My mind often wanders to places it shouldn’t.
When I am involved in some mindless task like folding laundry, I tend to get lost in my head. One of the principles of DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy) is mindfulness, a concept that is difficult to define. In fact, it seems like every time I see a new therapist, when the topic of mindfulness comes up, the new therapist tells me that all of my old ideas about mindfulness are wrong and gives me a new definition. I used to believe mindfulness meant thinking about nothing, and was quite opposed to trying not to think. When I was in treatment in Alabama around 2015ish, the other patients and I would be taken for “mindful walks,” through the treatment center’s grounds. As we made our way through the trees at an utterly glacial pace, the guiding therapist would encourage us to pay close attention to our surroundings–and absolutely nothing else. I felt like I was doing everything wrong, and I was upset. I would argue with the therapist (which is usually about as successful as a baseball fan trying to argue with an umpire) and say one of the few things I did like about myself was my mind’s ability to churn out creativity. Why would I want to stymie what I find to be my best quality?
Fast-forward to a few months ago. My psychiatrist suggested I try yet another round of DBT to help quell my seemingly-ever-increasing anxiety, and I crash-landed in a new therapist’s virtual office. This new therapist, Audrey, immediately let me know that mindfulness is not “thinking about nothing.” She was surprised that despite all of the treatment and therapy I’ve been through, that I still didn’t have a concrete definition of it. “No wonder you think you hate it,” she said in one of our initial sessions. It started to make sense, then, that trying to think about nothing felt like a losing battle that I had no interest in. Audrey and I formed a working definition of mindfulness that is essentially being aware of the present moment without judging it.
I can easily go down the rabbit hole of questioning such definitions, (“Am I judging the moment? If yes, is the judgment of my judging the moment another layer of judgment? What’s the difference between a judgment and an opinion and an observation? If I observe myself judging my opinion…”), but anything is better than thinking about nothing. I think the key to mindfulness is knowing when to use it. Audrey’s example that she often repeats is, “When you’re doing the dishes, just do the dishes.” The dishes are an example of a low-stakes way to practice mindfulness, though they are also the scenario when I am least likely to want to be mindful. There are times during this chore when I am lost in thought about my current writing project, or when I’m paying close attention to whatever is playing in my earbuds and before I know it the dishes are done. But there are still other times when I replay traumatic memories, brood on the people who have hurt me, and vividly picture images of self-harm.
Another major component of DBT is “walking the middle path,” which necessitates an understanding of the world being in shades of grey, rather than black and white. For example, mindfulness is an important skill to have, but it’s not the only skill there is, and it won’t suffice for every situation. The D in DBT stands for dialectical, which means that two contradictory ideas can be true. As in: I can be angry at someone and still love them. Or I am excited to go to grad school, but I will be sad to leave undergrad behind. This idea of the middle path has helped me decide when to be mindful and when to just let my thoughts wander.
Yesterday when I was at work in the supermarket, my thoughts had strayed far and away from the cashiering task at hand. I had conjured up the face of my rapist, and I noticed that I no longer physically feel the ghost of his hand on my neck. I didn’t feel my stomach churn, I didn’t feel that weird, cold jolt of fear through my body–I didn’t really feel anything. I blinked, and handed the receipt to the customer. I forgive myself, came the thought. I did not know what I did not know back then, and I forgive myself.
The customers continued to file through the line. I saw no flash of light, I heard no divine voice, I felt no weight lifted from my body. But I felt brighter and my own voice felt more immediate. For so long, I let the rape warp my entire worldview. I questioned everything I thought I knew about people, about love, about God, about myself. People encouraged me to forgive my rapist, something I swore I’d never do, something I have not done and have no interest in doing. People told me to pray for him, so I stopped talking to God altogether. I fell into a mire of delusions, paranoia, and anxiety. I genuinely believed I had somehow been marked as “other,” that I would never amount to more than a body and its wounds.
On my lunch break, I wrote in my journal:
“And I don’t think this means I will magically ‘get over it,’ and it’s entirely possible that I will change my mind at some point (and maybe even change it back and forth a few times) but for right now even though it still kind of makes me squirm to admit it, I can have some compassion for that lost girl I was. I have struggled so much with trying to make sense out of the whole thing […] maybe it doesn’t mean a damn thing about me.”
Mindfulness and DBT enable me to walk the middle path: horrible things have been done to me, but I am also worthy of love and care. People are generally good, but capable of bad things. And most importantly, the past has had a part in shaping me, but I get to decide who I am.