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

Gatlin's world was becoming a grayscale drawing; the colors had fled. She recognized that she was in trouble. She’d seen her mom in bipolar phases. Her wildly talented brother Larry had fought a well-documented battle with alcohol and drugs; he has now been clean for decades. Her family history across generations included episodes of depression, all treated and relieved. She was no stranger to the signs of crisis.

Even so, her early efforts to get help didn’t yield much.

That first crack in her composure seemed to correspond with menopause. When she was 52, she started developing major anxiety, complete with weight loss and lack of sleep. That was followed by depression — and in a world where everyone’s “depressed,” she clarified, she was not talking about having a bad hair day. She had become emotionally and physically incapable of experiencing joy. By age 54, she was unable to sleep for more than 90 minutes at a time for weeks, and the pounds were falling off her, something she later learned was a warning sign entirely missed by her psychiatrist.

She talks now about what happened because mental illness thrives on silence and shame and the way to overcome it, she said, is to address it. Going back through her family's own generations, mental health was not well understood and certainly not discussed. Even in 2008, she felt the sting of stigma.

“I was not as forthcoming with my husband. We are married 39 years this year and he’s my soulmate and best friend. I’d rather spend time with my husband than any other human being on the planet, yet I didn’t want to let him know how bad this is,” she told the Deseret News.

The crash

So there was LaDonna Gatlin, curled up, empty pill bottles scattered around the house. At some point, she threw up on the floor, though she doesn’t remember anything about it. That may have saved her life.

She woke up in the emergency room to find her pastor, her husband and her daughter and son-in-law gathered.

“It just hit me, what I’d done. I realized, ‘Dear God, I crossed a major line. It’s not just about me. It’s about these other people, too.’ ”

She was diagnosed with anhedonia, a psychiatric term that means inability to experience pleasure.

A few days later, in a psychiatric hospital in Texas, she walked into a day room where grown women were sitting at card tables with coloring books and was again hit by the magnitude of her act. “Dear God, what have I done?” she repeats the thought now, the memory of a prayer in her voice. “They went through my luggage, took the drawstrings from my sweatpants, removed my shoe laces. Cosmetics had to be checked in and out. I couldn’t shave my legs without a nurse’s aide standing outside my shower door.” She had to hide her Carmex lip balm in her pocket; it was considered contraband.

“It was the most humiliating, humbling, gut-wrenching experience of my life,” she said recently.

Gatlin wanted out of the facility. She wanted to get better. So she did what she was told. Some of the other women’s stories took her breath away. She had never had to survive the death of a daughter, like one of her fellow patients had. “So many people were so much worse off in terms of what they had experienced. If they can be here and get healthy, I can get better, too,” she encouraged herself.

She didn’t smoke but went outside with the smokers to get fresh air. She played the piano for the unit talent show, accompanying anyone who wanted to sing. One teenage girl, a cutter who wore black that covered everything, sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” It was like the angels descended, Gatlin said.

And somewhere in all that, surrounded by people who were suffering and trying to heal, she realized a simple truth. Her brain was ill, but it could get better.

“What am I really afraid of?” she asked herself. She realized she was afraid of change, but more afraid of standing still. She needed to take actual steps to become well again.

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