One of the hardest parts of my recovery from BPD is enduring the battleground in my head. The constant, ceaseless, unremitting war of words, its assault deafening my thinking space, and its fallout poisoning the air around my heart. I suspect this is true of many with a mental health condition, irrespective of their diagnosis.
It is exhausting to be fighting with myself; or, as sometimes happens, to feel like an observer of a fight between parts of myself. To be under attack and have to constantly try and defend, push back, stave off, but also rationalise, encourage, remember. To try to summon up words both to retaliate against the offensive and to build up and strengthen the defense.
Sometimes I tell myself – at least there is a battleground. At least it is a fight rather than a walkover. Because it wouldn’t be recovery without the battle. In the past, the emotions I was feeling and the words that I was hearing in my head, would have felt like the only possibility and the only reality. They would have been experienced as fact, without question. I wouldn’t have fought an attack from my own thoughts, I would have been at their mercy. Worse, I wouldn’t even have realised I was an occupied country; that I had been both ransacked and overthrown. The battleground means that resistance is alive – on both sides. Resistance to the self-sabotaging parts of myself and the negative thoughts and emotions; but also resistance to any positive external or internal influence that tries to show me that I have choices, and that all is not as it seems. The battleground means that I’m not just accepting what my inner thoughts are telling me; that I’m not just absorbing every emotion that wants to carry me away. Sometimes I feel as though I’ve exchanged the emotional exhaustion of the rollercoaster of intense and changeable feelings, for the mental exhaustion of being aware of the rollercoaster and trying to persuade myself not to get on it.
The war is fought on a number of fronts, but there are some areas where it is particularly well entrenched. My marriage is a key one, and involves trying to manage being triggered by seeing my husband as a parental figure, and trying to resist reacting to him as I would have reacted to my mother. There is also the war with helplessness, hopelessness, desperation, self-criticism and ultimately with the desire to die. I remind myself that I have been here before, that I will see beyond this. But my biggest ally in these times tends to be not words, but waiting; hanging on for dear life until I can once again see that life is dear, or at least liveable with.
And then there’s one of the biggest, most difficult warzones – encompassing any and all ground in some way or other related to therapy and my therapist. It encompasses the fight against black and white thinking (or splitting); the struggle to maintain object constancy and continue to feel connected to her; the difficulty of continuing to trust and reminding myself of everything she has done for me, even at times of uncertainty or fear. It encompasses the fight against the desire to please and the need to do things ‘the right way’; the attempts to sit with emotions rather than act impulsively or react negatively; and the struggle to remember that a boundary can be loving rather than rejecting.
I walk around in an ordinary way, doing ordinary things; but I am the walking wounded, only half alive because so much energy is being drained away, dealing with what is happening inside.
I meet every attack with a riposte; every pessimistic comment with a different reading; every negative interpretation with a reminder of a past positive event or word; every urge to self-destruct with a suggestion for an alternative course of action. Every barb must be dealt with; every challenge, challenged-back – if not, the words settle in, start to sink below the surface, and start to infect other parts of me.
Ten days into my most recent therapy break, and my defenses were still holding, in large part due to the wonderful sense of connectedness I had felt in the last few sessions before the break. I still felt connected and cared for, and was managing to maintain a greater than usual degree of self-awareness and self-control, including around my thoughts. But it was getting harder, almost by the hour. The ‘attacking’ voices were getting louder, gaining more ‘credence’ the longer I didn’t hear from my therapist by email (though for a large part of the break she was out of email contact, which I knew). The thoughts suggested to me that I wasn’t a priority, or that she didn’t care very much, or that it was okay to feel resentful and ignored and less connected. Instead, I reminded myself of all the things she had said or done that showed her caring; of the fact that there were plenty of factors contributing to how available she was over email, and that she would reply when she had the chance.
Early in the therapy break I had felt somewhat stoic – I knew what needed to be done, and I almost felt brave and confident. But this is a war of attrition, and it wears you down. Eventually, ten days into the break, my stoicism, courage, and whatever respect for self this battle represented, were almost gone. I ended up no longer fighting, but pleading, though I’m not sure with who. “Please don’t do this, please. Please don’t undermine all those wonderful feelings, and that sense of connection. Please don’t take them away from me. Please don’t ruin how well things are going this time.” I think the attacker sensed at least temporary defeat when I did indeed receive an email from my therapist, which gave me the encouragement I needed. But even then, there was the constant taunting from that voice, whoever it belonged to: “Even if you do manage to push me away now, I can make sure that you bring me into that very first post-break therapy session with you. You might remain connected during the break, but you’re weaker, and I can change how the break ends…..”
Sometimes, though, the battle eases. Sometimes there is a ceasefire. Sometimes it goes underground and then re-surfaces later in an explosion of injury-causing debris. Sometimes, as now, there is a strange sort of watching and waiting. I have this image of two copies of me standing apart, facing each other, almost as if they are trying to out-stare each other. One part wants to pull closer to my therapist and regain that pre-break connection; one part wants to push away. No one is speaking. No one is doing. But this isn’t stalemate – while inaction continues, the one who wants to push away is winning. She doesn’t have to fight a war of words this time; she knows the other part is lost. She wants to find her way back to a previous state of being, but doesn’t know how. She is lost in no-man’s land – an easy target, but while lost, not really a threat.
But who knows? This situation may yet unfold in a surprising way. Because sometimes there is peace – the lion and the lamb do lie down together. Many months ago I had a dream in which my double was trying to kill me. Armed with a bayonet we both moved around in the dark, me the hunted, she the hunter. All of a sudden we realised we were face to face, but instead of stabbing each other through and through, we dropped to the floor and fell asleep, entwined together in an embrace. Sometimes my warring parts embrace, and enjoy each other for a while. And then…….?
This video of ‘Elastic Heart’ by Sia has been on my mind a great deal recently. This time last year, her video for ‘Chandelier’ had a huge impact on me, and now ‘Elastic Heart’, the second in this trilogy of videos with a similar theme (the third being the video for ‘Big Girls Cry’), seems to visually capture a number of issues I’m struggling with. The video was controversial, and if you haven’t seen it but have suffered trauma or abuse as a child, I would urge you to read about it first (for example, here) before choosing whether to watch. Sia’s reply to criticism was that she did not wish to trigger or cause upset, but sought only to create emotional content through the interaction of two warring ‘Sia self states’, represented by the two actors/dancers, a man and a girl. The video’s director commented that the cage in which the two characters play out their dance, is a bit like a skull.
As I have been thinking about this post and about the video, the battle within my head and the dance within the cage have seemed like helpful representations of each other. But as with any artistic creation, the more we look the more we find and what we find depends on our point of view. I can see ways in which the video represents a number of different aspects of my struggles in therapy – the subject of another post, perhaps. But in the meantime, what got me thinking, was this. The analogy of the cage as a skull, doesn’t quite work for me. It is almost too literal – and it doesn’t explain how the child is able to slip in and out of the cage. The cage is a boundary – but thinking of it as a physical boundary is too restrictive. When we start to think of all the other boundaries that trouble us – including those of time and personhood – a whole new range of interpretations and analogies may start to open up…..