Life in a Bind – BPD and me

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


Why there are no easy answers

[In this post I do not mean in any way to disparage the idea or value of self-help books or of giving advice or suggestions on how to improve wellbeing and mental health. Clearly, there are numerous occasions and circumstances in which this is helpful – I benefit just as much as anyone from trying to remember things for which I am grateful, or from doing breathing exercises when I am anxious (for example). However, I think that there are circumstances, life-stories, and also mental health disorders (personality disorders being a good example), that are complex and long-standing and give rise to difficulties that can be particularly entrenched and challenging to overcome. I believe that they can be overcome, and that therapy is a huge part of how that happens. In that context, I think that ‘solutions’ that are aimed at alleviating a symptom rather than addressing its root cause, are often sticking plasters, allowing a wound to to be covered over for a while, but leaving it ripe for re-opening when a new and different challenge comes along. Sometimes it’s not just a case of trying to feel better (which is of course very important), but of trying to be different. That, fundamentally, is what I am focusing on in this post.]

A few weeks ago, ‘BPD Pieces of Me’ published a link to my post ‘Waiting to fall – BPD and obsessive attachments’ on Facebook. There were a number of comments on the post, one of which made the following statement: “But what it doesn’t say is how to stop doing this”.

The comment reminded me of one of my own worries, in my first few months of blogging. I realised I was writing a great deal about my own experiences and my own understanding of what I was going through, but I was  offering no ‘solutions’ to those in similar predicaments. Indeed, I had no solutions to offer – at that stage I was on a quest to understand, but understanding in and of itself was not necessarily bringing about a change in my feelings or behaviour. I didn’t even see how my growing self-awareness was going to bring about such change  – how ‘head knowledge’ would somehow turn itself into ‘heart knowledge’ and become firmly lodged in the core of my being so that I felt it to be true.

I used to wonder if those who read my posts felt a little cheated – in today’s culture of self-help books and internet articles giving you hints or tips on how to achieve x, y or z , it felt somehow inadequate to present my understanding of a problem but not offer up at least a couple of ways of dealing with it. (Gone are the days when people used to aim for ‘tidy’ numbers of ‘tips’, like 5 or 10 – these days if one can think of 13 or 29, that’s what goes in the title!).

But the longer I have been writing and the longer I have been in therapy, the more I am coming to believe that I am not cheating anyone of an answer, and that what I am doing may have value, in and of itself. Furthermore, I don’t think it’s possible to give ‘an answer’ to the questions or difficulties that are described in my posts; to the many painful behaviours associated with BPD, or to the many conundrums of therapy.

The reason is that the answers will be as individual as we are, and not just that; they will be as individual as we and our circumstances are now, and as we and our circumstances were in the past. They will be as individual as the song that happened to be playing on the radio when you were thinking about your last therapy session and suddenly the words seemed particularly pertinent and helped to open up a whole new angle that you hadn’t seen before. They will be as individual as that moment of pure joy when you were seven and you opened up a Christmas present of a pack of colouring pencils; so simple, but a feeling you’ve been chasing ever since. And they will be as individual as every single moment that makes up each of our lives, the power or ordinariness of which is unknown to any of us, before it happens.

I can’t give you an answer – the most that I can do is try and describe to you, as best I can, what my  own answer is – once I have found one – and part of how I arrived at it. But there will always be an element of that answer that I myself will never understand, and therefore cannot convey. It will not be possible to subject my answer to scientific or logical proof – and what I can never either describe or demonstrate to you is why my answer is persuasive to me in a way that lodges itself in my being and changes me from the inside out.

Because that, surely, is the type of answer that the questioner who commented on my post, was talking about. Frustrated (I presume) by a repeated pattern of behaving in a particular way, she wanted to know how she could put an end to that pattern, once and for all. Hints and tips are well and good, but if one tries to apply them indiscriminately with no attempt at self-discovery and working through the problem, and therefore no understanding of if or why those tips might work, any success is equivalent to putting on a garment which may fit more or less well, but which may not stand the test of time or the elements. Only a new skin will do, to hold us together, and it is a painful process growing into it, and shedding the old one.

Finding an answer implies making a discovery – acquiring a piece of knowledge that you did not possess before. And yet when it comes to ‘solving’ many of the difficulties that we struggle with, particularly when it comes to BPD, that is often not the sort of answer we need. The point is made beautifully in these two quotes:

little gidding

wittgenstein ladder









This ‘knowledge’ is not new, though we may be ‘seeing things anew’. Very often, an answer consists in viewing the place where we stand, differently. There are no shortcuts to this vista  – you cannot just put on a new pair of glasses. You have to travel somewhere, you must go through something, in order to get back to where you started and to see and feel something different, to what you saw and felt before. That is another reason why my answer cannot be your answer – only you can occupy the place where you stand, at any point in time. We can have a mutual appreciation of your journey, by standing very close together (as your therapist may do) – I don’t mean to imply a belief in solipsism, in which your experience would be utterly unknowable to anyone else (should they even exist). But the patch of grass under your feet is not the same at each interval of time as the grass under mine – it may tickle less, or more – and that can make all the difference.

Arriving where we started after such a process of exploration is not a wasted journey – it is the trip of a lifetime. So many journeys in our lives are repeated – the school run, the long drive to go on holiday, the trip to see the parents-in-law. They may achieve an aim but they may not teach us very much, and they have to be repeated. Things that happen on those journeys happen to us; they don’t happen in us. Whereas when you arrive at where you started after such a process of exploration, the ‘answer’ that you find has grown within you and has become a part of you.

In time, you will find that though you no longer remember exactly how you got back to where you started, or the details of the journey that were so persuasive, the ‘answer’ is as deeply rooted in you as ever. That’s not to say you won’t continue sometimes to have real struggles or doubts, or that there is nothing further to learn or ‘see’ about that particular subject. But you will not need to take that same trip again; you can remind yourself that you took it – and the ground on which you stand will be discernibly firm beneath your feet, even if you find yourself on a rockier patch than before.

A few weeks ago I told my therapist that I was thinking of buying a book containing stories of psychotherapy clients and their difficulties with intimacy. On occasion she herself suggests books I might find helpful, but this time she seemed hesitant to give encouragement. She said that these were other people’s stories, and there was nothing wrong in reading about them; but she wondered whether I was trying either to find someone else’s ‘answer’ to my own story, or divert myself from the painful work of thinking about my own difficulties. I think she was asking me  – rightly – to be on guard against the possibility of trying to seek certainty and an answer, even if it was a short-cut and a quick fix.

And yet – I wanted to end by coming back to my starting point with this post, and the legitimacy and value (or otherwise) of what I offer in this blog. A reader was kind enough to comment on my most recent post, that my “essays often do a great service to those who wish to find more fulfilment in their lives. They are an act of kindness.” That is a wonderful compliment, but also, I think, a helpful way of looking at what I write. I offer a kindness – take from it what you will. But only you have the answer to your dilemma, and I wish you safe travels, should  you wish to find it….


Grieving the past, in the present – and the impact of how we think about things

“A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations


There is a view of the nature of philosophy that claims that it is not about discovering philosophical knowledge or finding solutions to philosophical problems; but that it is a battle against the bewitchment of intelligence by means of language. “There is not a single philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, different therapies, as it were”. In that view, philosophy, like psychotherapy, is a ‘talking cure’ – one in which it is not knowledge but understanding that is the key to living freely, as a whole person. “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about’” – in life, one might say, as well as in thought. In this model, the task of both philosophy and therapy is to try and use different frameworks to view what is already there, and  in order to do that it’s vital to understand how the language that we use – including pictorial language – can lead us astray.

Pictures, analogies, metaphors – can be incredibly powerful. They give us a way of talking about our experiences that shows what those experiences are like. But because we are human, with language and imagination, those pictures and analogies suggest other pictures, metaphors and analogies to us. We get carried along by a train of thought and very soon, we have turned a helpful way of seeing things and of showing what we see, into a landscape of pseudo-scientific facts and causal mechanisms. We all need ways of talking about things – but the danger lies in believing that our way of talking tells us something factual about the things that we are talking about.

A concept is not an object – and yet the confusion between the two is frequent in psychoanalysis. Talking about an ‘inner’ versus an ‘outer’ world may be a handy shortcut for referring to ‘goings on of the mind’, but the very language of ‘inner versus outer’ has furnished psychotherapy with a landscape littered with internal objects, mental processes, and psychic causal mechanisms, despite the fact that when I am doing psychotherapy or philosophy I am not engaged in the same sort of activity as when I am doing science. That is not to deny that there can be scientific, physical or genetic causes to psychological difficulties – it is simply to say that applying the language and framework of science to doing and participating in psychotherapy is like applying the rules of football to a game of chess.


Picture, analogies, metaphors – can be incredibly powerful, and can influence how we think and feel, and how we behave. But I’m not just talking about the difference between being a ‘glass-half-empty’ or a ‘glass-half-full’ kind of person. I’m talking about the difference between thinking of life as a glass, as compared to a river, or a tree, or an onion. Each analogy is not just a snapshot, it is a route-map, a train of thought, and subsequently of action. If I think of life as a glass, it is something that needs to be filled; it becomes about accumulation, whether that is of possessions, people, or happiness. My cup may be full to overflowing, and I may drink to the dregs and have my fill. I will be content, in other words, if the volume has been satisfactory, and I will act to increase that volume. If life is a river I may worry less about what I do, and may be more content to be carried along with the experience; I may be drawn inexorably to the sea, to my final purpose, gathering leaves and twigs and gaining tributaries and companions along the way. If life is a tree I may focus on personal growth; if it is an onion I may focus on trying to peel back the layers either of myself or of the world around me, to discover ‘what lies beneath’.

We take the first step – thinking of life as a glass –because it appeals, because it ‘makes sense to us’. But from that first step the subsequent ones flow in a way which seems independent of us and causally determined; in a way which seems factual. And so we forget that this was, in the first instance, simply a picture that appealed to us. But by that stage, the picture is holding us captive because its language has a hold on us, and keeps repeating itself to us, over and over.


There is a picture that holds me captive – it is a picture of a ‘pit of need’ inside me. This picture, this language, is the way I describe to myself a certain set of feelings. Feelings of longing and desperation; of wanting warmth and closeness, acceptance and connection. Over the last few months, those feelings have been associated with numerous instances of what my therapist has called my ‘subconscious breaking through the cracks’. Instances of impulsive action, regretted; of doing, without thinking; of boundaries pushed or broken. Instances leading to shame and self-loathing.

The thing about a ‘pit’ is this – it cries out to be filled. The very language I use to describe my feelings seems to imply that I need to do something – I need to seek that connection, in the hope that there will be an outpouring of love that will fill that pit, and make those feelings of longing go away. The pit cries out to be filled – it aims at action and future resolution, not at thought and reflection. It gives the illusion of control – because it’s easy to envisage a pit that, with help, can be made a little less empty. And so the pit attaches itself to a person – it becomes about the person with whom a connection is sought, and who can help to fill it. It becomes almost impossible to imagine that the pit may have nothing to do with that person at all – that the need may be not for something in the future or the here and now, but for a connection and an acceptance that should have taken place in the past.


My therapist has often told me that therapy cannot make up for the past, or replace what I did not have. My therapist may ‘stand for’ the mother I may have needed, or represent her in some way – but she cannot be that mother, or simply give me the experience I was missing. And by constantly wanting therapy, and her, to be something they are not, and by constantly fighting against the boundaries of therapy, I am not making the most of what it has to offer and I am not fully able to enjoy and appreciate it. It is never enough.

I have often read that one must grieve what was lost or was missing – but I have no idea how to grieve something that wasn’t there; something that is nebulous and unremembered. Save that, as my therapist has pointed out, it is remembered by virtue of the transference that is experienced during sessions. Even so, I have only recently learned how to grieve a person rather than bury feelings of loss – and I have no idea how to apply those lessons to grieving a lack of unconditional acceptance and connection in my past.

But what I have learned about grief, is this – that you have to sit tight, and weather the storm. That you have to be open to it and be pummeled by it and let it have its way with you. Grief comes in waves and you have no control over it; you have to let it wash over you, knowing that it will do so, but that more waves will come. And eventually, the waves will hit less often, and when they do you will feel less and less as though you are drowning. Eventually, it will be the good memories that will help you keep your head above water rather than weighing you down with a sense of loss. And then one day you will be able to smile at the memories, and enjoy them, and there will be an aching, and only the distant bodily remembering of the bruising and the storm.


What if when I felt those feelings of longing and desperation, of desire for connection and acceptance – I could think of them as a type of grief, and not as a pit of need? What if I could think of them as a wave hitting me, and washing over me, rather than an empty hole inside me, needing to be filled? What if I could just sit and wait, rather than be impelled to act? What if I could recognise that the feelings were not about something that needed to happen now, but about something that never did? And therefore that though the person who shares my space (mental or physical) while I am experiencing those things may be someone wonderful and important and maybe even someone that I love – they may still be completely distinct from that sense of fierce need and hunger?

What if I can change the language that I use to talk about these feelings, so that the picture of a pit of need no longer holds me captive? If I can instead use the language of a wave of grief, will I be able to break out of this cycle of acting when I should wait, and of acting leading to shame and regret? It’s worth a try, purely on those grounds. But it’s also worth a try because of the potential end-game – if the grief analogy is followed all the way through. It’s worth a try if, eventually, that fierce longing and desperation can be replaced by an appreciation, enjoyment and a true valuing of what I do have – whether in therapy or elsewhere. The people I am connected to may not be able to pour themselves out in the way that I might think I need them to – but they can be there for me none-the-less, and perhaps they can be my equivalent of ‘good memories’ to enjoy, once the waves of grief over the past, have done their work.