I'm so incredibly grateful to author Therese Borchard for her willingness to do a Q&A with me about her book and her message. Even if you haven't read my review of Beyond Blue in the Post or here, please take the time to read this interview.
1. First of all, Beyond Blue is an amazing book. I found it difficult to read, yet so worth the emotional effort. Was it difficult to write your story and rehash some of those dark days?
Thank you very much for the compliment. Yes, writing “Beyond Blue” was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. In order to be as real and as candid as possible—which was my primary requisite—I had to journey into places of my heart that had been long closed up and abandoned. As spiritual author Henri Nouwen wrote about in his classic “The Inner Voice of Love,” you need to go into that place of pain in order to be freed from it.
The early chapters, in particular, were difficult to write. I think I had disassociated myself from the pain of my younger years for so long because I just was so scared to re-experience that pain on any level. In writing the book, I went back through some of my journals, especially in junior high, and cried for several weeks. It was very healing. I did some inner child work, and treated the young girl I was with tenderness and love, trying to accept her and love her as I never have. I even got an inner child doll. Eric (my husband) almost took her to Goodwill one day, as if I didn't have enough abandonment and rejection issues!
2. You write about your frustration with the stigma that mental illness has in our society. How do you see that affecting people in seeking proper treatment or being open about it?
This is ultimately why I wrote the book … to educate people in hopes that we can eliminate some of the stigma. When I was getting ready to send out copies, I made a list of the people who would really “get it” and appreciate the book. I wasn’t going to give a copy to the family members and friends who I thought would shake their head and say something under their breath about victim me being caught up in my wounds. But Eric said to me, “It’s easier to give this to the folks who will agree with you. If you are serious about this mission of educating people about mental illness, I suggest you give it to those who might be confused or ticked off.” So I did. And I received some cold, apathetic responses. I expected that. But a neighbor approached me in tears and said she better understood a family member, and a good friend of mine called me up in tears. “I know I must have been one of those people who said hurtful things to you, and I am so sorry,” she said. “I just really had no idea what you were dealing with until I read this.”
One of the most hurtful statements was when a friend asked me, “Do you WANT to get better?” which suggests that getting better is only a matter of willing ourselves to get better, and that if I stayed suicidal for two years it was because I wasn’t trying hard enough. I think, if someone says something like that to me again, I might say, “Does a person with cancer or diabetes want to get better? Would you fault a person because their chemo wasn’t as effective as it should be? Mood disorders are organic illnesses, too, that can’t always be managed with will power and discipline.” Another confusing statement is that antidepressants and other medicine merely suppress your emotions. I have done a fair amount of research on that, so to that person, I would say, “If you are taking too much of a drug or are on the wrong one, maybe, but my experience is that they have allowed me to feel more deeply.”
3. You call motherhood a “perfect storm” for you and other moms that could allow your depression to flare up and become particularly severe. How does that happen? What can moms do to avoid or prevent problems from occurring?
Yes, the early months of motherhood are the perfect storm for mood disorders to develop. You take a woman whose hormones have been rearranged and sold at a garage sale. You give her a kid who doesn't sleep (in my case) for more than three hours for five years in a row. And you lock her in the house alone with this crying thing, so that she sits there in isolation most of her day.
Sleep deprivation and isolation alone, with perfectly balanced hormones, is enough to ship someone off to the psych ward. Dump unto that the Irish-dancing hormones, and you're guaranteed a mess.
My mess fit into a neat diagnosis of Bipolar II, which I like to call the smoother, softer kind of manic depression. Could I have prevented the mess?
Possibly, as least my hospitalizations. Here’s the advice I give moms, especially new moms, and most definitely new moms that have family histories with depression and anxiety:
* Beg for help. I advise you to get on your knees, to skip all those manners and laws of social grace that keep you from pleading with your in-laws for some help. Barter with them, negotiate, promise to name the next kid after them if they babysit for a night, ANYTHING you possibly can to get some free help because you are going to need it, and the less of it you have, the more risk for developing a serious mood disorder. If your relatives are unable to assist, buy the help. Cash out the retirement funds for this one. Trust me. You'll be glad you did.
* Sleep. Part of the reason I'm so adamant that you get help is because the longer you stay sleep-deprived the better chance you have of winding up like me ... in a psych ward. Brain experts have always made the connection between insanity and insomnia, but new research suggests that chronic sleep disturbances actually cause certain mood disorders. You stay up one too many nights with that crying baby, and you are bait for a mental illness. Not to scare you. But, again, BEG FOR HELP so that you can at least get a few hours of uninterrupted sleep ... consistently. Don't follow in my tracks and get your first night of slumber in a hospital.
* Hang on to you. The second biggest mistake I made as a new mom was throwing my old self into a locked closet until, well, I graduated from the outpatient hospital program, where I learned that motherhood doesn't require chucking my prior existence: my interests, my friends, my career, and so forth. In fact, the nurses there convinced me that if I could recover a little of my old self, I might even be a better mom. So I hired a babysitter for a few hours a week, which allowed me to pursue some writing projects, go on an occasional bike ride, and have coffee with a non-mom friend and talk about something other than poop.
4. One of the things I loved most about the book is that you are not “all or nothing” about your recovery, in the sense that you employ so many strategies and tools to maintain mental health, from medicine to good nutrition to coping skills. Talk a little more about the benefits and limits of “alternative therapies.”
I find it odd that most people are either opposed to antidepressants or acupuncture. Look, if they both help you, use them! I know that our bodies, minds, and souls are so connected that any disruption in one area is going affect the others, and healing in one area definitely crosses over into other body systems. So I really do approach my recovery from a mind-body-soul vantage point. Which means that I’m religious about working out five times a week and eating as well as I can; I take six fish pills a day in addition to my pharmaceuticals; I try to practice mindfulness whenever I can; and I employ cognitive-behavioral strategies in addition my psychotherapy. If you have a mood disorder that is as severe as mine, alternative therapies are probably not going to cut it. But I always advise people to start there. Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness can be enough to treat mild depression and anxiety.
5. Beyond Blue is very moving and sometimes hard to read because of the intensity of your experience, but also laugh out loud funny at times. I found the humor so helpful because of the serious subject. Why is humor good for you?
I believe in the theory of the rubber band. Your brain (sanity) is stretched, and stretched, and stretched, and stretched to where it … ZAP! … just snaps one day, and from that day on, everything in life is somewhat hysterical because you can’t believe how messed up the world is. You see everyone around you trying to walk straight while juggling five heavy suitcases of baggage … and for some reason, it’s funny, and you know you can’t take life so seriously. As G.K. Chesterston once said, “angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”
Laughing makes me less scared. It provides more space between an event and my emotions so that I can hold on to sanity a second longer than I can if I am without humor. Plus, it’s hard to laugh and cry at the same time. So if I’m laughing, chances are that I’m not crying.
6. You write eloquently about your Catholic faith, and how certain practices, such as a daily Rosary, aid in your mental as well as spiritual health. How do your faith grown and changed with your experiences seeking mental health?
I wrote in the first chapter of Beyond Blue that I was both blessed and cursed by my Catholic faith. Blessed because I had so many beautiful traditions and rituals and stories and things to cling on to. For a person prone to OCD, Catholicism is a goldmine for that repetitive weird ritual stuff that gives you some kind of comfort. And, as I said in the book, there is a saint for everything: for panic, for alcoholism, for hopeless causes. Yah! But it was because of my scrupulosity as a young girl that the adults in my life failed to recognize my mood disorder. They thought I just had a peculiar and intense faith life.
During my suicidal two years, my faith kept me alive. I remember sitting in the car after I drove home from the last day of my intensive outpatient program-after the nurses basically told me I was out of luck-if you weren't fixed in 8 weeks, they couldn't do anything else for you. I had tried absolutely everything, but I still wanted to die.
So I issued God an ultimatum in the car. I sat there, with a bag of about 20 bottles of prescription drugs next to me (which was my exit out of this life), and told him I was getting the hell out of this place because I had tried everything, EVERYTHING, and nothing was working. Obviously He didn't give a damn. I shouted, "Give me a sign I'm supposed to hang on, or else I am out of here. I am so out of here if you don't let me know you are with me!"
After about 20 minutes of wailing, I decided to go inside and, on the way into my house, checked the mailbox. There was a letter written by a woman I had met at a conference, and she sent me a medal of St. Therese that was an exact copy to the one that I had been carrying in my pocket ever since the depression set in.
I knew from that point on that, even though I didn't always feel God's helping hand, that I must somehow try to have faith in him.
7. What message would you have for Catholic Post readers who either themselves or have loved ones who struggle with mental health issues?
I want folks to know what I wish I would have known when I was in the Black Hole, and that message is articulated beautifully by William Styron in his classic, "Darkness Visible":
If depression had no termination, then suicide would, indeed, be the only remedy. But one need not sound the false or inspirational note to stress the truth that depression is not the soul's annihilation; men and women who have recovered from the disease-and they are countless-bear witness to what is probably its only saving grace: it is conquerable.
Man, I love that paragraph. And I have to remind myself of it every time I hit a low cycle and am fretting that I'll never be able to hold down a job or being a suitable parent. Depression IS conquerable. Even if you never find the right medication combination, or fitting therapist, or good support group. It WILL pass.
My other piece of advice is to expect people NOT to understand. Because the stigma around mental illness is still so very thick. Even people who think they understand it seldom can appreciate the nuances and complexities that mood disorders bring to a life. It's not about you. So don't get your feelings hurt. It's simply a lack of awareness and education. I still only have about five people in my life who really get it. I wish it were more, but that's enough. And as long as you own your health philosophy, you can't get lost.
For family members, I’d summarize my advice with this line that my mentor taught me: “Err on the side of compassion.” I don’t think tough love works well when it comes to depression and mood disorders. There’s a time to challenge your friends and family members, and there’s a time to simply hold their hands. I would do the latter.