“Well I took a piss at fortune’s sweet kiss
It’s like eatin’ caviar and dirt
It’s sad funny ending to find yourself pretending
A rich man in a poor man’s shirt”
— Bruce Springsteen Better Days
A couple of months ago my wife gave me a yin-yang pendant. Since I was in the middle of my crisis, she gave it to me as a reminder that even in darkness there is light, and eventually things would get better for me. I thought this was a nice gesture and nothing more. Regardless, I said thank you for the pendant, which didn’t fit around my neck because the string was too short, and I taped it to the wall next to several of my son’s drawings and left it there without ever really thinking about again – until I got to Four Winds.
The therapists at Four Winds introduced me to something called DBT, or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. It was a method of teaching coping skills to help me deal with the chaos of my life, to put things into perspective and control my reactions to them. DBT sought to increase skills in the areas of interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation, distress tolerance, and mindfulness. These were precisely areas that I was having difficulty coping with. My interpersonal skills had fallen apart because I had successfully isolated myself from everyone in an attempt to hide my depression. It’s much easier to avoid discussing your problems when you don’t talk to anyone. My emotional regulation was nonexistent, since my emotions were raging out of control. There was no tolerating distress, because I was afraid of my own thoughts. It was as if my brain was torturing and even trying to kill me. Finally, I was mindful of nothing. I was so wrapped up in what would happen, or could happen, that I had lost any sense of being in the moment and dealing with that. This again led to racing thoughts and out of control emotional responses.
The main point of DBT is the word dialectical. Dialectics is the concept of opposites. There is more than one way to see a situation, and, more importantly, life has both positive and negative aspects, often within the same circumstances. One could be happy and sad at the same time. You could love and be angry with a person in the same moment. As one friend of mine put it, it is also a type of conversation about the same thing from two opposing viewpoints. The problem is, when I’m in crisis, the entire conversation, both sides, is in my head. How do I balance that inner debate? The key to DBT is finding and maintaining a balance in all of these apparent conflicts. As I listened to this discussion of balance, it seemed somewhat familiar. Sort of like, I don’t know, maybe a certain pendant taped to my wall?
My main goal when I first got to Four Winds was to keep my head down, my mouth shut, and sit there until I could get discharged. So, I sat in group therapy, participated when I was forced to, and listened to the coping skills presentations. Somewhere in all of this, something happened. I began to understand and I began to use a couple of the skills. And they worked. The skill that made a real difference for me was radical acceptance; accepting that some situations I couldn’t change, and by accepting that fact I could then learn to deal with it. In my case, things were not going to change. My wife and son, job, and money were gone and nothing was going to change that. Once I accepted the reality of the situation, I could accept that it caused me pain and anxiety, and then finally I could accept that, even with these painful events and circumstances, life was worth living.
Life is a conglomeration of conflict and inconsistencies. I had to accept this in order to move on. There was something to this acceptance, allowing these paradoxes to exist in my life. Since I began to understand radical acceptance I have begun to allow that some things in life will upset me and cause me pain. Radical acceptance was not just a coping mechanism; it was an extremely powerful and valuable one necessary to achieve the balance needed to deal with my crises and the contrasts that bipolar behavior embodied. A few days ago I took the yin-yang pendant off my wall. I found a new cord for it and it’s been around my neck ever since.