What My Bipolar Treatment Taught Me About Atonement

These tips I learned in therapy will help anyone have a more meaningful Yom Kippur.

College Senior Spring: For many, a time to soak in those very precious last moments of college, and for me, a time to fly across the country and check into a psychiatric unit.

It all started when a close family member was diagnosed with Bipolar II. I had been in a tumultuous relationship with Zoloft (everyone’s least favorite SSRI) for over a year and as it turns out, you are NOT supposed to be put on Zoloft if you’re Bipolar. I looked at my Notes app where I recorded my rollercoaster ride of mood shifts (which questionably got worse when I had gone on medication) and it all clicked.

My week in the psychiatric unit, or “The Haven” as they called it, left me with a fresh diagnosis of Bipolar II, some new medication (my girl Lamictal), and a slot in a DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) outpatient summer program.

By some miracle, and against the whims of a particularly unempathetic teacher, I graduated and left a bittersweet college experience behind in the cornfields of Ohio. And while many friends were starting new jobs, moving to live abroad, or embarking on some unreal post-grad road trip, I began the DBT outpatient program.

And let me tell you, it felt like starting over.

What does it mean to think dialectically? It’s simply the notion that two things can be true at once. Often times with DBT, those two notions are “you are always doing the best that you can” and “you need to do better.” The idea of “you are always doing the best that you can” is with a heavy emphasis on the “that you can” part. That is to say, you are always doing the best you can, given your particular vulnerabilities and circumstances.

So, when I’m reflectively shaming myself for sleeping through my 1:45 p.m. modern dance class in college, I stop and say to myself, “Hold on a minute… let’s check the facts. Did you want to go to the dance class? Mmhmm. Were you having a depressive episode? Uh huh. Well okay.”

But according to DBT, we can’t stop there, so onto the second part of the dialectic: You need to do better. And so I ask myself, “What can I do to make sure that doesn’t happen in the future? Let me bust out my DBT binder for some tips and tricks.”

When Yom Kippur hit almost a month and a half after I finished my DBT program, I was at Kol Nidre, banging my chest, reading the translation, and thinking about how, while I know these rituals are meant to be somewhat metaphorical, I was, by all intents and purposes, punishing myself during a confession. And that is definitely not very DBT.

What would it look like to atone dialectally? To acknowledge that you have done your best, but can always do better? Is there room for that?

I found the answer by the waterside, bag of challah crumbs in hand, participating in tashlich, a ritual “casting off” of sins. Smelling the mist of the water brought to mind memories of my pre-diagnosis failures and disappointment. I threw my sins into the sea: “I was doing the best I could.” In previous years, it would have ended there, and quite frankly, I’d find myself stuck in a cycle of similar atonements each year. But this time, my DBT instincts kicked in and I launched into the “I need to do better” mentality, wielding those skills and tips from my DBT binder. I finally knew how to put the cycle to bed.

You see, change doesn’t just happen. It takes learning and practice. You need tools to build a shed. I gained the tools and two years later, I can tell you that I will not be atoning for the same things I used to. These tips can be useful for anyone who struggles with the whole atoning thing. While I am not a professional and purely just a proud DBT program alumna, as a gift to you this Yom Kippur, here are a few practices, mindsets, and skills to test out.

If you’re ashamed of your bad procrastination habit…

Small Steps

If the first step feels too big… it’s probably not the first step! Whether this is finishing a paper or getting out the bed, find the micro-action you can do first — because, let’s face it, micro-actions are MAGIC! Write down your goal and break it into the teeniest-tiniest steps.

So, let’s say you’re trying to write an article. What’s the first step?

The first step is the first sentence. Go smaller. The first step is opening a Google doc. Go SMALLER. The first step is taking out your laptop. And so on and so forth.

If you’re worried about how you will handle a future situation …

Cope Ahead

This one is pretty simple.

  1. Describe the situation that you’re worried about. Write it down.
  2. Now jot down all the possible outcomes.
  3. Write a short letter to yourself for each of the possible outcomes you’re worried about. Then create a plan for how you would handle each one.
  4. Imagine and rehearse each plan in your head. Be sure to not just watch them play out, but try to really feel what it would be like to successfully handle the situation.

If you feel like you rely too much on others for emotional support…

Self Soothe Kits

Gather photos, memes, videos, an essential oil you love, a stone that feels nice in the palm of your hand, a face mask, a bath balm, or whatever helps you soothe yourself when you’re worked up. Put them all into one place, either in a digital or tangible kit. When you feel yourself getting taken by your emotions in one way or another, open your kit and dedicate some time to self soothe. You are setting yourself up for success when you know you have a plan for when things get emotional.

Header image: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images.

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