Anxiety & Catastrophic Thinking – Therapy Diary, March 4, 2021

No therapy this week, but I had a bad night last night, and thought I would jot down a few notes.

We have always had cats, since before we got married, but the six-month-old brother & sister pair who showed up on our porch 15 months ago are unusual in how loving they are. The boy cat in particular glommed onto me from the first day, and spends a lot of his day following me around, lying on my lap, sitting next to me, and watching me.

He has some heart & asthma issues, but he also has bad dental hygiene. His teeth look like they belong to a 10-year old, not a two-year old, and he was overdue for a good cleaning. Our vet sedates cats for extensive dental work, and today was the day.

Last night, I stayed up late watching a really well-done science fiction-based TV series (Impulse) on Youtube. The subject matter of the series is very intense, including scenes of sexual assault & a young woman suffering from PTSD. I ended up falling asleep about two hours later than usual, & had a series of dreams inspired by the TV show. Then the dreams changed to anxiety dreams about my cat being at the vet. In the dream, I got a call from the vet that my cat had died during the procedure, and my grief was very strong. I was so disturbed that I woke part way up, became aware that I was dreaming, but couldn’t shake the fear & grief, which felt very real. I actually used some of the ideas I’ve read about to defuse the anxiety, paying attention to my breath & the texture of my bed sheets & pillow to re-ground myself in the reality that my cat was not dead, he was right downstairs.

I fell asleep again around 4 a.m., but the dreams shifted one more time, changing to worry that some recent incidents of forgetfulness that I’ve experienced were signs of some sort of oncoming dementia. In the dreams, I couldn’t do my work any longer, & lost my job, ending with my wife & I destitute & unable to keep our house.

I woke again at 5 a.m. & was able to calm down, although I can still feel the fear of losing my job. I fell asleep, but our older cat, who stays in our bedroom at night, started waking me up around 5:30 and by 6:30 I was awake for good.

I got the cat to the vet on time, & spent the day running around doing errands. It’s a gorgeous day, warm for the season, & after all the chores were done, I decided to take my motorcycle out for a short ride. Being out in the sun & wind, added to the very grounding activity of getting stuff done that needed doing, has really improved my mood. I’m not feeling exactly cheerful, but I no longer am worried that I’m about to lose my job.

Our cat got through the procedure well, and is back home, smooshing his face on everything and staying very close to me.

I’m exhausted, and expect that I’ll sleep a lot better tonight.

-=-

P.S. I forgot that I wanted to discuss how our love for our pets can get past our defenses. I’ve been emotionally locked down for years, but that rigid armor is no match for my cat being in danger.

Oh, and yes, I did sleep a lot better.

A motorcycle is shown parked next to a patch of grass. There are shrubs & a house in the background.

Insert Pithy Title Here: Therapy Diary, Feb. 18-27, 2021

Last week’s therapy session was very intense. I wanted to write about it that very evening, but I worked late, and by the time we finished supper I was too tired to write. I also felt that I had to write something impressive for my friend L, and since I couldn’t picture what I’d write that would be impressive, I couldn’t seem to start. So, Thursday night passed, and Friday was another hard day at work and Friday night passed. The weekend came and I got sucked into my current micro-obsession of trying to fill in blanks on my family tree. I know that spending hours researching people’s marriage records from the 18th century is most likely another variation of my avoidance pattern, but knowing that doesn’t me stop doing it.

Anyway, as the hours and days went by, the details of why that therapy session seemed so intense and potentially important slipped away, uncaptured. My memory is so bad these days that if I don’t jot down notes right away, most fade, with only the barest bones left.

Here’s what I do remember.

The Monday before the Feb. 18 session was a holiday for me, and I ended up talking with my friend L. for over an hour. I don’t talk on the phone much outside of work, so that was a very unusual hour for me. L. told me that she really liked my last blog post, which made me feel great. She also said something that I heard but didn’t really notice during the conversation. I was explaining how frustrated I have been about how I just stopped exercising last month, after almost five months of consistent workouts and jogging. She gently suggested that I need not be upset, because over the years we’ve known each other, she’s seen me go through a pattern of exercising, then not exercising, and it was likely that in a while I’d start again. Looking back at the conversation, I think that I heard her comment as a kind of generic encouragement, along the lines of the ‘oh, don’t worry, you’ll be back on your feet in no time’ comments friends say. After a couple of days, though, some things started clicking together in new ways, and her comment took on new meanings for me. The perspective shift happened when I realized that over the last two years of therapy, my focus has been at the nearly microscopic level. I’ve been looking at things that I do that last a few seconds or a few minutes or hours or days. I have been looking at things like my road rage, or my twitchy perfectionistic tendencies, or my difficulties getting housework done when I’m feeling down. I’ve been learning to see these not as character flaws but as less-than-optimal coping strategies that I have adopted over the years. I’ve been learning to forgive myself for them, or at times even recognize that there is nothing there to forgive.

But as the import of L.’s observation became clearer, it was as if I was panning back out, like in those drone-filmed scenes in a movie, where the point of view retreats 300 feet into the sky & you can see the characters in their broader environment. I started to get a hint that my less-optimal strategies aren’t restricted to momentary rages or three-day mood slumps. This might sound depressing on the surface; ‘oh look, I’m actually dysfunctional in all these grander ways as well,‘ but that wasn’t how I felt it. It was more like ‘hey, maybe I don’t have to see this (long trend/whatever thing) as a catastrophe.‘ If I can understand and forgive myself for losing my temper in traffic (and, hey, maybe find different ways of coping with traffic that reduce my opportunities for escalation), then perhaps I can also understand and forgive myself for going through long swings of over-the-top enthusiasm followed by weeks or months of dark moods.

When I noticed that the patterns of recognition and forgiveness that I’ve been learning for dealing with tiny, short-term issues can be applied for longer-term patterns in my life, I came up with a cutesy title for my imagined blog post: As Above, So Below. Neat, huh? I even thought of a variation: Fractal Neurosis. I was so impressed with these potential blog post titles that I couldn’t think of what to write in the actual post to live up to the assumed awesomeness of those titles. Naturally, I ended up not being able to write anything. (Note to self: write about how I love getting praise, but how praise makes me feel like I can’t live up to the expectations, but I must live up to the expectations!)

The weekend crept by. I spent hours on Twitter or on Ancestry. The workweek started and we are so busy at work that I was worn out at the end of every day, and so I continued to not write. Not-writing is something I’m at least consistent about. Bright side and all that.

This week my therapy session was on Friday morning. It was kind of interesting not meeting on Thursday at noon, as we have most weeks for lo, these many months. All I had prepared for Friday was a partial journal entry I scribbled on Wednesday evening in a small panic, thinking that I had therapy the next day. When we started the video session, I could tell I was still wound up from the morning’s work. I have a hovering deadline for Monday that I haven’t started work on, and my procrastination anxiety is high (marvel at the fact that the anxiety never, ever helps, but I keep on being anxious).

I chattered a bit about work, then caught my breath and got focused.

I reviewed the stuff I wrote about here, then I shifted to talk about an article I read earlier this week about bullying. Entitled ‘I Tracked Down the Girls Who Bullied Me as a Kid. Here’s What They Had to Say,’ it’s a brief and relatively light piece (‘light’ for the topic) by a woman who suffered for years with anxiety and depression. She interviewed fellow students from the years she was subjected to bullying; not only the bullies but others who had been bullied and several women who seemed to have been able to avoid being in either camp. I think it is worth a read, of course with the usual content warnings.

One of her points really hit home for me. She said that talking with her tormentors had not only allowed her to start feeling some relief from her decades of trauma response but had helped her recognize that she had also bullied others on several occasions. Reading that got me thinking about how I’d been anywhere from ‘less than nice’ to outright vicious at various times, particularly in my twenties. This is far from the first time I’ve recognized that I had been a jerk. Previously, though, I just felt horrible about it. Knowing there’s nothing I can do to apologize for how I acted, I just stewed in the feelings of guilt. This time the recognition was different. I saw an angle I’d missed before: why I lashed out. I think I’ve found a pattern, and it’s not flattering but it is possibly the start of more work I can do to be a better person.

Looking back on when I bullied others, the apparent thread is that those incidents happened when I felt that I was part of the cool kids’ clique. All through my childhood and teen years, I was always the outsider. In my mid-twenties I finally was part of the inner circle of a social group I hung around. Example incident: a woman who was not part of our group criticized the leader, and I lashed out at her instantly. I can see now that I was defending my position & the clique that had finally accepted me.

This insight seems useful to me in at least two ways. First, it gives me something to watch for. I’m apparently at risk of not living up to my ideals when my social status is threatened. Knowing this, I can watch for this pattern and perhaps avoid it. 35+ years on, I’m also less vulnerable to such perceived slights. Secondly, it lets me start understanding what may have been driving my own bullies. My instinctive understanding as a kid, ground into me at the level that my breathing happens, is that I was a target because I was a failure. Later, without giving it much thought, I assumed that they were monsters. My new perspective is that they were human, and weak in the same ways that I am weak.

Lots here to think about, and I imagine I’ll be writing more about this at some point.

As the therapy session was wrapping up, I mentioned a poem I’d read (and which I urge you to read!), in which the poet talks about how all the poems that he’d thought of but never written were still there in his body, like hidden messages that might be discovered after his death. I loved the poem partly because I have so many thoughts that float to the surface of my mind, like the fish in Escher’s Three Worlds and, not being caught and written down, vanish again. The poem speaks to the idea that those thoughts are still part of me, whether or not I write & share them. Either way, those thoughts are part of my ongoing creation & growth.

I tried to read the poem to my therapist, and as so often happens, I had the hardest time. When I read something to myself, I feel slight tugs of meaning & emotion, but when I read the same thing out loud, the emotions stab me, and take my breath away.

My therapist asked me to stay with that emotion, not dismiss it. I closed my eyes and kept talking, not trying to be coherent, and I found myself talking about how my cold, nihilistic, brittle self, the me that suppresses emotions, that is self-destructive, may be covering an organic, lonely, caring person that has been hurt so many times, and how threatened the brittle parts of me are by this other part.

The inner struggle is at least partly between that brittle shield, trying to protect me from harm, and a damaged but achingly lonely person inside who misses his few friends who are all so far away. By then I was just weeping steadily.

Then it was time to wash my face and log back in to work. All I wanted to do was curl up on my bed with the covers pulled up.

A pond is shown on a foggy day. The surface of the water is reflective, and a stone wall on the left holds back an embankment with shrubs growing above the water.
Two worlds

Negative Benefits; One-Way Portals; Everything is Transitory: Therapy Diary, Feb. 11-13

I don’t think I’ve ever asked for advice on the blog before, but I could use some this week. If you can help me understand what this mood/mode/mental state is that I’ve been locked in for a month, I’d appreciate your insight.

-=-

This week’s therapy session was as chaotic as most of them have been the last few weeks. Last fall I was writing in my therapy diary after sessions & frequently had notes prepared before each session, or at least some idea of what I wanted to address. Since the end of December, at least, I get to Thursday noon and have no clear idea what to say. In some ways, this is okay with me, because I recognized that I was trying so hard to be ‘the good client,’ and show my therapist that I am worthy of her attention. But I also feel as if I need to use this hour as skillfully as I can, as if I’m making up for all the years I didn’t have access to a therapist. But there’s another one of my traps: the idea of ‘productivity’ and ‘skill’ as ways to prove my worth, give me permission to keep breathing, to take up space here. Anyway, I rambled a lot, and even these rambling notes will give an impression of a more orderly hour of thought than it was.

At one point I mentioned a recent thought that I keep having; that I don’t want to be sober. I don’t want to be clear-minded and sensible. Part of me misses being three beers in. I probably couldn’t be trusted around some coke or acid right now. It’s as if I’m nostalgic for the days when I was more mentally & emotionally unstable. I told her that I suspected part of this was that I lived that way for so long, it became part of my identity, and losing the intoxication is like losing a (not great) part of who I was. My therapist brought up the idea of ‘negative benefits,’ something we’ve touched on in the past. She asked me to think about what benefits I got out of alcohol & uppers. Beer is an easy one to answer. I got to relax. Most of the time in my life I’m wound up, strung tight like a guitar string. After work I’d have a couple of beers and often could feel my shoulders & neck relax, not even having been aware that they were tense & hunched. Beer also makes me more sociable. I become able to have a chat with people. Coke made me feel confident & powerful. High doses of caffeine help me power through work and chores. I feel productive and energetic. None of that is particularly healthy as a strategy for changing yourself, of course, which is where the ‘negative’ part of ‘negative benefits’ comes in. Unsustainable coping strategies. Unsustainable because my body won’t withstand being drunk for years, or I might end up killing myself or someone else while driving after a few drinks. Coke leads to unhealthy relationships with law enforcement.

During the session I tried to explain this weird kind-of-depressed state I’ve been in for a couple months, but particularly in the last three weeks.

Here’s what it’s like. I’m not feeling down, although I’ve been emotionally raw. Videos of people in distress have had me weeping in seconds. Most of the time I am just feeling ‘flat.’ I’m doing well at work, not missing deadlines, not making more mistakes than usual, having plenty of energy. But as soon as work is over, I sit down in front of the TV and watch hours of old TV shows or movies. Or I sit and read twitter for many hours. Our house is always a mess, but I’ve stopped doing all but the bare minimum. I’ve kept up with the laundry and dishes but not much else. I shower when I can’t stand how I smell. I haven’t been reading, or drawing, or writing in my blogs or my therapy journal. I have all the signs of my depressive episodes, but I don’t feel depressed. I feel brittle.

One of the most dramatic parts of this lethargy is the way in which I stopped exercising. Back in August I started jogging & doing daily stretching and strength exercises. I had to back off on the upper-body work because of my elbow injuries, but I kept right on with the other stuff and was feeling strong & unusually motivated. I built up to 2 miles a day or more. I took a couple weeks off around the new year to let my calves recover from a developing overuse injury but got back to it with little trouble. Then on January 19 I just stopped. I ran that evening & the next day was suddenly… not exercising.

I’ve been trying to figure out whether to continue my break from martial arts, go back to training, or quit for good. I was thinking back to the weeks in November when I carefully reviewed in therapy my reasons for wanting to take this break, when I felt conscientious about making such a considered decision. But now I suspect that I had already made the decision at that point and was just looking for ways to justify it after the fact by pretending to consider the pros and cons. There’s a scene in the TV version of The Magicians (S1 E1) where Quentin chases a page of text into an alleyway & over a fence. He struggles through a patch of shrubs & finds himself on the lawn at Brakebills College. He looks back, but of course there’s no way back. It’s impossible to go back, but even more important, it’s impossible to even see where the transition happened. There’s no foreboding locked gate. That’s how my decisions feel. It is as if I don’t decide; I only realize after the fact that ‘a decision has been made.’ The passive language is required here because no ‘I’ made the decision. I described it once as walking through a wall of fog, and another time as if pushing through a stretchy membrane. It’s impossible to know when the change started or when it was done. This gives me a strong sense of being a fraud, that I pretend to be a thoughtful, awake person, but I am just as craven and weak as I ever was as a child, and my supposed progress is a sham.

When I wrote all that out in my therapy journal, it prompted a memory of a movie, The Circle of Iron, from 1978. There’s a scene in the movie where the teacher happens upon the seeker, who is standing on a riverbank and repeatedly stepping into the river and back out. The teacher laughs and calls out to the student “you can’t do it!” “What?” the student asks. “You can’t step in the same river twice!”

Thinking of that scene crystalized the thought that my decision to leave the dojo to think is irreversible. Even if I go back, I’ll not be the same person, nor will the dojo be the same place. Leaving may end up strengthening my self-awareness or my sense of agency, but it likely damaged my relationship (or perhaps even will turn out to have improved it in some cases) with my sensei and the other students. Even as I thought of that, I realized that all decisions are irreversible. Whether I make decisions thoughtfully or am unaware of making them, ‘change’ is the result. As I read recently in a book of Buddhist philosophy: all things are transitory. Accepting this, knowing it at a physical level, is far more difficult than recognizing it at an intellectual level.

During that same session, I mentioned an incident that happened at work the previous evening. I was working late and got an email from someone on a team I support that I check why a bunch of users had lost access to a site. I had a strong jolt of anxiety, feeling it in my chest. But unlike my usual pattern, I had part of me that was standing off to one side, a ‘meta-awareness’ or observer part that noticed the jolt of guilt and fear but said ‘no, that’s not your fault, you didn’t do anything wrong’ and I was able to calm myself down successfully. I still worked hard to fix the issue for the client, so in some ways still fed into my usual pattern of doing anything to fix problems and appear to be the hero, but not buying into the panic… really, feeding the panic, as I might have done a year ago, is something to note & celebrate a little. My therapist reminded me that this is progress. I can’t expect to have new skills entirely replace a lifetime of reaction patterns in a matter of weeks or months. She delicately pointed out that I always want to be perfect with new skills & get discouraged when I’m not perfect. So here I am, noticing and recognizing that I did okay that night.

-=-

And there’s my outline of my last session. So; what is this depressive mode I’m in, that looks like depression, but doesn’t feel like depression? Is this something like what people call dissociation?

Why I’m taking a break from martial arts

Note: I’ve been training at a martial arts dojo several times a week for the last six years. After seven months or so of remote learning via video feed, I realized that I was getting very tense and resistant to attending training. After thinking about it for a couple of months, I decided to take a break to evaluate where I am in my relationship to the dojo. One of the other students was very concerned about me, worried that I had been offended or distressed by something that had happened. Since he has given me a lot of support over the years, I wanted to reassure him. The letter I sent him is below, modified to remove or obscure personal details. I am sharing it because it evolved into something of a snapshot of how my Borderline Personality Disorder affects me, and I thought that others with BPD might find it interesting.

B, thanks for calling the other day. I’m entirely capable of putting off something I’d like to do for weeks, months, or years, but your call has motivated me to actually sit down and write to you as I intended.

There’s a lot I could write about in this letter; keeping it brief will be hard, but I’ll try. I have a therapy blog where I’ve been writing off and on for two years, which is why I know I have a lot I might say.

Anyway, two years ago, in September, I started therapy.

After a few months of therapy, my therapist told me that she felt that my symptoms fit a particular diagnosis, and she asked me if I wanted to know what it was. I said yes, but only if it wasn’t just a label to put on me; if the diagnosis would help me get better, if there was a path to recovery that the Dx would help with, then I did want to know. She told me that I fit the criteria for a Borderline Personality Disorder Dx. There are a lot of descriptions of BPD online if you’re curious about it and want to read more about it. In particular, I have what’s sometimes called ‘quiet BPD,’ which is when you ‘act out’ less than a person might be expected to with the classic description of BPD. The distress tends to implode rather than explode, I guess you could say.

As an aside: There are people who believe that there is no such thing as personality disorders, in a medical sense. There are frequent arguments and conversations on social media about this, and it boils down to people believing that we have ‘medicalized’ normal human behavior, and that the symptoms of personality disorders don’t rise to the level of being classed as an illness. This argument can get somewhat grimly comic at times, when you see people arguing against BPD as an illness when nearly everyone acknowledges that you’re more likely to commit suicide if you have BPD than any other diagnosis

That conversation doesn’t concern me much. I don’t care if BPD is a ‘real medical diagnosis’ or not. What I’m interested in is if there’s a way to improve my behavior & quality of life, and I believe that there are really good methods & therapies available now, after advances in treatment over the last 30 years. In the 1970s & 1980s BPD had a reputation as being ‘untreatable,’ but that’s not true any longer.

As I started reading about BPD after getting my diagnosis in late 2018, one of the things I noticed was that a lot of therapists and researchers say that childhood trauma is at the base of most of the symptoms that people with this diagnosis experience, and I told my therapist that I couldn’t think of any single event that might have caused this sort of trauma.

She pointed out that on top of my older brother drowning when I was four, I was constantly and relentlessly bullied from grade three onward, and both of my parents were emotionally damaged from their own life traumas and had no idea how to support me. My younger brother and I were largely ignored throughout our teen years. For instance, no one noticed that I was being persistently bullied, and no one noticed that my brother was binge drinking every weekend for years. My therapist pointed out that there doesn’t need to be a dramatic single event for trauma to qualify as an underlying cause; long term stressors like this also are considered to be the source of trauma.

To focus on what led up to my decision to take a break from training at the dojo, I need to tell you a little about how BPD expresses itself for me.

One of my main symptoms is having an insecure or unstable sense of who I am. I crave acceptance, and tend to take on the goals & ‘personality’ of whichever group takes me in. This can be really bad if I end up with groups like the cult-like people I was with in the 1980s, or good if there are solid people with good ethics (like at the dojo). It’s very hard for me to say ‘this is what I believe, these are my goals, these are my values,’ because I just adopt those of the group I’m with. I was so desperate to be accepted by anyone when I was young that I was willing to basically throw myself into the mindset of whomever was willing to accept me.

Another aspect of my life is that I make abrupt choices based on a kind of ‘pressure’ that builds up inside me. The abrupt decisions can be really extreme. For instance, in the early 1990s I cut off all contact with dozens of friends I’d known for a decade, and never talked to any of them for more than 25 years. In literature about BPD, you’ll find this labeled as ‘splitting’ behavior (at least, that’s how I understand splitting). Part of this manifests as a need to be ‘all in’ or ‘all out’ on any activity. When I start a hobby I tend to dive in & read about it, think about it constantly, buy tons of gear & supplies, etc. Then, after months or a few years, I take up some other interest and entirely stop thinking about the first activity. I’ve been through so many hobbies this way. It’s nearly impossible for me to do anything casually. This ‘entirely on’ or ‘entirely off’ aspect I call the Big Switch. It’s only been since I’ve gotten into therapy that I realized that a lot of this behavior is tied to desperate attempts to avoid uncertainty. At a deep level I believe that if I can just do something perfectly, I can ‘fix my life.’ There’s a lot to unpack here. It rests on an assumption that my life is broken, for one thing.

One of the pressures that has been building up recently is that after a lifetime of really poor spending habits, over the last two years I’ve been keeping a detailed budget and spending only what I can afford. It has helped me understand how I was able to get more than $30,000 in debt in the last 20 years, and I’ve made real progress in clearing out the debt, but I still spend nearly every dime I make each month, between living expenses and debt payments. When I was at the dojo 4 days a week, I calculated that training was costing me about $4 an hour, a very reasonable amount, but the $100 per month is still a substantial part of my budget.

As COVID-19 wore on, and the number of training hours I put in went down (and the ‘cost per hour’ went up), my inner ‘cost accountant’ started asking if I could really afford to continue training. So there was a source of pressure on the cost side.
Next, I’ve had a return of tendonitis in both of my elbows. This is important because training from home, the only thing I’ve really been able to do at anything close to my normal intensity is my weapons practice. But for the last two months the pain during weapons practice has been getting worse and worse.

At the same time, I’ve started realizing that the main ‘thing’ I was getting out of my training was a sense of belonging, and going to the dojo was one of my only social connections; along with time at the dojo itself, which I really treasured, the social aspect seems to be one of my main drivers. I hadn’t realized that until it was taken away by the pandemic.

Without that, I realized that the training itself is not all that interesting to me. It’s very abstract, and without the in-person reinforcement of being with Sensei, you, or the other students to keep me focused, I quickly lost interest. I have caught myself leaving class early, being distracted by other things during class, etc. My gradual loss of interest bumped up against the awareness that I can only barely afford the dues, and I started feeling that internal pressure building up in October & November to quit training.

When I realized that I was thinking about leaving the dojo, I brought all of this up in therapy because I was worried that I might be on the edge of one of these ‘splitting’ events where I make an extreme change in my life, and I didn’t want to do that. It’s a classic situation for me to flip the Big Switch & stop thinking about martial arts & desperately take up something else.

In talking through it with me, my therapist asked me if I felt that the art is a core part of what I want in my life, and I couldn’t answer her. Because of my tendency to adopt the outlook & goals of those I’m associating with, I can’t tell if the art is actually important to me or if I’ve just gone along with that as a baseline assumption in order to retain membership in the dojo.

I believe that in order to find out what I want to do with the next few years, I need some distance from the dojo. If I find that I do want to continue, I assume that I can reduce my spending on other ‘discretionary’ items like what I spend on books & streaming services to find the money in my budget for training dues and related expenses such as travel to seminars.

So that’s where I am at the moment. After six years of focusing a lot of my life around going to class, supporting the dojo, and going to 2-3 seminars a year, I realized that I have no idea if this is something I actually want to do, and need time away to figure that out.
Taking this time is not emotionally easy. The people at the dojo are my main social connection!

Given that at most points in my life, I would have just quit for good, cutting off all contact with everyone involved with the dojo, this attempt at giving myself time to think and figure this out seems like one of the more reasoned and careful decisions I’ve ever made. I don’t know if that’s true, of course. I might be fooling myself, which I’m really skilled at. But I’m meeting weekly for therapy, my therapist understands all of the elements that I’m dealing with, and I hope that with her support I’ll make a solid decision that I can feel confident about for a long while.

As you can imagine, I don’t bring up my BPD diagnosis with many people. I never know how they’ll react, and some friends I’ve told have acted as if I’ve admitted to some sort of terrible sin.

Personality disorders in general and BPD in particular tend to bring up dismissive reactions in people who don’t know much about them. People assume you’re ‘weak’ or just need to get over it. A classic reaction happened one day last winter. I was talking with E during warm-up before class about how I’d realized that I had internalized my father’s constant mocking me for getting out of breath while working around the yard. As a kid, I’d learned to suppress my breath so he wouldn’t get on me about it, and I suspect that the way I suppress my breath now when I’m upset is related to that.

L overheard this conversation and butted in with the stellar advice “your dad is dead, he can’t bother you now, so just put what he said out of your mind.”

Boy, I wish I’d thought of that on my own, L.

People sometimes assume that you’re using the diagnosis as an excuse, as if I’m saying ‘I can get away with being a horrible person because it’s just an illness that I don’t have any control over.’

Nothing could be further from the truth. I take responsibility for all of the harm I’ve done to people over the years, intentionally and unintentionally. I’m also trying to forgive the people who tormented me for so long, and forgive myself for adopting what my therapist might call ‘unsustainable coping strategies.’

This letter is just a taste of how complex my inner life has been over the last three years, but I think I’ve hit the main themes that led to the decision to take some time away from the mat.

I hope that this letter has reassured you that there’s nothing that you or Sensei did or failed to do that pushed me away in any sense. I just need time. As you probably know, nothing in therapy is a silver bullet that stops all of the bad things in my BPD symptoms. As with training on the mat, the best I can do is keep practicing, keep learning, and keep learning from my mistakes.

On the mat

The Second Arrow: Therapy Diary, Sept. 4-10, 2020

The Two Monks and the Girl

Once upon a time, there were two monks traveling through a forest. In the morning they came across a river in flood. There was a young woman standing at the ford, unable to cross, as she was too small to brave the rushing river. The older monk asked if he could be of assistance, & taking the woman on his shoulder, carried her safely across.

Late that afternoon, the two travelers arrived at their lodging. The younger monk had been silent all day, & the elder asked what was troubling him.

The young monk hesitated, then blurted out “we have taken a vow of chastity, but you took the young woman on your shoulder across the river.” 

The older man smiled and replied “yes, but I put her down on the riverbank hours ago; you are still carrying her.”

There is what happens. Then there is what we carry with us.

The Second Arrow

There is a parable in some Buddhist traditions that talks about the second arrow. There are several versions, & it is easily found online, so I will leave it to you to read a few versions. None of the versions are very long. As I recall the story, there was a warrior who was struck by an arrow. The healers saved him, & the only external trace was a pair of small scars. But for a long while after, the warrior was beset by thoughts of his errors and the decisions that led to his injury. He thought about it frequently and he was often in distress over the mistakes he had made that day. A friend asked him why he hadn’t removed the second arrow. The warrior replied that he’d only been hit with a single arrow. The friend pointed out gently that the second arrow, his regrets, had caused much more pain than the first arrow. 

When I am submerged in guilt, self-recrimination, regret, remorse, & blame, I am often unaware that I am the one causing myself this pain; I’m wielding the second arrow. I’m unaware because trauma has trained me to react this way. These reaction patterns are really old & were hammered into me when I was young. 

Laying down that second arrow is not as simple as it seems from the outside. For a long time I just thought that this was how the world is.

For me, for most of my life, the self-recrimination was at a level that verged on self hatred. For years, from 4th grade to 12th grade, and on into my military service, bullies made it clear to me on an almost daily basis that I was worthless, & that that state of unworthiness was my fault. My fault, because of everything I wasn’t… I wasn’t athletic, or strong, or tough, or aggressive. I wasn’t interested in the right things. 

To them, every aspect of who I was in my childhood was more evidence of my defective state, proof of my uselessness.

I trained myself to watch myself for the slightest mistake, hoping to avoid doing whatever ‘wrong’ thing might bring the bullies down on me. Decades later, and hundreds of miles from my childhood tormentors, my inner voice continued to berate me. 

Overcoming conditioning like that is not easy. For me, the start came when my stress became nearly intolerable. I was so exhausted that someone trained in crisis management noticed and suggested that I speak with a therapist. I’ve been at it for two years now, & I think that I’ve made real progress. I don’t know for sure where the end is, if such a thing even exists. I believe that I will eventually internalize the tools I’m learning in therapy & increase my awareness; that I’ll learn to notice when I’m going into those unhelpful, unhealthy thought patterns & stop.

One of the things that therapy allowed me to do was to say out loud what my inner voice had been whispering to me most of my life.

Hearing those words helped me to realize that I don’t actually believe those things. 

Here’s an example: I never thought of myself as having any perfectionistic tendencies, but here was my inner voice, berating me not just for real mistakes, real harm I might have done to others, but even for things like not pulling out my shoes from under the bed the right way. 

Because I was so tightly wound, any additional stress was often enough to tilt me over into rages bordering on physical violence. This was particularly evident when I was driving, where I was apparently ready to go into full-blown road rage in seconds.

Sketch of a volcano showing the pressures inside me that lead to eruptions of rage

But gaining awareness of the source of my rage wasn’t the same as gaining control of it. One of the things about my anger was that it seemed to have no precursors. I couldn’t see how to stop something that erupted in seconds.

In therapy, I’ve been able to talk through situations where I’ve had a history of losing my temper, and I’ve started seeing patterns. One of the things that has brought clarity for me was being able to take the ‘personal’ out of the situations where I get so angry. It turns out, I get angry when I’m threatened or think I’m being threatened. As it also turns out, I’ve apparently been perceiving neutral events as personal threats for most of my life. Starting to recognize that there’s no actual animosity toward me in something like a traffic jam, or someone cutting me off in traffic, has been a minor revelation. I’ve started to see that the ‘personal’ here isn’t on the part of the other person. It’s me.

Realizing that the other driver actually cares nothing about me has removed so much of the energy from the interaction. I’ve never been one of those people who sees natural events like floods as somehow being personal tragedies; I know they’re just natural processes. Now I’m starting to be able to see traffic in the same light. 

Taking everything personally was one of the arrows that I wounded myself with. 

I’ve slowly come to a place where I can see that a lot of what I assumed was reality was a sort of processing error. It was as if I had painfully & over a long period had had a filter installed, but rather than filtering out impurities, it added small doses of poison.

As I was figuring all this out in therapy, I also started to realize that I was actually causing some of the problems. Actually causing, not just interpreting neutral events incorrectly. 

Imagine me, a few years ago, having a meltdown in rush-hour traffic. To the old me, the pre-therapy me, this would have seemed like an inescapable nightmare. But from my current perspective, at arm’s length, things look a bit different. There’s traffic. I can’t do anything about that. There’s me, in my car. I’m probably yelling at the guy in front of me for stopping abruptly. I’m also yelling at the guy trying to get over one lane & cutting in front of me, even though there’s not enough room.

You know what? This is my behavior. Maybe I do have control over this aspect of my meltdown.

Let’s zoom out even further. Oh, look! I’m in this nightmare traffic because I left the house at 6:45 a.m. 

I know from experience that I have to be on the road by 6:20 at the latest. Why was I so late? Because I had a second cup of coffee. Why a second cup? Because I was up late the night before. 

This cascading series of decisions, most of which I’ve previously been unaware of even making, led me to sitting in heavy traffic, getting later & later for work. 

Changing the habitual decisions that lead me to being in high-stress environments will not be easy, but they’re literally within my control; at least, far more control than 7 a.m. traffic is. 

Sketch showing precursor emotions, the even, and the aftermath

One of the things that I’ve discovered about my anger is that a lot of it emerges from frustration. Frustration is interesting. I get frustrated at people not acting the way I hope or expect, or the way they’ve promised. I get frustrated with myself for not remembering things or not doing something well. I get frustrated at external things that delay me. Of all of these scenarios, the only one that’s really external to me is the one where someone doesn’t do what they’ve promised. Everything else is an expectation that I’ve layered on to reality.

Some of this is about fear. When I make a mistake, at some deep level I think that I’m going to be yelled at. That I’ll be a disappointment. That I’ll be unloved or even hated. 

That’s my fear of rejection, and as I continue to uncover my fears, perhaps I can see where the external reality & my internal state meet, and get a handle on the internal side. If I can dismantle the assumptions of worthlessness that have soured so much of my life, that fear of rejection may start to fade.

Some of this is a distorted expectation. I keep expecting traffic to be as it normally is. But an accident has tied things up three miles up the highway & I’m late. Other drivers are late, getting stressed, & tempers may be rising. The implication here is that if I had a more realistic view of traffic (for example: remembering that accidents happen) I might make sure to leave 20 minutes early, which should counter most common delays. 

It’s true that most of reality is not under my control. But if I’ve been mistakenly seeing everything as being beyond my control, then I can’t change the things that actually are within my influence.

It’s as if I’ve been seeing reality through a slightly distorted lens, a lens I didn’t know I had between me and the world around me.

All of these unexamined assumptions I had about the world were making my life a lot harder than it really needed to be; and the world is hard enough anyway.

Trying to figure out what’s ‘out there’ and what is a result of my distorted view of the world is hard work, and there’s no telling right now how many things I’ve been wrong about. So I assume there is still a lot of work ahead of me. None of this work implies any sort of guarantee that my life is suddenly going to be smooth going, either. Like I said, life is hard. I’m still going to make mistakes of all sorts. Life will happen. What’s the quote from Shakespeare? “The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” I’m doubtless going to find myself in high stress environments, & I might lose my temper. But I can see that as I learn and practice these skills of self-awareness, my rages will continue to reduce in number & severity. 

Of course, my BPD is more than traffic rage. Anger at least has the advantage of being dramatic & thus easy to spot. Figuring out other stuff like my day-long melancholies, my self-sabotaging behavior, or nihilistic moods verging on self-destruction may not be as easy. But I know now that these are probably not inevitable parts of my life, and I hope that success in one area might lead to successfully reducing trouble in other symptoms of my disorder.

The first arrow may be out of my control, but the second arrow… that’s on me.

A chart comparing the large part of reality I used to think was out of my control
There’s more in my range of control than I used to imagine.

Therapy Diary for May 31, 2020

Okay. So. I usually try to write coherent articles for this blog, but I can’t find much coherence in my mind today. But I also know that writing my thoughts out often helps me understand them better, and settles some of the internal chaos, so I’m just going to write. I usually hope that people read my posts, of course, but this one may not be worth your time. 

My thoughts around my BPD, my therapy, my recovery process, and my life have been very confused and active for weeks. ‘Internal chaos,’ as I said in the first paragraph. For instance, I’ve started reading a book called Transcend – The New Science of Self-Actualization, by Scott Barry Kaufman. The first part (which is all I’ve gotten to so far) is talking about issues like what it means to be human, how to find your purpose, fear and belonging, the human need for community… 

…and I started thinking about how many anguished conversations I read on Twitter from other folks with Borderline Personality Disorder diagnoses. What I am contemplating is how much of what we struggle with, discuss in therapy, and are confused about isn’t really a disorder so much as it’s just… living. It strikes me that life is hard. It’s very likely that people with no disorder struggle with these exact questions. I’m not saying, not for a second, that BPD isn’t real. It’s so real that folks with our Dx kill ourselves at a far higher rate than people without it. But I’m starting to think that most of what we struggle with isn’t a matter of content but of degree. Maybe even more accurately, what’s going on is that (due at least partly to trauma) we don’t have the skills or perspective to deal with life. It’s as if we live on a steep hillside and keep getting swept away by floods and landslides, not realizing that there are ways to deal with loose soil, excess water, and bad terrain. As I was contemplating all of this, I picked up my long-ignored copy of The Expanded Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Training Manual, and started re-reading it (I bought this book right after I got my diagnosis in late 2018, read the first couple chapters, and put it on the To Be Read shelf, never to be seen again until this week).

Right away, I found the section called ‘DBT Beliefs About Skills Training.’ The listed skills you’re supposed to agree with (while studying DBT skills) are: 

  1. You are doing your best.
  2. Skills help you to do better.
  3. Skills apply to all areas of your life.
  4. No matter how a problem happened or who caused it to happen, you are responsible for a skillful response.
  5. Skills work when you work the skills.

If you’re a fellow BPD person, you probably know that my initial reaction to this list was not one of warm acceptance. My inner voice sounds something like “What the hell do you mean, I’m doing my best, I’m a complete failure! You don’t know anything about my life!” 

When I re-read the list, I noticed the ‘Skills help you to do better,’ and I realized that it was really close to what I’d been trying to formulate on my own. 

The comment on that skill reads ‘Even though we are all doing our best, sometimes our best is not enough to be effective. We all have room for improvement, and skills help us to be better.’ One of the things the authors point out is that graduates of their DBT skills program often say later that they wish these skills had been taught to them as children. I want to really stress this; these are not skills for sick or broken people! These are skills for humans. Remember? Life is hard. You really can’t expect to just be good at it without help. It would be like wandering onto an airfield one day and expecting to be able to fly a Cessna with no training. 

I’ve seen people on Twitter bitterly complaining about getting a Dx of BPD. They feel that it’s a trap, a categorization that they’ll never escape, like some stain that’s been marked in their skin. I’m not going to say you’re wrong if you feel that way; your feelings are your feelings, and I don’t know your circumstances. But I feel that Borderline has gone from being classed as ‘the untreatable disorder’ in the 1980s to ‘most treatable’ now. Sure, some parts of our BPD might be physical. We might not be able to affect those parts. But a whole bunch of BPD is related to injuries (trauma) done to us, and I believe that it’s possible to heal from those injuries. Healing doesn’t mean we become magically new. The scars are going to be there. But I think we can strengthen the structures around those scars, which will minimize the limits those scars put on our day to day lives. If you’re deep in crisis right now, this all may sound impossible. If you’re in that situation, I wish only the best for you. This also may not be the right time to read this blog.  

I’m encouraged when I learn that many people have gotten so much better through therapy and skills training that they no longer fit the criteria for a diagnosis of BPD. That is awesome. I know that therapy and things like DBT aren’t successful for everyone. Nothing in this life is successful for everyone. But (some) people are getting better. Many of us can benefit from practice and getting better at skills. I’ve never heard that about many other mental illnesses. Man, give me a problem to tackle any day. I know a lot about problem solving. I’m even aware that I sometimes use problem solving as a way to try to earn acceptance, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to give up on it. Geez, brain. 

When my therapist raised the idea of my having a diagnosis, the first thing I asked her was “Is this just a label, or does having a diagnosis help us find tools that we can use to improve things?” and she assured me that she does not see a Dx as just a label. I’ve mentioned what she said next: ‘I don’t treat the diagnosis. I treat the person.’ 
As a result of all this, as I continue to read the Transcend book, I’ve also resolved to start working through the DBT Skills book. I think that I’m in a place now to be able to read it with an open mind. I wish that there was a DBT skills group in my area, but the only one near me has an age limit of something like 22 years old. How that makes sense, I’m not sure. But in any case, this won’t be the first time I’ve tried learning something from a book, and I know that I can bring issues up in therapy; I’m incredibly fortunate to have that resource available (and affordable).

More later. My brain is still all full and confused, but I gotta get back to life stuff.

Fragility and Strength

The demand that we be strong all the time leads to errors of thinking and to errors of goal-setting.

It is based on the idea that we can avoid damage or injury by being too tough to hurt.

It keeps us from exploring the possibilities inherent in delicacy.

We tell ourselves that we must be hard to survive, but if we see clearly, we see that much of our world is as fragile as a flower.

An onion flower is shown in partial bloom.

The constant urge to toughness leads to people who no longer know how to let others get near them. To people who choose violence as their first reaction. We strike out because we don’t know how to let go.

Even people who value delicacy are led astray by the idea of protecting things.

When we see fragile things, our first instinct is to protect them, to try to make them last. Like someone studying origami who can’t stand the thought of their paper cranes being damaged, they build strong boxes to keep their creations in.

But the truth of most of the fragile things we know is that they do not last.

Eggshells and flowers and sunsets and moonlight on water. These things are ephemeral. If we are wise, we try to appreciate them as they happen, to be there with them. Trying to preserve them changes their nature. Eggs must break to let the chick grow. Flowers must wither so that the fruit can mature. The world turns, so the sun will set. Grasping the water shatters the reflection.

If we realize deeply and with immediacy that we will be here and then be gone, that we can’t protect ourselves forever, perhaps we can learn to be at peace with our own ephemeral nature.

We are part of the world, not above it.

We are no more eternal than the dragonfly.

A dragonfly rests on a wooden floor.

118 Hours

 “…the invitation of zen practice is to see everything as important. But to do so we have to have a basic capacity to hold difficult experience without pushing it away. That is why it is so important to sit on a daily basis. To learn to hold tension, or impatience, or anger, or sadness, or whatever arises while we sit, without reacting. And to do this over and over again.

That basic ability to keep a composure becomes a kind of staging area then to ask the questions like: What is this uncomfortable, unwanted experience showing me? What is it trying to teach me? Can I accept it?

The North Carolina Zen Center — info@nczencenter.org

I subscribe to a newsletter from the NC Zen Center, and the above quote arrived in my mailbox a few days ago. I think that the author neatly expresses an idea I’ve been trying to get clear on.

First, I want to touch on something I have found very difficult to accept since I started therapy. It’s the fact that I can’t always trust myself. I imagine that most people are like I was before I began therapy; you have a basic assumption that you’re perceiving the world accurately. That, in general, you can trust your perception of yourself and the world you live in. What I’ve found in therapy is that a lot of my unhappiness and stress is rooted in inaccurate and unhelpful assumptions and reaction patterns. It’s humbling to have to admit; I might be wrong about the world.

This isn’t something that I admitted once and that’s it. It’s something I have to realize, face, and accept over and over again. A typical scene in a therapy session might look like this:

Me: I’m a horrible person. I am a failure. It’s clear that I need to quit this thing, because I’m ruining it for everyone else.

Therapist: Do you think there’s any chance that there’s a different perspective? What evidence do you have that you’re ruining that thing for everyone else? Yes, you made a mistake. Did anyone ever suggest to you that you must never make a mistake?

Me: Ummmmm…

…and then I slowly start realizing that I’m doing that thing again. That thing that I could describe as having my BPD filter firmly in place. I’m so used to it that I don’t always notice it on my own. This is the fun-house mirror that I’ve been so used to looking in that I never realized that it’s a distorted vision of myself & my world.

Of course, I’m only in therapy for an hour a week. That leaves about 118 waking hours where there’s no one I can check in with on a moment to moment basis. 118 hours where my old dysfunctional reaction patterns have a chance to ease back into place.

And this gets us back to that quote at the top of this post. “(I) have to have a basic capacity to hold difficult experience without pushing it away.

One of the most uncomfortable things to do, sometimes, is to do nothing. When I’m angry, embarrassed, frustrated, or anxious, I want that feeling to stop. I want to feel better. Or at least, if I was self aware enough during those times, I expect that I’d want to feel better. Usually I’m just there being angry, embarrassed, frustrated, or anxious. Certainly, it’s not in my mind that I should just sit with that emotion.

My old pattern would be to strike out if I was angry, retreat & apologize if embarrassed, get angry if frustrated, and try to fix something if anxious.

I’m gradually learning a new pattern. I’ve found that if I can just pause, I can eventually get a little distance. With distance comes a chance at a new perspective. There’s nothing guaranteed here. Look at the qualifiers I used. gradually. if. eventually. a chance.

I am trying to build ‘a basic capacity to hold difficult experience without pushing it away.’ There’s nothing complicated about this. But it might be the most profound skill that I learn this year, if I can learn it.


PS: I think some people might be upset by the line “Can I accept it?” in reference to the “uncomfortable, unwanted experience” mentioned in the quote. I wouldn’t have phrased the idea that way. I don’t think that experiences are trying to teach us anything. I do think it’s often possible to learn from experiences. It doesn’t mean there’s a force outside of us trying to do something or show us something. Then there’s the idea of accepting things. That can be used by manipulative people to make us accept their control over us.

I don’t think the author was using ‘accept’ that way. I believe it’s tied instead to the idea that we can’t face something if we’re in denial. Until I accept that my emotional reaction may be based on a distorted interpretation of events, I won’t be able to change anything.

The Fearful Dog and the Happy Dog

I was thinking yesterday about the story I see online every couple years, the one that talks about how the wolf you feed is the one that wins.

It occurred to me that my brain is like two dogs, not two wolves. If you’ve ever met a dog that was mistreated when it was younger, you’ll be able to picture what I mean when I talk about the poor thing cowering, wanting only to be liked.

And then you have the dog that was loved and played with its whole life. It leaps around, never questioning its place in the world.

My brain has been the cowering dog, and as with any animal you’ve rescued, transforming a fearful animal into a happy (or happier) animal is a matter of small steps and constant care.

The maltreated dog may never be as buoyant and joyful as a dog that has been loved and cared for its whole life, but if it’s treated well, it may get to be a very happy dog, indeed.

Quick sketch of a dog.
My first dog drawing. Sorry.

I hope it doesn’t need to be said, but you can’t help the beaten dog by beating on it more!

Validation, Perception, Interpretation, Binary Thinking, and the Weedy Garden

Footprints indented deeply in soft sand on the shore

I’ve been wanting to write a new blog post for a few weeks, but haven’t been able to find a ‘hook’ that will let me get started. My writing output is intermittent because I generally only write when I get angry, or have had an insight of some sort. Even then, I have to get started right away, while I’m wound up about the topic, or the urge to write fades away, or I forget my topic. It’s a good thing that I don’t write for a living. 🙂

Today, I haven’t been able to find a hook, so I’m just writing, and hoping that whatever comes out is somewhat coherent in the end.

We are vacationing on the South Carolina shore this week, and I was walking on the beach yesterday, not long after sunrise. Several other people had walked on the sand ahead of me.

The sun was still at a low-enough angle that it was casting strong shadows on the left edge of the deeper footprints.

Photo shows the imprints of many shoes in the sand in bright morning light. There are strong shadows cast by the left edges of most of the footprints.
Footprints in the sand

As I walked, I became aware that I was experiencing an intermittent optical illusion. When I wasn’t looking directly at the footprints, they sometimes seemed to be sticking up from the sand, rather than being indentations in the sand.

As I tried to figure out the illusion, I noticed that the ‘upraised’ versions of the footprints made me feel vaguely threatened, as if they were evidence of someone stomping at my face from another place. I don’t want to overstate this. It wasn’t a strong hallucination or anything really alarming, but it was enough that it got me thinking about validation and inaccurate perception or inaccurate interpretation of what’s going on in my life (I originally typed ‘our lives’ there, but I’m trying to follow my therapist’s urging to use ‘me’ language rather than writing in an abstract third-person manner, so I changed it to ‘my life’).

Looking at the situation rationally, I know that there were no upraised footprints in the ‘relief‘ style. But my perception was that they were raised. Rationally, I know that there was no implied threat from footprints. But my interpretation was that there was. If I had been dealing with a situation that was less unambiguous than this, I might not have been able (at least in the heat of the moment) to see that my perception and interpretation were inaccurate.

In online spaces we see people saying “don’t invalidate my feelings,” or “he made me feel invalidated.” We know how bad invalidation is. It’s something that we don’t want to happen to us, and I hope that we don’t want to invalidate others. I need to be particularly careful not to invalidate myself, and I have seen others with BPD say the same.

Sometimes, though, what we see on social media looks more like the term ‘invalidation’ means “no one should call me out on my bad behavior,” or “how dare anyone disagree with me?”

How can we square the need to validate emotions with the need to fight inaccurate thinking?

Here’s my best understanding as of today:

If I say “I feel threatened,” invalidation would be something like me saying to myself “you’re acting like a loser and a wimp for feeling threatened.” Validation would be more like “I recognize that I am feeling threatened. I am frightened and am experiencing distress.”

After that validation, though, I think that it is not only fair, but very important, to ask if that feeling is based on an accurate perception & interpretation of the world around me. If my thinking is inaccurate, then I may be suffering needlessly.

Thanks to therapy, I’ve noticed that I sometimes perceive and think inaccurately, particularly under emotional stress. For instance, I’ve figured out that if I make a potentially embarrassing mistake, I’ll likely have a feeling of panic about other people discovering my mistake. If I’m overly happy (I hesitate to say ‘manic,’ but perhaps my ‘up’ moods can be accurately described as ‘manic-ish’? (ahh, I just looked it up, and the word I am looking for seems to be ‘hypomania.’)) I can also make really bad choices.

Part of my pattern is that if I’m under time stress (if I’m rushed or startled), my thinking gets rockier.

As I’ve become more aware of these patterns, I’ve been trying to find ways to interrupt my reactions, on the theory that if I can remove some of the time stress, if I can damp down the reactivity, I can give myself time to make different decisions that are more appropriate to the situation, and which cause fewer downstream difficulties.

I was watching a video by Dr. Daniel Fox this morning, and he was describing ‘mind reading’ in people diagnosed with Borderline. He describes a pattern among Borderline folks of anticipating rejection (due to them misinterpreting others’ emotional states) and taking ill-considered action. This isn’t a concept I’d been aware of before today, but it feels accurate for me, so it’s yet another pattern I’m going to have to learn to be aware of.

Here’s my old pattern:

Something happens (or I think something is about to happen). My BPD habit sees the incident as either threatening or as thrilling. My ingrained response is to panic or to think something wonderful has just happened. Finally, I take some action that I realize later was ill-considered. Over hours, days, weeks, or months, there’s fallout from this action.

Here’s the pattern I hope to put in place:

Something happens (or I think something is about to happen). My awareness of my old pattern alerts me to take a moment to hold the event at arm’s reach. To stop. To think, and not react. To sit with the fear or elation. To breathe. In the highly unlikely case of actual danger, taking a second to evaluate the situation is very likely to result in a better decision. In the far more likely situation of my being in an old reaction pattern, a delay stops me from taking action on my feelings of fear, elation, rage, or panic. Acknowledging the reality of the emotion (validating my emotion), respects the fact of my history of trauma without engaging in a sequence that I know has – in the past – caused further harm to myself and those around me. Taking time instead of reacting may allow me to eventually see some of the roots of these ingrained reaction patterns, and that knowledge may (over a very long time) lead to healing.

Facing up to the fact that I can’t always trust my thinking has been one of the hardest things for me.

Who wants to distrust themselves?

To add to the problem, I’m not even sure where the limits of my error lie. I’ve been aware of my Big Switch thinking for years, but not aware that I have a tendency to default to black and white thinking in smaller issues as well.

Further, my social conditioning fights against my desire to be compassionate to myself. Here’s an example: Recently, I woke up with the thought circling around my mind that Borderline Personality Disorder isn’t even real, and it’s just a label someone came up with as a polite replacement for telling us we’re huge jerks. I think this was an attempt by my mind to find a way to give up, to quit therapy (which is hard work and not fun sometimes), to fall in line with years of being told that therapy is a sort of mental masturbation for weak people, or for rich people; that it’s not manly.

I entertained the idea all day. “I’m just a jerk.”

What I came up with as a response is that it doesn’t matter in the end. If BPD isn’t real, and it’s just a name for ‘jerk,’ well… so what? I can either give up life (not happening), or I can give up on improving my life and my relationships with other people and just embrace being a jerk (also not happening), or I can fight against my jerk-hood.

Think of it as a pragmatic rather than rose-colored-glasses way of looking at my recovery. The truth is, there’s no fast way to change ways of thinking that I adopted when I was 4, or 14, or 24. Pretending that positive thinking is going to save the day is just trying to fool myself. I might not succeed. If this is going to happen, it will happen because I work at it.

Over the last year I’ve pictured my potential recovery in various ways. I’ve imagined it as tending an overgrown garden. You don’t bring back a garden by burning it to the roots, or bulldozing it (my Big Switch thinking of course goes to those extreme images). Rather, you look at every piece of the garden, you pull a few weeds every day. You prune a hedge one week, trim the broken branches off a tree another week. I’ve imagined myself standing on a dock, trying to move a large steel boat. Hitting the boat will not move it. But slow and steady pressure will.

I want to take the extreme option. To quit my job. To move into a Buddhist monastery. To sell my material goods and give the money away. To swim into the ocean and never come back. I’ve done things that extreme before. You know what? I’m still there. Not there, but here, in my head. The extreme option always works on an assumption that the problem is with my environment, but if I change my environment and the same problems keep appearing, it’s probably safe to assume that the problem is not external to my head.

Another way to say ‘pragmatic’ is to say ‘do the thing that actually works.’

Perhaps the best way to discover what works is to try something, look at the result as clearly as you can, and then trying the next thing.

Sometimes it means trusting the people who have done this hard work before you and trying what they’ve proven works. I’m reading a book on Buddhist insight meditation right now.1 The author describes a process of introspection that takes decades, and in fact is never completely finished.

Healing from trauma, learning to change the symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder, is the boat you have to push, the insight you find by following your breath for 20 years, the garden you tend in the face of weeds, and storms, and drought, and insects, and deer.

There’s no end to it, but that doesn’t mean there are no rewards. I need to adjust my dial back from overload setting to 2 or 3 on the dial. To stop trying to turn it up to 11.

While I was writing this last sentence, I was listening to Won’t Get Fooled Again by The Who. Great song, but terrible philosophic advice for me. So much of my life has been ruled by rule-based, rigid sets of expectations that I or other people have put around my life. My humanity has been encased in brittle walls, and of course when those frail, brittle barriers fail, I end up injured by the shards.

It’s time to find a new way to guide myself forward, one that encompasses failure, that takes into account being fooled again and again, and again, and then sleeping and getting up the next day to go out to the damned garden to weed, and prune, and plant.


1 Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation (Shambhala Classics) by Larry Rosenberg