By all outward appearances, Dahlia Sherman, MD*, had been living a charmed life. An accomplished medical professional, Sherman had earned a well-respected academic post at one of the nation’s most notable health care organizations.

She had a healthy family, including a loving husband of more than 20 years, four “wonderful children” and eight “beautiful grandchildren.” She lived in a nice home in a quiet suburb.

Beneath the Surface

Yet Sherman had another side unknown to most people, one characterized by destructive behaviors that threatened to unravel her career and her marriage. For starters, Sherman seemed to have inherited the depression that ran in her family, for which she had been receiving treatment most of her adult life. But she also suffered from occasional hypomanic episodes and had developed an unhealthy fondness for alcohol—“a good glass of chardonnay,” in particular. “My drinking didn’t get in the way of my work, but it did come out in social situations,” she says. “My husband and I would go to work functions, and by the end of the evening I was ‘out,’ barely able to finish a sentence… I didn’t understand the acceleration of addiction, and I started drinking alone. I tried to control it, but I couldn't.”

She considered getting help for the first time approximately four years ago, when her illness began leading to instances of physical harm.

“It was late at night and I had been washing towels,” she recalls. “I was really tired because I worked a long day at the hospital, and I had also had some wine. Between the wine and the tiredness, I was not steady and fell backwards down the stairs. I split my head open on the dresser knob, so I had this gash on my scalp. I decided to go to bed and get some sleep. When my husband woke up, the bed looked like a crime scene. He said, ‘We’ve got to get you to the ER.’ That’s when I knew I had a problem.”

She committed to beating the problem, and at first thought she might be able to maintain her sobriety through sheer willpower. Sherman relapsed eight months later. At the time, she had been spending nights visiting with a grieving friend, and the two would often share “a bottle of wine plus,” she says. One night she decided to drive home, despite her inebriated state, and the aftermath made her realize she could not defeat her illness alone.

“Based on the way I parked the car, anyone would know I had been driving impaired,” she says. “My husband came home and found me asleep in a desk chair. He said, ‘It’s either rehab or divorce.’”

Taking Matters into Her Own Hands

Sherman researched numerous inpatient options, taking into consideration her need for follow-up care in the form of outpatient therapy. Fortunately, she found The Retreat, part of the Sheppard Pratt system of care, in Towson, Md. There she discovered an environment designed to help all kinds of people struggling with mental health disorders who had arrived at one crossroads or another: young adults unable to transition effectively to adulthood; adults having difficulty coping with significant life changes; and, like her, accomplished professionals suffering from a co-occurring disorder—a substance use problem paired with a serious mental health diagnosis.

The Retreat offered a multidisciplinary approach guided by medical professionals; it was not solely a rehabilitation center. Sherman liked the idea that professionals would be intimately involved in the process of analyzing her illness, identifying its root causes and then crafting a treatment plan to facilitate her recovery and provide her with the tools she needed to maintain it.

Sherman’s treatment team—Scott Aaronson, MD, consulting psychiatrist at The Retreat and director of clinical research, and Don Ross, MD, formerly The Retreat’s medical director and currently a senior psychiatrist—collaborated to diagnose Sherman’s illness of both bipolar disorder and alcohol abuse.

“It is all too common to miss the cyclical nature of a mood disorder or the manic pole in high-functioning, driven professionals,” says Dr. Aaronson. “The bipolar illness often fuels substance abuse as patients try to self-medicate with alcohol for mood swings.

“We treat many folks who present with depression but have more complicated illnesses with mood swings, substance abuse or trauma issues that often have not been recognized or addressed,” he continues. “We try to understand all the facets of dysfunction that our patients are experiencing to come up with a thoughtful and cohesive understanding of the problem, which typically leads to a better outcome than they had previously experienced. Part of my role is to educate our folks about their illnesses. Knowledge is power, the power to have greater control over what is most often a chronic illness.”

A Personalized Approach to Recovery

Residents of The Retreat overcome a number of mental health disorders through innovative therapies including electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT; transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS; and dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT, a form of therapy commonly used to help residents, such as Sherman, who are experiencing problems related to emotional dysregulation.

In addition, she worked closely with Robert Levine, who offers a unique type of therapy combining Eastern Wisdom and movement principles based on T’ai Chi.

“The overriding principles of T’ai Chi are very psychological, in that wherever the mind goes, the energy follows,” Levine says. “Sessions use breathing methods, moving and static meditations, self-massage and philosophical insights to experientially explore the relationships between physical tension, emotional anxiety, mental confusion and dispirited feelings of worthlessness.

“I often see accomplished people who are frozen, who have lost confidence in their judgment, who cannot find their center,” he continues. “These principles and exercises can be helpful in fostering change. When people practice them, they can achieve a marked reduction in tension, anxiety and obsession.”

“Sobriety is Fabulous”

Sherman entered The Retreat in January and was discharged three weeks later. Today, more than a year into her sobriety, Sherman is at peace. Her career picked up where she left off. She continues practicing T’ai Chi and feels more grounded in her daily life. She recently moved into a new home. Her relationship with her husband is on the mend, too, helped by outpatient sessions with one of The Retreat’s family therapists.

“[My husband] told me he didn’t have me for a decade, and that was tough on him,” she says. “Now I am communicating very openly. I’m a totally different person compared with the person he married, because all my life till now I’ve had alcohol in my system. I have this new personality, and he wasn’t prepared for that; I wasn’t either. If it weren’t for the people at The Retreat, I think we would have had a tough time together. We’re healing now, but it’s a process.”

All in all, Sherman “loves” her sobriety.

“I go to bed fully aware of what I’ve done all day,” she says. “I’m physically feeling something, and I’m emotionally feeling something… Education was a turning point for me, and it happened for me in the program at The Retreat; Dr. Ross taught me so thoroughly about addiction, and you have to learn about it before conquering it.

“Sobriety is fabulous,” she continues.