There is both a weighty and a light-hearted point to this post.
The weighty part is this. The way in which we are cared for in therapy, if we have a deep and trusting relationship with our therapist, changes our cells. It protects us in the sense of keeping us connected to our selves and to a richer and more complex understanding of the world. Though I haven’t thought of myself in terms of my diagnosis for a long time, this quote reminds me of Marsha Linehan’s words, that “people with BPD are like people with third degree burns over 90% of their bodies. Lacking emotional skin, they feel agony at the slightest touch or movement”. Being cared for in therapy gives us a protective, emotional skin. The world has less power to hurt us – not just because our greater sense of self and self-worth can withstand it, but because the way in which we see the world has changed. We see it through the eyes of someone who loves us and sees the ways in which we add to the world and are at home in it, rather than through the distorted lens of those who could not validate us and never really knew us.
As an aside, I find the image of my therapist’s caring being ‘in my skin’, particularly poignant. It is a way of experiencing her touch – something I have often wished for, but which, in its physical sense, is outside our therapeutic framework.
The light-hearted point is this. I discovered this quote because I finally got round to starting Harry Potter (having watched the films but never read the books). My therapist has, on a number of occasions, used examples or metaphors from Harry Potter, and she has often encouraged me (particularly for the sake of my kids!) to try the audio book versions, read by the wonderful Stephen Fry. But it was the recommendation of a different audio book, from another wise someone (you know who you are!), at the start of the Easter therapy break, that finally convinced me to try audio books, having previously had my reservations about them. I love reading – looking at words, absorbing them and savouring them in my own time, immersing myself in them – and it was difficult to imagine having the same experience listening to a book being read. I was right in one sense – it is not the same experience – but it can be a fantastic one nonetheless!
Having listened to a handful of other books, I took up my therapist’s recommendation (though for myself, rather than the children!) and started listening to the first Harry Potter. I’m moving through the books and loving them – not just the stories and words themselves, but the wonderful way in which Stephen Fry conveys them, changing voices for all the characters, and moving (seemingly) effortlessly between them.
But even this light-hearted discovery has a weighty side to it. In discovering audio books, I have discovered something that I think will be vital not just to recovery, but to ongoing well-being and looking after my mental health. The Easter therapy break ended up being incredibly fruitful for me, in terms of new realisations, internalisation of new ways of seeing,and deepening of my relationship with my therapist. It felt as though I made numerous small but very significant shifts in my understanding and perceptions. Looking back, I believe that without realising it, I gave myself a break from rumination and down-spiraling thoughts for long enough that I was able to remain on a fairly even keel emotionally. The lack of ‘distraction’ from negative emotions and perceptions, then allowed a period of growth to take place. And the key way in which I gave myself a break from rumination and down-spiraling thoughts, was by filling the time and space when I would usually be engaged in those ‘activities’, with listening to audio books instead.
I tend to think of driving and cooking as being my ‘processing periods’ – but in reality, there is little ‘processing’ and much ruminating going on during those times. By giving my mind something else to do and concentrate on, I am essentially trying to rewire my brain so that the well-worn pathways of rumination and negative thoughts have a chance to start to ‘grow over’, and new pathways can begin to be laid down instead. My therapist likened it to walkers wearing a deep scar into the face of a mountain, by treading the same ground that has already been visibly worn down. It’s much easier to stick to the (literally and metaphorically) down-trodden paths, than to carve out new ones. However, if traveled on enough, the new paths become easier and easier to tread, and the old ones lose their visibility and appeal. I’m not sure there is enough Harry Potter (even with the later books!) to take me through that rewiring process, so I will have to find a new literary immersion, later. But for now, they are a great joy, and I can thoroughly recommend them! Metaphor and stories are great allies in the work of psychotherapy, and particularly in the later books, it is clear that J.K. Rowling has a deep and nuanced understanding of the demons of the mind….