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Opening Up

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The Houston state representative had abruptly withdrawn as co-chairman of Ann Richards' campaign in Harris County.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.'"

Coleman says he's been lucky in that he never suffered a bout of depression during a legislative session, when peak demands are made on a lawmaker's time. But when he was in college at Howard University in Washington, D.C., episodes would often occur in advance of final exams, when Coleman had plenty of work to do. "That would be a bad deal," he recalls.

Coleman might have muddled on without seeking treatment, except that one of the manifestations of his depression -- his extended and unexplained disappearances -- fueled rumors that he had a drug or alcohol problem. But Coleman says he'd go away by himself simply because he needed to be alone.

"In the first couple of days people didn't know where I was. I'd spend time at a hotel, just check into a room and sleep. It's the idea of being in what some people would call a 'safe place.' It doesn't make sense in a lot of ways, but when you're away from the world you're not feeling bad about how you feel. You're just away, but that doesn't work either. Because you can only feel good about not feeling bad for so long. Until that becomes a problem -- the being away."

The pressures on Coleman intensified to the point where his condition could not be hidden by his holing up at a hotel.

"One of the best things about having something reach a level where you're so uncomfortable with it is you tell people this is what the deal is. And then you have support. You can get help.''

Gloria Coleman says she had long recognized that her son had mood swings but did not understand the severity of his condition.

"Anytime a person has a problem like depression or any type of problem that happens to them, they have to make their own decision," she says. "Nobody can get help unless they want help. By him making the decision to do that and go public, I have no worries about Garnet now."

Coleman says his wife, Angelique, had been aware of his problems, but did not understand their nature.

"I told Angelique, 'Look, I've got to do something that takes me further than where I've ever gone in dealing with this.' Obviously, she knew because we'd been married ten years. I don't think she understood it in the way she understands it now. It's like anything else, you're wondering why your husband is having a hard time doing things, getting going. "

Gloria Coleman says her daughter-in-law is to be commended for toughing out a difficult situation.

"I admire her greatly and how she has handled the situation. A lot of women would have walked away. She did not walk away," says Mrs. Coleman.

A turning point that led him to seek treatment, the representative says, came when he reflected on his own upbringing and the way he wants to raise his 28-month-old son.

"After losing your father, you think about how the time was with him, what the relationship was. My father and I, we went back and forth. We had battles when I was an adolescent. I was a pretty strong-willed teenager and young adult. He wanted us to be a certain way and I wanted to be the way I wanted to be.

"He wanted us to be lawyers and doctors, because that's the way he grew up. The only way to success was through education and being the pillar of your community. That's what he wanted for his kids. And we were growing up in a different era. Like I don't think about money the same way he did. I don't have a desire to be rich. But one of his goals was to make a lot of money."

Coleman wasted a lot of anger on the fact that his father was not around much during his childhood, and he says he had established an emotional bridge to Dr. Coleman only toward the end of his life.

"We became very, very good friends in the last two years. I enjoyed being around him. It was a relationship we had never had. But in looking at all that, the thing that made me want to get really back in was the thought about my son, and what I wanted to do for him, and why I needed to be there, healthy and strong. He's young and needs a father that will be interested in his life, to tell him the things about his grandfather, what it is that Colemans are about: service, commitment to the community, neighborhood."  

Having made the decision to seek help, Coleman finally talked frankly with his wife, close friends and a counselor he had been seeing. Angelique Coleman began making arrangements for his stay at the highly regarded Menninger Clinic.

"You're talking the Mayo Clinic of mental disorders," says Coleman. The clinic uses a team approach to treating mental illness, with facilities that struck Coleman as "a college dorm. Really cool." A psychiatrist dealt with the medical-chemical aspects of his depression, a social worker tackled family issues, while a psychotherapist provided analysis. "Then you have education classes on different issues that anybody may have," says Coleman, "like fear, anger. Group sessions teach you about it and how to approach it."

The group therapy with other patients was the high point of the clinic experience for Coleman.

"It was the most interesting thing I've ever been involved in," says the legislator. "You have these folks who are going through similar things you are going through telling you when you're not expressing something in a realistic way ... how you perceive something to yourself. It was great. They point out that you're holding in anger, or being too formal when you're talking about something that's obviously very painful."

The final phase of the clinic stay, says Coleman, was relapse prevention, the designing of a plan to prevent the recurrence of depression episodes. "In that plan you find the early warning signals, those things that you see or others see that come on before you get depressed. You pick people in your everyday life to help you see these things and monitor them."

Coleman, who had spent his young adult years learning not to ask for help, found opening up very difficult. "I don't like to ask people for things, but it does work well. Because if they're in on it you've got a support group. You pick these folks to provide what everybody has -- affirmation, people who you can disclose to, tell things to. People who provide balance in your life. Those are folks we all generally have in our circle of friends or family. You tell them 'Look, I need you to help me help myself do this. Here's some things you can tell me if I'm not doing them.'"

Skepticism -- and the reluctance to discuss his problems that Coleman exhibit-ed in that October phone conversation with the Press -- eventually gave way to acceptance.

"At first I said no way is this going to work," he laughs. "But it does. It really, really does."

Coleman's plan includes taking the anti-depressive drug Zoloft and adhering to a regular schedule that includes exercise and periods of time blocked out for family activities, rather than politics. It's a regimen that he will likely maintain for the rest of his life.

Gloria Coleman is delighted with her son's commitment to making time for his family. "My husband was so busy out there with the medical practice and other things, my children and I basically did all the family things together," she recalls.

As for what some people might consider a startling openness about his condition, Coleman says part of his motivation is for himself and part for the public.

"The more comfortable I am with this and the more other people know, the better I feel about it," he says. "I'm a legislator, yeah, but I'm Garnet and I have problems, too. Because I have a problem doesn't mean problems are insurmountable."

Coleman plans to make mental health services a special focus in the legislative session that opens January 10 by using his own experience to educate others about a problem, he says, "that has a stigma that's hard to deal with."

"People don't like to talk about mental illness," he continues. "It's almost worse than AIDS in the way people feel about it. And there's no difference from diabetes ... this is just take a pill every day and move on. If I can be an example as someone who can deal with something that has been debilitating and be open and comfortable with it, then other people can be, too.


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