I’m a Therapist Who Used to Be a Psych Patient and This Was the Key to My Recovery

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For most of my adult life, mental illness was my identity. In the midst of a slow bleed from my wounded psyche, even after almost 20 years of therapy, I became fascinated by the process. How does the therapist know what to say? When to speak? When to stay silent? I returned to graduate school and earned my master’s degree in social work in 2000 at the age of 40.

For my own clients, I possessed great empathy and compassion. I knew where they were now, where they’d been. Most days, I was able to hang on. At night, alone in my apartment in Queens, the demons of my own severe mental illness—anorexia, major depressive disorder, and borderline personality disorder—swirled within the confines of the tiny space. Sometimes I couldn’t separate the ethereal trails my feelings left from the layers of dust on the nightstand.

Experts In This Article
  • James Pennebaker, Ph.D., James Pennebaker, Ph.D. a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is a social psychologist.

In 2005, I found myself in the midst of another severe depressive episode with thoughts of suicide—an unwelcome, yet comfortingly familiar place. Depression was hardwired into my DNA. This time, treatment included several hospitalizations and ECT (electro-convulsive therapy) to emerge from the deep abyss. My ascent took almost three years, during which time I was unable to work. I thought it prudent to attempt to be productive, though, so I signed up for a memoir class at a local writing center.

“Write about what you know,” said Julie, the instructor.  I almost did an abrupt about-face as I thought, "All I know is mental illness." I persisted and penned my first essay about my experience with anorexia. I shook as I read aloud to the class week after week. The essay, titled "Sharp Edges" for the pointed edges of my bones, began to take shape with constructive feedback from Julie and my classmates. I’d found a kind and welcoming community of writers who remained nonjudgmental. The class was my first exposure in years to a group of people whose focus was not mental illness.

As the class neared completion, Julie suggested that I submit "Sharp Edges" to an anthology posting a call for submissions with a health and healing theme. I was flattered and surprised, but secretly, I doubted my chances. Months later, the acceptance e-mail arrived, and I ecstatically reread it several times. When I received my copy of the anthology, I flipped it open to the page where "Sharp Edges" began and stared at my name at the top of the page. Putting the tip of my index finger on my byline, I drew it back quickly. I felt compelled to touch my name to ensure it wouldn’t disappear.

The high of seeing my name in print continued every time I opened the book to the table of contents or to the first page of my essay. With every view, I cemented the belief that I belonged with the other authors. This elation dwarfed the pleasure I felt when I stepped on the scale and watched my weight drop an ounce or two from the previous day. This high was sustainable. I couldn’t erase my name. It would still be there next week, next month, and next year. If I stepped on the scale tomorrow and gained back three ounces, I’d be devastated and that dictated my mood for the rest of the day. I could count on seeing my name in the anthology and I could count on the feeling of joy that accompanied it.

As I continued to see my name in print, my perception in the way I identified myself shifted in a fundamental way. Years ago, in group therapy at the psych hospital, a psychologist had told me I was a "professional patient." I carried that label inside me for a long time. Each time I needed to be re-admitted into the hospital, I shrank a bit inside. Now, I had tangible proof that I was capable of more.

With the power of words, I was chasing away the hold mental illness had on me.

I wrote and wrote and wrote. With the power of words, I was chasing away the hold mental illness had on me. Each time an essay was accepted for publication, my identity as a psychiatric patient ebbed and returned diminished from its original form. The summer after I began studying memoir, I seized the opportunity to attend an intensive Writer's Week at Sarah Lawrence College. In a panel discussion, I asked one of the faculty members, “How do you know when you can call yourself a writer?”

She replied, “If you write, then you’re a writer.” From that moment on, I was.

Today, my identity as a writer and recovered psych patient coexists with my work as a licensed clinical social worker. With the exception of the severe depressive episode from 2005 through 2008, I’ve been working steadily since I graduated. The experience of my illness compels me to be a better therapist, for while I never disclose directly to a client, I fully empathize with them when they are suffering from depression or trapped in the consuming cycle of an eating disorder. I look directly in their eyes and tell them I realize how much they are suffering. When I reassure them that life gets better, I believe they somehow sense the depth of my understanding.  My history as a patient informs my work with a reality that is impossible to fake.

I encourage my clients to participate in some sort of creative pursuit—writing, drawing, painting, music, dancing or anything that appeals to them. I know how losing themselves in any creative endeavor might help fuel an escape from the chaos in their brain, even for just a little while. Even a little while can be a blessing.

Writing has become a passion that imbues all aspects of my life. I relish the challenge of the blank page, creating something from nothing: a word, a sentence, a paragraph, a finished essay. Having been told repeatedly as a child I was “too sensitive,” writing has been instrumental in helping me develop a thicker skin. As I repeatedly submit essays for publication and receive rejections (which is part of the process) I’ve learned not to take the rebuff personally.

I know what it’s like to lose hope. I also know what it’s like to have found it again. And again. By sharing my story, I’m helping others to feel less alone. Writing gives me a purpose. Writing keeps me sane.

Andrea Rosenhaft is a licensed clinical social worker in the New York City area.  She is recovered from anorexia, major depression, and borderline personality disorder. Andrea writes and blogs on the topic of mental health and recovery. She is the founder and CEO of the concierge treatment consultation organization BWellBStrong, which focuses its efforts on BPD, eating disorders, anxiety, and major depressive disorder. She lives in Westchester, New York with her rescue dog Shelby.

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