The other day, shortly after adopting my cat, I was texting with my mom. I was explaining that it’s “still scary, but worth it.” She replied, in reference to more than the new pet, “You have created a nice life.”
This really struck me both because of my background in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and because it was true. These past few years, I would never have imagined my current view on life to be possible. Yet, now, I feel so grateful to be alive.
DBT is divided into three (sometimes four) stages of treatments. Here are some exerts defining them. Source
- “In Stage 1, the client is miserable and their behavior is out of control: they may be trying to kill themselves, self-harming, using drugs and alcohol, and/or engaging in other types of self-destructive behaviors. When clients first start DBT treatment, they often describe their experience as “being in hell.” The goal of Stage 1 is for the client to move from being out of control to achieving behavioral control.”
During my last few years of college, this was me. I was severely depressed, chronically suicidal, and engaging in self-harm. Emotional regulation was nonexistent, and I often self-sabotaged by “causing crises.” I put this in quotations because obviously I wanted to feel well, but somehow everything was always chaotic. I kept having to talk to professors about delaying assignments and exams. My relationships were complicated by fights. And I ended up at the ER with another mental health crisis every few weeks desperate for help.
Luckily, about this time I was suggested and able to get into a structured DBT program. Through months of individual counseling, group training, and in-the-moment phone coaching, DBT teaches you an arsenal of skills for handling emotions in healthier ways.
- “In Stage 2, they’re living a life of quiet desperation: their behavior is under control but they continue to suffer, often due to past trauma and invalidation. Their emotional experience is inhibited. The goal of Stage 2 is to help the client move from a state of quiet desperation to one of full emotional experiencing.”
Again, this definition describes my experience spot on. Gradually, my behavior was “reined in” so to speak. I was using my skills countless times a day. There were less, although still present, crises. Yet, I was still miserable. I desperately wanted the crushing pain to end, and I ended up going through a few hospitalizations for alarming suicidal ideation.
Slowly though, because of continued therapy, medication, and support, the dark cloud did begin to lift. I was able to come out of the depression and gain control over what was diagnosed as borderline-personality disorder (BPD). The suicidal thoughts eventually faded. I went about with my life, finishing college, spending some time at home, and then moving for a job.
- “In Stage 3, the challenge is to learn to live: to define life goals, build self-respect, and find peace and happiness. The goal is that the client leads a life of ordinary happiness and unhappiness.”
As soon as I arrived in my new town, I tried dance classes at a couple studios and picked the studio that felt most like home. I made friends, and even got to choreograph a dance for the recital. I also got involved with the Jewish community at the local synagogue and formed a few more relationships. I continued working on Not Alone Notes with Molly, a project that brings me a lot of joy. And then, recently, I adopted my kitty.
At first, these actions were very intentional. I wanted to jump into being a part of the community and continue doing things that would be good for my mental health. After a while though, building this life became more automatic. I was living simply for living, not because DBT instructed me to do so.
The end goal of DBT is what Marsha Linehan calls “building a life worth living.” And that is why that text from my mom struck me in such a profound way. For so long, I had been working hard to feel better. The idea of reaching building a life worth living always seemed impossibly far away. Yet, here I was, so deeply enjoying the life I’ve built that I almost didn’t realize I had.