When Tova Feinman first met Dr. Yaakov Guterson in 1995, her future was dim.
In the throes of serious mental illness — including post-traumatic stress disorder and severe bipolar 1 disorder — Feinman’s doctors had arranged for her to be sent to Mayview State Hospital for intensive treatment. The post-partum depression that commenced after the birth of her daughter in 1990 had triggered the other illnesses, as well as memories of a traumatic childhood defined by sexual assault and abuse.
But Guterson, who had just completed his psychiatric residency at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, was not about to give up on Feinman.
“Dr. Guterson told me, ‘I believe in your ability to heal,’” she recalled, noting that it was those words that gave her the courage to confront her illnesses and that launched a doctor/patient relationship now in its 23rd year.
Feinman, a Boston native who has lived in Pittsburgh since 1987, chronicles her journey of recovery, and her relationship with Guterson, in her book, “Teacup in a Storm: Finding My Psychiatrist” (Trigger, Aug. 2018).
“For 22 years he and I struggled through my childhood trauma, sexual assault and severe bipolar 1 disorder,” she said. “The book pulls back the curtain that shrouds the psychiatrist/patient relationship and explores the potential of that relationship to transform a destroyed human being.”
Her book, she said, is both a story of transformation and a guide on how to build a good psychiatric relationship. It is structured on lessons she learned through her relationship with Guterson, such as how to make the doctor/patient relationship more productive through sharing information, garnering trust, and not expecting perfection.
Both Feinman and Guterson are part of Pittsburgh’s Chabad community. Judaism, Feinman noted, has “played a pivotal role” in her healing.
While spirituality is a core element of many addiction recovery programs, it is too often overlooked in psychiatric treatment, according to Guterson.
“When someone comes to my office and I ask them what their purpose in life is, what is their mission, so many people struggle to answer,” he said, adding that it is imperative to answer those in order to heal.
Guterson guided Feinman “from being disposable to being transformed,” she said. “He definitely saved my life, and he saved my daughter’s life. Because of his skill and patience and his belief in me, I could parent my daughter.”
Feinman wants to share her story about the imperative of finding a good psychiatrist, and working on developing that relationship, “to help others look at their own mental health issues and not be afraid of the stigma, and to encourage them to reach out for help.”
Many people believe that mental illness “is something they need to hide, and they don’t seek out treatment,” she said. “But treatment is available.”
The stigma of mental illness can be even more challenging in Orthodox communities, Guterson said, because there is the fear that it will be more difficult to find spouses for children who have sought treatment.
“Families worry that it will affect the ability of the child to get married, so sometimes the family will not seek treatment,” he said. “This is not a good idea, as it does come out eventually, and it can have profound effects.”
In recent years, though, Guterson has seen some increased willingness for Orthodox families to seek treatment.
“The stigma has lessened, but it is still there somewhat,” he said, adding that more and more rabbis have been sending patients to him of late.
Feinman’s book is an asset to the corpus of books on mental health, Guterson said.
“There are many books written by mental health professionals who are trying to describe mental illness, but Tova has gone through the worst of the worst, and she is able to express it from the patient’s perspective,” he explained. “She allows you to get inside her head and understand what a manic episode is all about.”
While she still struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and PTSD, Feinman said she is now “doing really well. I’m still in treatment, and the PTSD and OCD will always be a part of who I am. But I’ve got a good therapist, so I can deal with it so much better.”
She is now working on a second book, a guide to how to parent with mental illness.
“I have always believed in her, and she has made incredible strides,” Guterson said. PJC