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.

Mark Gerardot on the set with Dr. Oz and Psychiatrist, Dr. Judith Joseph

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.

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12 thoughts on “Disorder”

  1. Can’t wait to watch. Such an incredibly sad story Saoirses is. I remember reading about the events and how hard she was trying to achieve self worth etc before she passed. Look forward to watching. This can and will help many with an epidemic that is taking to many lives not only in the States but Canada to. Thanks Mark

  2. I have so many of the symptoms..
    I have gotten better with age but I would like to learn more. Thanks for telling your story! I am 63 yrs old and this story has sparked me to learn more to help myself further…

  3. Mark,

    When fire destroys a Forrest almost immediately new life begins to grow and life is rejuvenated.

    You, Jennair, Meredith and Luke have all been destroyed by this tragedy.

    But your using this tragedy to help educate people about mental heath is getting good from the bad. New life.

    The support Meredith and Jennair’s family have shown you is helping them heal. New life.

    Luke’s (a person often forgotten) personal and professional life flourishing is a great thing. I hope you and him can break bread some day. I saw he is also promoting mental illness month. New life.

    How lucky Jennair was to have you for 25 years. Now that hindsight shows she was sick you should be proud you were there for her.

    More good and new life will grow from all this and help everyone have a little peace over this tragedy.

    Peace to you.

  4. I was in the same situation as your wife, Jennair. I was left for the younger woman at work. And I was diagnosed with BPD during the marriage and individual counseling I sought immediately when I was told what was going on.

    I went through some dark times, especially at the beginning. I had given up a 15 year professional career, and thought I was doing the right thing by giving it up to take care of our 4 children (1, 3, 5, and 7 at the time it all began). I felt anger, humiliation (he definitely rubbed things into my nose), sadness. The whole range of emotions. I am glad that I did not break into his computer, follow him, etc. I kept my self-respect, sanity, and the love & respect of my children.

    I turned to meditation at first. I realized that my mind was racing, and I was responsible for getting 2 school-aged children to school and providing all the care 2 very young children needed. I also had to get back into my career, and so needed to focus on my next steps to getting back onto my finanacial feet!

    I then returned to my religious roots. I found a 12-step program through my church, and at first, I was in denial that I needed that program. But I did. I was an ACA (Adult Child of an Alcoholic) with a co-dependent mother, and as it turned out, I suffered from PTSD. The odds were against me, and at times, frighteningly so. But focusing on those 12 steps, sharing my testimony … all of this helped me mentally, physically, and spiritually. I wanted to become the person I visualized I could be!

    The final step that I took to keep myself from a dark spiral that “could have” led to a tragedy such as this was to join Recovery, Inc. I taught myself, with the aid of Dr. Lowe’s book and the program, how to “spot” when I was going to a dark place that I honestly could not control. I recognized that I was a “dry” alcoholic. And much like a “wet” alcoholic, I suffered the delusion that I could handle this, that I just wanted to know … did he really love me? what were they doing? … you know, all those obsessive, dead-end questions.

    So I set goals. I would never think about whatever would trigger my negative thought cycle. At first, it was like riding a bucking horse. It was so much easier to think about revenge, all the things that were done to me! It was far more difficult to walk the path of true forgiveness. And even harder to forgive myself!

    Then I set the final, ultimate goal. I would not even enter the trigger for my thought cycle; I would catch it at the edge! Sorry, this mind is closed! Go away!

    It has now been 22 years. Every Easter, I celebrate my re-birth because that was the holiday that I finally kicked a narcissistic, selfish, adulterous husband out of my life. I am so glad that I realized that my ex did not deserve the attention and preoccupation he was getting. I had far better things to look forward to!

    Three of the four children have graduated university (1 has a masters and is working on her M.D. degree). One is married! I will be a grandmother some day! I have reclaimed a satisfying career, and have contributed financially to my children’s university careers (amongst all the other goals I wanted to share with them).

    And what of the ex?

    I certainly could care less. I am far more fulfilled than in an empty marriage with a person who could not even answer the marriage counselor’s question: “And how does your wife feel about that?”

    I feel great! 🙂

  5. Mark,

    I am the survivor of 2 abusive relationships that have triggered my depression and PTSD. I am reading your book now. I just wanted to let you know that I support you and I hope one day you can find peace and happiness again. We all deserve at least that.

  6. Mark, I loved your book, as sad as it is. Thank you for sharing the truth. I truly pray that someone reading it or hearing of what happened will try to change their situation, or handle it differently than they would have. I hope you are able to forgive yourself, as God forgives you as you ask.
    God bless,

  7. I am checking out your blog after watching the 20/20 episode that left me speechless.
    I am just hearing of this now, and stumbled upon the tragedy while casually clicking a 20/20 episode.
    You said something so profoundly true, you said we need to take of the one’s we hurt and make sure they are ok. I needed to hear that after some personal strife with family and some borderline personality diagnosis in my own bloodline.
    It is something that I bet not many think of, but after making a decision to terminate a friendship, relationship, mother/daughter toxic relationship a responsibility does indeed fall on a person to make sure the one you hurt is ok.
    I want to thank you for reminding me of that, my anger has caused me to be a little too intolerant of some things and perhaps I need to reflect a bit and follow up after cutting people out of my life, regardless of my opinion of the health of our relationship. They are human beings 💞
    I never comment on blogs or things like this but in this case I did because I believe with all my heart you are doing so many people so much Good. Thanks for sharing your story and being so vulnerable.

  8. I just finished the book, having stayed awake till almost 3am not able to stop. Thank you for sharing your experience in this raw book. I remember watching your story on 20/20 and it stuck with me for days. I watched it 2x more on my iPad that month trying to grasp how it all came down to 2 people’s deaths. I remember thinking that you acted like a petty-ass when sharing how Meredith complimented you in ways Jennair never had. I’m glad to know more of the details for a fuller understanding of the events. I pray for your spiritual wisdom, peace and healing. While you and Meredith crossed the line going a 100 miles a minute, Jennair had no right to take another‘s life… ‘Revenge‘ is a BDP’s hallmark— they put all their energy heart and soul into it, engaging in obscene behaviors. And to kill another acting as judge and jury, is just void of moral responsibility, Be at peace, I wish you the best. V

  9. I am checking out your blog after watching the 20/20 episode and being unable to get it off my mind for a good two days.
    My thoughts:
    I am so very sorry Mark.
    I would ask you to look at this a little differently though. What you are calling BPD is what I know to be sociopathy….that is how all this culminated in a homicide. For me, the issue is not that you were leaving the relationship, but that you had stayed in it for that long. That ,I think is what the affair brought to your consciousness. No one should ever rationalize staying in a toxic relationship-and it does not matter how long it has lasted. A man who has been faithful for 20+ years and then slips is about as perfect as they get on this side of eternity…forgive yourself and allow us to deal with our hypocrisy privately. You tried very much to give her a soft landing. I happen to be the kind that would make a man’s life a living hell if betrayed, and his trying to leave in a civil manner would not change that. I would not take life, but there’s a thousand ways to skin a cat….That was a tragic turn of events for sure, but you must stop beating yourself. Just make sure your next relationship is with a normal person.

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