By Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression and Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes by Therese J. Borchard. Center Street Publications (New York, 2010). 258 pp., $21.99.
Reviewed by Maureen Daly/CNS
Beyond Blue is a very funny book about a sad and frightening subject.
Mental illness is no joke, but Therese J. Borchard will make you laugh.
She also will give you useful practical advice and wise spiritual guidance, with a Catholic sensibility.
Readers of Borchard’s columns for Catholic News Service know that she is witty and self-deprecating. I have met her, so I know she is poised, good-looking and well-educated. But the reader will learn all this in her book, too.
You may ask, what can a person with all these gifts complain about?
Borchard is the first to admit that she is a person of privilege. Before she wrote publicly about her illness, she berated herself with the fear that her symptoms were only "a strain of yuppie whining, because a white American blonde who can afford to send the kids to Catholic school has no right to complain. Even if she’s depressed."
But she also knows that she has mental illness. She experienced two years of life-threatening depression tormented by obsessive thoughts of suicide, and was twice hospitalized in psychiatric wards.
She published this book and continues to write her blog about mental illness (also called "Beyond Blue" and found on Beliefnet.com) because she hopes that "anyone who struggles with anxiety or depression … might find a companion in me" as well as consolation in her personal story and "a bit of hope."
Beyond Blue is a hopeful book. While those in the middle of a mental-health crisis may need time to absorb what this book has to offer, their spouses, siblings and parents will find insight and good advice here. Borchard offers checklists so useful the reader is tempted to post them next to the bathroom mirror, to carry them in a wallet or prayer book, or to read them aloud to that person who really, really, needs to hear them. Two good examples are her toolbox of strategies for mental health and seven ways to calm oneself in times of anxiety.
Borchard is a twin. From earliest childhood she was anxious, fearful and obsessive. Her twin sister was not. Why?
Borchard describes herself as "inheriting genes that predispose me to mental illness, … genes that hard-wire a mind for mental anguish so that I have to chase after sanity each day." Clearly something happened to make two sisters with the same parenting, even the same birthday, so different in their responses to life. So Borchard takes time to accessibly present recent research on brain chemistry and the biological, hormonal and chemical aspects of mental illness.
She explains how she finds sanity today with the help of medication and therapy. She discusses the many alternative methods of diet, exercise and relaxation that she tried, and the defeat mentally-ill people can feel if they cannot eat their way, or think their way, to sanity.
Those close to a mentally-ill person might find help in her discussion of toxic relationships, why mentally-ill people seek out certain interactions and how these impulses can be channeled in healthier directions.
On the troubling topic of suicide, Borchard speaks as a survivor. The reader learns from inside how it can seem to someone in a deep depression that suicide is a loving act — because it relieves loved ones of the burden of living with an ill person.
From a gifted woman who seems to have it all, this book is a valiant, generous record of an ongoing struggle for sanity.
I cheered for Borchard, and she cheered me.
Daly is a freelance writer in Baltimore and a member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.