved in another’s difficulties in a way that too easily provides us with an outlet for our own. Both have happened to me, and in both cases the subject matter itself was valuable and significant. However, either it interjected itself into the middle of another important thread in therapy, where it landed out of the blue and in a bit of a vacuum; or it didn’t find authentic expression in our work – that is, I was using another’s situation to act out my own feelings about the topic, rather than drawing on my own experience.

We have a responsibility to ourselves and our therapy to protect the work, but in reading and commenting on blogs, we also have a responsibility towards others. Much as I believe in protecting my own therapy, I also strongly believe in affirming and not undermining others’ therapy relationships and processes. I’m sure that sometimes I fail, and that sometimes I make less than helpful comments, even if I intend to be kind and supportive. But I try to remember that no one ‘on the outside’ can ever know what goes on in the room between therapist and client, however much detail a blogger gives in their posts. We read a tiny fraction of what is conveyed (in words or body language), remembered or spoken about, and we gain an idea of the quality of the therapeutic relationship that barely skims the surface. In addition, everyone’s process in therapy will be different, because of the individuality of the particular client and therapist and their unique interaction, as well as the client’s (and therapist’s) unique set of experiences.

I also try and remind myself that what I read about in others’ blogs is necessarily one-sided and is the view of someone taking a journey and changing as they go, and that their needs and views will vary over time. For example, it is so natural to want to soothe a distressed fellow-blogger who is experiencing a rupture with their therapist, and to want to validate their feelings and show that I am ‘on their side’. But I sometimes need to remind myself that appearing to side with them (and by implication to side against their therapist), may not ultimately be helpful and may only undermine their therapy. Though I may not understand why their therapist has done or said x, y or z, I have to trust that, in the absence of any blatant evidence to the contrary, their therapist knows them and knows what they are doing, even if I or the fellow-blogger, cannot see the rationale at that particular point in time. I can still validate without ‘taking sides’. And the lovely thing about supportive relationships in the blogosphere is that like friendships, as they develop and as people get to know each other better, they also trust and are trusted enough to even be able to kindly challenge, where appropriate. I have often found my friends’ compassionate challenges even more helpful than their words of encouragement.

But there was nothing kind or compassionate about the ‘challenge’ that I received in that blog comment. In a way though, I’m glad that I received it, as it ended up being incredibly thought-provoking. I won’t patronise the reader by speculating on their motivations or situation, or wishing them a different sort of experience. If they want to comment again, that is up to them – I can’t promise to publish it, depending on the content and who it is directed at. I’d be more than happy to engage in a discussion about whatever topic they wish – but with the proviso that we both take seriously the responsibility towards our own, and others’ well-being, and the power that our words have for good, or ill.