The Psychotherapeutic Art of Kintsugi

Mending a Broken Self with Gilded Wisdom

Rachel Sussman, Studies for Sidewalk Kintsukuroi (image from rachelsussman.com)

For the past two years, I have been engaged with the process of psychoanalytical psychotherapy. It was my mum who suggested it initially. She is the only person I know who started on this journey herself in her seventh decade. Her extreme humility and a willingness to change despite her age inspired me to follow suit.

The motivation for self-exploration began two years previous. On December 30, 2012, in a hotel room in Alexanderplatz, Berlin, I had a complete nervous breakdown. Together with my husband in the German capital for a romantic mini-break, I had spent the day wandering perfunctorily around trendy galleries in converted urban spaces, a sense of impending doom enveloping me. Following the pressures of the previous four years since becoming a mother, during which I had been piling project upon project on top of my job as a teacher in a vain attempt to escape my stubborn reluctance to accept the unflinching mirror of parenting, I had finally reached breaking point. An argument about what to eat for dinner grew into a darkly terrifying existential state, forcing me back into a blackened corner while recurrent images of hurling myself out of the window of our hotel room on the 22nd floor flashed before me. I didn’t jump, but something fundamental had snapped inside.

Back at home, I went to the doctor and the next few months were punctuated by psychiatric visits, a trial-and-error schedule of prescriptions and medications, yet more suicidal urges, withdrawal from alcohol dependency, self-harm, person-centred counselling, crisis team visits, nights at the local mental health sanctuary, false recoveries, mid-life crisis tattoos, and masses of oversharing on Facebook. After 18 months of this, and a diagnosis of rapid cycling bipolar II disorder, I decided to take my mum’s advice and start on the psychotherapeutic road in an attempt to fix myself.

In my first ever session of therapy, my therapist, whom I will call Patience, said, “I am so struck by the fact that everything you describe yourself doing over the course of your life is an attempt to find ‘The Answer.’” I agreed that this was indeed the case, as my life felt like a catalogue of disasters: of false starts and projects that at conception offered such beguiling promise only to be tainted by the messy reality of everyday life; of interpersonal relationships that didn’t follow idealised guidelines and shambolic details that frustrated the latest, beautifully flawless plan that would save me from myself. I spent the first year of therapy so deep within the process that I could do little else, other than the basics of looking after our daughter, taking her to school, making packed lunches, and going through the motions of motherhood in a somnabulatory state. Anything else was overwhelming, as the entirety of my energies were directed inwards, towards unpacking the past and trying with all my might to understand my subconscious thought processes that periodically sullied everything I did, forcing my hand to spoil everything in a futile attempt to control the uncontrollable.

I was concurrently in the process of withdrawal from a cocktail of antidepressants, antipsychotics, and mood stabilisers that had failed to ameliorate my symptoms and left me with a deep sense of despair that was irreparable. My insides felt like a bottomless void, the call of death in the forefront of my consciousness every minute of every day, the illusion of an infinite sleep preferable to this living torment that I was navigating with blind desperation. The only thing that hauled me back from jumping off a cliff or flinging myself in front of an incoming train, from taking the pills or walking into the sea weighed down with stones, was my daughter. The vision of my little girl waking up to find that mummy had gone, abandoning her forever because the pain of looking after her daughter and her own damaged self was too much to bear, jolted me back to the present moment and forced me to continue crawling along the mine-strewn road towards self-acceptance.

One day, during the first long summer break since starting therapy, once the terror of abandonment from six whole weeks without seeing Patience had dissipated, I was deep in the woods with my daughter. Fashioning beads wistfully out of elderwood branches, balmy dragonflies of sunlight glancing off our shoulders and wafts of wild flowers breezing past, a rapturous vision suddenly enveloped my consciousness. This was it! This was The Answer! I had to train to be a forest school leader and make beads out of elderwood just like the calm, serene woman who had taught us the technique earlier that day. Swathed in the dappled sunlight of my vision, I would be just like her and all would be well. I was overcome with excitement. I would have something to tell Patience when I next saw her in September. I had found The Answer! I spent the next few days in a flurry of research to find the best forest school course in the area and within a week I had put down a deposit to start training in the new year. With excitement and trepidation, I sat on her couch for the first session back after the summer holidays and announced, with a beatific smile, that I had finally found The Answer, all by myself and without her assistance.

She was a little taken aback. Our final session before the summer had been one of torrential tears, threats of suicide, and desperate pleas not to be left alone to fend for myself over the holidays. She had been expecting me to come back wobbly on my feet and unsteady in my soul, but instead I was full of promise, all grown up, able to look after myself, as I had found the magical solution All By Myself. She was understandably sceptical, but my hypomanic state was so deeply convincing to both her and to me that we were both seduced by the promise of a path unfolding ahead.

It didn’t take long for the path to become riddled with the thorny branches and gnarled roots of reality. The intricacies of trying to work out how I would continue to fulfil my duties as a mother, alone during the week while my husband worked away, juggling my mental health whilst simultaneously embarking on a career change, turned into an insurmountable nightmare. As my overactive imagination drew every detail into sharp focus, meticulously working out with military precision how I would juggle the mundane details of childcare whilst simultaneously working on case studies, planning sessions, and keeping files on child psychology and forestry principles, my resolve slowly started to crack. The reality became overwhelming and I dropped out of the course before I’d even begun.

What followed was a litany of other unsuccessful endeavours to find the elusive Answer. I trained as a mental health peer support worker in an attempt to use my lived experience to help others, but the reality of being amongst other people suffering with similar struggles proved overpowering and I turned down the paid work that I had been offered. I attended a mindfulness course, gaining deep insights into my paranoia and depressive thoughts, realising I could turn an objective third eye on them and separate myself from my thoughts and feelings, by focusing on my breath and locating where the feelings were held in my body. However, with depressing predictability, the initial euphoria eventually wore off and my daily practice dwindled into nothing. I joined a women’s group, a circle of sisters, in which I found I was able to meld and mould myself into a state of universal acceptance and merge into the Divine Feminine. This felt even more seductively like The Answer, these sisters accepting my every word, however blunt and ugly, as my honest truth, and I felt wholly acknowledged, supported, and loved. Spin-off groups from the circle emerged and I enrolled in every single one, each one offering this sense of merging with the divine, with these sisters who were just like me and accepted me unconditionally. I felt a mystical sense of optimism as my being merged with theirs and our edges blurred together into a seamless whole.

However, it was not long before this merging began once again to become disturbingly disquieting. The ground became quicksand under my feet and I started to lose all sense of my already-shadowy self. My consciousness was peppered with other women’s stories and my own started to blur, while my intense gorging on others’ passions had turned a sumptuous banquet into a bulimic’s nightmare. I was bombarded by overwhelming feelings of suffocation, of submerging, of drowning, and in panic I pulled away, one group at a time, to be left completely and utterly alone, with just Patience at my side, looking on with concern at the suicidal state I once again found myself in. Everything had turned to shit again. My ideal Answer was wrong, once more, and I was back at ground zero, having gained nothing and lost everything.

In psychological terms, I was splitting. Everything was either wonderful or demonic, split into bridal white or coal-face black and I could not hold anything of worth within myself. Despite the fact that during this period, I had managed to collaborate with another artist and co-deliver a six-week course for women, exploring the elements through site-specific artworks, meditations, and movement, in my mind this was meaningless zilch. Far from being a huge achievement at having finally completed an interesting piece of work after almost four years of being out of work since my breakdown, in my twisted mind it was just another mirage, an empty illusion of success which I was all too quick to assign to the dumpster.

I started to wonder if my diagnosis was correct. I had read a little about borderline personality disorder (BPD) in the past, but the fact that my psychiatrist had given me the label of bipolar pushed any suspicions that he might be wrong out of my head. The two conditions are very similar and often misdiagnosed, professionals sometimes confusing the symptoms of one for the other. Recurrent depression peppered with episodes of hypomania were what had pointed towards the diagnosis of bipolar II, as I hadn’t ever entered a state of psychosis worthy of bipolar I. However, the intense feelings of fragmentation, of an absence of self, of numbing emptiness, of intense mood swings and rage flaring out of nowhere, all defining characteristics of BPD, caused me to research everything I could find on the subject, convincing me that this was a more accurate diagnosis of my ongoing condition. It explained the acute absence of any definable ego-boundaries and why I meld so easily with other people, why I frequently disassociate, feeling like I’m not really here, despite an intellectual awareness of my physical body going through the motions of everyday life. I confronted Patience with my findings and backed her into a corner to admit that yes, the symptoms were more appropriate for my track record of behaviour that she had witnessed during our time together, in addition to my reported accounts of life up until that point.

So, while not an "official" diagnosis, I now identify more with BPD. While I recognise the problematic nature of over-identifying with any kind of mental health label, it is nonetheless a deeply stigmatising one. It is the one mental health professionals have until only recently traditionally reviled as being the most difficult to deal with, the least treatable, the most manipulative and with the least hope for recovery. While medication helps only to quell the co-morbid symptoms of depression, mood-swings and impulsivity, new research is showing that it is in fact possible to recover from this condition through mindfulness and either dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) or intense analytical psychotherapy, which is what I’ve been doing for the past two years.

In a sense, it is a relief, in the same way that my initial diagnosis of bipolar II was a clue to understanding the quagmire of self-loathing and self-destructive behaviour through addictions to alcohol, overwork, bingeing, purging, or over-exercising in addition to the acute anxiety that had peppered my existence since childhood up until that point. However, as Patience pointed out, as did my husband when I sent him an article describing the condition with such uncannily accurate detail as if it were describing me in person, it is actually more hopeful. Whereas bipolar disorder is an illness, a chemical imbalance that can be understood through therapy but which will almost certainly necessitate medication to calm the most extreme symptoms, BPD is a condition brought about by faulty psychological mechanisms. The formation of a stable sense of self that should have been put in place at a very young age—which, for a menagerie of reasons, did not happen at the right time—resulted in a rickety self-identity that subsequently caused me to develop a catalogue of unhealthy coping mechanisms. It seems that, with time, this can be painstakingly pieced back together through careful and skilful psychotherapeutic techniques and dialogue to understand the subconscious processes and projections that led to such extreme coping strategies in the first place. I have also picked up my mindfulness practice as another shield in my armour protecting me against this condition.

Thus, a glimmer of hope: after two years of intense psychotherapy, I am finally starting to accept that this process is my only chance of putting my shattered self together properly, gluing the edges of my broken shell with the wisdom of insight and recovery from years of self-neglect and dreams of obliteration. Much like Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing pottery with seams of gold, I can treat my shattered edges as an integral part of the whole, to be celebrated and honoured with delicate sensitivity rather than hidden, disguised, and wallpapered-over with whispers of shameful failure. I can be a celebration of imperfection, rather than hurtling desperately in a frantic chase towards an impossibly perfect ideal that can never exist in real life. I am also starting to accept that I don’t have to do it by myself, that my frenetic attempts to find the mythical Answer necessarily failed and rang hollow as I was resolutely refusing to truly let Patience and her knowledge and expertise in. I can now begin to acknowledge my tattered seams for what they are and gently and tenderly start to sew myself back together, with Patience and love.

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