October 02, 2014

“I’ve been trapped all my life not by man or by cages but by my own emotions. Where I’ve been, what I’ve seen while traveling inside myself can be summed up by one word: damn.

Brandon Marshall is one of the NFL’s best wide receivers. He’s a 5-time Pro Bowler and has the NFL record for catches in game. His nickname is the Beast. But Marshall’s career hasn’t always been smooth. The Chicago Bears star was the subject of A Football Life, a documentary series produced by the NFL Network, on Sept. 19. This inside look at the NFL player offers a deeper look at his life and career—and his journey of living with borderline personality disorder (BPD).

The NFL is Marshall’s platform, but awareness is his purpose. BPD is frequently viewed as a disorder that affects females and means that you’re “weak,” but Marshall embraces who he is, owns up to his mistakes and takes full responsibility for his recovery. Before Marshall was diagnosed, though, it was a pretty bumpy ride.

“There would be times where a switch would just flip and you’d be like ‘I don’t know this guy,’” Bears quarterback Jay Cutler says in the documentary. Cutler and Marshall started their careers together on the Denver Broncos and have found themselves back together on the Bears.

Marshall acted up in practice and during games, disobeyed his coaches, sabotaged plays and received penalties that jeopardized his team—and career. Two NFL teams dropped him due to his antics. He also racked up two domestic abuse charges. He suffered injuries to himself too—even punching through the screen of a TV.

Brandon’s mother says she noticed “outbursts and hissy fits” during his time with the Broncos. His mom and teammates approached him asking him to “grow up,” to “control” his behavior. His mother says “We still weren’t thinking something was clinically wrong—we were under the impression that Brandon could control this.”

Finally after years of ups and downs, Marshall was diagnosed with BPD and was able to take control of his life.

Marshall voluntarily joined a 3-month outpatient program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., where he used treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) under the guidance of Dr. John Gunderson. Psychotherapy is the cornerstone of treating BPD and there is no medicine approved by the FDA for treating the illness, though some people will take medicines to control symptoms such as anxiety.

After educating himself on his illness and continuing to engage himself in therapy, Marshall became a heavy-hitting advocate for mental health awareness. In 2013 he was hit with a $10,000 fine by the NFL for rocking green cleats (green is the color for mental health), spoke at the NAMI National Convention in 2012 and started the Brandon Marshall Foundation in 2013. He and his wife Michi have a strong connection to NAMI Chicago and NAMI Cook County North Suburban in Illinois. Michi is an avid NAMIWalk participant, and attended the NAMI Chicago walk last weekend and will be walking at the NAMI CCNS Walk on Oct. 18.

By speaking out and proudly owning Brandon’s recovery, the Marshalls are becoming powerful advocates. Brandon’s willingness to use his public status to create understanding around mental illness is a quality I wish all public figures and celebrities tapped into.

Speaking out is a choice and I can respect that, but every time we get to hear about somebody who overcame a mental health condition, it creates hope. It lets us know that even if you feel like the world is against you, you’re not alone if we’re dealing with something similar. It shows us how mental illness can touch anybody. And it can even save a life.

During Mental Illness Awareness Week and the rest of Oct., the National Education Alliance on Borderline Personality Disorder is sponsoring a social media campaign to fight stigma: #BeyondBPD.

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