Thursday, 9 January 2014

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger - Really?

It's one of those throw away comments that those wanting to instil 'backbone' in their audience utter from time to time - 'Remember, Chaps, What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger... onwards and upwards.... play up, play up and play the game...' You get the general idea.

However, there is a ring of truth to it, which means that I am not able to just dismiss the philosophy behind it, perhaps it depends on who is the mouthpiece at any given time. If it is the glib response from someone wanting to stop you talking about your pain, then it becomes an empty cliche. However if it is the considered comment of someone who has truly survived the worst in life, then maybe it's worth another look.

One thing I have learned about living with BPD is that those who suffer the depths and heights of emotional sensitivity are exceptionally strong characters - and how! Try sitting in on a DBT group skills session and even the apparently quietest member of the group will have a core of steel. Why? Simply because most have survived what onlookers might consider the unsurvivable. My biggest problem before I started DBT was that most of the ways I had used to get through were not helpful and at times were positively self defeating. Sure, I did survive and heck I know I was stronger, ask anyone who encountered me in full temper at that time, but contentment? Happiness? Stability? They were alien to me.

Marsha Linehan (the creator of DBT) has described the level of emotional pain suffered by those with BPD as being equivalent to third degree burns. There is a resonance to that description as I know that the emotional distress I have felt at times has been like someone breaking open my chest and exposing my heart to the most searing, biting fire imaginable. The pain felt physical and so I tried to replace one physical pain with another, through self harming behaviour. The problem being, I had got to the age of 42 and, yes I had survived what hadn't killed me and, yes, in some ways I was much stronger, but I was emotionally numb, unable to sustain deep relationships, feeling isolated and trapped in a cycle of surviving pain through unhelpful behaviour, feeling guilty about it, then starting again the climb to the top of the emotional crescendo before repeating the pattern. It was, frankly exhausting, just living.

One of the most amazing things I heard when I started DBT was that my problem behaviours were 'understandable'. I had taken so much time hiding them, because I was so ashamed and felt, rightly, that very few people would be non-judgemental about my behaviour - primarily because on the surface I was 'successful', holding down a job, owning my own home, articulate and popular. I was also in my 40s - not how most people picture self harmers.

However, for me to make sense of this level of acceptance I had to first accept that I had suffered sustained trauma throughout my childhood, something that I had avoided doing for fear of being overwhelmed by that truth. Again, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right? Slowly, it began to dawn on me, that I had walked out of the prison cell of my past but I hadn't let myself believe that I had been released. Slowly, with help and support from the DBT skills group I began to realise that not only did I have the strength of the survivor, but I could actually use the tools given to me by DBT, to finally cut the chains hanging off my mind and stop my thoughts and feelings from dragging me back to that cell. One turning point in my recovery was in realising that rather than freeing me, my previous coping skills had kept me trapped in the prison of my past.

I am now committed to making the most of the present, as it is. Some days I feel sad and that's ok - nobody can be 100% happy all the time. Now the inner strength which helped me survive is helping me to rebuild my life from the ground up. I am learning that my feelings do come and go on their own, that no matter how searing the heat of the emotions, they have not killed me... yet. Although I will admit that there are still times when my anxiety is that if I let the full force of the emotions come unchecked, they will overwhelm me. But with the support of others who are on the same journey and my DBT therapist, I am able to find the right DBT skill to help me get to the other side of the emotional wave and acknowledge that, yep it didn't kill me and, guess what? It has made me stronger!