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Put Together Again

 News from the Johns Hopkins Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

How the king’s men mended Gil Lamphere’s depression.

Gilbert Lamphere
Gil Lamphere

Last June, a fact-finding House subcommittee on health listened intently to Gil Lamphere, a New Yorker with enviable business savvy. Lamphere has a Forbes profile. He’s directed several companies, including the Canadian National Railway. Now he’s managing director of a thriving private equity firm, a man with the electric sort of insight you’d expect of someone who’s done so well. And he’s no stranger to Hopkins.

What is not on my resume is that I was severely depressed for three years. In fact, I was in the 99th percentile of severity. I had the finest psychiatric attention my fortunate wealth could access. I had tried 27 medicines, not including combinations. I had 42 shock treatments. I spent 20 weeks in and out of hospitals. I lost my loving wife to divorce six months prior to the end of my successful treatment. I lost my family, a good deal of my assets, my apartment, my job.

Finally, when the last shock treatment series had failed, a friend said: Get to Johns Hopkins. There I was told I’d be lucky, given my severity, to regain 80 percent normalcy 80 percent of the time. But since normal for me is more like 120 percent—not manic, just happy and energetic—I told Drs. Raymond DePaulo and Paul McHugh, two world-class psychiatrists, that wasn’t good enough. Just pull out the stops, I told them. Worry about side effects later. So they thought outside of the box, as they do. In fact, they collapsed the box entirely.

Hopkins gave me a 30-year-old, off-patent antidepressant called Parnate, an MAO inhibitor invented in the 1970s, together with Geodon, a new drug designed to calm hallucinations in bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Hopkins discovered it has powerful antidepressant effects at low dosages. Add to the mix lithium and Lamictal as antidepressant mood stabilizers and I had the perfect cocktail. I spent 12 weeks off and on at the hospital. Here we are, two and a half years later, and I feel better today than ever in my life.

Against this backdrop, I have two points to make. First, depression and bipolar disorder are not mental illnesses. They are physical, in both cause and treatment. I know. In the middle of my illness, my doctor said that part of my brain affecting emotion and cognitive behavior wasn’t functioning at all well. I didn’t believe him. I knew my thinking was fine: that nothing was humorous, nothing gave pleasure, and people going to work in the morning were like ants with no brains—a repetitive tragedy. At NYU hospital, they hooked up my head to electrodes and recorded. Then I looked at the printouts, prettier than a Christmas tree. My brain’s right front blinked red; the back right, green, and so forth. But—holy smokes—the left front was black with nothing going on.

Mental illness is physical, like diabetes. And if these disorders are thought of correctly, as physically caused and physically cured, mental illness will be acknowledged as a problem in brain biology. The stigma will melt away. Incidentally, I find this insight most accepted by people younger than 60, and less so by older men who feel that if you’re depressed, you should “pull yourself up by the bootstraps.”

My second point is that finding the right medicines can be drawn out. We understand some of what we’re trying to stimulate in the brain, and drugs are targeted to do that. But it’s still hit or miss. Medicines can take a long time to work fully; patients grow discouraged that they’re not getting better. So we have a physical ailment that can be difficult to treat, that can take time. Thank God I had my family for much of that time and my wealth to get me through. How other people struggle through months and years without human support and the finest sort of care is beyond me. 

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