May 27, 2021

Dialectical Behavior Therapy Saved My Life.

Author’s note: if you wish to enjoy the brilliant conversation between Matana Jacobs and Dr. Chaya Lieba Kobernick that inspired the sharing of this journey, you may find it here.

“Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say, ‘my tooth is aching,’ than to say, ‘My heart is broken.'” ~ C.S. Lewis


Ten years ago, I sat in an uncomfortable chair in a state facility, smushed next to the desk of a psychiatrist whose breath smelled like mothballs. 

My hair was in need of brushing, and mascara from two days previous was running down my cheeks with the tears that would not stop. 

“You have borderline personality disorder. It’s really a fancy term for: you’re spoiled and oversensitive.”

In that moment, the only gratitude I felt was that she knocked the air out of me so hard, my tears finally stopped as I looked at her in shock. It took her 10 minutes to greatly impact the next 10 years of my life. 

“I’ll prescribe you lithium. It can build up to toxic levels so you’ll need to get bloodwork monthly. Anything else you need?”

I shook my head no. How do you respond to that? I hadn’t appeared in her chair because I had a great, spoiled, entitled life. I sat there because I wanted to die but simultaneously wanted to live. Every single moment was excruciatingly painful and I had no idea why. 

Let’s add one more doozy: I am terrified of prescription drugs for valid reasons. Yet, she prescribed one that can kill me. 

Fast forward: the lithium almost gave me kidney failure. 

It felt like it took an hour to walk to my car—I was sent into a dissociative state that I couldn’t yet recognize or define. Walking in to seek help, I walked away with a seriously stigmatizing diagnosis and no information. 

Except: take this pill that might become toxic to your body. You spoiled brat. 

Okay, Google. I guess it’s just me and you. 

I found that borderline personality disorder (BPD) characterizes us as warm, friendly, and intelligent. It led the description in every piece of literature I found on the disorder. The qualities I loved about myself were ripped away from me, just like that. I felt that it was only my mental illness that gifted me those positive traits. 

“The BPD type can destroy families.”

“They turn everyone against their victims.”

This couldn’t be. I’m not that. This can’t be. 

One thing was for sure: I became a shell of a person in that moment. I felt nothing. 

The stigmas we carry are cruel, unrelenting. They are as heavy as mountainous boulders. 

My search for help was driven by a hope that I could feel the light I gave to others behind closed doors. Alongside my deserving loved ones, I struggled to mask my pain. 

How many others had sat in her chair before and after me? Mustering my meager self-trust and refusing to let her dim my light any longer, I sought more information—this time, with blinders on. 

I stumbled upon this gem:

“BPD is the only mental illness that is curable. It stems from upbringing, unlike other chemical mental illness such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.”

There was my lifeline. 

You’re telling me I can beat this?

Finally, I found Marsha Linehan, the creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), deemed the only treatment that cures BPD. She was given the diagnosis, received treatment, likely comparable to mine, and said, “Absolutely not.”

I said, “Absolutely not,” too. 

The only DBT program I could find at that time was through a prestigious inpatient facility: $90,000-plus for treatment. That took another few years to shake off: mental wellness was for the rich, and it felt like I was doomed to suffer. 

Thinking of the many human beings in my situation, I felt so angry. Marsha Linehan, my self-appointed guardian angel, kept coming to mind. She’d created a successful approach to therapy from scratch, beat her disorder, and then helped the masses. 

I am one person. She did this, I can do this. I have to do this. 

The overwhelm from doing it alone while attempting to push yourself through tools and resources can be crippling. What should take months to put into motion takes years. My “DBT Skills Workbook” collected dust and I added another layer of judgment toward myself for it.

Thankfully, one fine day, I came across the gift of…ahhh, mindfulness

With that gift, I kept pushing, I kept going. It became easier. 

Another fine day, I was fortunate to complete another DBT puzzle piece. This is where it’s really all on you: how you define this part of yourself is all up to you. I shed my angry atheist label and acknowledged that there’s something bigger than me. 

This is where the strides turned into leaps. It didn’t “fix” me, but the desire to be a part of the world to see what “could be” began to grow. 

It’s beyond helpful in DBT, or life in general, to find that kind of universal connectivity somewhere. You can’t always find it in a human, and it’s not our job to constantly be that for someone. 

It’s not really something that can be forced, I understand. If I lose you here, I do assure you I’m not telling you to choose a religion. 

Mine looked like this: I drove away from a heartbreaking situation, crying so hard I shouldn’t have been driving, banging on the steering wheel, angrily yelling at God, “If you really exist, where are you? When will this stop, when does this get better?!”

In that moment, in that breath, I glanced up to see a billboard, black with bold white lettering. The phrase stretched across it read:

“You’re almost there.”

I chose that literal sign and ran with it. 

Now, those signs appear so frequently and in such magnificent ways, they make me chuckle and wink toward the sky. That’s the beauty of it. It’s for you. It will appear however you need, for you. I like to call it “the universe.” Call it energy. Call it whatever you’d like. If you stop believing in coincidence, you will see miracles every day. Find your exquisite community of guardian angels. They’re waiting. 

Day by day, I wanted to see what else could be. 

I held the stigma of being a thorn amongst the living, too damaged and too poor to be saved since my diagnosis five years previous. 

There is a very real and present danger of psychiatrists delivering mental health diagnoses to valuable struggling lives, without throwing out some form of a life preserver alongside them. 

After frantically reaching for my own life preserver through many self-help books, becoming an avid yogi, finding my spirituality, taking Vitamin D, eating whole delicious foods, and basking in what I felt it meant to be healed, I then found myself in the most emotionally, physically, and mentally abusive relationship I had ever experienced. 

Obviously, I still had a lot of boundaries to build and a lot of self-worth to work on. 

I pushed through the anger and rage knowing all too well I’m not the only woman (or man) who finds themselves in this situation; no, I’m one of thousands, perhaps millions. I started my therapy-driven exit plan. 

I needed to do it—for all of us, for my daughters, to share my story one day, and to be able to say to any person who faces this: you can rise above it all. You have to find your lessons in everything. This is where the beauty of mindfulness and what we celebrate from Buddha comes into play. 

Ten years after my search began, I nervously found a therapist who used DBT in her approach. She pulled out the “DBT Skills Workbook” during our first visit and I smiled ear to ear. 

I’d made it. 

A whole decade to find her. 

It gave the abusive relationship purpose, because…I found her. Honestly, she’s probably stuck with me until she retires. 

She fast-tracked my healing journey, or as I’d like to call it, “my uprising.”

“Oh? You need tools? I’ve got a tool for every emotional struggle you can think up.”

The kicker? Ya gotta do the work. 

It is astonishing to sit in front of a person who practices what they preach. It is even better when they don’t smell like mothballs. 

One of my favorite things she’s graciously bestowed upon me: “Don’t trust a therapist who doesn’t have a therapist.” Oh, the sweet sentiment and astonishing acknowledgment from a mental health professional: We all need help. We need each other. 

My DBT advocate helped me define my purpose: contributionMy healing grew wings at that moment. It was okay to stop feeling like a thorn—it was time to let that go completely. 

It was deserved and necessary. I’ve been a rose this whole time. 

It poses a serious question: why should it take someone a whole decade to find what they know should and can help them? 

For those in the field expanding your knowledge of DBT or running programs: 

You are the frontiers in healing this mental health pandemic. I am exuberantly applauding the superheroes who understand its impact and devote their work to this breakthrough therapy. But how many people weren’t able to take the path I was blessed to follow? The fallen ones? The human beings who deserve to learn how to survive and thrive?

Western medicine doesn’t understand that prescribing an antidepressant or SSRI without pairing these patients with successful treatment options is possibly signing our death certificates. 

When we need something to temporarily alleviate our huge emotions because of an actual crisis, we are treated as pill-seekers. We sit in front of doctors and we get told, “There’s nothing wrong with you, you’re as healthy as a horse…it’s just stress and you need to learn to better manage yours.” We accept that and hate ourselves more because our body feels like it’s dying and no one can help, and it makes us feel crazy that there’s nothing “wrong” with us. 

We don’t know how to say no. We don’t know how to say, “I know you’re wrong, and respectfully, this is why.”

These precious mental health advocates teach us to say “no” when it’s of benefit, while saying “yes” to ourselves when it’s of benefit. They help us learn that our brain is trying really hard to love us and hasn’t learned healthier ways to do that, yet. Yet. 

You have to want it. 

You have to do the work. 

You have to be willing to let go. 

DBT elementary school programs exist, but they’re optional for the schools that seek them. If introduced at crucial development times in children’s lives, this could change the entire world. Can you really argue that children being taught mindfulness, emotional regulation, creating and protecting boundaries, and positive coping skills wouldn’t change the entire world? 

As a wholehearted believer:

It would be wise to implement a DBT practice in every school, every mental health facility, and every household. It’s bold, but I stand by it. 

Had this been implemented long ago, many of us may never have needed to take a decade-long journey to find it, and might have never needed it in the first place. 

Maybe (twist ending) it wouldn’t take a decade for a person to learn of their misdiagnosis and that the struggle was complex post traumatic stress disorder the whole time. 

I’m thankful that I could chose gratitude for what I have learned instead of infuriation that I was led so astray.

It does not matter how I got here. To me, it matters how our children get there. It matters to me that there shouldn’t be so many of us taking the treacherous climb alone. 

It matters to me that not everyone gets a success story—even if they are completely and utterly deserving of one. 


“Your present circumstances don’t determine where you can go; they merely determine where you start.” ~ Nido Qubein

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