National Edition

LaDonna Gatlin: The day she tried to quit life and her journey back

Published: Monday, Jan. 27 2014 10:30 a.m. MST

This was what giving up looked like: LaDonna Gatlin stood by the window of her beautiful house overlooking a golf course in Frisco, Texas, watching until her husband’s car got to the end of their little road. When he reached the stop sign and turned the corner, she shut the curtain and crawled back into bed.

She tried to sleep, curled up by her dog, until the alarm she set nudged her up to set out props so it would look like she’d been busy while her husband was away at work.

That had become her daily ritual.

Gatlin had been depressed and anxious for a while, but this was something new, a pit so deep and dark she couldn’t see across it or over its rim. She said if she had taken the deepest sorrow she could even imagine at that point in her life, then amplified it, it still wouldn't have come close to what she was feeling on Nov. 19, 2008. That day, after weeks of despair, she shoved 31 Ambien and she's not sure what else into her mouth before dragging herself back to bed.

As she drifted off to sleep, she didn’t care enough to wonder how she’d reached this point. She just wanted to end the pain and go to sleep. Forever.

Mental illness doesn’t consider whether one is rich or poor, boy or girl, successful or struggling. It doesn’t bow to one’s accomplishments — Gatlin had many — or count up one’s emotional treasures, like a devoted family and grandchildren who lived nearby. Mental illness is also not a single condition. It afflicts with symptoms that can include obsessive-compulsive behavior, anxiety, depression, hallucinations, psychosis, mania or other variations.

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates 9 million American adults — nearly 4 percent — had a serious mental illness in 2011. The most recent data on suicide say nearly 35,000 Americans killed themselves that year. That doesn’t count failed attempts, like LaDonna Gatlin's.

Precious girl

When she was born in Abilene, Texas, in 1954, Gatlin’s father nicknamed her “Princess.” Her mom had had three boys in a row, then ages 2, 4, and 6, and she was the baby girl for whom they had longed. Born into a family of entertainers, by age 5 she was singing and performing gospel and country music with her three older brothers, Larry, Rudy and Steve. Through many of her school years, she juggled classwork while performing around the country as one of the Gatlin Quartet. Later, they gained acclaim singing, playing and recording albums as Larry Gatlin, Family and Friends.

She married keyboardist Tim Johnson, who for a time became one of the “friends” in the band’s name. But after much prayer, the couple decided to leave the group to move into the Christian music industry. After their departure, her brothers became Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers. For years, the four Gatlin siblings tiptoed gingerly around a rift created by her decision to walk away from the family musical group.

She felt strongly, though, that her path was not going to be the same as her brothers’. She and Johnson were building their own life and starting a family. They had two children, son Caleb and daughter Annie, and she settled into the brand-new role of being a mom. "My brothers got famous — I got stretch marks!" she laughs now. "But very simply put … I had a different song to sing."

When the kids were older, she became a motivational speaker. She was so popular that within just a few years she earned a spot in the National Speakers Association (NSA) Hall of Fame. It was at one of their annual conferences that she felt the first icy finger of self-doubt touch her. She looked at the conference banner — the theme blared “NSA Rocks” — and thought, “Maybe I don’t rock any more.”

Muted colors

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