The Secret Dr. Marsha Linehan Kept for Five Decades
For decades, clinical psychologists variously admired or argued with Marsha Linehan’s groundbreaking work to help the most intensely suicidal people choose life. At the same time, spiritual seekers approached her for teachings, since she was an ordained Zen master. But few in either sphere knew that Linehan’s passion to help the “super-suicidal” stems from having personally lived through the agony of suicidal depression, and the challenges of borderline personality disorder.
In the memoir “Building a Life Worth Living”, which is both Linehan’s ethos as well as her life story, she reveals with immense honesty her journey from the hell of suicidal self-harm and institutionalization during her teens to a life of meaning and joy. Today she helps others find their way back to life through the unique form of treatment she pioneered, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). Her book builds the narrative of DBT alongside her own, showing how even in her own struggles she came to key realizations about how to help suicidal patients that would then form part of DBT’s ethos.
Linehan herself is the strongest evidence for the power of DBT. Her early life was averse at best, with a mother who criticized her mercilessly and a father who cut her off when she was diagnosed with mental illness—and with many of the joys and memories of her youth, including her ability to play piano, lost to her in the wake of repeated electroshock therapy and self-inflicted head injuries. Given this suffering, I was deeply impressed to find not even the faintest trace of victim mentality or resentment in the book. Linehan is passionate, outspoken, clear, and freely admits she is not good at considering the impact of her words or actions on others. At the same time, she is deeply compassionate, patient and forgiving; and obviously effective as a teacher, researcher and therapist.
The inner light that fuels this clarity and compassion is an extraordinary spiritual journey that keeps pace with Linehan’s evolution from troubled patient to accomplished professor. Raised Catholic, she fixates on saints and martyrs from an early age and earnestly wishes to become a saint—even as, in the dark days of her hospitalization, she cries out to God with no apparent response. It’s her faith that helps her walk free. She makes a vow to God in a moment of clarity: that she will get out of this hell, then come back and help others do the same.
Once Linehan recovers and emerges from the hospital, she considers entering a convent before opting to take the vows of a “lay religious”: committing to chastity, poverty and obedience to the church, while continuing to live in the world. Soon after, she has a moment of awakening, suffused with golden light, in which she realizes “God loves me and I love myself… God is in everyone and everything, and loves everyone and everything.”
Chafing under the misogyny she perceives in the Catholic church, she parts ways with that institution and increasingly seeks a more mystical path, where she lets go of her concept of God as a person and enters the classic “cloud of unknowing.” This leads to another enlightenment moment in which she realizes “God is everywhere.”
Later in life, once she moves to Washington and rediscovers the joy of being in nature after growing up in a family that thought it was normal to eat picnics at an oil refinery, she goes to a local Zen monastery to learn acceptance, which she defines as “the freedom from needing your cravings satisfied.” Following this, she seeks out the German Zen master and Benedictine monk Willigis Jäger, and works with him intensively. Finally, she is ordained as a Zen master in her own right, and eventually joins a Lutheran church. She becomes one of the first people to bring the practice of mindfulness to psychotherapy.
Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, which was recognized in “Time” magazine’s book “100 New Scientific Discoveries”, was named for the concept of dialectics: allowing opposites to exist. This means that a therapist can simultaneously accept a patient’s current state, even if it is poorly regulated or even self-harming, and also support them to change. It emphasizes the importance of learning to tolerate and accept distress, with the “radical acceptance” taught in psychotherapy and Zen meditation alike. It also focuses on behaviour rather than on mental processing, developing practical life skills to replace unhealthy or negative behaviours. However, it differs from the other widely known behavior-based therapy, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, because it focuses more on mindfulness and less on a Socratic dialogue with one’s negative thoughts.
At first, critics said Linehan’s patients only recovered because she was charismatic or a good teacher. It was not until DBT’s effects were replicated by multiple independent therapy teams that the questions began to fall silent.
“Building a Life Worth Living” concludes with the moment when Dr. Marsha Linehan, the respected clinician and researcher with a proven behaviour therapy that is now considered a “gold standard” for chronically suicidal patients, returns to the institution where a suicidal teenager named Marsha Linehan once spent two years confined and self-harming. There, she finally reveals the secret she has kept for five decades: that she is, as her patients often wondered when they saw the scars on her arms, “one of us”.
“I think I can say I have fulfilled the vow to God I made while at the Institute of Living all those years ago,” says Marsha. “But I haven’t stopped… I want to find ways of getting DBT and DBT skills to everyone in the world who needs them.” She concludes, “I hope that you will develop the skills you need and that you will also help others have the skills they need to experience life as worth living—if I can do it, you can do it, too.”
Pranada McBurnie is a communications professional living in Toronto, Canada. She is the Editor for Parvati.org, including Parvati’s forthcoming self-help and fiction books under GEM: Global Education for MAPS.
Other books to check out this month:
Neal D. Barnard, MD, FACC, “Your Body in Balance: The New Science of Food, Hormones, and Health ”
(Grand Central Publishing—February 4:2020):
Barnard reveals how dietary choices can lead to hormonal imbalances that cause infertility, menstrual cramps, weight gain, hair loss, breast and prostate cancer, hot flashes, and much more. With his latest offering, Barnard provides a food prescription to restore hormonal balance as effectively as many medications. “Why develop Alzheimer’s if you don’t have to? A generation ago we thought that heart attacks were just a part of getting older. Well, we now know that’s it’s a disease that we can prevent and reverse. Alzheimer’s should be thought of as a target for prevention. Now’s the time to put it to work.” – Neal Barnard
Michael Bungay Stanier, “The Advice Trap: Be Humble, Stay Curious & Change the Way You Lead Forever” (PAGE TWO—February 29, 2020):
From the author of “The Coaching Habit”, the best-selling coaching book of the last 20 years with over 700,00 copies sold, this book will help you be a better leader by teaching you how to listen more before jumping to give advice. “Michael Bungay Stanier has done for curiosity what Brené Brown did for vulnerability.” – Thomas A. Kolditz, PhD; Brigadier General, US Army (ret); Director, Doerr Institute at Rice University
Adam Davidson, “The Passion Economy: The New Rules for Thriving in the Twenty-First Century”
(Penguin Random House—January 7, 2020):
Davidson helps us understand how the twentieth-century economy of scale has given way in this century to an economy of passion, and how we can succeed on terms of intimacy, insight, attention, automation and, of course, passion. Inspiring for those with an entrepreneurial mindset. “Our work lives and our deepest passions can merge, happily, in ways that make us better off financially and personally. The Passion Economy is all about unique people combining unlikely — even contradictory — skills and interests into thriving businesses that they, alone, can create.”
– Adam Davidson