On Mindfulness, DBT, and love

Allie S and Leila Sales
My better half

Sometimes when things get really bad in my head, I get intrusive negative thoughts. It’s not like hearing voices, it’s my own voice, droning on incessantly about how ugly I am, what a disappointment I am to everyone who knows me, and, more often than not, those thoughts are concluded in one idea,  repeated over and over without any relief: you aren’t worthy of love. You will die alone and no one will ever love you.

Well fuck you, evil voice. You used to be able to control me, but I have power over you now. Tools to use to shut you up.

Here’s one of my favorite Dialectical Behavioral Therapy techniques for emotional management. I’ve been able to use these during moments of extreme crisis (PTSD flashbacks, panic attacks, etc.) and all I can vouch for is that they’ve pulled me back into reality to the extent where my rational mind can take over and I’m back in control. Am I saying this is a miracle cure for PTSD, anxiety, mania, or any other extreme emotional state, for everybody? No. I know someone who finds DBT useless. Everyone is different. But I can say that it’s been a miracle for ME. It really hadn’t occurred to me before age 32 that you can choose to feel differently. That you have the power to choose to be happy, despite whatever trauma and horror life has put you through – that was a radical idea in my mind. It seemed impossible. But the only reason why it seemed impossible to me was because I wasn’t acknowledging the fact that mindfulness, like everything else worthwhile in this world, takes a lot of practice and hard work. When you really think about it, it makes total sense: everyone has to deal with stress and a certain amount of negativity and anxiety every day. More so for people with mental and chronic illnesses. So practicing mindfulness has to be done every day, or that stress and negativity piles up to the point where it becomes too much to handle.

Practice mindfulness daily. This doesn’t have to involve a huge time investment or a lot of work. It could be as simple as listening to a 15 minute guided meditation before bed, or playing with a pet, or eating a healthy but delicious meal (with a Lindt truffle after). As long as you remember to be present in the moment, to allow yourself to deeply feel these uncomplicated pleasures without guilt, that’s mindfulness. Concentrate on the feeling of your pet’s fur under your fingers. The way your risotto melts in your mouth, sending a bouquet of fragrant herbs and earthy scents from your palette through your nose. Focus on the calming cadence of the meditation guide, the relaxing background music or sounds of rain falling. Allow yourself to wallow in the joy of taking time just for yourself, to keep you happy and whole. It’s not selfish, or self-indulgent, it’s necessary for your health, in the same way that exercise and water are necessary. Because how can you possibly be there for others if you’re not there for yourself? The first step towards being a productive, happy, fulfilled member of society who contributes positively to the world is to make sure you’re taking care of yourself. You’ll be able to do more, help more usefully, and create more imaginatively when you’re keeping up with self care. I know that for a fact – that’s why I started this blog.

I went from a dry addict clinging to sobriety and slowly letting a diagnosis of narcolepsy and cataplexy sap the last of my hope for a normal life to a satisfied and involved activist who is setting up a network of self defense classes for women abuse survivors and minorities, and starting a podcast about women’s stories. I practice self care daily, and I use the techniques I learned to keep myself from succumbing to the stress that comes with coping with a new disability on top of the mental illness and PTSD. I’ll be posting more of these techniques later, and linking to some resources, but for now I’m going to post my go-to crisis management technique, and an ode to the fact that the intrusive voice was and is wrong.

Ok, so let’s say you’re having a panic attack or your PTSD was triggered, or you’re having a drug craving that can’t be ignored. First things first – it’s ok to leave the area. Go outside for fresh air or walk away from the people you’re with or just change your location. That should be enough to open a tiny hole in your consciousness so that you can realize you need to change how you’re feeling because it’s harming you. So pick an object in your immediate vicinity, and describe it in detail. Do it out loud if you have to. Don’t miss any minute detail. Take at least 5 minutes to study and detail the qualities of the object. Color, shape, height, length, imperfections, does it have words on it? What do they say? What font are they in? Focus on that object until you can control your breathing, and then start belly breathing for body relaxation. You should now be distanced enough from your extreme state to name to yourself what you’re feeling “I’m having a panic attack” etc. It’s important to name your feelings in order to know how to change them.  It’s a superficial change at first – if you’re feeling panicked, you’ll notice your body is tense and your muscles taut. Make an effort to relax them and assume a casual posture. Continue deep breathing. Adjust any other body language which is associated with anxiety. It might seem meaningless, but with everything else it will trick your distracted mind into calming down.  Then do something that you know usually engrosses you but is low in heavy emotional content. Play Candy Crush or watch funny cat videos or do a crossword puzzle or read a light book. By this point if you’re anything like me, your mind will now be almost fully back in your control, your crisis ebbing, and you can choose to go do something nice for yourself as a way of offsetting your negative experience. This would be a good time to work in your journal or do a craft project or take a bath with bubbles and re-read your favorite book. Now there are other techniques for achieving the same result, but the baseline idea is the same: with practice you can CHOOSE to feel good, even if you’re in physical distress. Now be aware that this takes daily practice, as I said above, but the payoff can be life-altering.

And by the way, shitty voice in my head, I have several people who already love me, and haven’t stopped loving me through hard times and their love is stronger than you are. So today’s journal pages are devoted to my best friend and platonic life partner, and to me, for continuing to be strong.

To Leila, with love
For me, my hope, and my strength

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