Our government still does not recognize the importance of treating mental illness. Funding needs to be set aside so individuals can get the help they need! Suffering from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, eating disorders, addictions and related issues is no less serious than struggling with a chronic medical condition. Those left untreated are losing their lives, relationships or jobs. Society and individuals need to provide education to the general public. Warning signs, symptoms, and preventative measures could make a difference, especially for those people who do not understand how to identify psychological problems with themselves, their loved ones or their children.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Shari Botwin, LCSW. Shari has been counseling survivors of all types of trauma in her Cherry Hill, New Jersey private practice for over twenty-two years. Her second book, “Thriving After Trauma: Stories of Living and Healing, Rowman & Littlefield,” (Rowman & Littlefield, November 2019) deals with overcoming trauma including physical and sexual abuse, war-related injury, loss due to tragedy or illness and natural disasters. Real stories and practical tools shed light on how to let go of the shame, guilt, anger, and despair after a traumatic experience. Shari has conducted Keynote presentations for Universities and professional conferences throughout the country. She has given expert testimony on breaking stories related to trauma on a variety of international media outlets; including, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, CTV News, CP-24 News, CNN and Radio Europe, The Associated Press and Prevention Magazine. Shari has also published feature articles in several trade magazines including, Thrive Global, Huffington Post, The Toronto Star, The Authority Magazine, Medium and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this career path?
After I graduated from Hofstra University with my bachelor’s in psychology, I started working in the eating disorders field at a well-known eating disorders clinic. From the moment I began working there, I was struck by all the patients telling stories of how their eating disorder was reaction to some type of abuse or trauma they suffered earlier in life. One day I went running to my supervisor saying, “These stories are freaking me out.” She must have picked up on my pain, and instead of dismissing my concerns encouraged me to go to therapy.
For two years I sat in therapy and told my therapist my life was fine and that I had a close family. We talked a lot about my work at the rehab. As I felt safer in my relationship with my therapist I began to express thoughts associated with feeling shame. I asked her, “What is wrong with me? Why don’t I ever have a boyfriend?” One day after a session we had that focused on dating and intimacy, I began feeling the memories of my sexual abuse in my body. Hours after the feelings came up, I called my therapist in a panic. I told her that I remembered how “someone who was supposed to love me went inside of me.” The floodgates had opened and there was no going back. Years of buried memories of my abuse surfaced. For years I went to intensive therapy to work through almost twenty years of trauma and sexual abuse.
After giving myself time to work through my history, I began working with more and more patients who were reporting some type of trauma that led them into addictions, eating disorders and other forms of self-destruction. After working in my Cherry Hill, New Jersey private practice for over ten years, another shift occurred. I wanted to go public. I connected with several women who testified against Bill Cosby, who was charged with three counts of sexual misconduct in December of 2015. I published a feature for the Philadelphia Inquirer on the hope that comes from so many brave women coming forward about their alleged assault by Bill Cosby. I sat through both of his trials and his sentencing. I published several articles in Authority Magazine and Medium on breaking stories related to trauma. One the one year anniversary of #Metoo I broke my silence about my abuse in a feature article for Thrive Global, #Metoo Turns Two . The feedback I received from survivors around the world pushed me to move forward with my second book, which is about to publish worldwide. Over the last few years I have gone on several national networks to offer commentary. I have decided to dedicate my life to sharing my experiences and stories about work I am doing as a therapist to help reduce shame and educate our society about the impact of trauma. We are a society that is becoming more tolerant and open to discussing difficult issues; such as sexual assault, childhood abuse, domestic violence, mass shootings and natural disasters.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
Millions struggle with different types of mental health conditions; such as, depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, Post-traumatic stress disorder and related issues. Unlike medical conditions, these types of disorders are not ones people can prove. They are based on thoughts and feelings we have about ourselves and others. For hundreds of years people were labeled as “crazy,” or “abnormal,” if they experienced psychological disorders. No one wanted to be lumped into categories that made them feel like misfits. The lack of education and understanding about mental health issues has held people back from seeking psychological or psychiatric intervention. Millions were suffering in silence, and until recently there were no forms of public outreach via the internet.
Can you tell our readers how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
My biggest drive to write my second book, Thriving After Trauma: Stories of Living and Healing (Rowman & Littlefield, November 2019 was to speak to the world about the long-term impact of surviving different types of trauma; such as, abuse, domestic violence, war-related injury, sudden loss, natural disasters and mass shootings. I wanted to share stories based on my work with patients to educate, de-stigmatize and normalize mental health issues. It is not experiencing trauma itself that leaves people unraveling. As humans we have the incredible ability to survive unimaginable and horrific events. Our coping mechanisms kick in; such as, leaving our bodies and keeping ourselves in denial about whatever it was that we survived. For over twenty years I stayed silent about my abusive childhood. I suffered from severe depression and I contemplated suicide numerous times as a teenager and young adult. After I got help for my abuse, I began counseling hundreds of other men and women with extensive trauma and mental health problems. I realized that the shame and fear associated with speaking was holding people back from living full lives. I met patients who were so ashamed about what happened to them, that they barricaded themselves in their homes, isolated from close relationships and would not allow themselves to become parents or attain the dreams they had for their lives moving forward. Rather than hold others accountable for what was done to them, they blamed themselves. I also convinced myself for years that I was the crazy one and that no one was going to believe if I told them what happened to me.
Even before my book releases to the public, I am receiving feedback from reviewers, endorsers and different types of survivors. The message I am hearing from most of them is that reading my book, “made me feel less alone,” or, “I thought I was the only one,” or, “I finally feel like someone else understands.” My main goal after my book publishes worldwide is to facilitate and promote conversations among professionals, patients, educators and family members about mental health conditions. We are living in a society that is more tolerant of addressing all types of psychological issues. Now we need to keep the dialogue going and encourage those still suffering in silence to find their voices and get the help and support they need!
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
Almost nine years ago I gave birth to my son. For years I fought for my right to live a full life. Days after my son was born I decided that when the time was right I was going to go public with my story and write a book. I wanted to shed light on the role of shame in staying stuck in self-destruction coping mechanisms. I battled eating disorder tendencies from a young teenager. I did not know until my early thirties that my eating disorder was holding me back from starting a family and moving on with my life. I also met so many men and women that were recovering from addictions and a variety of self-destructive behaviors. When my son became a toddler I had more energy than ever to speak about the power of reclaiming. I journaled about the healing that came from watching myself nurture and protect a child. I wrote about the healing that came from watching my son live a free and safe life. One day when I was driving home after a long day of seeing patients I told myself, “Shari Botwin when the time is right you need to put yourself out there and share your stories of healing with the world.” When my son turned five-years old I hired an amazing editor who helped me write my book. I was determined to share my messages of hope and de-stigmatize mental health disorders.
In your experience, what should individuals, society and the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
Our government still does not recognize the importance of treating mental illness. Funding needs to be set aside so individuals can get the help they need! Suffering from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, eating disorders, addictions and related issues is no less serious than struggling with a chronic medical condition. Those left untreated are losing their lives, relationships or jobs. Society and individuals need to provide education to the general public. Warning signs, symptoms, and preventative measures could make a difference, especially for those people who do not understand how to identify psychological problems with themselves, their loved ones or their children. Celebrities have been more vocal after being diagnosed with illnesses; such as, bipolar disorder and major depression. Advocates of mental health issues are speaking out more to push our government to support recovery. People of all different backgrounds are starting support groups on public platforms like Facebook. The word is spreading. There are a variety of places to get support. Inpatient and outpatient clinics are popping out all over the country. We are becoming a society that is more accepting of therapy and psychiatric support. We still have a long way to go. The more people come forward and ask for help, the less shame our younger generation and generations to come will feel about admitting they have a problem.
What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example of each?
1. I do not hide that I still see a therapist. I talk about my work in therapy and the work I am doing in my sessions. I tell my patients, my friends and my colleagues. I do not feel ashamed for “still being in therapy,” after first seeking help twenty-five years ago.
2. I reach out to my friends to talk about my feelings. For example, every time I give a media interview or go on a podcast to promote my book, I call a friend right after. I do not let myself sit in the emotions that get stirred up. I put words to my feelings and then I can move on with my day.
3. I use exercise and yoga as an outlet to release feelings being stored in my body. I started going to yoga a few years after I told my therapist about my abuse. I needed to find a place where I could settle all the anger, anxiety and heart-break I had stored in my body for almost thirty years.
4. I practice self-love. For example, I constantly reassure myself and find ways to comfort the part of me that feels shame. I struggle a lot every year on my birthday and holidays. Rather than go into self-pity, I use words to celebrate my accomplishments. I accept that there are things still missing in my life because I spoke about my abuse. I remind myself and my patients that it is not the speaking that is the problem, it is what happened that is the problem. I implement the strategies that have worked for my own healing and share some examples with patients.
5. I use my pets as an adjunct to my therapy. For example, I got a king Charles cavalier spaniel a year after I broke my silence. I bonded with my dog, Chloe, instantly. I brought her with me on trips, to therapy and to work. I have several patients who have also attached to their family pets. It helps them keep moving through the toughest of moments. My son and I adopted two rescue kittens when they were just five weeks old. The joy they have brought into both of our lives heals me every single day.
6. I wrote a book. While there were times when the writing was painful for me, it was also therapeutic. Writing my book gave another opportunity to digest and process layers of buried pain. It affirmed the work I am doing with patients and the hope I feel for them as they continue to fight for their right to live fully.
Favorite books, podcasts and resources:
1. The Resilience Group: Dr. Jane Shure and Dr. Beth Weinstock have been running workshops and leadership groups to reduce shame and promote growth personally and professionally. They are one of the first professionals in the psychology field to explain the role of shame in keeping people stuck. I recommend their work and their publications to patients and anyone I know who could benefit from their words of wisdom. https://theresiliencegroup.com
2. Spotlight with Stacey Pinkerton on Radio Europe: www.talkradioeurope.com
3. The One Tough Muther Podcast: www.theonetoughmuthershow.com
4. RAINN (Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network) www.rainn.org
5. Psychology Today: www.psychologytoday.com
Thank you for all of these great insights!