'Living proof that treatment works'

April 01, 2009|By LAURA VOZZELLA

The Duncans of Rockville were a "nice Irish-Catholic family" with 13 kids, one of whom grew up to be mayor, Montgomery County executive and a candidate for Maryland governor. They're also a family so stricken by mental illness that the National Institutes of Health used them, in the 1960s, in a case study of depression.

Doug Duncan's paternal grandfather was hospitalized for manic depression in the 1930s, and he remained hospitalized until his death 20 years later. Duncan's father suffered from the same illness and was forced to take a medical retirement from his job at the National Security Agency. (He managed to support the family as a teacher.) Several of Duncan's brothers and sisters suffer from bipolar disorder.

Duncan thought he had escaped what he calls "the family curse" until 2006, when he was running for governor - and falling apart.

He ultimately announced that he was suffering from depression and dropped out of the race. But this week, at a program on depression at Sheppard Pratt, he described his ordeal in more detail and revealed his family history.

The title of his speech: "Don't Run for Governor While You're Depressed."

"Something's just not right," Duncan had been telling his wife and staff for a long time. He had that feeling he always got in the pit of his stomach the week before an election, but it was a year and a half out.

As the race slogged on, Duncan's symptoms worsened.

"It was just crushing. Toward the end, I couldn't eat or sleep. Couldn't drink anything cold. Had to be room temperature or warmer - I don't know what that was about."

The longtime leader of Maryland's largest jurisdiction, lauded as a reassuring father figure during the 2002 sniper shootings, was suddenly cowed by the smallest things.

"I was known as an executive who made decisions without blinking. I couldn't make a decision about where I was going to have lunch."

He attributed it all to the strain of campaigning.

"Idiot me, with the family history," he said.

And then, in church on Father's Day, the lightbulb went on. "You're depressed," he told himself.

That Monday, he saw a psychiatrist, whose diagnosis was "major depression." The aspiring governor received medication and advice he did not want to hear: "Don't make any major life changes."

He thought it over for a couple of days. There was no guarantee that he would find a medication that would work for him (though, as it turned out, he did) or that he wouldn't slip into a deeper depression or mania (though he did not).

"I can't run for governor and get better at the same time," he concluded.

One of his five children, a Marine, was loath to see him quit. "You can't stop," he said. "You taught me about duty and commitment."

A younger son had the winning argument. "You've been away at college," he told his Marine brother. "Dad hasn't been Dad for a year and a half. I want Dad back."

Duncan broke the news to his staff, went public and began a long journey back to mental health. He didn't bother availing himself of the side entrance that his Kaiser therapist and psychiatrist had suggested he use for privacy.

"I've been on the front page of The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun saying, 'I'm depressed.' I don't think the side door is going to help."

For months afterward, it was "very tough to get out in public." But Duncan carried on with his duties as county exec, putting on a big smile at one event, then getting in the car and "beating the heck out of yourself about what a worthless piece of trash you are" on the way to the next. "And you get there - big smile."

Duncan eventually felt well again. He has been "kicked out" by his therapist. He still checks in with a psychiatrist for medication, which he gladly takes.

"I am so scared about becoming depressed again, I'm never getting off that medication," he said. "I'm living proof that treatment works."

A few swipes at O'Malley

Will Duncan run for office again?

He didn't rule it out when someone in the audience asked. "If you see me start to get down to campaign weight ..." said Duncan, who had trimmed down for the governor's race but amply fills out his suit jackets these days.

As if to prove he is not done with politics, Duncan took a few swipes at Martin O'Malle y, his Democratic rival in 2006. He noted that the governor had expressed surprise that state revenues were declining the same day his new O'Malley's March CD came out. "So we know where his head was at."

Duncan also criticized O'Malley for relying on federal stimulus money to keep state government afloat.

"What happens when the money runs out in two years? No thought of using that money to retool and re-prioritize what we absolutely need to do."

Said O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese: "The governor is using these recovery dollars in the exact way President Obama and Congress intended them to be used to get our economy moving again."

Abbruzzese also said, "We wish Doug well."

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