More than our memories

Having been inspired by this great post by Life In a Bind, I thought I’d take a bit of a reflection on a great book, and on the concept of memories.

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The two are inextricable for me right now because I’m reading Joshua Foer’s bestseller, “Moonwalking with Einstein.” This book is incredible. Just really clean, spot-on journalism on a compelling topic – memory. The book charts the journey of the author from someone with average (i.e. pretty awful) memory who is interested in the topic, through his learning mnemonism (memory training), up to his competing in the USA Memory Championship.

Among all the fascinating information about memory in the book is the following passage which really struck home for me. 

  • ‘In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates describes how the Egyptian god Theuth, inventor of writing, came to the king of Egypt and offered to bestow his wonderful invention upon the Egyptian people. “Here is a branch of learning that will… improve their memories,” Theuth said to the king. But the king was reluctant to accept the gift. “If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls,” he told the god. “They will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. … It is no true wisdom that you offer, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them anything, you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they will know nothing.’

Yikes. A bit too close to home? In an age when GPS tells me where to go, my phone tells me contacts’ information, my calendar tells me birthdays or appointments, and Google tells me – well – anything and everything, why on earth would I waste headspace remembering? Yet this passage points out that to truly know something, one must remember it. If information can be said to be externalized (written down or recorded) or internalized (stored in the neurons that make up and control our very consciousness), then it’s clear which kind is more powerful, more meaningful when it comes to the information that makes me who I am.

Consider two widely accepted facts:

1) We think therefore we are. When we say “I” we basically mean our memories. Our memories shape both physical and mental reactions, choices, events and, at our core, self. They make us who we are because we learn (or do not learn) from them. We keep the ones our minds consider essential to ourselves, and, for the most part, discard the more frivolous or irrelevant ones.

2) Our memories are faulty and/or at the very least, prone to some extreme negative thinking. They are riddled with all kinds of patterns and tendencies that mean you will always remember the worst you ever felt, the worst thing you ever saw, the worst moment of your life, etc. The best? Not nearly as likely. As numerous studies have confirmed, when it comes to “memorable,” the more lewd, awful or violent, the better. Mary Carruthers notes that memorization techniques have, for thousands of years, relied on grotesque and disturbing images to make things stick because that’s how easily the memory gravitates to things that stand out as objectionable or horrific to the mind.

Now back to us and our BPD. 

If you struggle with BPD, depression, anxiety or all of the above, you know that your memory is even more prone than the average human memory to focus on the bad and inadvertently filter out the good. For me, often when a good memory arises or is being made, I just breeze over it as, “that’s nice, ANYway, moving on…” – or worse, I’ll do the classic, “well this is nice but of course it’s going to go sour soon, just like last time…” – thereby reinforcing my mind’s iron grip on bad memories over positive experiences.

This is why if you believe your memories make you everything you are today, you couldn’t be more wrong. Your memories need your active help to remain balanced and factual. So I’m going to start doing some work to make and retain positive memories. I know lots of people keep a gratitude journal, and maybe that’s where I’ll start. But more than that, I want to internalize the things that make me hopeful, happy, encouraged and inspired – because I know I certainly don’t need help remembering the opposite events. It makes it a lot more palatable to me (and a lot less hokey) to think of this as memory work rather than “positive thinking” or some other fluffy concept that I don’t really feel comfortable clinging to. I really want to know the things I’m happy about and carry them within me, rather than just be reminded of them from time to time as I drag around my bulging suitcases of traumatic memories. Wish me luck!

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

Identity and BPD: so many angles, so little mind…

Image       Lately I’m overwhelmed with ideas to consider/write about/explore in relation to that all-consuming topic of my life: BPD. I know that it’s actually much more important to LIVE a life rather than just spend it looking at life from every possible angle in your mind. Looking at it, analyzing it, considering it from every possible angle is just too exhausting for anyone’s mind, let alone a borderline’s. However, that’s what this post is going to be, in the hopes that venting some of these constant buzzing thoughts regarding the inner life and identity of BPD gets them out for the day (or hour at least).

It hardly needs to be said that, as borderlines, we spend so much damn time thinking this out (well, trying to), questioning everything we do/have done, trying to come up with solutions when ultimately, we don’t even know if we want to be ‘solved’ – after all, most people with BPD grow to see the disorder as their ‘actual’ identity. This is tragic but completely understandable – and, in fact, inevitable – for a variety of reasons:

#1) BPD lasts.

Untreated, it’ll last decades – for some people, a whole lifetime. If you make it to your 40s/50s (given the 1/10 BPD suicide statistic), you may be one of those people lucky enough to have the symptoms simply dissipate on their own: yep, some studies have shown that, inexplicably, many of BPD’s symptoms will lessen or soften with four or five decades of horrific self-abuse practice (hip hip hooray??). However, for the borderline right in the throes of this disorder (20s and 30s), it’s now defined the vast majority of your inner existence. That’s a powerful sense of identity when not much else had lasted in your life; because, of course, your BPD has likely damaged most of your core relationships, robbed you of your hobbies/opinions/passions, and caused you cut ties with anything that gets too ‘close’ to prevent the painful situations you anticipate. Ironic result? The problem destroying your life is all you really have to define yourself by.

#2) BPD (and all the shit it brings with it) just feels “realer” than the rest of your life.

I’m not entirely clear on the mechanisms at work in this one but one thing is very clear to me: pain, loss, sorrow, darkness, agony, anger are all very “real” words in my vocabulary. Happiness, peace, love, calm, joy, laughter – not so much. I mean they’re real, of course, but they are inextricable from a sense of falseness or transience in my mind: that is, I know (or BPD makes me “know”) that they will never last – so why pursue the pain by acting like they will last? “But that’s just stupid,” non-borderlines will point out. “Why dwell on sorrow and pain and anger and all that dark shit when they don’t last either.” True. And yet, in the BPDer’s mind, they are the ones that last – primarily because (largely unconsciously) we make them last.

Research has shown that you make pathways in your brain just as you do in a landscape. Those that are well-trafficked become those that are ‘real’ – your mind understands them, it’s used to travelling them, and – as a creature of habit just like the rest of our human parts – it wants to keep going down them because they’re familiar. The pathways that don’t get much use become exactly how you’d expect an unused path to become over time: overgrown, treacherous, scary, daunting. The mind resists the work of forging those new paths. 

I first came across that information in my initial counselling for post-traumatic stress disorder, and it really excited me in a way. For one thing, it made so much sense. Our brains and bodies are built out of repeated connections and patterns. Make certain connections a million times (i.e. love isn’t real, love never lasts, I don’t trust it and it’s hurt me), and your brain is a friggin effective learner: it will help to reinforce the “knowledge” that love is not a path to go down, so just stick to this lovely little venue of miserable loneliness instead.

Even as I’m bloody writing these words I can actually feel my well-worn brain patterns resisting what I’m writing (seriously)! “No, no, no, NO, Cat, don’t even think things like this, deep down you know you should stick to what you’ve always followed, you know it’s true.” But the fact is – and it’s taken literally a few years just to get to this point in my own head – I do not have a good sense of what is “true.” I really don’t. I’ve got a very strong sense of what my BPD believes to be true. And that’s never worked for me. In fact it’s sucked so bad at guiding my life that I’m now willing to do god-awful things like sit through the required group therapy (the horror… the horror) just to combat its influence. I know BPD is just a part of the picture and not the “real” picture, but I’m still struggling to apply that knowledge to my life in concrete ways.

#3) BPD’s symptoms can be very similar to the actual parts of your identity that it grew from.

Picture this: Take a creative, sensitive child with a propensity for drama, passion, story-telling and spontaneity. Now subject him to all the conditions that create BPD, including a genetic predisposition, a family that’s not comfortable with emotions or punishes them, a traumatic event that produces overwhelming feelings which can’t be expressed, and a peer group that rejects and belittles his ideas, emotions and identity. Gradually, the creativity and storytelling traits become duplicity and a talent for lying – even when it’s not necessary. Suppressed, the propensity for drama and passion become violence and uncontrollable emotions whenever they do burst out. The spontaneity become impulsiveness – promiscuity, gambling, self-harm, drug abuse.

In this way, BPD takes certain aspects of your being and slants them in a self-destructive direction. But because those aspects really do represent parts of your personality, you’ll feel as fiercely attached to them as if they were parts of you. How many borderlines meet their BPD diagnosis with anger, defensiveness and disbelief (*raises hand*)? “It is NOT a mental illness, it’s just who I am.” It’s an absurdly common reaction to any mental health diagnosis, and it was certainly mine. I was sure that I didn’t have a problem – everyone else just had a problem with the way I was. I was sure that I’d always had an association between love and pain, or love and violence: that’s just me. I was sure that I’d always had a habit of lying, or an inability to handle strong emotions, or a lean towards self-destruction. The resistance in me was insanely strong: THOSE THINGS ARE WHO I AM AND IF I GIVE THEM UP, I CEASE TO BE ME!!!!!!!

I still feel like that when I get in really severe BPD mode (i.e. depressive or raging low points). But by exploring and validating who I really am, I’m finding it easier to let go of the ways that BPD has defined me. It’s not easy, to say the least. I mean it’s been defining me, and telling me that’s how I have to define myself, for over 20 years now. But the cliche is true: behind every horrible person was (and sometimes still is) a ridiculously sensitive and damaged person in need of love and validation – the kind that only comes from within (please don’t fucking fool yourself like so many borderlines into thinking someone else holds that key).

Note: the very phrase “self-love” or “self-care” still my skin crawl instinctively. I’m not even remotely comfortable with it yet. But as I progress through therapy, I’ll be sharing a lot of techniques to facilitate the ability to “self-care” while I attempt to work on them myself too.

In conclusion, no matter how long it’s been going on, how bad things have gotten, or how many past examples you’ve built up to make your point: don’t be so sure that being horrible, evil, bitchy, manipulative, violent or destructive is your “true” nature – even if you’ve gone to great lengths to prove it to other people until they wholeheartedly agree.

That’s BPD’s identity, not yours: you owe it to your true self to put in the hard work it takes to separate the two.

Cat Earnshaw xx