This is a bit of an unfocussed post so I’ll apologise in advance for that. I’ve been feeling intense vertigo and stinging in my chest over the last few weeks which are hard to explain properly, and this post is kind of about that and the loss of a close friendship and ways I’ve been trying to deal with it. A lot of it will be about DBT skills because I’m finding more and more that it’s the only approach I’ve found that really does seem to have any sort of positive effect and at the moment, my life feels like a constant attempt at emotion and occasionally crisis management which is EXHAUSTING and horrible but I’m trying to trust the DBT philosophy that emotions eventually peak and subside and I’m trying to be mindful of that and the way it’s affecting my body and thoughts as well instead of acting instinctively or impulsively to reduce the intensity. It’s been a bit up and down but I’m still writing blog posts and haven’t totally quit everything so that’s a definite positive!
This scene from ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’ is, for me, one of the most emotional scenes of the whole HP series and one that’s definitely underrated. It’s from the end of the book after Sirius has died and Harry’s struggling to cope with the loss and with his guilt about Sirius’ death. In this scene, Dumbledore is annoyingly calm and detached which makes Harry feel even more angry, hurt and alone and when I first read it aged 16, I could completely relate to Harry’s violent urges to hit Dumbledore and smash his things because that intensity of emotion is HORRIBLE especially when it involves feelings of hurt, guilt and loss which are three of the hardest negative emotions to manage even on their own. Harry’s reaction of ‘I DON’T CARE’ is a completely natural and typical response to being unable to deal with intense and conflicting negative emotions in a situation that you don’t understand and can’t control, but Dumbledore’s reply of “You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it” describes exactly how that intensity feels physically. There’s so much emotional complexity in this scene that goes far deeper than the loss of Sirius- Harry’s feelings of intense hurt and confusion from Dumbledore’s apparent indifference towards him over the year, his guilt in being a part of the situation that killed Sirius, his fear of being completely alone. It all culminates and builds up inside him in a way that he can’t express or manage, and his experience of intense emotion is something that a lot of people who experience intense, overwhelming or conflicting emotions that they can’t understand or express can relate to.
A while ago, a close friend asked me not to keep contacting her which really, really hurt, and I’ve been finding it increasingly hard to manage my feelings about it. At first, I felt really upset and cried a lot which was (I think) a typical reaction to the loss of a close friendship, but it started to hurt more intensely as time went by and the urges to contact her again became stronger. It felt like intense vertigo and like there was a ‘vacuum’ inside me as though someone had sucked out all my organs and gradually that emptiness became filled with a heavy, cement-like feeling which is still there. I started to feel more zoned out and ‘slowed-down’, and have found it hard to concentrate on anything much over the last few months which hasn’t helped with starting a new job (which, thankfully, I’m nearly at the end of the contract for now). Then, over the last few weeks, I started to get a stinging feeling in my chest which feels like someone’s opened a wound there and is tipping salt into it, and I keep randomly crying with no real trigger or becoming so exhausted and overwhelmed with the feelings that I fall asleep which is both a massive relief and annoying because I feel zoned out for the rest of the day.
It also hasn’t helped that there’s been a lot of (unrelated) stuff going on recently which has involved a lot of things that remind me strongly of my friend, and that’s made the urges to contact her so strong that they’re sometimes so overwhelming that I’m physically hitting the side of my head to try to get rid of them and last week, I acted on the urge and sent her a message which she didn’t respond to and although it helped to reduce the urge at the time, I felt like the worst person in the world and so guilty about it the next day. The feelings are so horrible at the moment that I can totally relate to Harry’s ‘I’VE HAD ENOUGH…I WANT OUT, I WANT IT TO END’ but I know there’s no constructive way to do that apart from the obvious which isn’t an option because of children I’ve worked with and am very close to, and the possible impact that could have on them. I’ve also had a lot of thoughts recently about distancing from the kids and from the two people I’m currently ‘friends’ with, but I think that could hurt them even more and I don’t want to hurt anyone at all. So I’m not really left with many options but I REALLY needed to do something because I genuinely can’t deal with it much longer and I’m scared I’ll do something impulsive and stupid to manage the feelings- I’ve kept it at low level bingeing/purging and superficial cutting at the moment (using DBT skills to manage the intensity which I’ll come to later) but I’m a bit worried the bingeing will swing to full-scale bulimia if I’m not careful or I’ll stop eating completely in the hope of getting rid of the emotion completely (see Obsessions for more info about that).
It’s been particularly bad over the last couple of weeks and I’ve been thinking a lot about unfriending my friend on Facebook so that I don’t have her updates on my feed but also so that I can’t act on the urges to keep messaging her (I don’t know her current email or home address and she lives abroad so texting’s out). It was a really difficult decision for several reasons- I didn’t want to completely lose touch with her because even though she’s hurt me a lot over the last year or so, I still really miss her and the connection we had; I really, really don’t want to hurt or upset her, or make her feel the way I have done over the last few months and I’m not sure I could cope with the guilt if she did; we were friends for nearly 20 years which is a really, really long time and she knows more about me than anyone else ever including mental health professionals I saw for seven years; it’s my fault the friendship broke down because I was too intense/clingy and I really don’t want her to be upset because I’m shit at managing relationships and get paranoid. But last night, I spoke to an old friend I haven’t seen in nearly ten years but who I was close friends with at school and she pointed out that if my friend had realised the impact asking me not to contact her would have, she wouldn’t have said it the way she did and that shows that the close connection we had’s already broken, and that made so much sense so last night, I unfriended my ex-best friend.
It was genuinely one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and I feel like such a bitch about it. I couldn’t stop shaking and spent most of last night fighting urges to email her via her old email address, send her another friend request or try to message her but someone I really trust told me not to email because it would make her more upset so I didn’t contact her but I feel like the worst person in the world and a really, really selfish, bitchy and horrible person for unfriending without an explanation. I’m feeling less shaky today but still really, really guilty and a bit zoned out. I HATE my brain and how selfish I am. I know that now it’s up to her if she wants to contact me and that she knows my email address and phone number so if she wants to, she can but I’m really, really hoping she won’t be feeling upset or hurt that I’ve unfriended her. It’s not that I don’t like her- I do, but I can’t cope with this sort of feeling any more and I need to do something for self-protection and so that I don’t lose any relationships I currently have. But I hate myself so much at the moment- I know it’s totally my fault and if I wasn’t so selfish, clingy and paranoid, it wouldn’t have got to that stage in the first place but this happens with nearly every relationship I have and I don’t know how to stop it. I hate the way my brain (and body) react to situations like this and how intense it is, and I especially hate the intense urges which swing from ‘I need to contact this person NOW’ to needing to binge/vomit or cut to try to force out the guilt and horribleness inside my body. I HATE MY BRAIN and I hate the way my body reacts physically.
Since I unfriended her, the vertigo has intensified and it feels like someone’s trying to pull my stomach out through my chest, and the intense stinging is like my heart’s being twisted and ripped out. It’s horrible and it’s affecting the way I’m feeling in general- it took four attempts at getting dressed this morning to find something I felt OK in to go out the house and my mood’s even lower and more ‘shaky’ than it’s been over the last few weeks. I’ve slowed right down to present moment and thankfully I don’t have work today, and I’m focussing on getting through each hour at a time. I still feel like such as bitch though and I really, really want to apologise but DBT interpersonal skills say that you shouldn’t apologise unnecessarily even if it feels like you should. So that brings me to the first DBT skill I’m going to look at- FAST.
FAST stands for fair, apology, stick to values and truth. The aim of the skill is to manage interpersonal relationships without compromising your own self esteem or emotional wellbeing, and I think it’s a really useful (as well as really difficult) skill to use. Being ‘fair’ applies to the other person but also to yourself, and involves being assertive and also listening to the other person. I’ve tried this already and although I haven’t been as direct as I’d like to have been with her, I’ve been open with her in the past and she knows me well enough to know that I wouldn’t unfriend her in a passive-aggressive way. It’s self-protection and although I haven’t said that directly, it would probably make things worse if I did. I genuinely have tried to be as fair as I can.
According to DBT, over-apologising when it’s not completely justified can have a detrimental affect on self esteem and self respect, and make negative emotions worse. It also points out that by apologising unnecessarily, you negate the effect when you actually do apologise which is something I hadn’t really thought about but is probably true. I’ve been thinking about the situation a lot and although I still think I should apologise for unfriending her, I can see that by doing that, I’m emphasising my ‘fault’ in the whole situation and that’s not going to be helpful for trying to reduce guilt and get over it. So I’m trying to be mindful of the guilt and urges to apologise without acting on them which is HARD but I think that if I can manage it, it could be a really positive thing.
Sticking to values means keeping to things that are important to you. I find the concept of values hard but I know that being fair, direct, accepting, honest and assertive are qualities that I really respect and value in other people so I’d hope that they are values I can try to embody too. In this situation, I don’t feel like I’ve really stuck to those values but I can’t see any way I could do without actually contacting her and explaining. I have been accepting of her decision to stop the contact though and I think I’ve been as fair and direct as I can be, so maybe I’m halfway there. It’s a hard skill though and I think I need to practise it a lot more before I’m able to actually use it properly.
Truthfulness is something that’s really important to me anyway and I think I’ve been as truthful as I can be. Before we lost contact, I had mentioned to her that I was getting paranoid about people not actually being friends with me or wanting to keep in touch and I’ve always been open and honest with her, so I think she knows enough about how I think and react to know why I’ve acted like this. If not, I’m h0ping she also knows me well enough to know that I’ll always be honest and truthful in emails so she can email me if she wants.
I’ve also been using a LOT of the emotion regulation skills to try to deal with the intensity of emotion, both physical and emotional, I’ve been experiencing. I won’t go into opposite action because I’ve already talked about it a lot in Opposite Action in action- more DBT!, but I’m going to look at other strategies such as seeing emotion as a wave and being mindful of emotions. Both of these involve trying to distance from the emotion and seeing it as something that happens to you rather than being a part of you which I find really hard to get my head around in relation to emotions but I’ve managed in relation to thoughts via the bitch in my head (Inside my head…), and I’ve been trying to link this to emotions by seeing my emotional state as something that the bitch in my head can hijack and gain access to via a skeleton key she’s got which gives her direct access to my feelings and emotions which she can then use to her advantage.
So for me, a big part of emotion regulation is trying to prevent her from having access to my emotions by accepting what she says without believing it, talking back to her and trying to be more compassionate towards her so she’s not as angry and sometimes that helps but sometimes she gets in before I’ve realised it. That’s when the DBT emotion regulation skills come in and they’re a lot easier to apply when the emotions are a result of the bitch in my head rather than being an intrinsic part of ‘me’ and how I’m thinking or feeling. Seeing emotion as a wave is based on the idea that emotions peak and eventually subside so if you try to distract or tolerate the emotion, it will eventually ease off to a more tolerable level. I have a distress tolerance card which I’ve been relying on a lot recently to try to manage emotions, and it’s something I would recommend to anyone who experiences intense emotions- the idea is that you do at least two things from the card before any unhelpful behaviour and sometimes it does distract for long enough for the emotion to start to subside and (for me) the positive feelings associated with not acting on the emotion are often enough to help it subside completely to a point where I can manage it more easily. It’s definitely worth making a card if you don’t already have one. Mine’s colour-coded to make it easier to use when I’ve feeling intense emotion and that can help for some people.
I’ve also been trying to be mindful of emotions which is really hard but it’s a skill I’m finding increasingly useful the more I practise it. The basic idea is to observe and be aware of your emotions (even if you can’t identify what they are) and not judge them, and just ‘let’ them rise and fall. It links to the wave idea and I’ve been trying to imagine emotional intensity rising and falling like waves, and sometimes this is easier than waiting for the wave to peak because it often feels like it won’t! It’s really hard not to judge emotions though especially guilt or anxiety, and DBT thought and emotion defusion teaches you imagine the thought or judgement like leaves on a stream- recognise and acknowledge them but let them pass without fixating on them and this takes a LOT of practice but I’m starting to find it useful, especially with obsessive thoughts.
Outside of DBT skills, the other thing I find really useful for managing difficult emotions and trying not to act on them is use fictional characters as a sort of ‘channel’ or outlet for that emotion. I’ve been doing this in various ways ever since I can remember but the most useful ones at the moment are the Sims and through Carrie Mathison from Homeland (I did a post on this a while ago called Learning emotion regulation via Carrie Mathison). The Sims is a bit of a weird one because it can either be really, really useful or makes things a million times harder so I’m always a bit wary when I use it, but sometimes it can be really useful. In a situation when I’m missing someone but know that contacting them would be too much, it’s actually really beneficial to ‘talk’ to that person on the Sims because it really does feel like you’re actually communicating with them and it can help you feel less lonely. At the moment, that’s not a good idea in this particular situation because even seeing her as a Sim makes me feel really upset but what I have found useful on the Sims is creating an ‘ideal’ version of me and levelling up skills and career roles so it feels like I’m actually achieving something and that stimulates the same dopamine release as if you were actually doing something positive. I know it’s not ‘real’ but as a short-term emotion management technique, it’s pretty useful and doesn’t involve annoying other people.
The other thing I’ve found really useful is rewatching parts of Homeland season five and trying to learn about relationship skills and emotion management from Carrie’s relationship with Saul. Throughout the first few seasons, Saul is Carrie’s mentor and close friend and she really respects and looks up to him in a way she doesn’t with any other character, and there are several examples where they save each other’s lives or connect with each other on a deeper, more personal level and in season four, Carrie is described as “his child, practically”, and that really is the kind of relationship they have (although much more from Carrie’s perspective; there are also examples where Saul has ‘used’ Carrie to suit his or the agency’s needs). But in between seasons four and five, Carrie and Saul have had a breakdown of their relationship and are no longer talking. Carrie finds this difficult to deal with, particularly as Saul’s values seem to be diametrically opposed to her own, and throughout the season she attempts to reconnect with him. When she is led to believe that Saul is trying to kill her, she describes their relationship as “someone I trusted more than I’ve ever trusted anyone” and there are a lot of examples of this throughout the series and of their mutual trust and respect for each other which, in some places, borders on an almost familial love.
In the other post, I wrote that “We don’t find out in Homeland what could have happened to make them split so intensely but I think from a self-protection perspective, Carrie couldn’t allow herself to become so emotionally vulnerable again which is why, when Saul tried to make up with her, she wouldn’t let him, telling him, ‘I’m not that person any more.’ When I first saw this, it genuinely made me cry but I really do accept why Carrie made that decision- she needs to protect herself and she’s come so far since season one/ Sometimes it’s really hard but you need to move on and accept that sometimes even very close, long term relationships end. People change and you can’t do anything about that . It’s horrible, genuinely feels like you’re being punched repeatedly in the stomach and your chest is being ripped open but staying attached to the person that someone used to be isn’t helpful for either person. Carrie made what is for her the right decision, and Saul needed to accept that. It’s not going to be easy for either of them and there is an intense part of me that really, really wanted them to make it up but I know that wouldn’t have been possible and that one of them would have had to change and compromise themselves which wouldn’t be the basis for a healthy relationship. Saul helped Carrie to grow and develop as a person and she provided him with emotional support and trust when he needed it, but they both changed and it was time for them to move on.”
I’ve been watching that scene over and over and although it’s made me cry and feel as though my heart’s being ripped several times over, I can see how Carrie needs to completely distance from Saul in order to rebuild emotionally and to protect herself from that intensity of feeling. I’m guessing she must feel as guilty as I do at the moment, especially when Saul says, “Goddammit Carrie, I need you” and she replies, “And I said, I’m not that person any more”, and it must have been so hard for her to make that decision knowing that it was partly because of her that the friendship broke down and that she’s hurting Saul by cutting him off emotionally, but I think it really was the right decision. She needs to protect herself and not allow herself to become emotionally vulnerable, and she can’t risk the same friendship break up happening again. The emotional bond broke when they first became distanced from each other and that would be impossible to rebuild.
I found that really, really useful to think about because Carrie was as close to Saul as I was to my best friend, and they were close for a similar length of time. Like me and my friend, they were very different people and the friendship was intense but also dependent on mutual communication. Saul changed and moved on in a very similar way to my friend but Carrie stayed in the same emotionally intense state she’s always been in even if she’s learning to manage it more effectively now, and I think Saul just got to a point where he couldn’t tolerate it any more. As Carrie grows, both as an officer and as person, she starts to act outside of Saul’s influence or instruction a lot more and doesn’t need his approval as much as she did in the past and Saul’s focussed on his career progression and the agency, so once they’ve split it’s really difficult for them to bond in the same way again. I think it’s similar with my friend- we’ve both gone in very different directions over the last few years (or, more accurately, she’s moved on and I’ve stayed in the same place) and we don’t have the same sort of mutual connection any more that we had growing up. It’s really hard to deal with and it really, really hurts but there’s nothing I can do to change that and that’s where the DBT skills come in.
It’s still hurting too much to draw any sort of line under it and I’m feeling like a mess of intense vertigo and stinging pain at the moment, but I’m hoping that I can get to the point that Carrie reached where, although there was a massive part of her that wanted to reconnect with Saul, she realised that it wasn’t possible, ‘real’ or healthy and made the decision to consciously distance herself and move on from it. I have no idea how this will turn out and if my friend will even realise I’ve unfriended her, but I can’t do anything more and I need to distance from the whole situation. So I’m going to try not to fixate on it or obsess over possibilities, and I want to eventually move on and accept whatever happens from here…