Distress tolerance is a component of Dialectical Behavior Therapy. It’s just the idea that there is a value in simply being with a feeling–not thinking about the feeling, not analyzing the feeling, just naming it and then being there with it.
I did a lot of that today. I cleaned my house. I like to do this on the weekends. I suppose a lot of people do.
But it’s complicated for me. House-cleaning is intimately tied up in my mind with suicidal ideation–my own, and my mother’s. Doing the laundry makes me want to cut my wrists. Dusting is enough to get me thinking about buying a gun. Cleaning the toilet is a dance with death.
So it’s tough. And some weekends I spend the entire time just trying to cope with the fallout of that, and still end up with unfolded laundry on Sunday night. It’s tedious. And for someone who prefers order and tidiness, it’s frustrating.
So, today I thought, “I’ll just do it for ten minutes. If I can handle that, I’ll do it for another ten. If I can’t, I’ll stop. “I set a goal for myself I believed I couldn’t fail, knowing that success is always more motivating than failure.
And I could handle it. Again and again, I could. I did think about suicide. I did feel I couldn’t keep doing washing the dishes or folding laundry. But I made it to the end of ten minutes every single time. My house is swept, dusted, wiped down, clean. I have clean dishes to eat with and clean clothes to wear. And it’s only Saturday. Early Saturday evening. I haven’t done this well in months.
In fact, after about 30 minutes of setting the timer in 10 minute increments, something magical happened. For the first time in my life, I felt in control of my own mind, my own feelings, my own life. I thought, “This is terrible. This is absolutely horrible. But I can stand it. I can stand my feelings. I can stand the memories. I can stand the thoughts that go with them. I can stand it all for ten minutes, and I think I can stand it for hours. I am free. Absolutely free.”
My trauma didn’t disappear. That wasn’t the magic. I still remember dishes being thrown at my head. I still feel consumed by despair at my life having no meaning or value. I still have visions of my mother slicing her wrists in front of me. None of that has changed. The magic was only being able to stand it. Because what you can stand no longer controls you.