Intimacy Fears

I don’t talk about romantic relationships very often on my blog. To be fair, I don’t talk about them much in therapy either. It’s on the list of topics that feel shameful and difficult to address.

In my whole life, I’ve only been in one relationship. It was during college, and I dated a woman who was my best friend for almost a year. For awhile I thought I was bisexual, but I ended things with her when I realized that there was little physical attraction. That relationship was confusing as hell because I spent half the time hiding it from my friends and the other half feeling judged for it.

I’ve never been in a long-term relationship with a guy.

For a long time, I assumed that if someone (the “right” someone) showed interest in me, then I would be all gun ho about moving forward with them. I thought it was simple; if they liked me, I’d like them back. Things would feel natural and easy.

Until I really started aiming for a relationship, I didn’t realize how much effort this process would require. And how much it would really feel like work.

Because grad school really consumed the bulk of my time, I have used the summer months for the last three years to try to meet someone. I’d use the common dating apps to connect with guys and dive in. The first year, there were one or two people I talked to and pursued. The second, a handful with whom I dated between 1-4 times. All of those fizzled out, whether I stopped pursuing it or they did.

This year, there have been four that I’ve actually made it to a date with. One I nixed immediately. Another fizzled out after a few weeks. A third I went on six dates with. Another, perhaps the most promising, I just came back from my fourth date with.

I always start out excited. Motivated. Ready to go. I tell myself this time around things could really happen. I would say I’m actually pretty good at the first dates now, where the pressure is low. We’re still learning about each other, maybe we’ve exchanged some texts, but there’s no expectation for things to get intimate yet, emotionally or physically. So that’s all fine and dandy.

Starting with the second date, nerves kick in. I’ll start to wonder: are they going to kiss me (if they haven’t already)? Will there be pressure to do more? Do I want any of that yet or am I just going to let myself be pressured? So many questions.

If we make it beyond date number two, and there’s any sort of notion I have in my head that maybe I could like them or even enter a relationship with them, you better know that I’m itching to run far and fast from that relationship.

Which is about where we are at with the one I’m seeing now. Fighting every impulse I have to flee from a kind guy who has treated me well so far and seems to actually take an interest in the things I say. It was where I was at with the one before him too, with whom I finally terminated things after we went on six dates and I still had little interest in him romantically.

I can never tell if I’m putting a stop to things because I really don’t like them, if we really aren’t compatible or if I’m just scared.

I can come up with reasons why we don’t work: I want someone who is more outgoing, we don’t have enough in common, he talks about himself too much. However, I  question whether or not those reasons are good enough. Am I actually trying to even develop a connection or am I looking for the first excuse to cut and run?

Like I said, I always expected dating to feel invigorating and be something I looked forward to. This fear, this dread of the situation, came as a shock. I hate the associated anxiety I feel.

Relationships are work for anyone, but for me they are a whole other kind of work.It takes me longer to feel comfortable making physical contact. I’ll push myself to do it, but to me it feels awkward. Today, as I went on a walk with that guy I’m seeing, I felt myself naturally move away every time he moved close. I don’t know why. Later, I did let him put his arm around with me, but I couldn’t seem to let him hold my hand.

Sharing more personal aspects of myself is on another thing I struggle to do, to be honest and open and risk rejection. Or worse, risk sharing all of that and still not feeling an emotional connection to them.

The spark, that real feeling of attraction, isn’t created over two or four dates. I need time.

A couple years ago, I even let myself get sucked into a situation with a guy that I probably wasn’t ready for after only two dates, because I felt such an internal pressure to prove to myself I could be physical with another person. Then I propelled myself into something even more physical the following year, again just to get it “over with” instead of due to any real emotional attraction.

So those memories get all tied up in any relationship I try to pursue now.

I was not the kind of high school or even college kid who had boyfriends. I assumed that I wasn’t likable, and while I was no “popular” kid, that’s not true. There were one or two who expressed interest, where things could have blossomed.  But I always panicked and made sure to keep a fair distance. Friends. I was running, even then, but I assumed the situations were beyond my control.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever be able to be a part of a true romantic relationship where I feel comfortable and at ease. Obviously, it is easy for me to catastrophize and see a negative future, but the fact that I’ve never had a long-term relationship with a guy before makes me wary. I was never that boy-obsessed teenager. I had a few crushes, but school and friends were always prioritized. So now, I feel somewhat out of my element trying to make up for lost time. I’m never sure of what to do.

I wonder if I should be continuing to trudge head-on into the dating world, trying to commit to opposite action and engage instead of withdraw. Or should I be holding off until I’ve learned a little more about myself and made more progress?

Relationships are hard.

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Self-Harm v. Suicidal Thinking

Warning: This is a brutally honest description of some of my most destructive thoughts and behaviors. If you are in any type of emotional state right now that would leave you vulnerable to being triggered by this type of material, I’d recommend not reading this post. 

This post is something of an assignment, a question of J’s that I’ve been trying to develop an response to. How are self-harm and suicidal thoughts/gestures similar to me (if at all) and how are they different? I don’t even remember anymore why she asked, but I’m finally discovering my answer.

I find that it’s easiest for me to organize my thoughts by getting them down on paper. And now really seems like the best time to consider my response, considering in the past week I’ve had recurrence of both problems.

The way I experience it, my self-harm and my suicidal thoughts/behaviors are similar because they both reflect a high level of distress. For me to actively engage in either, my negative emotions will typically be at highest intensity and it will feel to me like those emotions are endless. In both cases, pain is often exacerbated by negative filtering, in the sense that I cannot seem to hold on to the experience of feeling well.  I am resistant to entertain any positive thoughts, especially those about myself.  I struggle greatly to recognize the progress I’ve made.

Hence, all that pain.

Self-harm is typically a reaction to something in the past that has created emotions of shame/guilt, worthlessness, or self-directed anger. I feel ashamed of something I have done wrong, angry at myself for a mistake I have made, so I think “I deserve to be punished.” Alternatively, I may think “I need to escape my pain” or “I need my pain to be visible” and if I’m feeling incredibly worthless I won’t value myself and my body enough not to resist those urges.

For me, self-harm has never been a direct means to end my life. I have not actively hurt myself with the intention that it would kill me in that moment. If I were going to follow through on an end of life plan, cutting would not be my ideal choice of action. However, as difficult as this is to admit knowing that J will read this, there have been a few times where I have cut shallowly at my wrist to see if I could handle the pain if I were to cut deeper the future. Almost like a test.

Suicidal thinking and gestures are typically by-products of self-harm, which means they equally follow shame and self-directed anger for past mistakes. I experience suicidal thoughts more in reference to the future than the past. There are accompanying thoughts of “I can’t live with myself for my past mistakes” (shame), “I am fundamentally flawed and will never get better,” (worthlessness) or “I am and will always be a stupid, terrible person who deserves to die” (anger).

However, where they differ is that I also experience suicidal ideation and planning in response to feelings of emptiness, anxiety, and sadness. The associated thoughts there are those such as “I cannot handle to continue feeling this alone” (emptiness), “I have so much fear at the idea of continuing to handle difficult situations like a job or relationship that I could fail at” (anxiety), or “I am feeling so low it is not worth living” (sadness).

It was interesting to parse that out. While some emotions seemed to me at the outset of this post like they have contributed to me hurting myself, I realized that they only do so when followed up by the previously listed anger, shame, and worthlessness as secondary emotions.

What I mean is this: While suicidal thinking is automatic to me when I am feeling sad or empty, I am not likely to actually hurt myself (or want to) because of those isolated feelings, but rather because I feel such intense anger at myself for my own actions that created the emptiness or because of my intense shame over how I’m handling my sadness.

There are a wider range of emotions that trigger the desire to die. This is unfortunate, because it feels like almost every negative emotion has very automatic suicidal thoughts attached to it, whereas my desire to hurt myself by cutting is more situation specific.

As such, I’ve found that while self-harm is usually combined with suicidal thoughts, suicidal thoughts may occur without even the impulse to hurt myself. My thoughts about suicide are much more frequent, recurring nearly daily even in some small form.

Interestingly, I’ve noticed the a difference in thoughts vs. actions. Both types of thoughts are out of my control, but the suicidal ones are harder to fight back against than thoughts about self-harm. Are my suicidal thoughts more common because they have always been harder to fight? Or are they harder to fight because they have always been so common and thus I’m worn out from dealing with them? Which came first, chicken or the egg?

Anyone’s guess, really.

If you’re talking only about action, I have noticed the actual impulse to self-harm is harder to ignore than suicidal planning. That urge is more fervent and lasts for longer.  I will feel an impulse to do both, but can and do put the latter off for much longer. For example, during a very difficult week I thought both about burning myself and writing out suicide notes that I had typed. I did hurt myself, but I didn’t do the notes. While my impulse to hurt myself grew with space, the impulse to plan suicide fizzled out. My motivation just disappeared.

Why? I’m not completely sure, but the first I thought I had is I regard self-harm as less problematic in a sense. In my head, the scars are trivial. They will heal, so what’s the big deal if I slip up? Obviously this is isn’t true, but I’ve been engaged in this behavior for so long I’m almost desensitized to it.

With suicidal gestures, it feels more grievous. I’m intricately aware of how final suicide would be, so any steps I take toward it, even if I feel the urge to do so, are scary. It’s a weird form of ambivalence pulling me in two different directions.

Maybe the part of me that believes there’s hope for the future and staying alive is larger or stronger than the part that believes I’m not deserving of punishment. I can’t say for sure, because I just can’t make complete sense of how I feel.

Both of these things are dangerous to me. They are similar in that way. Whether I’m hurting myself now or planning to hurt myself later, they only escalate my feelings and cause more distress. They reinforce themselves and have become super super hard habits to break. I know that. I want to move past them, but when the minions take hold I often feel overpowered and give in the impulses. I let them control me. I’m not proud of it, but it’s where we are at right now.

I don’t know how writing all this out with help J in our work together. Like I said, I can no longer remember what part of our conversation sparked the question. But it was an interesting thing to consider, I’ll give her that. I understand my motives and behaviors a little better.

Am I doomed to these urges? Maybe. Maybe not. What I believe right now about how things will end for me might not be what I believe in one or three or six months. I’m working hard for it to be different.

One thing is for sure. These are difficult desires to deal with and I keep that struggle so close, concealed from others for fear of judgment or failure to understand. I just want to be free of them. I just want to know what it’s like to truly value myself and my life enough to protect them.

 

 

 

A DBT Flowchart

A few weeks ago, I posted about my confusion and frustration with figuring out when to use the abundance of new skills I was learning through my Dialectical Behavior Therapy workbook. I have tons and tons of notecards that simplify all of the information the book is spouting at me, but I needed something more comprehensive so that I can have an idea of where to go in the moment when a wave of emotions hits me hard.

I’ve been in a wonky place again for the last couple days and have pretty much been withdrawn from the blog world and the real world whenever I have the choice. The positive thing about that is while I’ve been hiding away from people, I’ve put all my energy into developing that needed flowchart.

I’m pretty happy with the results. Obviously, this is not a perfect system, as no issue is so black and white that it can be resolved by some arrows guiding you. However, I feel that it’s a worthy starting point for me that can replace some of that helpless feeling.

Hopefully you can read my handwriting. It’s broken down into color by unit (the colors I used when highlighting my book). Green is distress tolerance, blue is mindfulness, purple is emotion regulation, pink is interpersonal effectiveness.

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As anyone using DBT knows, there are many things that crop up when you’re trying to use skills which block you from being successful. I couldn’t fit all of that in one diagram, so I ended up with a second flowchart that specifically highlights some of the issues I typically run into.

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I don’t know if these will be helpful for anyone, but I wanted to share them. In a very rocky period as I look towards the beginning of my first real job, this has brought me a sense of calm and peace. There’s something about getting organized that makes me feel so empowered.

Reducing Sessions

The last week in therapy has been good. Not easy by any measure, but I’ve felt safe and contained while in that room. J and I have been working well together, a true team effort. I have felt like she has been attuned to my needs and I’ve been making efforts to talk about things even when they are difficult.

There’s a change coming though.

I’ve been seeing J twice a week for about three months now. It was an increase I had been dying to make and I was so happy to be able to do it once the demands of internship died down.

The first week of September, I’m going to have to go back to once a week sessions. This is the give and take of me choosing to stay with the girls as their babysitter in the afternoons. My schedule just won’t allow for anything else but that one day.

To say I’m dreading going back to once a week sessions would be an understatement. Yesterday, J told me that she has a conflict in her Monday schedule next week, meaning she’s out of the office all day. I have a conflict at my normal Thursday time, so we managed to find time on Wednesday. You’d think that would be a relief to me to see her at all, but all I could think was that this was supposed to be one of my last two weeks of double sessions. I left her office near tears and had to take a few minutes to let the emotion dissipate.

The truth is, I’ve been spoiled with the ability to see her twice a week and get that extra dose of support. To know that she’d be there twice a week, in spite of every awful feeling, was a huge relief. Even when things were difficult between us, I kept going. Going is always better than not going.

One session a week just does not feel like enough time anymore.

An hour is not enough time. It was, for over a year and a half, but now I’ve seen what it’s like to get twice that. I’ve felt the effects of having enough time to consult the DBT workbook and delve into the other things that are bothering me. Now, I feel like I’ll constantly be focused on the clock, worrying about how to fit everything in to that short little time period. Do we talk about skills or do we talk about something pertinent in my life? How do we find the space to give every subject the time it deserves?

Plus ugh, just thinking about having to contain all those big feelings for seven whole days. To pack them away and leave knowing it will be a whole week before I can let it out again. That used to feel like a fairly manageable period of time for me, but now I’m used to only three or four days. By comparison, a week feels endless.

Thank you to my attachment issues for that difficult feeling.

I almost wish I’d never taken on double sessions in the first place. Obviously, I don’t really wish that, because I’m grateful for the extra time I’ve gotten with J to work on things. I’m grateful I had the opportunity at all and the financial means to make it happen. I see the fruits of all those bonus sessions we had.

It’s just very hard. What I really wish is that I didn’t have to make this change on top of an already very taxing transition into a new job. I need J by my side for that more, not less.

I’ve tried thinking about ways to make up for what feels like a deficit. Seeing if there’s a way to do 90 minute sessions instead of 60. Asking for a 10 minute check-in another day during the week and paying for that time. I’ve already asked that if she’s able and willing to extend her hours so could do a double even once a month to let me know. That doesn’t feel particularly likely, but I figured it was worth a shot since I’ve seen her take people in the session after me before.

I’ll have to deal, because it’s not like there’s any other choice. I survived off of one session a week for a long time, so I’ll adapt back into that place. I know that I’ll be okay. I’m strong and I can handle carrying this myself. I’m persistent and I can keep fighting, even when it’s tough. I work hard and that will get me through the transition. I can be kind to myself in each day to my next session.

I don’t necessarily want to do any of that, but I can. I will be okay. I will be okay. I will be okay. I’m repeating that more to convince myself then to convince all of you.

But right now, it still feels like a huge loss.

 

 

Receiving Pain

One of the many confessions I made to J when everything came flooding out last week was that I see self-harm as a way of communicating pain. As in, when I’m feeling really really awful, one of the reasons I feel desire quelling within me to hurt myself is that I feel it clearly shows to her just how much hell it has been to live in my own mind that week.

I’ve nearly removed self-harm from my list of habits in about the last 2.5 months. There have been some slips, and what might be categorized as an “almost” harming event, but on the whole I’m not grabbing for my razor every other day (mostly because I threw it out). I’m working really hard at making better choices.

As such, I’ve noticed that when I am really fighting the urge, one of my recurrent thoughts is that I have to cut myself because if I don’t, how else will J understand just how deep and intense my pain was over the week? It’s like I believe words will not be enough to truly tell the story.

I’m not sure exactly where this need comes from. It’s not like J does anything over the top when I admit to her I’ve hurt myself. Typically, she’ll ask when and what triggered the incident. She may ask where I’ve cut. Often, we talk about replacement behaviors. Sometimes, we discuss safety. These are all run of the mill and none of them feel particularly validating. Not that they’re bad strategies, just that they don’t support me in a way that would encourage me to keep cutting to receive the attention.

When I wrote about this before, a fellow blogger who I really respect left me a comment that stated she was in a similar situation. What she and her therapist decided was to replace self-harm as a means of expressing severe pain with the urge to self-harm as an indicator of the same level of pain.

This idea seemed remarkably simple, but effective. I shared it with J. That strategy had been her first recommendation too. However, she wondered if I would truly be able to feel like my pain was understood or if the distinction between cutting and wanting to cut would still feel obvious to me. Would cutting still rank highest no matter what?

She’s probably right, I’m sure it would be a process to make the shift. But obviously continuing to hurt myself isn’t an option, so I think that I’m willing to try using “tempted to hurt myself” as the high point on a continuum of describing emotional pain.

J obviously doesn’t want me to relapse back into self harm. She doesn’t want this to be another factor contributing to that behavior. So she asked me how she can receive the information from me that I wanted to cut in a way that feels as validating as if I told her I did cut?

I’m having so much trouble developing a response. Since I don’t know the source of the need, I don’t know what she can do to help me suppress it.

So what can she do? How can she make me feel supported and understood? I’m still not entirely sure. I don’t have an end-all, be-all solution.

Validation is the golden rule of working with people like me. When in doubt, find some way to legitimize my feelings. Make sure I know that you’re supporting me amidst them. Say it 10 different ways. Say it again and again and again until it sticks.

“I believe you when you tell me how intense your emotions are.”

“I hear that you are in a very difficult place right now.”

“I understand how much you feel you need to hurt yourself. I’m glad you’ve chosen to be safe, despite all that pain.”

“What do you need? How can I help you right now?”

“Tell me more about what’s going on. Let’s work through these challenging feelings together.”

“I’m still here.”

I need to hear the validation. I need to hear it 100 times, using the same calm patience and empathy with each repetition. I need to hear it from J, and I probably need to say things like this to myself. To believe myself when I’m tempted to dismiss my own pain, as if not cutting means that I’m somehow healed and not allowed to feel negative feelings.

I need to hear that she’s still there, because maybe there’s a part of me that thinks not hurting myself means I’m on a path to being better – but does being better mean an end to therapy?

Will this work? Once, I’m sure it will not be sufficient. Over time? I’m hopeful.

Because what’s the alternative? Hospitalize me? Refer me to an IOP? We’re in agreement that I don’t need a higher level of care. What I really want when the pain has been that bad is to be held, but that is unfortunately beyond the therapy relationship.  So in lieu of that, I just want to know that she believes me, that she has as much of an understanding as she can without living the experience.

That’s so, so hard when I can’t know for sure what she’s thinking.

Has anyone else been in a similar situation? How does your therapist convey to you that they recognize the  depths of your struggles in a way that makes you feel like they really get it? I’ll take any suggestions.

 

 

Gratitude Log: Strength

In a recent session, I asked J to provide me with a writing prompt. She assigned me another list. Lists are her speciality, if you didn’t know. This one was about gratitude. Why am I grateful for my positive qualities? How have they served me? My goal is to use this prompt as a new self-love challenge, by creating a post for as many of the reasons I listed in this post as possible.  

This is going to be the final post of my gratitude log. At this point, I feel like I’ve hit all the most important reasons from my original list and I’m comfortable leaving it at this. I’ve got so much written, so many examples of the good stored within me. So much evidence of how the person I am has served me in positive ways. I hope that being able to go back and read these will give me strength when it’s more difficult to see the good.

Fittingly, that’s what this post is all about. Strength.

I’m a strong person. Maybe not so much physically, but emotionally. Sometimes it’s difficult to give myself credit for that. I assume the presence of extremely intense negative emotions means I’m not strong, that strength would mean the ability to avoid them. But maybe strength just means the ability to withstand them. I’m grateful for my strength in that it helps me sail my ship through the storms, of which there are so many.

I’m grateful for my strength because it helps me set my pain aside sometimes to help others or to just be kind to them. It helps me focus on something I can control and fix, someone whose day I can change if only by a fraction. When H has a bad day at school, when my friend is having boy troubles, or when I see another blogger struggling, I can put my emotions on a shelf and be a comfort for them, a source of support.

I’m strong. Strong enough to push through pain. Strong enough to take a simple prompt given to me by my therapist and write 13 posts on it as a means of fighting back against minions who only have negative things to say. I’m grateful for my strength because it gives me those words to use as ammunition. It has helped me write so many posts of self-love.

I’m grateful for my strength because it helps me find joy even amidst the trying days. To laugh at a funny movie. To admire a beautiful day. To smile at a stranger and strike up a conversation. It’s what makes me willing to even try looking for the sunshine beyond the clouds. I’m having deja vu, so perhaps I’ve discussed joy before, in relation to another positive quality of mine, but it feels important to address here as well.

I’m grateful for my strength because it keeps me here. Despite every awful feeling that courses through my veins, despite every mistake of the past, I’m still here. Still alive.

I’m grateful. Period. For so much more than I ever realized until now.

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Gratitude Log: Learning from Mistakes

In a recent session, I asked J to provide me with a writing prompt. She assigned me another list. Lists are her speciality, if you didn’t know. This one was about gratitude. Why am I grateful for my positive qualities? How have they served me? My goal is to use this prompt as a new self-love challenge, by creating a post for as many of the reasons I listed in this post as possible.  

Mistakes. We all make them, or at least that’s what J likes to tell me all the time. I am quite the perfectionist, so I don’t sit well with the knowledge that I’ve messed up. That’s a work in progress for me. What I am really good at is being accountable for the mistake and then learning my lesson.

I’m grateful for my ability to learn from my mistakes because it expands and reaffirms my skill base. For every error I made on a report at my internship, I learned a better way to phrase a sentence or to frame the information. From my recent fight with a friend, the lesson I learned was not to make assumptions about other people’s actions. In my most recent conflict with J, my lesson was that I communicate best given space to let my intense emotions deflate. None of these things were new to me, they’d all been a discussion with my supervisor or a friend or my therapist before. But I needed the experience of failing to really drive the lesson home.

I’m grateful for the ability to learn from my mistakes because it keeps my relationships solid. If you call me out on something and I’m actually guilty of it, I’m very likely to genuinely apologize for what I’ve done. I’ll even seek you out on my own to try to rectify the situation. Then I will do my best not to repeat the mistake. Just about this time last year, I really screwed up. While out for a friend’s birthday, I got way too drunk, almost blacked out, and then lost it on my very good friend when she tried to get me home safely. This was not the first time these drunk antics had occurred, but when I sobered up I realized that I wanted it to be the last.  I sent her a long, honest message with an apology and a note that I’d really try to do better. And I have; I haven’t had that happen since. This was also right around the time I’d been diagnosed with BPD, so I finally understood the root of why I’d acted the way I had and was able to work on fixing it. As much as my friend is a great person, I could tell this was nearly the last straw. Me being able to learn from that mistake gave us the opportunity to rebuild and now we’re in a good place.

I’m grateful for the ability to learn from my mistakes because it helps me teach others how to effectively learn from theirs. Like I said, I’ve made lots of mistakes. I’m kind of a mistake connoisseur at this point, and I have a lot of practice admitting to my error and working to resolve it. Since I work with kids, who seem to recoil at the thought of taking responsibility for an error because of the associated discomfort, it’s important that I can convey this skill. Whether it’s teaching a child how to apologize effectively or asking for something in a more polite way, I have the power to help them manage a difficult situation in a tolerable way.  Just recently, I was driving H & S home from the pool when chaos erupted in the back seat. S hadn’t been listening to a story H was excited to tell, so H retaliated by taking the exact thing S wanted to play with. Calmly, I helped S see how her actions hurt her sister’s feelings and we discussed how she could practice being a better listener (eyes on H, asking relevant questions). Once she’d done this to H’s satisfaction, I was able to coax H to share the toy. It was all done in a matter of about five minutes, but that skill took me years to learn. I’m thankful for it, because it taught both girls a worthwhile lesson and saved me a headache.

You can’t get through life without messing up hear and there, it simply isn’t possible. It’s whether or not you can develop insight from your mistakes to avoid them in the future that’s important. Learning about my mistakes has made be a better person. Mistakes keep me humble. because I know there are others around me to learn from. They keep me motivated to be better, because I know there’s always room to improve. They keep me thinking, in search of a more effective way to live.

So as much as I despise them, I’m grateful for them for keeping me in the process of going forward.

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