Dr. Marsha Linehan, long best known for her ground-breaking work with a new form of psychotherapy called dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), has let out her own personal secret — she has suffered from borderline personality disorder. In order to help reduce the prejudice surrounding this particular disorder — people labeled as borderline often are seen as attention-getting and always in crisis — Dr. Linehan told her story in public for the first time last week before an audience of friends, family and doctors at the Institute of Living, the Hartford clinic where she was first treated for extreme social withdrawal at age 17, according to The New York Times.
At 17 in 1961, Linehan detailed how when she came to the clinic, she attacked herself habitually, cut her arms legs and stomach, and burner her wrists with cigarettes. She was kept in a seclusion room in the clinic because of never-ending urge to cut herself and to die.
Since borderline personality disorder was not discovered yet, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and medicated heavily with Thorazine and Librium, as well as strapped down for forced electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Nothing worked.
So how did she overcome this tragic beginning?
She was not much better 2 years later when she was discharged:
A discharge summary, dated May 31, 1963, noted that “during 26 months of hospitalization, Miss Linehan was, for a considerable part of this time, one of the most disturbed patients in the hospital.”
A verse the troubled girl wrote at the time reads:
They put me in a four-walled room
But left me really out
My soul was tossed somewhere askew
My limbs were tossed here about
She had an epiphany in 1967 one night while praying, that led her to go to graduate school to earn her Ph.D. at Loyola in 1971. During that time, she found the answer to her own demons and suicidal thoughts:
On the surface, it seemed obvious: She had accepted herself as she was. She had tried to kill herself so many times because the gulf between the person she wanted to be and the person she was left her desperate, hopeless, deeply homesick for a life she would never know. That gulf was real, and unbridgeable.
That basic idea — radical acceptance, she now calls it — became increasingly important as she began working with patients, first at a suicide clinic in Buffalo and later as a researcher. Yes, real change was possible. The emerging discipline of behaviorism taught that people could learn new behaviors — and that acting differently can in time alter underlying emotions from the top down.
But deeply suicidal people have tried to change a million times and failed. The only way to get through to them was to acknowledge that their behavior made sense: Thoughts of death were sweet release given what they were suffering. […]
But now Dr. Linehan was closing in on two seemingly opposed principles that could form the basis of a treatment: acceptance of life as it is, not as it is supposed to be; and the need to change, despite that reality and because of it.
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) was the eventual result of this thinking. DBT combines techniques from a number of different areas of psychology, including mindfulness, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and relaxation and breathing exercises. Research has demonstrated its general effectiveness for people with borderline personality disorder. She should be very proud of her work with developing and helping people learn about DBT:
In studies in the 1980s and ’90s, researchers at the University of Washington and elsewhere tracked the progress of hundreds of borderline patients at high risk of suicide who attended weekly dialectical therapy sessions. Compared with similar patients who got other experts’ treatments, those who learned Dr. Linehan’s approach made far fewer suicide attempts, landed in the hospital less often and were much more likely to stay in treatment. D.B.T. is now widely used for a variety of stubborn clients, including juvenile offenders, people with eating disorders and those with drug addictions.
Dr. Linehan’s struggle and journey is both eye-opening and inspirational. Although long, the New York Times’ article is well worth the read.
Read the full article: Expert on Mental Illness Reveals Her Own Struggle