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.
I’m nervous about going back to therapy tomorrow. You would have thought after five years and numerous therapy breaks, that I wouldn’t be wracked with anticipation, that I’d know what to expect. And, I guess, the problem is that I do. I know returns are difficult – the last week leading up to a return has always been particularly challenging, and this time has been no exception. My #therapybreak tweets from the final third of my five-week summer break, show that unfolding:
One thing that has changed over the years has been the speed of adjusting after the return, of reconnecting, and of working through the vestiges of resentment and anger that inevitably bubble up, however accepting I’ve consciously felt of my therapist’s need for a break. But I haven’t yet found a way of avoiding the clouding of vision, and turmoil of emotion that makes an appearance in the lead-up to the ‘reunion’, however things have gone in the preceding weeks. I think that part of the reason, at least, is an inability to completely let go of expectations.
Without wanting to or planning to, or even realising that it is happening, as the end of the break approaches my head starts to fill with imagined conversations and imagined scenarios of how the first session back could go. Those scenarios involve both the ways in which I’d like, and not like it to go, along with my possible responses. But either way, positive or negative, there are fears and expectations involved. I would like to be able to approach the end of the break and the first session back, with complete openness and curiosity, with excitement and gratitude for what has been and what is to come. But I find it so hard to release those thoughts of how I’d like her to be, what I’d like her to say, how I’d like the atmosphere to be. I know that I’m restricting both of our freedom, imprisoning us both, in a dynamic enforced by my expectations. I want to work on that – but I don’t yet know how.
While most of those I know in therapy are already back in session, I have another [insert own adjective] couple of weeks to go until I see my therapist again! I’m a little over two-thirds of the way through, and have put together my #therapybreak tweets for the middle third of this long summer break:
The first third can be found here and the final installment will be published on 23 September, the day before my return to session.
My thoughts are with those who have recently returned to session – going back involves such a mixture of states and emotions, and whatever happens in those first couple of weeks back, it is rarely straightforward. But I am grateful to a lovely Twitter friend and our chat earlier tonight, for the opportunity to remember and reflect on something very important about the return. She is seeing her therapist again soon, after a gap of a couple of months, and wondered if her therapist would remember what she was like, and how to work with her. And in replying to my friend, it was as if the last five years of working with my therapist were all present at once, and I grasped in one moment how I would have answered that question and felt in that situation a few years ago, versus how I feel now.
I said that yes, her therapist would remember what she was like and how to work with her. But at the same time, her therapist wouldn’t know how the last couple of months had been, until she was told, and working together changes all the time, so it is never completely the same. Her therapist will care and know her as before, but she will also be human and will not ‘get things’ straight away, and may not remember everything my friend might expect her to. But if that happens, it says nothing about how her therapist feels about her, or her desire to understand what’s going on. I said to my friend the things that I wish I could have said to myself – but I hadn’t realised them yet – a few years ago, in the early days of my therapy.
I hope my answer was helpful to my friend, but her asking the question was also a blessing for me. In replying and in reminding myself of what I knew, I felt a great sense of security and of knowing and being known. I remembered one or two sessions over the last few months when it was clear my therapist did not quite understand how things were for me, but it also evident that she cared deeply about understanding, and was trying hard to do so. I remember how powerful it was to realise that I’d reached the point where the fact that she didn’t understand, did not upset me; and the fact that she was committed to trying, was infinitely more important and moving. I smiled inside at the thought that she is human; I was grateful for it. Even though I could probably only recall one or two examples, the felt memories of her ‘human-ness’ permeated me, and I felt hugged by her presence. I no longer need to be ‘intuited’ -one of the changes that therapy has wrought. I just need someone to bring themselves as they are, to be there, to care, and to try. How much simpler; how much more precious. What a gift…..
[The text below was written a few days ago, straight after one of my therapy sessions. I waited to publish it, because I wanted to share its content with my therapist first. Particularly since we started curtailing email outside of session, I really want to try and keep our work spontaneous and ‘within the room’, otherwise it almost feels as though the very difficult process of changing our previous email pattern, will be undermined. I will continue blogging about my therapy, and writing is still a valuable way for me to process material – but it will more often, these days, be ‘after the fact’, rather than when I am in the very middle of a situation.]
Having spent weeks finding it really difficult to write, I now feel absolutely compelled to do it. Why? Because I’ve been driving home after my therapy session feeling incredibly grateful, and for some reason, for a moment, I’m allowing myself to be one of those people I sometimes find very irritating on Facebook, who go on about their gratitude while many of the rest of us are feeling anything but. So I sincerely apologise for inflicting that on anyone. But on the other hand, part of the problem with Facebook is only seeing the positive parts of the picture that others are happy to present to the world, whereas my gratitude today is part of a bigger, messier, darker, and un-straightforward picture, which I have tried to present as honestly as I can.
I have written so often about the feeling of having a bottomless ‘pit of need’ inside me, and how painful that is to encounter within myself. As I was driving this evening I was conscious of the contrast and of the excitement and pleasure of feeling as though I was a container overflowing, rather than a pit needing filling.
I’ve just had two therapy sessions on consecutive days, after a short therapy break, and both times my feelings upon entering my therapist’s house were different to other ‘returns’. This is the shortest break we’ve had (a week) so perhaps that helped – it was long enough to trigger break-related feelings and also to function as a period of consolidation, but short enough that I still had a sense of connection to the material we had been covering before the break. There was therefore less uncertainty about what it would be like to resume; but even so, I don’t remember feeling quite so excited before, about ‘coming back’. I have always longed to resume sessions, and couldn’t wait, as well as getting frustrated and anxious about the return – but unafraid excitement was something a little new.
I felt like running up the stairs to the therapy room, and just entering it had a real sense of safety, comfort, and of coming home. I literally cried with relief (and other emotions) at a couple of points during yesterday’s first session back, and even today couldn’t quite get over how good it felt to be back. And not just back – but back in a really engaged and open and undefended way. It’s how I really wanted to be, in session, before the break happened, but I couldn’t really manage it at that point.
I’ve been wondering why – where this sense of excitement and ability to be open, came from. It’s not as though the break was easy or my feelings positive the whole way through. As I mentioned in my previous post, though the break started well, my mood changed completely part-way through, and rather than feeling confident and secure in the therapeutic connection, I felt fearful and very self-critical.
I did try and think myself out of that state – and was helped both my own realisation that the change in mood and my perceptions of my therapist came from within myself and were not triggered by anything she had said or done; and also by a brief email exchange that we had. She was open and supportive, and posed a couple of interesting questions for me to think about. And I did…..
My therapist has sometimes expressed surprise that I have not shown more curiosity about my dreams or about my subconscious. One of the things that was different about this break and the return, was that I was more curious about what had been going on during the break, and I was more invested in trying to understand it. I returned to therapy excited to talk about what had happened and my attempts at unpicking it; but also excited about trying to understand it with my therapist, and not just on my own. The first session back was emotional and difficult in parts, but also thought-provoking; and with the luxury of some time to myself after the session, I felt as though I took a number of important steps forward in getting to grips with the material we’d covered.
I couldn’t wait to tell her, and had an even greater sense of excitement and anticipation when I arrived at session today, knowing that I would share these steps and that we could talk about them further.
If I try and think about why there has been this change in my curiosity and excitement about the material of therapy, I suspect I may not be able to identify a single factor, and that a range of elements contributed. However, it’s also possible that among the range of factors there may be a single very important one; and that I might have to acknowledge that maybe this is part of what my therapist meant when she said that the reason for reducing email contact outside of sessions was to ‘free me up’ so that we could interact in a more ‘lively way’ in person. It’s a little irritating when she’s right…..!
But it also makes me feel very very grateful for her, and for everything she’s done and is doing for and with me. I’m enjoying this feeling of overflowing, because I know that while the fact of overflowing may continue, the feeling will come and go, despite wanting to hold onto it. When I look at the wider picture, there is a great deal that continues to be very painful. Outside of therapy, my husband and I are finally in couples counselling, but probably at least a year too late – we have essentially withdrawn and become used to ignoring each other and only talking when the need arises. In therapy, despite the connection, trust, and gratitude I feel, I’m still a little too afraid and insecure to read an article I saw on Twitter about what happens when therapists dislike a client, and I feel renewed pain at the question of touch in therapy, when I read about others’ current struggles with the very same issue. And I’m still jealous of my therapist’s daughters, and the place they occupy in her life. In no way have these things been suddenly ‘fixed’ and nor do I expect them to be – resolved, at some point, perhaps, but who’s to say in what way, and when?
But the feeling of overflowing is there together with those other things, and they can co-exist, and I think that that is different, too. It reminds me of some passages in a beautiful book that my therapist recommended to me a while ago, which had a big impact on me. “This is not to say that joy is a compensation for loss, but that each of them, joy and loss, exists in its own right and must be recognised for what it is. Sorrow is very real……life on earth is difficult and grave, and marvellous…..so joy can be joy and sorrow can be sorrow, with neither of them casting either light or shadow on the other.”*
I think that pretty much sums up how I’m feeling right now – and I wanted very much, to share that with you.
[Or, ‘When I realised how much therapy has helped me change – Part 4’]
After progress comes resistance. I’ve experienced it time and time again, both in little ways – a slip of the tongue during a session – and in big ways, such as those described below.
I’ve often read that resistance is at the core of psychotherapy – even that understanding it and working through it, is the treatment itself. I think the problem with that formulation is that doesn’t mention the primacy of the therapeutic relationship in doing that working through, and the fact that change happens through that relationship. Nevertheless, I can see why resistance is given such a prominent role – although it stands in the way of progress, neither can progress exist without it.
Resistance is the sub-conscious trying to protect itself from that which may overwhelm or hurt it. Progress means change, which goes hand in hand with greater openness and vulnerability. But many of us have spent years or decades closing off or pushing down those things we want least to address, and we have built sky-high walls and fortresses to protect ourselves. No wonder part of us fights so hard against any penetration of that barrier, and any letting in of light. The sub-conscious is powerful; the bigger the therapeutic change, the bigger the backlash and the assault upon us.
Resistance won’t always look or feel like resistance. It can seem more like a benign friend, than an enemy – it can be so persuasive that it can fool us into believing that it is our ‘better self’ speaking. At other times it really can appear as ugly as it is – but somehow we are irresistibly drawn to it anyway. It seems to be simply a mirror of how we see ourselves – with shame and disgust – and we fall into its arms because it is such a familiar place to be.
It laughs at me tonight, as I write this post. How easy it is to catch you out, it says. How easy it is to use your good feelings and security for cover, your writing and your research as bait, and to lead you into trouble. How ironic, it laughs, that writing about resistance should make you less resistant to it. Writing, I guess, is a kind of ‘summoning’ – and you don’t always know what words or feelings are going to answer the call.
A little over a year ago, there was a noticeable step-change in the progress I was making in therapy. Just before the Easter therapy break I started to feel a great deal more compassion towards myself than I had ever done before, and I experienced that in the form of a feeling of connection with my ‘inner child’ (who I had previously hated), and a much deeper sense of trust and connection with my therapist. The therapy break that followed was the first in which I managed to sustain that feeling of connection without it feeling like an exhausting daily battle against myself.
But the break was followed by the very distressing events described in my post ‘BPD as addiction’. Despite the progress I had made, part of me clung onto the cycle of rupture and repair that I was so used to; and onto the connection between love and pain that had previously made sense to me. It led my therapist to question whether she was really helping me, and it was an enormous wake-up call for me. However, the problem with a full-scale assault is that it’s not exactly subtle. My resistance could no longer trip me up from the side-lines; I had changed and raised the stakes too high. At least now I was self-aware enough to be able to see what I was dealing with.
More recently, I described another similar step-change when my therapist helped me to realise that I still sometimes kept her at arms’ length, and that I was engaging with her more in my imagination, than I was when we were face-to-face in session. I became absolutely determined that I would strive to allow her closer, and that I would try and stay present and engaged in session. I started to make some changes, including in how I thought and acted in relation to email outside session.
My determination to be vulnerable and engaged led to an intense session where I tried to get to grips with the content of a dream I’d had, in a way that I don’t think I have done before. Instead of just ‘reporting it’ to my therapist, I tried to let my mind wander onto what it made me think of, what it might connect to, what it brought to mind. What it brought to mind was a whole load of shame and anger, and those feelings traveled with me out of session, and made me want to destroy myself. Instead, almost without thinking – more as a distraction, initially, but then more as an obsession – I started another episode of ‘googling’ my therapist. It’s something I rarely do these days, and when I do, it is at times I feel less secure or more resistant.
This particular episode ended up being extremely distressing because I felt very strongly that it was a betrayal. Though I hadn’t been looking for it, my searching inadvertently resulted in me discovering something about her that, when I had once asked her a direct question about it, she had refused to tell me. It was big shock, and I stopped googling immediately; but the damage – in terms of how I felt about myself, and how I thought she would now feel about me – was done.
We worked through it in the next two sessions – she focused on trying to help me understand what had motivated me and why it had happened. She seemed less personally disturbed by the events, than I was afraid she would be. Though I felt very strongly that I deserved ‘punishment’, nothing like that was forthcoming. I had acted in a way that made me fear my therapist might be so upset or angry with me, that it could seriously jeopardize our therapeutic relationship and the ongoing work – which was presumably, as far as my resistance was concerned, the point. However, somehow I ended the week with a renewed determination to continue being open and engaged, despite what felt like an enormous step backwards and a clear incidence of self-sabotage.
But the beast is not so easily slayed, and the first session of the following week found me sitting in silence, feeling completely stuck, and unable to speak. I wanted – really, really wanted – to carry on as I had done in the session where I spoke about my dream. I wanted to talk, to grapple with my difficulties, to free-associate. I wanted to work together with my therapist, to feel close to her. Instead, she felt far away and I felt empty of material. She encouraged me to try and tolerate not knowing what to say, and to wait and see what came up, whereas I desperately wanted her to do something or say something to help me move forward. I couldn’t tolerate the waiting; and that re-opened the door to the wolf in sheep’s clothing.
This time, I thought I was helping, not destroying myself. This time, I thought I had the upper hand – over myself. I should have become suspicious when that somehow turned into something like wanting to have the upper hand in therapy, or at least to try and influence the way my therapist interacted. I did what I used to do in the first couple of years of sessions, when I felt I didn’t really know how the process worked or what I was doing – I read a book about therapy. I had stopped doing this as much, when my therapist pointed out it would be helpful to focus on my own unique therapeutic journey, rather than on the tales of others. It’s too easy to start seeing yourself in the stories of others, and to get drawn down a path that isn’t truly your own.
However, I picked up another Irvin Yalom, and was particularly struck by the story of a resistant patient, mired in grief, who tried to show Yalom how he was failing to see her and engage with her grief, by giving him a long poem to read that she felt mirrored their therapeutic struggle. As soon as I finished reading the story, I emailed my therapist and asked her to read it, because I was hoping we could discuss it. About an hour later I realised with a very great deal of embarrassment that I had simply repeated what I had read – I had sent my therapist something to read that I felt mirrored what we were going through.
Nevertheless, I persisted in talking about it at my next session, in a way that I was afraid would sound rather critical – which, indeed, it did. My motivation, however, at least so far as I was conscious of it, was a positive one, and I felt well-intentioned and still connected to my therapist. I thought that I was simply trying to figure a way out of the ‘stuckness’ so that I could carry through my determination to engage more with her in session. I didn’t see the problem, at the time, of the fact that my strategy seemed to involve telling her she didn’t always engage with me. I tried to emphasize the fact that it wasn’t that I wanted her to be a different sort of therapist to the one she was; what I simply wanted was more of the times when I felt she ‘got her hands dirty’, and ‘gave more’. I think to myself now, and I say to my own self of only a couple of weeks ago: if you want to know whether resistance is at play, look at who it is you are asking to change – however good the reasons might seem.
I am back on track in therapy – but the beast is always biting at my heels. Resistance, thy name is bloodhound, terrier, shape-shifter, chameleon. Sometimes you use tools that are well-worn and sure-fire winners; other times you come up with something new and entirely unexpected. I would enjoy your creativity if you weren’t such a ravenous and soul-destroying bitch.
There is a saying in popular culture – “Resistance is futile”. Futile can mean pointless, but resistance always has a point – it is its own end-point. But futile can also mean ‘fruitless’, and resistance, if it cannot be worked through and becomes its own end-point, can rob therapy of the fruit of its labours. Ultimately, we are in therapy to change, whether in major ways or minor ones. For some of us, the change could be so big that the quality – if not the outward appearance – of our life after therapy, can be radically different. And so it is, that:
“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.” *
We had had discussions about dreams before. I struggled to remember my dreams and to interpret them, but I knew my therapist believed them to be valuable for gaining insight into one’s subconscious. Last year, she said that I brought my dreams to session almost as if they were a bunch of flowers I was giving her. She was right – I was treating them like a gift, because I knew she would find them interesting and I wanted to please her. When she asked for my thoughts on them, I often just said I didn’t really know. I always asked her what her own thoughts were, and she would say that my own interpretations were the most significant.
Last week, after a ‘dream dry spell’ lasting many months, I remembered a number of dreams in a row and brought them to her. Or rather, I just dropped them into her lap. I made some comment about the fact that I am a lucid dreamer and love dreaming; to my surprise she replied that she wondered therefore, how it was that I did not show more interest in engaging with my dreams and what they might have to tell me. She emphasized again how valuable she believed they could be to our work, and noted that I appeared to be very wary of delving into my subconscious. She said that she would ‘love’ for me to engage with dream work. It was at that point and with that word, that I realised quite how passionate she was about the subject and how much she cared about it – and not just the subject in the abstract but specifically about my own engagement with it.
She encouraged me to write down a recent dream and try and think about who or what the characters might represent. The dismissive part of me that is essentially the voice of my mother, told her that dream interpetation just felt like a game with little substance. I could come up with a number of interpretations, but they seemed to tell me little I didn’t already know, and in any case, how could I ever know which interpretations were informative, and which were simply pure invention? I left the session feeling resistant and resentful, and I sent an email telling her as much.
I was brave. I debated with myself, but the desire was so strong, I took a risk. I sent my therapist an email on Sunday night, that started ‘Dear Mum…’. It was the first time I’d addressed an email in that way – and I wasn’t planning on making a habit of it. But it felt like the most fitting way of conveying the incredibly strong connection, love and security that I’d felt for the last couple of days. It was an expression of me, just as much as it was an expression of how I felt. I took courage from a past conversation in which she had implied that I had the freedom to address her as I chose; and from the time when she had referred to me using ‘I love you’ at the end of an email, as an expression of self.
Earlier that day, I read an interesting article on ‘inner child work’ in therapy. It discussed the importance of working in therapy to grieve what we never had as children, so that we can heal, rather than expecting to be ‘re-parented’ by a therapist acting as a substitute for what was missing. I wanted to talk to my therapist about it, but it felt like a ‘distraction’ from the topic of dream work, and so I refrained from sending it to her at that point.
When it came to dream work, Friday’s resistance and resentment had melted away, largely as a result of hard work on my part to self-soothe and maintain connection by talking to my ‘inner child’ and summoning up images of my therapist comforting her. But I had not conveyed that change to my therapist, in the forty eight hours since Friday’s email. And so, though I didn’t realise it at the time, to my therapist Sunday night’s email was a case of discordant misattunement, and a baffling surprise.
It’s ironic that during a weekend when I felt so utterly connected, my therapist felt disconnected. As far as she was aware, she had completely failed to get through my resistance and help me to understand why working with dreams might have benefits. When she read Sunday’s email, it simply did not fit with where she was at, at that time (or indeed with where she thought that I was at). That is not speculation – it came from her directly. She rarely shares details about her reactions, but when she does, it is invariably helpful.
I tried to explain to her how my change in attitude over the weekend had come about, and as ‘proof’, I showed her my ‘homework’ – the pieces of paper on which I’d written down a recent dream, and tried to analyse it. Despite what I’d said in Friday’s email, once my resistance faded I had resolved to be more vulnerable and open to my subconscious, and to make a real effort to work with my dreams. I trust my therapist – and it was hard to ignore the obvious value she placed on this work. I also wanted to gain as much as I could from our sessions, and to immerse myself as fully as possible.
Perhaps it was that thought that led me to mention, almost as an aside, the article I had read regarding the work of therapy. I said that I still wasn’t quite sure what it would look like to grieve the mothering I never had. Despite having written about the subject some time ago, and having experienced at least some of that grieving, I didn’t know if I was ‘doing it right’. Was I missing something? Was I gaining as much as I could? I felt as though I was doing the work intellectually, but was I immersing myself as much as I should, emotionally?
The privilege (but also the pain) of working closely together for a number of years, is that my therapist is able to be more direct and more overtly challenging, than she could have been in the past. It is a sign of my progress and of closeness. But, like my email from Sunday night, her reply was unexpected, and did not seem to fit with where I was at.
She said that I did sometimes approach things intellectually, and without emotional engagement. She said that part of me did want a replacement mother; that I wanted her to be someone other than her, and that I wanted her to respond to me in a particular way. She said ‘I am [name]’ – did I draw the implication ‘and not Mum’, or did she actually say it?
I can’t remember. By this point I was in shock, and I spent almost the entirety of the rest of the session in silence, even when she tried to encourage me to talk by asking me, ‘where are you?’. I wasn’t lost in thought, so much as lost in a thought – the only thought going round and round my head, which was ‘I am trying to stop my world from caving in’. The trying consisted in the repeating of the phrase – the monotony prevented any other thought from rising up and destroying me. It also somehow kept me physically immobile so that I didn’t collapse, or move, or somehow disintegrate under the weight of her words.
If this had been a lucid dream I would have pressed rewind, to the point just before I mentioned the article and asked those questions. But I was all too conscious of the reality and immutability of her words that still hung in the air, with an annihilating quality far more frightening than any nightmare I had ever had.
I’ve been pondering the fact that spring, and the period around Easter, seems to have been very significant for me during the time I have been in therapy. It could be purely coincidental; it could be connected to the change in seasons; or it could be related to the cycle of therapy, rather than the cycle of the weather. Whatever the reason, for the last few years this time of year has brought crisis, followed by transformation. Admittedly, my therapy is not unusual in being comprised of multiple cycles of rupture and repair, many of them very intense and distressing. However, there is something about the events that have taken place around this time of year, over the past few years, that marks them out not just as successful episodes of repair, but as watershed moments, or ‘therapeutic paradigm shifts’, as I called them in this week’s Memory Monday post, “Progress in therapy – being ‘all in’ “, which can be found here:
Last year’s ‘paradigm shift’ started over the Easter therapy break, and is described in the post above. Despite the very positive changes that happened during April and May 2016, there was an enormous and hugely significant rupture at the very end of May and start of June. In the light of the progress that had been made, the rupture was sufficient to lead my therapist to question whether she was really helping me – a rather traumatic but ultimately vital and beneficial period for me personally, and for our work together (described in my post ‘BPD as addiction‘). Since last June, my therapy has had a somewhat different character, I think; the slowly developing more adult part of me has been present in session more often, and the level of trust and vulnerability I am able to display with my therapist, has deepened. I have a greater awareness of my behaviour both in and out of session, and of what motivates it. And though that doesn’t prevent other aspects of me (such as the inner child or teenager) from ‘acting out’, my awareness prevents the whole of me from being swallowed up in these episodes (as I would have been before), and ensures that part of me at least, remains connected to my therapist, rather than being resistant towards her.
Transformative thought the events of last springtime were, therapy is much like a spiral, where topics and feelings are revisited again and again but in slightly different ways, in different contexts, and in different depths. When I wrote about ‘being all in’ last year, I didn’t really imagine that there would be an even deeper version of that. But there is – and I know now that I’ve still got some way to go. I was as ‘all in’ as I could have been at the time; but as you make progress, and as you change, what you are capable of changes too – and in that sense, the therapeutic process demands more of you (though not in a prescriptive way!). It’s a little like the seated poses that one holds for minutes at a time during Yin yoga – as you try and release the tension in your body and focus on your breathing, you find you have more to give. If your body is in a forward fold, you find that you can fold more deeply; if you are stretching, you find that you can stretch more strongly. Your body develops possibilities that seemingly were not present before.
Between January and March 2017 I felt overwhelmed and stuck; unsure and directionless. I wrote very little down about my sessions, and my memory of them was incredibly patchy. I tried to describe to my therapist how I felt, in my post ‘To my therapist – the roads half taken’. Though my therapist encouraged me to sit with these feelings, and to wait, it was frustrating and difficult to do so. She reassured me that this was simply another phase in our work, and that such periods often follow or precede times of great growth; but I simply felt lost. The Easter therapy break this year was far less positive and far more of a struggle than the one last year, and I was afraid that the next few months might be as difficult as the ones that came before.
But, once again, my therapist was right. Sometimes you’re not aware of how much things have shifted, internally,until you come to another ‘crisis’. I might have felt stuck for much of the last few months, but somehow, while I was waiting for those feelings to pass and the ‘stuck-ness’ to resolve, part of me was becoming ever more invested in the work and the relationship, and preparing for the next steps that I needed to take. The start of last week was incredibly tough – those who follow me on Twitter might have seen me tweet “Right now I feel like I never ever want to see my therapist ever again”. But that is a million miles away from how I feel now, and the process of working through that situation feels like another watershed moment in my therapy. A moment that not only showed me how much things have changed in the last couple of years, but also gave me a renewed determination to be ‘all in’ – in even deeper and more diverse ways than I have managed so far.
My Christmas therapy break finally ended yesterday, with a ‘return session’ of the kind I haven’t experienced before. Usually I spend some time after a break trying actively to feel reconnected to my therapist, hoping that she will somehow ‘reach out’ to help me do that. She often tells me that we are still connected, even if I can’t feel it, but particularly straight after a break that can be hard to take on board and accept.
This time, although though I spent a little while at the start of the session showing her various items and mementos of the therapy break that had been important in helping me to look after myself, I did so because I really wanted to share those things with her, rather than because I was seeking a connection I felt was missing. I went in feeling connected; and though on many levels I just wanted to ‘rest’ and have her ‘look after me’ after the ‘effort’ of being apart, the more ‘adult’ part of me stayed uppermost and I was able to talk freely and openly, rather than feeling stuck or resentful.
There were some very difficult and painful times during the Christmas break – intensely lonely times, times when I thought about death and about dying. I held those things back until I saw my therapist yesterday, and that was okay. The strong sense of connection persisted throughout the painful times and the holding back, and when I heard from her over email in response to the things I did tell her about, her responses felt somehow more ‘relational’ and less ‘practical’ than they had done in the past. They felt as though they were less about addressing immediate difficulties I might have, and more about reminding me I was kept in mind, and that our connection persisted. Perhaps her responses felt different because my emails too, were different. As with any relationship, we impact upon each other.
As tends to happen with me at any sign of progress, I started to worry about whether my therapist would think I was now sufficiently ‘recovered’ and therapy would be foreshortened. She reassured me there was still work to be done! Very early on in my therapy I asked her how you know when the process of therapy is coming to an end, and she said ‘when you no longer notice the breaks‘. Thinking of it in those terms, I can see that I still have a way to go – and in truth, I cannot even conceive of not noticing the breaks, it does not seem possible. I got through this break much more positively than on any previous occasion, but I noticed it very much. I missed my therapist hugely, and she was always in my thoughts. More importantly, I didn’t doubt that I was in hers, and that knowledge sustained me.
Sometimes progress shows itself in really really small ways.
Living by your values can mean making significant decisions such as standing up for human rights, or acting in accordance with religious principles, or putting honesty before career or progression. But it can also mean buying a kettle just because you like it and because you value beauty over utility. It can mean valuing yourself enough to give weight to your own preferences and opinions.
Today my husband and I were looking at kettles on Amazon. I liked the aesthetically pleasing ones and he liked the practical ones. He pointed out the downsides of the ones I liked. Normally, I would have given in and gone with his ‘better judgment’, and then regretted it later. Today I just said that that was the type of kettle I’d always wanted, and I asked him to look into the different models with similar features, and order one that he thought had the best reviews and was not too expensive. So the pretty but impractical kettle will be arriving tomorrow.
This small thing is a big deal. I’m the person who, in the canteen at work in my early twenties, paid for a chocolate bar that I’d brought from home, because I was so conflict-averse I couldn’t bring myself to challenge the person who was charging me. I’m the person who gave in to having a more ‘practical’ engagement ring than the one I’d dreamed of all my life (there was little difference in cost, but my husband thought that the one I wanted would damage more easily). I agreed to a fruit cake at my wedding because it was ‘traditional’ even though I hate fruit cake and I didn’t eat any of it. Two years running I’ve got an air brush tattoo on holiday and both times I came away with a different colour to the one I wanted, just because the tattoo artist kindly made some suggestions about what might look good, and I went with her judgment over my instinct.
I know what I want – but all my life I’ve been used to being told that what I want is not right, or not sensible, or immature, or silly, or fanciful, or unwise, or impractical, or not traditional, or not well regarded. I’m so used to being told that I am easily led and follow others, by people who don’t see the contradiction in the fact that they just want me to follow what they want. And so I side-line what I want – I doubt it. Is it really what I want? Should it be what I want? Is it the right thing, the best thing, does it make sense? How do I really know what I want, anyway? Perhaps they are right, and I am wrong. In any case, I don’t feel strong enough, or self-assured enough, to stand up for my point of view. That is the route to conflict and invalidation, or at best to a lengthy debate in which I feel I have to justify everything I say, and to ‘make the case’ for my opinion. That’s how it’s always been – until very recently.
But I’m starting to see that there is a third option between ignoring my viewpoint, and getting involved in a lengthy argument. There is the option to not buy into a worldview which requires this kind of justification in the first place. A couple of weeks ago my husband and I were having a different debate, in which he wanted me to state which I though was more important, the intention behind a statement, or how it was interpreted. He couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t make a choice and he didn’t want to settle for my answer that I thought both were important. So in the end I simply told him that I refused to buy into his way of thinking that required categorising things in that way; that is not my way of thinking, and that’s okay.
So today I stood up for myself without engaging in debate. I refused to buy into the worldview that everything must be justified and that efficiency and practicality are more important than how the look of something makes me feel. I refused to buy into that worldview, and so I bought a kettle. And by God I’m going to enjoy watching it boil, and knowing that it’s a symbol of progress, and of valuing myself enough to live according to my values.
Simple pleasures; small step; big deal.
[I should add that none of this is about refusing to compromise, or wanting to ‘get my own way’ without any consideration of what someone else wants. In this particular instance, other than generally always favouring practicality, my husband had no strong feelings about, or interest in, the type of kettle we have. If this had been a matter about which he felt strongly, we would, I hope, have had a different sort of conversation about it. This is about acknowledging and valuing difference, and valuing ourselves enough to think our opinions can have validity, even in the face of disagreement. It is about not getting drawn into a debate carried out entirely on someone else’s terms and according to their own rules of engagement – if you disagree with those terms and those rules. It is about speaking up if there is something that is important to you – even if you are afraid of how it will be received, or whether it will be thought worthwhile; and even if you can’t exactly explain why it is important, but you just know that it is. ]
The question was: “…. just read this ‘old post’… and was wondering how you would feel if you read it today. Did things change for you concerning the ‘therapy bubble’?….”
So I went back and read the post, and it seemed to fit so well with some of the things I’m thinking about at the moment in relation to therapy, that by way of answering the question I thought it would be appropriate to share it as a ‘Memory Monday’ post.
How do I feel, reading the original post now? I think I feel that I can still relate very closely to everything described in it – while at the same time recognising that some things have changed. I still find it very difficult to leave my ‘therapy bubble’ – particularly when, as has been happening recently, sessions have involved talking about painful and distressing material and have left me feeling regressed and child-like. At those times I hate leaving, and I hate the thought of coping by myself with those emotions. The need for comfort, for my therapist, is intense. As well as a desire not to leave the therapy bubble, it’s also a fear of staying in the place that therapy has taken me, but without her presence to contain me.
I think I do still feel guilt over the time and mental energy that therapy takes – or rather over the time it ‘takes away’ from my family life. My thoughts are so often absorbed by it – either directly, or because I’m ‘processing’ something – when I should be more present with my children. However, I now often remind myself of an incredibly valuable comment that someone made to me a few months ago. I mentioned that sometimes I feel guilty because if I wasn’t spending money on therapy I could take my children to Disneyland. She said that she only wished her own parents had spent money on therapy, rather than Disneyland. And that made so much sense (and I shared the same wish – not that I went to Disneyland as a child!), that it helps me to feel a little less guilty and to more fully appreciate that in trying to change myself, I am also making things better for mine and my children’s current and future relationship. And that change will, hopefully, trickle down through the generations, into the ways that they parent their own children.
As for emotional development and the weight of being an adult – I think that my recent ability to identify ‘parts’ of myself and to relate to them almost as separate entities, and to observe their thoughts and feelings, has helped me to not get completely taken over by them, and to stay in a ‘more adult’ frame of mind more often than I used to be able to. It’s a very great struggle, and my mind and heart are still often battlefields in which wars of words and emotions take place – but it’s a question of ‘who’ is uppermost and in control, even if the ship is very difficult to steer, or even if it’s only just possible to keep my ‘adult head’ above water.
Separation is still incredibly difficult – but I think I am better able to cope and I fight hard to try and retain a sense of my therapist’s constancy and my connectedness to her. It is often a fight – against myself, as described in a recent post – and it is far from automatic. But I am managing it more often, and as well as this being a function of the therapeutic relationship and the closeness and trust I am discovering over time; I think it is also at least partly due to the fact that I am on a more even keel because other areas in my life are slowly improving. My husband may still feel that there is little improvement in our marriage – but at least now he says that I am a much better flatmate! For me, this is a key first step – and it also means that there are fewer huge rows and triggers for my suicidal ideation.
At the end of the original post I wrote: “Perhaps when the separation becomes a bit more bearable, I’ll know that there is a bit less growing up to do“. I think there now is a bit less growing up to do – though the thought of it, and of the eventual ending of therapy, is as terrifying as ever. In that sense, I am still clinging, desperately, to my ‘bubble’ and the thought that it will burst eventually, is still heartbreaking. But for now, I am making the most of being metaphorically ‘held’ inside that bubble during session itself, and trying to remember that I am ‘held in mind’ when I am outside it.
If my reader is still reading in a year’s time, perhaps they will be kind enough to ask me the same question again? I wonder what my response will be….. 🙂
Although I wrote from my own experience of BPD, I think it speaks of something universal that resonates with all of us, those with a different mental health condition, and those with none. We all want to be understood. We all want to be loved. As my therapist said recently, “we all want to be special”. “Special” – am I alone in hating that word?
In many ways, things have changed a great deal since I wrote that post. Though I was thinking of leaving my therapist at that time, I have now been in therapy with her for more than two and a half years. We definitely understand each other much better – but we also still misunderstand each other with regularity. A major point of progress is that that misunderstanding causes me far less pain than it used to, and I don’t interpret it in the same way. Not being fully understood by her is far less devastating and disappointing, and I don’t take it as a lack of caring or effort on her part. I know that she cares and that she tries very hard to understand me – and that I do not make it at all easy. But now I recognise that. And I also recognise the fact that my frequent silences in session are okay, but at the same time they do not help her to understand me, particularly when I don’t tell her what’s on my mind, or what those silences mean. I think I now find it easier to have more realistic expectations and to accept that we are all human – including her – and that no one can understand another person perfectly, all of the time. The fact that she wants to understand, and tries, and is committed to continuing to do that, is what’s important, and that helps me to be far more accepting of the fact that she cannot read my mind, much as I would like her to be able to!
But I’d be lying if I said that the difficulties I spoke about in that post, have completely gone away. And though I recently experienced a significant period of growth in therapy, where a great deal seemed to change all at once, we are somehow back again in the very familiar territory of my resistance, my instinct to withdraw and defend, and my pain at not feeling understood. Though now, I think I can more accurately identify that as pain at not being seen or heard; at continuing to bear feelings not validated. I think this is subtly different to not feeling understood, but more fundamental. I think it’s possible to be ‘seen’ or ‘heard’, without necessarily being fully understood. I think you can accept, and validate, without fully understanding someone. And not being understood fully, hurts much less when you feel validated and accepted.
It turns out I have a pretty constant craving to be validated, too, and that craving causes merry hell when it’s not satisfied. Which is not surprising, as it was never really satisfied in the past. It’s a craving that makes me ashamed, because it feels so self-absorbed and self-centred. It’s a craving that means that when I’m talking about difficulties with my children, or my husband, or my mother, I need to deal with my own feelings about the situation first, before I can think about how they might be feeling. It’s not that I don’t care about how they feel, or that I don’t think it would be useful to understand their perspectives; it’s more that it was always about someone else’s perspective, and never about my own, and I can’t bear to be the subject of that repetition.
Last week I had a dream in which I rang my local doctor’s surgery but there were no appointments at all. I then rang a surgery slightly further away, and managed to get an appointment. However, when I turned up, expecting to be taken in for my appointment straight away, I was surprised to find out that I was expected to join an absolutely enormous queue of people lining up outside. I felt like giving up – it would clearly take a very long time to get to the front of the queue, and to be seen by a doctor.
Just like in the dream, I feel I’m waiting; waiting to be seen. And the longer I wait, the stronger becomes the craving for validation, and the greater the urge to defend against the possibility of being hurt. It feels confusing to be back here, but I’m better at waiting than I used to be. And after two and a half years, I’m committed to my therapeutic relationship, and I’m not giving up. In that respect, the difference between where I was when I wrote that post, and where I am now, is immeasurably greater than the length of the queue in my dream. And I hope that that is an encouragement that things change, and perspectives shift, even though journeys often go back on themselves, during the course of moving forwards.