Your Life Is Worth Living
The journey Kathryn Greenberg ’95 took led her to be an advocate for others. Now she spends every day helping people who experience trauma and addiction find their purpose.
On October 15, 2011, Kathryn Greenberg walked out of a treatment center, marking her sixth time in a residential facility, and told herself: “I am done. I can’t live like this anymore. I have to breathe. I must live. I must figure this out.” Many of us have a clear, bright line demarcating a “before” and an “after” in our lives—a loss of innocence, a death, an accident, sobriety, a critical incident of some sort. For Greenberg, that day in 2011 is etched in her mind as the beginning of her “after”—not a “happily ever after,” but nevertheless a “happier after.”
Greenberg’s mental health struggles began when she was in 9th grade at Sidwell Friends. “It was insidious at first, and then it felt like I went from being OK to wanting to die,” she says. “I told my close friends at the time, ‘I don’t know what’s going on.’ I started cutting, and in the early ’90s, nobody knew what that was. I felt like a freak. What sane person would intentionally harm their own body? I was engaging in serious self-harm, and at that point doctors said to me, ‘You need long-term care.’”
Greenberg’s parents researched doctors, residential treatment centers, made connections, and got referrals, making their daughter’s well-being a central part of their lives. Her first hospitalization occurred when she was still in high school. “Then, it all really just unfolded,” she says. “A slew of doctors and therapies and medications and psychiatrists.”
Despite her mental health struggles, Greenberg graduated from Sidwell Friends in 1995 and went on to attend college in Boston. During her sophomore year, Greenberg survived a violent assault. The result of that trauma led to another stay in the hospital. “I fell apart,” she says,“I was in so much pain. I couldn’t figure out how to survive, much less live.”
One step at a time, and absolutely not alone, she started on her healing journey and became very aware that the time lines that society sets are completely arbitrary. Ultimately, Greenberg graduated magna cum laude, with a degree in developmental psychology as a member of Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in psychology.
However, healing is not linear. Greenberg developed a serious eating disorder— something that occurs in adulthood more than many people realize. “Doctors told me I was going to die if I didn’t get treatment,” says Greenberg. So she did just that. After nine months of in-patient treatment—which included several forms of therapy—Greenberg emerged. It was October 15, 2011.
Greenberg was living in Bethesda at the time, wondering how she could fully heal in the place where the hurt began. Everything in the Washington area seemed to hold a memory of pain, so she moved to the west coast of Florida. “I thought, ‘My gosh, this is what soft is like,’' she says. “There were fewer politics, much less judgment, and the privilege of being outside nearly every day.”
“I became a brand new soul and human,” she says. “I thought, ‘There’s so much glory, beauty, love, and light in this life and I want it all! Where do I start?’” She started at the Salvation Army—almost as if the word “salvation” were a neon sign saying, “Here, Kathryn.” She approached the Salvation Army to be a volunteer tutor, but they quickly recognized that she could provide more value working as a mental health advocate in their residential treatment programs. She had found her purpose. She knew then that she had to continue to heal so she could go out and help others do the same.
There’s so much glory, beauty, love, and light in this life and I want it all! Where do I start?
She continued to nurture herself and found huge success with dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a kind of psychotherapy that combines behavioral science with mindfulness. “It completely changed my entire life,” Greenberg says, adding that Marsha M. Linehan, the psychologist who developed DBT, is a role model. She knew intuitively that DBT could be a transformative tool for the people she worked with at the Salvation Army. So she started to train in DBT, all the time wondering, “How do we make this accessible to everyone?”
“It’s expensive, and it’s time consuming,” Greenberg says. “But what does it look like on a very raw level? I had this tremendous privilege to heal because I had the resources that so many don’t.” She began by volunteering at the Sarasota County Jail, and within a few years, she became a certified life coach specializing in trauma and addiction, and a prominent mental health advocate.
“One of the results of trauma and abuse is often addiction and incarceration,” Greenberg says. “So I developed a curriculum based on mindfulness and emotion regulation.” She discusses things such as forgiveness, guilt and shame, co-dependency, and procrastination. “Our job is to give them the tools they need to engage in a life worth living,” she says. “We need to teach them how to manage their emotions and understand the difference between emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. We incarcerate folks, but then they go back out into the world, and they still don’t know how to manage their wounds. It’s really up to us as a society to teach them those skills.”
Greenberg is also a proponent of changing the language around mental health issues. “I use trauma-informed language, which encourages the separation of behavior from who people are intrinsically. “You are not bipolar; you’re struggling with it,” she says. “You are not an anorexic; you struggle with an eating disorder. You are not an addict; you’re struggling with an addiction. We’ve internalized all of this negative language and wording in our hippocampus, taking it in and running with it, and now people are beginning to believe that that’s really who they are. And it really, really isn’t.”
The world, she says, is going to judge your behavior, but not necessarily your intention. But behavior is destined to repeat if there isn’t a behavioral intervention. “I was testifying in court for one of my girls,” she says. “She had killed two people in a DUI manslaughter case, and she is going to prison for a long time. But what I said to the judge is, ‘Yes, she must go to prison, but after that, she must go to some kind of rehabilitation center that deals with mental illness and addiction because they are not independent.’”
Greenberg says she aims to create “sacred space,” where people not only feel safe to tell their story, but will be heard and loved. These days, Greenberg runs groups in the Sarasota County Jail, a residential treatment center for women, transitional living homes, and human-trafficking agencies and safe houses. She also works with adolescents in Teen Court, and has a private practice.
She also shares her story. “I told my story to a group the other night,” she says. “I like to share my experience and why I believe this life is so, so worth it.” A young man in the audience stood up and said he had planned on taking his own life that night, but chose to come to this meeting instead. He told Greenberg her story was also his story—and that he thought he had been all alone. “People came up to him and put their hands on his back, hugged him, and handed him their phone numbers,” says Greenberg. “He then realized that it really wasn’t that he wanted to die; it was that he wanted to live differently.”
If that sounds like Quakerism, it’s no coincidence. At Sidwell Friends, Greenberg found a lasting sense of compassion. “I spent a lot of time in the art room with Percy Martin,” she says. “That was my safe space. I went to summer school, so I wouldn’t have a whole load during the year. I also did an independent study of women in poetry. Now I begin each of my groups with a poem and a piece of music. Sidwell Friends stood up for me and said, ‘How can we support you?’”
She says she also loves that sense of fellowship and being together in silence that Quakerism engenders. She adds that sitting in silence is not necessarily about clearing your mind, but accepting whatever is in it and welcoming it with love. That acceptance, she says, even redounds to this very magazine. “I think a lot of people look at the magazine and compare themselves to the successes they see,” she says. “It’s useful to remember that the vast majority of people are living quieter lives than what we see splashed across the pages, and for a lot of us, that is success. Have gratitude for the life you have and not the life you wish you had.”
After working with people who don’t know when they’ll eat next or where they will sleep, “success” can mean survival. To that end, Greenberg recognizes that her own cup is overflowing. “Life is going to continue to be difficult,” she says, “but you have all this magic inside you to change how you respond.” Greenberg’s best responses to life so far have been being of service to others and moving to the beach. “I look at my life today,” she says, “and my gratitude is off the charts.”
You can learn more about Kathryn Greenberg’s services at kathryngreenberg.com.
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