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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Staying connected to my therapist – and trying to be kind to myself

I drove past the house of Jane (my ex-therapist) again last week. It was only a very short detour this time, as I happened to be in the neighbourhood. It was the first time I had driven past since writing ‘Have you googled your therapist?’ and the difference, on this occasion, was that it was the first time I didn’t feel shame or fear at doing so. I didn’t feel I was doing something wrong – and although I think I was still nervous that she might see me, the thought didn’t worry me quite so much.

This happened only a couple of days after I received an email from someone who had read my blog and was wondering whether to tell her therapist about how attached she felt to him, and of how she ‘stalked him online’ (her words). Her email resonated so much with the feelings of guilt I used to experience over such ‘stalking’, and it brought home to me how much had changed over the last few months, in how I view this subject. And that change is due entirely to the way in my therapist has responded, and the conversations we have had about it.

On every occasion on which I have mentioned trying to get close to her outside of session (whether online, or in terms of physical distance), her response has surprised and amazed me. Take a couple of weeks ago, for example, when I told her that in the middle of our summer therapy break, on the day that I knew she was going on holiday, I happened to drive very close to her house and had an enormous urge to turn off the main road and drive right past it. But I didn’t. And instead of saying ‘well done for resisting the urge and not driving past’ (which was the sort of response I was expecting), she implied that it would have been fine, and perfectly reasonable, had I done so. I was completely taken aback and wasn’t sure what to say, until ‘you’re amazing’ slipped out, because that was exactly how I felt.

She had responded in a very similar way when I told her, as few months ago, that I had spent the day with my children in the playground and by the river near her house. I walked them to within fifty metres or so of her house, and then turned back. Her response was to call me ‘creative’ – I had found a way not just of spending special time with the kids, but of bridging the gap between sessions and continuing to feel connected to her. Far from commenting on or being displeased about how close I’d come to her house, she remarked on the fact that I hadn’t closed the gap all the way and walked right past her front door. In her mind, it showed that I was learning to tolerate some distance and I was becoming more able to bridge that gap myself, while still keeping her real.

Her understanding and her tolerance might seem extraordinary (they certainly did to me), but I think it’s easy to forget that not only have our therapists worked with many clients (who no doubt have had similar feelings), they have also been clients themselves. They may well have experienced the same feelings, and acted in similar ways. And so perhaps they don’t feel threatened by our behaviour (as we imagine they may do) and perhaps they understand it better than we think. Although she didn’t tell me of her own experiences, my therapist did mention that she had once had a colleague (another therapist) who took a certain route to get to town in order to drive past her own counsellor’s house on a regular basis. It was a huge relief to hear that – and suddenly I felt as if my behaviour was not so unusual or so unacceptable after all.

Having been clients themselves, our therapists hopefully also understand the process by which dependence and attachment and a need for the therapist’s physical presence, turn, over time, into greater independence and the ability to ‘internalise’ the therapist and carry them within, even when they are not present. This, as I understand it, is where my therapy will eventually lead me; up to the point where I have internalised my therapist and the process sufficiently, that I will be equipped to manage on my own. However, she has pointed out that until this happens, therapy (and the therapist) are strongly tied to the tangible factors that surround them. And so we ‘place’ the therapist in a particular location in which they exist powerfully, with their reality diminishing the further we get from that point. We associate therapy with the room in which it happens; with the objects in that room, the colour of the walls, or the view outside the window. And if any of those things changes it can be incredibly unsettling, even if our therapist is still there, because the person and the process are so bound up in our minds with one particular set of co-ordinates in three-dimensional space. And so it’s natural, when wanting to feel close to our therapists, that we seek out the place where they feel most real.

I found that hearing it explained in this way, went a long way towards enabling my feelings of guilt and shame to melt away. And I think very similar arguments can be applied to trying to stay connected to one’s therapist via ‘virtual’ means as well. In the months after I stopped seeing Jane, I used to find that googling her and seeing her name in print was immensely important in keeping her alive in my mind, in what I had originally assumed was a gap of few months until I could return to therapy with her again.

“But” – you might respond – “there is a big difference between something being understandable and it being right. It feels wrong to violate someone’s privacy in that way – whether that happens in the ‘real world’ or online”. It’s why my discussions with my therapist on this topic have felt so much like ‘confessions’ – I felt I had ‘morally transgressed’; that I had ‘sinned against her’. But in response to this, my therapist made a very valuable observation which really struck home and provided a great deal of food for thought. She said that it was almost as though I was placing something ‘out of bounds’ – even though it wasn’t – in order to recreate an old dynamic in which I wanted desperately to reach out for something that was inaccessible or forbidden. By making something forbidden that was not in fact so, I was guaranteeing that if I did reach out for it, I would be hurt by the burden of guilt and self-reproach that I would then feel.

This made immediate sense – but why would I recreate such a situation, and why would I invent a moral imperative for myself that I then felt bound to transgress? I realised that the guilt and shame I felt was not so much about driving past my therapist’s house, or googling her; but about the overwhelming desire to be close, which itself led to those behaviours. In many ways, it is easier to deal with punishing ourselves for violating someone else’s boundary (as we see it) than to deal with the neediness, dependence and desire for connection that we may feel for our therapists. Perhaps there is even a sense in which that neediness feels self-violating – it impinges on our solitariness and the sense that we should manage life alone, without the fear of being hurt. It seems easier to try and replace that sense of self-violation (which we may feel we have no defences against, or any idea how to handle) with the more familiar sense of ‘doing the wrong thing’. It makes the problem an external one – we have defined the line that has been crossed; and there is a difficult but obvious solution – confession and the hoped for absolution.

I don’t fully understand this yet – and I’m not sure what exactly the dynamic is that I am recreating from my past. However, this is one area in which I am incredibly grateful to my therapist for helping me to see things in a way which enables me to be kinder to myself. The challenge for me now, I think, is to apply this to other areas of my life. I suspect that there are a number of ways in which I needlessly place things ‘out of bounds’ or in some sort of ‘moral category’, which just enables me to criticize or punish myself if I ‘reach for things I shouldn’t’ or act in ways I perceive as ‘wrong’. I also suspect there are a number of circumstances in which my feelings (for example, shame or anger) relate to the underlying motivations driving my actions, rather than to the actions themselves. But if there is one thing that continues to inspire me to try and be kind to myself, it is her own kindness to me, and her openness to the ways in which I express my needs and my desire to stay connected. And for that, I will always be grateful.

 

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Have you googled your therapist?

My husband was away today and I spent a lovely sunny day out with the kids, exploring fields and paths, playgrounds and pubs we weren’t familiar with; taking in the scenery and people watching. I drove nine miles from our house so that we could spend five hours doing all of this within a mile (or less) of my therapist’s house. On the way there I tried to navigate a slightly circuitous route, map on lap, that took me past Jane’s (my ex-therapist’s) house – both on the way there and on the way back.

I’m not proud of either action, though to be fair (and partly by way of an excuse), I love the part of the city near my therapist’s house – it’s one of the ‘gut-instinct’ reasons it ‘felt right’ when I had to choose a therapist when my sessions with Jane were ending. It’s the sort of area I would love to live in and so spending time there, with the added bonus of activities for the kids, would be a pleasure whether or not my therapist lived nearby. But I would be lying if I said that feeling physically closer to her wasn’t a factor.

As for driving past Jane’s house – it’s been a very long time since I last did that, and I’m somewhat surprised that I did it today. Particularly given the fact that as described in ‘Progress can be painful’, I have finally accepted that, important though she is to me, she is a part of my past, and though I certainly miss her, I don’t think I’m grieving her in the same way. But as I drove past her house and saw the same car in the driveway, I felt some reassurance and relief, and I realised that I am still worried about her health (which was one reason she decided to retire and could not take me on as a private patient). Although logically the presence of her car means absolutely nothing at all, it felt as though it was some sort of indication that she was still okay.

A few months ago, ‘Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers‘ wrote a wonderful post about searching for her therapist on Facebook. I was struck not just by how much I related to how she felt and acted, but also by her honesty and courage in writing about it so openly. It challenged me to write about my own experiences in this area, and to be honest about events I had not yet dared write about.

Judging by what I have read on other blogs, trying to find out about one’s therapist (most often online), is not unusual. Technology, search engines and social media make this so much easier than it has ever been before, and it must be an extremely rare therapist these days who has virtually no online presence at all. I suspect too, that it is extremely rare for a therapist not to realise or perhaps even to expect, that many of their clients will behave in this way. I think it’s important to remember that the online searching is not just about information: it’s about trying to become closer and feeling connected; and keeping the therapist ‘real’ in between sessions. That’s why the ‘searching’ does not just happen online – behaviour can extend to walking or driving past the therapist’s house, or waiting around places where he or she is expected to be, for example. The client may even dread what they could see or find out, or they may dread being seen; but the feeling of greater physical proximity may over-ride that dread.

Leaving my children out of the equation (because to try and put them on one side or the other would make me feel like an even worse parent than I already do) –  my therapist is the most interesting person in the world to me, and I have a very strong desire to know more about her. ‘Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers‘ called this a ‘craving’ and sometimes, that is exactly how it feels. Most of the time I can control the craving – if I want to know something and if I decide I dare to ask, I do so in session, fully expecting (though at the same time dreading) not receiving an answer. But occasionally that craving takes hold and I feel I’m in the grip of an urge too powerful to withstand. That has happened a couple of times in my current therapy, and both times I ‘confessed’ and we had a very helpful discussion about my ‘googling’ activities. My therapist took it remarkably well – if she was perturbed, she didn’t show it. If anything, she seemed completely un-phased by it – for which I am extremely grateful, as my behaviour carries with it both feelings of great shame, and great fear that she will want to leave, or at least withdraw and close herself off from me. Today was the second time I found myself on a walk near her house – when I told her about the first time, she commented not on how close I’d come, but on how I’d stayed away. I was within sight of her house – but turned and went back. In her words, I didn’t ‘close the gap’ – and perhaps tolerating that distance was more significant than trying to narrow it a little in the first place.

I am grateful for my therapist’s approach to this issue – and for the fact that I can bring these occurrences to session, and deal both with the feelings that lead to them, and the feelings of fear and shame that result. But there are some situations that can’t be resolved in that way. I wish I could say that the story of my therapy relationship with Jane ended with the ‘love letter’ I wrote to her in June last year, and with that recent realisation of the gradual passing of my grief. But it didn’t – in between those two events is a story about which I still feel great regret, and which I fervently wish I could change. That story took place on the first anniversary of our last session together, a day I knew I would find immensely difficult, but wanted to use to ‘honour’ her and the work we’d done together.

However, far from honouring either her or our work, I found myself caught inside an intense desire to find out more about her (triggered by accidentally finding out more than I had before, when I googled her to simply get that sense of her existence and reality that seeing her name ‘in print’ had so often brought me, when I was grieving her). I succeeded in finding a few additional details, but it didn’t stop there – I actually paid money to a well-known and widely-used directory enquiries website to receive a brief report compiled from ‘public information’ (e.g. company director listings and census data) which listed individuals of the same name, and current and previous addresses. To cut a long and rather distressing story short, I thought I’d discovered a couple of things which didn’t fit with the picture of Jane I had created in my mind, one of which I soon realised was an error, the other of which I still find hard to believe. I remember rocking backwards and forwards, repeating the phrase ‘I don’t understand’ to myself – it was a fairly minor fact about her professional life, but it felt as though my world had been turned upside down.

But even worse than the ripples in the picture I had formed of Jane, were the feelings of guilt and betrayal that I felt. I hated myself for letting her down; for acting in a way that I was sure she would not approve of, and that I was sure would have disappointed her; for invading her privacy in way that I found abhorrent, despite the fact that the information was essentially publicly available. I was deeply ashamed for what I saw as my betrayal, and deeply upset about the way in which I saw this as ‘sullying’ what I had previously seen as a very honest and trusting (and yes, perhaps a little perfect) relationship.  Looking back, I find it hard to ‘let myself off the hook’ and to have sympathy for how I felt. My situation was entirely of my own making – if I didn’t like what I had found, I had only myself to blame. And yet, I have a sincere sympathy for others who are going through the same thing. I know how hard it is to have that intense desire to know more, and to feel so very bad for having it and for acting upon it.

It occurs to me that this post is a logical follow-up to my recent post on how it feels to be excluded from your therapist’s life. Although separate issues, I think that the sense of exclusion and the harsh reality of the boundaries of therapy, can certainly fuel the desire to know more and the need to draw closer. If there’s one thing I hope to achieve by writing these posts, it is to try and encourage others to talk to their therapists about these feelings – however painful they may be and however much shame and embarrassment may be involved. When it comes to those feelings, I think that our fear of retribution and rejection leads us to greatly underestimate out therapists’ capacity for understanding and acceptance; and our twisted desire for uniqueness (I am uniquely ‘bad’ in my feelings or behaviour) leads us to think that we are our therapist’s ‘worst’ client, and least deserving of his or her love.

Whereas in fact what I’m coming to realise through exploring these issues in therapy, is that my therapist’s caring is neither conditional on me being able to please her by knowing more about her and what she likes; nor limited by her need to maintain boundaries and the restricted nature of our contact. This is progress painfully won, but I humbly submit that it is worth it. And I would suggest that the true value in trying to find out more about our therapists’ lives lies not so much in what we discover about them, but in what we discover about ourselves, and about our relationship with them, and theirs with us.