Living With a Borderline Parent

Three days ago I read this moving account of what it’s like to live with a parent who has borderline personality disorder. Hayley Iannantuoni’s writing perfectly captures the child’s mystification – why can’t I ever make her happy? Why can’t I ever love her in the way she wants me to? Why am I such a disappointment to her? Her account of the fierce, tempestuous, confusing and frightening relationship, and the way in which a diagnosis helped her to understand what was going on has an extraordinary clarity. Many thanks, Hayley, for giving us permission to share the article here.

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Dear Mom, It’s Not You, It’s Me

When I was a little girl I did not have a favorite teddy bear, pacifier, or blanket that I brought with me everywhere, instead I treasured a photo album. This album was filled with pictures of me and mom with ear to ear smiles, dirty faces, and countless matching mother daughter outfits. I would look through the pictures every night before I went to bed.These pictures gave me something that I didn’t have growing up, and that was the love from my mom.

I could never understand why I failed to make her happy and carefree like she was in the pictures I have engraved in my memory. I could never clean the house good enough to keep her from yelling when she came through the door after work. Nor was I able to be responsible enough at 12 years old to be left home alone so she could go out, even though I desperately wanted her to stay with me. Most importantly, despite the hundreds of pictures I drew for her, bubble gum machine rings I got her, or how many times I told her “I Love You,” I could never love her the way she desired.

As a teenager I came to accept the fact that I would never have the traditional mother daughter relationship that I had desired for so long, and that I would always be a disappointment in her eyes. I knew that my mother’s love was conditional based on what I could do for her. Many times I had to be the shoulder for her to cry on, forcing me to grow up much faster than any child should. I began to blame myself for her behavior, I was her problem. I was the reason I didn’t have the ‘John and Kate Plus Eight’ family I dreamed of.

The summer before my senior year, my parents decided to get a divorce. This news was not a surprise to me due to the common background noise of yelling, screaming, and crying that filled my house everyday. I decided that I wanted to move in with my dad instead of staying with my mom. My mother did not take this news lightly, she took this news as if she had lost a limb. In a panic she locked all of my sister’s and I’s clothes and belongings in her house. She then bolted the windows shut and made it impossible for us to grab our things, and leave her. Instead of throwing us out, she decided to lock us in. I could not understand why my mom wanted us to stay with her when she was always in a bad mood and wanted nothing to do with us for days at a time locking herself in her room or leaving us to go visit her boyfriend. As soon as we told my dad what happened, he waited for her to get home and called an ambulance for her, like he had done this before.

My first day of  senior year did not include wearing my brand new shoes that I had picked up specifically for that day, nor did it include a new backpack, or fresh school supplies, those were still bolted behind locked doors. My first day of senior year included going to the guidance counselor’s office to put on a spare uniform, a plaid skirt two sizes too big, a stained white collared shirt, and a uniform pass because I did not have the right color shoes for the first day. Shortly into the day, I got called to the guidance office this time, to my surprise, my dad was waiting for me. My dad told me that we would be taking a bus to his house today after school, and with police company we would be able to go grab all of our belongings out of my mother’s house. Due to the circumstances, he also told me that I would be missing swim practice and all of my club meetings after school to go to court mandated therapy sessions with my mother once she was released from the hospital. After many therapy sessions, I understand why my mom could not hold a job for more than a few months, why she was always fighting with my dad, me and my sister, and why she pulled us away from her family and so many other things throughout our lives.

To meet a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder under the DSM-V you must show: ‘a persuasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity, beginning in early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts as indicated by five (or more) of the following’ –

  1. Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment
  2. A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by altering between extremes of idealization and devaluation
  3. Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self image or sense of self
  4. Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self damaging (e.g., substance abuse, binge eating, and reckless driving_
  5. Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self- mutilating behavior
  6. Affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood (e.g. Intense episodic dysphoria, irritability or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and only rarely more than a few days)
  7. Chronic feeling of emptiness
  8. Inappropriate intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, consistent anger, recurrent physical fights)
  9. Transparent, stress- related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms)

When my mother received this diagnosis, I remember the unfamiliar feeling of her crawling into my bed grabbing my hand with tears in her eyes and telling me that she suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder. After some research, I felt like everything finally made sense and I was not the only person who felt unloved and unwanted by a person with BPD. I finally understood that throughout all these years my mom drove me away in fits of rage, that was the only way she knew how to pull me closer. Additionally, I found opinions from other people with BPD, offering advice on how to “get off the emotional rollercoaster” and start focusing on yourself and distancing with love, opening a healthy line of communication. BPD researcher Marsha M. Linehan has developed a communicating style known as D.E.A.R.

D – Describe the situation as you see it without exaggerating, making judgements, or explaining how you feel about it

E – Express your feelings or opinions about the situation clearly (do some thinking beforehand to determine your exact emotions)

A – Assert your limits making them simple (remember you have decided there are limits and those are your personal preferences)

R – Reinforce the benefits of your limits, if appropriate, making it clear you are not acting against the other person, you are acting for YOURSELF.
There is nothing that can compare to the relationship of a mother and her daughter, or to a mom’s home cooked meals and phone calls just to say “I love you.” My mother and I work hard to keep in touch, and try to talk everyday but for her the intense emotions she cannot escape makes this relationship a challenge, facing more bad days than good days. Growing up with a mother suffering from a mental illness has impacted my life in so many ways, particularly, in my choice to become a social worker. Finding my passion has been something I struggled with for many years, when really the answer was right in front of me the whole time. I have my mom to thank for helping me make that decision.

By Hayley Iannantuoni, The (I’m)Possible Project
(Shared with permission from the author)

 

ACoA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) – the ‘reverse’ laundry list

The ACoA World Service Organisation have identified some of the likely traits that we’ll suffer from if we grew up in a family where one or both parents were alcoholics. They call this list of traits the ‘reverse’ laundry list, to reflect its affinity with the AA laundry list.

It can make heartbreaking reading, but – as they say in ACoA – it’s good to remember that this is a description, not an indictment. If you’re reading the list and see some truths in it for you, please keep reading, because below the descriptions of how you may be thinking, feeling and acting now is another list – which shows the way to feeling safe and truly empowered. It takes bravery, but if this list means something to you, you’ve already proved that you have bravery in spades.

Here’s the ‘reverse’ laundry list:

    1. To cover our fear of people and our dread of isolation we tragically become the very authority figures who frighten others and cause them to withdraw.
    2. To avoid becoming enmeshed and entangled with other people and losing ourselves in the process, we become rigidly self-sufficient. We disdain the approval of others.
    3. We frighten people with our anger and threat of belittling criticism.
    4. We dominate others and abandon them before they can abandon us or we avoid relationships with dependent people altogether. To avoid being hurt, we isolate and dissociate and thereby abandon ourselves.
    5. We live life from the standpoint of a victimizer, and are attracted to people we can manipulate and control in our important relationships.
    6. We are irresponsible and self-centered. Our inflated sense of self-worth and self-importance prevents us from seeing our deficiencies and shortcomings.
    7. We make others feel guilty when they attempt to assert themselves.
    8. We inhibit our fear by staying deadened and numb.
    9. We hate people who “play” the victim and beg to be rescued.
    10. We deny that we’ve been hurt and are suppressing our emotions by the dramatic expression of “pseudo” feelings.
    11. To protect ourselves from self punishment for failing to “save” the family we project our self-hate onto others and punish them instead.
    12. We “manage” the massive amount of deprivation we feel, coming from abandonment within the home, by quickly letting go of relationships that threaten our “independence” (never get too close).
    13. We refuse to admit we’ve been affected by family dysfunction or that there was dysfunction in the home or that we have internalized any of the family’s destructive attitudes and behaviors.

We act as if we are nothing like the dependent people who raised us.

And the path to recovery…

  1. We face and resolve our fear of people and our dread of isolation and stop intimidating others with our power and position.
  2. We realize the sanctuary we have built to protect the frightened and injured child within has become a prison and we become willing to risk moving out of isolation.
  3. With our renewed sense of self-worth and self-esteem we realize it is no longer necessary to protect ourselves by intimidating others with contempt, ridicule and anger.
  4. We accept and comfort the isolated and hurt inner child we have abandoned and disavowed and thereby end the need to act out our fears of enmeshment and abandonment with other people.
  5. Because we are whole and complete we no longer try to control others through manipulation and force and bind them to us with fear in order to avoid feeling isolated and alone.
  6. Through our in-depth inventory we discover our true identity as capable, worthwhile people. By asking to have our shortcomings removed we are freed from the burden of inferiority and grandiosity.healing heart
  7. We support and encourage others in their efforts to be assertive.
  8. We uncover, acknowledge and express our childhood fears and withdraw from emotional intoxication.
  9. We have compassion for anyone who is trapped in the “drama triangle” and is desperately searching for a way out of insanity.
  10. We accept we were traumatized in childhood and lost the ability to feel. Using the 12 Steps as a program of recovery we regain the ability to feel and remember and become whole human beings who are happy, joyous and free.
  11. In accepting we were powerless as children to “save” our family we are able to release our self-hate and to stop punishing ourselves and others for not being enough.
  12. By accepting and reuniting with the inner child we are no longer threatened by intimacy, by the fear of being engulfed or made invisible.
  13. By acknowledging the reality of family dysfunction we no longer have to act as if nothing were wrong or keep denying that we are still unconsciously reacting to childhood harm and injury.
  14. We stop denying and do something about our post-traumatic dependency on substances, people, places and things to distort and avoid reality.

Thank you to Donna Torbico at Heal and Grow for ACoAs for drawing my attention to this list, and for all her great blogs.

The Happiness Jar

The Happiness Jar

I recently saw a great idea from author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) that encourages giving thanks and acknowledging the positive in our day. She suggests getting a jar of some sort and taking a couple of minutes to write down the happiest moment of your day. Taking a moment to do this allows you to slow down and actually appreciate something from each and every day. It doesn’t have to be anything earth shattering or a standout moment. The happiest part of your day might be sharing a laugh with a friend, or maybe it’s being the first one up in a quiet house. Maybe the happiest moment is grabbing a cup of coffee that gives you the energy to get through the day. I love this idea because it is about finding something special in a completely ordinary moment.This is also a great reframing exercise. Honestly, life is hard and there are some days that are just really shitty. Often within the tough moments we can find moments of gratitude or peace if we choose to look for them. This isn’t about pretending life is perfect or that the tough stuff doesn’t happen, it is just about choosing to find good moments even amongst the chaos.Throughout the year you get to see the notes piling up. On days that are feeling particularly tough, being able to read through your notes might give some strength to keep pushing forward. I can’t think of a better keepsake at the end of the year as you reflect on what your year was like. It’s easy to get caught up and let big moments define our year (both good and bad), but this exercise is a reminder that it is the small things that can bring absolute joy.Danielle

Source: The Happiness Jar

Understanding avoidance – the ocean and the undertow

Understanding avoidance – the ocean and the undertow

I was thinking about avoidance – and how this can feel like a good strategy for dealing with anxiety though in fact it only makes things worse – when I came across this brilliant blog post on avoidance during bereavement, written by ‘What’s Your Grief’ (WYG), which I regularly read for a greater understanding of grief and loss. Their post underlined for me the promise of safety that makes avoidance look so appealing, and what a hollow promise this turns out to be. It’s like swimming towards an apparently peaceful bay, only to realise that it has a powerful and dangerous undertow.

This is WYG’s definition of avoidance, which does a great job of explaining why we avoid painful/fearful situations or people because of our internal reactions:

Experiential avoidance is an attempt to block out, reduce or change unpleasant thoughts, emotions or bodily sensations.  These are internal experiences that are perceived to be painful or threatening and might include fears of losing control, being embarrassed, or physical harm and thoughts and feelings including shame, guilt, hopelessness, meaninglessness, separation, isolation, etc.

And why it doesn’t work:

Avoiding seemingly painful stimuli might prove beneficial in the immediate, but it is a short term solution.  It’s like taking an aspirin to treat a broken arm; it may temporarily dull the sting, but if one doesn’t address the broken bone they will never be able to heal.

You can read the full blog post here. My thanks to them, and to you for reading. Go well.

Sarah Tomley is a counsellor working in Suffolk, UK, at Insight Counselling Ipswich

Self-help strategies for anxiety

If you feel that your anxiety is affecting your daily life, it’s good to check in with your doctor. There are some physical conditions that can cause anxiety, so ask your doctor for a full physical check-up, if possible, or to check for medical conditions known to cause symptoms of anxiety, such as hyperthyroidism, Vitamin B12 deficiency, or heart irregularities.

Once you’ve been reassured that there’s no physiological cause, there are many ways you can help calm the body and the mind. These two work on each other in a two-way system, so you can do things to calm the mind and they will slow down the body’s anxious reactions (this is known as working ‘top down’), or you can work on the body and notice how your mind begins to become more calm (this is known as working ‘bottom up’).

CALMING THE MIND

When we start associating certain things with making us anxious, we begin to avoid them. This is completely natural and ties in to our evolutionary psychology – anxiety is there as a prompt to keep us away from dangerous situations. However, when anxiety becomes a common or everyday state, it comes into play with situations that are not potentially dangerous in terms of our physical safety. And it turns out that avoiding things that make us anxious isn’t a good idea – research has shown that avoidance increases anxiety, rather than lessening it. So someone might start by avoiding large gatherings, then small parties, then even an outing with close friends, because the avoidance has fostered a sense of anxiety in ever-smaller situations. This means that anxiety is best overcome by facing your fears rather than avoiding them, and the earlier this is done, the easier it is to ease any anxiety that has become associated with particular things, people or events. No one needs to do this on their own, so be sure to seek professional help if this feels right for you.

Here are some other ways for calming the mind:

  • Mindfulness has proved to be especially useful as a way to ease anxiety both short- and long-term, so you might want to consider using a mindfulness app (such as Headspace) or website (I like AudioDharma.org but there are lots more to choose from). The Oxford Mindfulness Centre – home of mindfulness-based CBT – has lots of resources, including a great three-minute ‘Breathing-space Meditation’ to calm the mind and body – click here to listen now.
  • See your anxious thoughts as guesses, not facts. Your mind is trying to predict what might happen, but it might be wildly out! Are you basing your predictions on what happened in exactly the same situation in the past? And if so, how likely is it that every factor will be exactly the same? (The philosopher Heraclitus famously said that “we never step into the same river twice”.)
  • Remember that just as our muscles are there to allow us to stretch and move, the brain is there to produce thoughts. Some of these are useful, and some are less so, while others are not useful at all. Spend some time when you’re not anxious just noticing some of the thoughts that arise in your mind. Perhaps think of them as clouds passing by, in front of your awareness – you can pick one or two up, or choose to let them all just float on by. There’s no need to act or even react to our thoughts – noticing them in a detached way allows us time to evaluate their usefulness and respond with choice.
  • Be aware that the mind can also make up whole stories, especially about ourselves (perhaps that we are unlovable or worthless or ‘stupid’). These messages are likely to have evolved from past experiences, and do not necessarily bear any relation to any truths about ourselves. If you have had difficult relationships in the past – with family members, friends or work colleagues, for instance – it’s possible that you’ve picked up faulty information (this is a useful area to explore in counselling). Notice any thoughts or stories like this and allow them to float on by. If they’re ‘sticky’, write them down or draw something that represents them. That way they have been expressed, and you can always come back to them later.
  • Broaden the picture. It’s possible to become very drawn to one particular aspect of a situation and become scared by that. Broaden your view, so that when you consider the situation again, it’s just one part of a much larger picture in your mind. If you like, you can ‘zoom out’ all the way to a satellite view of earth. Or imagine how you’ll think about this situation in 10 years’ time. Give yourself more distance, either geographically or in time. How big does the problem seem now?
  • Stay in the present. Look around you now, and notice the colours, sounds and shapes. What’s moving? What’s still? Are there any smells? Is any part of your body touching the ground or a piece of furniture? How is it, being in this body, today, here and now?

CALMING THE BODY

Here are a few effective ways of calming the body (the mind will follow!)

  • Reduce caffeine intake to 300 mg or less per day (that’s two cups of filtered coffee or three cups of instant)
  • Do some physical exercise every day for at least 30 minutes (even a brisk walk will do, but a run is even better)
  • Spend time doing things you love – make sure you’ve got room in your weekly schedule for fun stuff
  • Practise breathing exercises when you’re feeling anxious and just at occasional times during the day. Breathe gently in, drawing the breath down to your lower abdomen (as though you’re blowing up a balloon in your belly), hold the breath for a count of three, and then gently breathe out of your mouth as slowly as possible. Try to make the out-breath at least twice as long as the in-breath. Don’t gulp in the air, because that can cause the physical symptoms of panic. Take it slow, and focus on the slow out-breath. Repeat at least three times whenever you want to calm the mind and body.
  • Everyone has personal favourites (or ‘tools’) too, which they can use to restore balance to the body and mind, such as music, reading, dancing or swimming.

Lastly, it may be that anxiety has a unique meaning for you and actually does ‘make sense’ in a way that you haven’t yet realised. Once this is known, you have a very powerful way of reducing anxiety or even banishing it forever. I’ll look at this in my next post.

As always, thanks for reading.

Sarah Tomley is a counsellor working in Suffolk, UK (www.insightcounsellingipswich.com)