Life in a Bind – BPD and me

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


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Barriers to being seen

The Remarkable Impact of Being Seen’ is the first part of the title of one of Dr Stein’s recent posts. The remainder of the title is ‘More on Erotic Transference and Love’. I have written both about erotic transference and love for my therapist, but it’s not this aspect of the post that I felt compelled to write about.

When I read Dr Stein’s beautifully written (as usual) piece, I felt angry. Not at him, but at myself. I recognised the truth of what he wrote – that there can be a remarkable impact indeed in being seen, in being truly understood, listened to, and accepted. To quote from the post: “You experience less emptiness in his [the therapist’s] presence. Indeed, you might believe you have been newly minted because, for the first time in forever, someone perceives you with fresh eyes.” And then this:

When you look in his eyes you see your reflection. In a flash the disjointed world takes form. For the first time. At last.”

But I also recognised that what sounds so beautiful, so logical, so persuasive, and so inevitable, is proving so very difficult for me. I was angry at myself for ‘failing’ – or at least for not being able to manage not just the expected, but what would be healthy and healing for me. When you look in her eyes you see your reflection. In a flash the disjointed world takes form. But what if it doesn’t? And what if instead of seeing your true reflection, you continue to see as through a glass darkly?

Perhaps I am even angrier at myself because I know that sometimes, I have the ability to see clearly. But that ability does not feel mine to command; I do not know how to call it up at will. The ability to see clearly involves seeing both myself, and others, as far as possible, without distortion. It involves being open to seeing; to seeing what is there, even when it is not obvious. It involves drawing generous, more accurate conclusions about myself and others, based on memories of relationship, and on previous interactions. It involves feeling clear-headed, and on an even keel. Seeing clearly generally means seeing well, and knowing all is well – with me, with my therapist, with our relationship. Crucially, it means being open to seeing myself in a true mirror, without the distorting mirror of the past, getting in the way. It means being able to feel – and not just know – that I am delighted in. It means being able to see myself as someone else sees me, who sees me clearly – not for who they want me to be, but for who I really am. And so sometimes – in some therapy situations and with reference to certain subjects – the disjointed world takes form.

But at other times – and for the most part, over the last few weeks – I have been unable to know myself as I am known. The distorting mirror of my parents, continually gets in the way. Two related subjects have dominated my thoughts since just before Christmas – loss (particularly of the therapeutic relationship, in due course), and ‘daughterhood’ (primarily the difference between being a ‘therapy-daughter’ and a biological daughter). It feels as though my heart and mind return, with increasing frequency, to the sadness that permeates those subjects. It feels as though they return, because they do not yet feel accepted or understood. When they return, I feel bad about myself – as though if I were stronger, or more grateful, or less self-centred, I would be able to simply put the sadness to one side, and focus on the things I do have, in the here and now.

I think my therapist believes that the feelings return because I feel bad about myself. That on some level, my sadness reflects a belief that I do not deserve ongoing relationship, or a fulfilling ‘daughterhood’. I don’t know. I can’t tell whether that’s the case. When it comes to these subjects, I can’t tell very much at all, because every time I talk about them, and cry about them, I end up feeling unseen. And when I look into my therapist’s eyes I see kindness, and I see caring, and I see a desire to help, but I don’t see my reflection. And I am angry, not because there is a fault in her vision, but because there is a fault in my own.

I know that my sadness is seen, understood, and accepted. She has told me, and shown me, that that is the case. But the sadness recoils from any attempt she makes to help me understand it; it feels like rejection. It feels like not allowing the sadness to exist or be seen. The problem is that in my psyche, and because of past experience, loss and being unseen are experiences that are fundamentally bound up together. And that makes it so much more difficult for my therapist to touch my loss with her gaze.

***

I have realised that I am heavily invested – subconsciously – in not seeing myself in an undistorted way. I am realising more and more how right my therapist is when she talks about all of us inevitably internalising the environment and worldviews we grew up with, even if consciously we believe the opposite and want to be the very opposite. I asked her what I’m supposed to do if my brain simply isn’t wired to move from experiencing acceptance, to accepting myself. She talked about how it’s not simply exposure to acceptance that does the work – we need to unpick and undo those internalised interlopers that aren’t congruent with who we really are or want to be.

Realising the existence and power of those internal interlopers has been a real eye opener for me in therapy this past week. It has been one of those lightbulb moments that it’s easy to want to live for, and that it’s important to remember was enabled by the difficult, painful and frustrating weeks leading up to it. It was so key, that it really needs to be the subject of another post. But what it helped me to realise was that my psyche is emotionally convinced of the message my mother worked so hard to instil in me – that she was the source of all my validation and wellbeing, that she alone cared for me like no one else ever could, and that others and their feelings were only ever temporary and fleeting, whereas she would be around for always. I hate the fact that despite the minimal degree of contact that I have with her now, and despite the fact I have emotionally cut myself off from her, she is indeed still around, internally, in a real and powerful way that I didn’t truly appreciate until a few days ago.

I’ve realised that subconsciously, at a core emotional level, I believe that I have no purchase on the concept of liking myself or defining myself in terms of certain qualities. Who am I to say that I am this way, or that way? It is others who must decide, who are qualified to say what it is that they perceive. My mother sought an emotionally exclusive relationship with me, in which she minimised the role of others in my life, and I have inadvertently internalised the belief that I can only take in validation from one significant person. I have to assume that as a child, I would have believed that to be my mother, even though my conscious memories are only of needing to resist her negative perceptions of me. Later on, as a teenager, this belief manifested as a yearning for a future partner to love me unconditionally. Now, it is from my therapy mother that I would love to hear positive words to describe who I am – words that I feel I would believe, coming from her. And yet even from her, I know I would need to hear them many times before I could believe them without doubt, and without fear that they were changeable.

At the moment, I feel as though I don’t know how to change the fact that others’ views of me don’t seem to change the way I feel and think about myself. My mother has ‘done a real job on me’ – to quote my therapist. She very effectively cut me off from being able take in the regard of others, however much I might want to. I have friends I care about deeply, whose kind and lovely words I appreciate. The words enter my ears, and my head, and at some level, my heart. But they don’t settle at a deeper level or change those long-internalised emotion-beliefs that don’t belong to me, but to my mother.

I know I need to find a way to change this, but I’m not sure how. Practice, practice, practice – my friends and therapist would say. Practice needs to be intentional – and perhaps now that I’m aware of the presence of my internalised biological mother, I can truly practice in a way that I haven’t been able to before. Perhaps I can practice in a way that will ensure that my internalised therapy mother ‘wins out’ more frequently and more easily than my internalised biological mother. Ultimately, that is what needs to happen in order for me to be able to fully take in the positive experiences available to me in therapy, and also to live a more fulfilling life after therapy.

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Post-session poem

I arrived at therapy this morning all prepared to plunge straight into where we left off at the last session. But my therapist’s daughter’s car was parked outside – and so something rather different happened.

I’m used to there being other people in the house when I have my sessions – my therapist’s husband, her daughter. But on Friday mornings they’re both usually at work, and I love how it feels knowing the house is empty, and it’s just the two of us. There’s this feeling of ‘having her to myself’, of feeling somehow that we are both more free to be who we are. There’s the sense that when I leave the house we can linger at the front door a little longer than a split second, that we can exchange casual words without being ‘overheard’. For a split second, leaving, I feel less like a patient, and more like – I guess, a daughter.

There was an immediate sense of having that taken away today. Utterly unexpectedly, all those feelings I know so well, of exclusion and of loss, came flooding into the session, taking over. It was about this morning – and I was aware that the experience was bringing in aspects of my childhood, when I ‘shared’ my mother with various others in the house. But it was also about the weekends, and about holidays and therapy breaks, and about the end of therapy and after – it was about all the times, now and in the future, when others will be there, and I won’t.

In a way, I’m glad that she got to see. Since returning to therapy after Christmas, I’ve felt secure enough to share a number of feelings I was too afraid to share before. That experience has been wonderfully connecting, up-building, and sustaining, and I love where we have got to in our relationship. And so the experience today felt like being able to share a level of grief and pain with her, that so far I have only been able to experience at home, alone. It was more contained, a bit quieter, a bit less messy, shorter-lasting, than it is at home. But it was physically and emotionally painful, and strong, and present. Most of all, it was shared. And for that, I am thankful.

I’m at a coffee shop, trying to ‘recover’ before I have to go into work. I know that by the time I’ve ‘written it out’ I will be calmer, and ready to face others and be a ‘different me’. I wrote this poem in a couple of minutes, in the middle of trying to write my ‘therapy journal’, so that I don’t forget everything that’s happened in therapy this week. It’s rough around the edges, and in the middle, and it’s missing words here and there. A bit like how I feel.

 


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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…..