by Anne Donahue
Republished from Counterpoint
When Christina Guessferd takes to the air as co-anchor on the WCAX nightly news, she is the consummate professional: composed, articulate, relaxed.
That reflects a large part of how she sees herself. As her high school’s class valedictorian and someone who “strives for perfection,” she said she was “taught as a woman and as a professional that [one] can be branded as weak or sensitive or out-of-control” if feelings are exposed.
Guessferd knew the experience of being branded, because she was hospitalized several times in her high school and college years, diagnosed with PTSD and anxiety and living through wearing “the scarlet letter” as she walked through the hallways with her head down.
“I knew that everyone knew,” she said.
By 2018, with help from a course of dialectical behavioral therapy in college, Guessferd had pulled away from her symptoms and had entered the world of broadcast journalism, living her dream to be a writer and “tell people’s stories.”
Then COVID hit. Guessferd found herself reporting on how others were experiencing the pandemic but keeping her own challenges siloed away and wondering, “was I the only person to struggle?”
She found herself deeply depressed and unmotivated. She had “lost the love of my job.”
“Rock bottom is such a lonely place,” she reflected in her recent interview with Counterpoint. “At the end of the day, it’s you and yourself.”
Finally, one day, she walked into her boss’ office to say, “I can’t do this. I need help.”
She felt like a failure and was “terrified I was going to ruin my reputation.”
Instead, her supervisor offered her the potential of taking time off under the federal medical leave act, telling her it was “an option that you have a right to.”
That had never occurred to her.
“You think of a physical, debilitating condition” as the basis for a medical leave, Guessferd said, but that’s a misconception.
The support from her work environment “was truly the cornerstone” for recovery.
She kept doubting the validity of taking the time “for something that no one could see. You can feel a lot of shame. It’s misplaced shame.”
It was her colleagues who told her, “You deserve it, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
And it was the company’s Human Resources department that focused on “what their employee needed, and why.”
“What do you need from us?” they asked; “Take what you need.”
Going to her boss was “really hard,” she said. “It was scary.” She feared the response would be, “you’re fired.”
But Guessferd now reflects that “if that was how they handled it, I wouldn’t want to work here.”
She took 12 weeks off in all, six to “center myself” while on a waiting list for treatment, and then an intensive six-week course of DBT.
She was encouraged by her therapist, who told her, “What you need is more than what I can give,” and she recognized that she had “lost what I had gained” in the DBT skills she had learned in college.
“I was not exercising that muscle,” she said. She learned she needed to “give myself the grace to take a breather and not feel I failed.”
Did she feel labeled by taking that time, as she had in her school years?
“At first, I did,” Guessferd said. But then she decided to write a public tweet to share her experience.
She opened it by saying, “You may not have seen me on air” recently.
As a long-time mental health advocate, Guessferd said she recognized that “if I’m going to talk the talk, I’ve got to walk the walk.”
She believes in living with transparency, and if she expects others to ask for help, “I can do my part to let them know they are not the only one” by making her story public.
Just because “you view the world a little differently” shouldn’t be a basis for discrimination, she said.
One of her transformational moments was when she started the DBT and, as she “poured my heart out,” received the advice that she should reconsider her diagnosis.
She looked at the list of symptoms for borderline personality disorder and found it resonated.
“I have never felt so seen,” she said. It was “a day and a moment that I’ll never forget” because recognizing a diagnosis takes its power away.
Rather than controlling her, she sees it as just one part of who she is.
The “white noise” may still be in her brain, causing “shame – guilt – fear – doubt,” and while “you can’t silence those thoughts,” you can analyze their validity.
When her brain is leading her towards catastrophic symptoms, like “I’m blowing up my life,” she has learned to say, “I see you. Now go away.”
Guessferd said she has “learned to embrace and celebrate my mental illness and consider it my superpower,” because the so-called “negative traits” are also “part of what makes me, me.”
That is someone who is empathetic, compassionate, and fiercely loyal, with strong convictions, and who takes accountability for herself.
Her ongoing challenge is making the distinction between “who’s Christina the human being” and “who’s Christina the journalist,” telling the stories of other people without “losing my identity in the process.”
She “doesn’t want to sacrifice professionalism” by bringing her personal feelings or her own strong personal convictions into stories; she needs to “navigate a career with the traits of myself that can be to my detriment.”
She fears that recognizing her “me” could influence her perspectives as a journalist, yet, “you can’t ignore what you are feeling.”
It was her boss who told her she didn’t need to make that sacrifice, she just needed to “respect every other opinion out there” as well.
Her told her, “I never want to stifle that creativity” that makes her so good at what she does, Guessferd said.
Guessferd believes that her journey also taught her employer “the urgency of every employee taking care of themself.” Putting oneself out publicly as a journalist makes one subject to criticism, so taking care of employees is crucial, she said.
It is a trend she sees starting in the larger society, as companies experiment with ideas on how to support their employees and begin to recognize that doing the best for one’s employees is also “doing what is best for the business.”
Guessferd said she has come to recognize that living with an illness is okay; it “makes you who you are” and “you can walk tall.”
Developing the tools to do so can be painful, because one must “dig deep into the place you didn’t want to go.”
Instead of putting bandaids on a wound, it requires “cleaning out the wound – that’s painful,” she said. She remembers “being so scared of how much it’s going to hurt.” But in pulling away the bandaid, she said she found herself.
It enables one “to be able to thrive as opposed to just surviving.”
“My job for my health is to make sure I have those tools” and to recognize that mental health requires that “you must carve out time to take care of yourself” and be able to communicate one’s needs to others.
Guessferd said that she works on how to “balance the formula” between therapy, medication and taking that time needed for self-care. She said she’s “baking with [that] recipe every day.”
Mental health also requires having empathy for others and understanding that every person is carrying their own story. It means needing to see that “everyone’s doing the best they can.”
Classmates who were mean to her in high school and college days, calling her “crazy” and “psycho” were too young to “have that wisdom to understand.”
After one college episode in which she took off from the school and was picked up by ambulance to be taken to the hospital, the school conditioned her pending study abroad application on her taking DBT – which was highly positive for her.
But it also meant she was rejected by many friends who said, “I can’t deal with you anymore.”
In the future, “I would hope they would ask questions instead of judging.”
Only two classmates were willing to ignore her “rumored reputation” and “would not let that taint their view of me.” They helped change her life and they remain best friends.
Guessferd said her experience with discrimination shows it can frequently be subtle: a doctor dismissing concerns about medication side effects, or family members saying someone is spoiled. “It’s ingrained in us, that the pain of breaking a bone is more real.”
But she sees hope in the way society is talking more about mental health and with the help of science, the impact of mental health on physical health is being recognized.
Guessferd’s plea to others now is that if someone in their life is struggling, “Don’t just say you support them. Prove it.”
“Practice compassion, because if you practice judgment, it will escalate,” while compassion “will stay with you forever.”
Treat them “not with pity but as a human being,” she said. “You don’t have to talk with them about it,” Guessferd said. “Just be there.”
She likened it to holding one’s arms open and saying, “You don’t have to come in here, but you can if you like.”
The author is a member of the Vermont House of Representatives for Northfield/Berlin and news editor of Counterpoint, the publication of the Vermont Psychiatric Survivors.