Guest Column

My Fight Against Depression


I thought I had it all.

I had a wonderful family of eight children, a nice community in which to raise them and a blossoming career in school administration.

The thought that it would all come tumbling around me never, in my most vivid imagination, occurred to me.

Little did I realize I had been fighting a disabling illness since birth, and finally it attacked with a vengeance. When it did, I felt totally unprepared and unable to cope. But eventually, I realized I needed help. I was ready at last to make adjustments in my life. But not without leaving a pile of scraps behind me.

I suffer from severe mental depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. These diseases are genetic. My grandmother’s depression was so severe she committed suicide, as did my great aunt, her sister. And my mother and three brothers all exhibit symptoms of the illnesses.

For years, I had been aggravating my illness by my unrelenting drive, which amounted to an obsession with professional success. The illness finally won, totally enveloping me and obliterating everything I had worked for for years.

Yes, there are many, even in our profession, who suffer from severe depression and related mental illnesses. By sharing my experience, I hope I can help others mired in the same illness.

Career Success
Let me start from the beginning, when I failed to recognize the illness and simply fought my way to the top despite it, on a course that could have proved fatal. Yes, fatal.

I started out in journalism, eventually becoming music editor for Variety, the national show business publication. After nine years I decided I wanted to teach, and went back to school to obtain my teaching certificate. I taught English and values clarification at a junior high school.

Then I made up my mind to become a principal and went back to school to gain my master’s in educational administration. Ever power hungry and sick, I returned to school to obtain my doctorate in educational administration, doggedly pursuing the degree despite several moves to new communities to advance through the administrative ranks. Ultimately I became superintendent of the Shelley School District in Shelley, Idaho, in 1983. This position would prove to be my final career move. I couldn't fight the illness anymore. I needed to face it and get help, badly.

I couldn't carry on anymore. My wife had died a few years earlier in a car accident, leaving me eight children. My deepening depression was causing my job performance to slip. Among other symptoms, I found myself increasingly irritable with my staff, and soon I was unable to function appropriately.

My Job Exodus
One thing about depression: When left untreated, its grip is unwavering. And obsessive-compulsive disorder can make your mind go in circles faster than you can count!

So, of my own initiative, I negotiated a settlement on my contract with the school board. Then I went to a series of doctors and several hospital mental health wards, eventually ending up in an emergency room where they pumped my stomach during an unsuccessful suicide attempt.

As executives, you need to monitor our own physical and mental health. Depression and obsessive compulsive disorder can be controlled with medication. Some people with these diseases can resume work. Unfortunately, mine is so severe it has forced me into early retirement.

At least I haven't been subjected to the terrible stigma that comes with clinical depression. A comrade in Maine last spring wasn't so lucky. There, an experienced administrator withdrew his application for a district superintendency two weeks after being offered the position under pressure from the school board, which had discovered he suffered from mental illness and had attempted suicide.

Warning Signs
Depression can affect you in ways you would never suspect:

  • A loss of interest or pleasure in your job, family life, hobbies or sex;

  • Difficulty in concentrating or remembering;

  • Physical pains that are hard to pin down;

  • Sleep disturbances;

  • Appetite loss (or overeating);

  • Unusual irritability;

  • A loss of self-esteem or an attitude of indifference;

  • A down-hearted period that gets worse and just won't go away; or

  • Frequent or unexplainable crying spells

    A combination of the above symptoms, persisting for two weeks or more, can be an indication of depressive illness and a warning to seek the advice of a doctor.

    Depression can be a lot more than the blues. More than 10 million Americans today may suffer from depression. Unfortunately, it often goes unreported and thus undiagnosed and untreated because people don't recognize the symptoms for what they are. Yet in most cases it can be treated. Most importantly, you must realize you are not alone.

    I thought I had it all. Thanks to medical science and understanding friends and relatives, I do.

    Steve Toy, a former superintendent, lives at 365 Berrett Ave., Shelley, Idaho, 83274.