I think about mental health and mental illness a lot. Serious depression permeates my personal life; serious mental illness permeates my professional life: Andrea Yates, the psychotic mother in my book Breaking Point; Tracey Tarlton, the bipolar book store manager in my book The Fortune Hunter.
While researching The Fortune Hunter, specifically while sitting in the courtroom every day covering the trial of Celeste Beard, I met a young mother and reporter named Andrea Ball. I was taken with Ms. Ball because she was hard-working, dedicated, so much more talented than I as both a reporter and writer, funny as hell, and proud of her son. And being proud of one’s children seemed in short supply in that courtroom. (Read the book, if you want to understand what I mean.)
I was especially impressed by Ms. Ball when I learned that crime reporting wasn’t her usual beat – philanthropy was. She has a talent for both. So on January 15, 2011, when she posted on Facebook her Austin American-Statesman story headlined “Jared Loughner and the stigma and the reality of mental illness,” I was expecting to read more of her great work – heartfelt, accurate, sensitive, insightful, and as my former literary agent would say, “beautifully rendered.” What I wasn’t expecting was a confession.
“Well, I have bipolar disorder, and I’m not coming to kill you, I promise,” Ms. Ball wrote.
I was thrilled to read her words – not because I’m happy she’s bipolar – but because just a few weeks before a friend had angered me when he’d suggested that I should stop hanging out with another friend because – he’d decided – she’s bipolar. She’s not, as far as I know. But I don’t give a flying F whether she is or isn’t, because she’s my friend, and one doesn’t abandon a friend just because she may have a mental disease, just as one doesn’t abandon a friend because she has breast cancer or high cholesterol and heart disease. Instead, one stands by that friend and loves her through treatment.
The day that that man made his comment, I’d wanted to scream at him, “There are doctors and lawyers and judges who are bipolar and function perfectly well in society.” But then I decided maybe lawyers weren’t such a good example and I kept quiet. Then Ms. Ball published her confession, and I had proof that intelligent, hard-working, talented people can be bipolar and functioning members of society who make our world a better place. (If you don’t believe me, just go to the Austin American-Statesman website and read some of Ms. Ball’s other stories.)
So I posted Ms. Ball’s article on Facebook. I loved the majority of the responses made by my FB friends. For the most part, they were kind and showed an understanding of mental disease. But there was one comment that especially touched my heart.
“Andrea [Ball] hits home with me,” wrote D.H. Gregory. “I am treated for bipolar and chronic depression. Out of the closet. And my stepson is a peaceful, innocent, incurable schizophrenic, who would harm only himself. The headlines make me flinch, knowing the ignorance of mental illness.”
Yes, the headlines make me flinch, but so do my friends – and family members – who refuse to acknowledge mental illness, particularly that it is real and not simply a matter of “bucking up,” “mind over matter,” or “thinking positive thoughts” … AND who refuse to admit the fact that – like cancer – it can be treated. But just like cancer, sometimes the proper treatments are difficult to determine and sometimes the results are better than others.
With that in mind, perhaps it’s ironic that I asked D.H. Gregory to write a guest blog post on his battle with depression. D.H. is also battling cancer of the brain. Following are his words on mental illness, words he wrote saddened days after learning that a mutual friend of ours own battle with cancer isn’t going as well as we all prayed.
While still a youngster, depression snuck up on me like a ghost in the night…stealing away whatever blithe boyhood spirit I once had. And it did usually come at night, upstairs in my top bunk. A wave of crippling dread would wash over me like a blanket that was too warm. I couldn’t talk about it, because I didn’t understand what to say.
I did not know about clinical depression back then. I didn’t know what the hell it was, or the cause of it. Sure, I had my moments of elation and despair, but not in equal measure. The unseen flow of sadness was becoming increasingly troublesome.
My folks would invariably ask me, “What’s wrong? Why are you so down?” I didn’t know. I looked in the mirror through melancholy eyes and didn’t know what I saw. “Why?” Stop asking, Dad!
Christ, yeah, I went to church, and even Sunday-damn-School, and sat there drowning in…what?
Dad, I don’t know!
I sat there in dread of the day, and of the next day. What young boy sits in Sunday School, not in boredom, but in muted agony?
Funny thing was that my dad was always down too. He was generally depressed as all hell. I found out 40 years later that my problem back then, and now, may be hereditary.
I could have inherited his endorphins or lack of dopamine or serotonin or whatever the hell else. Re-uptake inhibitors? Chemical stuff.
By college I was full-fledged down in the dumps. Unless I was drinking or writing. Most always both together. Okay, always together. When a buzz wore off…thud…back down the dark abyss. A sort of chronic grief wrapped around my neck like a wool scarf in the heat of summer. Sure…I could get stoked up over some Bikini Beach Volleyball, but after it was over … then what? The inevitable descent back into gloom. Afraid of the next day.
Then when I was about 35 I told my family doctor about it. He asked my dad the same questions. “I don’t really know, Doc.” He said there was a drug called Zoloft that might help. Sure, I said. I would have agreed to arsenic. That drug may have helped. How could one really know? I was still depressed, but maybe it was helping and I would have been more depressed if I didn’t take it. Or maybe it wasn’t helping at all. Like vitamins, how do you know if a vitamin is working? I sure don’t. A V-8 sure tastes good. But how do I really know what it is doing for me? Anyone who knows that for sure is a smarter man than I am. I hear that antidepressants help. Maybe they do.
But now, years and blues later, I take three medicines for depression … unpredictable permutations piggy-backed together to get me through a day. That must be working – I am still here. I have been a dart board of experimentation for many years. Shrinks talk to me and take notes like they are typing out rapid-fire Morse code. You know, pinpointing biological and social causes of my ills and afflictions.
Depression can be… well, it can be controlled somewhat. I often get stuck under a pitiless cloud of desperation. But help is out there. So I am told.
After D. H. wrote that piece, he sent it to his best friend. The friend wrote back and apologized for not recognizing D.H.’s problem, even though they’d hung out constantly, as D.H. said, since the sixth grade.
So I guess the point I’m trying to make is don’t be afraid and run away if someone you know has a mental illness. Treat them with the same tender love and compassion you would if they had cancer … ‘cause maybe like D.H. they’re trying to heal from both.
D.H. Gregory holds a Master’s degree in English and journalism from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. He was a newspaper columnist and film critic for eight years, followed by 25 years in the college bookstore business. A native of Rockford, Illinois, he is now retired in Austin, Texas, with his wife Theresa, and he proudly wears the moniker of brain cancer survivor.
D.H. also wants to write a memoir, and I think we should encourage him to do that.
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For additional information on mental illness, contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Austin Child Guidance Center, and read Andrea Ball’s articles “A thank-you to readers” and “Mental health centers face big cuts in state budget.”