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

*Mind blown*

So I went to individual therapy extremely frustrated last week. Not only had my therapist cancelled last week (cue angry abandoned borderline feelings), but recently I feel like I’m getting nowhere concrete. Even though I do find myself able to think of things in a better light most of the time, all it takes is one really horrible day – even one really horrible moment or mood – and I lapse so easily into bad old habits and thoughts: nothing is ever going to work; nothing is ever going to change; something is wrong with me, etc. etc. I decided I was going to try and be up-front. By which I mean I wasn’t going to lose it, but I wasn’t going to mask my every emotion and self-invalidate by saying everything was fine. Here’s how my initial dialogue with Karen went:

Karen: How are you?

Me: … not great.

Karen: Why, what’s up??

Me: (SIGHHHH) You said you’ve successfully treated borderlines.

Karen: Yes.

Me: How? What did you say? What did they do? How did it start? I want this to stop and I feel like all I’m learning to do is adopt some relaxing breathing techniques that pussyfoot around the actual problem.

Karen: What is the actual problem? The “I hate you, don’t leave me” intensely irrational feelings?

Me: YES. Exactly. That. I don’t want to feel like that. I don’t want to think of that as the real me – this crazy bitch who flies off the handle when she perceives the slightest invalidation or abandonment.

Karen: Why do you think you’re so sensitive to those things? Why do you think you’re so prone to feeling abandoned?

Me: I don’t know… I’m pathetic and needy?

Karen: It’s time to come to the core of this. It’s because you’re abandoning yourself.

Me: No, that’s not… wait… Whaaaaaaa???? 

Karen: You have emotions. You just called yourself pathetic and needy for having them. You just called yourself a crazy bitch for having them. You’re not even there for yourself; your logical conclusion is, why would anybody else be?

Me: *stunned silence*

 

Whoa. That conversation, and particularly that phrase, really hit home. REALLY hit home. I’ve been turning it in my mind for days.

You are abandoning yourself.

Do you ever get that goose-bumpy feeling when words really resonate because you know, deep in your gut, without having to analyze or intellectualize it, that they are true? That’s how I feel when I think about that phrase.

You are abandoning yourself.

It was like a veil – or at least a corner of a veil – had been pulled back. I’m working on self-validation and all the DBT stuff that I should be – but I’m so far from genuinely knowing how to “be there” for myself. When I’ve been angry at people for not meeting my crazy expectations, I’ve said hollow things like, “Forget about it – you can’t fix me.” But I didn’t mean it. I never meant it. What I desperately wanted was exactly the opposite – someone to mend all my internal chips and cracks. It never worked. It never would have worked. I know this, but I didn’t know it – not really, not deep down. Now, I feel like I’m starting to get it at last.

You are abandoning yourself.

As far as I can tell, it’s not like half of me abandoned the other half. It’s more like, most of me abandoned certain parts I didn’t like as I got older and gained the ability to control (i.e. suppress) my emotions.

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When you have emotions as intense as those of a borderline, its not hard to see why you’d abandon them. They’re the reason people (horrible people anyway) attack you. They’re the reason you can’t live up to the expectations you’ve set for yourself – or that other people have set for you. They’re the reason you feel weak, stupid, abnormal, ashamed and vulnerable. You start to think that the people who invalidate you are right – after all, who would want to put up with someone so contrary, so needy, so difficult to control? As a result, the older I got, the more I separated from the parts of me I couldn’t handle.

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When I was 8-10, I was only (“only”) suffering stuff like random anxiety and trichotillomania. By 11-13, I was pushing into kleptomania, anorexia and self-harm. But then something happened over the next couple years, to my total surprise, that I could never explain until now: all of those outward manifestations of pain started to disappear. It seemed effortless. I never needed help with them. They just left. It just happened. Numbness set in instead.

Now I realize that Grown-up Cat got bigger and stronger than Child-Cat. As most of me matured, I got the upper hand on the “immature” parts of myself. Success! (or so I thought) No more of that nonsense. Sure it’d crop up from time to time, but only at the very worst times. And feeling numb wasn’t so bad compared to the constant agony of adolescence.

This is pertinent because Karen asked another question that struck hard because I’d never, even thought about it: “How old do you actually feel when you’re depressed or upset?”

The answer came so fast it was startling. For me, it’s about 14. Right about the time I started to be able leave that uncontrollable and suffering part of me behind. That freaked me right out. Mostly because it clicked; it made so much sense in a tragic and horrifying way. She’s still there. She’s right there where I left her, at 14. Abandoned and miserable and all the rest of it – just more and more gagged and imprisoned with each passing year.

And of course, she’s not really under lock and key the way I think she is. When anything happens that elicits a strong emotional reaction – there she is, as I found out when trauma struck in my late twenties. Emotionally, I’m about 14 years old.

That’s a lot to take in. I feel like I’m wading through years and years of unravelled, unconnected thoughts and feelings, trying to put them back together in the right order.

But the main thing I feel is… horrified. I feel shocked and guilty and horrified. For so long I’ve thought of my suppressed emotional self as crazy – in fact, I’ve literally casually named her Crazy Bitch, as I posted just a couple weeks ago. That was what I called the part of myself that could still feel and hurt: a crazy fucking bitch.

Not only did I abandon myself, I’ve been absolutely eviscerating myself, calling myself things that I would never, ever let someone else call me. Treating my emotions like they’re insane. Treating my pain like it’s nothing. Treating my thoughts and desires like they’re wrong and screwed up. Treating a whole crucial part of myself like it’s broken, diseased, and in need of amputation. Holy shit. No wonder this hasn’t gone very well.

When I was a teenager, something happened that immediately came to mind as I thought about this. I was once a big-time diarist. I’d kept all my diaries since I was about 7 years old under my mattress. My little sister and I, much to our constant chagrin, shared a room for most of our lives. One day, I realized my diaries weren’t quite in the spots I left them. I eventually got it out of my sister that she had been reading them. Were the diaries particularly incriminating? No, I had done nothing remotely scandalous or interesting by that point in my life. Were they likely to get me in any trouble? No. But I was so filled with shame and self-loathing, so angry and disgusted at the idea of anyone knowing my true thoughts and inner self that later that day, I dumped them like a murdered corpse and never kept another one. I slowly stopped playing music even though I had loved it for years. I stopped painting or drawing. I stopped expressing anything – pleasant or painful, minor or intense, unless my BPD took over and I exploded. Even now, as I start to slowly edge back into acknowledging and expressing my feelings by writing in this blog, I know that it would fill me with terror and rage if anyone who knows me in “real life” read this.

Could I be sending a stronger message to the vulnerable and emotional parts of myself? You’re embarrassing. You’re something I’m ashamed of. You make me feel pathetic. I don’t want anyone to know about you.

I know that based on a lot of blogs I’ve read, borderlines seem to have a really hard time with a fixed identity (as I addressed in an earlier post). This is why. You are abandoning yourself. Some borderlines are so distant from themselves, so ashamed of who they are, that they can’t even voice a preference for a particular type of music or food. You have abandoned yourself. Until you can stand by yourself through good and bad, intense and awful and wonderful and embarrassing and everything that comes with a human being – you have abandoned yourself, and every perceived invalidation from someone else will hurt like hell because it’s only reinforcing what you’re putting yourself through.

It’s hitting me that this is going to be horrendously uncomfortable. I feel ill at the thought of facing my unleashed 14-year-old self, and even more ill at the thought of all the self-love and touchy-feely compassion that’s going to have to happen to make her okay. But honestly, I’ve run out of options. I’ve suppressed and self-loathed til I can’t suppress and self-loathe no more, and it’s never ever worked. I’ve made enemies out of so many people I considered soul mates and best friends that I can’t go through that anymore either. It’s destroying my faith in people and my hope for any kind of future for myself.

I’m not entirely sure about the “how” but the “what” is clear: it’s time to stick with myself and stop vilifying other people for what I’m actually doing to myself.