“How Are You?”

Something that I’ve learned about myself in the last few months is that when I start to go into crisis mode, dropping from a high to a low, something that is strangely comforting to me is to go online and read about the experiences of others with Borderline Personality Disorder.

I like my diagnosis. I don’t like that I have it, and I don’t like the pain that it saddles me with or the stigma surrounding the label, but I like that there is a name for what I experience. Something that acts as a reminder that my brain isn’t the only one that’s invented these issues I deal with. Other people have stories too, and they often write them with words that echo pieces of my own life.

Since I’ve struggled on and off lately, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. I like themighty.com, and I follow the BPD topic. It’s a connecting experience.

Today I read a piece that I really liked, because it highlighted a very small but common part of the day that my disorder compounds: Responding when people ask me how I’m doing.

We live in a culture that defines certain phrases, questions or traits as the baseline for politeness and human interaction. Perhaps the most common of these is the question we all ask some version of several times a day: How are you? How’re things? How’s life? It often seems this question is asked more out of a sense of tradition or obligation than genuine care.

When someone asks this question, a mathematical equation to deduce the “right” answer immediately takes place in my head. Can I trust this person with my honesty? Do they really care or are they just making conversation? Will my answer burden them? And the most challenging aspect of this question: How can I possibly respond to this with any measure of accuracy?

I think about this all the time. It is truly commonplace to ask that question more as an extension of a greeting than an act of probing for an honest response. At work, teachers say it to me in passing. At the grocery store, the cashier asks as her attention is divided scanning my items. Rarely does anyone really get out of their own head to really ask and listen for the answer. 

I always say the same thing to these people. “Good.” “Fine.” “I’m doing all right.” It doesn’t really matter, because often they’ve tuned out the second the question left their lips. And that’s okay, I suppose. I wouldn’t really feel comfortable spilling to an acquaintance or stranger that I’m having a bad day or feeling emotionally overwhelmed.

Although, wouldn’t it be nice if we could? Society expects us to have it together all the time. When you don’t, when you fall apart and show negative emotions in front of others, it makes them uncomfortable or even panicky. They’re upset, what do I do?! It’s regarded as going against the norm and we’re quietly taught to avoid it,

So we lie. A kindness to others. Conforming to the ideal. Still, that’s hard for me, to feel like I have to stuff my feelings into a box and hide it away.

I don’t need to tell anyone my life story, but I’d love to not have to don a happy mask and play it off like life is grand when my BPD has sent my emotions to through the roof. I’d love to be able to say, “Today’s a tough one” or “I’m actually a little sad right now” and have the other person respond in a brief but validating way before I moved on with my day.

Then there’s the other side of the coin. Friends and family.

Like the original poster stated, I’m often caught in a rock and a hard place when someone asks me that type of question. How are you? or How was your day? All of those considerations she listed apply so well. Do they really want to know? Or was it just out of obligation?

There’s no way to know that answer for sure, either.

On one hand, part of me is always itching to be truthful because part of me desperately wants to be cared for. So there’s always this little force urging me towards honesty when I’m in a bad place, with the expectation that maybe the other person will respond in the exact way that I need from them. Which will prove that they care and that I deserve support. It’s like what happened after I found out I didn’t get that job a few weeks ago. I wanted her to see I was upset and ask if I was okay because I wanted to be held and soothed.

If I do choose to be honest, there’s always a boundary for how honest I can be, a line I won’t cross. Seldom will I admit to feeling so low that I am suicidal and I almost never mention self-harm. More often I use words like struggling and difficult days. I’ll say that I’m stressed or maybe that my emotions have been back and forth. Not giving away too much.

I used to try to describe exactly how I was feeling, in the past. If you’re a long-time reader, you know that high school version of me let it all my feelings spill out to whomever asked me how I was doing, with a yearning that someone would just magically understand.

Expectations are killer in that way.

Now I know better. I know this isn’t effective, and I know that BPD and mental health in itself is very difficult to understand if you haven’t weathered the storm. People have their own opinions, and I’m reticent to be so vulnerable only to be hit with anything that feels rejecting or invalidating. If I’m not completely sure that you’ll be able to support me, forget it.

Plus, the truth is that those words, that knowledge, it scares my friends. Knowing that I’m feeling that way or have hurt myself just quiets them, because they want to help but are unsure how and fear making it worse. Usually they offer some meager messages of support and I end up having to reassure them that no I’m not actually going to kill myself and I’m getting help.

For these reasons, I rarely admit anymore when I’m in a bad place, even if it might be obvious to other people. If asked, I may give indications that I’m not well by saying a curt “okay” or “just a little stressed” but I’m less likely be direct. More often than not, I’ll just say that I’m tired. That’s almost always a code that I’m in deep pain.

Sometimes I will cop to it later, when I’ve come back into a stable place and my expectations of the other person are rational or at least more tolerable. For example, I’ll tell someone I was in a bad place for a few days, and I may give more detail on what that meant, but I quickly wave it away by saying I’ve moved past it and I’m better now.

No matter what, when I say something, I feel like a burden. I always feel like I should have said nothing at all.

How are you is a scary question in a way, because I feel like I’m weighing between an honesty that could sour a relationship and a falsity that ignores my feelings but ensures things are good between me and the other person.

Yup, all of this from one simple question.

J and I have talked at length about this. I think she really wants me to reach out during those difficult times and be as honest as I can be. To not even wait for the “how are you” question, but to just find support. We’re always going back and forth about my expectations of others and the knowledge that sometimes no persons response will meet the high bar my BPD sets. Sometimes I just have to accept whatever type of support they have and find comfort in the fact that the intentions were good.

Which sucks. Radical acceptance again.

Anyway, we’re way off track here, The point is, it is interesting, isn’t it? So much goes in to even just responding to one small question, a question which I hear many many times a day. You can break it down into a bunch of different concerns to consider.

That’s BPD, my friends. Nothing is ever simple, not even basic conversation.

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Learning Effective Communication with BPD

Prior warning, this post is super long. There’s really no reason you would want to read it. Unless you find it difficult to navigate relationships when your emotions escalate. Then maybe you do want to read it. And maybe you want to tell me I’m not alone.

Because figuring this stuff out sucks.

Friendships are hard for someone like me with BPD. I have always known this to be the case. However, it’s interesting to find out that the more I learn about my disorder and the skills I can use to combat it, the more complex the I struggle with communicating.

I mentioned briefly that I got some difficult news on my birthday. My friend and I were both up for a school psychologist position. We were 2 of 3 finalists and we’d both interviewed on that Tuesday (my birthday was a Friday). We were told we would hear within a week, no matter what the outcome. I thought about asking her that we let each other know first if the other got the job, this way no one had to find out from someone else, but I decided not to.

I spent much of the week in a very anxious place. My thoughts lay only on that job. It cluttered my mind as I tried to sleep, work, and relax. I had an impending sense of dread, like I knew I was about to get bad news. Even as I repeated to myself “my feelings are not facts,” I could not erase that foreboding.

Cut to Friday. I’m in a pretty good mood. My parents have tried to celebrate my birthday, I’ve spent the morning taking it easy, and then I went over to babysit H & S for a little bit. They celebrated me and it made me smile. Their mom needed me to take them to a birthday party. I’d been texting with people sending me well wishes all day, including my former supervisor from the internship I just completed. I’d dropped the girls off and was walking back to my car when I saw he’d messaged me again:

“Sorry to hear about [school district].”

My heart sunk into my stomach. I felt the rest of the world grey out around me. I responded to him. “What?” Even though I knew, immediately, that for him to know I didn’t get the job meant that my friend did. We worked in the same district.

His reply: “Uh. Maybe you’d better talk to [friend].”

My mind was swirling with 1,000 different thoughts. I didn’t get the job, I didn’t get the job, I didn’t get the job. I knew this would happen. On my birthday, no less. I’m a failure. I’m worthless and they probably knew that and no one will ever offer me a job. I’ve been passed over twice now for someone else from my district. Failure. Loser. I should kill myself. Why did I have to find out today? That figures, it’s because these are the kinds of things that happen to me and always will and I can’t control that. These thoughts were all automatic, flooding out like a pipe had burst.

Then there were more. She got the job and didn’t tell me. Everyone else knew first. How could she do that? I felt angry and betrayed and hurt. I rapidly fired off text messages to her before I could even take a moment to think. “Did you get the job?” I asked. A minute passes. Then she was typing, but not quick enough for me. “Seems like you did” I congratulated her, but also caveated it with something else about how I was hurt that I had to find out from someone else on my birthday. I’ve since I deleted the text messages, so I can’t go back and look, and I don’t really want to anyway.

She replied that she had found out the day before and wanted to tell me, but didn’t want to hurt me or seem like she was bragging.  She’d thought maybe she’d wait until she knew it was a sure thing. She felt stuck.

My eyes zoned in on only one part of her message. She knew yesterday? She could have told me yesterday and I could have processed this with J instead of spending the session a neurotic mess? Why couldn’t she just tell me? Betrayal. Bad friend. She’s just making excuses.

I was in no place to hear what she had to say. We exchanged maybe two or three more texts back and forth. Me saying things like “I’m happy for you, but…” and her saying things like “I didn’t want to hurt you.” I grew so frustrated that I had typed out this whole long message to her, but I deleted it and just sent her something, again, about how I was happy for her and knew she did a good job. She knew it wasn’t genuine and so did I (although I wanted it to be, and had a lot of shame that I wasn’t). She responded with a very simple “Thanks for the kind wishes.”

I was internally panicking, my emotions hot like fire. I felt sure that if I had the option to, I would have hurt myself.  She doesn’t understand. She won’t understand. She won’t validate your feelings. Your feelings don’t matter, they never matter to anyone. You better just shut up now and deal with it alone. Like always. No one will ever understand you. 

We said nothing to each other for a little while. I went back to the house, cried to the girls’ mother, and then tried to be productive by getting the girls packed for their vacation. A few hours later, she texted me to apologize for the fact that I’d been hurt, again explaining her position.

I took a deep breath. This was all I had wanted, for her to recognize that what happened, the way it had happened, had hurt me. That even though she’d not meant to hurt me, it had. Part of me knew that focusing on all of this was taking away from the joy she’d received when she found out she got the job. But the other part of me just wanted to badly to communicate how I was feeling. I struggle greatly with the balance of that, with knowing when is the right time to speak up for myself.

At that moment, I decided for speaking up. I sent her back a long message, saying that I understood her position and what she’d been thinking, but that I’d been humiliated to find out from my supervisor and that the whole office knew before I did. I told her that I was sorry, because I didn’t want to take away her joy. She deserved it and deserved to be happy, but I just needed a few days to be hurt and angry. I told her I’d do that privately, because I didn’t want her to feel guilty about getting the job. I didn’t want her to worry about my reactions, I just needed to have the space for my feelings and I needed her to hear that.

She responded saying she understood and that she’d leave me alone. She also said that she wanted me to know that she didn’t tell the whole office, her supervisor did, and it had surprised her to learn everyone knew. I read that text, but I ignored it, because I didn’t have anything left in me. I’d used up all my energy and wanted to just move on from it.

I was proud at the time for how I articulated what I was feeling, while still trying to take her perspective into account. I actually considered it progress. Briefly, I considered that I probably shouldn’t have said anything when I first found out, I should have waited. When I read that text to J, I told her as much. But I quickly forgot that in favor of other things.

For a few days, I totally thought I was in the right here. I thought I had a genuine reason to be angry and upset. Then I texted a group of friends inviting them to come over to use the hottub where I was housesitting. My friend responded the way you might when declining a business lunch, saying something like “Thanks for the offer, maybe another time.”

I knew immediately that she was mad at me. Immediately. And I knew, at least partially, why. It took me days before I got up the courage to message her and ask if we were okay. Secretly, I hoped I was reading into it. My feelings are not facts. But nope, I was right, she was angry.

She told me that the fact that I had blinding assumed she told everyone without giving her the benefit of the doubt was hurtful, especially when I’ve gotten upset at her for assuming that I’d done things purposely to hurt her in the past. She brought up some other comments I’d made recently that bugged her. It was a long message pretty much detailing every interaction between us in the last month that had either hurt or angered her. For the most part, she wasn’t mean, just honest. I’d reacted poorly, she felt attacked and saddled with the burden of ruining my birthday, and it had stolen her excitement over a job she earned.

Well, shit.

Let me tell you something. Whenever I consider how I manifest the typical symptoms of BPD, I’m usually pretty proud of the fact that I don’t verbally assault my friends. I’m not someone who blows up and calls names or goes off on long tirades of negativity. But in this case, my anger had left destruction in its wake, even though I didn’t realize at the time.

She was right. I’d never given her a chance to say her side of the story. Once the emotions took hold, I’d told myself a story and just assumed it to be true. I had to admit that to her and take responsibility for it. I had to sincerely apologize for the joy I’d taken from her in favor of my own feelings.

I also had to admit to the place a lot of the “snapping” and hurtful comments she’d mentioned came from – jealousy. I make comparisons the way most people breathe; automatically. When I am jealous, it is physically hard to control, and that almost always came out towards her in a curt remark that stung her. Of course, I don’t mean to do this and I always feel remorseful later, which I told her too.

I apologized a lot and I really tried to find ways to make up for my behavior. I tried to be honest without using my disorder as an excuse. I just wanted her to understand my intention, while simultaneously accepting the role I played and promising that I was working towards doing and being better. Because she is important to me, and I wanted her to know that. She earned and deserves the job, and I needed her to know that too. I told her I’d understand if she needed a break from me

Which, by the way, is a BPD thing too. A statement I make all the time: it can’t be abandonment if I give you permission to do so.

(It can, it totally can).

She accepted my apology. We went back and forth texting for a little longer and came to mutual understanding. Now things are fine, I think. We’ve been texting like normal today and are trying to make plans for next week.

This whole situation has lit a fire of different feelings for me to deal with.

First and the most obvious was my bewilderment over what I should have done differently and whether or not any of my feelings were right or valid. I struggle endlessly with what the “truth” is, so I’m never quite sure if I’ve erred or if I’m justified in what I’ve done.

Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to. I was valid in feeling upset in both the fact that a friend received the job that I wanted and that I found out about it in a less than ideal manner. It was okay to take the time and space to be upset and angry about those two things.

However.

The communication piece still requires a great deal of work. I impulsively reacted using fabricated information (e.g. that she’d purposely told our co-worker and not me) and made statements about my beliefs and feelings that perhaps would have been valid had she actually done what I assumed she had done.

But she didn’t, and I would have known that if I could have approached the conversation in a different way.

One of the basic tenants of effective communication is waiting until you are in a grounded emotional state before addressing a controversial topic. I have to be able to recognize when my emotions are so fiery hot that I am unable to be rational or articulate. I didn’t do that on my birthday, I just reacted from a place of hurt. And in return, I hurt both of us.

I should have waited, at minimum, a few hours before I reached out to her at all. And even then, there were so many different ways I could have approached how I was feeling. Using I statements. Using just the knowledge I had at the time and letting her fill in the rest.

I was so damn hung up on what the minions were telling me was true about myself (failure, loser) that I never gave my friend a chance to tell me what was actually true about what had happened.

I can work on this. It will be a challenge, but I can work on it in the future. Not responding until I’m sure I can articulate myself effectively and without blame.

Then there’s the other piece of this. Living with the fact that I made a mistake that ruined both of our days. One I cannot fix. I can’t give her back the joy I stole and I can’t give myself back my birthday.

When I sent her that group of apology messages last night and was waiting for a response, I was able to firmly use some radical acceptance statements.

I made a mistake and I feel sorry about that, but I’ve taken the steps to make it right and I can’t do anything more right now. If she does not want to continue being my friend, it will hurt, but it is a natural consequence. All I can do is learn from this moving forward. I can not go back and change it. 

I was proud of that. But it didn’t hold, because the minions are creeping back in with blame and judgment. You suck. You should know better by now. You’re going to make these mistakes again and it will mess up the relationship.

Part of it is true. I will, probably, make those mistakes again. Hopefully the rest of it is not true. She is a good friend, but everyone can only take so much. Sometimes you have to move away from others to protect yourself. I would hate to make one mistake too many, and put her in the position where she has to do that. Or anyone else.

Abandonment fears, they never completely go away.

It continues to be a challenge, sitting with the discomfort of knowing I messed up. I replay it in my head again and again, hoping for a different outcome, which just cannot happen. I want so badly to be better than that, and I feel that I have made progress, so it disappoints me when I fall back into patterns I thought I’d outgrown.

We’ve moved past this now. She wants to, and so do I. I’m still worried and will be anxious before I see her again, because I will fear that things won’t feel right and it will be my fault.

But I’m also trying to remind myself that continuing to hold onto this just increases my suffering. I can accept that I made ineffective choices and unintentionally hurt a friend, and resolve to move forward by making different choices. Being and doing better.

Radical acceptance is a hard skill to master, and I’m still just doing my best to use it sparingly.

I really hope to avoid things like this in the future. Effective communication is one of the biggest pieces of DBT; I’m not quite to the interpersonal effectiveness unit yet, but I’ve already been introduced to the topic. I want to be good at it, especially in situations that are emotional and ambiguous. My emotions always interfere with my ability to respond appropriately to friends and I’m tired of that.

Hopefully I can start to make strides to communicating better in my friendships. Hopefully I can put this situation on a shelf and look forward to better choices.

 

 

 

 

Leaning into the Emotion (Also known as I Hate Change)

Today was my last day of my internship. This sounds like a celebratory thing, doesn’t it? I feel like that would make sense, because people keep asking me how I feel. Am I excited? Is it awesome to be done?

I’m just going to be honest. It’s really cool that I made it through a year as a school psychologist intern. I’m proud of that. But no, I’m not excited to be done.

I’m sad.

This has been building ever since I graduated last month and my team surprised me with a basket full of gifts, a “school psychologist survival kit” if you will. That day, I broke down crying in J’s office because I knew that change was coming.

Part of it is that I still don’t know what the future is going to look like for me. I am waiting to hear whether or not I will be offered a job that I made it to the second round of interviews for. The stakes feel high here, and I don’t really have a plan if this one doesn’t pan out yet because I don’t have any other interviews scheduled right now and everything else I’ve interviewed for has been filled. Did I mention that I’m competing against my best friend for this job?

So yes, that’s weighing on me. I am oscillating between feeling like bad news is right around the corner and feeling hopeful that they will pick me, between just about to tip over the edge and stable. I hate this waiting game. Schools shouldn’t be allowed to put us through this.

That’s not all of it though. I think the bigger part was knowing that after today, it would never be like this again. I was blessed with a team that I loved working with. My supervisor, the learning disabilities consultant, and the social worker were each wonderful in their own way. I took something different away from working with them, learned different skills.

I’ve been working with my supervisor on and off for three years. He mentored me through all of my practicums and I’ve learned so much from him. I respect him as a school psychologist and I really like him as a person. Our personalities meshed well and we spent so much time joking around.

So many times recently, I tried to insist that I would stay in touch with all of them. We’ve made assurances that we will have lunch, that I will text them with updates on the job search.

The truth is though, no matter if that happens, it will not be the same. There is quite an age difference between myself and them, so I can’t imagine spending too much time with them outside of the walls of work. They have families and responsibilities. And now we do not have work to connect us anymore.

I knew all day that I was living my life as an intern on borrowed time and once I walked out that door it all changed. Which made me so sad, because for all the stress and questioning of my own abilities, I really loved my internship overall.

Not only that, but these are the schools I went to as a kid. This is the district that taught me for thirteen years before welcoming me back as a graduate student.  There’s a personal connection there.

I went in this morning and just soaked it up. I joked around with my teammates, we went across the street to where the intermediate school was having a fair day and played games with the kids. Then we came back and got ice cream. My colleagues teased me about being a “quitter.” Eventually, it was time to part ways. I gave everyone hugs and made it out the door and to the car before I burst into tears.

I let myself cry the whole way to my babysitting job. Being with the girls reenergized me, gave me a distraction, but the sadness is back again now. As I type this, I’m feeling my eyes well with tears.

I’m heartbroken to leave. I really am. And it’s killing me.

I’m not used to letting myself feel my pain. It feels counterproductive to healing for me to express anger or sadness or fear, even though I know instinctively that they need to come out. When emotions threaten to rise, I stuff them back down.

Except J tells me that I need to give myself permission to feel. She tells me this all the time, and I’m trying to listen to her. But it hurts so much. It hurts to let the emotion work its way through your body. To feel without fighting it.

And I wonder, why is this such a necessary evil? Why do I have to feel pain to feel better. It makes no sense. I don’t want to let the feelings of loss and fear overwhelm me. Yet I am. It’s a brand new experience.

So the tears come. The sadness radiates. I’m sitting here waiting for it to get free of me so I might feel some relief.I’m sensitive enough as it is on a good day.When your emotions are as intense as mine, the wait to survive sadness like this is interminable.

Hopefully tomorrow I’ll wake up feeling better. I really hate change.

How do I keep ending up here?

Trigger warning. I’m in a tough place tonight, so this post mentions some dark stuff. Proceed at your own risk.

If I could have one wish granted right now, anything at all, it would be for someone to hold me tightly and tell me all the reasons it is going to be okay.

I’m feeling downright awful. I have been for a few days, a disastrous combination of anxious and angry and ashamed and defeated. My mood cycles in and out of these difficult feelings, of which the mental illness minions are hard at work churning out more and more each day.

I’ve relapsed back into cutting. There were a few weeks there where it had all but subsided. Now I crave it desperately and when I’m away from home, without my razor, I find myself visualizing the act of it.

I didn’t even want to tell J about it, I really didn’t. She asked, sort of, and I’m not so great at lying when I’m guilty of something. And she told me that I need to forgive myself for it, to accept that it’s happened and move forward. Yet, I can’t seem to let myself off the hook for it. Part of why I didn’t want to tell her is because I don’t think I should be allowed to feel better about this.

My assignment from J was to come home tonight and do things to care for myself. Nothing else. She wanted me to make kind and safe choices. I’ve barely managed that. Watched some TV. Wrapped in a warm blanket. Ate dinner. Now, I have on some calming music. That was about all I could do. Depression is paralyzing to me. It puts me on a path of least resistance, doing whatever I can that requires the least amount of effort.

Writing is a lot of effort for me right now, but I suppose it is better than cutting, which is honestly what I really want to do.

You may wonder how it has come to this. A few days ago, I was in seemingly good spirits when I posted. In truth, I can’t really explain why the minions quiet down sometimes and go on a warpath the next. I just know that a fire of emotions has been lit inside me and it’s got my whole system is upheaval as it burns.

This happens. The seesawing of my emotions, from stable to escalated, happens so often without any measurable way to predict. Yes, there are triggers, but I don’t get to know what moments will feel more challenging. I don’t have any control over how deep something cuts.

I hate that. I hate how much of this feels beyond me, just something I’m supposed to accept.

What am I feeling? Anxiety, for one. The cost of applying for jobs, the follow-up to that exciting high, was insurmountable anxiety. I can’t explain where it came from, but it came like a swift wave crashing over me. With that, I was swept out to sea.

The brutal electricity that is my anxiety has been my baseline for the last few days. It takes very little and I am a storm of worrisome thoughts. A minor bout of tension at the office makes me worry that I’ve chosen the wrong career, one that I cannot handle emotionally and that will burn me out. Someone else having an slightly more well-articulate answer to a problem makes me worry that I am not smart enough and cannot apply my knowledge to succeed. Any bit of ambiguity in my conversations with peers and colleagues makes me worry I have done something wrong.

Frankly, I am anxious just being out with people.

I’m angry too. Mostly at myself for not being able to brush off these feelings. At whatever combination of nature and nurture left me unable to cope with the thought of getting up and taking on the world each day. Seriously, I should not dread the thought of having so many years ahead of me, and yet I do. I think of living more of the same life and I want to run for the hills.

That anger is so tightly interlocked with shame. Shame over the cutting, for not making a better choice even though I have learned better choices. Shame that J and I have to have the same conversation again and again, and yet I can’t seem to learn. I truly feel I am past the point where I should be allowed to feel falling so far so fast.

But I continue failing myself.

I am ashamed that I cannot seem to utilize all of that when I’m feeling this. Self-affirmations and coping mechanisms go out the window. I don’t believe them, I don’t have any sense of worth that makes me want to stay committed to the plans I have made when I felt well. I feel like I deserve every last bit of pain I’m feeling.

As I type that, I am then faced with the thought that clearly I do not want to feel better if I am not following through with the tools I know I should be using. From that, I berate myself with names like loser and failure and pathetic mess. Then I feel guilty for being so cruel, because I know this is not helping.

And the cycle repeats, until I have spun myself so far into a black hole of cruelty that I am planning in my head how to end my life because that is the most comforting thought to me. My very warped safe place.

Tonight, I cried to J about the whole new level of awful I felt. All I felt capable of doing was apologizing to her and reiterating how angry and anxious and upset I was. She tried to offer suggestions, as therapists do. She validated my feelings. She said kind, empathetic things. She did everything right and still I felt myself slipping further away.

The truth of it is, I kept repeating these things as if maybe one time she would have the words to fix it. She doesn’t. My wonderful, supportive, incredibly patient therapist cannot fix me. I knew that going in tonight, which was why I tried at first to suppress the level of awful I felt. I didn’t want her to know, but I told her anyway with very little prompting.

J encourages me to be honest, to let it out, but she does not have to live with the residual attachment pain. She is not stuck with a broken connection and the reminder that this is a solitary mission. I have to wade through these waters on my own, fight for survival, even when it feels like I might drown.

Right now, tonight, it feels like I’m drowning. Except I have no interest in even trying to swim. I’m just letting myself float to the bottom, because I’ve got no fight left in me. Forget distress tolerance and mindfulness and all that junk. Forget distraction plans and radical acceptance.

Forget it. I don’t want any of it. I want to sleep. I want to be someone else. I don’t want to be the person that I am, with all that emotional baggage attached. Its exhausting. It’s suffocating me.

I never asked for any of this and I’m so angry. So angry at the unfairness of getting stuck with emotions this intense and thoughts this persistent.

I don’t want to keep doing the mood swings. I don’t want to keep doing any of it.

Back at Zero

Prior warning, this post is all over the place.

I’ve come up upon another snag, another rough patch, another roadblock in my writing. All week, I have thought about sitting down to write and just come to a pause. So much to say, but also nothing to say. Nothing new, anyway.

A stomach virus came for me earlier in the week, so that knocked me off my feet for a couple days. Throughout this, I was plagued with overwhelming guilt and anger about missing work. Even though I knew I didn’t have a choice, and needed the rest, it killed me to lay listlessly in bed when I knew there were reports to write, meetings to attend, and opportunities I was missing. Worse, I was missing my time with the girls, which never fails to at least distract me.

I felt miserable, but I didn’t cut. I tried to maintain some sense of a positive voice and remind myself I had to take care of myself. And when all else failed, I listened to music and slept.

Then, as I was feeling better, I had a blowout fight with my mother that just shattered me. It was basically just a ton of yelling back and forth, recycling old arguments and giving them another go. We didn’t resolve anything, and ultimately I walked away in tears feeling more defeated about our relationship than ever before. I ended up staying the night at someone else’s house, because I just couldn’t bear to feel like I was trapped in my room all night.

Still, I didn’t cut during that time. I got myself away from all of it and made sure I ate something and packed things that comforted me. Then, the next day I tolerated the overwhelming anxiety I felt and walked back into that house with J’s encouragement.

I don’t know how I would characterize my relationship with my mother now. When I came home, we hugged and made up, but it felt like a band-aid fix. Unfortunately, I don’t think we can ever completely get past the ocean of differences between us, so I’m kind of in a place now where I’m just trying to hold onto the good moments between us and push the rest of it away.

I should probably write more about that, but I don’t have the energy right now.

Good news. In the last week, I did get the courage to start searching for jobs. I even started an application for one. This is progress. I still want to disappear every time that conversation comes up, but I am taking baby steps. You’d think I’d be proud of that, and I am. But I’m also constantly remembering that this means change. Change might mean I can’t continue babysitting the girls I love dearly. Worse, it might mean the end of things with J.

I can’t fathom the end of things with J, it makes the walls start to close in. And as wonderful as she is, she doesn’t seem to have any words of comfort for me when I relay this fear to her. No follow-up questions, just a sympathetic look.

Yeah, yeah, I know we aren’t there yet. Cross the bridge when we get there. If we get there. But it’s scary. I really don’t respond well to transition and the next few months feel like they are going to be a never ending series of transitions.

So there’s a lot in my head right now. There’s always a lot. I’m surviving, I’m pushing through like I always do. It’s just hard and it’s continuously pushing me to the breaking point.

J asked me the other day to explain to her my suicidal feelings. What I said was this: Imagine that you wake up in an unfamiliar place. A dark room with no walls and a doorway. You learn that you’re trapped in an unfamiliar building, one with a maze of hallways and rooms. You can get out, you can, but you have to find your way to the exit on your own. And each time you go through a door, it closes and locks behind you, so you really only get one shot. So you try. Of course you try. You navigate your way from room to room, doors closing behind you. Then you turn around and realize you’ve trapped yourself in a room with no other exit. The door just slammed shut behind you.

You’re stuck. You may not have meant to, but you took the wrong path and there’s no going back. The light was out there, and you missed your chance to get back to it. So you can sit here, alone in this room with no way out, or you can choose to end it.

Have all the doors closed behind me? I’m finishing my externship, about to graduate, applying for jobs. It should feel like I’m almost free in the world, yet it really feels like I’m trapped in that room with only the one choice.

This is where my head is presently. I am trying, harder than in the past, to use my skills.My new favorite way of trying to stay mindful is to remind myself to stop time traveling to the past or the future. I’m noticing that some of the kinder thoughts do come to me more easily, more automatically than before. I’m even using my self-care box. Which is good. Gold star for me.

It does help, but it does not help enough. I pulled a puzzle book from the self-care box did sudoku for almost three hours. I lit a candle. Yet a very minor comment from my mother undid me, and the tension was too much to handle.

I broke my streak, grabbed my razor without hesitating.

So here I am, back at zero. Life really is too much sometimes.

 

The Safe-Place Visualization

In the current chapter of my DBT workbook, the newest skill that I’m learning is safe place visualization. At this moment in time, I’m supposed to be sitting with my eyes closed, visualizing my safe place.

I won’t lie. The whole safe place thing gives me the urge to roll my eyes. Maybe that’s just because it seems to be the stereotypical line of for any inaccurately portrayed therapist in movies and TV: “I want you to imagine a safe place…” Maybe I scoff at it because it’s something that’s very hard for me to just sit and be. I become restless in the face of stagnancy when it is offered, even though I yearn for it amidst chaos. Go figure.

So I’m having trouble with the “close your eyes and visualize” thing. Yes, I see pieces of my safe space, but it’s fragmented. I think that I should be allowed tools to be skillful enough to create the whole of my space. Writing is my tool.

My safe space is a picture I have of what my ideal future home would look like. It makes me feel protected, the picture of a comforting setting to escape to from a hard day. It makes me feel hopeful, the thought of a place like this existing for me.

Let’s dive in a little further, five senses style.

In my safe space, I immediately notice that I am in my living room. It is a space for me and I don’t have to share it with anyone, unless I want to. No one is fighting me for the TV. No one controlling the temperature or the lighting. I am in control.

I am alone, except for a dog. He is a big furry guy, sweet as can be, here keeping me company, looking for for some pets and kisses.

In this room, I imagine a large bay window, one where I can go to sit and read, if I please, or to admire the outdoor view. If I walk up to that window, I can see a great expanse of land. There are flowers dotting my property, with a body of water at the edge that sparkles under the sun. A pond, maybe, or a brook. There’s a swing outside, where I can go and sit if I’d like to admire any of that more closely.

But if I’d like to stay inside, I can go and recline on my large couch. It’s a large chaise sofa, dark grey and made of polyester. I imagine that there are bookcases, a coffee table, perhaps a hutch or some shelves, all littered with books and trinkets that add a touch of my personality: an elephant figuring, an inspirational quote, a vase with a sunflower. The wood is dark, it matches the couch.

Best of all, there’s a fireplace. The fire is roaring. If I have to choose, it’s late afternoon, where the sun is still there, but it’s setting in the sky. So the fire sheds some extra light.

It provides warmth. That’s what I can feel most, the warmth of the flames. I can feel the soft fabric of a blanket that I’ve pulled tightly around my shoulders. Feeling the soft couch cushions all around me is a grounding feeling. My sweet animal leaps onto the couch and nuzzles next to me. I feel his weight, a wet nose pressed into my palm, looking for some love.  My senses are overwhelmed by all the gentle feelings.

It’s quiet, there’s no one slamming doors or chewing in my ear or yelling loudly into the phone in the next room. I can play some instrumental music, a film score or piano composition, and just settle into my room. Right now, as I visualize, I’m playing the song Homeward Bound by Steven Sharp Nelson; this would be a perfect addition to my space. I can hear the crackle of the wood in the fireplace. I can hear the soft panting of the dog. Nothing intrusive, all sounds of comfort.

I light a candle. Perhaps my favorite eucalyptus spearmint, or lavender, or apple. Or vanilla. Whatever I choose, the smell overtakes the room. It is so soothing. The blanket I have wrapped around me has just been cleaned and it smells like fresh linen.

If I’d like, I can have something to eat. Something warm, preferably, like some hot chocolate. Maybe something with cheese, because that always brings comfort to mind. Or some chicken noodle soup, in which I can break up some crackers for the perfect combination of salty and hearty. I feel that slide down my throat and warm me from the inside out.

In this room, I can drift off, dozing to my music with an animal cuddled up close. I can read, finally able to concentrate and filter the rest away. If I’d like, I can turn on the TV and let myself be absorbed into another world of Grey’s Anatomy or New Girl or This Is Us. I watch the flames of the fire do their dances, hypnotized by their spell.

This is my safe space. I’ve visualized it. Now, if I can go there when the real world gets to be too much, that’s the trick.

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Ebb and Flow in Therapy

When I started this post just about a week ago, it had a completely different title and tone about it. The title, in case you were curious, was called “The Voice of Doubt,” aptly used to describe the many doubts I was having about my therapist, J.

However, such as is custom in therapy, a lot has changed over the last week. Par for the course at this point, I suppose.

Like many other clients with BPD, I have a whole host of attachment issues that come out in therapy. If you read my blog, then you might know that right before J went on her last vacation a little over a month ago, I completely lost my shit. Long story short, all of those awful feelings of abandonment combined with the stress of everything else in my life at the time led to what I could only characterize as an implosion during session. First I got angry, then I got silent, then I sobbed so hard that I must have seemed unstable.

In the moment, J didn’t seem to know what to do with me other than try to calm me down, which failed because I was beyond reason and I had dissociated to a point where I didn’t even feel present for most of that session. I was such a mess and I left her office still in tears.

After I composed myself, I went on to survive the two week break, during which I spent three hours writing J a letter to cope with some of my conflicting feelings and attempt to express what I felt I needed from her. I read it to her when we met after the break.

Overall, I would say it was a fairly successful endeavor. Yet as I let these words tumble out of my mouth, I became increasingly concerned about the depth of my needs. My emotions. My insanely poor self-esteem and even more critical internal narrative. My suicidal impulses. My self-harm. The repetitive nature of our work together, such that we often have the same conversations about the same topics because I can’t seem to get out of my own way. It’s a lot to work with. I’m a lot to work with.

Part of my letter asked her if she thought that my needs were more than she was equipped to handle and if we’d gone as far as we could together. At the time, I thought I just wanted her to reassure me that she wouldn’t abandon me. That was definitely part of it, because I’m still trying to accept that our relationship will end one day.

But I think that the other part of it was my own doubt. J was pretty firm in her response that she didn’t think we’d reached the end of our work. No hesitation. She felt that she was capable of helping me and I felt that she really believed it.

Imagine my surprise when I realized that it was me who was wondering if maybe I need to seek help from someone else. If maybe J was out of her element and I was doing myself harm, or just maintaining the status quo, by sticking with her.

Didn’t see that coming.

The thought made me super uneasy. I have spent almost two years cultivating this relationship with J. Despite the ups and downs, I feel pretty confident in saying that I really do trust her. She knows me incredibly well and she’s gotten me through a very rocky period in my life (I’m looking at you, grad school). I seriously could not imagine giving up that relationship and walking away from my safe harbor at this point.

I thought it might be me self-sabotaging: dissolving the relationship before she could abandon me first or the mental illness minions pushing her away to avoid even the slightest hint of progress. I am pretty good at that.

Then I also thought that maybe my fears had some merit. I didn’t know if J had any experience with personality disorders, BPD in particular. I didn’t have any evidence that she was equipped with tools that could help me reach the core of my dangerous and damaging thoughts and behaviors. Like I said, it seemed like we had been having the same conversations over and over, to no avail.

In addition, J didn’t appear to be as attuned to me as she had been in the past. She seemed to miss obvious cues that I was upset or that a topic needed to be discussed in further detail. Was that because she was incapable of taking me any further?

I wasn’t sure how (or if) I was going to talk to J about this, as I was sure she didn’t have a clue about the level of doubt I was carrying around. All of this was swirling around in my head for about a month before I’d even admit it to myself.  If I brought it up, I thought she might get defensive, as is the nature of human beings, or be unable to see my perspective. So I actively decided not to mention it at all; I figured I’d just sort it out myself and deal.

Last week (as well as this week and next week), I decided to add an extra session so that I’d see J twice a week. The incoming transition as externship ends and I apply for jobs, as well as my family woes, had been hitting me hard. I hoped getting the more continuous support would do me some good.

In our second session that week, having met only two days prior, I found myself without anything to say. As we sat in silence for a few minutes, I was caught off guard by my own courage and asked her the questions I’d previously been afraid to: about her experience with personality disorders, knowledge about DBT, and (again) if she honestly felt equipped to handle the nature of my issues. I didn’t tell her directly that I’d had doubts about us continuing together, but I was able to broach the topic in a way that felt safe to me.

We talked about why she’d decided to even discuss BPD with me to begin with, considering she isn’t much for labels. We talked about some of the disagreements we’d had and my reactions to them (which is what led to this homework assignment). We talked about some of the attachment stuff, and I was able to ask in a fairly articulate manner that, when she is frustrated with me, she remember that sometimes my “childish” impulses and “clinginess” are beyond my control. They are in the hands of my emotions.

In all this, J assured me that she did not feel I was “too much” for her. She assured me that she saw just how hard I was trying, with a reminder that she wanted me to see it too. In a rare show of vulnerability, J even admitted to me that it was hard for her to hear that I didn’t think she cared about me, because according to her it is absolutely not true.

It was a real, honest conversation between two people and I felt like she really heard me and got what I was trying to say.

At some point during this conversation, I mentioned to her that I’d really like to try a DBT group when I could afford it. I also told her I’d bought a workbook right before her vacation that I’d briefly perused, in hopes to pick up skills on my own in the meantime. J asked me to bring the book so that she could see it. She offered to buy it so that we could read through it together. So at our session on Monday, I did bring it for her to see.

Today, three days later, not only did she have the book, but she’d read up to the same section where I was. On top of that, she had read the blog post “homework” assignment in the interim between our sessions so we could discuss.

I was completely blown away by this. She has so many clients, and yet I am important enough for her to take the time and money to do this? If I ever doubt that she cares about me again, I need to remember today. Yes, it’s just a book. Yes, it could be said this is part of her job. But in my eyes, it’s an extra step. It’s above and beyond. It made me feel like I had an ally in the war on mental illness.

It made me feel worthy of care.

We walked through each page together and have already made a new discovery about why it is so hard for me to use radical acceptance let go of my mistakes. Details on that will likely come in another post.  The point is, it was a very successful session.

In the course of these sessions, I have also managed a newfound strength to communicate my needs to J as they arise. During a session about two weeks ago, we were discussing visualizing the critical voice. I told her I couldn’t visualize it, so she suggested I try visualizing a voice to combat the critic instead. She wondered what it would look like. I half-joked that it would look and sound like her, since I’ve firmly internalized her voice at this point. She said that that would be creepy.

As she told me a minute later, she was kidding, trying to make me laugh. She asked me not to take it to heart, because she was not trying to offend me. But in the moment, I felt it as her telling me what I said was wrong and stupid. I already felt like I couldn’t engage in this visualizing activity, so this put me off from it entirely. As she was sitting there, expecting something from me, I had worked myself up and was starting to feel physically tense. I didn’t necessarily understand where it came from, but suddenly my breathing was uneven and I was trying not to cry.

Instead of shutting down, I told her what I was feeling. I told her it was a mix of her comment and just the pressure of coming up with a response. She immediately nixed the activity and instead we did some progressive muscle relaxation. She did it with me, which was nice. Then she had me take three deep breaths.

You’re okay, she told me gently. You’re safe with your feelings in this room. And outside of it. 

And you’re still here, I said quietly, a desperate plea for reassurance.

She nodded, smiling.  Right here. 

I immediately felt better. She made what I feel was a foolish comment, probably one she should know better than to make at this point, but she also knew how to fix it. She knew exactly what I needed to help me stabilize. For every moment where I’ve questioned her, I have at least three more like this that reaffirm my faith.

And a few minutes later, when we’d gotten back to talking about the internal voice, I mentioned how frustrated I was that I couldn’t seem to find a way to overpower it. That’s why I suggested visualizing another voice to combat the critical voice with, so you might be able to find something to make it go away, she told me. I know it’s hard, I wish I could take it away for you. 

I felt extremely loved and cared for in that moment, incredibly seen and understood. It’s moments like this one which remind me that J cares about me and is capable of working with what I give her. At our next session, a few days later, I even commented on how her kind words had meant a lot to me and it was nice to hear that she felt that way. Well, I do wish I could, she said warmly, another gift.

It all feels like progress, so much progress. The connection between us has been strong and solid, and it is helping me feel the safety to push myself in her office. I’m feeling more motivated and in control than I had been.

So is she out of her element? I suppose it is possible. Hopefully, I won’t have to find that out months down the road. However, that doubt has faded now and is replaced with genuine hope, fueled with all the evidence from these last four sessions. Truly, I think we had lost our footing and through the course of these doubled up sessions we were able to recover it. It’s the ebb and the flow of the therapeutic relationship.

We’ve got a new approach to try now through this workbook. I know she isn’t completely trained in DBT, but I think that her strengths and our relationship can compensate for what skills she currently lacks.

And in addition to that, I made and brought her two lists that she can refer back to: my long-term goals and topics for us to revisit periodically that have been common themes in therapy. I did this as a strategy to move past my own annoyance at the fact that she seldom remembers to address a topic one week to the next that she said we could come back to. It’s another sign she doesn’t care, the minions would tell me. But I’m not listening to them anymore. I’m finding a way to get my needs met this way, an idea to which J was very receptive.

I know that when our sessions go back to once a week the attachment pain is going to set in and I need to be prepared for how I may respond emotionally. I will cross that bridge when I get there.

Last week, I was grumbling about how unfair it was that BPD got to destroy me for years before I even knew what it was. She offered me a silver lining: I didn’t come upon the information until I was ready to hear it. She said that she believes that some things just fall into place at the right time.

In response, I told her I think that happened with our relationship too. I’d been back and forth on searching for a therapist. I’d contacted other people, and I found her by chance, clicking on random pictures on a whim. Who knew what I’d set myself up for when I sent her that first e-mail? How did I get lucky enough to have clicked on the right page for the right person when I did?

I don’t know, but I’m grateful for whatever stars aligned, whether by fate or happenstance. We’ve survived a lot together.  Therapy continues to be no picnic, but I’m glad she’s the one by my side in this.