July 11, 1993|By Linell Smith

Benson Stewart runs cross country, quotes Socrates, loves the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and has a knack for surprisingly astute puns. A junior in the honors program at Towson High School, he is called brilliant, wry, involved, compassionate, curious by his teachers. And original -- his mother confirms it: Before he could write, Benson would dictate stories to her conceived from a dog's point of view.

Tall and slender, just growing into his expressively mobile face, he's also a typical 16-year-old who plays video games and can spend half the night on the phone with his friends.

But there's a darker side.

Benson suffers from chronic depression caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. Since third grade, he has often reached the level of desperation that makes people feel that life is not worth living. Although medication helps control his illness, it does not cure it. He remains vulnerable to periodic bouts of depression that leave him helpless, hopeless and unable to attend school.

His illness causes a lethargy others have trouble imagining. Merely getting up each morning is an ordeal.

"I try to pull him up and he just flops. Sometimes I scream, I holler," says his mother, Bette Stewart. "And when Benson finally emerges, he has one speed: slow."

Benson missed at least 30 days of school this past year; he stopped counting the number of days he was late. His schoolmates can't understand why he never gets in trouble for being late: Why can't he just get to school on time like everyone else?

"They feel it must be an effort thing," Benson says. "I've heard comments, even from my best friends who are very understanding, as to 'Well, I'm tired as hell when I get up and I'm here on time.' It's a different sort of tiredness."

Part of the anguish of mental illness comes from living in a world that believes you'd be fine if you would only try harder, says Benson's father, Cary Stewart. Benson and his family members agreed to talk about this anguish, and how it affects their relationships, with the hope that people would better understand those for whom mental stability is a goal rather than a guarantee.

Mr. Stewart, 50, knows the stigma of mental illness firsthand: First hospitalized for manic depression in 1967 -- a time when much mental illness was still attributed to bad parenting rather than bad chemistry -- he grew up hearing a lot about laziness and slovenliness, about getting himself out of a rut and up to snuff. His illness -- marked by swings from abnormal elation and impulsiveness to severe depression -- became disabling during his first year of medical school at Duke University and prevented him from becoming a doctor.

With the help of their medication, Benson and his father struggle every day to maintain equilibrium. They share a harsh knowledge of mental illness as well as the despair it causes in families.

"Depression can make a person intolerable," Benson says. "They're edgy and irritable, and it's hard to understand what's happening to them. . . . A whole family suffers when a person is mentally ill. It has a big impact on the family -- and that compounds the problem."

Bearing the burden

In the Stewart household, the burden has fallen primarily on 41-year-old Bette Stewart.

During the past 20 years, she has weathered her husband's unpredictable delusions, diagnosed as psychotic mania, and his eight hospitalizations between 1983 and 1987. She has persevered through dozens of fights with her depressed son when he refused to take his medication. She has battled an insurance industry that she believes discriminates against mental illness by not reimbursing its expenses at the same rate as for other disabling illnesses.

Mrs. Stewart credits her faith to a decade of support from the Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Maryland. (She recently became executive director of the organization, which was created in 1983 to serve relatives and friends of the mentally ill.)

She also has the help of her 14-year-old son, Emerson, the boy who's never late for the 7 a.m. school bus and who does not suffer depression.

"Emerson is a self-motivated, self-starting child. He swears he's adopted, that he's got none of our genes in him," says Mrs. Stewart.

"The perfect boy," says Benson. "Can you imagine growing up in the shadow of someone who's three years younger than you? It's not easy."

The brothers embrace decidedly different styles: While Benson plays military-strategy games with his friends, listens to the music from "Camelot" and devours books by Isaac Asimov, Emerson plays baseball, plugs into Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix, and hangs up posters of Cindy Crawford.

As brainy kids -- Emerson is in the gifted-and-talented eighth-grade class at Dumbarton Middle School -- the brothers share many of the same friends. On weekends, the house crawls with "absent-minded-professor-type kids," says Mrs. Stewart. They also enjoy baby-sitting the children of their neighbors and parents' friends, and sometimes shoot baskets together out back.

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