When she's seated next to a stranger on a plane, Therese Borchard of Annapolis is often asked what she does for a living. "Well, I write a mental health blog," Borchard explains.
"How did you get into that?" goes the next question, typically. "Are you a therapist?"
Borchard's answer is always the same.
"No," she says straightforwardly. "I'm a patient."
Borchard, 39, has bipolar disorder, an illness that has twice caused her to be hospitalized and remains an omnipresent—and sometimes agonizing—part of her days.
"When I get up in the morning, the first thing I think about when I open my eyes is 'What's my mood?'" she explains, sipping decaf from a Muppets mug in the dining room of the airy Eastport home she shares with her husband, architect and Annapolis native Eric Borchard, their son David, 8, daughter Katherine, 6, and two dogs. "I hope to get to the point where I think about coffee. But for right now, I work at it every day. I have to."
Since late 2006, Borchard, a seasoned freelance writer and editor, has focused her formidable professional energies on her illness, regularly writing about depression for several media outlets. Her blog, Beyond Blue has become one of Beliefnet.com's most popular, reportedly averaging close to 173,000 page views a month. The blog (http://blog.beliefnet.com/beyondblue), which is updated two to four times a day, is a blend of Borchard's accounts of her own day-to-day experiences, as well as interviews, practical advice for patients, and news items. January marked the release of Borchard's memoir, Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes. And in April Borchard published a second book, entitled The Pocket Therapist: An Emotional Survival Kit, a collection of what she calls her "sanity tools," 144 pithy emotional survival strategies gleaned from her years and years—an estimated $40,000 worth—of therapy.
With her camera-friendly, girl-next-door charm, Borchard, a blue-eyed blonde with an easy laugh, has done much to counteract the antiquated but persistent stereotypes of the mentally ill, an important step in reducing the still very real stigma that surrounds them. On her book tour, some local radio personalities still voiced surprise that she didn't "look crazy."
"I would have to say, 'Yeah, well it's not the woman waiting for the city bus with the drool,'" explains Borchard. "Not that I'm a model or attractive, but I do look pretty average, normal. And I do think that's important for people to see somebody who looks like a normal mom really struggling."
Says Borchard's close friend and book editor Michelle Rapkin: "You know how when you [meet] a person and you create a life for them? I thought Therese was the cheerleader prom queen living on the water in Annapolis with her architect husband and her two perfect children." Rapkin laughs at the memory: "I hated her immediately on sight."
But once you start reading Borchard's writings, all thoughts of cheerleaders and prom queens quickly evaporate. What sets her apart is her voice: a distinctive mix of searing honesty, journalistic credibility, heartfelt spirituality and, despite the potentially crippling seriousness of her material, laugh-out-loud irreverence. She leavens her accounts of the devastating swath her illness has cut through her life with references to everything from Hannah Montana to The Brady Bunch. Asked by an ER nurse if she has any suicide plans, she writes, "Hello???? Does a golfer carry golf balls??" The introduction to her book is cheekily titled "Confessions of a Holy Whackjob."
"What I strive, first and foremost, to be is just really authentic," Borchard explains. She knows that some bristle at the idea that something as serious as mental illness can be approached with humor, but she finds laughter a crucial coping skill, a way of putting distance between herself and the many absurdities that living with bipolar disorder has thrust upon her. Like the time she was competing in a triathlon and suddenly became obsessed with the idea that she had gotten a fish trapped inside her spandex bike shorts. Unable to flush her brain of the ludicrous notion, she turned it into a hilarious Dr. Seuss-like ditty, which she shares in her memoir:
The fish won't kill you. Not in your mouth, your stomach, or in your pants. It could not, would not. Not in a box, not with a fox. The fish can't hurt you, I say. Not in a car, or at a sleazy bar, not even if it was covered in nicotine and tar, obsessing you are!"
"For me, there's so much healing in that laughter that it's worth ostracizing myself or not having everybody approve," Borchard explains.
The majority, however, do approve. Heartily.
"When I came across her writing, I was just astounded. It was really eye-opening and a breath of fresh air," says clinical psychologist Dr. John Grohol, the founder and CEO of PsychCentral.com, for which Borchard has also written. "I've met very few people who can write as well as she can and express the way that she is grappling with bipolar disorder in terms that are so graceful and funny and poignant. I can't say enough good things about her writing. It's really not equalled in the online world."
The blog has garnered Borchard a devoted online following, one that both supports her as a comrade-in-arms and reveres her as a trusted pioneer, someone who has made it out of the abyss in one piece, even if she still slips up here and there.
"Whenever I'm just really in a rut and I think, 'I can't tell my readers because I'm supposed to know how to get out of the rut, I'm not supposed to be in the rut!' that's when [readers are] really the most connected," says Borchard. But she finds that readers prefer her uncensored candor. "It amazes me how much that connects with the reader and how much they appreciate that honesty."
"That's kind of the magic formula for a blogger," says Borchard's Beliefnet editor, Holly Lebowitz Rossi. "Someone who's walking the path with you so she isn't above the struggle but someone who can really educate."
Regular reader Melissa Szumlinski of Detroit says that following Beyond Blue (she's also a moderator for the site's online support group) has been "tremendously" helpful in her own recovery from depression.
She cites Borchard's ability to talk in a way that's useful but not clinical. "It feels like it's coming from an older, wiser sister who's been through it," Szumlinski says.
For her part, Borchard had no such reassuring role model to guide her through the baffling and sometimes terrifying maze of mental illness. Raised in Ohio in a devout Catholic family, she says even her earliest childhood memories are tinged with angst and sadness.
Throughout her childhood, Borchard watched as her godmother, her beloved Aunt Mary Lou, grappled with the twin demons of biopolar disorder and schizophrenia, spending most of her adult life hospitalized. Mary Lou ultimately committed suicide at the age of 43, when Therese was 16.
"That kind of ingrained into my brain that this is really serious," says Borchard quietly. "This is a life-threatening disease. You have to take this seriously, or else it will control you."
Much of Borchard's current work, to which she often refers in unmistakably religious terms like "ministry" and "calling," is dedicated to her Aunt Mary Lou's memory.
"I sort of feel like I am a missionary to my aunt," she explains. "I feel like if I can make it through and save a life in her name, then, yeah: That's my purpose."
Borchard knows her mission is far from over. She doesn't think of herself as cured, but likens herself to a cancer patient in remission, maintaining her current equilibrium with a rigorous regime of medications (a cocktail of three), therapy, exercise, prayer, meditation, and stringent diet and sleep habits. And she refuses to collapse her story into a neat, media-friendly package, tied with a bow and a storybook ending where she gets better at the end and lives happily ever after.
After blogging about a particularly bad recent weekend in which she was gripped with intrusive thoughts of death so regular she could time them like contractions, Borchard later wondered—as she encountered fellow parents at her children's school who read her blog via Facebook—whether she had gone too far.
"I felt a little like, 'Gosh. Maybe I shouldn't have been so forthright with what's going through my mind,'" she admits. "But then I was glad because it does really allow the conversation, for people to really know what it's like to have bipolar disorder. Even though I'm picking up my kids and smiling and going swimming with the masters program and lectoring at church, I have these death thoughts going on."
That forthrightness took some getting used to for Borchard's husband, Eric, who calls his wife an "open book."
"It's disconcerting to have your personal life go up on the Internet every morning," confesses Eric. "I used to have to think, 'Gosh, is this conversation going to turn into tomorrow morning's blog?' It often does."
But Eric Borchard has made peace with his wife's work, of which he is totally supportive.
"I'm starting to realize the impact she has on people out there," he says with pride. "If the cost of me losing control of some of my personal information is to save someone's life, that's well worth it. I've stopped sweating it."
Therese Borchard has reached a similar place.
"I guess I'm just trying to make lemonade out of my lemons. I think we have to squeeze the hell out of the lemons," she explains. "Almost every day, I hear somebody say [my writing] gave them hope. It makes me feel like I'm transforming my suffering into a gift."
And she will keep going until she reaches her goal, which is to change the tenor of that conversation with the stranger on a plane, to the point where acknowledging you have a mental illness is no different from saying you have diabetes.
"I want to get to the point where people aren't so shocked that I'm so open about it," she explains. "That our culture will get to the place where I can say, 'I write a mental health blog,' without people taking a second look at me. I want to go into a drugstore and not feel like I have to whisper 'Zoloft.' If I can lessen that stigma in any way, then I feel like I'm doing my job."