Done DBT and telling my story

holdinghands“Connection is the essence of the human experience.” (Dr. Brene Brown)

Last Wednesday marked my last DBT group session. I have officially completed one year of DBT. I’m amazed that I finished – amazed that I even lived through that year, to be honest. In some ways it flew by but in most ways, it seemed to last an eternity.

As part of our last session, we watched a TED Talk by Dr. Brene Brown, a renowned expert on shame. I won’t summarize her talk here because you should just watch it (or any of her talks for that matter) but suffice it to say, shame is pretty much the cornerstone of most mental illness. It separates us from each other, keeps us not just in pain but in the dark with that pain, afraid of any light that may fall on our most vulnerable and (we think) unloveable aspects.

Many parts of Brene Brown’s talk really hit home with me, but one thing in particular stuck: “We were born to tell our stories, not keep secrets.” According to her, secrecy is the key to shame. Openness/honesty are its cure. It’s time for me to be honest.

There are certain things I’ve never shared on this blog even though they play a crucial part in my BPD. I’ve told myself that I don’t want to offend, don’t want to hurt anyone with things that may upset them or prove too triggering to read. The truth is I’ve been ashamed. Utterly ashamed of the choices I’ve made, the person I’ve been, the things I’ve done.

My story has mostly been told in bits and pieces, and every time someone tells me they can relate to part of it, I’ve felt about a billion times better (so here goes). We’ll fast forward through the 20ish years of pulling my own hair out, shoplifting, starving, cutting and sheer ingrained misery. Depression and BPD ruled my life, ruining my connections with others, cutting me off from the human race.  When I moved to England for school in 2008, I felt like someone had opened the door to the cage. I didn’t feel like me anymore – and it was wonderful. I could be happy. I could be outgoing. I could be whoever and whatever I wanted to be – no one on the entire continent knew who I was or what I was “supposed” to be like.

Almost immediately, I fell in love. Hard. The way only a borderline in denial can fall head over heels in love. I felt like I’d found the key to everything I’d always heard about, read about, longed for. Another person to complete me, fix me, be my everything. Sure there were issues and warning signs, but they only added to my dark and twisted fantasies about what love was supposed to feel like: surely it was supposed to hurt? That’s what all the songs and movies tell us, right? So what if this guy seemed to get off a little on hurting me – well placed verbal barbs were only a chance to grow closer through the classic ‘hurt – fight – make up’ cycle. Exhausting but rewarding. As my brain grew accustomed to the thrill rides and rushes of an abusive relationship, I became both abused and abuser. I grew into each role simultaneously, saying and doing things that would have appalled the old, shy me. It felt empowering to hurt – and even to be hurt. I felt like our love was some dark, exclusive secret – only we two knew what it was to be truly inseparable, truly “in love.”

The additional factor here was that the guy I loved was a chemistry PhD and deeply into drugs. He’d use his lab spectrometer to test cocaine, ecstasy, and different amphetamines for us. How caring, right? As I snorted white powders with him or collapsed after a night of drinking and sex, I’d think of my grandmother, funding my education from back in North America, unaware of the mess I had become, unaware of how disgusting I was, unaware that she no longer had anything to be proud of in me. I felt myself spiralling out of control but I was addicted to every aspect of the ride. One day, I assured myself, all of this would come right, all this would resolve itself and I’d be left with a magically perfect love and none of the dark sides.

There were hints of physical abuse but never outright domestic violence – until a crisis hit.

*WARNING: TRIGGERING and/or CONTROVERSIAL MATERIAL. Please do not read if your own mental well-being is at risk.*

The next part is difficult for me to even write, and forms the core of my PTSD.

I was raised in a very religious (Christian) home. I’m still not sure how I feel about that. But I do know that I was taken to anti-abortion rallies since I was about six years old. As I outgrew my parents’ strict beliefs, I failed to outgrow the shame that they were designed to inflict. Yes, I had no problem with sex before marriage. Yes, I was pro-choice – adamantly. Yes, I disagreed with just about everything they had forced on me as a child. But fuck it all if it didn’t feel just like divine punishment to have my life fall apart the way it did – to know that I deserved it.

I missed my period.

That sentence conveys a feeling that I believe only other women can truly understand.

Did the alcohol and drugs mess with my birth control absorption? Maybe. Did I fall so far off the rails that I was neglecting to take it properly? Yes. Whatever the cause, I found myself shaking with terror and perpetually nauseous.

And here the BPD screwed me over worse than it ever had before. Did I go to my boyfriend and beg for his love and support? Nope. Couldn’t possibly. It was my shame, my punishment, my fear. And I felt more alone than I ever had before, plunged back into the darkness I thought his love had pulled me out of. I told him what was happening. He suggested we still go out and try to have a good time that evening. (BPD voice: He doesn’t care, he doesn’t understand, he doesn’t love you at all or he’d get it.) As the night went on and the voices got worse and worse, he asked me, yelling over the music in a crowded bar, why I was being such a bitch.

I hit him. He hit me back. As I hit the floor and my hair fell across my face, the last details of my fantasies crumbled and disintegrated forever. I had needed him more than ever. I was beyond terrified. He had called me a bitch and hit me. It was all my inner self needed to know that this was the way things should be. The way they had always been and the way they always would be.

The following hours and weeks are a bit of a blur. He was kicked out of the bar. I was asked if I wanted to press charges. I said I didn’t. The next day, in a shaking voice, I arranged a pregnancy test. Six weeks along – hence the endless nausea. I went to London and was given drugs to terminate the pregnancy. Sitting alone in the small apartment of a friend who was out of town, I threw up and bled and threw up and bled until I gave premature birth. I’ve had my leg ripped open and cauterized by a motorbike. The pain wasn’t even comparable to this. All I could think between blinding bouts of pain was that I deserved God’s hatred – deserved everything that was happening. I wondered if I’d die and what my family would think when they found out how – how disappointed and disgusted they would be.

Weeks afterwards, my (now) ex-boyfriend had me kicked out of the place I’d lived. He’d tried to apologize. He’d tried in so many ways. A small part of me ached to accept it, to take him back and try to regain even a shred of what we’d had. The majority of me knew it was way too late, too far gone – and I hated him for it. I hated him for everything he’d done, everything he hadn’t done, and the pain he never had to suffer – only me.

Bitter and broken, I came home and existed. There’s no other word for it. I barely remember my initial year back home – I spent the majority of my time dissociated and mindlessly occupied, or crushed by the secret agony and self-hatred I carried and trying to cut it out of me one way or another.

The rest of my story, most people know. Even my family (thanks to my roommate, who eventually became totally overwhelmed by my suicidal depression) know how fucked up I was/am – they just don’t know why. They may never know why. But I thought it was important that someone know why. Even if you hate me for it as much as I grew to hate myself – at least you know why.

Do I still hate myself? Do I think I did the wrong thing? Can I accept the DBT reasoning that I did the best I could with the circumstances and information I was given? I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ve come to terms with any of it. But I feel like this is the first step – just accepting that it happened. It all happened, and it’s over. And I’m still here, whether or not I like it all the time.

The only person I’ve told all this to in “real life” is my current boyfriend, A. Sometimes I agonize over whether or not I made the right decision in telling him any of it. Last week, A. wrote me this note:

Dear Cat,

Congratulations on finishing your classes at the hospital. I am so proud of you for facing your past, and I appreciate the chance to play a part in your future. Thank you for giving life and love a second chance. My life would not be the same without you and I am prepared to support you through whatever our future holds.

Love A.

Connection comes from vulnerability and honesty – not from shame and secrecy. And without connection, I think we’ve all learned that life isn’t worth very much at all. So thank you if you’ve taken the time to read this – thank you for taking the time to connect with me, and please let me know if I can do the same.

-Cat xxxxx


Exploring the Mind: Finding Method in the Madness

As much as I find therapy taxing at the best of times, I do appreciate that I now have a pretty good therapist. For example, she’s the first person out of half a dozen mental health professionals to:

a) Actually recognize the problems, rather than the symptoms, defining my BPD;

b) Actually attempt to treat/resolve said problems rather than simply experience them;

c) Realize the importance – the paramount importance – of constancy in any BPD-related treatment program (abandonment is pretty much THE recipe for disaster).

She also has a fairly mind-blowing treatment approach which I’ve described before called “part work.” The idea is that the damaged mind/psyche is fragmented, and the fragments (i.e. experiences/memories/feelings too intolerable to be properly processed) need to be reintegrated (pulled forward to the frontal lobe of the brain, to be exact) in order to rebuild a whole and complete mind.

Kind of actually makes sense, right?

As a result, we spend a lot of time doing some very weird mental exercises that involve communicating with inner parts. It feels like schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder treatment (and maybe it is, I’m not sure) and can be quite terrifying to even acknowledge that there really are parts of yourself you might not have much control over.

As an example of how incredible the human mind is, I thought I’d share the following journey that mine took me on.

After pulling up my “safe room” with all my inner parts around a table, I asked (mentally) if any of them had anything to tell me. After waiting a few minutes and after a few dozen invalidating, automatic reactions from my conscious mind (“This is stupid; I’m crazy; Why am I doing this; This lady thinks I’m nuts” etc.), one of my parts came up to me.

I call this part “Love Slave.” She is me a few years ago and she will do literally anything to be accepted and loved. She lives for romantic attachment and the lure of unrealistic, all-encompassing, perfect love. But she knows it will never happen so she throws herself into a kind of tragic acceptance of love that hurts and turns her into a slave – hence the name.

Anyway, this Love Slave led me out of the room and up a rocky path to the edge of the waterfall. I looked down and realized I had a wooden bucket I was supposed to fill (I don’t know how I knew this – it was kind of like a dream, with its own logic, by this point). I realized I was thirsty and the water looked glacially cold, clean and beautiful. I kept holding my bucket under the water but every time I brought it back to drink from it, it was empty. Soon I discovered why: there was a roughly hacked hole in the bottom. Looking from the waterfall to the bucket to the Love Slave, who was watching all of this, something in my mind clicked suddenly.

The waterfall was love. The bucket was me. Until I fix myself, all the love in the world isn’t going to fix me. It’s just going to drain through me and leave me emptier than ever.

Did I mention I was in no way on drugs during this episode? Wow.

Of course I knew that someone else was never going to fix these problems – but I didn’t really know it deep down. Now I know and accept that no amount of “outside” love is going to fix me.

These are the kinds of things that your own mind knows. These are the kinds of things that heal you from the inside out.

This is the first therapy I’ve encountered that really delves deep enough to let you be the healing force – not the therapist, not the therapy itself, not the meds. The real healing in this method comes from coming to realizations that shift your entire perspective in a way that puts you more in touch with who you really are and what you really need.

Pretty cool, huh?

Reward for completing therapy! More therapy!

ImageThat title is half snarky/sarcastic, half genuinely (albeit tentatively) enthused. Why? Because Canada’s healthcare system has a standard mental health program that means you have to slog through quite a bit of aggravating standardized b.s. to get to the “real” treatment: namely, 8 weeks of basic emotion regulation skills (group format), followed by months of DBT (group) until you finally get to see an individual therapist – yes, one of your very own – for 45 minutes per week to help with the DBT skills. 

***Side note: for anyone who doesn’t know what Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) is, it’s a form of psychotherapy developed specifically for BPD, and therefore a standard ‘prescription’ for the disorder. The program was developed by Marsha Linehan, a woman with severe BPD who engaged in self-harm and numerous suicide attempts for years before pursuing psychology and spiritual exploration (and the combination of the two) as a way to combat the disorder in herself and in others. I am a pretty big believer in DBT (and I haven’t even gone that far in it yet), mostly because it bloody works. If you are suffering from BPD (or know someone who is) please give DBT serious consideration: find a therapist in your area who has years of experience with it, and a track record of using it to successfully treat borderlines. There will be a LOT of posting on/about DBT in this blog, especially as I’d like to share many of the techniques it has taught me.***

So yes, I’d sat through the 8-week intro on regulating emotions (not that helpful but it laid the groundwork I guess), and then through another few months of DBT group sessions which mainly involved extremely patronizing discussions of how to “shoo away bad feelings” and “focus on the positive” (thank you, Captain Obvious!), and today was my first meeting with my individual DBT therapist.

She was an extremely nice lady – but much more excitingly/importantly, she was an extremely qualified lady. She asked me for my basic history in terms of mental health treatment. I told her. It included many standard reactions that borderlines can get from medical professionals – i.e., “Oh WOW, you’re fucked up! I have no idea what to do with you, and now that we’ve gotten into all your issues just enough to really upset you, I recommend that you go see *insert name of some other doctor with no specialty in BPD*”  

So get this: my new therapist lady actually validated these experiences. That right there floored me. It was such a short statement, and such a simple thing, but just her saying that I was right to feel wounded by those reactions was a big thumbs-up in my head. “Opening up for help is hard enough for borderlines,” she said. “Opening up for help and not getting that help from supposed professionals? That’s medical trauma.” 

I’m trying really really hard not to feel too invested/hopeful about all this since, well, you know how that often turns out when you’ve got BPD (when most people get their hopes dashed they can get irritated or upset; when borderlines get their hopes dashed they can get, um, insane or suicidal). But at the same time, acknowledging a positive feeling like hope is important when your brain’s pathways are very well worn in negative directions, but hardly broken in at all on the positive side. 

Part of the armour BPD pads us with is supremely negative thinking: if I expect the absolute worst, I can’t be hurt or disappointed (Yay, look at me in my incredibly cozy bubble-wrap of misery and low expectations!). This is an incredibly dumb line of reasoning for a few reasons: 1) It doesn’t work. How many times have you told yourself this, yet STILL felt hurt/disappointed (and then angry at yourself for feeling what you swore you wouldn’t feel)? 2) Countless studies have shown that thoughts form reality in a very concrete way; predict the worst possible outcome, and you stand a much better chance of getting the worst possible outcome. 3) It reenforces an existing pattern in your mind to lean towards seeing the negative rather than the positive in any situation = extra badness for yourself. 4) It reenforces the idea that anyone who IS working to be positive or improve is a stupid, delusional chump – when in reality, anyone who’s tried it knows that clinging to the fleeting positive moments in this life is a task of truly heroic effort and badass determination (at least it is when you’re coming at it from the total opposite direction).

So yep. The situation seems a little bit brighter at the moment: feels weird to say that. And I’m actively acknowledging the resistance to positivity, the fact that it feels weird to say that. One of my (many) past therapists said something really helpful when I was berating my terrible coping skills: “Maybe they are terrible, but you learned them for a reason. Honour them for that reason. They got you through what you need to get through at that time, but they’re not working anymore and they’re actually just hurting you.” For that reason alone, BPD therapists will differ from most therapists: they should never EVER be telling you to “tear down the walls” or “just let it all out” – that kind of thing works for some people, but not for us. The walls and boundaries and negative coping skills we have were developed for a reason, and they need to be taken down slowly or the only result will be a total meltdown.

Take one positive moment today to embrace whatever makes it positive. Acknowledge thoughts like “God I’m pathetic” or “Why am I fucking doing this?”  Then picture yourself giving those thoughts a giant middle finger (or mooning… I prefer mooning, personally, it’s somehow more satisfyingly defiant) because you’re not giving into them yet again. This moment, and whatever makes it positive, is for you to enjoy because, come on now, you deserve to enjoy at least one moment of your time on this earth – doesn’t everyone?


Cat xx