Thriving with Mental Illness: Q&A with Susannah Bortner
Here’s a message we don’t hear nearly enough: Even though living with mental illness is hard — really hard — many people are successfully managing their conditions and savoring satisfying, healthy lives.
Here’s another message we need to hear more: How they do it.
That’s why we’ve created this new interview series. It debuted last month with Elaina J. Martin, who writes the popular Psych Central blog Being Beautifully Bipolar.
This month we’re honored to talk to Susannah Bortner, a mom, writer, early education teacher and amateur baker living in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Below, Bortner, who has panic disorder and has struggled with clinical depression, reveals the challenges of living with mental illness and how letting others in has helped.1
She also discusses the importance of medication and psychotherapy for her treatment along with how loved ones can help and what she’d like individuals who’ve just been diagnosed to know – and much more.
Please tell us a bit about your background and when you were first diagnosed.
Mental illness runs rampant throughout my family history, on both sides of my family. At least six of my direct family members have been hospitalized for depression, bipolar disorder turns up repeatedly in my family history, and anxiety disorders are also common.
So at least my parents knew, from other family members’ histories with mental illness, to watch for the warning signs as I approached adolescence.
Although I can remember feeling anxious and “not normal” sometimes as a kid and teenager, and I began taking an anti-depressant at the age of 19, I wasn’t diagnosed with panic disorder until I was 22 and thought I was having a heart attack, late one night just weeks after moving to New York City alone.
The EMTs who arrived in response to my 911 call told me I was having a panic attack. I was floored. I thought, “Is that what I’ve been feeling my whole life?”
What have been the toughest parts of having panic disorder?
The toughest part for me has been overcoming my desire to feel “normal” all the time. I’d be out in public, experiencing panic symptoms, and would just sit quietly, willing the symptoms to go away so I could carry on a conversation with a friend.
Even close friends didn’t know what was happening because of my desire to remain outwardly collected at all times. I remember one moment, three years ago, after a particularly awful bout of panic and depression that lasted months, and which caused me to lose over 30 pounds. I was finally feeling better and could sleep and eat again.
I ran into a friend on the street who told me I looked great and asked how I’d lost so much weight. I contemplated telling her that I’d exercised and dieted and worked hard for the weight loss.
But I changed my mind, sick of lying all the time, and said, “It was a deep, dark depression. Depression is great for weight loss!” I laughed and she laughed too. She didn’t run screaming from me, terrified of catching my mental illness.
I’ve learned since then that people are very accepting of mental illness and most people you talk to have faced some sort of depression themselves.
How have you overcome these challenges?
As I talked about above, I’ve started by letting people in, and not just close friends and family. I don’t go around talking about my illness to anyone willing to listen, but if someone shows concern or wonders why I wasn’t at work or at a party, I have begun to answer truthfully: “I was experiencing panic symptoms that made basic functioning almost impossible.”
The honesty is freeing. The stress of keeping something like that hidden was really more anxiety-producing than it was helpful. No one cares if I’m “normal” or not.
And, in fact, my honesty probably often causes relief to others who have been struggling to stay “normal” in their own lives as well.
What treatments and strategies have helped you the most in managing your illness?
Klonopin and Xanax have saved my life several times. I have experienced four long-term bouts of severe depression in the past 10 years, and I truly believe I could not have made it through [that darkness] without those drugs that were prescribed to me during that time by a doctor who knew and understood my mental and physical health history.
I use them only when necessary and seek help from a doctor for withdrawing from the medication when I am ready to go back to just the use of an SSRI, which I take every day (75 mgs of Zoloft).
Medication aside, I have developed myriad tools for coping with panic through years of talk therapy and research. I have surrounded myself with friends and family members who understand my illness and most of whom have also dealt with mental illness.
Forming a community of thrivers who have been through the darkness can make mental illness less solitary and [less] terrifying.
What do you think of psychiatric medications?
Psychiatric medications can be life-saving, and I firmly believe in their usefulness when taken carefully and thoughtfully with advising from a psychiatrist or psycho-pharmacologist.
Over-medication happens when mental illness is only being treated with medication. Mental illness should be treated with medication and therapy equally.
What do you think of psychotherapy?
I believe that psychotherapy, or talk therapy, cognitive therapy, etc. can be extremely helpful if you find the perfect therapist for YOU. Finding a therapist is like finding the perfect pair of jeans: It can be frustrating, and you may try on dozens of pairs before finding the ones that fit your body perfectly, but when you do, you only buy that same brand forever.
When you find a good therapist that feels comfortable to you, stick with them for the long term and allow them to see you through and get to know you.
If you’ve seen a therapist, how did you go about finding the one you’re with today?
I have always based my therapist searches on recommendations from doctors and friends. If a doctor recommends a therapist, it means that therapist is most likely in good standing with the medical community and has a sound, professional practice.
And if a friend recommends someone, it means that person is a good listener and is both sympathetic and challenging at the same time.
What advice do you have for someone about what treatments to try?
I’d first recommend finding a great psychiatrist, because a psychiatrist is a medical doctor who can both prescribe medication and provide therapy choices or recommend a therapist. Getting someone on your side early on is key to getting through depression or any other mental illness.
What would you like someone who’s been newly diagnosed to know?
I’d tell them that it won’t always feel like they’re clawing their way through thick forest in search of the road. I’d tell them to embrace and accept the way their illness makes them feel, and once they’ve done that [to] seek help and begin the road to coping.
And always confide in friends and family who want to help. Isolating yourself is NEVER one of the steps in becoming healthy.
What’s the best way loved ones can support someone with mental illness?
Loved ones can listen, hold hands, and offer support. When I have a panic attack in the middle of the night, I always wake my husband just to tell him what’s going on. It makes me feel less alone and it lets him know I may need his help.
He usually says, “I’m here if you need me,” and will take my hand and just lie there with me until I’m able to fall back asleep. He’ll sometimes remind me that I have medication to calm my body if I need it, and remembering that is often enough to calm me.
When someone you love is dealing with mental illness, let them know you are there. Call them to check on them, send texts of support, stop by unannounced! You can’t worry about stepping on toes when you’re showing someone you care about them.
Don’t offer solutions or ask them why they feel the way they do. Just be there and be physically close. It can make all the difference.
What are your favorite resources on panic disorder?
Of course Psych Central is my favorite mental health resource! I love the articles and the personal blogs because it is so helpful to read about what others are going through (as long as you can manage not to compare yourself to others because you are a unique person)!
I also have an app on my phone called “Panic Attack Aid” (there is a free version and a version that is $4.99). This app has helped me many nights when I can’t sleep due to anxiety or if I am suffering from an acute panic attack.
It includes little games and activities to do so that your brain can focus on something besides your symptoms. Some examples are: “Count the number of people you can see and multiply by 3,” “Recite the alphabet backwards, skipping every other letter,” and “How many letters are there in this sentence?”
I swipe through these games one by one and can feel myself calming down as I go. If it doesn’t work, I take a Klonopin and then return to the app until the medication takes effect.
Anything else you’d like readers to know?
Lastly, I want readers to know that suicide is never a good solution. Suicide ends your life forever, and leaves your loved ones questioning why and blaming themselves. If you feel suicidal or experience suicidal thoughts regularly, seek help.
Have a friend on speed-dial who is there to talk you down when these thoughts overcome you. Have a suicide prevention plan that includes a list of friends or family members you can reach out to, phone numbers you can call, and activities you can engage in until the feelings subside.
Because the feelings will always subside if you take good care of your mind and body and truly care for yourself. 1-800-273-TALK is the number of the National Suicide Prevention hotline. These people are trained to save lives: Use them!
- She makes an amazing doughnut cake, too! [↩]
Tartakovsky, M. (2014). Thriving with Mental Illness: Q&A with Susannah Bortner. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 18, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2014/03/05/thriving-with-mental-illness-qa-with-susannah-bortner/