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What Radical Acceptance Means to Me

Radical Acceptance — accepting Reality, but I’m still in pain! 

Radical Acceptance — accepting Reality, and I have pain! 

What’s the difference with these two statements? Well, this is a new concept for me! The first is fighting my reality, my current situation, which increases my suffering. My therapist calls it “non-acceptance,” trying to push away reality, or deny its existence. The second is at least the start of Radical Acceptance, meaning I am acknowledging I am in pain, yet working towards accepting this current reality! Am I there? Nope, not yet! I’m still trying to grasp this concept.

Let me back up a little bit…

I’ve been in a dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) group for two years. Some of the concepts are straightforward and I get them. Then there are some concepts that I wonder if I’ll ever get them! It’s very frustrating! One of the straightforward concepts is “distraction’”– doing something else to distract yourself. Pretty easy, right? Well, mostly. Then there’s DEARMAN, which would take me at least 20-30 minutes to even start to explain — no, probably 50-60 minutes! And that would just be an overview! Yeah, probably a lot longer than that, and I’d have to have the book right in front of me. 

There are several complex and deep concepts that I’m still struggling to understand. Radical Acceptance is one of them. OK, I kind of understand it on an intellectual level — maybe. But to make that transition from “head knowledge” to “heart understanding” is daunting on this one! By “heart understanding,” I mean that I can use the skills spontaneously in everyday life. I think I have the idea, then realize that nope, I don’t have it yet. Then another time — nope! I’ve written about this whole concept of Radical Acceptance a couple of times, and each time I think I have it figured out, I realize that nope, I don’t!

What do I have to radically accept? Pain. Every day, every hour, every minute, for more than 10 years! This is really hard, because when the pain is overwhelming, my emotional response to it is rage, and I’m angry because I can’t stop it. That’s non-acceptance. I have a choice of dealing with the pain itself and all its ramifications, or taking strong enough medication to ease the pain.  Unfortunately, when I take that kind of pain medication, it makes me rather loopy, dizzy and constipated.  Plus, it’s a controlled substance, so it can be addictive. The other pain alternatives cause such intolerable side effects, I can’t take them at all. 

How do I radically accept it? Truthfully, I’m still working on it. 

I was talking with my therapist and my PT this week about all the pain I have to deal with, day after day after day. First, that since I’m dealing with intense chronic pain, that the infamous “pain scale” of 0 to 10 may possibly be skewed for me. What I mean is that since my pain level never really goes below a 4, my “normal” is 0 on my scale. No, it doesn’t mean that my pain is any less, I’ve just acclimated to that level of pain, and it is perceived differently in my brain, so what any other person would rate a 4, I rate a 0.  For example, if I say my pain is at a 6, then it means it’s really at a 7 or 8. The PT said that his research showed that it actually changes the chemistry of the brain. I suppose that makes it easier for my brain to process that amount of pain without me going mad!

I get up to go into the kitchen, and as usual my back hurts, well, my body hurts, it screams at me like it usually does. My whole body tenses up trying to fight it.  Then I stop and think, wait a minute, do I really have to fall into the trap of giving in to that pain, and trying to fight it again and again? Isn’t that non-acceptance? My therapist had talked to me many times about non-acceptance, and I was still trying to figure it out. So now I’m wondering, is that what it means? Because I fear I may still be in non-acceptance, at least with the pain.  It’s still hard for me to get to that point of radical acceptance of this pain, because it is every day, never-ending. I’m hoping to get to that point one day.  But I must persevere. 

Am I maybe starting to understand the concept of radical acceptance? Radical acceptance means accepting my present, current reality. It doesn’t mean I have to like it. It doesn’t mean I can’t work on changing it either. All it means is accepting where I am right here and now, in my present situation. Period. Not fighting it, resisting it, denying it or bitching about it. This right now is my reality. OK, I think I understand this on an intellectual level. 

As I’m writing, yes, I’m realizing that yet again, I’m heading into that intellectual, analytical, rationalizing thought process. Oh, well. Another distraction. I must continue to dig deep into the emotions, the reality that I must live in, day after day after day.

Today, in this moment, this is my reality: I’m a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Even though I truly hate what was done to me, and a small part of me wants to lash out and hurt those who hurt me, I can’t. I can’t change what happened so many years ago. There was more than one abuser, and I have no idea where they are, so there is no way retaliation can happen. Yeah, of course it gets me really angry, and I want to cry, but right here and now, there’s nothing I can do to about it. That’s my present reality about the sexual abuse. I think I’m at a point where I can accept that. Yeah, it still hurts, and it is still affecting my life as an adult, and often it still messes with my mind, beliefs, behavior and especially my emotions. There’s times when something inside of me wants to deny it ever happened, but I can’t. And it makes me mad and makes me cry because I really don’t understand why someone would do that to a child! But this is my reality. Am I trying to change what I can change? Of course!

What kinds of things has it caused? Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), major depression (MD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), dissociation. And my therapist specializes in trauma, incorporating EMDR, DBT, IFS, Ego State Therapy and probably other types of therapy that I don’t know the names of.  And we are slowly working through the trauma, and every part of my life that it has affected. 

Is it easy? Hell no! It is incredibly hard! We work on it together during my sessions with her, using the various types of therapy. I dig deep, and dive into the work every single session. I also work on various aspects of it on my own. What do I do? I write, read, attend a writing group, research, attend my DBT group, talk to friends, write some more, attend my support group, journal, read some more. I put in a lot of hours every single week for my mental health. I am often mentally and emotionally exhausted. Frequently I feel like giving up because I‘m so overwhelmed. But I can’t. I keep pushing on. There’s something deep inside of me that is so stubborn and determined to see this through, no matter how hard it is, no matter how much work it takes. Somehow I have found this resilience within myself that won’t let me just give up, and forfeit my life. It keeps prompting me to get back up, and push through anyways. 

I’m not sure how many times I have told my therapist I wasn’t coming — but then I showed up. Even when it’s overwhelming. Even when it’s scary. Even when I am angry at her. Even when it feels like just too much. Even when I have no flippin’ idea what to do next. She does, she knows what to do next. She’s a pretty smart cookie. She has helped me to maneuver through all kinds of obstacles and fears. I have challenged her many times, and she has challenged me many times — and each time I have accepted that challenge! She has helped me work through the really tough stuff. And yes, the emphasis is on the word through! Because I can’t just bypass the tough, crappy stuff, I must work through it! Damn!! But I keep pushing through anyways. 

Another thing I am working on radically accepting is the dissociation. Dissociation is one of those things that looks very different with each person. First, let me describe what it looks like to me

Dissociation. Yeah, that’s a big word, it’s daunting, scary and really fucking confusing. What does it mean to dissociate? Not the “clinical” definition, but the “real life” definition. The one that someone can describe, not because they went to school for it, but because they are the one who has lived it. And dissociation can look very different for different people. Dissociation is kind of on a “continuum,” and at one end are things that most of us experience, such as when you daydream, or go on “automatic pilot” when you’re driving to work, and don’t remember the trip. At the other end is dissociative identity disorder (DID), and it can mean you have completely separate entities, or Alters, that are within you, who have separate personalities, characteristics, and maybe even different names or genders than the “host” person, or “Self.” And often, if not most of the time, these Alters are not necessarily aware of each other, or aware of Self. I’m not at either end, I’m somewhere in the middle, maybe a little bit towards the DID end.

With me, those entities, or “parts,” are mostly conveyed by personality traits, such as fear, anger, spaciness or stubbornness, for example. And they represent the wounded child parts deep inside of me. But when these parts show themselves, I’m not always completely aware of it. In fact, much of the time, I’m not aware of it, meaning that I can’t distinguish when a part has “taken over” my thoughts, feelings, actions or behaviors. Often, it’s only when my therapist points it out that I’m aware of it. Now, that adult part of me can often see and watch what’s going on, but it doesn’t always “click” that that’s what’s happening. It feels like I’m watching a movie from the outside, and doesn’t feel real at all. My therapist will ask me if “adult me” is present, and sometimes I can acknowledge that yes, I’m there, and other times “nobody’s home” at all. And there’s been times when she talks to that young part, thinking that adult me isn’t there, or can’t hear her, but she is not realizing that yes, adult me is there, but just not able to acknowledge her, respond to her, or what she’s saying. Communication is not really possible at that point. You see why all this shit’s so fucking scary?

Now, can I radically accept this dissociation? At this point, mostly. Do I like it? Not one bit. Do I still fight it or deny it? Sometimes. And there are still times when my brain just shuts down completely, because it just can’t handle it! 

It took several months of investigating with my therapist to discover all of this, and truthfully, that process was extremely difficult and challenging. I know we’ve made some progress, but I also know that I’m still at the start of this very, very, very, long journey. My therapist said my definition of dissociation “looks correct and helpful to people that have never heard of it.”

A friend asked me, “When you talked about your parts and personality traits I noticed they were all more on the negative side. Don’t forget you have some incredibly wonderful and loving parts too that deserve to be acknowledged.” She is correct, and I’m hoping that there are more positive inner child parts in there as well. I’m really looking forward to that. 

But I think right at this moment those wounded inner child parts are screaming much too loud, and making enough noise that they need to be heard. I need to pay attention to them first, and maybe in the process of working with them, and getting to know them, those positive parts will be more obvious, and I can get to know them too. That would be awesome!

When we study our past, we can hopefully learn something from it. Not ruminate on it, but step back and really study it, and ask, “What can I learn?”  I’ve had some amazing realizations from looking at and studying my past! Each step in this journey often feels very small, but I’m realizing that every step I take is getting me closer towards my healing

This is where I am in my journey of radically accepting those three very difficult concepts. And I know I have more work to do on all of them, as well as more things I need to radically accept. I hope it helps you understand the beginnings of radical acceptance. I understand how hard and challenging this is. 

As my therapist and I discussed radical acceptance, we really deeply explored it, and also explored non-acceptance. Then near the very end, I had a sudden realization that I do know what radical acceptance looks like! It looks like, “I’m afraid, and I’m doing it anyways.” So yes, I do feel the fear and anxiety, but I’m not letting it stop me, I’m moving forwards anyways, even when I am afraid.  I have one thing that I have radically accepted! And what is it?

Radical acceptance is where I have I gotten past the fear, anxiety, embarrassment, shame, etc, about getting my writing published! And I am OK with that! I’m even feeling excited about it now! The feedback I have gotten really blows my mind! I didn’t realize how much fear I had about it, about revealing the raw, ugly, broken, confused, angry parts of my “inner self” to the world outside of my own head, you know, the parts I want to just hide away. I was expecting everyone to tear me apart, put me down, really hate my writing and what I have to say, and tell me that it’s too raw! But people love it! And people are seriously impacted by it! Wow!

So, Radical Acceptance? A friend of mine said, “We can move forward with heaps of hard work, self-love and self-care. We don’t do this work on ourselves if we don’t radically love ourselves. As hard as it is to work through, it’s actually a beautiful process.” Hmmm, does that mean that I radically accept that I’m worth all of this work, that I do love myself?  Wow! I didn’t know that! Will wonders never cease?

Getty image via Icealien