September 2009

Gayle Channing Tenenbaum

Child Advocate

Gayle Channing Tenenbaum

What do Ohio child advocate Gayle Channing Tenenbaum, Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, and actress Anne Heche have in common?  All have dissociative identity disorder. 

While the cause of dissociative identity disorder (formerly referred to as multiple personality disorder) is still unclear, it is generally believed to be a result of a combination of environmental and biological factors.  Nearly all of those who develop the disorder have personal histories of recurring, overpowering, and often life-threatening disturbances at a young age. Depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) often co-exist with this disorder.

Gayle Channing Tenenbaum, who has worked on behalf of Ohio’s abused and neglected children in various roles both inside and outside of government over the past 40 years, is today their biggest advocate in the halls of the General Assembly.  “It’s a personal thing with me,” Gayle explains.  “My childhood was peppered with experiences that were frightening and too much for me to handle.  I learned at an early age to dissociate.  It was how I was able to cope with the physical, sexual and emotional abuse of my childhood.”

Gayle’s childhood is a long nightmare that most of us cannot even imagine. When she was three years old, Gayle’s mother dropped her off at an orphanage for reasons that were never quite clear.  At age four, Gayle was adopted by a couple whom she later learned had many problems of their own including a background of alcoholism, depression and paranoia and had no role models of their own for good parenting. 

After suffering the initial trauma of the loss of her birth mother, and a foster mother, she then experienced physical, emotional and sexual abuse from the age of five until she was eighteen years of age. As she grew older she also lived with the threat that if “she told anyone, she would be killed.” When as a young teenager, she sought the help of a minister of her church; she was turned away and told that what she was reporting could not possibly be true.

During the abuse as a child she was able to break off from herself and dissociate which at that time most likely saved this little girl’s life. The abuse finally ended only when her father attempted to kill the young man she was engaged to in college because once more he heard voices telling him to do it. It was at this time Gayle experienced her first depressive episode and was hospitalized.

Gayle continued her education, where she majored in social work.  She felt drawn to social work although she did not understand the cause of her depression. She then married and has two wonderful daughters. One of the things Gayle is most proud of in her life is raising her daughters in an abuse free home, breaking what she now knows was at least four generations of abuse.

By intervening early, we have an opportunity to change the brain architecture that was altered by abuse at an early age, and we have an opportunity to heal them now.  This enables the children to avoid the suffering into adulthood.

After her first marriage ended, Gayle experienced her second serious depressive episode. Always the resilient one though, Gayle threw herself into her work, and discovered that child advocacy was a natural fit.  She eventually met her second husband, who she describes as “the love of my life.”  According to Gayle, “My second husband was the first person with whom I ever felt truly safe, and as if I belonged.” However, it was not until her third depressive episode, which occurred while she was in her 40s, that Gayle was truly able to understand the impact that her childhood experiences had on her mental health.  The episode was triggered by some severe mistreatment occurring in the early 80s at some state MRDD institutions. Gayle was receiving calls day and night from parents about horrible things that were happening to their own adult children in these facilities. Gayle began seeing a young girl sitting across the room from her and quite literally feeling the pain of her own abuse.  She felt her hair being pulled and the pain of the broken bones of her childhood, all things that had happened to her as a child.

While she didn’t realize it at the time, she had revisited her dissociated self, the little girl that had emerged in childhood to take the abuse directed toward Gayle. “I took a full year off of work to deal with all of the issues of the childhood trauma I had experienced, had a support network, a wonderful husband and received the treatment I needed. I felt really well for the first time that I could remember. People should not have to wait 40 years to feel well,” she emphasized.

Today, Gayle continues with treatment and is on an anti-depressant.  She thanks God for both the little girl across the room and for the professionals who treated her for dissociative identify disorder, PTSD and depression.  Both saved her life.  Today she knows, “If you have PTSD, you have to protect yourself and be sure you don’t get into situations that will be triggers to your own trauma.  You also have to be very careful to not overdo it, because when your defenses are down you are more vulnerable.”

Gayle acknowledges that pacing one’s self is often hard to do when you know how much there is to do to prevent abuse and to identify young children who have been traumatized at an early age. “By intervening early, we have an opportunity to change the brain architecture that was altered by abuse at an early age, and we have an opportunity to heal them now.  This enables the children to avoid the suffering into adulthood.” Gayle knows that these programs are not funded anywhere near the levels needed and concluded, “This issue is so important to the future of our children that it is hard not to work night and day to make certain the programs are funded.”

When asked what impact her childhood trauma and resulting mental health disorders have had on her, Gayle reflected, “As a child I felt that if I did my very best, maybe my parents would like me and stop abusing me.  I was on a never-ending search for approval.  Today, I continue to see myself as a person who is trying every day to do my best, but now I do it for the benefit of other children.  If I can help prevent just one child from going through what I did, then I will know that is why I was put here.”

Those who know Gayle and her work know that she has had a far greater impact than that.  

Postcard Campaign: Access to Services A Matter of Life and Death

The Coalition for Healthy Communities, of which NAMI Ohio is a member, has developed an advocacy postcard cam­paign to help convince Governor Strickland and the members of the General Assembly to restore public funding for mental health and addiction treatment services.  On the front of the postcard it reads, “Access to recovery services is not an issue of politics.  It’s not an issue of fi­nances.  It’s an issue of life and death.” And on the back, it says, “With the SFY 2010-11 budget shredding the safety net for mental health and addiction care, children end up in costly foster care; emergency departments become waiting rooms for people who are poor, mentally ill, and have addictions; homelessness grows; and nonviolent offenders return to  prison through a revolving door.  Please restore public funding for mental health & addiction treatment services”.

We are asking everyone who reads this to help make this campaign impactful by getting these postcards signed and mailed to the Governor and to your respective legislators, and sharing them with your friends, relatives, neighbors and colleagues and asking them to do the same.  To request a supply of postcards, contact us at and include your name, address, and the number of postcards that you need.  If you are not sure who your legislators are, go to and enter your zip code.

The Governor’s Address Is:  The Honorable Ted Strickland, 77 South High Street, 30th Floor, Columbus, Ohio 43215-6108

To send a postcard to your Senator, address the postcard as: The Honorable (name), Ohio Senate, Statehouse, Columbus, OH  43215

To send a postcard to your Representative, address the postcard as: The Honorable (name), Ohio House of Representatives, 77 S. High St., Columbus, Ohio  43215

Thank you for help.  This truly is a matter of life and death. 


Stigma Busting Challenge: October is Mental Illness Awareness Month--fight stigma first-hand by sharing your personal story.  Everybody has a story as one in four adults experience a mental health disorder!