Why Marsha Linehan is my hero

Marsha Linehan has never met me nor will our paths ever cross. She has, however, had a profound impact on my life and she is my hero because she literally saved my life.

Marsha Linehan was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 5, 1943 which makes her roughly about the same age as my mother.She is the developer of the life-changing treatment protocol for people with BPD called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and it is within that context that I “know” her. But we also share a few other profound connections.

DBT is a combination of Buddhist philosophy and behavioral science

DBT is a treatment protocol which is a combination of Buddhist philosophy and behavioral science. It utilizes self-acceptance and the practice of mindfulness to help people with BPD understand themselves, their responses to certain stimuli and their behavior. It teaches people how to modulate and regulate their emotions through the practice of mindfulness. Even more importantly, though, it teaches people specific skills which they use to help themselves manage their emotions. This is so important for those of us with BPD because we often become absolutely overwhelmed by our feelings. This can lead to dysfunctional behavior such as cutting or chronic suicidality which was my issue.

She is the Dr. Linehan Endowed Chair in Psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington.

Many people, including Linehan, are initially misdiagnosed with other psychiatric illnesses

Like many of us who are eventually diagnosed with BPD she was initially diagnosed with schizophrenia. For me, it was Bipolar disorder. Because of my rapid mood changes, the doctor told me and my husband that I was “cycling below the line” as a way to explain it. Marsha Linehan spent a long time at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut which is where I spent a year having long-term inpatient treatment. While she was there she was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and prescribed many heavy anti-psychotic drugs such as thorazine and Librium.

Following her discharge, she enrolled in Loyola University in Chicago where she later graduated cum laude. She eventually went on to earn both an MA and a Ph.D. She subsequently completed a postdoctoral position at the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service of Buffalo in New York state. Her professional career has taken her to many different universities and locations before she finally settled in Seattle where she lives with her adult adopted daughter.

She has stated that she the reason she developed DBT was because of the own mental illness she had suffered with for many years. She later came out in a New York Times article and talked about this profound matter. In that article, she stated that she believes she had BPD herself as a young woman. According to Linehan, her own journey began one night when she was kneeling in prayer in a chapel. She had a vision of light and was able to declare to herself, “I love myself”. As we all know, this is something most of us struggle with mightily. She was also featured in a Time Magazine article. She is quoted as having said, ““People with BPD are like people with third degree burns over 90% of their bodies. Lacking emotional skin, they feel agony at the slightest touch or movement.” DBT teaches you how to “grow a thicker skin” so to speak.

Her work has resulted in many awards over the years including the Louis Israel Dublin award for Lifetime Achievement in the Field of Suicide in 1999 as well and in 2005, was the recipient of The Outstanding Educator Award for Mental Health Education from the New England Educational Institute in 2004, and Career Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association in 2005.

BPD was not added into the DSM III until 1980

BPD was not formally added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the psychiatry “bible” until 1980. Up until then, psychiatrists all pretty much agreed that they had these patients that they just couldn’t seem to help no matter how much they worked with them. Even after BPD was finally included in the DSM the general feeling was that it was an incurable condition. The psychiatrists thought, by and large, that people with BPD would eventually “mature out” of their illness if they could only be kept alive long enough to “mature” and “grow up”. DBT changed all that for people with BPD. It has been shown to help vast numbers of people if they can only access the treatment. I make no bones about. Marsha Linehan saved my life. DBT saved my life.