Choosing to live, choosing to love
At 14, she tried to take her life. Today she helps others choose to live with mindfulness and gratitude.
This story contains content that could be upsetting or triggering for some individuals. Please exercise your best judgement and self care in choosing whether or not to read it. If you need help, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text Crisis Text Line at 741741.
Kathryn Greenberg was just 9 years old when she woke up in her family’s upscale downtown Washington, D.C. home, raced to her parents’ bedroom, and told them she thought her heart was breaking. That was but the first of a series of episodes when she felt as if she could not go on bearing the weight of the world.
“I am 100 percent empath,” says Greenberg, now a certified life coach and mental health advocate living in Sarasota, Florida. “And when you are very empathetic, you feel everyone’s pain, you feel like a freakin’ burn survivor. Seeing people in pain, watching the news…it all felt like trauma to me and I didn’t know how to manage that.”
Five years later, on April 10, 1991– she remembers the date because her mother’s birthday was the next day – she tied one end of a rope to the vent in her bathroom and the other around her neck and did “everything I could to end this life.” Her first suicide attempt, at 14, was unsuccessful.
She spent a terrified two weeks In the psychiatric unit of a Bethesda, Maryland hospital, surrounded by people of all ages struggling with all kinds of mental illnesses, a place where both explanations and compassion were in short supply. Diagnosed with severe recurrent clinical depression, she was given medication and ongoing psychiatric oversight, but nothing to cope with the ever present anxiety that made her head spin because it was “too much, too loud.”
For relief, she began cutting herself. As she would watch the blood flow from razor blade cuts, she felt a calming relief, as if the angst and pain was literally flowing out of her. Eventually the cutting escalated to wounds deep enough to require emergency medical intervention – and more than once.
“Every time I held that blade to my skin, I was reinforcing my behavior and the emotions that drove it, doing everything I could to push it down, when really, the opposite of that is what needed to happen,” she says. My ‘out’ was always, ‘I can always die.’”
The elite and progressive private high school she attended worked hard to accommodate her fragile mental state. Several female teachers surrounded her with “a strength spirit and understanding” that was reassuring and introduced her to authors like Mary Oliver, whose words helped her believe that she was not alone in her pain. By attending summer school, when social and academic pressures were less, pursuing her own independent study and spending extra time in the art room, where she loved to create, she was able to graduate despite her emotional setbacks.
But, struggling with a new city, new people and few skills to manage her mental health, she barely survived her freshman year at Boston University. An assault in the spring of her sophomore year caused her to “pick up my razor blade again.” After two weeks in Massachusetts General’s psychiatric unit, she returned to D.C. and was eventually placed in a long-term residential treatment center in Maryland, where she spent more than a year trying to address the trauma she continued to deny she had.
One source of consistent support was the man she had married, who became her constant protector and deflector.
“I had so much trauma I had separated into different parts of myself,” Greenberg recalls. “I was so dissociative and the trauma was so strong from all the years of pain. His was the one who always took care of me, picked me up, took me to the hospital, to the therapist, brought me back to the present when I was dissociative. That was his role and he was stellar at it.”
After all the treatment, however, she ultimately just exchanged one unhealthy coping mechanism for another, developing an eating disorder which became “my best friend and my deepest enemy” and nearly killed her. She became so emaciated from severe anorexia that, even though her family had the money to send her to the nation’s top eating disorder clinic, she was initially rejected as being too medically unstable to be admitted. When the center finally relented, she sobbed through the flight to St. Louis, a blanket pulled over her head, her husband at her side.
After nine months of being nourished – “physically physiologically, mentally and emotionally in a way I hadn’t felt before”—Greenberg was released. By the time she walked out of the eating disorder treatment center on October 15, 2011, something internal had changed. “I said, ‘This is it. I’m done. I’m choosing something different,’” she recalls.
But she did not yet know what that would be. During her healing, she had come to the realization that it would be essential to move away from the nation’s booming urban capitol, which had never been “a soul fit” for her and because each time she drove by her high school or a place where she received treatment, she felt re-traumatized. As she puts it: “It’s very, very hard to heal in the place where you were hurt. It’s almost impossible.”
Coincidentally, at about the same time, her husband lost his job so there was nothing holding them in Washington. The couple decided to move to Florida, where his mother and stepfather had recently relocated. After moving, Greenberg decided to follow in the footsteps of one of her two brothers, who had received some benefit from a course of electro-convulsive therapy (shock treatment) in New York.
Though the ECT she subsequently received in Miami did little more than strike a blow to her short term memory and her bank account, a psychiatrist at the ECT facility made an off-hand suggestion that she try a therapy known as DBT, or dialectical behavior therapy. Her immediate response was to reject the idea out of hand – “I’m not trying one more thing!” But curiosity led her to Google anyway and she found there was a center for DBT right where she living.
She tentatively took one DBT course …and then another, then an advanced series and ultimately individual training therapy as well. In DBT she found “the language I needed to know.
“It changed my whole life,” she says, then adds more accurately, “I learned how to save my own life.”
DBT is a combination of mindfulness – “based on the understanding that if you’re living anywhere on the timeline other than in the present it will be misery” – and emotion regulation. It is centered on “radical acceptance” by the mind, body and spirit of what actually is, detachment from expectations and outcomes and training oneself to choose reactions, thoughts and behaviors with intention. Practicing “STOP” skills – taking a step back, observing, and proceeding mindfully – made all the difference for Greenberg.
“It is never going to be about the noise around you, it is about how you respond to that,” she says. “You work with what is, not what you wish were. The world will always tell you what you ‘should’ do. But you end up ‘shoulding’ on yourself all the time and invalidating yourself. You’re not required to stay in anything that does not fill your soul to bursting. Your emotions are not a choice, but your thoughts and behaviors are.”
By way of example, she points to her own academic experience. “The world” dictated that she should finish college on a four year timeline. After aborted stints at BU and George Washington University in D.C., she eventually ended up at Marymount University in suburban Virginia where she took, initially, a single class. It took close to 11 years altogether for her to earn her B.A. but when she did, it was with a sense of having accomplished it on her own terms and without self-destruction.
Her new-found strength and spirituality bestowed a sense of purpose and direction she’d previously lacked. But it also spelled the end of her marriage. Her transformation meant she no longer needed someone to serve as her caretaker and that, in fact, it was now time for her to take care of others.
“I came to the conclusion that I had to heal so I could go out and help other people heal, so that became my life’s mission,” she says. “I became a hope evangelist.”
Though the divorce meant she was once again single, she was hardly alone. Greenberg knew fellowship and connectedness to a community of others was essential to her own, or for that matter, anyone’s, wellbeing. She began seeking out both “her people” and places where she could volunteer as a mental health advocate.
Because she’d previously been an ESOL (English as a Second Language) tutor in D.C., she responded to a call for a volunteer tutor at Sarasota’s Salvation Army. Very quickly, her role turned from tutor to coach and counselor and, more recently, board member. She wrote a curriculum that covered everything from shame, procrastination and forgiveness to mindfulness and breathing techniques and soon began offering her course to women in the county jail.
For the past five years, Greenberg has worked as a “life coach” and mental health advocate with a variety of social service agencies, therapy groups, individuals in criminal diversion programs like Drug and Mental Health Courts and clients at Goodwill who live with disabilities. Recently she joined the board of Lighthouse Manasota, an organization which supports the blind and sight impaired, a cause dear to Greenberg’s heart because her own father is blind.
To herself, and to each person she works with, she extends unconditional love and non-judgmental acceptance.
“When children develop, they develop based on how their grownups are going to react to them. But when you don’t know what you’re going to get from a grownup or it’s inconsistent, it’s nearly impossible to grow up in a healthy way “she says. “So let me be consistent for you. And let me tell you that I love you for no reason other than that I love you. I will show up for you. And if you show me you’re willing, I will be there for you.”
She rejects the pejorative adjectives society bestows on individuals for past behaviors -- “You are not a felon, you have a felony. You’re not an anorexic, you’re someone struggling with an eating disorder – and says reinforcing a separation between such a label and someone’s identity is “urgent, because otherwise we start to internalize that label and think it’s who we are and play that role.” Instead, she encourages others to let her “hold” their pain until they are able to accept the responsibility for making their thoughts and behaviors a conscious and deliberate choice.
“Trauma rewires your brain for protection, but we are hardwired to be connected,” she adds. “So let us help you find the fellowship that works for you and with whom you feel safe. Your wound is not your fault, but your healing is your absolute responsibility. It’s not the world’s responsibility to tiptoe around you. You are responsible for your own life.”
Greenberg readily admits that adopting such a shift in perspective can be challenging and, for some, may never be easily, swiftly or permanently accomplished. It begins with what she calls “the No. 1 thing that will change your life…gratitude.”
“Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude,” she says. “Every day for 21 days write down three things you’re grateful for. And remember, it’s not the thing you’re grateful for, it’s the searching that activates your brain. Even if it sounds hokey, try it. It will change your life.”
As for herself, she continues to “live every day in recovery,” fueling herself with fellowship and sharing the insights and practices that saved her life.
“I don’t honor the thought that I wanted to die, but I acknowledge it,” she says. “For anyone who feels they want to die, it’s not really that you want to die, it’s that you want to live very differently. And that is possible. Every single day I make a choice to live.”
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