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My Turn

Let Me Tell You a Secret
By Chris Marrou

I hope that one day mental illness will be as openly accepted as any physical disability

Prozac saved my life, but I'm not supposed to tell anyone. If I'd been saved by a brilliant new surgical procedure that corrected a heart defect or by a new kind of bullet-resistant vest, I'd be featured in sober reports on network newscasts and packages on the tabloid shows with bright graphics and gee-whiz narration.

But it's just a pill I take once a day. For millions of people around the world the pills are a miracle, but we're supposed to keep our mouths shut about it. The reason is, of course, that we're all mentally ill. That's crazy to you.

Actually, I don't mind the word itself. I often refer to the little tablets as my "loony pills" or "wacky pills" when I'm asking my wife where I left them. (The pills can save your life, but they can't improve your memory.) What bothers me is our society's treatment of the issue of mental illness.

To understand the problem, consider former senator Bob Dole. Just days before the end of World War II, he was seriously injured while fighting in Italy. He survived but faced years of grueling therapy aimed at rehabilitating his body. What if that Axis bullet had missed young Bob Dole, and instead he had been overwhelmed after the battle by clinical depression? In those days, it might have taken years of psychiatric therapy before he could return to society again. Even if he had, there would have been mental scars that affected his behavior much as the physical injury affected his arm. Do you think Dole would be campaigning today for the most powerful political position on earth? Would journalists ignore his continuing mental problems as they ignore his physical disabilities today? I don't think so.

My mental problems struck me as swiftly as any bullet, and as unexpectedly. Although I once dropped a ninth-grade speech class because of stage fright, I had gone on to win dozens of high-school speech awards with hardly a flutter. I worked at my college radio station, then returned home to Texas to jobs in radio and TV, speaking daily to hundreds of thousands of people. After 15 years as a top-rated TV anchorman, I was secure in my ability to face an audience under any circumstances. No script? Ad-lib. Hurricane, flood, train wreck? Send me in and hand me the microphone. I had a long-term contract and made major bucks. I had nothing to fear.

But fear itself. A few months after my twin daughters were born in 1988, I was halfway through a 6 o'clock newscast when I was suddenly overwhelmed by terror. I thought I was having a heart attack, except that I knew I was in great physical condition. I couldn't breathe, even though I ran more than two miles a day. I was dying in front of more than a hundred thousand people--and I still had four stories to read before I could go to a commercial.

From that day on, fear ruled my life. As fellow sufferers know, it strikes when the victim is most vulnerable. In my case, I had anxiety attacks only when I was on live TV and in the midst of voice-over stories that featured me talking. No sound bites, no reporter packages, no commercials. Just me and the script and that damned clock, ticking off the seconds like centuries. Unlike most other TV newscasters in the country, I didn't have a co-anchor to bail me out. Just me and my fears, duking it out in front of an audience the Astrodome couldn't hold.

Anxiety attack is such a cute term. It sounds like a kid got so excited about a planned vacation to the Grand Canyon that he couldn't do his homework. Panic attack is better, but even that doesn't describe what the victim feels. Death would be a sweet release compared with the agony my brain put me through. Only another victim of mental illness would understand.

In fact, death was an option I considered. Could I drive on the interstate and swerve into a bridge abutment and have my insurance pay off? How would that affect my newborn girls, who would never know their father? One day I took the ammunition out of my .38 revolver, worried that I might make a split-second decision that I might not live to regret.

I find it hard to believe that no viewers or co-workers noticed what I was going through. If they did, thank God they didn't mention it. One anonymous phone call pointing out that I was losing it would have killed me, literally. I went to a family counselor, hypnotherapist and psychiatrist. I practiced breathing properly, tried self-hypnosis, discussed my relationship to my wife and mother and whether my father had been a strong enough role model for me. Things got better. I once remember making it through a whole week without a major attack. It was like winning a Nobel Prize.

Then in 1994, the fear came back almost as strong as ever. After five years of toughing it out, being a macho Texan who didn't need no stinking pills, I was through, flat on the canvas. So I read the best-seller "Listening to Prozac'' and asked my psychiatrist to prescribe the antidepressant. Although she had once suggested the drug, neither of us knew how astounding its effect would be. Within 10 days I was free of symptoms. I have not had a single panic attack since then.

I'm sure there are millions of people like me around the world, but we can't speak about it. Mental illness is still often thought of as something you or your parents did wrong.

What if we treated other illnesses like that? Suppose people with broken legs had to find a way to hide their casts for six weeks so that co-workers would trust them to do their jobs properly? What if heart surgeons had to be as discreet about their work as psychiatrists now must be? If we thought people came down with pneumonia because of a defect in their character? The whole concept is, well, nuts. I'm out of the closet and I feel better. I hope that we'll soon be able to drop the "mental" in front of mental illness and will stop being judge-mental about it. Perhaps some day a future presidential candidate's years of fighting depression or anxiety will be considered a mark of courage instead of something to be hidden.

Call me crazy, but I can dream, can't I?

Marrou is a news anchor at KENS-TV in San Antonio, Texas.

Modified December 25, 2002

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