Paying It Forward Through a Paycheck

January 15, 2022

Sue Callori needs only to glance at her arms to remember the tools she uses when the going gets tough. On her right arm her tattoos read: “Challenge your thoughts,” “Radical acceptance,” and “Distraction,” and on her left: “This too shall pass.”

The writings remind her of what she learned during her stay at McLean, where Callori, 63, received treatment for borderline personality disorder (BPD) through the Gunderson BPD programs.

BPD is a condition characterized by an unstable self-image and a pervasive pattern of impulsive behavior, volatile emotions, and tumultuous relationships. The disorder is frequently misdiagnosed.

Callori is well-aware how difficult it is to receive a correct personality disorder diagnosis. For 17 years, she struggled with depression and anxiety.

At one point, she was told she had bipolar disorder. A severe case of Lyme disease added to her distress. She cycled in and out of programs and hospitals, took many medications over the years, and even had several courses of electroconvulsive therapy.

While she had periods of relief, they didn’t last long. “I finally hit the wall and decided I would do one more thing before I decided life wasn’t worth living,” she said.

A Correct Diagnosis and Top-Notch Treatment at Last

In the course of her research, Callori learned about The Pavilion at McLean, a residential program offering comprehensive psychiatric evaluation and treatment. It was there she received the BPD diagnosis and it fit, she said.

“I had the symptoms: depression, anxiety, feelings of abandonment, difficulty socializing, and lots of personality conflicts with people.” After her two-week stay at The Pavilion, it was recommended that she seek treatment at the Gunderson Residence, an all-female program specializing in BPD and other personality disorders. She agreed.

The program changed her life. And to show her gratitude, for the past six years, she has donated a sizable portion of every paycheck to McLean. But more on that later.

Two people sit in outdoor seating

Susan and Brion Callori

Callori admitted that her five-month stay at Gunderson Residence was challenging. She was older than most patients by decades and she was concerned about being able to learn the many skills required to successfully complete the program.

The schedule was demanding: therapy groups; classes teaching coping skills informed by treatments like dialectical behavior therapy; deep and difficult work with her therapist into her childhood trauma; homework; and daily relationship-building with patients who struggled like she did.

“You have eight or nine women living together who all have borderline personality disorder. That was challenging and intense,” she said.

A few months into her stay, Callori was required to get part-time work—she got a job at a supermarket deli counter—to further build her relational skills.

For the first time, said Callori, her treatment was not focused on medication, but instead on therapy, building resilience, and acquiring the tools to create healthy relationships with herself and others—and for that, she is eternally grateful.

She remained at McLean for another year as an outpatient, sharing an apartment near the hospital with two other women from the Gunderson program and continuing to work at the deli counter.

Gratitude for a Second Lease on Life

When it was time to leave McLean, Callori knew holding down a job would be key to staying well, so she got a job at a Walmart near her home in Rhode Island.

Employment is a key part of a BPD treatment called general psychiatric management, developed by the late McLean psychiatrist John G. Gunderson, MD, a pioneer in the field of borderline personality disorder. The deceptively simple idea is that holding down a job helps people leave behind their identity as psychiatric patients and focus on living productive and satisfying lives.

Callori knows that staying healthy is a life-long endeavor: she attends weekly online group therapy as well as twice-weekly individual sessions with Gunderson program director and therapist Karen L. Jacob, PhD, who has been key to her recovery; journals daily; and practices her hard-won skills at her job.

Her paycheck gets divided among her three young grandchildren and McLean, which gives her tremendous satisfaction.

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