Bipolar [bp] Magazine: Breakthroughs & Taming Your Thoughts (Flight of Ideas)

Nearly every Tuesday evening for the past two years, my husband has asked me the same question: “Did you have a breakthrough?” Mostly, he is kidding, but partly, he is curious.

Unlike me, Matthew has never been in therapy, nor has he ever experienced a psychiatric disorder. In short, he is “normal”—insomuch as such a thing exists. Calm, stable, and vexingly rational, give him reliable data with a matching chart or graph, and he is in heaven. I, on the other hand, have never been so easily contented. No matter how large the correlation coefficient or how small the p-value, I constantly doubt my results. For someone like me, there is no such thing as a “breakthrough”—or at least there wasn’t until recently.

Breakthroughs do happen—even if you don’t believe in them.

Several months ago, my psychiatrist used a single word that changed everything. For background, as I’ve mentioned before, I am a recovering lawyer of sorts. After graduating from law school and passing the bar, I soon realized that as much as I loved the exciting world of legal theory, I hated the soul-crushing monotony of legal practice. So I became a writer.

Nevertheless, I was trained as a lawyer, to think like a lawyer, and to this day, I still do. So when my doctor used the word “injunction” during our therapy session on that fateful day, I immediately understood the term as I had learned it in first-year Civil Procedure, as my trusty tattered Black’s Law Dictionary defines it: “A court order commanding or preventing an action.”

But my doctor had used the word in the context of psychotherapy—and more specifically, transactional analysis. He briefly explained “injunctions” in this context, referencing the strong dos and don’ts that float about in our heads based on long-held beliefs about ourselves and our capabilities. In my case, the injunction at hand was simple: “Don’t cry.” Once I imagined a judge handing down that order, everything made sense. “You can contest an injunction!” I blurted.

With my therapist’s encouragement, I went straight into lawyer mode, strategizing sundry challenges to the “don’t cry” injunction that I had apparently issued to myself without noticing.

For someone like me, there is no such thing as a “breakthrough”—or at least there wasn’t until recently.

Permission to treat as a hostile witness, Your Honor? I asked inside the courtroom of my mind, where I sat—à la Being John Malkovich—as my own head counsel, judge, jury, witness, and opposing counsel.

Permission granted.

For the first time ever, I found myself excited at the prospect of challenging my own internal critic and arbiter—not as a psychiatric patient, but as a licensed attorney. I finally understood the threat of negative thinking and self-talk in a language that made sense to me, and for once, I felt confident in my ability to destroy said threat.

One of the greatest thrills of legal practice—often dramatized in films and seldom encountered in life—is the opportunity to impeach a witness. Rule 607 of the Federal Rules of Evidence drops the traditional common law ban on impeaching one’s own witness. Thus, on solid procedural and evidentiary ground, I let loose my leading questions: Haven’t you felt better after crying in the past? Isn’t it true that you don’t consider crying a weakness? Don’t you agree that crying is, in fact, a healthy, evolved, and effective self-soothing behavior?

Yes, yes, and yes.

I don’t cry easily, and I’m not the kind of person who can look herself in the mirror and reciteself-affirming mantras without laughing. I am, however, the kind of person who can stand up for herself, and more specifically, the kind of lawyer who can nail a witness to the wall on cross-examination. By the end of that therapy session, it hit me: breakthroughs do happen—even if you don’t believe in them.

Since then, I’ve employed this cross-examination tactic countless times, impeaching the credibility of some of my most dangerous and self-defeating thoughts, judgments, beliefs, and expectations—all of which feed so many of my bipolar symptoms. Just by floating a single word in a pool of imagination, everything shifted for me that day.

Driving home, I cried. It was as though the street signs on my road to recovery were suddenly in a language I could understand, reflective. That night, when my husband asked me if I’d had a breakthrough, I answered with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: “Yes.”