φάor most of my adult life, mental illness was my identity. In the midst of a slow bleeding from my wounded soul, even after almost 20 years of healing, I was fascinated by the procedure. How does the therapist know what to say? When to speak? When to be silent? I returned to my master’s degree and obtained my master’s degree in social work in 2000 at the age of 40.
For my own clients, I had great empathy and compassion. I knew where he was now, where he was. Most days, I could hold on. At night, alone in my Queens apartment, the demons of my own serious mental illness – anorexia, major depressive disorder and borderline personality disorder – swirled within the confines of tiny space. Sometimes I could not distinguish the ethereal traces left by my emotions from the layers of dust on the nightstand.
In 2005, I found myself in the middle of another major depressive episode with suicidal thoughts — an unwanted yet intimate place. Depression was embedded in my DNA. This time, the treatment included several treatments and ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) to get out of the deep abyss. My ascent lasted almost three years, during which I could not work. However, I found it wise to try to be productive, so I enrolled in a memoir class at a local writing center.
“Write about what you know,” said Julie, the teacher. I almost made a sharp look on my face as I thought, “All I know is mental illness.” I insisted and wrote my first essay on my experience with anorexia. I shivered as I read aloud in class week after week. The essay, entitled “Sharp edges“ for the sharp edges of my bones, began to be shaped by constructive comments from Julie and my classmates. I had found a kind and hospitable community of writers who remained uncritical. The lesson was my first exposure in years to a group of people whose focus was not mental illness.
As the course drew to a close, Julie suggested that I submit “Sharp Edges” to an anthology that publishes a call for submissions on health and therapy. I was flattered and surprised, but secretly, I doubted my chances. Months later, the acceptance email arrived and I re-read it many times in ecstasy. When I received the copy of my anthology, I opened it on the page where “Sharp Edges” started and looked at my name at the top of the page. Putting the tip of my index finger on my byline, I pulled it back quickly. I felt compelled to touch my name to make sure it would not disappear.
The urge to see my name in print continued every time I opened the book in the table of contents or on the first page of my essay. In every way, I have established the belief that I belong to other writers. This rejoicing diminished the pleasure I felt when I climbed on the scales and saw my weight drop one or two ounces from the day before. This high was sustainable. I could not delete my name. He would still be there next week, next month and next year. If I stepped on the ladder tomorrow and gained three ounces back, I would be devastated and that dictated my mood for the rest of the day. I could count on seeing my name in the anthology and on the feeling of joy that accompanied it.
As I continued to see my name printed, my perception of how I identified myself changed fundamentally. Years ago, during group therapy at a psychiatric hospital, a psychologist told me I was a “professional patient.” I carried this sign inside me for a long time. Every time I had to go back to the hospital, they shrank a little. Now, I had tangible evidence that I was capable of more.
With the power of words, I banished the stress of mental illness.
I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. With the power of words, I banished the stress of mental illness. Each time an essay was accepted for publication, my identity as a psychiatric patient declined and returned to its original form. In the summer after I started studying the memoirs, I took the opportunity to attend an intensive Writers’ 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 are a writer.” From that moment I was.
Today, my identity as a writer and recovering psychopath coexists with my work as a licensed clinical social worker. With the exception of major depression from 2005 to 2008, I have been working steadily since graduating. The experience of my illness forces me to become a better therapist, because while I never reveal myself directly to a client, I fully sympathize with him when he suffers from depression or is trapped in the eating cycle of an eating disorder. I look them straight in the eye and tell them that I realize how much they are suffering. When I assure them that life is getting better, I believe that somehow they realize the depth of my understanding. My history as a patient updates my work with a reality that is impossible to falsify.
I encourage my clients to engage in some kind of creative pursuit – writing, drawing, painting, music, dancing or whatever they like. I know how losing themselves in any creative endeavor can help them escape the chaos in their brains, even for a while. Even a little can be a blessing.
Writing has become a passion that permeates all aspects of my life. I enjoy the challenge of the blank page, creating something out of nothing: a word, a sentence, a paragraph, a finished essay. Having repeatedly said as a child that I was “very sensitive”, writing helped me develop thicker skin. As I have repeatedly submitted essays for publication and received rejections (which is part of the process) I have learned not to take the rejection personally.
I know what it is like to lose hope. I also know what it is like to have found it again. And again. By sharing my story, I help others feel less alone. Writing gives me a purpose. Writing keeps me going.
Andrea Rosenhaft is a licensed clinical social worker in the New York area. He has recovered from anorexia, major depression and borderline personality disorder. Andrea also writes blogs on mental health and rehabilitation. She is the founder and CEO of BWellBStrong Concierge Counseling, which focuses on BPD, eating disorders, anxiety and major depressive disorder. She lives in Westchester, New York with rescue dog Shelby.
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