Therese Borchard is a vibrant author, editor, and mother of two. She writes a critically aclaimed blog called “Beyond Blue” at beliefnet.com, which is devoted to supporting people who are living with bipolar disorder. Therese’s writing is engaging and humorous, as she normalizes the experience of mental illness through her own lens of motherhood. Revolution Health salutes Therese for her compassion, and I hope you enjoy getting to know her through this interview:
Dr. Val: Tell me about the circumstances surrounding your diagnosis of bipolar disorder. What was it like when you received the diagnosis for the first time?
Therese: I’ve struggled with depression most of my life, though college was when I first started taking medication and came to terms with the diagnosis of major depression. However, I had a much harder time when I realized that what I had was actually bipolar disorder. This was really difficult for me because my aunt was the only person I knew with bipolar and she took her own life when I was 16. So I had a lot of resistance to that diagnosis.
In fact, I ended up seeing 7 different psychiatrists, went through 2 hospital stays, and tried a total of 23 different medications.
Dr. Val: What’s the story behind the 7 psychiatrists? Were you not connecting with them?
Therese: I strongly advise people with bipolar or anyone struggling with depression to find the right doctor. For me it was going to Johns Hopkins, an academic center that has the best research and an outstanding team of doctors. My bipolar symptoms were not clear cut or “textbook” so it took a team of specialists to really help me find the best treatment path.
Dr. Val: What have you found to be most helpful (therapeutically) to keep you feeling balanced and in control?
Therese: My three staples are diet, exercise, and sleep, because I think that with any illness you just have to make those a priority. Obviously, finding the right doctor and the right medication is important too. Another key component to my recovery was connecting with a greater mission – I see that as my blog. Reaching out to others gives back to me every day. When I read a biography of Abraham Lincoln (he struggled with major depression, but didn’t have meds back then) I was struck by the fact that he focused on the emancipation of slaves as a positive way to get through his depression.
Obviously, a good therapeutic relationship with your doctor is important, as well as finding the right medications for you when/if needed.
I’ve found Dr. David Burns’ book, “Ten Days To Self Esteem” to be really helpful. It’s a work book that you can use as a journal. He asks you to list all your distorted thoughts, how they’re distorted and then how you can think differently. For example, we sometimes engage in mind-guessing, like “Oh he hates what I just said…” when the person isn’t thinking that at all. This book is really good for people with mood disorders.
I also regularly engage in prayer, and as a Catholic it’s really important to me and my healing.
Dr. Val: What advice do you have for people living with bipolar disorder?
Therese: You have to surround yourself with people who understand your illness because it’s so easy to be hard on yourself and adopt an attitude of “I should be able to get over this problem” and then feel deflated when it doesn’t magically disappear. It is so much easier when you have friends around to remind you that bipolar disorder is an illness like arthritis or diabetes – that it can be disabling and it’s not your fault.
Bottom line: Work as hard as you can on your diet and exercise, use light therapy as needed to help elevate your mood, and educate yourself as best you can about your illness.
Dr. Val: You mention diet as an important factor. Do you follow a special diet or do you just mean ‘healthy eating’ in general?
Therese: Mostly I’m talking about a healthy diet with lots of fiber, fruits and veggies, lean protein and whole grains. Caffeine and sugar are dangerous and alcohol can really mess up psych meds. Everything nowadays seems to have high fructose corn syrup in it. I try to stay away from highly processed foods and white flour.
Dr. Val: Do you believe that there is a stigma associated with bipolar disorder? How can that be reduced/removed?
Therese: The stigma does exist. I read a recent article about celebrities basically saying that antidepressants sap your personality, creativity, and sex drive. They make it sound as if people with bipolar disorder are doomed to live a dull and mediocre life. Other articles, like those about Britney Spears, are so negative. They make you think, “Oh God, this woman is never going to be normal.” The media really does bipolar disorder a disservice. Why not say that 70-80% of people with bipolar recover completely and do beautifully? They live very fruitful and productive lives. I have a hard time with how the media presents mental illness in general.
I also find that when I tell people that I have a therapist appointment their eyes sort of bug out. But it shouldn’t be shameful, it’s no different than going to a doctor’s appointment. We have to continue to work on tolerance and acceptance for mental illness.
Dr. Val: What role can online communities play in the management of daily life with bipolar?
Therese: Online groups have proven to be beneficial to those suffering from depression. Sharing your story is therapeutic in itself. Also the anonymity offered by online groups can make sharing stories and struggles more comfortable. For people who live in remote areas or who don’t have access to transportation, online groups offer the best way to connect with others.
Dr. Val: How do your coping mechanisms change when you’re struggling with mania versus depression?
Therese: Some of them are the same, like getting good sleep, eating healthy foods and exercising. I have two little kids so I watch the movie Cars a lot with them. And I like what one of the characters says in response to a question about steering around curves. He says, “in order to go left, you need to turn right, and in order to go right, you need to turn left.” I always remember this when I’m manic or depressed because it’s counter-intuitive.
When you’re depressed, the last thing you want to do is to get yourself involved in life, and get up and get moving – but that’s exactly what you need to do. When you’re manic it’s so easy to say, “This is so great, I’m on a roll, let’s go all night!” It’s hard to shut down your computer and say, “No, I’ve worked enough, now it’s time for bed.” But that’s what you need to do.
Dr. Val: Is there any bipolar-related information or service that you’ve always wished you could get from the Internet but doesn’t exist yet?
Therese: I wish there were an Amazon.com type directory online where you could find therapists, doctors, partial stay hospital programs, and support groups in your zip code, and read reviews from others about them. A one stop resource center would be great!
Dr. Val: You work at Belief Net – tell me a little bit about what the spiritual side of the bipolar journey. How has spirituality played a role in your healing?
Therese: I grew up as a very religious kid and my “OCD” made itself manifest at a young age. I remember that when I was in fourth grade I wrote a book for my mom and her prayer group friends about how to get to heaven. I look back and laugh at that now because it probably listed things like looking at the sacred heart and praying the rosary 15 times.
But on a more serious note, when I was deeply depressed and feeling suicidal the thing that kept me from taking my life was the thread of hope that God was there. If I didn’t have that I don’t think I’d be here. I often asked God for signs of His presence during that horrible times, and believe it or not, I always received them.