Locked up for years. Assaulted. Bruised. Drugged. Bereaved. Deeply sad and massively angry.
I spent years behind the walls of psychiatric institutions. Only now am I coming to terms with myself and what happened.
Oftentimes, I muse, ‘How do I move on from that?’ or ‘How do I get over that?’
When suffering is inevitable, these questions apply to every person. I am sure that I am not the only one asking how to transcend negative human experience and our human reaction to intense feelings.
Plenty of people rightly struggle with intense emotions. These emotions surface when we are stressed at work, or suffer trauma, money problems, bereavement, relationship issues, and find ourselves in a situation where we can’t cope. And this reaction is completely normal. How we deal with our emotions is crucial to our mental well-being.
This year, I am making a determined effort to manage my suffering in a healthier way using the concept of Radical Acceptance. I first learnt of this skill in hospital, at The Retreat in York. It is part of Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, which means that you acknowledge reality.
One of the biggest issues with the concept is that people often think that Radical Acceptance means agreeing with what is happening to you, throwing your hands up in the air and being submissive. But this is far from the truth.
Radical Acceptance means acknowledging what happened, or what’s currently happening. The reason this is so important is because fighting reality will increase our emotional reaction. Like if we fight reality by judging a situation by making demands on ourselves, others or the situation. We often find ourselves unwittingly doing just that.
Have you ever used the words “should”, “ought” and “must” in situations where you have little control?
“It shouldn’t be this way”
“He must listen to me”
“My boss mustn’t talk to me like that”
“My husband oughtn’t say that!”
“That’s not fair!”
When we fight reality, it will compound our negative emotions. As humans, we are all doomed to experience pain; it’s a part of the human condition. But, while pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.
I was locked up in a secure hospital because I had autism and there was no community provision for me. It was unjust – there was no doubt. However, there was nothing I could do about it.
It was in hospital that I realised the power of Radical Acceptance. I was creating my anger, feelings of resentment, bitterness and frustration, by demanding that my current reality mustn’t exist. I was compounding my situation by adding intense negative emotion. And I needn’t have had to.
I suffered more because I refused to accept the pain in my life. I chose, much later, to accept my situation and suffer less. This didn’t mean I gave up, but that I accepted my detention in hospital as unfair and considered how I’d like to change it.
You can do this too. This approach enables problem solving.
You can say: “OK, I have this problem. It has happened or is happening. How do I want to manage this?”
Radical Acceptance is relevant for all forms of human distress. It can be practised in almost any situation. This month I suffered a miscarriage. I dealt with my misfortune differently:
- I accepted the loss. It had happened and there was nothing I could do about it.
- I focused on coping with the pain and the depth of my feelings.
- I realised the grief as a normal human reaction. Of course, I didn’t like what had happened but I didn’t refuse the feelings. I didn’t say to myself that I “should/ought/must” do and feel X, Y and Z.
In taking this approach, I didn’t suffer so profoundly or add to my distress. Instead I focused on what I could do and how I would manage.
The key skill here is to identify what you don’t like, accept that it is the way it is and then try to change it. If you’re not accepting something, you’ll be so busy fighting that reality that you don’t have the energy to put towards trying to change it.
Practicing Radical Acceptance can be accepting that it’s raining on the day you planned to go out to the park for a family picnic. Or it can be accepting your partner for who they are. For instance, one of my friends is working on accepting that her husband has a drink problem. He was supposed to cut down but keeps drinking on the sly.
I have told her that he might not ever change. I have told her that she may need to decide if she’s willing to continue the relationship. If she wants to remain with him she must decide how much energy she will expend arguing with him. If not, can she accept that he drinks too much and not try to change him?
Radical Acceptance can also be used as an alternative to forgiveness. Unlike forgiveness, Radical Acceptance has nothing to do with the other person. It’s about reducing personal pain. Every day, I struggle to forgive those who captured me and held me against my will. Yet I use Radical Acceptance as a strategy to move forwards and simultaneously hold those persons completely responsible for what they did to me.
Radical Acceptance is bloody hard work and requires determination in practising it. My advice is to acknowledge your reality. You don’t need to like it or contest it. When you have accepted what’s happening, you can start to problem-solve and rebuild. Don’t be passive and don’t give up – channel your energy and move forwards.
Good luck this year!
Want to see more from Alexis? Read Unbroken! Here’s what you can expect …
Alexis Quinn has always known she was different. Academically and athletically gifted, she soared through her years in education but failed to socialise adequately with her peers. Somehow, social norms just passed her by. But her difference had always been her strength, until the birth of her child and the death of her brother – and then her difference became her downfall.
Unable to deal with the reality of what happened with Josh, Alexis was detained under the mental health act against her will. She found herself struggling for years, with diagnosis after diagnosis landing on her shoulders. Told repeatedly by doctors that she was dangerous, Alexis tried to become the person the system wanted her to be: someone normal. But it seemed that normal was always just out of reach.
As time went by, she realised that the care she thought was going to help her might just be the very thing that would destroy her.
Raw and honest, Unbroken tells the story of a strong woman learning how to live beyond diagnosis.