A National Audience to Discuss a Growing National Epidemic
Sitting there under the lights, surrounded by cameras, teleprompters and a live studio audience, I took a deep breath and wiped the warm sweat from my hands onto my pants. This was really happening. “Look, Oprah taught me everything I know about this business,” Dr. Oz reassured me just off stage. “And the most important thing she ever told me was to just be yourself. I’m going to ask you questions, but take it wherever you need it to go. This is your story. So just tell it.”
It was Mental Illness Awareness Week, and I could think of no better place to be to tell my story and share the uncomfortable truths I uncovered over the past eighteen months, not only about my wife’s mental health condition, but my struggles to navigate my own grief and come to terms with my overwhelming feelings of guilt. I wanted to share what I had learned, in the most difficult, horrific way possible, so that others wouldn’t have to experience what I’ve gone through or feel so alone or isolated in their grief.
Earlier, walking in the halls backstage, I was a bit awe struck when I came face to face with former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, son of Teddy Kennedy, one of the nation’s leading voices and advocates for mental health. His book, A Common Struggle, is blueprint for transforming our country’s mental health system, so that future generations don’t have to suffer undiagnosed, untreated mental health conditions and substance use disorders as so many generations have before.
During the show, he spoke with Doctor Oz about the recent death of his 22-year-old niece, Saoirse Kennedy Hill, to a suspected suicidal overdose back in August, lamenting he and others didn’t see the signs or take them more seriously. Three years ago, she wrote an emotional essay for her high school newspaper about her ongoing struggle with depression.
“My depression took root in the beginning of my middle school years and will be with me for the rest of my life,” Saoirse, then 19, wrote. “Although I was mostly a happy child, I suffered bouts of deep sadness that felt like a heavy boulder on my chest.”
Two years prior, she had attempted to end her life and sought treatment when she became overwhelmed by stress from school. “I began isolating myself in my room, pulling away from my relationships, and giving up on schoolwork,” Saoirse wrote. “During the last few weeks of spring term, my sadness surrounded me constantly.”
It all sounded too familiar. I folded my arms and bowed my head, acknowledging the signs I and others had missed with my wife’s mental health, not just in the weeks before her death, but during our 24-year marriage and for most of her life.
Weeks before Saoirse’s tragic death, I had just finished the manuscript for my own book, and circulated it for critical feedback among a small circle of close friends and acquaintances, including Stephanie, a woman in my building that I had just met. “Had your wife ever been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder?” Stephanie asked me.
“No. I don’t even know what that is,” I had to admit.
As a special education teacher, Stephanie has dealt with some of the most extreme cases of childhood trauma and disorders, and had written her doctoral thesis on borderline personality disorder. “There are nine criteria that are used to diagnose borderline personality disorder,” she told me. “If you can check off at least five, then it’s likely that person is somewhere on the spectrum for it. Based on just this book, I can check off all nine.”
I was shocked. I began consuming everything I could get my hands and eyes on to learn more about the disorder, which left me even more shocked. Borderline personality disorder (also known as BPD) is a mental illness characterized by a long-term pattern of unstable relationships, a distorted sense of self and a strong fear of abandonment. Often confused with bipolar disorder, which causes drastic swings in mood, borderline personality disorder is relational, affecting how a person interacts with others.
Growing up, as I recently learned from one of Jennair’s childhood friends, Jennair struggled to get along and make friends with others in her neighborhood. She insisted on being in control and telling other kids what to do, how to play and how to act. At age seven, just as she still was at 47, there was no other way but her way. And if you disagreed, you paid a price. In adulthood, what I saw early on as an intriguing sense of independence, I now recognized as something else. Jennair protected herself from abandonment by isolating herself from others, ending friendships and not wanting to start others. She wanted me all to herself, and she couldn’t understand why I needed friendships and close contact with my own family. Finally, so much of our relationship started to make sense.
After sharing the history of our relationship with Dr. Oz, as well as details of my recovery since discovering the bodies of my wife and girlfriend, I was joined on set by Psychiatrist, Judith Joseph. She, along with Dr. Oz, had recently read Jennair’s final letter, a chilling account of why and how she was plotting her final vengeful act. I was surprised, and yet I wasn’t when Dr. Joseph expressed her professional opinion that based on her letter alone, Jennair not only exhibited characteristics of someone with borderline personality disorder, but she checked all nine boxes.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, it’s estimated that 1.6% to 5.9% of the adult U.S. population (19.3 million people) suffer from BPD, and nearly 75% of those are women. However, some research suggests that men may be just as affected by the disorder, but are often misdiagnosed with PTSD or depression.
I am not, as some commenters have previously suggested gas-lighting, dragging my wife through the mud or trying to distract from my role in hurting Jennair deeply by deciding to leave our marriage. I own my part and continue to work through my grief and guilt. But her rapid deterioration, her obsession, and especially the deadly rage she exacted isn’t the reaction from a mentally healthy person.
One in five adults will experience mental illness this year. Yet a mental illness diagnosis, and especially borderline personality carries with it a stigma. As Dr. Joseph expressed during the show, there is no cure for borderline personality disorder, so there is little interest, if not complete avoidance by many mental health professionals to diagnose someone with it.
If you’re at all like me, unless someone around you has been diagnosed or affected by borderline personality disorder, you’ve probably never heard of it. But given the seriousness of the condition, and the growing epidemic of mental illness, mass shootings and suicides, it’s time to put this potentially dangerous disorder in the spotlight.
Read more about Borderline Personality Disorder at NAMI.org and let’s continue the conversation below.