I have been celebrating all week because as of last Thursday I have officially completed all of the sections in the DBT workbook and group. Apart from high-fiving myself (alright, so that’s just a clap really) for seeing this through I’ve been reflecting on how DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) has been a game changer in a life largely structured around living with treatment resistant bipolar disorder.
Before I can offer up a delightful before and after like some kind of mental and behavioral makeover I have to say that I feel lucky just for getting into a DBT program here in Seattle. I am on Medicaid and the waitlist for people receiving public mental health services here in Seattle means it takes typically months and in some cases years to get into a group. In the time it took me to get in I tried all sorts of treatments and even went to two consultations for ECT (electro-convulsive therapy). Obviously it seemed like DBT was a popular option, but after having a hard time with other types of therapy (like CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy, as an example) I couldn’t be more pleased with discovering why DBT has gained so much popularity and why I had to wait in the first place.
Just so you know where I’m coming from on this I think it might be helpful to tell you a little bit about what I experience.
I have treatment resistant bipolar disorder which means there haven’t been any medications that have been able to help stabilize my ongoing mood swings or prevent new ones from happening. My mood swings range from several intense swings in a day (which can range all the way from euphoria to suicidal depression and back again in a matter of minutes) to long intense episodes that can last months at a time. I experience mania, depression, agitated and sometimes hostile mixed episodes, suicidality, homicidality, and psychosis.
Needless to say… that has been a bit of a handful both for me and for other people to deal with. I can be unpredictable around other people which means they don’t typically know if I will be excited or devastated or aggressive from one moment to the next and I’ve had too many issues with homicidality, suicidality, and psychosis at work to keep a job for the last several years to boot.
The things I have felt needed the most immediate addressing have been things like:
- feeling strong urges of violence toward myself or others
- feeling unable to communicate with my boyfriend or others during intense episodes
- losing relationships and jobs because of my emotional reactivity
- constantly relinquishing my own self-respect in attempts to make others happy and avoid confrontation or the potential triggering of more episodes
- isolating myself due to constant fear and paranoia that someone might hurt me or I might hurt someone else
- negative thoughts I could not seem to stop or make quieter
In addition I have experienced very intense anxiety since I was old enough to remember. This has typically caused problems like:
- worrying to the point of causing physical illness
- believing horrible, sometimes life-ending events are about to unfold at any minute
- fear and panic overwhelming enough to keep me from having a driver’s license (at age 30)
- attempts to control other people’s actions to keep their unpredictability from making me more anxious (I wouldn’t recommend it…)
- constant obsessive thoughts that I felt powerless to stop that also often keep me from sleeping
- Ongoing panic attacks
Sometimes I can pass as a typical stable adult to others because I am intelligent (might as well toot my own horn there but people often point that out as a reason I can be high-functioning at times) and periods of hypomania tend to dissolve the anxiety I feel when they are occurring. Unfortunately as I have gotten older my episodes have gotten progressively worse and those periods of “normalcy” have been few and far between.
The ways in which I have coped with these issues have definitely evolved over the last 15 years. I’ve gone through my fair share of harmful coping strategies (self-harm, alcohol, binge eating) but I have also gone through a long line of coping methods that may not have been directly harmful but weren’t exactly effective either.
Ineffective coping strategies are usually those I’ve come up with and then discarded after a period of trial and error. Without much direction (both from my doctors and therapists previous to DBT – with exception to CBT) I kind of just came up with ideas I thought would work and tried them… I’d like to chalk this up to the scientific method but it may have been equally spurred by a constant feeling of desperation. Sometimes the methods would work for a while and then I would begin to get exhausted because they took all of my focus and effort to maintain. Things like:
- seeking approval from other people when I was depressed
- reaching out to every person I knew in times of crisis instead of just people I could trust (resulting in sometimes landing myself in dangerous situations)
- constantly fighting the obsessive or negative thoughts by arguing with them
- keeping myself in a state of constant distraction so it wouldn’t get quiet enough for me to hear negative or obsessive thoughts
- never being alone because then I would be alone with the obsessive or negative thoughts
- changing jobs frequently in an attempt to find one that “made me happy”.
Obviously I found a few things that worked, even if I didn’t know it at the time. Writing, art, playing music, playing video games… all seemed to make things feel easier, just not enough for me to base all of my activity on them. After all, how was playing the piano going to help me maintain friendships? How could I work retail and be drawing at the same time?
When it came to CBT I could get behind the idea of doing activities like journaling but the idea there was that there was a thought that was ultimately prompting my emotion and behavior. I found many of the activities soothing for a time, but even after I managed to figure out what negative thoughts were prompting my emotions or behaviors I couldn’t find anyone who could tell me how to change those negative thoughts (or stop from obsessing) in a way I could understand and it frustrated me.
I was disheartened when therapists would simply say, “you just stop obsessing.” or “you just accept the situation,” and when I asked how one does those things (as I couldn’t seem to make them happen voluntarily) nobody could answer with anything more than a statement a golf caddy could have given me. It seemed to go against the whole idea of working toward having better mental health, after all… if I could stop obsessing or just suddenly accept a situation I wouldn’t need to ask how to do it.
Beyond that I often felt like I had mood swings that seemed to happen totally independently of what I was thinking or doing. I could be at Disneyland on a roller coaster and suddenly find myself depressed, but none of my therapists or any of my hospital workers were willing to consider or explain why that might be happening. Most of them told me I didn’t know what I was talking about which I could watch transform my curiosity into livid rage.
Needless to say, I started DBT feeling skeptical after my time with CBT but what I found was a language I could understand.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy
I think it is import to point out that in my situation (one where every previous treatment option has failed) I have been desperate for any kind of help with my mental health for some time which means I found myself in the DBT group both ready and eager to learn as much as possible and practice the techniques. I needed relief from my symptoms and without anything that could provide that previously I was ready to throw my whole self into the class and take it very seriously. Being willing to dive in to the class helped me push through the frustrating or difficult parts I faced in the beginning.
I encountered the material in a structured weekly class with homework each week and I think in my case that structure really helped hold me accountable to practice the skills and do the reading. The previous week’s homework was reviewed each week so I needed to finish it. Being in a group also allowed us to compare ideas on what different ideas meant and discuss which coping strategies worked best for each of us.
The sections discussed were:
- basically how to live in the moment instead of being distracted by internal thoughts as well as how to enjoy each moment fully
- Emotion Regulation
- how emotions work, what goes in to working to keep them balanced, and how to change an emotion
- Interpersonal Effectiveness
- maintaining relationships and how to have positive social interactions
- Distress Tolerance
- tools for crisis situations
The thing I found most effective about the material is that it suggests that the best strategy for living a balanced life is to operate using both emotion and reason. Each section goes on to describe strategies that work to help you create that balance by bringing in whatever is missing (usually for me it is the reason element) into the situation.
While there were some aspects of the workbook I had already figured out on my own through the trial and error I mentioned earlier this style of workbook offers many different kinds of strategies and basically you keep what you like and leave what’s left. I really respected that idea because I was able to tailor my own set of skills based on my needs and everyone else in the group was able to do the same. In that regard I can see where DBT’s popularity comes from because it is accessible to a wide audience.
The important thing to understand about DBT is that I still have mood swings. I still feel suicidal urges, I still feel most of the things I felt before. The group wasn’t a magic cure for those feelings and urges, but it helped me understand how to negate or change them in healthy and manageable ways. More than that, I’ve been equipped with an arsenal of coping skills that work for me, and that is HUGE.
The mood swings may not be gone but being able to bring reason and logic to the table when they happen tends to mean less reactivity on my part. Less reactivity means it is easier to maintain relationships. Being friendlier to people means I feel less paranoid about potential reactions to my reactions. It all starts to trickle down through all these channels because everything is connected.
The only hard part here is that it only works as long as I use these skills. That might seem like a no-brainer, but mood swings can sweep me up sometimes and I find myself swirling around with no idea of how long I’ve been there. Anxiety can leave me worrying so much that I forget to let myself rest or use the skills that might provide some relief. Yes, it takes a lot of effort, but I’m doing my best to be as diligent as I can because even though this may require more energy than if I’d found a medication that worked straight away DBT has led me to the first glimpse of relative functioning in years.
Even though I only started this class six months ago I can see changes. Three or four situations happened just over this last weekend where I found myself thinking, “wow, this really would have ruined the whole weekend before, but I seem to be able to accept and to move past these situations much more quickly now.”
I had a neighbor who kept parking in our building’s guest parking spot in an attempt to dodge paying for a spot. It went on for months, and even though I had to remind myself every time I saw it that it would be better to accept the situation (and not leave rude or threatening letters on his windshield) and to be effective than to make enemies with my neighbors I did it. They moved away and I did a celebratory dance because I was able to keep myself from being a total A-hole.
I’ve also found it very useful to distance myself from my own thoughts and remind myself that just because I’ve thought it doesn’t make it true, it doesn’t mean I will act on them, or that they will happen. I’ve got several ways of weeding out bad ideas now before I find myself doing them, which means creating a sense of self-trust and self-respect where I didn’t have one before.
While DBT has made things easier (less effort for better results) the more stress I am experiencing the less reliable the system is for me. If I am too distracted or upset to complete the skills things simply operate… well, as normal. In some respect that means I’m working to weed out stress before it’ll swamp me now, trying to be proactive about avoiding avoiding things. There are some situations though, like Corey’s broken arm, that came with an intense whirlwind of stress I couldn’t dodge and as a result I quickly slipped right back into a state of crisis. I’m still working on climbing my way out of it but each day gets a little easier.
Finally, apart from being immediately useful to me, I really respect the DBT program because it provided content that wasn’t given to me in a condescending way but made sure to fully explain why each part was important. DBT fits my personal values, and makes room for those with values that are different from my own.
The obvious take away here is that there is some serious potential for more DBT groups in the Seattle area, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a trend across the country.
As for me, when seeking treatment for mental illness has often meant taking one step forward and two steps back I am really glad to have had a chance to work through this program because in many ways it is changing my life for the better. Having the opportunity to change my negative behaviors while learning how to take the reigns back from mental illness has given me the footing to be able to respond with, “shove off, I’m queen of the mountain now!”