Today is my last day of DBT group therapy. My reasonable/rational mind is saying that it’s time…it’s appropriate…all the facts (e.g. I know the material, I’ve been taught the skills, I’ve been doing this for a long time). My emotional mind is saying, “NO! Don’t make me leave! I need this!” And my wise mind is saying, “It’s time. It will be okay. Change is hard sometimes but it’s for the best.” (The fact that I am able to observe, recognize and break down those three states of mind is probably solid proof that it’s time to “graduate” and be kicked out of the nest but it still doesn’t mean I like it or that I think I’m ready to fly on my own.)
Back in November or December of last year, K grabbed me after group one day and asked me to give some thought to something she’d like me to do. I was a little wary, but I said I’d think about it. She asked me if I would be willing to attend a teen/parent DBT group session and share my DBT experience/journey because she was having a hard time getting that group motivated and committed to the process/journey and she thought that with me being young with a pretty good story to tell, my words might be able to get through those thick little teenage skulls. My immediate reaction was, “Aw hell no!” because, if I haven’t mentioned it before, I don’t like groups and I don’t like talking to a roomful of people I don’t know, especially judgmental teenagers. But then, after my 12-hour processing time, I was like…hmm…okay…I’ll do it…for K. I later saw it as backhanded compliment…that K thought so highly of me and my personal DBT journey that she would personally ask me to do this.
I never got the chance to give my “speech” and it wasn’t because I was no longer wanted, but it had to do with confidentially/HIPAA laws and stuff. As far as I know, the idea is still on the table, it’s just not really moving at the moment. I may get the chance to say this to a DBT group some day, but just in case I don’t, I’ll preserve it here. And whoa…my lightbulb just went off: my hope is that, by posting this on the interwebs, someone considering DBT therapy and/or having a hard time committing to the process will stumble across this little gem and it will give them something to think about and/or the motivation/encouragement to JUST. KEEP. TRYING.
This is a tad out-dated as I wrote it back in December and I’ve had a birthday since then and I am no longer in a DBT group. But read this as if I were and read it as if it were a real speech given to a roomful of (hopefully) attentive people. This is what I would have said:
Hi, my name is J and I’ve had an okay week and some skills I used were……oh wait…this isn’t a check-in is it?
I like to write down my thoughts before saying them out loud so that I don’t cause harm to myself or others. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. Oh wait…that’s me. I chose to write and read this aloud because 1): I have been told I have some awesome writing skills; 2): it will help guide me and prevent any long-winded tangents; 3): I’m not a professional public speaker and 4): when given the time, I prefer to write as a way to “prepare” and think about what I want to say rather than fly by the seat of my pants and quickly try to put my thoughts together for an audience; it gives me time to edit myself, choose my words wisely and take out all the swear words.
I was first approached about talking to you all today by K. After my own DBT group session one day, she asked me if I would do her a favor. I gave her my signature one-eyebrow-raised-did-I-hear-you-correctly-and-if-I-did-I’m-not-going-to-say-yes-or-no-right-this-minute expressions because, if you’ve had any experience with therapists, their “favors” are usually things to be wary of. You should get the details first and not commit to anything in blood before agreeing to do it because it will usually require you to step out of your comfort zone and/or go beyond what you deem as your “normal” behavior and/or do things that test your limits. K’s favor asked me to do all of the above.
I was asked to speak to you all, in part, because I am young and most of the time, I’m the youngest member in the adult DBT group. But the more I thought about this opportunity, the more I realized that despite my age, my situation is not all that different from yours…the teenagers. I am often asked when I will be graduating from high school and, after telling people I already have a diploma and two degrees, I tell them that I am 28 years old (almost 29 actually…yikes!)…and even then, I am sometimes asked to show my driver’s license to prove my age. But apart from that, due to many circumstances and decisions made by myself and other people, I have had to return home and am currently living with my only surviving parent: my mother. (If you’re wondering, I had lived on my own for many years prior to this situation and I am fiercely independent; living at home is not easy, even at almost 30.) Sometimes even I question how old I am because I see and experience a lot of the same things I did when I was a teenager living at home.
I have mixed emotions about being here and talking to you all…this will make more sense when I tell you that I didn’t utter a single word in my own DBT group for about ten months. I have been in my DBT group for about a year now, I think. I have been through all of the modules at least twice. My own personal journey that landed me where I am now has been going on for about 18 months. I started out with individual therapy and after a few months of that, I was “strongly encouraged” to start going to group therapy. You should note here that I am very introverted and I “don’t play well with others.” So when someone says “group” to me, I cringe…I don’t like being around people as a general rule and I really don’t like strangers and I really really don’t like being in a situation that requires me to get personal, to any degree, with a roomful of people I don’t know. I like it even less, if that’s possible, when it is “forced” upon me or “strongly encouraged.” I fought my therapist (who is not K, but is on the DBT team) for a good two months or so before finally agreeing to go to group. I will admit that initially, I agreed to go just to make my therapist shut up and stop nagging me…and because she asked nicely and said please. If you guys haven’t covered it yet, you will get to an interpersonal effectiveness lesson on intensity…your “asking” intensity level and your “saying no” intensity level, which are both on a scale from 1-10…with 1 being not very assertive about asking for something or saying no to something and 10 being very assertive about your request and not taking no for answer or being very adamant about saying no to a request. My therapist was a firm ten in asking (I like to think it was more like “telling”) me to go and I was at a firm ten…probably more like a firm twenty…in saying no to her request. Don’t ask me how I came to be sitting here because after a year, I still don’t know how I got duped into it. I sat in the same chair, in the same spot for 90 minutes every Thursday afternoon for ten months and would not even introduce myself or say my name, much less comment on my week or mention any skills I had used or worked on. I’m sure some people wondered if I even knew how to talk. I listened to what was being said…sometimes. But if I may be honest, a lot of it went in one ear and out the other for the first few months. I don’t know why or when I started to actually listen and pay attention. I still wasn’t saying anything, but I was at least participating now…even if it was only in my mind. I was frustrated with the group from the get-go. Aside from not wanting to be there, I was all, “What the hell is this mindfulness crap?” (It was a few weeks before I even understood what mindfulness was because I was so hell-bent on not speaking that I didn’t bother to question something I didn’t understand.) Please note that me choosing to be quiet and making it no secret that I didn’t want to be there was not done out of defiance or stubbornness. My behavior was the result of a distorted belief that I wasn’t worth it, that I couldn’t change and that any and all efforts to help me do so would be in vain. I felt I was wasting the therapist’s time and a space in group that could have been given to someone else who needed it more than I did…and no one could have convinced me otherwise. So there I sat…for ten months…rarely making eye-contact with anyone who spoke and not saying a single word. The most you usually got out of me was a shake of the head to let the facilitating therapist know that I wasn’t going to say anything or participate. Then one of the therapists would ask me if it was okay if they could say my name and introduce me to the group; that usually elicited just a single nod from me.
I cannot tell you what the turning point was for me…I can only tell you that it happened about two months ago. I have a couple theories about what led me to finally open my mouth, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter why because I think I’ve said more in the last two months of group than I have in the last two years of my life. I had not only stunned myself with my new behavior, but for the first time, I had rendered the therapists speechless…which is not an easy thing to do. I just opened my mouth one day and said, “My name is J.” and I haven’t shut it since. (This can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who you ask.) Not only was I taken aback by my newfound voice…the therapists were too…not just because of my willingness to finally talk, but by how much information I had actually been absorbing from just sitting there quietly for so long. At first, I felt that my mouth was a faucet that couldn’t be turned off…I felt like I was talking non-stop and that people in group, including the therapists, were getting irritated with me. Apparently, after not talking for so long, I had lost the ability to determine when I was talking too much because it turned out that I was actually doing just fine. Not that I had to prove anything, but me finally talking and participating proved to the therapists (and myself) that I was actually listening, absorbing and, albeit, using the skills that were being taught. And not only could I parrot what was being taught and what the acronyms DEAR MAN and GIVE FAST stood for, I had my own fifty cents (that’s like the “two cents” phrase but I’ve adjusted for inflation) to offer on almost anything we talked about. That’s not to say that I knew everything and was all of a sudden a black belt in DBT…but I was putting all this information into more relatable and understandable terms and putting my own unique spin and interpretation on things. And it came as quite a surprise to me when I learned that the therapists enjoyed and appreciated this new side of me…but my fellow group members did, too…some of whom had been in the group with me for some time and knew this was not my usual MO. I remember having a one-on-one session with my personal therapist after one of the first days I had said something out loud in group and K actually came into her office (courteously) and told me to not be so hard on myself and come out of my cocoon a little bit and share my thoughts and experiences. K thought I had a lot to offer and she asked me to open up a bit and give people a chance to benefit from my personality and any two cents I had to offer on a topic.
After being in this group for as long as I have, I have seen many people come and go…but one of the first things I almost always hear anyone new say is, “Damn…I wish I had been taught these skills in school or earlier in life.” Just because you are here and/or diagnosed with a disorder does not mean you are crazy or condemned to a life full of chaotic emotions, bad relationships and poor coping skills. While the information taught here is geared towards those of us who have difficulty regulating our emotions and such…the information is also very pertinent to “normal” people, too. If I had a class in high school that had taught me this information and these skills, I probably could have saved myself (and many other people) a lot of headaches. I could have substituted a DBT class for a math class because Lord knows I don’t use the Pythagorean theorem out in the “real world”…but I do use DBT skills. But my personal conviction is that all things happen for a reason…there is no such thing as luck and there are no accidents or coincidences. The reason why I ended up in the place I now find myself may not be evident right now…or ever…but there is a reason for it. And for all I know, part of that reason is to be here today to share my experience with all of you.
If you find me smiling or laughing as I talk, it’s because I can talk the talk but I’m not very graceful while walking the walk. (Judgement, K…I know.) I know the right answers to the questions being asked and I can regurgitate the DBT book word for word, but it doesn’t mean I always excel in the execution. Am I better able to work through my emotions and deal with stress and relationships now? Yes…but I’m not a master of it and I don’t/can’t do it all the time. I have my good days and my bad days. One of the most frustrating things for me, even now, is that one day, I can be very mindful or I can execute a DEAR MAN or opposite action with such awesomeness that someone has to call Marsha Linehan so she can give me a gold star. But then the very next day, I feel like I have completely failed because the skills and knowledge I used yesterday aren’t working for me today. And to be honest…it pisses me off sometimes. But that’s part of mindfulness…no judging…just rolling with the punches…accept it for what it is. Yesterday was yesterday. Today is today. Do what you can and what you know how to do in the moment you are called to do it. It won’t happen perfectly every time…sometimes it might not happen at all. There are still days where I just want to throw the DBT book out the window and there are still concepts I struggle with. I am a textbook Type A personality and an OCD perfectionist to the core…so when I don’t understand something or things don’t go as I feel they should or how a book tells me things should go, it grates on my nerves. But I’ve finally learned (sort of) that it doesn’t matter that I don’t do it perfectly or that I don’t do it all the time…all that matters is that I continue to try. There’s some radical acceptance for ya. So…I have continued coming to group…even on the days I don’t want to…even on the days I am having a panic attack…even if I am having one of the worst days of the last week or month. I may not hear or absorb a single word anyone says…but at least I go…I participate just by showing up. (And over the course of twelve months, I think I’ve actually only missed two days of group…one because of snow and one for a personal reason.) I even surprised myself about four months ago when I showed up to group not even 24 hours after making another attempt on my life. I was still dealing with some of the physical and emotional repercussions of what I had just done and I wasn’t really coherent. I sat in here for 90 minutes, tears silently rolling down my cheeks and I don’t remember who was in group that day aside from the facilitating therapists and I can’t tell you a single thing that was said that day…but I showed up.
In reflecting on the past year plus, it occurred to me that group participation and the one-on-one sessions with my therapist have been (and continue to be) great practice arenas. All of the therapists in this building, and I would think even more so with those on the DBT team, are all trained to listen, validate, and not pass judgement. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think those are things we want from most anyone we come into contact with. I, to this day, have a very rocky and toxic relationship with my mother. She doesn’t even know what DBT stands for…she just knows that I go to some “safe house” for 90 minutes every Thursday and that I will fend for myself regarding dinner. I think you guys, as teens and their parents, have a very unique opportunity here…to learn and work on these things TOGETHER. It allows you to validate each other…to even know what validation is and how to do it…and being here will probably help you learn to take a deep breath and think before you say or do something that is harmful to either yourself or someone else. Even if you don’t follow a specific skill step by step…if you can at least be mindful enough to just stop yourself for that split second and take that breath before acting upon an urge or saying something you may regret later…congratulations, you are one step ahead of most people. If you get nothing out of this group other than how to be mindful and recognize when you need to take that deep breath, I consider you a success.
Being able to be here every week and practice these techniques with the peers in my own group and then one-on-one with my therapist has given me the confidence and reinforcement I need to be able to use these skills out in my own world. Sometimes, my therapist will call me or we will be sitting down during a session and I will point-blank tell her that I am pissed off at her…be it something she said/didn’t say or did/didn’t do. And she will look at me with the biggest grin and tell me, with such exuberance, that she is so proud of me and loves it when I say things like that. And I’m like, “Are you deaf? I just told you I’m mad at you!” I laugh at this because it isn’t a “normal” reaction to anger and you probably won’t ever see someone so happy to be told to take a hike into next week. She is proud of me because I’m now able to be assertive and communicate and express myself in a way that gets my point across effectively, efficiently and without the fear of being judged, chastised or attacked for whatever it is I am upset about and for not physically hurting myself or someone else in the process. She listens to me, validates my feelings, and doesn’t judge or criticize. She doesn’t retort with, “Well you shouldn’t feel that way because of x, y and z.” or “You have no reason or right to be mad at me.” or “Oh yeah? Well I’m pissed at you, too!” She tells me, instead, “I hear you and I understand why you are upset.” Then we discuss it and resolve it…whatever the situation calls for. Sometimes all I need is just the opportunity to express my feelings and explain why I feel the way I do and I’m over and done with it. Sometimes the situation calls for deeper exploration and resolution. But being able to practice doing that with her has given me the confidence to do the same thing out in the “real world.” (I know…as a teenager, I hated it when adults used the “real world” cop-out, too.) Keep in mind that while my own therapist loves it when I tell her I am mad at her, you more than likely will not get the same response out of people you come across in your daily life…but that’s where the practice comes in. I probably won’t get that type of response from most people but I’m prepared enough now to handle that, stand my ground and just focus on my actions and thoughts, not theirs. And as a little tangent: my own therapist has watched me go through a good chunk of this DBT journey but she hasn’t seen it all. She wasn’t leading the group in the beginning…but K has been here with me since day one. I pushed her away many times. (As I picture this in my head, I see it like palming someone’s head and keeping them “at arm’s length” as they’re swinging their arms wildly at you in hopes of being able to clock you.) I never even let K cross the moat that surrounded my fortress. In fact, for many months, I didn’t even know what color her eyes were because I would never look at her. But she was patient. She didn’t force me to do anything or push me beyond my limits, but she never gave up on me either. And while the person you see here today is a result of my own effort and is my own personal triumph…I think it’s K’s, too. It means a great deal to me that someone was not only as willful as I was (which is no easy feat) and didn’t give up on me, but is now also so…I don’t know the right word…impressed?…proud? Whatever word you want to use…she is enough of it to ask me if I would come and speak to you all today. I think it is a testament to my progress and I consider it a privilege. To be thought of as such a “success story”…to know that someone thinks my journey is remarkable and worthy enough to be shared with others is one of the best compliments I have ever received.
We are all here because we essentially have unhealthy habits…be they unhealthy coping skills, unhealthy distress tolerance skills or unhealthy communication skills. For me personally, I came into this group with 27 years worth of bad habits. Some of you are younger than I am and some of you are older…but I think you will all concede that habits are hard to break. So don’t be hard on yourself or give up easily…you all have habits, good and bad, that have had 20 years (more or less) worth of reinforcement…give yourself more than a week or two to unlearn those and/or learn to use healthier ones. It’s hard to wait around for something you know might never happen…that you might never get better…but it’s even harder to give up when you know it’s everything you want…to get better. This type of therapy isn’t immediate gratification; it doesn’t happen overnight; it isn’t bibbity-bobbity-boo magic…the thingamabob that does the job. It takes effort and there has to be some flexibility, acceptance and willingness on your part…you have to want it to get it. A joke I’ve had in my arsenal for many years is this one: How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb? One…only if the lightbulb wants to be changed. Don’t give up on this group and this process. The minute you think of giving up, remember the reason you’ve been holding on for so long. Decide that you want it more than you are afraid of it. I’m still working on that. Some days, mindfulness happens naturally without any conscious effort on my part. Other days, I have to literally stop myself in my tracks and take a minute to get my bearings and take note of what’s going on, either with myself or my world…and go forth using whatever skills I need to in order to navigate through my day or situation. Some days are better than others. I still have a long way to go, in my opinion…but I also think I’ve come a long way to be able to be here talking to you…because Lord knows if this were three months ago, there is not a chance in H-E-double-hockey-sticks that I would have agreed to talk to you all today. If you had told me a year ago that I would be here doing this today, I would have called a therapist for you. I consider myself a “work in progress” and am by no means the poster-patient for DBT…but I still earn gold stars every now and then. If you take anything away from me today, take with you some self-validation and a reminder to not give up when you get frustrated or don’t understand the material. If I had succeeded in my missions to abort my participation in this group, I wouldn’t have this journey to share…and I would probably still be wondering what the hell mindfulness was.