Psychotherapist, Tulsa native, makes mental-illness struggle public

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Marsha M. Linehan, a professor of psychology, psychiatry, and behavioral science whose life work has focused on help for the chronically suicidal, has spoken to the New York Times about her own struggle with self-destructive urges. The revelation comes some 50 years after she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Connecticut, where she was described in her discharge papers as "one of the most disturbed patients in the hospital."

Linehan has decided to speak out to give hope to her fellow sufferers that it is possible to live a successful productive life despite a mental illness.

Two notable things here. First, Dr. Linehan is from Tulsa:

Her childhood, in Tulsa, Okla., provided few clues. An excellent student from early on, a natural on the piano, she was the third of six children of an oilman and his wife, an outgoing woman who juggled child care with the Junior League and Tulsa social events.

People who knew the Linehans at that time remember that their precocious third child was often in trouble at home, and Dr. Linehan recalls feeling deeply inadequate compared with her attractive and accomplished siblings. But whatever currents of distress ran under the surface, no one took much notice until she was bedridden with headaches in her senior year of high school.

Her younger sister, Aline Haynes, said: "This was Tulsa in the 1960s, and I don't think my parents had any idea what to do with Marsha. No one really knew what mental illness was."

More significant: What sustained her and ultimately empowered her to live was her faith in Christ:

It was 1967, several years after she left the institute as a desperate 20-year-old whom doctors gave little chance of surviving outside the hospital. Survive she did, barely: there was at least one suicide attempt in Tulsa, when she first arrived home; and another episode after she moved to a Y.M.C.A. in Chicago to start over.

She was hospitalized again and emerged confused, lonely and more committed than ever to her Catholic faith. She moved into another Y, found a job as a clerk in an insurance company, started taking night classes at Loyola University -- and prayed, often, at a chapel in the Cenacle Retreat Center.

"One night I was kneeling in there, looking up at the cross, and the whole place became gold -- and suddenly I felt something coming toward me," she said. "It was this shimmering experience, and I just ran back to my room and said, 'I love myself.' It was the first time I remember talking to myself in the first person. I felt transformed."

Mountaintop experiences never last, but tough times no longer drove her to suicidal impulses. She had come to a point of "radical acceptance":

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.

This kind of acceptance doesn't preclude the possibility or necessity of change, but that drive to change can be productively directed forward rather than generating despair over the unchangeable past.

The article goes into further detail about the evolution of dialectical behavior therapy, her approach to helping "supersuicidal people."

There is video accompanying the article of Dr. Linehan describing the spiritual experience that led to her healing. It does not surprise me that this experience of radical acceptance was connected to meditation on the cross.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.... What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?... For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:1, 31-32, 39)

P. S. Dr. Linehan is the director of the Behavioral Research & Therapy Clinics. Their website appears to be gone, and her own webpage is in dire need of an update. (There's a download link for RealJukebox!) The BRTC's contributions page seeks someone to develop and maintain their website. The date on the page is from 2002, so I'm guessing they never found anyone. If you have web skills and suicide prevention is a cause that touches your heart, follow that link and get in touch.

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1 Comments

David Van Author Profile Page said:

I congratulate Marsha for her courage:
First, her courage to go on in spite of all the confusion, ignorance, stigma, discouragement, and loss of capacity to meet daily challenges.

Second, for her outspoken demonstration of hope and understanding.

I hope many more courageous families are emboldened to become advocates for better information and acceptance.

Tulsa has many such heroes. NAMI Tulsa is one of the places where you'll find an abundance of heroes.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on June 24, 2011 10:20 PM.

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