Surgeon's hero beat illness

Symposium: Hopkins' celebrated neurosurgeon describes his mother's struggle with depression while he was growing up.

April 25, 2002|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

As anyone who has followed the life of Dr. Benjamin Carson surely knows, the undisputed hero of the famous brain surgeon's life is his mother.

Sonya Carson was a rock of determination who overcame poverty and crushing disappointment to see her two sons succeed. She worked two or three housekeeping jobs at once, squirreled meager savings under a mattress and, while hiding her own illiteracy, demanded that the boys shun television for books.

And when life's burdens became too great to bear, she would leave the youngsters with friends and check into a mental hospital. The visits would last a week or so, just long enough to find momentary relief and steel herself for further struggle.

"We didn't have a great deal of insight into what was going on," Carson said yesterday at an annual symposium on depression at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "But I am certain that she cried herself to sleep many nights."

Carson described this less-known aspect of his mother's life at the 16th annual conference organized by the Depression and Related Affective Disorders Association, an independent educational and support group that serves the Baltimore and Washington areas. The meeting drew 750 patients, social workers, psychiatrists and family members.

The neurosurgeon, who has used his life story to inspire others to overcome adversity, talked about his mother's battle with mental illness to illustrate a few simple points: Depression is an illness of the brain. It can be treated. It should bring no shame. And it isn't necessarily forever.

"We have kidneys, a liver, heart, lungs and a brain, and all the organ systems in our body can be adversely affected," said Carson, 50, who is chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Hopkins. "There is absolutely no reason why one organ system vs. another that is affected should bring any type of stigma."

A private person, Sonya Carson declined to speak at the DRADA conference but didn't mind her son discussing her to educate others, Carson said.

Over the years, DRADA has made a point of featuring celebrities -- including columnist Art Buchwald, newsman Mike Wallace and comedian Dick Cavett -- to bring a recognizable face to a disorder that will afflict an estimated 10 percent of people sometime in their lifetime.

Celebrity list grows

In that tradition, novelist William Styron made a return visit yesterday to speak about the personal struggles that inspired his 1990 book, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, which is widely credited with helping to break through ignorance and stigma.

With Carson, the organization also continued its tradition of presenting celebrities who have lived through the desperate moods of family members.

For Sonya Carson, depression seems to have passed from her life, with the worst episodes spanning about a half-dozen years. Now in her 70s, she lives with Carson and his wife and three sons in Upperco. Her older son, Curtis, lives in Indiana, where he manages the aircraft landing division for Honeywell.

One of 24 children in a poor family in rural Tennessee, Sonya Carson married at 13 to escape the poverty and chaos of her childhood. Her husband got a job as a factory worker, while she worked as a domestic.

But her husband squandered the family's saving on alcohol and gambling. Then, when young Carson was 8, came the crushing news that his father was a bigamist with a wife and children elsewhere.

His parents divorced, leaving Sonya Carson to raise the two boys on her own. There were times, said Carson, that she worked such long hours that the boys wouldn't see her for four or five days. She left the house before they awoke and returned after they went to sleep.

None of this stopped her from shepherding the boys through the difficult times in Detroit and Boston, where they briefly lived with relatives in a rat-infested tenement.

Academic demands

She demanded that they read two books a week and submit reports to her. She insisted that Ben persevere in school even when he got failing grades and was ridiculed as the class dummy. She badgered school officials until they scrapped plans to enroll Curtis in vocational education. And she lived to see both soar.

Once or twice a year, beginning when Ben was 8, she would drop the boys with church "sisters" and simply disappear. "Later on, we found out she was checking into a mental hospital," Carson said. "She made a big effort to shield us from what was going on. We were never concerned that she had a serious mental problem."

Maintained her resolve

Though the disease can drain some of its victims of energy and will, Carson said his mother maintained her stubborn resolve to remain a force in her sons' lives. She was fortunate to have psychiatrists who understood this, and who worked toward the modest goal of helping her to get well enough to function -- if barely.

"There are many forms of depression and many ways of reacting to it," said Carson, asked how his mother kept from succumbing to lethargy.

Carson said he is not sure how his mother was treated, though he and his brother understood that she took medication.

Early use of drugs

Dr. J. Raymond DePaulo, chief of Hopkins psychiatry, said doctors were just starting to use antidepressants in the 1950s and 1960s, the period in which Sonya Carson was treated. While the age of Prozac was many years off, the older drugs were just as effective, though they were more likely to produce side effects, he said.

In an earlier interview, DePaulo said parents who are experiencing depression can help their children with gentle honesty, explaining their illness in broad and reassuring terms. In turn, Carson said people can help depressed family members by extending some "insight therapy."

"What other family members can do is help a depressed person realize that it's not the end of the world. It's treatable, like anything else. And you won't think less of them if they get help.

"In fact, you'll think more."

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