Awareness has grown, but mental illness is still stigmatized—and sometimes, the greatest enemy is yourself. That’s what happened to Jamie Bornstein, the Boston-based senior director of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, North America. The 40-year-old Sharon dad started the Mental Health Safe Space blog to offer sufferers a voice and a supportive community. He knows the struggle firsthand: He has dealt with OCD and anxiety since college but felt too ashamed, afraid and stubborn to get help until finally turning a corner in 2008.
Bornstein talked to JewishBoston about how and why he went public, and why he sought treatment.
Why start the blog?
The first thing I wrote was for Cognoscenti in September 2013—“Coming Out of the Medicine Cabinet: Why I Take Celexa.” I had told next to nobody about it. It was hush-hush. I felt totally uncomfortable with or embarrassed by it. I wanted to take the pill before bed and forget about it. I didn’t want to engage about it with myself or other people. I can’t truly explain it. Something changed. All of a sudden, I was uncomfortable with the fact that I wasn’t able to talk about it. I felt like that was problematic perhaps for me personally but emblematic of a greater societal problem. I started to reflect on the fact that part of the reason it took me so long to realize I needed help and to go get help was because nobody talks about it. I felt very isolated. I was just starting to realize, more and more, if I heard from people, it would have been different for me.
Who knew about your struggles?
I started taking medicine in 2008, and I didn’t write publicly about it until 2013. I called my parents up to tell them. My parents didn’t know. The only ones who knew were a handful of friends, my therapist and my wife. I was doing that high-functioning thing. I was successful at work. People wouldn’t have expected it. Inside, I was not OK.
How did you feel inside?
It felt like there was kind of a constant weight on my chest, almost in a physical way. I felt under pressure. I felt a sense of dread that almost manifested itself physically. I had obsessive thoughts, a mind that wouldn’t shut off. I could try to distract myself with things but it was a feedback cycle. The feedback cycle was leading to the anxiety. I was spending so much energy holding myself in line, trying to keep myself in check to do all the normal things I was doing, especially at work. There, I could put on my game face, but I might have been a disaster inside.
What was the turning point for you?
I was working at CJP. Every once in a while, due to carrying around this stress and this tension, I’d lose it. I’d have a bit of a breakdown, something would trigger me, and it would be really awful. People talk about panic attacks like near-death experiences. They’re miserable. One of them happened at work. It was the last straw. I thought, “This is out of control. I can’t let this affect my career and ability to function professionally.” I went into a conference room and started calling psychologists and psychiatrists. It was a cruel joke. I was in crisis and I couldn’t get to anyone. It was, “I can see you in three months.” Or, “I can see you tomorrow, and we don’t take insurance.” Before then, I had seen a college counselor a handful of times as an undergrad. I saw a psychologist in grad school as well, but I’d written it off as not useful.
When I had this work breakdown—which wasn’t about work—I kind of made it my mission. I want to see a psychiatrist now! I was desperate. No more pride. Just help me. In the end, I was able to make an appointment with a psychiatrist at Jewish Family & Children’s Service in Waltham.
Why was it a loss of pride?
How did you get medication?
My doctor said, “Are you open to taking something?” I remember sitting in the chair thinking that it was wrong to ask for drugs, but in the back of my mind I was dying for him to take out the prescription pad. “Please, God, take out the prescription pad, give me something!” He said, “Let’s try Celexa.” And it was life-changing.
I remember feeling the beginnings of relief in two weeks. I was sitting at my desk at work and I started giggling, laughing out loud. What am I laughing at? You know, I had this feeling of levity. Light. I didn’t have this weight on my chest, and I was giddy about it.
Why did you start your website?
Keyboard therapy is more therapeutic for me than talk therapy. I think part of it was that. After I wrote the Cognoscenti article, so many people reached out from all corners of my life—cousins, colleagues, friends in the Jewish community. All these people. I was surrounded and floored that there were so many people, so close, an arm’s reach away who were dealing with mental health issues who read my article and totally understood what I was saying. Had I known that all these people were in my life 10 years earlier, there were so many I would have possibly reached out to talk to. You can go to the NAMI site and read personal vignettes, but I wanted a more narrow focus on Boston and the Jewish community. I wanted to leverage my network and move the needle in terms of people actually knowing other people who suffer so they can feel less alone. The site does have a Jewish veneer, but anyone can write for it. I’m always looking for new submissions. People can email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss writing.
What would you like people to know about mental illness?
Mental illness is totally normal, and it’s totally treatable. I want to be clear: I am not a mental health professional. But my experience is that people who have been in treatment have a lot of success. That’s my general experience. There is no good reason not to pursue a treatment that might make you happier and healthier.
I feel like I lost a big chunk of time. It’s not that I couldn’t have fun or enjoy my life during those years. It wasn’t a total loss. But when I think about how much better it could have been, it makes me sad. Men in particular are conditioned to be resilient, to suck it up. It’s important that men tell their stories. Men have to be OK admitting vulnerability.