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 2

Once again I find myself in the position of not being able to write about what I thought I was going to write about. This is not turning out to be at all the way in which I thought my posts about email contact with my therapist, would go! Once again I find myself wanting to write about how I feel, rather than how this reduction in email contact with my therapist, has come about. Writing seems to be mirroring the therapeutic process – I may have an idea of how a session will go, or what I want to talk about, and then things turn out differently. When I am able to follow my instinct and the thread that presents itself, rather than worry about the unexpected and about things left uncovered, it is usually helpful…..

I did manage to go from Friday to Tuesday between sessions, without any email contact with my therapist. Despite the temptation to do so, I didn’t send any messages. But, as in the image that came to mind during my yoga class last weekend – in which my therapist was trying, but could not get through in order to comfort me- I have felt defended all week. I have been completely open about it, and I’ve said that I wished it weren’t the case. In that sense, it hasn’t created the barrier between me and my therapist that a more unconscious type of resistance can do. The image in my mind all week was of a little wall around me – a very low one, but still enough of a barrier to make itself felt, at least internally. I don’t even know if my therapist would have been able to tell it was there, if I hadn’t mentioned it. Would she have said, as she has done in the past, that I was keeping her at arms’ length? Is that how it felt to her? Or was the barrier mostly present in my mind? Was it mainly  closing me off from myself, rather than from her?

***

I came in to session on Tuesday and asked: “Did you think of me?”. You laughed, fondly (I like to think). You asked why I would assume that you hadn’t thought of me, and said that my challenge was to keep you in mind, and not to ‘kill you off’. I asked if you’d read my blog post, and you had – you said you had wondered how I was getting on. So you had thought of me, then. “So you know how I got on’” I said.

***

This has been a strange sort of week. Already, with only one out of three sessions over, I felt as though my sessions were like little islands in a vast space of ‘other’. All of a sudden, therapy, which is such a dominant part of my life, felt as though it had shrunk, to be a tiny proportion of my week. I knew that just because I wasn’t emailing my therapist, that didn’t mean I either should stop, or did stop, thinking about her. I was still going over sessions in my mind, and still thinking about what I wanted to talk about next; I was still keeping my therapist very much in mind. But somehow this thread that previously felt as though it ran through my entire week and permeated everything, had started to feel instead like three drops in a very large and dilute ocean. And I felt very alone in that ocean.

***

It didn’t even occur to me that Fridays might feel different now. Friday is my only morning session, and without having already spent a day at work, the version of me that turns up to session on a Friday is often more open and much more vulnerable, right from the start, than the ‘me’ who begins my other sessions. I usually allow myself to feel more, on a Friday. Or perhaps the feelings are just closer to the surface. And so Friday sessions tend to feel quite intense and emotional, particularly towards the end, as the most difficult material takes a while to work up to. I often used to email my therapist within an hour or two of my Friday session, while I was still caught up in the emotion triggered by it.

However, this time, the last fifteen minutes of Friday’s session were different. We had talked about a couple of dreams, in connection with some very difficult events two weeks ago. We had made some uncomfortable and upsetting links. I closed my eyes, and didn’t speak. I knew my therapist would eventually ask me what had come to mind – and she did. But I stayed silent for a while longer.

The difficulty is that sometimes I freeze, and nothing comes to mind. Or rather, nothing comes, apart from a single phrase or image or feeling, blocking the space so entirely that absolutely no other thought is possible. The freezing can be caused by fear, or distress, or anger – perhaps by any strong emotion. Sometimes it’s caused purely by the heightened discomfort of feeling as though I don’t have anything to say. My therapist says that we can wait to ‘see what comes up’ – but I feel paralysed, not knowing how to move forward – and so my mind becomes paralysed.

***

The only thought in my mind was ‘I must not feel’ and my every effort was consumed with ‘holding things in’. If I didn’t allow myself to cry freely, I could contain the emotion. And I was determined to contain it, because what else was there to do? I remember saying to you: “I feel like I did when I was a little girl. When I decided I wouldn’t allow myself to be affected by death anymore…..I want to let go, but I can’t let go, because in fifteen minutes I have to leave here and deal with this alone until next week. And so I cannot feel”.

We seem to have recreated the past again, between us. That is therapy, after all. You said that this time things can be different because I have internal resources – an internalised therapy-mother – which means that I do not have to deal with my emotions alone. I do not have to refuse to feel them anymore – it might have been safer then, but it is no longer necessary now.

I didn’t anticipate this recreation – but why not? The last few weeks have revealed how much I trust you, how determined I am to really connect and be open – and so it seems strange to see how easy it is to fall again into ways learned in childhood, despite how different the situation and our relationship, are, to the past. After all, I chose this – I said that I wanted to do something different with email. You said you thought I was ready, but it was important that I chose it, rather than feeling it was something that I had to do. So why the same old determination not to feel? Surely I knew my choice would have consequences…..

A few weeks ago you made the point that I was holding you at arms’ length and that I was relating more to the version of you inside my head, than I was to the person sitting in front of me in session. I hope I have managed to change that a little, and to engage more with you; but it seems now that it is my internal version of you, instead, that I am keeping away.

***

Unlike previous weekends over the last few months, not once, last weekend, did I think about the ‘internal parts of me’, or use images of those parts or of my therapist, to comfort myself. Any awareness of an internalised therapy-mother was absent – and the images that came to mind during my yoga class last week, illustrated that in a very obvious way. My therapist was trying to reach out to comfort me, but my conscious mind was not allowing her through. And yet my experience of the therapeutic relationship, and my internalisation of my therapist, were the very means by which I should be able to do things differently now, rather than simply repeating a childhood pattern with the same old outcome. It is in doing things differently, that I am meant to be healing.

But what was true of the previous weekend, has been true of this one as well. I have thought about my therapist a great deal, and about various aspects of our therapy. I have tried to make sense of things, wondered about what might help, thought about metaphor, and music, and words. But I haven’t turned my awareness properly inwards. I haven’t tried to lean on my internal therapy-mother. Or on anyone at all.

***

I think I’m waiting, but I’m not sure for what. You should be glad – you have so often encouraged me to ‘wait’ and see what comes up, when I have impatient to move on and frustrated at my inability to do so. I have the sense that I don’t want to rush through this recreation just yet. I wonder why?

Maybe I want my right to feel angry and frustrated. Maybe I want to fully experience the resentment of not being able to tell you everything I’ve thought about, dreamed about, and done this weekend. There is so much I want to share with you and I’m not able to put it into words.

“You know that I will be here on Tuesday”, you said. I do, and I know that then I can put these things that I have been dreaming, reading and discovering, into words. Then I can tell you what I’ve been thinking and doing this weekend. And I know that one of the main reasons for doing something different with email, was precisely that – that we should engage more fully in person rather than remotely, and that we should share these things in a more meaningful way, that contributes actively to the therapy. I know, intellectually, that that way lies relationship building, not simply information relaying. And yet…..perhaps it is simply a new-generation intolerance of anything other than instant gratification and communication. 

“But”, I think to myself, “with all of that to tell and talk about, we will get so behind!”. “But we cannot ‘get behind’ in therapy, this is all a part of the work!”  – that sometimes-irritating (yes, because it’s right) little voice-version of you inside, says…..ah, there you are, still breathing, after all, internal therapy-mother…….

***

But at the same time I want to wait. I want to let this frustrated girl inside me have her day – I don’t yet want to shut her down.

I think I’m also waiting until I’ve finished reading ‘When Marnie was there’ (a children’s book that I recently rediscovered) for the second time in a few weeks. Anna, the main character in the book, is so much like me (or I, like her), that perhaps I am expecting her transformation, by the end of the book, to have magically become my transformation, as well.

Or perhaps I’m waiting for a line from a poem, or a paragraph from a book, or a melody from a song, or a section of a dance – to be the meaning or the metaphor that turns the key and releases what I’m holding in. Perhaps I’m hoping that one of those things might come from my therapist. I’m aware that I’m looking for answers from the outside; and that that may not be the best place to be doing my looking.

***

Tonight at yoga class, when it came to the images in my head, I couldn’t even get onto the beach that is my safe space during meditation. There was a giant blocking the way. Or perhaps an enormous, overgrown child. “Who are you?” I said. But there was no reply. There was also no getting past, and so in my mind, I disappeared into Anna and Marnie’s world, instead. And there I met another internal character I hadn’t come across before. She was a mysterious (but light-hearted), dark-haired shape-shifter. She kept transforming both herself, and the objects around her. And when I asked her who she was, she replied in just the sort of tone with which Marnie sometimes affectionately teased Anna, and said: ‘I’m you, silly!’ .

I should have asked her why she didn’t just make the overgrown child disappear in the way that she herself kept vanishing. Instead I thought that she was a strange sort of comfort, though not around long enough, at any one time or in any one form, to put her arms around me, like you used to do when you entered my daydreams.  

***

For some reason, the end of the film ‘Predestination’, comes to mind. I think it is because earlier today I really wanted to send my therapist a brief email to tell her that I miss her. If Marnie (from ‘When Marnie was there’) plays a role a little like that of a therapist, so too does the Bartender in ‘Predestination’. In both cases, issues of identity and relationship with self, define the main characters. Memory, time, re-experiencing, parts of ourselves – all of these are important, in both stories. A present experience of the past becomes a powerful transformation for the future, in which the past is re-experienced differently.

The film ends with these words:

“Can we change our futures? I don’t know. The only thing I know for sure is that you are the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I miss you dreadfully”.

 

 

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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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Memory Monday – “The pain of mother’s day”

This is a day late – but I wanted to share again the post I wrote for Mother’s Day last year. Re-reading the post, where I quoted from two articles by psychologist and writer Terri Apter, her words on estranged families and difficult mothers struck me just as much now, as they did last year. I still feel as though they describe my own experience, very accurately indeed:

https://lifeinabind.com/2016/03/05/the-pain-of-mothers-day/

In the post I also talked about the fact that I was going through a particularly tough time in therapy – as is the case now as well. A few days ago I posted a poem that I wrote, trying to capture the impact that some words from my therapist (in the form of an email) had on me about ten days ago, when I felt worthless and hopeless and was struggling with suicidal ideation and with holding on to the therapy relationship. I would like to write about what led up to those feelings, but I think I need more distance from them first.

My therapist’s email provided reassurance at a time when I desperately needed it and my attempts to locate it deep within myself had been briefly successful, but then quickly faded. A couple of days before receiving that email, and a few hours after some very strong suicidal ideation, I wrote a mother’s day poem for my therapist. It poured out fairly quickly, and then I read it and re-read it multiple times. The act of writing it – of recalling how I feel about her, what she has done for me, and then putting it down on paper and reading it to myself – reconnected me to her and helped me to feel close. It gave me – at least temporarily – the reassurance I was craving, and a sense of her presence.

Since I wrote it (and gave it to her), I have repeated it to myself, internally, many times. But on Mother’s Day itself,  though I thought of my therapist many times, it was hard to bring the poem to mind. Inevitably, as happens during other occasions which are ‘family’ celebrations, the joy of having a ‘therapy-mother’ has to be held alongside the painful acceptance of not being able to enjoy the same sort of physical and emotional space in those celebrations, inhabited by her daughters.

I had a yoga class tonight, and as I sat in stillness and in silence, and in the discomfort of holding seated poses for a few minutes at a time, I tried to will my body and my mind to find a way of working together to somehow try and ‘deal’ with that painful position. To let the discomfort in my body mirror to some degree the much more intense discomfort of accepting separation, and boundaries, and difference. I wasn’t sure what ‘dealing’ with things might mean, in that context; I wanted to feel the pain, rather than dull it, but perhaps in a way that felt more tangible and therefore more manageable. Perhaps I was hoping that the way one ‘breathes into’ the aching muscles in yoga, which helps with accepting and sitting with the discomfort of the pose, would also work for heart-ache, for emotional strain.

I’m not really sure if it worked – I think that idea is still a work in progress. But as I sat there hoping that it might work, I was also aware that I needed it to work, not just for now, but for later. It’s only a matter of time for me (and usually, very little time at all), before feelings around boundaries and exclusion turn into thoughts about the eventual end of therapy. And so as I sat there hoping that by some miracle, breathing into the discomfort in my muscles might bring acceptance and peace with the way in which my ‘daughterhood’ was circumscribed; I was also desperately hoping that one day it would be part of helping me to deal with one of the biggest losses I can imagine going through. I’m hoping I still have a good – long-ish – time to practice my ‘skills’, both in yoga, and in acceptance; but it’s very hard not to have an internal awareness (and hyper-vigilance) over that ‘ticking clock’ that is counting down, and to wonder  – how many more ‘therapy-mother-days’ and ‘therapy- mother’s-days’ do I have left?


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Mourning the “didn’t have”s of childhood

A couple of weeks ago I experienced one of those significant moments in therapy when something you know in theory becomes something you understand in practice. When ‘head knowledge’ becomes ‘heart knowledge’. I’ve read about the fact that sometimes the task of therapy is to help us grieve what we didn’t receive as children, and my therapist has said much the same. I didn’t understand how it was possible; or what that would look like. Finally I think I understand what it means for me, and I wrote about it here:

https://www.welldoing.org/article/can-you-grieve-something-you-never-had

As my therapist said to me after I showed the article to her: “that is how we make progress….we get there first in theory and then in practice…..”


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Who do you call ‘mother’?

Two years ago I told my therapist I really wanted to show her the cuts from my recent self-harming. Though I wanted her to see, I never expected her to be open to seeing. I was asking for permission without expecting to be given it. She took me completely be surprise when she told me that if I wanted her to look, then she would. I could hardly believe it – I became flustered. I sat in silence, in indecision. I checked whether she really meant it, pointing out that the cuts were on my hips – a more ‘private place’ to expose, than my arms, for example. She did mean it; and I did show her. I treasure the memories of the powerful feelings of acceptance and closeness that came with that brief moment, at the end of a session.

Two weeks ago I once again asked for a permission that I didn’t expect to receive. Sheepishly, hesitantly, I asked her if any of her clients had ever accidentally called her ‘Mum’ or ‘Mummy’. If she thought the question was strange, she didn’t say so, and she answered it as it was asked, saying something about not being sure, and having to think back…..I realised I was going to have to be more honest, and more direct. I admitted that the question was not about her previous clients at all; but that I often wondered what it would be like to call her those things, myself. Part of me really wanted to; part of me was also worried what would happen and what she would think, if I did so. I admitted, embarrassed, that sometimes when I had conversations with her in my head, I would use those terms – sometimes I would even speak them out loud, to see how it felt to say the words, imagining I was saying them to her.

She smiled. I wish I could remember her actual words. But she told me that just as her biological daughters were free to choose how they addressed her, depending on what they felt comfortable with, the same applied to me, her therapy daughter.

I love it when she calls me her ‘therapy daughter’ – but even the joy of hearing her refer to me in that way, was eclipsed by the surprise at her response. I said something like: “that’s really nice, in theory, but you don’t actually mean it“. I think she looked both amused and taken aback that I would disbelieve her and tell her what she did and did not mean! I tried to backtrack – I really didn’t want to offend her. “I’m sorry, I don’t know why I should be surprised. After all, my question was essentially about asking permission, and I wanted the answer to be yes. I don’t understand why I should be so surprised, why it should be so unexpected…..”.

Once again, as happened two years ago, it was the end of the session and the moment passed all too quickly. But my mind continued to ponder the significance of the moment, while my heart and body absorbed the emotions and the sense of acceptance, warmth and safety that flooded through me.

I realised that my question, my seeking permission, was coming from a part of me that still expected there to be limits to her caring and acceptance. A part that doubted she offered something unconditional, and that expected there to be a point beyond which I was ‘too much’ for her. It came from the part that feels untouchable and off-putting – and sees that as the reason my therapist won’t hold me in session, rather than the fact that she simply does not use touch in therapy. It came from a part of me that thought: it’s all very well her being happy to call herself my ‘therapy mother’, but surely the analogy only goes so far – surely she would never actually allow me to call her ‘mother’.

However, to use the word ‘allow’ is to revert back to thinking about things in the way that my own mother trained me to, because she was very specific in how she would let me address her. And as for the ‘therapy mother/therapy daughter’ relationship, it’s not an analogy, it’s a reality. The only reality to some mother-daughter relationships is their biological reality – I’m lucky enough to have a mother-daughter relationship which is real in so many other, non-biological but significant ways.

It’s staggering to know that I have the freedom to call her what I feel comfortable with – just as her daughters do. I know that she knows I’m not going to start referring to her as ‘Mum’ from here on in  – but I don’t think that makes her ‘offer’ any the less genuine. I haven’t yet exercised the freedom she has given me – at least, not directly, though I do still ‘try out the words’ at home, particularly when I’m distressed and want to ‘call out to her’. Perhaps I never will take her up on it, though I’d like to – I’d really like to. But it’s enough to know that I can – that I’m accepted and acceptable, and not just ‘up to a point’. The therapy relationship may be boundaried and circumscribed in a particular way, but that’s because it has to be; it’s not in order to keep me out or at a distance, or because there’s a limit to how much of me my therapist can or wants to ‘put up with’.

A few days ago I showed her some fresh marks where I had succumbed to self-harm again, after a fairly long period of holding back from cutting. It was the first time I’d shown her my self-harm since that first time, two years ago. It felt comfortable and safe – there was no question in my mind about how she would react or whether she would be compassionate and accepting. I imagine that if I ever summon up the courage to call her ‘mother’, I will be a little hesitant, and it will feel a little strange. But after the conversation we had a couple of weeks ago, I’m no longer worried about her response. I dare to hope she may even smile and feel a little pleased!

In the meantime, the memory of that conversation is precious and it’s become a part of the view I have of her as ‘new mother’. But it’s also become part of the view I know she has of me; and therefore of the view I am trying to develop of myself. I still find it incredibly difficult to keep in mind the intended end-result of therapy – that I will come to think of myself differently. But moments like these are so significant because they give me an experience of being attended to and being seen in an entirely new way; and just as the ‘old ways’ of being attended to shaped a particular view of myself, so this ‘new way’ of being seen will hopefully give me, in time, a different perspective on who I am. I’m looking forward to finding out more about who this ‘therapy daughter’ really is and can become….