Sunday, 16 February 2014

Learning to Manage the Calm

I have found myself in a strange place recently. More often than not, my life has taken on the tone of routine, almost humdrum and certainly lacking in anything approaching crisis mode. Suddenly the corkscrew roller-coaster that has been my emotional life since childhood has untwisted. I no longer start my day with a spasm of gagging and/or vomiting due to overwhelming feelings of panic and anxiety. The dramatic swing of moods from one hour to the next has slowed down and I find myself better able to recognise and manage both the up and the downswing of moods to which I was once a martyr.
So far, so good. Over two years of DBT skill building and therapy have brought me to a point where I am no longer confused by the overwhelming clouds of emotion that used to swamp and overwhelm me. I find myself better able to reflect on difficult emotions, I no longer run from them, but accept them as evidence of my humanity in the face of significant trauma throughout my life. I still have moments, usually when I have tired of my new structured life. I have caught myself being tempted to familiar path of self destruction, perhaps in a different way than in the past, but nonetheless, I have found myself short circuiting good things in my life.

I know that now, rather than being plagued by capricious emotional storms completely outside of my control, I can learn to recognise the signs earlier. The storms still come, but I am better equipped to survive them.

Except, that I sometimes petulantly, deliberately choose to ignore my emotion regulation skills. In my last 1:1 DBT therapy session the admission that I am regularly staying up through the night, brought an almost exasperated response from my therapist - I mean she's right, just 'what am I playing at?' It's bothered me as I reaped the whirlwind this week and found myself tossed about on the kind of emotional storm I haven't really experienced for at least a good few months. I've realised I haven't been practising my skills when things are good, so that they are second nature when I really need them. I didn't need to go through the exhausting emotional maelstrom and the exhausted aftermath, (still feeling it three days later). Or at any rate, I could have used my new skills to limit the damage from my negative emotions quicker.

Instead, I revisited some familiar old feelings and reassured myself that I could indeed consider myself a total failure, as my internal monologue has convinced me of since my childhood. So, what does this tell me? It tells me that we are indeed products of our past. It tells me that when we have had the mirror of our minds distorted by our childhoods of invalidation then it is all but impossible to recognise a fair reflection of ourselves in it. It tells me that I am not finished healing and recovering from my BPD symptoms. Just because the untwisted mirror image of my 'good life' seems shocking to my invalidated mind, does not mean that I cannot become accustomed to it.

There is something else that this has taught me about certain emotions. Having spent so long learning to manage and 'sit with' negative emotions, I am having to learn to use the same skills to manage positive emotions. One of the reasons for my disturbed sleep has been a propensity to allow the lightness of emotion lead to 'hyper' behaviour, the energetic surges from feeling 'happy' have resulted in really productive moments, but I have not controlled these moments and channelled them, but allowed myself to be carried away into the wee small hours of the morning.

As a result it's back to the basics of distress tolerance and emotion regulation for me. Looking after myself and my lifestyle in order to provide a stable foundation to keep going on a day to day basis. In a sense I am fighting the same enemy, but at a different end of the spectrum. Positive emotions are equally difficult for me to manage, mainly because I find them uncomfortable as they are a dissonant voice challenging my self critical inner monologues. As much as I need to use my Mindfulness skills to 'sit with' my grief and sadness, I need them to 'sit with' and become comfortable with feeling good about myself and what I can achieve in life.

In a sense I am fighting a battle that is familiar to me. I am using my skills to keep me and my emotions in the here and now. Where my negative emotions tethered me to the past, my positive emotions risk catapulting me into anxiety and the future. So, when I started to feel nauseous and was throwing up at the end of last week, I maybe could have been more aware that all was not well.

What is most encouraging for me is that I am no longer unable to articulate an amorphous emotional cloud, but I am naming the emotions and how they are affecting me at the moment. I know what I have to do to regain my equilibrium, it will take more time and effort on my part. I have the skills I need I just need to use them. I don't need to beat myself up for this latest storm. As Scarlett O'Hara memorably said 'After all, tomorrow is another day.'

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