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.

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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

A simple, effective DBT skill: naming emotions

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Back after a longer absence than I would have liked. The explanation, quite honestly? Feelings beyond words. We all know what that’s like. And I know that those are the times I should be most committed to trying to express myself and learn the ways of honest communication. But here we are, nonetheless.

One of the skills learned in the “emotion regulation” part of DBT is naming emotions. The theory, backed up by lots of studies (apparently), is that identifying, naming and expressing the emotion we are feeling drastically lessens its intensity. As an example, one study asked participants to approach something they were terrified of  – for most it was a big spider (I know, ew). Participants who named and expressed, aloud, what they were feeling (e.g. “I’m terrified; I feel sick; I want to run away”) were able to go right up to the spiders, and, in some cases, even touch them. Contrastingly, none of the participants instructed to remain silent got any further than looking at the spiders. Interesting, right?

DBT also reminds us that naming and expressing an emotion doesn’t mean “figuring it out.” There’s nothing to solve, nothing to unravel. It’s best to have this expectation (or rather, lack of expectation); this way, if anything does get “solved,” it is simply a helpful by-product of healthy emotional expression, while anything less than a revelation won’t feel disappointing. Just name it, just say it. Even if it’s just to yourself, in your head – though out loud or on paper is best. Nothing is too simple or dumb, nothing is “wrong.” 

If I were to follow this principle right now, my feelings would be:

a) Guilt. Biggest one. I full-on lost it over the holidays and am still experiencing the fall-out. I don’t live where I did three weeks ago. I don’t actually know where I’m going to live. For now I’m at my parents’ place and I feel like it’s all my fault for letting BPD me take over and re-enact violent scenes from my terrible, abusive relationship when I felt triggered. I hurt people who were trying to help me. I hurt my parents by hiding this from them for so long. I fucked everything up in spite of how much work I’ve put into this and I feel so guilty.

b) Shame. Ditto the above reasons. Having to go back into the arms of your family when you hit a rough patch feels awful. Not to mention my mental condition, which has been a shameful burden I’ve carried for decades – and now, thanks to my concerned roommate telling my family ALL ABOUT IT on Christmas Eve, it’s suddenly out there for all to see. 

c) ANGER. Also related to the above reasons. What the FUCK was my roommate thinking?!? Logical Cat knows he was scared shitless that I would do something terrible to myself. Emotional me doesn’t give a flying fuck and instantly fills my mind with its own brand of “logic”: I kept this secret for about 20 years, even when it was terrifying – he couldn’t keep it for a few months?! Or think of a way to help that DIDN’T involve betraying my trust and opening me to this kind of vulnerability?! Grrrrrrrrrr.

d) Sadness. For all the lost opportunities to heal and help myself. For the people I’ve hurt. For myself. For all the pain I’ve been through and am still going through – maybe will always be going through?

e) Fear. What the hell am I going to do? Where will I go? Will I ever feel loved or cared for? Is anyone going to help me with this? What if no one ever helps or cares? Will it ever get better? etc. etc.  Doesn’t help at all that said roommate hasn’t seen or spoken to me in weeks, thus feeding my suspicion that I’ve managed to scare off yet another person trying to help. 😦

So yes, pretty much running the full gamut here, and just trying, desperately, to cling to the hope that everything will be okay. Does that sound pathetic and helpless? If so, that’s because that’s exactly how I’m feeling. 

But – and I am almost afraid to admit it, lest the feeling slip away as quickly as it usually does – something has shifted. Not much, but it has. I don’t know how to explain it other than in terms of progress that even in my worst states, I cannot deny.

For instance, I haven’t self-harmed – even though I felt incredibly triggered and off-my-nut recently; I haven’t given in to the urge to fall into old patterns and manipulate reactions out of people – even though I HATE this feeling of vulnerability and fear that comes with my roommate totally ignoring me; I have been able to really “be” with my emotions recently – not for long, and always with very painful side effects, but I can feel them; I have been doing things that make me feel better, not worse – I know that would seem stupidly obvious to a non-borderline, but those of you with BPD know how significant that is. Just being able to pick up a journal, art project, telephone, or favourite movie instead of giving into the urge to show everyone how much pain you’re in, how helpless you are, how unable to cope, etc. is HUGE. I kind of astonished myself, to be honest.

How has this miracle been achieved? A few things as far as I can tell. But that’s for another post very shortly… this one is long enough already. xxxx