Beyond BPD: unearthing your true identity

_origin_spogulis-5

I’ve written on the topic of BPD and identity before. Mostly because I think it’s kind of everything – at least it is for me and my BPD.

When it comes to disorders and conditions, there is a definite comfort in identifying with what you suffer from. For one thing, the sense of community among sufferers can be incredibly positive, as I have found here. 🙂  This is a good thing.

But it’s important to note that at the end of the day, it is still something you suffer from. It’s not who you are. Neither are you your emotions, your pain, your memories, your relationships, your achievements or your possessions.

The first time I heard those things, I was deeply offended. I interpreted their meaning as “your emotions are not real” or “your pain is something you should just toss away.” What I failed to understand was that while all of those things certainly define and fill my existence, they’re still not really me. They’re hugely important, they’re real and they’re powerful. But they’re not me. Yet I had been making them “me” for a long, long time. I still (usually) am, for that matter.

A simply exercise by Tara Brach: sit down to a brief meditation or moment of mindfulness. Just be aware of everything. Aware of judgments that arise. Aware of thoughts as they enter and leave. Aware of your breath. Aware of external noises. Aware of the space behind your face. Now ask yourself: who is aware right now?

That would be you.

There is a core presence in all of us that feels, knows, sees, understands everything about us. Everything. From the inside out. With BPD, I believe we struggle far, far more than most to connect with that presence and trust it. At some point, we abandoned ourselves to escape pain. We broke the bond between our true selves and our mind, emotions, conscious thoughts. We lost that safe inner place that defines emotionally healthy people. Cut off from an identity, our thoughts and emotions now run wild, hungry for a presence that will hold them, understand them, validate them.

When we over-identify with our thoughts and emotions (because we can’t feel anything else there to identify with), we’re trying to cling to the leaves that change with every season or blow away in a storm; we forget that we are the core of the tree, the trunk, the life that sustains the whole system via roots that go hundreds of feet into the earth. Similarly, when we over-identify with our pain and our pasts, all we’re looking at as “self” are the scars and blemishes on our bark. They might always be there; they might have affected how you grew. But the real you is bigger, stronger, deeper than all of that.

ancient-oak

For this reason, DBT (along with any BPD therapist worth their salt) is geared towards unearthing that sense of identity. Mindfully observing what we are thinking and feeling, what we value and why, who we want to be, and what we need from ourselves in moments of distress is at the centre of DBT because without a hub of self, all of life’s spokes just fall apart. Nothing matters, nothing means anything, nothing helps. Slowly, slowly, slowly I’m acclimatising to the idea that becoming reacquainted with my real self is the first step on the only path out of this mess.

Cat xxxx

Recommendation: a self-help book that actually helps

“The biggest illusion about a path of refuge is that we are on our way somewhere else, on our way to becoming a different kind of person. But ultimately, our refuge is not outside ourselves, not somewhere in the future – it is always and already here.”

– Tara Brach

Recently, I read a heartbreaking interview with a mother whose daughter had committed suicide after over 20 years of living with BPD. Just before she had died, she had told her mother that the years of therapy, hospitalization and pharmaceuticals had been a complete waste because at the end of the day, “there was no safe place inside her.”

So true, and so sad. I believe that with that sense of “safety” within us (ideally created by caregivers when we are very young), we can bear just about anything. But when there is no place within ourselves where we can retreat and recover when we are rocked by emotional storms, no amount of external attention will ever be enough.

The process of creating safety – that sense of a strong, trustworthy inner awareness who knows you and can take care of you from the inside out – is so unique to each individual’s experiences. That’s why I’ve been drawn to a lot of writing on self-healing lately.

My favourite self-help guru so far, hands down, is Tara Brach, whom many of you are probably already familiar with. I think her best book is her most recent one, Inner Refuge.

"The biggest illusion about a path of refuge is that we are on our way somewhere else, on our way to becoming a different kind of person. But ultimately, our refuge is not outside ourselves, not somewhere in the future - it is always and already here."

Brach’s approach is a blend of spiritual and psychological. I’m not saying I love everything about it – if you’re prone to negative, cynical thinking like moi, it can seem quite hokey or saccharine at times, but trust me, it’s worth sticking it out. What I love about her approach, though, is that it is very much “right brain”-based. She cuts through all the crap that never really works  (i.e. different methods of fixing, improving, transforming, analyzing and assessing ourselves as problematic objects) because it only comes from a place of emotionally removed, left-brain judgment.

Rather than writing as a mental health professional, Brach writes more like a modern-day shaman. She advocates a lot of feeling, experiencing, body-based healing and therapy, and powerful, primal wisdom in the form of legends, spiritual teachings, parables and poetry. Her knowledge of psychology and physiology is impressive, but equally impressive is her understanding of the limitations of science and left-brain thinking in sorting out what is actually wrong with our highly advanced and also highly anxiety-ridden, depressed and miserable culture.

Am I gushing a bit? Probably. I really like this book and I think it has a lot to offer, especially for those with BPD. I recommend reading it slowly if possible – like a couple chapters a day – and taking down personal thoughts and reflections as you go, because A LOT of this book will hit home if you struggle with constant feelings of inadequacy, isolation, depression, anger or overwhelming longing for love and acceptance (really, don’t we all?).

Cat xxxx

“At least you’re doing okay” and other bullshit consolations

Marilyn Monroe, a famous (but unconfirmed) high-funcitoning borderline; literally adored and envied by millions until her "unexpected" suicide in 1962.

Marilyn Monroe, a famous (but unconfirmed) high-functioning borderline; literally adored and envied by millions until her “unexpected” suicide in 1962.

This is a bit of a rant, and it’s not really “at” anyone in particular so I hope no one takes offense to what I’m about to say.

How many times have you heard someone comment on another person’s emotional struggle along the lines of, “At least he’s staying strong,” or “At least she’s keeping busy,” or “I can’t believe how well he’s doing considering…” etc.

The gist of it is a sentiment that is communicated by virtually everyone you know (unless you’re incredibly lucky): Faking it is strong and praise-worthy. Expressing pain is immature, selfish, embarrassing, weak, and just all around bad.

Are you familiar with that message? If you’re a borderline, chances are you are DEEPLY familiar with it, so much so that you’ve literally separated into the classic BPD “parts” – namely, your fake self (fun, likeable, alluring, capable) and your real self (hateful, miserable, in agony, incapable of living).

Not all borderlines are so “clean cut” (so to speak), of course. There are many types, and it’s worth knowing which you are as it can be helpful to recovery. There are those whom the mental health world flatteringly dubs, “low-functioning borderlines.” These are the folks on a first-name basis with the cops and the ER staff, the ones who end up arrested or in psych wards, the ones self-harming so much that everyone knows about it, the ones too crippled by pain to stick with school or hold down jobs.

Now please understand: I’m not railing on borderlines who happen to have been arrested or visited ER; I’ve done both, incidentally, and would most certainly call myself a “high-functioning” borderline according to the terminology (did everything possible to hide my arrest and ER visits from anyone I knew (successfully, btw)). I am not railing on “low-functioning” borderlines and I do not really agree with the term.

What I AM railing against is the infuriating assumption that hidden pain = lesser pain.

This flies in the face of everything we do as a culture. Who gets the most attention from the teacher at school? The worst-behaved child. For those who, for whatever reason, can’t bring themselves to express their pain in ways that hurt, annoy or disturb other people, there simply isn’t much attention left to go around.

The exact same thing can be seen in the mental healthcare industry. Right now, I know that if I went to ER with slit wrists and a drug addiction, I’d be in an intensive therapy program with round-the-clock care. If I show up the way I did in 2010, terrified, quiet, shaking and feeling like I had no right to be there wasting anyone’s time, I’m going to get breezed over in the frenzy of activity over the patients who actually matter. No, it’s not really fair to put it that way, but it sure as fuck feels like it. The implication is: “Go home, you’re only thinking about suicide, we have people who actually attempted suicide to tend to right now.” Never mind the fact that research has shown those who bottle up their pain within themselves are MORE likely to actually commit suicide rather than attempt it.

I understand the logic of the response: screaming gets attention – silence does not. But that doesn’t make it any less painful or frustrating when I feel like I am constantly being fucking punished or ignored for being strong enough to function, to hold down a job, to maintain my responsibilities to others, to refrain from hurting people or breaking laws – strong enough to TRY, to spend hours each week actively working to build my self-worth so I do not get low enough to consider suicide. To get full-on pity-party here for a minute: I feel like all my hard work, all my pain, all of it goes totally unnoticed until it inconveniences other people.

This is the cycle I get stuck in and I see it in the lives and writings of so many other borderlines:

Self-destruct to get attention/communicate pain   >>   Get attention   >>   Get “better” (i.e. seem more functional)    >> Get less attention   >>    Start to feel invalidated and ignored, like everyone’s forgotten your pain    >>   Invalidation erupts into painful, self-destructive episode all over again, etc. etc.

Eventually, you start to be terrified that deep down, no one actually cares, no one actually understands – they’re just responding to your manipulations and forms of emotional blackmail (“Pay attention or I’ll hurt myself”). And worse, you start to believe that you need your pain because without it, maybe no one will ever notice you again.

That is a scary, horrible, doomed, lonely-as-fuck feeling. I have been there so many times in the past 5-10 years.

Why is it all coming to a bit of a head for me now? Because I did the stupid, typical, “high-functioning,” goddamned passive-aggressive thing I always do: my parents (who only very recently found out about the BPD I’ve been hiding for 20 years) are leaving on a cruise tomorrow. They’re leaving on a cruise. I just “came out” to them with all of these mental health problems, with the revelation, in fact, that I’m feeling increasingly suicidal, and they are still going on the cruise they planned months ago. I feel ripped apart by pain and anger that they don’t have to see, don’t even notice.

And here’s where I hate myself because there is NO ONE to blame but me: Did they offer to cancel it? Yes. Did they say, “Tell us the truth – are you okay with us going?” Yes. Did they say, “We won’t enjoy this trip if you’re not alright”? Yes. Could I bring myself to tell the fucking truth? NO. God, I literally sat there lying my face off. I always, always do this. “Haha everything is fine! Don’t worry about me!” …. And then I sit and secretly stew and hate people and feel fake and alone because I’ve lied my way into isolation. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

I honestly don’t what the answer is. I’m just fucking tired of the external pressure to “act okay” no matter how much pain I’m in, and even more so, I’m tired of how deeply I’ve internalized that pressure into an inner critical voice that will not let me tell others the truth or trust them enough to take care of me if I fall apart the way I want to when I hurt this much. But then, do I really believe anyone deserves that trust?

Wow. Note that this started out as a rant against other things/people (still definitely angry about them, don’t get me wrong), and ended up as a rant against myself. And that’s why writing stuff down helps to clarify things…

Cat xxxx

I’m not here, this isn’t happening: BPD and dissociation

Someone asked me to do a post on dissociation, which, coincidentally, is coming up in my therapy a lot recently. The truth is that it’s something I can’t really comprehend or approach very well at this point. I mean I can talk about it (and I will – hopefully not at my usual length but, well, you’ve been warned); however, the very experience of dissociation is something that defies the mental grasp because it’s literally a way to leave your head.

Dissociation can be googled easily enough if you’re interested in the specific symptoms. It’s confusing for sufferers and for those trying to treat it because basically, it’s: a) a totally subjective experience, b) an experience that is a form of escaping an actual experience, c) both healthy and natural (in certain contexts, such as daydreaming) as well as totally unhealthy and unnatural (in other contexts, such as buried trauma). Dissociative disorders can include feelings of depersonalization (“I’m not real”) and derealization (“this world isn’t real”).
I experience dissociation on roughly a weekly basis (depending on who I interact with or what occurs that week, obviously). Some people describe the experience as literally “out of body” – that is, they are watching themselves and not inhabiting the body they see. I’ve never had that form of it, but I have had the equally drastic experience of genuinely believing the world was not real. The movie “Inception” was incredibly triggering for me because it was this eerily accurate depiction of how I felt when I was at my worst: this world is a dream and I need to die in order to wake up.
As I watched the film with friends, I felt like everyone was watching me (which was paranoid as no one knew I had dissociative episodes at this point) and that my “secret” was exposed for everyone to see. I coped by using my most common and low-key form of dissociation: focusing on tiny details.
Has anyone else done this? When things get overwhelming, when I’m in a very emotional conversation, when someone starts crying or I just generally feel like I can’t deal with something, I start picking at fabric, counting stitches on clothing, examining my skin or hands in great detail, or whatever. This form of dissociation is one that I do have control over – I choose to mentally go “into” those details I’m focusing on rather than hear the words I don’t want to. That fun little habit wreaks total hell on relationships, as you can imagine. Someone’s baring their soul to me and I’m fondling the curtains (no joke, that actually happened once).
It’s unhealthy in the sense that I have created a rut in my brain that never leads anywhere better. But it’s also unhealthy because it can very easily become a slope that I slide down into the worse and darker forms of dissociation. I’ve often thought that my self-harm is definitely related in some way to the dissociation – like it’s a way to stay grounded and feeling something rather than that horrible feeling of floating away from reality. Hm.
My earliest memories of identifying dissociation were about 13 or 14, though it must have happened earlier as well. I would sit in my room, in the dark, listening to music for hours and hours – sometimes as I self-harmed. The Radiohead song above, “How to Disappear Completely,” fascinated me because it described how I felt long before I understood it: “I’m not here, this isn’t happening.” The words were on loop in my head as I’d dissociate from strong emotions, physical pain, fights with friends or family, ridicule at school, whatever. I felt like I’d discovered this great little escape hatch from the hell that was my brain. But I knew, instinctively (and I know much better now), that it was also killing me. I didn’t realize that when I dissociated, I was abandoning myself. The girl in pain was still there, but I rejected and invalidated her by going somewhere else when she needed me most. It breaks my heart to think about but of course, I simply didn’t know any better.
But here’s the worst fucking part of dissociation: it keeps you re-living the things you’re dissociating from. Honestly. That’s the tragic irony of it. By withdrawing from the pain, you KEEP the pain. It’s not faced. It’s not dealt with. It’s not exorcised or vented. It’s just there, rotting inside and ruining everything – as I’m living proof of. Based on some original hurt, you remain stuck in patterns that actually create that hurt (e.g. research now shows that abused children often become adults who only pursue abusive relationships).
The original event that taught me dissociation is, for now, a mystery to me. I suspect it’s a mystery to a lot of people who do it, for the simple reason that the dissociation worked, and the part with the memories is shut up in a box. But I have my suspicions, and am starting to gain an idea of it, based on noticing what triggers dissociation for me now.
The thing that scares the shit out of me? Proper therapy for BPD involves bringing light to the dark corners that dissociation was developed to hide.
😦
Exploring the sensations/experience of dissociation is the current focus in my one-on-one sessions. And MY GOD, it is uncomfortable. So I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to report on this topic as time goes by.
What about you guys? Are your dissociative experiences something you can talk/think about or not at all? Have they played a role in any treatment you’ve had?
Above all, and as a final note, STAY SAFE: if you feel dissociated, do whatever is necessary for you to feel grounded, safe and adamantly in the present – call a friend or a helpline, self-soothe, listen to grounding mediations, inhale scents like citrus or cloves, etc.
Cat xxxx

Blogging for Mental Health 2014

My name is Cat, and I have borderline personality disorder (BPD), which is the main subject of this blog. BPD has dominated my life for as long as I can remember; however, due to a total lack of mental health awareness, I just blundered through most of my life the best I could, believing it was only matter of time until my “true” identity as a crazy person ruined everything I had carefully constructed out of fear, lies, shame and manipulation.

 

As far as I can tell, BPD occurs when extreme emotions go unnoticed, punished or generally invalidated during a pivotal stage of development. Part of you learns to shut down and control other parts (i.e. uncontrollable emotional parts), while faking qualities that create validation from others (smart, funny, popular, promiscuous, etc.). The long-term result is a feeling that gave me the idea for this blog: half of a soul. My own BPD experience has been, above all, a chronic feeling of being somehow warped, hollow, flawed, and especially, incomplete inside.

I always thought if I just found the one person who could take care of me or show me how to be okay, everything would fall into place. Unsurprisingly, this person never appeared. Those who did try to help were somehow never enough to fill the gaping holes inside me, for reasons I didn’t understand.

Along the way, I fought tooth and nail to hide my dissociative episodes, crushing feelings of abandonment and rejection, extreme emotional sensitivity, anxiety-related behaviours (OCD/trichotillomania), self-harm, and complete inability to maintain healthy, close relationships.

Getting the diagnosis of BPD (including a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress syndrome, the frequent co-disorder of BPD) was scary but a huge relief at the same time. Through this label, I realized my behaviours were far from crazy or indicative of how flawed I was – they made perfect sense for me and for so many others who were going through the same thing. By seeking more information about BPD and about mental health in general, I came across the incredible blogging community that exists with respect to mental health issues.

As part of my desire to stay connected to this community and to further mental health awareness, I’m taking part in the “Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project,” which involves the following pledge:

“I pledge my commitment to the Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project. I will blog about mental health topics not only for myself, but for others. By displaying this badge, I show my pride, dedication, and acceptance for mental health. I use this to promote mental health education in the struggle to erase stigma.”  

bfmh14-copy-e1388959797718

If you’d like to become involved in this project, visit this page to learn more. I don’t know about you but I’m excited to make 2014 the year I really focus on improving my mental health and helping to create awareness about the issues affecting so many of us.

Cat xxxx

 

Charting improvement: Why hope is not enough.

“I hope I always feel like this.”

“I hope I remember what it’s like to be this happy.”

“I hope things get better.”

“I hope I’m not always like this.”

All things I have said (or thought) so many times over the last several years. I’d always hope against hope that things would be magically different this time – with this relationship, this occasion, this rough patch, this whatever. But they never were. Why?

Because hope is not enough: not for many people, and certainly not for borderlines.

Image

Our version of a bad mood is more like a hurricane – everything and everyone gets swept up in the all-consuming perspective of pain. Everything relates to us and the state we’re in. Everything hurts or (rarely) helps – no ground between the two. Most importantly, every potential anchor in this situation is only as strong as we choose to make it. I can easily gather “evidence” and talk myself into seeing a friend as my savior, my lifeline, my confidant, my rock – or I can take a different shred of “evidence” and convince myself they are cruelty personified, just another mistake and tragedy in my life. And the difference between the two states doesn’t always feel like a choice. Often, the “choice” flies right over our heads while we’re busy reacting – too late, we realize we made a choice already… an unhealthy one.

This is why it is crucial that you make positive, self-strengthening choices when you ARE able to do so.

We now know that getting into positive habits – mindfulness, self-care, healthy emotional expression, etc. – literally forms new paths in your brain matter (btw, neuroplasticity – the recently discovered ability to control, to an extent, how our minds react and develop – is an incredibly exciting and interesting topic worth wikipedia-ing). Paths in the brain become clearer, stronger, and easier with use. That might have quite a few positive implications for your day-to-day life but, to me, the part where it really pays off pertains to the worst times.

When your “worst times” are those of a borderline, your lows and poor decisions frequently have implications that literally destroy lives – especially your own. If you’re anything like me, you can think of at least a dozen times that you swore you’d end it all, that there was no point in living, that the pain was too much to bear. And you can also think of another dozen times, at least, that you thought, with horror, “Holy shit: I can’t believe I almost did that.” It’s like there’s an inner pendulum, swinging back and forth, back and forth, totally beyond your control, and all you can do is watch and hope and pray that it never swings too far to the wrong side.

This leads to a chronic feeling of victimization, and all the feelings of helplessness, shame and terror that go with it.

I knew I had found a therapist worth giving a second chance when I told her I was starting to lose hope that I would ever be “better.” “Oh honey,” she said, matter-of-factly, “You need a hell of a lot more than hope to go on. You need to start seeing results.” It was true. Without any concrete results that treatment could work, my fear and doubt would not let me fully commit myself to treatment, and therefore, no actual change was taking place.

So how do you break the cycle? How do you create results that you can cling to when your hope deserts you?

Firstly, commit to healthier mental habits. Practising non-judgment of your thoughts, meditating for a few minutes each day, turning to a journal or form of expression when you feel “little” emotions (irritation, minor sadness, etc.) – adopting even one habit will make a difference. Mindfulness is the big one, the overall objective, and the core principle of the standard treatment program for BPD (dialectical behaviour therapy). Being mindful when we feel anything at all – particularly self-judgment, the corrosive poison of the mind – is training for when we feel ripped apart by our emotions.

Second, get a blog, journal, calendar or other form of record and start charting every shred of progress. If you don’t have anything nice to record, don’t record anything at all! But I would guess that even on the worst days, you can usually find one thing that is worth writing down. For me, those worst days often read: “Did not self-harm.” That’s progress in my books. “Dragged self out of bed, ate and drank water.” That’s progress too. “Didn’t scream at loved ones, just sobbed.” Even that’s progress! Unnatural as it may feel, give yourself as much credit and congratulations as you can for each entry. Acknowledge that it’s fucking hard work changing your brain and your life – any upward movement is a pretty big deal.

Third, write letters or emails to yourself from a place of peace or wisdom, whenever you are in those places. If you have a thought or hear a phrase that hits home in a positive way, write yourself a little note about it. This has been an incredibly powerful tool for me. The power of it lies in the fact that, in this very simple way, I’m learning the most difficult lesson of my entire life: I need to trust, love, understand and rely on myself. This way, when I feel weakest, I’m not turning to someone else – someone who can’t understand what this feels like, someone who doesn’t know me well enough to say the right thing, someone who won’t know what I need and will inevitably let me down; I’m turning to the strongest and wisest part of myself, and I’m seeing that she does, in fact, exist, even when I feel like there is no such entity.

Seeing your own words, hearing your own voice guiding you towards the light when you are in a dark place is a lifeline no one else can give you. Recently, crushed with pain, I made myself open an email that I’d composed only a few days before with the subject line: “Remember this.” All I had written was something I had genuinely been able to feel and believe at that time: “Cat, do not give up. It is going to be okay.” I know what I need when I’m at my worst, but when I’m there in the dark, I don’t remember it and I certainly wouldn’t want to ‘let myself off the hook’ by accepting it. Putting the time and effort into building my own anchor that I can cling to when the storms hit has been essential to breaking old patterns and creating new, healthier pathways of self-compassion.

Lastly, create a “self-care” kit. This tip is very well known and widely circulated in the mental health community. The contents of your kit will be things you choose to lift your mood, relieve your emotions, take care of yourself, etc.  Examples of stuff people put in their kits: favourite cds/dvds; art supplies; nice lotions, bath products or beauty products; lists of activities you think will help; pictures of loved ones (note: uncomplicated relationships are key here! Don’t put a picture of the ex you can’t get over) or pets or beautiful places and things; books – particularly those that give you a feeling of strength in the face of adversity; soft clothes or blankets; nice candles; etc.  It doesn’t have to be fancy or all about warm fuzzy feelings: my kit doesn’t actually come in a box or “kit” but is kind of just a jumble of stuff in a grocery bag (lol) and includes some less airy-fairy items… like Ativan. Whatever you think you may need at your worst times.

Only you know what will improve, or at least diffuse, your most difficult moments. The sooner you start developing and practising these strategies and recording the times that they work, the sooner you enter the path towards trusting yourself. And as disagreeable as that concept may be at times (ugh. believe me, I know)… we all know, deep down, that it’s the only option there is.

Do you have any tips for creating/maintaining/recording progress? I would love to hear other perspectives on the BPD journey….

Cat xxxx