Stronger than ever, Brandon Marshall learns to live with Borderline Personality Disorder

Shutdown Corner

SEATTLE -- "By no means am I all healed or fixed, but it's like a light bulb has been turned on in my dark room."

That's what Chicago Bears receiver Brandon Marshall said in June of 2011, soon after the veteran found a name for the disorder that had presented him with a volatile life, and left him unable to enjoy his success. Marshall was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, which presents with an inability to process emotions, magnifies the fear of abandonment, and creates heightened feelings of loneliness and boredom. Those suffering from the condition are more apt to self-injure and are prone to suicidal thoughts and actions.

Marshall had all those aspects in his life. Marshall has been involved in damaging and self-damaging behavior going back to his days at the University of Central Florida, and through his career with the Denver Broncos and Miami Dolphins. In an April 23, 2011 incident, when Marshall was a member of the Miami Dolphins' roster, his wife, Michi Nogami-Marshall, was charged with aggravated battery for stabbing him in the abdomen. Charges were later dropped.

That was the last in a long line of issues that affected Marshall both on and off the field. Marshall underwent three months of psychological and neurological exams at Boston's McLean Hospital (where Harvard medical students go to train), having been inspired to seek help from a conversation with teammate Ricky Williams, who had sought treatment for unrelated issues there.

Over a year later, Marshall is a different man with a different team. Traded to the Chicago Bears in March, the seven-year vet and three-time Pro Bowler is the NFL's most targeted receiver, is on pace for a 1,500-yard season, and has been happily reunited with Jay Cutler, his quarterback from 2006 through 2008 with the Denver Broncos. In a Wednesday interview, Marshall compared his relationship with Cutler to the football version of a (relatively functional) marriage, and said he's never been happier.

With treatment and understanding of his condition, Marshall feels that he has a new lease on life. Now, he wants to help others with his condition get to that same happier place. When he went public with his diagnosis, Marshall said that he wanted to be the "face of BPD," and he's living up his word with a foundation that tries to facilitate treatment and understanding.

"Project Borderline is my foundation -- well, the Brandon Marshall Foundation is the foundation -- but Project Borderline is something we've set up to bridge the gap between clinicians and patients and family members," Marshall told me. "To break the stigmas and educate, and also to advocate for so many out there suffering. Borderline Personality Disorder affects everyone across the spectrum -- it doesn't matter if you're black or white, male or female, rich or poor. We're affected by it. If it's not us as patients, it could be family members or someone in the community.

"It's said that one out every five people walk around with some sort of mental disorder we may suffer from. So, when you look at those numbers, which are staggering, it's kind of scary. It's still a taboo topic in our homes, our schools, and our communities. That's what we want to do. We want to make it an everyday topic at our dinner tables and an everyday conversation in government, and we're going to do this until that happens."

First and foremost, Marshall has to deal with his own symptoms, and bring his own life into balance. He's done so with the help of a lot caring people, starting with the guys in his locker room. Marshall said that he's never experienced this kind of family atmosphere with any team before.

"I've managed it by getting help, first and foremost, and I'm fine. I don't take any medication or anything like that, and that's one of the stigmas -- where you suffer all your life because you don't get the right help. Getting the clinicians to diagnose it, and getting the clinicians to have the right protocol and heart to treat the patients. The right patience to treat the patients. That's one of the things we're trying to get out there -- the right information.

"But at the same time, there are a lot of success stories. Marsha Linehan, who's in Seattle, is one of the most profound faces of BPD, because she developed dialectical behavior therapy, which is the best group therapy out there. She also suffers from BPD, but here she is, this amazing woman who suffered from it. We don't always see the success stories -- people think that you suffer all your life, or that there's no help. And there is."

Dr. Linehan was the subject of a New York Times profile around the same time that Marshall was diagnosed. The 68-year-old expert on suicidal impulses and other symptoms of severe depression battled her own symptoms throughout most of her life.

"So many people have begged me to come forward, and I just thought — well, I have to do this," Dr. Linehan said, when asked why she finally let her patients know that she had suffered too. "I owe it to them. I cannot die a coward."

That seems to be Marshall's credo as well. Now that he knows what he has to deal with, he's determined to make sure as many people as possible understand what their options are. More importantly, Marshall is dialed into the need for better diagnosis, and the importance to delineate between seemingly similar conditions.

"Yeah, and that's why we want to get the right information out there," he said. "Because there are some people who are really suffering. There are people who are suicidal or self-harming. Some people are double-diagnosed, and they may be diagnosed with BPD when they actually have bipolar disorder or anxiety disorder. There are some cases where people are dual-diagnosed, and they need medicine.

"I was fortunate that I was just diagnosed with [BPD], and I went through a program to treat that. No medication, and I'm thankful to be living a healthy, productive life now."

In the wake of the NFL's Adderall scandal, and in an era when you can't go three minutes watching television without yet another commercial for a drug with semi-apocalyptic side effects, I was surprised to hear that Marshall had set himself on the path without the automatic help of various substances. Marshall told me that we tend to overmedicate as a society, and he reiterated that misdiagnosis for psychological conditions like his is rampant.

"I'll make myself vulnerable if it saves someone's life because I know what I went through this summer helped save mine," Marshall said in 2011.

By making himself stronger than ever before, he could provide a much deeper inspiration.

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