Life in a Bind – BPD and me

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


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Acceptance (changes)

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

 

 


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Resistance in therapy – facing the dark parts of the shadow

[The 5-minute Youtube clip is from the film ‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’, and I would recommend watching  it before reading the post, if possible, as so much of the content of the post relates to the imagery of the clip. You don’t need to have watched the film, but the following synopsis of the clip might be helpful. The scene takes place towards the very end of the film; Arthur is fighting his uncle Vortigern, who through sacrificing loved ones to magical creatures, gains the ability to temporarily become a demon-warrior. In the past, Vortigern killed Arthur’s father and mother in order to become King, but Arthur, as a child, escaped, and was raised in a brothel and on the streets. The clip of the battle contains a flash-back while Arthur is lying on the ground, knocked down by Vortigern. In the flash-back, Arthur is standing watching the scene of his father’s murder, and himself as a small child.]

This is my Resistance, my inner saboteur.

Underneath, just a person, a part of me, but when it rises up against me, a more than merely human force, armoured up through years of moments of sacrificing the best parts of me in the name of self-preservation.

This is my Resistance. It rises up as backlash after progress and insight. It rises in my moments of victory and says: “You have won – now play with me”. But toying with Resistance is playing with fire. It is a dangerous game because it is not really a game at all; Resistance is the reaper of destruction.

For a long time, I was afraid of my Resistance. When it rose up against me, I ran. When it got too close, I looked away. I let it claim me as its own belonging.

To my Resistance I say, “I am here now, because of you”. Because your fortress is not my fortress, because your tower needs tearing down. You violated me, and you cut me, and over a lifetime, you co-created me. But you don’t own me – my Self is mine to take hold of. I don’t need to run anymore, and I don’t need to look away. I can make a choice to stay and fight, and to stop a repetition of the past. I am no longer small. I became big, because you, Resistance, gave me something big to think about, and I have learned how to douse your flames.

***

This was the second time in my therapy when I connected immediately to an image on screen that felt as though it represented a part of me. The first was when I saw the video for Sia’s song ‘Chandelier’ – it was if I was seeing my inner child dancing around, in pain, in front of me. Both times, externalising something that had previously felt hard to grasp and relate to, was a powerful, change-motivating experience, that enabled something different to happen. As I wrote in a post called ‘Inner child and past child’, watching ‘Chandelier’ (repeatedly) enabled me, for the first time, to feel love and feel compassion for my inner child. Previously I had wanted only to blame and hurt her, for ‘failing’ as I saw it, to prevent me from feeling pain, both in the past and in the present.

Watching this battle between Arthur and Vortigern, the enormous exhaustion that had surrounded me for the last few days, and the feeling of resentment with regard to a recent therapy session, lifted. The exhaustion stemmed from having fought my Resistance almost constantly for weeks; the resentment stemmed from a session which I felt had needlessly thrown me back into the battlefield, when all I wanted was a respite from fighting. My therapist asked if the film clip had helped me to feel that victory was possible – I replied that I believed deep down that it was, but that seeing my saboteur ‘in the flesh’ and not just feeling him in my mind, gave me the motivation I needed to keep fighting. And I absolutely had to keep fighting – I learned that a very hard way, a few weeks ago.

***

I allowed a serious act of sabotage of self and the therapeutic relationship to happen. I allowed it, I did it – it was shocking, shameful, and I couldn’t understand how it had happened. But trying to figure out how it had happened, was a fundamental part of trying to repair the relationship with my therapist, who was still committed to our work – an act of love on her part, full of grace.

Whenever I thought about what had happened, this thought struck me most – that it happened almost without thought, and very quickly. That it happened without a fight. Thinking back on it, I felt very strongly as if my Resistance turned up, and everyone fled the building. There was no fight because no part of me stayed to fight. No one could bear to look on what I ultimately had to look upon anyway – the shame of what I was thinking of doing which turned into the shame of what I did do. No one could stand and look the ‘monster’ in the eye, let alone stay long enough to do battle. And so it was as if my Resistance simply turned up and said: “I think this body and this mind, belong to me now”.

***

For the last few months my dreams and active imagination have been urging me to face the parts of me that I find unacceptable. In dreams the parts appeared as monsters of one kind or another, that chased me – hurting, raping, or killing. In one active imagination a ‘wise woman guide’ told me she couldn’t work with me or take me any further on my journey until I’d found and dealt with my inner saboteur, who I named Tempest.

In another active imagination I saw a doorway standing in the sand, with twins who looked just like me, standing on either side of the doorframe. Behind the closed door was a monstrous but still recognisably human looking creature, which also resembled me. I stood in front of the door but did not want to open it and look at what I knew was there. I tried to turn and walk away but another door – the same scenario – appeared in front of me. I asked my wise woman guide if she could turn the monster into a frog. “Why would you want to turn yourself into a frog?” she asked me. Later on in the same active imagination, I was giving birth, flanked by the same twins. I swore loudly, wanting to keep the baby inside, preventing it from being born because I knew it was a monster. The perspective shifted from first to third person, and I saw not me, but the monstrous figure from earlier, lying on the bed in labour. My wise woman guide said: “Are you sure it’s the baby that’s the monster?”

***

When the urge to self-harm rises up in me, I engage in battle with it. I face it, I feel it, I argue with it. I don’t just acknowledge to myself what I want to do, I let myself feel the full hunger of it, I let myself remember what draws me, and what it used to feel like. I accept the part of me that wants to self-harm, and I am not ashamed of it. I do not judge it. At the same time I know that when I oppose it, I need to use a strength that matches the strength with which it draws me; and I can only do that if I acknowledge its power to start with. I need to bring as much of it as I can into my awareness, so that it does not have a hidden power with which to overcome me later, by surprise. If I try and minimise it or hide from the temptation, it is as if I am also minimising myself and my power to deal with it effectively. If I try and suppress it altogether, long experience in therapy has taught me that its self-destructive power becomes manifest in other ways, and I become the destruction that I was seeking to suppress.

***

In my therapy session just before the Christmas break, my therapist and I talked about how significant these last few months have been. She asked me what I felt I’d learned, and I said that I’d found a new way of approaching things in therapy, and also outside it, that will stand me in good stead for the rest of my life.

I’ve learned to not flee the building. I’ve learned the vital importance of opening the door to the monster, facing it, bringing it into my awareness, and doing battle with it. After the flashback in which Arthur realises that he doesn’t need to look away from Vortigern, that he doesn’t need to run anymore and that he can act to stop a repetition of the past – he doesn’t just get up to carry on fighting Vortigern, he battles with him verbally, as well as physically. Unlike the first part of the battle, he engages with him on an emotional level – he acknowledges Vortigern’s power, and its inherent link to his own.  At the climax of the battle, he recognises who he is and how he is made, and ultimately, that is how he overcomes his adversary.

I’ve learned that when I face my darkness – which involves accepting it rather than feeling ashamed of it – I don’t just resist temptation, or feel better, I gain insight. When I hang around for long enough, I realise things that were hidden before; motivations that lay under wraps, desires that went denied or unacknowledged. Some of those motivations and desires are described in the post that I wrote after my recent act of self-and-therapy sabotage. Ultimately, radical acceptance of reality as it is, is what’s left when my Resistance fades away, like Vortigern’s power disappearing in a writhing black mist.

***

The film clip ends before the final two lines of the scene – but I think they’re worth paying attention to. Arthur said to Vortigern: “You created me” – but his words didn’t end there. He went on to say: “And for that, I bless you. You make sense of the devil”.

Psychologically speaking, making sense of the pain and destruction that we encounter during the course of our lives, is I think only possible if we locate and come to terms with the dark parts of ourselves. It’s what makes acceptance possible, and forgiveness possible. It’s what allows gratitude to be felt and flow out of us, and what allows us to bless and receive blessing. I’ve talked a great deal about fighting, because that is what it so often feels like, day to day – but perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I’ve learned a way of making sense of things, and I hope that that will be an ongoing blessing. I hope that it will be an encouragement to remember that we are indeed, “fearfully and wonderfully made”.

 

[I know that I have mentioned the ‘shadow’ in the title of this post, but not in its body, which is poor technique for one thing (!) – but I also wanted to clarify its meaning, for those not familiar with the term. Carl Jung used the term ‘Shadow’ to refer to the unconscious parts of the personality – they needn’t be ‘dark’ parts of the personality, but they are difficult in the sense that they are parts that there is  an unwillingness to acknowledge.]

[The final quote is from Psalm 139, verse 14, and I include it because it came to mind as I was writing. I appreciate it is taken completely out of context and in a way that could cause offence, for which I apologise, and I hasten to add that I am making no direct connection between those words and the characters or occurrences in the film clip. But I am making a connection between how it feels for me to individuate and grasp hold of who I am, as a whole person, and the sense that there is something awesome, mysterious, and wonderful both about that process, and its result.] 

[King Arthur: Legend of the Sword did not do particularly well at the box office, and though this may not have been the film’s main intention (!), I personally think it works well as a portrayal of one person’s journey working through their trauma, and growing into their true self. Metaphorically, there is a therapist in the form of a mage, and at one point Arthur has to enter the ‘Badlands’ where he wrestles with various creatures, before he recovers some of his memories about what happened to his father.]


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The clothes you wear to therapy

I enjoyed revisiting this subject for my latest article for the therapy website welldoing.org , which can be found here!

https://welldoing.org/article/what-you-wear-therapy-communication-disguise-defence

I have continued to pay attention (both prospectively and retrospectively) to what I wear in therapy, and I still firmly believe in the revealing nature (excuse the pun!) of ‘ordinary’ details such as this, and the therapeutic benefit of discussing them. These days what I wear tends to be more consciously focused on communicating closeness (through choice of colours I associate with therapy, for example), or on self comforting (for example, by wearing an item of clothing that also acts as a transition object or a ‘stand in’ for therapy and my therapist). It is therefore much more about working with and for my therapy, than a defence against the process; and that is a reflection of where I am in my therapeutic journey, and how my relationship with my therapist has evolved over time. But it wasn’t always this way, as I’ve described in the article, and the way things have changed for me and the clothes I wear to therapy, tells a story in itself…..I hope you enjoy reading!

 


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The importance – and danger – of resistance in therapy

[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.” *

 

* quote by Steven Pressfield

 

 

 


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When I realised how much therapy has helped me change – Part 3

[Please click on the hyperlinks for Part 2 and Part 1 of this post – the parts follow on from each other.]

Thursday

By the time I arrived at my therapy session, I felt absolutely determined to stay open and vulnerable to whatever it was my therapist had to say. I needed her to explain what she had meant when she said that part of me wanted a replacement mother and that I wasn’t seeing her as herself. The immense fear that her words would undermine the way that I had come to see our relationship, as ‘therapy-mother’ and ‘therapy-daughter’, and therefore undermine what I felt was the basis of the changes that had taken place over the last couple of years, as well as the foundation of ongoing work, was still present. But there was also a determination to accept her words, whatever they meant, and to continue to work with her. I felt a deep trust, and a conviction that she was still just as committed to me, and cared just as much. I was also, of course, hoping that my fear was without foundation.

She smiled, and thanked me for holding on and coming back, despite how I had been feeling. I wish I could remember more of the details of the session, so that I could describe how it all unfolded. But it became evident quite quickly that she had no intention of ‘doing away with therapy-mother’. She was still ‘therapy-mother’; and I should add that she had always been clear, and I had always understood – however painful it felt to try and accept – that this was a different sort of relationship to a biological mother-daughter relationship, and was not a replacement for what was missing either in the past or in the present. Even as she was talking, I was still waiting for the ‘bad news’ which I had been fearing, and had to ask for reassurance on that point in fairly direct terms. I had to feel sure that she had not somehow changed her mind or felt uncomfortable about the role I saw her in – that I thought she saw herself in. I had to feel sure that I could continue to think of her as ‘therapy-mother’ without wondering whether I was deceiving myself. She did reassure me, but that still left the question – what did she mean by her words on the Tuesday, and in particular, what did she mean when she said that I wasn’t seeing her as herself?

***

It turns out that though I had been terrified that what she wanted was to put a little more distance between us, what she actually wanted was for me to allow her to come closer. When she spoke about me not seeing her as she was, she was referring to the fact that I seemed to have a very active ‘relationship’ with her in my head, but often kept her at arms’ length during session. I imagined how sessions would go and had conversations with her in my mind; I sent her long emails describing my dreams or daydreams; I often talked about feeling connected over the weekends. But then in session things would go differently to how I had imagined and that would get in the way of relating to her; when I referenced my dreams I simply presented them rather than engaging with her in trying to understand them; and I often sat in silence, not knowing what to say, unable to simply say what came to mind (or freezing with fear of not having anything to say).

I was relating to a version of her that lived in my head – but what she really wanted was for me to relate to the therapy-mother who sat in front of me three times a week. She wanted me to try and overcome the resistance to therapy that was sometimes present in me, and to try not to shut her out – something I am sure that I subconsciously find a million and one creative ways of doing. She wanted to try and keep more of our work actually in the room, rather than outside it. I asked her if it was a problem that I emailed her with updates or dreams. She said it wasn’t the fact that I emailed the material that was the problem, but what I then did with it (or, by implication, didn’t do with it), when I brought it to her in person.

Her words to me on the Tuesday were a natural consequence of how she had experienced me during the previous week in therapy, and over the last weekend (described in Part 1). After I passive-aggressively resisted working with her on some dreams on the Friday, she admitted that she had then felt unconnected over the weekend; whereas I, for various reasons which she couldn’t have known about, felt extremely close to her. When I addressed her in an email over the weekend in terms that made it clear how connected I felt, it was completely discordant with how she had experienced our last interaction.

As well as being very reassuring (she wasn’t trying to push me away), her words struck me deeply and made a huge impression. Hearing that she sometimes felt kept at arms’ length, and that I sometimes didn’t really engage with her in person, was upsetting because it was the opposite of what I really wanted. It was the opposite of what the more adult, non-resistant parts of me wanted, even if other aspects of myself tried to sabotage therapeutic relationship and change. She gives me her full attention, which is part of herself, for three hours every week; she holds a safe space for me, she accepts me, she cares about me, and she wants to help me help myself to change. She wants to really work with me, to grapple, to engage, to ‘get to grips with’ – I feel ashamed now, thinking that I accused her of sometimes not doing those things, the very next week (more of that to come!). Given all of that, it seemed inconceivable that I should spend more time relating to her in my head, than deeply relating to her in person. For someone who has a dread of loss and running out of time, it was clear to me that I was nevertheless missing out on an enormous amount.

***

After my session, I sent the following email to my therapist (only extracts are given here):

“After today’s session I was amazed (and still am) at how differently this has gone, to how things would have been a couple of years ago. It’s hard to convey how strange but wonderful it feels to know that despite the initial reaction and feelings on Tuesday and Wednesday morning, I felt connected still throughout it all, I was aware of a very deep-seated sense of trust, and felt sure that you were still the same, you hadn’t changed, and you were fundamentally good and well intentioned, and I trusted in that….connection and belief in your ‘goodness’ was strong enough to over-ride those immense issues of survival and the huge fear of extinction/destruction.”

And with regard to my therapist telling me that she had felt unconnected over the preceding weekend (something that would have caused me a great deal of alarm and pain in the past, as I would have felt rejected and would have feared abandonment):

“I think it’s the first time you’ve said you hadn’t felt connected, and again I’m glad you told me – it’s helpful to know that you can sometimes feel that way too (and I think it’s good I don’t find that frightening – because I trust in what you’ve told me so many times, that the connection is there, even when I don’t feel it, so I trust you apply those words to yourself, too)”.

Post-Thursday

Since then,  I have felt determined to try and stay open and vulnerable and not keep my therapist at a distance – though the subconscious is an incredibly powerful thing, as I discovered (anew) in the following week. I have also felt determined to try and keep more of the work in the room (rather than in my head or over email), and to really engage with what I’m bringing, even if it’s only to express the fact that I really want to engage but don’t know where to start – often that’s the first step to getting into a conversation that might otherwise have not happened, or might have been preceded by a lengthy and unhelpful silence. In fact, though it’s difficult to define, I have noticed that this feeling of ‘determination’ (and that does seem to be the best descriptor) is a key factor that enables me to stay in a more vulnerable and engaged place in therapy. I don’t feel as though I am entirely in control of it, and sometimes I think of it as a key characteristic of the more ‘adult’ part of me. But I remember its presence strongly from pivotal moments in therapy last year, and I have felt it repeatedly over the last few weeks. In the context of therapy, it is a word that is linked to many other things in my mind – to commitment, acceptance, courage, vulnerability, and love – but determination seems to be what allows the other things to come to the fore. Or perhaps it destroys the resistance, which tries to hold the other things down.

Ironically, given that one of the triggers for these events centred around my handling of dreams, I had a revealing dream the night before I saw my therapist on the Thursday. I dreamed that I was hiding in the toilets of a large building, from a marauding T-Rex who was about to destroy the crowds of people in a large hall. My immediate association to the T-Rex was that it was my therapist, about to annihilate the foundation of our therapy, and my internal world. But perhaps it would be more accurate to see it as a part of me, as my resistance, preying on myself. Certainly, in the light of what happened next, the picture couldn’t have been more appropriate – my subconscious resistance is no docile, slow-moving, herbivore, but a swift, powerful, and destructive predator.


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A tale of three houses: therapy, progress, and internal conflict

Image by Keith Evans, via Wikimedia Commons

“You came to me like that house – unfinished, a work in progress….”

This half-house is an unfinished house – a beautiful place I visited and told my therapist about. It captured my imagination because it was haunting and mysterious; but it was also full of potential. My therapist picked up on this idea of potential and used it as a wonderful metaphor to describe me; and I think it works also as a metaphor for our therapy*. Her metaphor made me feel safe – adopted, and parented.

But at the same time, when out of her presence, part of me was scared. If something is ‘in progress’ it is changing. If therapy is ‘progressing’ it is ever closer to its end. Progress and loss are tightly bound together for me; change and loss are intertwined. Last weekend my first thought on waking was that things were better than they had been during the previous disastrous and self-destructive weekend. But my very next thought was that progress felt like bleeding out – slowly losing something vital.

A half-house stands on a hill: but is it an unfinished house, or a ruin? Which are you, and which do you want to be? The problem with trying to preserve that conundrum…….is that the unfinished house – with so much potential – is transmogrifying moment by moment into a ruin, the longer it is left unattended to.

There is a tension between becoming and decaying, and it’s easy, but also dangerous, to feel torn between the two.

***

Rummu @ night

Image taken from a photo by Janno Kusman, via Wikimedia Commons

“Where are you now? Another dream; the monster’s running wild inside of me… so lost, I’m faded….” – ‘Faded’ by Alan Walker

When I first saw this image in Alan Walker’s wonderful video for his song ‘Faded’, it reminded me immediately of the ‘half-house on a hill’. Only this building is a ruin, not a work in progress. It is also haunting, but in a very different way. The building is part of the Rummu quarry in Estonia, which was excavated as hard labour by inmates in the two nearby prisons. It has been turned into a breathtakingly unique beach and dive site**, though its waters can be lethal as the lake bed contains remnants of concrete, metal bars and barbed wire.

The song (and the video) took me over for a weekend. My watching and listening both fuelled and were fuelled by, a semi-subconscious attempt at subverting recent progress in my therapy. The lyrics spoke of feeling lost – and I put up no fight to a sense of disconnection from my therapist. No fight to the lack of object constancy represented by the lines “Where are you now? Was it all in my fantasy? Where are you now? Were you only imaginary?”. Part of me wanted that sense of disconnection and separation – it showed that I still needed her, and it also held the promise of reconciliation. A sense of comfort and drawing close after a fight. I hadn’t realised until after that weekend, how close the connection is for me, between love and pain. And how much I need that sense of conflict, to feel alive. Not just because of an addiction to the intensity of feelings; but also because for me, individuating is associated with a struggle. And if I’m not fighting then I fear ‘not being’, or simply ‘being someone else’.

This image of a ruined building illustrated one extreme of the tension I was feeling that weekend. The part of me that was in control was the self-destructive part that almost wanted to feel orphaned and lost; at home among the abandoned buildings. It was the part that saw in the figure in the video, a possible prefiguring of the direction and destination of my therapy – searching for a childhood dream, a safe and perfect home, and finding only a ruin at the end of the road. While that part was in control, another part felt as though I was being held under water. Blocked from surfacing, and blocked from expressing myself in any way, whether in words or in drawing. I’m not sure which came first – the feeling of drowning, or hearing the words in the song, “Where are you now? Atlantis, under the sea…..”. And occasionally, somewhere far deeper than just below the surface, a little voice pleaded with me to ‘fight for us’, but at that point, it was more than I could do.

This building reminded me of myself – the unfinished house – but it also reminded me of a dream. A dream that was a vivid metaphor of the other extreme of the tension I was feeling – a different vision of progress, of ‘becoming’ and of the end-point of therapy.

***

architectural-224243_1920My mother opened the door to her new house on a hill, and I walked in. I felt puzzled, because she had always hated living in isolated locations, far from other people. Yet she had bought the house specifically because it would be mine one day, and because she knew how much I loved the sense of space, openness, freedom, and a view. In many ways, this was her house, but my space.

The large hallway was empty. She started to lead me through the house, going room by room; pale white walls and wooden floors everywhere; light streaming through the tall windows. Like the hallway, the first room was empty; except for a splash of green colour on the walls, a narrow band around half-way up the wall, all the way around. As if it were wrapping up the room from the inside, with a green ribbon. The next room had a chair, the one after that a table and chair. And as we walked through, each subsequent room had a little more furniture than the last, a few more splashes of pale green, either on the walls or in the furnishings. The rooms became richer without being overly luxurious; more abundant in comfort, in warmth, in depth and personality. They were an ever greater delight, and each one was flooded with light from outside.

The last room was on an upper floor – it was a living room. Deep sofas and cushions to sleep or dream on; bookcases from floor to ceiling; up a step onto a higher level, a grand piano, right next to double glass doors with a view onto the garden. And although it was a living room, alive with everything I could have wanted a room to be, at the same time there was a sense that it wasn’t a room to be lived in. It pointed to something beyond itself.

I walked to stand by the piano and I looked out of the double doors. A terraced garden stretched out before me, sloping down the hill for as far as I could see. It was full – if that word can be used of a garden. It was lush and wild and exotic, rather than neat and ornamental. There were trees and bushes and flowers and a sheer abundance of bright green that went on forever. It felt as though life was out there, and it was beautiful, and overwhelming; exciting, and sad. I started to cry – happiness mixed with something else. My mother put her arms around me and we hugged silently; some part of me was aware of the fact that we hadn’t been close like this, for a very long time.

Some dreams live on in your mind like memories***. Some dreams need no explanation. For me, that dream was another sort of prefiguring – of a very different sort of therapy journey, and a very different kind of ending. One that points beyond itself to life, rather than clinging on to decay.

 

[*For a long time the image of a house has been a metaphor for me, of therapy. Sometimes, as here, it also acts as a metaphor for me.

**Stunning drone footage of Rummy quarry can be found here on Youtube (particularly for those with a taste for danger, there is footage of diving from the top of the ruined buildings)

***I could find no images to do this dream justice – either images similar to that last room, or to the garden beyond it. The image I have included is the best free image that I could find, but it would almost have been better not to include one at all and, like the garden, to leave it to your imagination. There is almost more wrong with it, than there is right. It it too ‘tidy’, too much of a blank canvas rather than an illustration of a life. But it has light, a piano, and a glimpse of a garden beyond…..]


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Memory Monday – “It feels like only blood”

This post is only six months old, but ahead of Self-Injury Awareness Day on 1 March, it felt appropriate to share it again. This is a poem I wrote on the subject of self-harm:

https://lifeinabind.com/2015/08/05/it-feels-like-only-blood/

In addition, the feelings described in the poem are very present at the moment, and they are one reason why it’s so hard to write about anything else right now. Over the last few days every area of my life has felt like a battleground at one point or another – therapy, my marriage, my relationship with my children. But most of all the battleground is in my head, and until that arena is better understood, a little quieter, and more in control,  I know that all my other conflicts don’t stand a chance.

I don’t want to have stand-offs with my children where no one is a winner, and no one is an adult, either. I don’t want to feel resentful every time I ‘give ground’ to my husband or ignore comments I’m unhappy with, just because it’s too reminiscent of not having some of my own needs met by my parents. And I don’t want to miss out on some of what therapy has to offer (including things I desperately crave, like unconditional acceptance), just because it always feels as though I ‘want more’ – words, emails, caring, attention – and because I find it so hard both to accept the boundaries and the things I cannot have in therapy, and also the unchanging and unfaltering nature of the things I do have.

I really want to work with my therapist, not against her. I don’t want to fight her – even if a part of me does, and tries to, often, and very successfully. The same issues, the same battles, are coming up again and again but in slightly different forms. I try to take comfort from the fact that this just means that there are clearly things we need to resolve – and it is becoming both more urgent and also easier for matters to make their way to the surface. And if all this is ultimately about me changing, I also take comfort in this wonderful quote about change by therapist Alison Crosthwait (from The Good Therapists): “In order to change you need repeated exposure to your own coming apart, to the border between conscious and unconscious, and to the parts of yourself that you resist being with“.

For the nth time this day, week, month, year, it feels as though I am fighting my own resistance and trying to prevent even the tiniest of victories from unraveling, and myself from coming apart. That fight is so exhausting; and the urge to try and find some peace from it by hurting myself is so tempting, it just feels like just another thing to fight against. But ultimately I know that self-harm is my attempt to avoid sitting with the parts of myself that I resist being with, and what I really need to do is not avoid, but to surrender. Surrender to the process of therapy and to the process of change, which inevitably, as described in my poem, will bring a great deal of grief, before it can bring a long-lasting  – rather than temporary – relief.