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 of the mental health advocacy and awareness organization, BWellBStrong, which focuses its efforts on BPD, ED’s and major depressive disorder. She lives in Westchester, NY with her rescue dog Shelby.
Growing up I was always the good girl. I did my homework and kept my room tidy. I emptied the dishwasher and walked our two miniature collies, K.C . and Silver after school. I was terrified of making waves in my childhood home which was dominated by my alcoholic father. He never touched my brother or me, but used his exceptional intelligence to hurl cruel and sarcastic barbs that resulted in lifelong damage.
In my late twenties, from 1986 through 1990, I was diagnosed with anorexia, major depression, and borderline personality disorder (BPD).
In 2005 I shocked myself when I abruptly quit therapy with Cathy, with whom I’d been working for close to thirteen years. I tended to put my therapists on a pedestal and when my mother passed away in 2002 from pancreatic cancer, I clung to Cathy and thrust her pedestal even further upwards.
I was five years into my first job as a psychiatric social worker, my second career. I’d returned to graduate school when I was thirty-eight and received my master’s degree in social work at forty. Sam, the kind supervisor who trained me left our clinic and was replaced by a woman who my co-workers and I soon realized was an alcoholic. I was working for my father.
I couldn’t talk about him in therapy. I refused to relive my childhood so I impulsively quit therapy and also stopped taking my cocktail of psychotropic medication. I don’t know why I thought I’d be magically protected this time. Tumbling hard and fast, I dropped into a suicidal depression. Robin, whose women’s group I was still attending, pressed the name of a trusted psychiatrist into my hand for a medication consultation.
I was hospitalized twice and my job stripped me of my clinical responsibilities. As if depression somehow erased my experience and knowledge. Humiliated, I resigned.
I made an appointment with the psychiatrist to whom Robin frequently referred clients. Her name was Dr. Lev. In addition to a medication consultation, she asked me if I wanted to work with her. Dr. Lev was one of those rare psychiatrists who practiced psychotherapy. She specialized in transference-focused psychotherapy or TFP, a psychodynamic treatment developed to treat BPD. In the midst of an intractable depression, I’d be hospitalized four more times in the first eighteen months of our therapy and also undergo a course of ECT. These interruptions prolonged the time before Dr. Lev and I could really get down to working together.
Due to the side effects of the ECT and the depression, I was unable to hold a job so I went on Social Security Disability. I signed up for a memoir class at a local writing center. I wrote about what I knew; my experience with mental illness. The instructor suggested I submit my first essay about anorexia titled Sharp Edges to an anthology with the theme of “Illness & Grace* Terror & Transformation.” Sharp Edges was accepted!
Seeing my name in print flooded my brain with a different type of high than I got from watching the numbers on the scale drop. Writing was a sustainable high, unlike starving myself which extracted a huge physical and psychological toll. I took the memoir class every semester until Dr. Lev brought up returning to social work in 2008. I discovered I had a talent and a passion for creating something from nothing, a word at a time, attending to rhythm and cadence as I crafted sentences.
Writing taught me to develop a thick skin. I was the sensitive one, the girl who burst into tears when someone cut ahead of me on line at the playground, calling me “gorilla arms,” because I had a lot of hair on my forearms. I always cried no matter how hard I tried not to.
Once I started writing and submitting in earnest, inevitably rejections followed. I had a choice. I could stop writing and avoid the hurt that accompanied the rebuffs or I could shrug them off and work harder, keep attending workshops and continue to improve my writing. I chose the latter.
Writing helped me make sense of the world. Especially when trying to sort out the exchanges between Dr. Lev and me in our sessions. In TFP, the therapist is anything but silent. She questions, confronts, comments, encourages and offers interpretations. Dr. Lev held to a strict forty-five minute hour and I’d often find myself sobbing in the hallway restroom. Going home and sitting with my computer let me construct a narrative reconciling events and feelings.
One summer, while I was on SSD, I attended a week-long writers’ intensive workshop. During a panel consisting of accomplished writers, I ventured a question.
“How do you know when you’re a writer?”
An author smiled and replied, “If you write, then you’re a writer.”
There was no room in my psyche for the patient-me and the writer-me to co-exist. Once I made my choice, I couldn’t go back. I chose to shed my patient identity, a weight lifted like a sheep who has been sheared of her wool.
~ ~ ~
When the country first went into lockdown due to Covid-19 in March of 2020, I was convinced I could handle it. I live alone except for my dog Shelby, who I rescued from a kill shelter in Mississippi in May of 2019. I consider myself a dedicated introvert, a seven on a scale of one to ten where ten is practically agoraphobic. I enjoy getting together with friends one-on-one or in small groups, but I need at least as much, if not more alone time to recharge. I work as a telecommuter, but pre-Covid, I went out into the field to meet my clients, which I considered an ideal balance,
As the leaves turned red, then dropped from the trees here in the Northeast, it became clear that the pandemic was unyielding. My resolve grew weary and I slipped into a depression. Dr. Lev and I had terminated therapy in 2016 after eleven years. In 2018, I suffered a stroke and temporarily resumed therapy due to a post-stroke depression. Dr. Lev made it clear her door remained open, and she continues to manage my medication. She and I met for a Zoom session in the midst of the pandemic. I hadn’t realized how much I was holding in.
“If it weren’t for Shelby, I would go days without leaving the apartment,” I told her. “As it is, I’ve gone a couple of days without taking a shower. Till I can’t stand the smell of myself anymore.”
“Tell me more.”
“More often than not I don’t give a shit. Work sucks. I’m not meeting my metrics. I wonder if the stroke affected my ability to write because all I’m getting are rejections.” I began to sob.
It was hard for me to admit to her I was having fleeting thoughts of suicide. I assured her I was safe. I was furious at myself for being unable to control my thoughts by now.
“Do you really think you ought to be able to control your thoughts?”
I wondered if she was concerned my depression was severe enough that I was skidding into psychosis. It wouldn’t be the first time.
I did the only thing I knew how to do to cope. I wrote. I wrote without censoring myself. I’d always been open and honest about my experience with my mental illness, but before I submitted an essay, I’d revise and edit it.
I wrote with abandon and raw creativity, seeing words for the first time, the way in one might hike a favorite trail after a rainstorm. Familiar, yet fresh. Words bursting with ripeness, aching to be picked.
I wrote without considering submission and acceptance. I wrote to make order, to integrate the fragmented pieces of my mind. I wrote to prove I hadn’t lost my creative edge as a result of the cognitive deficits sustained in the stroke.
There were days when it would have been easier not to write. Just like being in therapy, I was probing, challenging myself. It’s a well-known axiom writers have to park our behinds in the chair each day and write. It’s as simple and as complicated as that.
The first snowflakes dusted the streets of my quiet neighborhood. I gradually emerged from my depression. After five-and-one-half years, I launched a job search. Vaccines for Covid-19 were close to being approved by the FDA. The world looked as though it might open back up sometime in 2021.
This episode was significant in re-confirming my resilience and my faith in myself. It was the first time I pulled myself out of a nosedive without crashing first. I didn’t need to make multiple medication adjustments and return to therapy for a substantial amount of time. I didn’t become actively suicidal.
To find my way back I unearthed my intimate voice. For that to happen, I needed to suspend my dream of having my public voice heard.