Fighting Stigma, Increasing Awareness: You Are Not Alone

Fighting Stigma, Increasing Awareness: You Are Not Alone

When I started “From Both Sides of the Couch” at the end of 2011, my purpose in telling my story was to let other people diagnosed with mental illness know they are not alone in their journey. I loved to write—and in the almost 10 years since, my passion for writing has grown exponentially.

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In a similar vein, I wanted so much to offer hope—not only to those who are dealing firsthand with a diagnosis of mental illness but to their loved ones and those who care about them. When I was in the depths of my illness, I had little appreciation for the suffering my family was enduring on my behalf. Back then (I was diagnosed with BPD in 1990), the prognosis was close to hopeless, the stigma penetrating and the desire to give up, pervasive.

My family’s style wasn’t exactly communicative or used to talking about feelings, so my father, my brother, and especially my mother each dealt with my illness in their own way. I doubt any of them found an emotionally healthy method of coping. I’m sure they each went through waves and roller coasters of feelings, including anger, frustration, and fear as the course of my illness was severe and prolonged.

I’ve added a couple more reasons for telling my story and being open and honest about what I’ve gone through.

The first is to fight the stigma that exists around mental illness. Although I believe the stigma has improved in the 30-plus years since I was diagnosed, we still have a long way to go. A long way to go until depression or bipolar disorder has the same connotation in our minds as a cold or a broken wrist. No shame. Just empathy.

This is a quote from one of the most moving pieces about stigma I’ve come across. It’s excerpted from the introduction to the anthology Beyond Borderline: True Stories of Recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder. The introduction was written by one of the co-editors, the late Perry Hoffman, Ph.D., founder of the NEABPD (National Educational Alliance for Borderline Personality Disorder).

“Seldom does an illness, medical or psychiatric, carry such intense stigma and deep shame that its name is whispered or a euphemism coined, and its sufferers despised and even feared.

Perhaps leprosy or syphilis or AIDS fits this category.

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is such an illness. In fact, it has been called the ‘leprosy of mental illnesses and the disorder with the ‘surplus stigma.’ It may actually be the most misunderstood psychiatric disorder of our age.”

One of my other objectives is to increase awareness. Get the word out there that mental illness exists and not in a vacuum. We are not “over here,” and you are not “over there.” We walk among you, with you, and side-by-side during rush hour in New York City and we don’t have a sign painted on our foreheads that says “CRAZY.”

Mental illness does not discriminate. Wealth and fame do not inoculate and do not protect. Look at Robin Williams, Kate Spade, or Anthony Bourdain. We have no idea what goes on behind closed doors, nor do we have a right to know.

Thank you Megan Markle for speaking out and throwing open the doors to the conversation on the of the most taboo topics: suicide. For not being afraid to acknowledge this is what you were thinking and feeling and that you reached out for help before you acted because you were scared and vulnerable and you did not want to die.

One of the last impressions I want to leave is that recovery is possible—not just recovery, but full and sustained recovery and the potential to live a full, rewarding and productive life. My recovery, which was far from a linear path, was not easy. I don’t want to scare anyone with the details of my particular journey, but when I was diagnosed, it was the dark ages of BPD. My first therapist watched me almost starve myself to death and never mentioned the word ‘anorexia,’ so that set me back and was the beginning of a long downward spiral. I also believe she was not skilled enough to realize how ill I was and did not have the clinical expertise to adequately help me. She actually made things much worse.

I was in individual therapy for 33 years, including four years with the above therapist. I’ve had the unusual combination of intensive DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) and TFP (transference-focused therapy). I was psychiatrically admitted to inpatient units somewhere between 20 and 25 times and attended numerous outpatient programs, PHPs, IOPs, day programs. I attempted suicide four times. So yeah, there is quite a history.

I feel fortunate and grateful. Grateful that I had unconditional love and acceptance from my mother (until she passed away in 2002) and from my brother. Fortunate that I had access to the intensive treatment I needed to recover, however long it took.

Would I change anything? Hard to say. I endured a lot of suffering as did my family. I regret putting them through what I did and not being more attuned to their suffering. I would not be who I am today; resilient, empathetic, wiser for the wear and I would probably not be a social worker, perhaps not even a writer. I certainly would not have launched my mental health organization, BWellBStrong.

So the question is not would have I changed things. But who would I have become?

Thanks for reading.


© Andrea Rosenhaft

Source: © Andrea Rosenhaft

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