Life in a Bind – BPD and me

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


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Reducing email contact with my therapist – Part 1

If all goes to plan, this will be the first weekend (with the exception of longer therapy breaks) that I won’t have had email contact with my therapist (either sending or receiving emails), in almost three years.

I have so many different feelings about this. It feels positive (as it’s a mark of progress); it feels scary (as progress makes me think of the end of therapy, and this marker feels a little like ‘the beginning of the end’). It also feels rather surreal – I can imagine doing this once, or twice, or three times…..but it’s hard to imagine life on an ongoing basis, without this contact. I think my therapist would say it was practice for life after therapy – which of course it is, and that is precisely why it feels so daunting and so much associated with loss.

I tried to focus on the achievement that this weekend will represent, rather than the loss. My therapist says that therapy is a ‘take-away’, and I know that I have to learn to successfully survive on the take-away for the few days between Friday and Tuesday, in order to be able, at some point in the future, to face the end of therapy with a measure of confidence, as well as with the inevitable grief that will come.

But it’s been the grief, rather than the achievement, that has dominated my feelings this weekend. And though I’ve tried to write a coherent post about this ‘new thing’ that I’m trying to do with email – how it’s come about, and why – I haven’t been able to either find the words, or to enter the right frame of mind.

And so this will be Part 1 of a post – and it will be more like a brief collection of thoughts and happenings from the weekend. I can’t really join things together, except in the over-arching feeling of sadness. Maybe next week, I will be able to step back enough to rationalise and describe. But at the moment I’m in ‘feeling mode’, and this is how and what I feel.

***

I recognise this place of grief. This weekend is only a foreshadowing, intensity turned up to ‘2’ on the scale. Not because it doesn’t hurt – it does – but because I anticipate there is so much further to go. ‘Giving up’ email is a foreshadowing of the end of therapy – or at least, that is how it feels. But it’s one thing to dread the grief that will come at the end, knowing it has to be gone through, to be survived – and another to think that it might start now. That it might happen bit by bit. What does that mean? How will it work? Grief happens, indefinable in length; if I start to grieve before the loss occurs, it cannot mean the grief is any less at the end. Can it? Grief changes you – will it change me, this bit-by-bit loss? What will it do? And how will I bear it, if it goes on for so long?

There are at least ten different types of grief, apparently. Anticipatory grief does not necessarily make the other types any easier.

***

This is a foreshadowing of loss, but it is also a loss in itself. I have hundreds of emails exchanged between me and my therapist. Far fewer of course, and far briefer, in general, from her to me, than the other way around. But there are still many many messages that mean the world to me. Words that I recall and treasure, not just during difficult times, but when I need a reminder of our connection. If we continue down this road, there will be very few of these to come. When I look back on our therapy, it will perhaps be both fitting and bittersweet that the time of greatest closeness and deepest work, will be the time of briefest record. I will miss her written encouragement and caring. I will miss the small disclosures and parts of herself that she shares – a poem, a piece of music, a book title. I know that she can do that still in session – and that the whole point of what we are doing with email is that it is the session that is primary, and the most powerful vehicle for support, sharing, and change. But I can’t help feeling the upcoming loss of those tangible and lasting reminders, and I know that trusting in my memory and in my experience, is something that I find very hard, but that I need to learn to do. One of the many things, I hope, that this process will teach me.

***

There is a piece of piano music that I associate with my therapist. It is a piece I learned because I liked it and wanted to play it for her; eventually I recorded it, and gave it to her on CD. This weekend I returned to it after a long absence, and have both played it and listened to it, many times. I feel as though I want to play it so often that it is both literally at my finger-tips and also available for replaying it in my mind, whenever I need to hold on and sit with my sadness. The piece is linked to from here:

https://lifeinabind.com/2015/08/25/what-i-want-to-play/

***

The loss of email is the start. Though it feels morbid to say so, my train of thought leads inevitably from the loss of email, to the loss of therapy through my ‘termination’, to the loss of my therapist through death. I cannot bear the thought of my world without her, but neither can I bear the thought of the world without her.

The first 1.5 lines of a poem came into my head as I was driving today, and they kept repeating themselves to me. I tried to carry on the poem, but I’d almost rather stop after those first 1.5 lines. I’m not sure anything I could say in the rest of the poem could adequately describe or address the fear held in that initial question.

When the world no longer holds you

What am I to do? When your eyes

No longer see the sky above

Will it still seem brilliant blue?

It will just be a reminder then

Of the depths with which you saw

My soul in all its brokenness,

And my emotion-skin so raw;

***

I spent the first half of tonight’s yoga class with tears running down my face. They just started flowing during a fairly easy, twisting pose. A few minutes later, the teacher mentioned that we were working with the ‘kidney meridian’, and that an imbalance in the energy in this part of our body, is connected with the emotions of fear and anxiety. And so it made sense that I was crying, with a bodily awareness, rather than a thinking awareness, of why. During a forward fold she came and pressed gently on my back with her hands, and the warmth of her touch somehow helped me to release even more of that fear through a stream of tears. It was a much-needed release.

***

During the rest of my yoga class, there was only one image in my mind during the stillness of the poses. The image was of a younger ‘internal part’, crying alone on a beach. At a little distance, a crowd of other internal parts were standing around, and amongst them was my therapist, trying to get through to reach me. But she couldn’t break through – not so much because the other parts were not allowing it, but because my conscious mind was not allowing it. Usually, the images that float through my mind during yoga are like watching a daydream; they are not consciously controlled, and I observe rather than intervene. But today it felt very much as though part of my mind was not allowing an image to take shape in which my therapist came through to comfort me. She stood in the crowd of parts, trying to argue that she was internal therapy-mother, and it was her role to come to me now, to soothe me. This was how I was meant to be able to get through without ‘external’ therapy-mother. But every time the crowds parted to start to let her through, the image would shift and crumble and reset itself, so that she ended up behind the barrier of parts again.

***

If my ‘daydreams’ are conspiring against me, then so too, I think, are my dreams. After at least a couple of weeks of not being able to remember any dreams, I have remembered them for the last three nights in a row. It will give me plenty of material for next week’s sessions, but it is also tempting to break my email fast in order to send my therapist the dreams. It gives us both a chance to think about them in advance, before we discuss them. A multitude of dreams also feeds in to my fears that there will be ‘too much material’ for sessions, and that we will run out of time to deal with everything – both in the context of a single session, and more generally, in the context of therapy as a whole. Perhaps this is an example of creative thinking on the part of my inner Resistance to ceasing email contact.

***

I do not want to grow up, Mum. I do not want to grow up.

***

There are at least ten different types of grief. Please God, spare me from some.


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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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Yoga, internal parts, and therapy

In an article for the therapy website welldoing.org back in January, I wrote about the ways in which Yin yoga supports my therapy. As well as the physical and emotional benefits of a yoga practice, I mentioned that for me personally, yoga was also an opportunity to ‘catch-up’ with the ‘parts of myself’, or my internal ‘personas’. I find that though my mind doesn’t tend to wander onto the events of the day or onto my to-do-list for the coming week, it does drift off into ‘daydreams’ (or ‘yoga imaginings’ as I call them when I discuss them with my therapist). Those ‘imaginings’ tend to centre on my various internal characters, and rather than being elaborate stories, they are often only a simple set of images or interactions, often wordless.

Like dreams, I have found them fascinating to try and interpret, and also like dreams, they seem to offer insight into how I am feeling, and in particular, how I am feeling about therapy and the therapeutic relationship. I find it fascinating how my ‘imaginings’ have changed over time – but rather than changing gradually, there have been significant key differences or step-changes at particular points in time, which reflect the deepening of my therapeutic relationship and the changes that are occurring within me.

There have been three key developments in my ‘yoga imaginings’ that I have identified since I started yoga in September, the most recent of which happened only last weekend. It used to be that the only protagonists of these scenarios or images, were my internal parts, which interacted with each other. But then, on one occasion when my inner child was crying alone in the snow, next to the unfinished house described in this post (which symbolises my ‘self’ and my therapy being a ‘work in progress’), my therapist appeared in the picture, took off her blue cardigan, and put it around my inner child’s shoulders, to comfort her. Since then, the figure of my therapist has almost always been part of these imaginings, and I have taken that as a reflection of the way in which I am internalising her and am able to hold onto a connection with her – who is both my ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ therapy-mother – when we are apart.

The second change occurred within the last month, and followed on closely from the incidents described in my post ‘When I realised how much therapy has helped me change’ (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). Rather than visualising my ‘internal parts’, I found myself gazing internally at a picture of ‘adult me’ standing on a beach and looking out to sea. The air and water were calm, but in the far distance, a storm was brewing. I called out for my therapist, and she came to join me. She took my hand and we looked out at what was to come, together. I said that I was scared, and she said that she was with me. It felt significant to me, that this was the first time that ‘adult me’ had appeared in the picture, and the first time therefore that my therapist’s interaction was with that developing part of me, rather than with a younger or a more resistant aspect. Given the deep trust I have felt recently in therapy, and the strong determination to be open and vulnerable and to engage more fully, this change in my ‘yoga imaginings’ made complete sense, and acted almost like validation or verification of what was taking place both within me, and during sessions.

And then last weekend I was taken by surprise by the third change, which occurred in the form of a spontaneous ‘internal comment’. Over the last few months, four characters in particular have been dominant in my internal world and imaginings. Three of those characters feel like ‘core elements’ of myself; one has felt like an aspect that I needed to ‘win over’ and integrate in some way. That fourth character is the ‘I-don’t-care’ part of myself – the defensive, resistant part that comes to the surface to defend me and cut me off from pain and from attachment. I’ve known for a while that she is ‘problematic’ and gets in the way of me feeling my feelings and being vulnerable or authentic, but I always used to think that somehow I just needed to ‘give her a heart’ and win her over.

It was a complete surprise, therefore, when, during one of my yoga poses at the weekend, she tried to enter the picture where the other three characters were present, and they said to her “you have no place here”. It felt like a bizarre type of free-association, because it seemed as though it came out of nowhere and completely flew in the face of what I thought I was aiming to do with the more resistant parts of myself. My therapist has long spoken about keeping them at bay, but previously I was always wary of that, as it didn’t feel right to ignore them or to stave them off. However, when other aspects of myself told that part of me that she had ‘no place here’, it felt right, somehow. A little sad, maybe, but right. Again, it felt very much as though this development was a reflection of the changes I was trying to make in terms of being more engaged and vulnerable in therapy, and not keeping my therapist at arms’ length.

I’m looking forward to discovering what else my ‘yoga imaginings’ have to tell me! I don’t think this is quite what my yoga teacher has in mind when she talks us through poses during the classes, but it’s an invaluable part of my practice, and a helpful, motivating, and validating adjunct to my therapy…..


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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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When I realised how much therapy has helped me change – Part 2

[The first part of this post (without which this Part may not make as much sense!) can be found here. Though originally I thought this would be a two-part post, it has now become clear it is at least a three-part (and possibly a four-part!) post. Part 3 will follow next week….]

Tuesday

When I got home I was still reeling from the shock of my therapy session. I was intensely hurt, upset, angry, confused, afraid……I sent this email to my therapist:

“I clearly made a mistake in addressing my email as I did at the weekend. But if you think I was looking for a particular response, you’re wrong. Right now I really really don’t want to come back on Thursday. You know I will, anyway. But I’m in shock and it feels like everything is under threat and about to come tumbling down.”

It felt as though everything had been destroyed – or was on the verge of being so. It felt as though I had built a convenient fabrication around our relationship, and that she had let me do it, only now to try to jettison her ‘therapy mother’ role when it had become too uncomfortable, and when I got too close. Suddenly I didn’t really know what was real anymore. I felt as though she had lied, if not directly, then by omission. I didn’t see how we could possibly carry on working together when the picture I had built up of our relationship, and what I thought I had been experiencing – which formed the supporting structure of the therapy – had just been torn down. Or at least, that was what I was afraid had just happened. I recalled the many occasions when my therapist had herself used the terminology of ‘therapy-mother’ and ‘therapy-daughter’, and wondered how I could trust her when she was apparently trying to tell me that I was ‘seeing her all wrong’ (my words)?

And yet…….this is when I first noticed something was different – about me. Because though my feelings were very intense, and though part of me wanted never to see her again, I still went to sleep that night, as I always do, holding onto the small stone that she gave me as a transition object just before our long summer therapy break last year.

Wednesday

I woke with the same intense feelings that I had experienced the night before. I felt lost in a fog, circling the edge of a chasm that I could not see. My therapist replied to my email, to say that she could see that this was difficult for me. She also said that I did not make a mistake in addressing my email, and that “therapy is not about getting it right, but about discovering about yourself”. I was at work and could not reply – and I did not feel like replying, at that stage. I suspected that she wasn’t really aware of the enormous impact her words had had on me.

Strangely, as the day wore on, I began to feel a little better. On the one hand, this was not surprising, as I switch very quickly and effectively into ‘work mode’, compartmentalising and shutting off other parts of me, and their feelings. In addition, it’s routine for me to simply shut off very painful feelings and prevent myself from feeling them.

But I sensed that my feeling better was not simply a result of those two factors. I sensed that it wasn’t just that I had locked the intense feelings away, but that they were actually becoming less intense. The thoughts that the night before had seemed so all-consuming that they felt like a certainty, felt more like frightening possibilities (even perhaps probabilities), which were laced with doubts. The sense that my therapist had not been honest with me, that I needed to run because our relationship had been undermined, was slowly changing into the rational thought that I knew her and trusted her, and there must be some explanation for what had happened. Gradually – though with lightning speed compared to the rate at which my reactions would have changed two years ago – I was coming round to the idea that I needed to stay open and vulnerable. I needed to face whatever it was that she had meant by her words on Tuesday, and to go forward from there, with her, whatever that ‘with her’, looked like.

The night before, I had experienced two mental images, two choices that were open to me. On the one hand, my ‘internal parts’ (my inner child, teenager, and others) were ‘putting my therapist to death’ – removing her, that is, from my inner world, from my thoughts and my feelings. On the other hand, there was an image of my therapist destroying that ‘internal family’ – which is what I was afraid would happen, if I continued to ‘let her in’.

That evening, I sent my therapist the following email (only extracts are included here). I started off by replying to her statement that I was finding things ‘difficult’:

“No, it was more than difficult – it felt catastrophic. Last night it felt as though between us we may have undone almost four years’ worth of work. It felt as though everything I had built up or been allowed to think or believe was a lie, or just my own fabrication. I didn’t want to see you again, or I wanted to end therapy soon – because I didn’t trust you and therefore how could we carry on. Strangely, I didn’t cry. I think my protective side jumped in immediately to stop me feeling too much. I started to dismantle my inner world and images – it felt as though you had no place in it anymore. Something can only be internalised, if there is a corresponding external something, to internalise in the first place. Otherwise it’s just a construction and a fabrication. If what I thought I was internalising didn’t actually exist….then the internalised version had no claim on that inner space.

……I want to trust you and I don’t want confirmation that I have been deluding myself or that you have been lying by omission. But I do want you to be honest with me, at the same time.

I’m just trying to convey what it felt like last night and this morning. I wouldn’t be writing this if part of me didn’t still trust you and didn’t still, strangely, feel a bit connected, despite what felt like a threat of annihilation….”

Amazingly, I did still feel connected, and I rapidly followed up my email with this one:

“I keep thinking about all of this, I can’t switch my mind off. I think I want to work through this with you, whatever the outcome. Because you’re the same person that you were before; even if you think my perception of you or how I think of things, is not quite right. And so it feels as though I stand to lose a huge amount- stuff without which I’m not even sure how I would make sense of things/therapy anymore. But you would be there and would be the same person even if I felt as though I’d lost you. Whatever was left would still be worth a lot. I don’t know if any of that makes any sense…..”

My abiding sense, as I went to sleep that night, holding my therapist’s stone once again, was that I knew her, and she was the same person now, as she had been before. She was the person that I loved, respected, and trusted, and with whom I had shared so many difficult and joyful times in therapy, and who had been there for me and present with me, supported, upheld, and accepted me, and cared about me.  That hadn’t changed, I felt absolutely sure of it – irrespective of what had happened, or how I felt. My core inner view of her stayed constant, and I wasn’t ‘splitting* her’. In that respect, at least, it was as if I hardly recognised myself anymore.

 

[* – In splitting, an individual may see themselves, or another person, as either entirely good, or entirely bad. Fundamentally, ‘splitting’ is all about a difficulty in holding opposing feelings, thoughts or beliefs about oneself or about another person, and an inability to bring opposing attributes together, and to see them as part of a cohesive whole. Splitting is one of the nine DSM IV criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder, and the criterion is worded as follows: “A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation”.]

 


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When I realised how much therapy has helped me change – Part 1

This post, together with Part 2 (still to come), describe in detail the recent events referred to in my post Memory Monday – “Progress in therapy – being ‘all in’ “. The article mentioned below, is the one linked to from my post ‘How does therapy work?’.

Friday

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.

Sunday

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.

Tuesday

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.

 


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How does therapy work?

I wanted to share with you an article that I found, that played a role in the difficult (but ultimately step-changing) experience that I had in therapy recently, which I touched upon in my previous post. It is an article about the importance of healing past wounds, rather than ‘making up for them’. In particular, it talks about the importance of therapy enabling grieving what he did not receive as children, rather than becoming a substitution for it:

http://howtherapyworks.com/working-inner-child/?platform=hootsuite

I’m very aware this is a hugely contentious topic, both amongst therapists and amongst clients. Even amongst those whose blogs I read and love, and amongst the bloggers who follow me, there are those whose therapists believe in very direct ‘re-parenting’ and in trying to provide what was missing for their clients; and those whose therapists believe they cannot and should not try to substitute for those missing experiences, but believe in emphasizing the grieving part of the process. And amongst the clients of the latter group, there will be many who yearn for that re-parenting and find it incredibly difficult to accept their therapist’s apparent ‘with-holding’, and those who have come to accept it, understand it, and even agree with it.

I would urge you to consider avoiding this article if you believe it could be triggering at this time for you – for example, if your therapy is progressing well in a re-parenting context, and you do not wish to read something that carries any risk of being unsettling. I completely understand that perspective, and indeed I share it, in that particularly during therapy breaks, I am very careful about not reading anything that could be even remotely triggering. And I would be horrified to think that anything I share might undermine anyone’s confidence in their therapy or therapeutic relationship, even a little bit. Every therapist works differently, and every therapeutic relationship is unique.

But for clients those whose therapists do not seek to ‘re-parent’, and who find that difficult and distressing – which I think it understandable, to be expected, and something I have repeatedly encountered myself – I think this article may provide a helpful perspective. Its key messages are that therapists do not with-hold on purpose, and that emotional healing really is possible. And as part of unpacking those messages, the article makes a number of helpful observations about the dynamic between the therapist and the client’s ‘inner child’ – observations which I found tallied very closely with my experience.

I should add that I do not agree with everything in this article; and as with many things, it is a case of choosing what is helpful for you. For example, I think it focuses on grieving the past almost to the exclusion of talking about what is possible now, in terms of the relationship with one’s therapist. I wrote an extensive series of posts over the summer, talking about the ‘new experience of mother’ that I have discovered in the context of my therapy. It is by no means a substitution for what I did not receive as a child, and it is not the sort of relationship that would exist between an adult and an actual child.  But it is nevertheless an adult version of a deeply trusting and accepting relationship, that provides a different but incredibly valuable kind of ‘therapy mothering’. The article hints at that, when it talks about therapy helping individuals to develop a ‘core lovable self’. But in my view, it doesn’t say enough about it, and it also makes the statement that development of this self comes from the ‘goodbyes’ rather than the ‘hours of good time together’ – a statement I strongly disagree with, unless I have misunderstood its context and intent. The good experiences my therapist and I have had together have been just as important as the tough times we have been through, in terms of forging a close and trusting relationship, and helping me to better understand what a positive yet boundaried relationship can look like.

When I first read the article, one of the things that struck me most, was what an incredibly difficult job our therapists have, and what an immensely grey and delicate line, they have to tread. I feel incredibly grateful for my own therapist, and not just for her skill and experience, but for her humanity, sound judgment, compassion, care and humour. Despite our many cycles of rupture and repair, and the many times I have felt an undeniable need for ‘substitute parenting’, she has successfully kept my ‘inner child’ engaged in the work; giving what she could, when she could, and where she judged it would be helpful and necessary, and ‘with-holding’ when she felt it would be both possible for me to cope with, and ultimately in mine and the work’s best interest.

It is a point made beautifully by blogger ‘Tales of a Boundary Ninja‘ in her wonderful post ‘Why your therapist SEEMS cruel, but really isn’t‘. There is no better way to end this sharing of articles, by quoting her moving last paragraph:

“So the next time you are wondering how your therapist can be so cruel as to sit there and watch you be in pain and make no move to stop it, try to consider that it is an act of love which requires deep strength, compassion and discipline because so much of therapy is coming to grips with the deep grief over that which we deserved as children but did not receive. Our therapists must endure being the trigger that draws this pain out and then answer a pain not of their making with a deep compassion and understanding. I eventually learned a profound respect for BN’s ability to face and walk through that pain with me, instead of rescuing me which would have made both of us feel better immediately, because his sight was fixed on the long-term, on my healing”.