Exactly a year ago, I was all excited leaving my DBT Skills Group. I was on my way to collect a puppy. That same puppy is lying at my feet as I write this just hours after finishing my final Skills Group. That day, I wasn’t long into DBT. I was still working full time, feeling “fine” about it all, struggling a little to make sense of it. I was helping to organise a large fundraising event. I was doing a lot of overtime. That was about to change.
I commented to my therapist today that anyone looking at me objectively could say that DBT has had a terrible effect on me. From working and contributing, today is the opposite. I can’t hide my situation now. Just a regular exercise group the other night threw me completely-the experience of spending time in a group of people that was not mental health related was strange. I am struggling to function in every sense of the word and yet…
…I don’t see any of this as a sign of falling drastically downhill. I see it as my situation revealed. None of this is new. This is how I felt for years. The cover up was what started to get impossible. Rock bottom has its comforts. I feel more real. Everything around me feels more vivid. There’s a sense of starting again.
At the end of today’s Group, I spent some time with my therapist reflecting on the process. I told her that easily the biggest thing I had taken from it outside of the skills themselves was the other people. There were so many “me too” moments, realisations that things I struggled with were shared by others, moments where we all looked at the person talking and just nodded because as different as our situations and behaviours were, the experiences were the same. As my therapist said, DBT skills were and are moulded from the feedback and experiences of many people in the same situations and therefore the solutions are designed to fit into that mould too.
Validation was the other huge thing. I think many if not most people with BPD would say that they have experienced being told, directly or indirectly, that their emotional intensity is too much. And yet, it’s us. It’s real. It’s our daily experience and it’s not something we can turn on and off at will. To have someone acknowledge that is huge. One of the trainers commented one day that a “regular” bad day to us might feel to her like being involved in a car accident would. And who wouldn’t need help with that? Just to know that our experiences are real and true and that we did all we could to survive makes it feel something near to worthwhile.
My therapist acknowledged that some of the skills had been, in her words, “excruciating” for me and that she had sometimes wondered if they were just tormenting me and if I would keep coming. I never thought of stopping. As difficult as it was, I could always see the sense of it even, hours, ice packs and emergency meds, later. I could see the worth in slowly learning which skill to pull out in tough moments. Who would ever see a cold shower as a skill? And yet, when your head is screaming at you to do something destructive and you need to be shocked back into your body, it works. Removing yourself from a situation is skilful and recognising the need to remove yourself is yet another skill.
My biggest difficulty was and is recognising emotions. I went into DBT convinced that outside of happy and afraid, I was incapable of feeling anything else. I needed to go right back to basics and learn what emotions were, what they felt like, what urges they came with in order to even acknowledge the possibility that they were all there somewhere. The Emotion Regulation was my favourite and most challenging module and I’m very grateful that I was let take this one three times instead of the usual two. The second try was mostly spent somewhere between panicked and dissociated. This time around I was able to read about fear words without panicking. I could tolerate reading a page all about anger. I could look at personal values and even pick out one of two. These were major achievements. I looked at emotions such as love that I thought depression had snatched from me long and ago and thought, maybe…
The DBT modules of Mindfulness, Emotion Regulation, Distress Tolerance and Interpersonal Skills were and are all equally important and my fear is that I’ll somehow forget. In my worry, I forget that learning these skills was only one step. This is not the end but rather another stage of using the skills in therapy for the more introspective pieces that lie ahead not to mention the dreaded trauma work and also in real life as I try to take stock and rebuild myself, rebuild a more real, honest version of myself, one that doesn’t keep changing physically and otherwise. One that has solid traits. It feels next to impossible but “next to” bit is what I have to challenge myself with.
It’s hard to know that it’s over. A year is a long time and it has been tremendous support. I’ve felt so less alone knowing that every Friday I will be in the company of people who “get it” for two hours. A part of me feels that suddenly I’ve discovered all of these feelings, some intensely painful, and I’m now being made to face them on my own. Was I better off before? But then I remember how crippling the depression could be, how much I hate feeling numb or that constant feeling of something’s terribly wrong and I have no idea what. However torturous it has been to get here and despite the hard work that I know lies ahead, somehow I have no doubt that I’m in the direction I’m supposed to be.
It’s hard and it’s possible-dialectical thinking at its finest.