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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

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.

She stayed in the hospital for five days. When she got out, she began seeing a different psychiatrist and taking tentative steps toward recovery. Almost immediately, she said, she started speaking again publicly, going out, meeting others. It was not a quick journey; it took months of consistent therapy and some of her medications had to be tweaked. Proper diet and exercise also helped bring her back to good mental health. But she was learning to laugh again, to open up and bloom, to see things in a brighter perspective. The colors were coming back into her life.

Herself again

These days, Gatlin is doing very well but continues to do her part to stay healthy. She sees her psychiatrist regularly, she said.

“I’m assuming this is going to be lifelong because I don’t ever want to go to that place again,” she said, adding that she feels fine but schedules mental health checkups. If she starts feeling anxious again, she plans to seek help immediately.

She talks about a lot of subjects as a public speaker, and mental illness is sometimes one of them. She’s addressed it in churches, at a women’s conference, even during a televised interview with Marie Osmond. Church is a particularly important venue because “mental illness seems to be better understood in the secular world than in the church world. We seem to think, ‘if I pray a little harder, read the Bible a little more, pull myself up by my bootstraps, fill in the blank, it will go away.’ We would never say that to someone who is dealing with breast cancer. It has taken church a while to embrace this, but I am seeing signs of change coming with that. I think there’s good news on the horizon where that’s concerned,” Gatlin said.

She also wrote a book about her life — of which that episode is one part. The book, “The Song in You: Finding Your Voice, Redefining Your Life,” doesn’t sugarcoat it.

The road back to mental health varies, she added, with recovery taking place as part of a multi-faceted journey.

“This was my own personal experience. It could be different for everyone.” Her recovery relied on medication, psychiatrist visits, therapy, diet, exercise, sleep and getting out there again, she noted. “Once you’ve gone through depression, it’s tempting to become a hermit, but you have to put yourself out there, go back into social settings and things you run away from. It’s not one pill or cure, but many different things.”

Asked what she wants others to know, she doesn’t miss a beat. “There is hope, health and healing after depression,” she said.

EMAIL: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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