(Editor’s note: A reader shares his insights on the topic of mental illness, a subject addessed in the July 30 persons, places and things column titled “No-casserole illness.”)
I found your column about Joe Slavens and his daughter Emily, which appeared in the edition of July 30, of great interest.
In my first full year of teaching, that of 1967-68, when I was 23 years old, I suddenly encountered a crippling sense of agoraphobia accompanied (by what I came to understand many years later) symptoms of depression. When I appeared before scheduled classes I began to sweat profusely, I became weak, and felt threatened by nausea.
The lovely Franciscan nuns at Briar Cliff College were very concerned and supportive, even granting me some unscheduled leave so that I could “have my problems attended to.” My worried parents packed me off to see a psychiatrist who, unfortunately, proved to be a Freudian piece of work! No help there.
I remember that in the days surrounding Christmas, feeling overwhelmed by something I could neither understand nor, apparently, surmount, I began to consider that perhaps my best option was suicide. Somehow I got through that delusion, thank God, but knew that I must either return to the college and teach or certainly forfeit my position.
So I swallowed hard and, first off after entering each of my classes again, told them what I was going through and that, because of my extreme nervous symptoms, might find that I suddenly had to bolt from the classroom.
Interestingly, that never happened! Apparently, the very act of telling my students the worst that might have happened released my fear of that happening which, in turn, kept my symptoms more manageable. For many weeks that followed, these symptoms gradually lessened, although it took several years for them to vanish completely.
All of my students and fellow teachers were most supportive throughout and, even more interesting, I now found students coming to my office to “just talk” as they now felt that I was vulnerable enough to understand their own struggles.
Only after I was 56 years old was I diagnosed with mild depression, for which I have since taken a very small daily dose of anti-depression and anti-anxiety medication.
It was my first real understanding of how vulnerability actually can open one up to great wonders and possibilities, a lesson I have remembered as most precious ever since.
Keep up your good work! Your paper lifts my spirits each time!
(Greg Cusack taught college, served on the Davenport City Council from 1969-73, and the Iowa House of Representatives from 1971-81. He then served as executive director of National Catholic Rural Life Conference from 1981 until late 1986. His public service continued in other areas until he retired as Chief Benefits Officer of the Iowa Public Employees Retirement System in 2004.)