About nine months ago, I was sitting in a room at Anna Jaques Adolescent Inpatient Treatment Center visiting with my kid. I had brought their twin to visit, and while they talked I looked around the room. All of the usual family visiting rooms were occupied, so we were in a room where the staff held therapeutic groups. This room had a sensory area with strings of tiny lights that were very nice to look at. It also had a bulletin board with colorful posters that had words on them rather than pictures, words that expressed the ideas of dialectical behavioral therapy — DBT.
I never remember exactly what dialectical means. It reminds me of ‘dialect’ and ‘dialogue,’ and makes me think of Socrates and Plato. When I’m reminded of Socrates and Plato I get distracted. I don’t particularly like the little of Socrates I’ve read. He seemed to ask a lot of leading questions, and many of them were framed so the only possible answers were yes or no. And I disagree with what little of Plato I have read, primarily his thing about the cave and how our experience is like a shadow of ideals. Our experience is what it is, and we are what we are in the moment. But I digress — at least, I think I digress.
So when I saw that one of the posters had examples of DBT dialects, I got up and walked over to read it. This, of course, agitated the kid who was in the hospital. They did not want me to read the poster. (Months later, they gave me their DBT workbook to read, all unasked for. I wonder if they remembered that day and not wanting me to read the poster.) But I read it anyhow, for as long as they would tolerate it.
Long enough to read a few of the examples, which opened my mind to a whole world of possibilities. I can’t really remember what the examples were, but I think I remember one well enough:
I did the best I could, and I can do better.
In DBT — developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan, an entirely remarkable woman whose story you can read in the New York Times—dialectical means to synthesize and integrate opposites. The heart of the matter is accepting yourself as you currently are while actively pursuing change. It is a life-altering balancing act and profoundly challenging to absorb.
I didn’t encounter the idea until after I earned a second-degree black belt in Taekwondo. I had to live steeped in it — the way one comes to learn from a Zen koan or the Torah — before it began to have an impact on the way I am living my life.
I can only imagine how difficult this core dialectic is for an adult who has a major mental health issue, something way beyond the chronic depression I have lived with all my life. I have seen how challenging a concept it is for adolescents with mental health issues to reach toward.
Yet, the twin I was visiting at the hospital that day has said to me a few times over these nine months, “Mom, I have a mental illness. Get over it.” Now — I mean, right now, in the midst of writing this — I understand.
Over the winter, my internal life has become as strange as I sometimes find my external life. Being a nurturing parent to twins who are both transgender but in different ways, who both have mental illnesses that have required hospitalizations, and who both alternate between deeply insightful and oppositional has challenged me to stretch and develop in ways I never thought I was capable of. People tell me I am strong and resilient, and yet I’ve spent days in deeply depressed states that I had hoped never to experience again. At the same time, I’ve woken up grateful every morning, appreciated the beauty of a blue winter sky and the familiar woods behind my house turned mysterious by fog, and written poems, and stories, and essays that I never thought I could.
I’ve been depressed and productive. Afraid and moving forward anyhow. In the grip of strong emotions and exerting enough self-discipline to not act on them. Old and young. Leading and following. Teaching and learning.
Near the beginning of this journey with my kids, not too long after one of them came out to me as non-binary — the one I was visting at Anna Jaques — I talked with my doctor about what was going on — the hospitalizations, the neuropsychological evaluation that said my kid had nonverbal learning disorder, the non-binary gender identification. He said that eventually my kid would have to choose one or the other.
I came home and shared his observation with my female-male kid, my depressed, self-harming, sensitive, insightful, intelligent, creative, non-binary child. I thought it was a reasonable thing to share. The psychology clinicians we had been working with had told me that they would wake up one morning feeling more like a male and another morning more like a female and that the uncertainty made them anxious and depressed. I thought hearing that they could choose one or the other would comfort them.
But having a non-binary gender isn’t like that. It isn’t about being androgynous. It is, in fact, just like being male or female. Except, it is being male and female or female and male.
They asked why would I have to choose?