Prime Time: Diagnosis gives author extra insight
Recently I introduced myself as "Gerald C. "Jeb" Monge. I am mentally ill."
My Tracy readers already know that. I have written about my learning at age 43 that I had been born with depression. I was told the symptoms of depression like horrible headaches, extreme fatigue and so on, and I realized that I had had those ever since I can remember. The difference between then and now is simply that back then I experienced those symptoms every few years whereas as I got older they appeared more and more frequently in my life.
I have many reasons why I do such silly things as introduce myself that way. One is simply that depression is being detected more and more, and it seems like it is more acceptable now than 30 years ago. That is good because the earlier it is detected, the better for the patient. But other illnesses still have enormous stigma attached to them.
At this particular meeting on the health care system, individuals responded by describing their physical disabilities and expressing their concern that our health care system continue to minister to them. It was not until Sen. Paul Wellstone came along that mental health was addressed and encouraged to be treated with parity to physical illness.
Another reason is that when I was diagnosed, it was an embarrassment to my family. My mother treated me as if I had leprosy and wouldn't talk about it. My three older brothers ignored the subject.
One gave me the typical response: "Can't you pick yourself up by the bootstraps? Can't you just be happy?"
My wife and children were bewildered. My friends were confused. And all of this led to extreme loneliness.
I shock people occasionally by stating something which even causes some discomfort for professional therapists. Back in the '80s, a psychologist in St. Paul was visibly disturbed when I referred to myself as mentally ill. I reasoned that if he experienced such discomfort, what must the rest of the world feel.
I was fortunate to have a psychiatrist who helped me realize that mental illness is no different than physical illness. He asked me if I had been diagnosed with diabetes, would I be embarrassed. He explained that brain disorders (mental illnesses) are part of our genetics. I can't change the color of my skin, nor am I able to change my gender. So I am not able to change my depression.
There are two different kinds of depression. One is genetic and the other is situational. If I fail an exam or lose my job or get divorced or experience death in the family, I am experiencing temporary depression. It goes away after a while. With genetic depression (or any of the mental illnesses), it is here to stay.
In writing about growing up in Tracy, Minn., in the 1940s and '50s, I described times when I was playing with my friends, and for no apparent reason I had to lie down. I was not even able to sit. This happened when hiking in the country with my buddies when I was 8, going out to the Lone Tree for a picnic and tease the bull who resided there. It happened when I was 11 and having a great time playing football in the city park. I was running down the left side of the field, running out for a pass, and suddenly it was like someone took a gigantic syringe and sucked all the energy out of my body. I went over to the sideline and leaned against a tree and finally had to lie down on the grass. I was not even able to hold my right arm up on my hip.
By the time I got to the University of Minnesota, these symptoms became more pronounced, and one time I asked one of my roommates to walk with me to the Emergency Room. I was afraid I would jump off the bridge over the Mississippi River. The next day I saw a doctor at the student health service, and all he could give me was a very addictive tranquilizer. The doctors just did not know anything about depression at the time. He did not tell me the medication was addictive, but I felt the addiction after a couple weeks and quit taking it. A couple years later there was a big problem with addiction to three tranquilizers, and I was so glad that I listened to my body when I felt the adverse effect I was experiencing.
All through the U and the seminary - eight years - and then into the parish ministry, I was at times bedridden with migraine headaches and this terrible weakness. Finally, I got a graduate degree in finance and entered that field with the hope that I would find some relief.
Finally, in 1992 when I was 43, my doctor gave me a diagnosis which made sense to me, and I was able to get some proper treatment. The only medication that was available at that time was lithium. Now there are many.
In spite of the talk therapy and the medications, there is still no escape from this illness. Every morning I wake with it. I live with it all day. And I wake in the night with headaches, for example. I am mentally ill or as it is being referred to more and more as a brain dysfunction. Chemicals in the brain are not being picked up from the nervous system causing problems for me.
An important reason why I do silly things like introduce myself as mentally ill is to promote discussion with the realization that all of us are off-kilter in some way or other, and that is part of our uniqueness. As result of my illness is that I have what I call the sensitivity of an artist. I had not read a book by the time I graduated from high school. I was involved in physically participating in life. I sang and played the baritone horn. I played sports year round. When I got into high school, I began experiencing the wonder of dating where my childhood girlfriends started to become girlfriends. I began working construction after my ninth grade year in school. I was tall and very strong and could do work that the college students were not able to do after sitting at a desk for nine months.
It wasn't until I got to the U that I was turned on to studying. I had a distinguished professor for ancient history who lectured for the entire year without a note. He loved the ancient world, and I came to also love it. From then on I couldn't put the books down.
In 1967, I began studying Sigmund Freud. I was on my internship year where I spent 15 months studying hospital chaplaincy and the parish ministry. Our textbook was Carl Rogers' "Client-centered Therapy." I needed an extra challenge, so I picked up one of Freud's first books: "The Interpretation of Dreams." I have read biographies of the man and several of his books all the way to his last book: "Beyond the Pleasure Principle."
Somewhere along the way, he wrote that all of us are neurotic, that is, a little off-balanced. In writing these articles I have learned more about my parents' "uniqueness" and the legacy they left me. I received from them the love of music and the love of words. I have still have music playing much of the day and even through the night. Both Mom and Dad were great readers. They grew up at a time when playing and singing music and reading were the primary entertainment. Mom began writing in her later years, and I also inherited that gift.
I also began appreciating more of my uniqueness which included living with depression. When I was first diagnosed, I had the illusion that if I worked hard enough, I would overcome this "problem." I was 71 on Sept. 8 and am beginning to understand that the idea of progress is an illusion. Human nature has not changed an iota since the beginning of recorded history, and I will never escape or grow out of depression.
So I have a choice. Do I struggle to get away from my mental illness, or do I use the artistic sensitivity it has given me to understand my life and possibly enable other people to enjoy themselves to a greater extent. I am slowly choosing the latter. I have limited time and energy. I choose to celebrate my uniqueness and artistically express my view of the world. No one else will do it for me. Possibly with a little encouragement others will express their own perspectives and enable others to do the same.
Hey, I am Gerald C. "Jeb" Monge. I am mentally ill!