Opening Up

A promising young lawmaker goes public with his long battle with mental depression

It was a month prior to the November 8 election, and Garnet Coleman was again missing in action.

And people were talking.
The Houston state representative had abruptly withdrawn as co-chairman of Ann Richards' campaign in Harris County. One Democratic activist reported having seen an unshaven Coleman months earlier in a Galveston restaurant, sitting with his head down and not responding to a greeting. Other accounts circulated of mysterious disappearances and worried relatives tracking the 33-year-old state representative down to bare hotel rooms.

The stories were both incongruous and alarming, for the dapper and teetotaling Coleman has a squeaky-clean reputation and is considered one of the brightest young lights in local Democratic politics. His seat in the Texas House representing the Third Ward and part of the near southeast side previously had been held by Larry Evans, who died of a drug-induced heart attack in an Austin hotel room in 1991. With the wasted potential of Evans as a specter, those politically closest to Coleman were wondering aloud whether his considerable talents, too, were being consumed by personal demons.

"I feel very strongly about Garnet," says veteran Democratic activist Billie Carr, who worked with Coleman on Bill Clinton's presidential campaign. "I think he has the temperament and integrity we're looking for in political leadership and for people to serve in public office."

When the Houston Press tried to track down Coleman back in October, an aide in Austin suggested calling the lawmaker's home near the University of Houston campus. But a family member there said he was on vacation out of town. Finally, at the behest of several Democratic operatives, Coleman called from an undisclosed location to say he was getting help for an unspecified problem.

Coleman declined to offer further details, although he denied his whereabouts at times had been unknown by family and co-workers. "I don't think there were periods when people didn't know where I was," he said at the time. "I always like to have my space, and I don't have to let people know where I am if I don't want to. That's a part of having space."

But now, having returned from a stay at the Menninger Clinic in Kansas, Coleman has begun opening up to his constituents and the public about a personal problem he says has dogged him since his college days: his periodic bouts of deep mental depression.

Depression, with its cycles of paralyzing lethargy, dread of personal contact and self-loathing, is a condition that people in private life can often mask and live with untreated for a lifetime. In the highly public and ultra-social political world, it cannot be so easily disguised. While he had apparently kept the specifics of his personal problems from his immediate family for a decade, in the spotlight of the political arena Coleman found that when his episodes of depression struck there were increasingly fewer refuges from a probing public.

"It's not just feeling sad," Coleman says of the sensations of depression. "It's being literally shut down from a mood that I have absolutely no control over .... For a long time I didn't confide in anybody because when you have a problem that may be emotional or mental, people look at you funny. And so you're not as comfortable as if you had heart disease or diabetes."

The fact that his father, the late Dr. John B. Coleman, was a demanding, influential businessman and political player made it more difficult for his sensitive, introspective son to seek help.

"It's a funny thing, he being a doctor and all of that," says Coleman. "He was also an old-fashioned type of individual. A lot of folks have a lot of pride, and you can have anything else wrong with you, but if it's something that if they don't quite understand, then it doesn't make sense."

Coleman's mother, Gloria Coleman, says she once told her husband he shouldn't have children "because he was too involved in his own thing."

Coleman, who describes his mother as a best friend, says it was his unresolved feelings about his father that triggered the worst depressive episodes of his life, which occurred after the elder Coleman passed away last spring.

"After my father died the depression was very, very severe," says Coleman. "It's the type of thing that I can't really tell and make sound rational. It's both fear and a need to be by yourself. Basically, you're just very sad and hopeless. And it's not something you can snap out of. Just not possible. Usually it would start with a higher anxiety level, and the anxiety creates the worry that makes me kind of slide. And then I just slide all the way down."

And the fear of a recurrence began to poison the periods when Coleman felt great.

"All of a sudden I would feel fine. And I didn't like that, because I'd be wondering when I wouldn't be feeling fine again. It almost felt worse to feel better," he says. "The worst thing was when it would come back, and I'd fall into this feeling of [having] really no energy and I'd go, 'God, just last month I was doing 50 million things in a day and getting them all done, and [now] I can't even get out of the bed. Or it's hard for me to make this phone call.'"

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