Just Keep Swimming

Abraham WeitzmanJuly 25, 2017ResilienceInterfaith Connections

Artwork by Liam Shields

My family places faith in DBT — Dialectic Behavior Therapy. DBT is based on a combination of accepting your feelings and behaving in a positive way.

For my sister, who has depression, this means acknowledging her sadness and leaving the house for school or work. For me, it means accepting my physical disabilities and doing what I love. The important word is "and" as opposed to "but." "And" shows that the feelings and actions have equal value, whereas "but" implies the actions outweigh the feelings.

DBT teaches skills that are guided by principles. These principles are based on the idea that behavior and feelings impact each other. Opposite action is the skill that embodies the D — dialectic — in DBT. A dialectic is two sides of a concept that appear to conflict but actually coexist. Opposite action involves feeling one way and acting another. You might be disappointed that someone else got the lead in the school play — that would be reasonable — and go to rehearsal and be the best flying monkey you can be! We call that “smile like you mean it.”

I find that every day has disappointments. Some are minor, like being unable to hold a basketball in my lap. Some are soul crushing, like being denied access to the community school that seemed so perfect. Whatever the lack of visualized joy, I peer out at the future through the hazy miasma of discouragement smiling like I mean it. Acting in a positive way can increase the likelihood that your future experiences are good, but there is no guarantee.

The future holds many pitfalls that cannot be anticipated. There is no way to prepare for all possible problems, but you can build up your emotional bank so you are stronger when hard times come. Working hard and succeeding at a difficult task makes you less vulnerable to feeling like a failure when failures happen. This skill is building mastery. You might build mastery by practicing your instrument, making electronics, baking pies, or running. I work at my writing every day that I am able, so when my body doesn’t cooperate with my brain, it is just a bad day, not a life failure. I collect hard earned successes and lean on them when my legs collapse under me. The next morning I get up and “try it all again.”

“Tomorrow we'll try it all again” — my mom says that at the end of every evening. She plans to persevere. In some cases the goal is long term, but sometimes it is just getting through the day. Do not mistake getting through as a cop out. We all have days that never seem to end, but giving up cannot be the plan. Having perseverance as part of the plan means setting expectations that are achievable. We may not always succeed, but we can try. By trying, we are following the plan and fulfilling the expectations we set. On a rough day, that is success.

There is a skill for times when even trying seems to be more than we can handle: radical acceptance of ourselves. For some people this skill means accepting being angry. In my case, I accept that I often feel resentful that I cannot speak. Both anger and resentment are often met with disapproval because they are not positive. Radical acceptance is one of the most important skills and the most difficult to achieve. It means accepting your feelings about your reality without judgement, especially negativity. When we focus on how bad something feels we can route our energy into a cycle of compounding failures. When we validate our feelings instead of denigrating them, we are better positioned to proceed productively. In my family all feelings are valid, even hate and desolation. My brother can be jealous of all the attention I need. My sister can feel inexplicably sad. When we accept our emotions, their frenetic nature doesn’t take control, so feelings can ebb naturally.

We may rest during times that are too emotionally or physically overwhelming. On most days I practice the skill that represents the B — behavior — in DBT: “just keep swimming.” Following this mantra is how I get through those days that present challenges. I might swim slowly, or against the current, or in circles, but I never give up. The behavior is the swimming — it might be the work of building mastery, the continuing perseverance in the face of discouragement, or just getting through the day. Being active gives you a chance to affect your direction. It also feels good to be in control.

Taken together, these skills make my family resilient. We work hard at things we consider important, baking the perfect challah and forging relationships to improve accessibility in public schools. When obstacles arise, we plan to try again, debugging a computer program and rewriting the conclusion. If we feel unhappy, we smile like we mean it, visiting annoying relatives and doing that thousandth worksheet. In the worst situations, we accept our own and each other's feelings, despising a bad kindergarten teacher and getting overwhelmed on Christmas. Through it all we keep swimming, with faith in our principles and unwavering confidence that tomorrow we will try harder and do better, because we are resilient.

Abraham Weitzman is a 13-year-old New Yorker who loves Mel Brooks, Edgar Allen Poe, and Sherlock Holmes. He enjoys traveling and staying home.