Living with mental illness: Fate, friend and a Lab named Sam save suicide survivor
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 16, 2010 - In August 2005, in debt and living in a hotel room, Steve Curran marked his 50th birthday by quitting his job as a marketing manager. Separated from his wife and estranged from his family, Curran felt isolated. He thought a "strong" person kept feelings like hopelessness to himself.
Following a week of careful planning, Curran gathered the ingredients for his "suicide kit": a bottle of scotch, a deadly dose of valium and a fried chicken dinner. The latter was designed to grease his stomach and prevent him from throwing up the pills. After consuming the chicken and the lethal drug-and-alcohol combo, he waited to die.
For some reason -- Curran's still not sure why -- he survived. For a month afterward, his solitary suffering continued before he finally called his friend Mike Gladson. Shocked, Gladson took him to St. John's Mercy Behavioral Health, where Curran had been admitted twice before in the past few months. The third time was the charm.
"That was the beginning of everything coming together," Curran said.
A LIFESAVING LABRADOR
Curran's first diagnosis of depression came in the late 1980s and he began taking antidepressants in the early 1990s. The medicine provided some relief, but not enough. Attempting suicide was almost like something Curran had to get out of his system.
"Once I did it, it kind of took it off the table," Curran remembered. "You go, 'Well wait a minute. I tried to take my life and I'm glad it didn't work.'"
After a few days of group and individual therapy, Curran was released from St. John's to his wife, Alice Curran, who took him back to the hotel. Alone and without any reason to leave the room, Curran asked his brother for a favor: Could he borrow his dog Sam?
"I didn't bathe, I didn't shave, I didn't care what I ate, I didn't answer the phone," Curran said. "I knew that if I didn't have that dog to walk, I wouldn't get out of bed. Besides, Sam was a great listener."
WITHOUT MEDS, SLEEP AND LOVE LIFE RETURN
When they were still living together, Alice Curran noticed her husband had changed: He was up all night, sleeping all day and overeating.
"I didn't have a name for it," Alice Curran said. "When you're in it, it's so insidious that you don't even see it."
After his suicide attempt, she gave him an ultimatum: Find a new psychiatrist. "I said, 'If we're going to make this work, you're going to do whatever they say to do to get better,'" Alice Curran remembered.
After locating a different doctor, Curran was treated regularly for a year and continued taking antidepressants.
"With virtually all mental illnesses, the combination of medication and psychotherapy is the gold standard," said Dr. Miggie Greenberg, a psychiatrist with Saint Louis University Hospital. "It's usually what keeps patients engaged, keeps them taking their medicine and keeps them coming back."
On antidepressants until 2008, Curran is now navigating his illness without them. When he was on medication, he experienced sexual difficulties and sleep issues. Since stopping the medication, "I now have wonderful sleep and my love life is back," said Curran. But his depression recurs more often -- about once a month -- and with a greater intensity. Triggers include stress and gloomy weather.
The day Curran spoke with the Beacon, he noted that the darkness had once again descended. "The day I'm having is just as bad as some of the ones I had with Sam. I cried five times this morning. I cry more in a year now than I cried the first 30 years of my life -- but that's OK."
The coping skills he's learned over the years help him manage the troubled times. He takes the day off or at least part of it. One step at a time, he gets out of bed, even if it takes hours. He folds a few clothes, does some dishes, reaches out to friends. Still seeing his psychiatrist every six months, Curran predicts he may return to antidepressants before too long.
His wife has also learned to adjust to his more frequent ups and downs.
"Sometimes when he's depressed and I want to do something fun or go out to dinner, I feel a little let down," Alice Curran said. "But I used to always be brought down with him, and now I ask a friend to go out with me."
TALKING THE TALK
As he began managing his illness, Curran made a decision to be honest. While he once bowed out of social engagements by faking illness, Curran's learned to tell the truth.
"I would tell them I had a virus or sinus infection; now I tell them I'm depressed. That took years," Curran said.
Gladson, his friend since college days, describes Curran as "smart, talented and funny, and the kind of guy who'd give you the shirt off his back." But Gladson found out from Curran's illness that you can think you know someone well and not really know what's going on. Now, Gladson pays attention to the subtle and not-so-subtle signs from friends and family that we often miss as we live our own busy lives.
"They could be practically screaming, 'Hey I need you here,' and sometimes you're like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'll get back to you,'" Gladson said. "The next time you see a good friend and you say, 'How're you doing?' maybe you ought to wait for the answer."
WALKING THE WALK
Regular exercise is another way Curran tries to ward off depression. This August, he'll take it to the extreme by walking 850 miles from St. Louis to Washington, D.C with a handful of others. The one-time, 50-day Walk to Washington is designed to raise awareness for depression and to encourage cities along the way, including Belleville and Indianapolis, to create their own annual in-town walks.
Inspired by events such as the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure for breast cancer, Curran launched St. Louis' annual 5 K Walk for Depression in 2008. It's now his full-time job. Last year, the walk raised more than $30,000 for 25 local mental-health organizations. This year, Curran's hoping for between $50,000 and $100,000.
It's critical to make inroads into the stigma of mental illness so people will view it like any other disease, Curran said. When diagnosed with any other major illness, people educate themselves so they can talk knowledgably about their condition to their doctors and others. But it's different for those with depression, who often feel ashamed of their illness.
"If you get depressed, you're considered weak," Curran said.
Gladson is happy to see his old friend finally strong enough to speak about his own depression, and focusing his passion and promotion skills on de-mystifying the disease.
"He's found his way," Gladson said. "And he's found his calling."
Nancy Fowler Larson, a freelance writer in St. Louis, writes frequently on health-related issues.