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THERE WAS A MOMENT in Therese Borchard’s life when she found herself crouched in a closet, terrified, with her kids in front of the TV in the other room. The bouts of depression and anxiety she had fought since she was a teenager—the same depression that had led her aunt-godmother to suicide—had become unbearable to her.
Eric, her husband of 10 years, persuaded Therese to allow him to take her to the hospital for help. That trip to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore was the beginning of a journey that led Therese to become one of this nation’s leading advocates for people with manic depression. You sometimes can find her books Beyond Blue or The Pocket Therapist on the racks at stores nationally; she’s been interviewed for Psychology Today, among other magazines, and has been a guest on national television shows.
But she is most known on the Internet, at a Web site of many religions called www.beliefnet.com, where she blogs and interacts with online visitors. Hers is an advocacy of caring.
“It was my Catholic faith that saved me,” Therese says unabashedly, as Eric helps two children up the stairs toward bed. At home in Annapolis, Maryland, Therese shares her story of faith, struggle, how she found a way to cope and how she now helps others. Faith is clearly at the heart of her story.
Bipolar disorder, the more accurate name for what has been called manic depression, is now known as a “spectrum disorder,” one that exists in all sorts of severity. It can be a mild cycle of ups and downs, looking more like grumpiness or sadness contrasted with superstar performance. It’s usually worse than that, going as far as days in bed contrasted with hallucinations and requiring hospitalization. In Therese’s case, it is a severe, disabling disorder, though hers is kept at bay through a combination of medical help and self-management.
For 40-year-old Therese, it started at a young age in Kettering, Ohio, where she grew up as Therese Johnson. What was masked as an exceptional childhood devotion to Catholicism was actually the beginnings of a medical condition. “When I was a little girl, I would have these anxiety spells,” she recalls. Observing her mother’s piety in the face of an alcoholic husband, who was gone by the time Therese reached 12, Therese devoted herself to religious expression. But for Therese, there was more than faith at work.
“Catholicism is the best religion for the mentally ill,” this devout Catholic says half-jokingly (she is humorous). She is speaking of a compulsive, unhealthy piety. “It can mask behaviors so that the counselor doesn’t get called.” That’s what happened in her case. The godmother she had so loved had taught Therese prayers and devotions, and Therese lost herself in them, kneeling in her room, saying “extra prayers,” doing all of the devotions a few extra times. Everyone around saw in her a profound holiness (to this day she remains devout, but less extreme).
But with her teenage years came depression. She drank heavily for the fun of it, or so she thought at first. She actually was “self-medicating” a serious depressive illness. And she had what now would be called an eating disorder—she was not eating enough.
Smart young Therese could see a problem. Her lack of freedom with alcohol was her first clue: “After giving it up for Lent for three years and being unsuccessful, I knew that moderation was just not going to work,” she recalls. She really did not want to fall into her alcoholic father’s footsteps. “I stopped drinking senior year of high school.”
But her problems persisted. At St. Mary’s College in South Bend, Indiana, she sought a counselor’s help, first to find a local Alcoholics Anonymous group. The counselor sensed other troubles and ultimately helped Therese find medical help for what she learned was bipolar disorder.
After college she went to work in Chicago for a short while, pursuing her dream to be a journalist. It wasn’t working, though. During that time, providentially, she now knows, she met Eric Borchard. They married and eventually moved to his hometown, Annapolis, to start a family.
Throughout, she clung to her faith. Her bouts with depression followed by manic energy were sometimes managed, sometimes not. She went from doctor to doctor, to no avail. She experimented with family-recommended alternative treatment approaches (meditation, yoga and so on), but they didn’t work either. Her faith could console her but couldn’t fix her: Her illness had become overwhelming.
A Helping Hand
The day Eric took Therese to the hospital was the day Therese’s life began to turn around. Receiving treatment in the coming years, she learned about bipolar disorder. She learned that it is hereditary; that alcohol is often used for self-medication of mood swings (it doesn’t work); that stress can make things worse; that certain stressors are triggers for bipolar episodes; and that with a careful diet, hearty exercise daily and doctor-supervised medication, it can be managed.
People with bipolar disorder—once they understand the illness and receive medical help—can live relatively normal and healthy lives. Ask Therese Borchard!
Her passion—in addition to being a wife and mother—has become telling the world about bipolar disorder and reaching out a helping hand to those with the disease. Bipolar disease is relatively rare—affecting about 2.6 percent of the U.S. population, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. But that’s no small number, about 5.7 million adult Americans.
Therese got involved with Beliefnet in 2006, not long after her stay at Johns Hopkins. About a month after she left the hospital, there was a politician, Douglas M. Duncan, who left the Maryland gubernatorial race because he had been diagnosed with clinical depression. “I was so empowered by that,” Therese says, speaking of the public, open way that Duncan talked about his disorder. She decided to do likewise. She wrote a piece about Duncan’s openness that wound up at Catholic News Service, which feeds news to Catholic media outlets across the continent. Someone at Beliefnet, where Therese had contributed before, read the piece and liked it. Beliefnet’s research showed that many of the site’s readers suffered from depression, so editors invited Therese to write a column about that.
“I hesitated at first, because going public with your story about depression is just—it’s really a deal-breaker,” she says with a laugh. “But I thought about the people who had really saved my life, and some of my heroes who suffered depression,” she says, citing Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, who didn’t let depression keep them from doing important work. “I needed to tell those people before me that they weren’t going insane and that there was life after depression, life after anxiety, life after hospitalization.
“Plus, I lost my godmother. She took her own life. And I thought, If I can save one person, then who cares if I ever can’t get a job because my name’s out there? That is an issue now, but I still believe I did the right thing.”
Her pages at Beliefnet are accessed by about 200,000 visitors per month, at this writing, and that number is continuing to grow, she reports. “The letters and comments I get are really amazing!” says Therese. “Whenever I think that I don’t have the energy to keep it up, I get a letter—like the one from this woman from Switzerland. She said that for two years I’ve kept her alive. Whenever she feels frightened [fearing suicide], she goes on to YouTube to watch my videos.”
Recently, Therese became associate editor of another online resource, www.PsychCentral.com, a site devoted more to medicine than to religion. She keeps up her “Beyond Blue” column at Beliefnet, though, which she still considers her favorite work.
If suicidal people contact her for help, Therese refers them to hotlines. Crisis intervention is beyond the kind of help she can give. “I need to be careful about that: I’m not a therapist,” she cautions.
The hardest parts about being so public with her illness are the “crackpots” and overly critical visitors, she says. “It’s so hard when you take a risk and put yourself out there and hear people complain, ‘You’re so obsessed, so selfindulgent.’ Or ‘There are hungry people in China, if you think you have problems!’ But you just try not to take those so personally. If I can save a life, or two, then it’s worth it.”
Therese longs for the day when, as with diabetes, arthritis or cancer, people will be able to talk about mental illnesses more freely. That’s what removes the social stigma.
Therese is fueled in her advocacy through devotion to her faith. She and her family are regular parishioners at nearby St. Mary’s, where she serves as a lector and where her children attend elementary school. She prays each morning (“I really do,” she insists) because it centers her. “If you’re not centered on God and peace, and that sense of stillness, then I think you’re getting off to a rough start!” she says, laughing.
But Therese has a special devotion, as she says, to three Theresas. First is Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, with whom Therese spent a volunteer week just out of college. (“I met her!” she exclaims.) Mother Teresa’s letters, which document her own struggles with darkness, are an inspiration to Borchard. She’s quick to add that Mother Teresa’s darkness is not to be confused with clinical depression—Mother Teresa was able to keep on with her life and work; clinically depressed people can’t do that as they turn in on themselves.
St. Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite, is a source of inspiration for Therese’s mystical side—Borchard certainly believes in a very real and present transcendence. And St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Borchard’s patroness, has played an important role in her recovery.
For years our Therese carried around a St. Thérèse medal given to her by her best friend. Through thick and thin she kept that medal close at hand during the year and a half when she felt suicidal. “It was my token of hope,” she says. As her sickness progressed, though, she came dangerously close to taking her life.
These were the days before her Johns Hopkins treatment. After six weeks of outpatient therapy was deemed a failure by her health-care provider, she sat in her driveway, considering taking all of the failed prescription pills in her house. “It was probably my lowest point,” she quietly recalls. “I thought, If I’ve gone through seven doctors and a hospitalization program and six weeks of outpatient and they say that they can’t help me, then there’s obviously nothing I can do, so I’m just going to take my life and get out of here.” She pleaded for—or, more accurately, demanded—a sign from God.
On her way into the house, she reflexively picked up her mail, and noticed a piece from a woman she’d met at a conference. “In the mail there was another medal, like the one that I had been hanging on to, from a woman named Rose, and she said that she had said a novena in my name—talk about a sign!”
So, she concludes, “All of the T(h)eresas are important to me!”
In a more practical way, Therese depends upon those around her. She would not be in the place she is without Eric, she gratefully admits. “The thing he does best is to suspend his judgment and just listen. That’s the best thing you can do for anyone who is in pain, especially if you have different ‘health philosophies.’”
It was difficult for the two of them to sort out. “I never realized how many different health philosophies there were until I started to hit bottom. There were so many judgments—if I ate organically, if I did this or that.
“Self-educating and listening are the two most important things” for those close to people with bipolar disorder, she insists. “Eric got on the Internet and just studied.” The more he understood, she says, the less likely he was to think this was something Therese could control without medical help. And the more he understood, “the less scared he was.”
From today’s perspective, she can laugh: “I sort of have to stay with him no matter what he does, after him going through that!”
It was Eric who loved her, who stood with her during impossibly hard times, seeking one method after another to treat her, who didn’t throw in the towel. It was Eric who knelt on one knee before Therese in the closet that day, imploring her to put aside fear and go to a hospital. “We can’t go on this way,” he had pleaded.
It was with Eric, too, at Johns Hopkins, walking into the lobby, that Therese found the spiritual succor that would lead to healing. The two stood before the large wooden statue of Jesus that greets all who come in the main lobby with an inscription, “Come, all you weary, and I will give you rest.”
“I just cried when I read that,” she recalls. “I was so tired.”
She says she felt like the hemorrhaging woman of the Gospels (see Luke 8:43-48). “All she wanted to do was just to touch the robe. I felt like her. And I just said, ‘I believe, Jesus, I believe.’” Then she and Eric went into the elevator together and began rebuilding her life.
How Hospitable Are You?
One of the biggest challenges to families dealing with bipolar disorder—or practically any mental illness—is the social stigma, even in local parishes. There are ways, though, that we can be more sensitive and welcoming. Some suggestions from Therese’s blog at PsychCentral.comare adapted here with Therese’s permission.
Learn about it. Therese recommends starting on the Web, with mental-health Web sites such as PsychCentral.com, MentalHealth.com, WebMD.com, RevolutionHealth.comand EverydayHealth.com; checking out nonprofit groups such as NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness) or DBSA (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance). You can also tune in to one of the top 10 psychology videos found on YouTube. These all can be augmented by the public library, lectures and talking to local mental-health professionals.
Talk about it. This advice is for preachers: Find ways to bring mental-health themes—understanding, compassion, solidarity—into homilies and other parish worship or presentations.
Pray about it. Praying together is a powerful affirmation to families that they are not going it alone, and that they have nothing to hide. Ask the parish liturgy committee if a Mass or other liturgy might be planned. Encourage parish prayer groups to be open to families affected by mental illness. Bring these needs into your family and personal prayer.
View video clips from the interview with Therese:
* “You will still be loved.”