Therese J. Borchard, 38, is a successful writer and blogger — her work appears in Catholic News Service, The Huffington Post and other national publications, and her daily Beliefnet.com blog, “Beyond Blue,” gets 750,000 views per month.
But she’s also, according to her own description, “a manic-depressive, an alcoholic, a codependent, an obsessive-compulsive weirdo … and, of course, I’m Catholic. Which could possibly explain some of the above.”
Her new book, “Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes” (Center Street, $21.99), is filled with humor as she journeys through mental illness, beginning with obsessive praying to cope with her broken family, substance abuse, numerous therapists, psychiatrists and 21 medications that didn’t work, two stays in psychiatric hospitals, years of being suicidal and recovery with the right drugs and therapy.
Borchard lives in Annapolis, Md., with her husband and two children. She recently spoke with Our Sunday Visitor about her struggles with mental illness, how her faith masked some of her symptoms, and why she wrote her new book.
Our Sunday Visitor: So, why did you do it?
Therese J. Borchard: I get insecure a couple of times a day when I think about that, then I think of the good that I have done with my blog. Publishing my mental health history is worth the risk of negative opinions. Having lost my (mentally ill) godmother when I was 16, I see the effect of not saying anything. My hope is that I can save a life somewhere, that I can give somebody a lifeline or a thread of hope. I really want to be part of a chain of support.
OSV: When you were young, people called you pious and admired what seemed to be holiness.
Borchard: They encouraged it. I wanted to be a nun, and they thought that was God calling to me. In retrospect, I think my religiosity was very finely mixed with my neuroses. I think that’s why no one identified my symptoms. If I had been flipping switches instead of praying Rosaries, that probably would have made it easier to identify my symptoms. When I was in college, my therapist gave me the book “The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing His Hands,” and there was a chapter on scrupulosity, the religious obsessive compulsive disorder. It just blew me away.
OSV: How were you affected by not being properly diagnosed?
Borchard: The guilt was damaging. Catholic guilt can be a wonderful thing, and there’s a place for it. It’s great for people who aren’t so introspective. But for people who are prone to low self-esteem and mood disorders, it’s a perfect storm for self-hatred.
People who told me to find meaning in suffering meant well, but it contributes to self-hatred because I thought they were right, that it was a blessing to hurt and that I should want to hurt for Jesus.
OSV: What advice do you have for family or clergy who witness overly pious behavior?
Borchard: My Catholic faith is so dear to me that I hate to be so pragmatic, but knowing what I know today, I would always err on the side of caution. I don’t think the religious community is educated in mood disorders and psychological illnesses. Priests and pastors need to be more educated about it, and you need a professional to separate the illness from the faith. It’s really hard to differentiate a dark night of the soul and clinical depression. Many people told me to just pray, meditate and think positive thoughts. But those practices are futile until you have a mind that can actually go there and pray.
OSV: What role did faith play in your recovery?
Borchard: It was the speck of light in darkness. It seemed like every time I read Scripture, I found exactly what I wanted to hear — God saying, “I am here for you,” or “Be not afraid.” I could come out of the darkness and hang onto the light.
There also was St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and letters from some of the saints who seemed to have felt that depth of despair and were able to turn to God with it.
I still struggle, but I can’t help thinking that God is here, and he is, and that I will never be delivered into that darkness again.
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.