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Mental health role rooted in personal struggle

Almost overnight, her vibrant life as a community theater performer, human rights activist and busy mother of four nosedived into a bottomless black hole of utter and absolute despair.

Afflicted with severe clinical depression, she stumbled through every dreaded, hopeless day with a sense of excruciating anguish. Many times, she considered the release and relief of suicide.

Then, Betty Hamilton learned about an experimental drug called lithium carbonate that might correct the life-altering chemical imbalance in her brain. It worked.

She was featured on a PBS documentary on mental illness. She appeared on TV talk shows with Phil Donahue and Barbara Walters. She spoke at forums all over the country representing the National Association of Mental Health as a consumer guru on the taboo subject of depression.

At 86, enjoying robust mental health, she believes she was destined for the role that eventually defined her. She views her ordeal as the springboard that enriched her life.

 "I grew up on the West Side. My dad, John Agsten, was a contractor. His father came here from Germany and started the construction company H.B. Agsten.

"My mother was in plays for the Glenwood Players. My dad helped with the sets. I took dancing lessons from Elizabeth Embleton. At Christmas, the Kearse Theater had stage shows, and I was one of the people she chose. From the very beginning, I loved being in shows. If I were young now, I probably would go to New York to give the theater a try.

"I also took piano lessons. That piano over there is the one my mother and dad bought for us. I didn't take singing lessons, but I always sang. At Sullins, I was in two different choirs. I majored in piano.

"Sullins was a girls' school. When I got to WVU in 1946, all the soldiers and sailors were coming back from the war, and there were six men to every woman. It was like heaven. I was in a choir there and a sorority and we partied all the time.

"I realized at Sullins that I didn't want to continue with piano. I have a degree in public school music.

"I went to all the sports events at WVU. I've always loved sports. My dad used to take my sister and me to baseball games at Watt Powell Park, and I love baseball to this day. I can't think of a time that I have ever been bored because I love to read and love sports.

"WVU had good teams. Fred Schaus was a player then. He and Paul were in the same fraternity. I knew who Paul was because he was a cheerleader at Charleston High. We married a year after college. We lived in Morgantown two years, and I taught music at Morgantown High. I taught Bob Huggins' father, Charlie. He was a neat kid.

"We came back here and I had Tim and eventually the other three, Robin, Mark and Chris. I was a good mother and housewife, but I liked doing other things.

"The year before we married, the Light Opera Guild was formed. I'm a charter member. I've been in about 25 Guild plays. The Guild has been one of the joys of my life.

"I played Bloody Mary twice in 'South Pacific.' That was a great part. I have red hair because I played the ditzy secretary, Heddy LaRue, in 'How to Succeed in Business.' She was supposed to have red hair. The girl who had been doing my hair said we would dye my hair and then dye it back. Everybody liked it red so well that I kept it. I originally had very black hair.

"The depression started in the 1960s. It came on pretty quickly. Every day was an exquisite agony. There's hardly a way to explain it to somebody who has never been depressed.

"The worst symptom of all is that you think there is no hope. You know with every certainty within you that you are never going to be well again. We all want to have hope in our lives.

"I had three serious depressions. I woke up every morning and I thought, 'I can't. I can't.' A week was like a year. I would drag myself out of bed and fix breakfast, then go back to bed until the children came home. Often I stayed in bed after they came home. When Paul came home, he would take over.

"At that time, no one was talking about psychopharmacology. I was in the midst of the third horrible depression when Rose Jean Kaufman called me. Her husband, Paul, had met a guy whose sister had gone to Dr. Nathan Kline in New York City. He had given her lithium.

"We got an appointment almost immediately. I had worn out all of the strength I had and thought a thousand times about committing suicide. I don't know how much longer I would have gone on. People who commit suicide don't do it because they want to die. They commit suicide because they can't stand to live.

"Dr. Kline prescribed lithium. In just a few weeks, I felt so much better. I know part of it was psychological because I believed in it. I had a chemical imbalance in my brain. The lithium stabilized the problem.

"A TV producer was looking for someone who was depressed who would talk about it. Nobody wanted to talk about it because of the stigma. Dr. Kline gave him my name. The TV crew came to our home. They were doing a five-part series on mental illness, 'The Thin Edge.' One segment was about depression.

"I was very involved in the textbook controversy here. It was one of the most interesting and saddest experiences of my life. I was on the textbook selection committee. Jim Lewis and I were on 'The Phil Donahue Show.'

"Phil saw 'The Thin Edge' and asked if I would come on the show to talk about depression. Psychopharmacology was all so new to everybody. I started getting calls to speak other places. At first, I dreaded if a psychiatrist was in the audience because they thought I was wrong. I said, 'You may be the professional, but I am the expert.'

"I would get calls and letters from people who were desperate. One time, I did an interview on a nighttime radio show. I started at 11 and was supposed to quit at 12. I quit at 5. I think I was good, but if I had been awful, they still would have called because they were so desperate.

"Somebody from the National Mental Health Association called and asked me to come to Washington to speak. I spoke for them for a lot of years at state and local mental health associations.

"I had all kinds of wonderful experiences. I spoke all over Canada. At Calgary, people met me at the airport and hesitantly asked if I would consider going up in a hot air balloon. I did that the next day. So it's been great.

"It sounds egotistical, but how many people ever have a chance to save a life? I know I have probably saved hundreds of lives.

"I was raised a Presbyterian, and Presbyterians believe you are called to do something. I really think I was called to do this. My life has been ups and downs, downs to the very bottom without committing suicide. But I've done so many interesting things and met so many interesting people. Maybe that was God's gift to me for having been so depressed.

"As time went on, more and more psychiatrists were using psychopharmacology. I am not anti-psychology. People need to talk things out. But it's foolish to try to solve your problems if you don't even know if you will be able to get out of bed in the morning.

"I took lithium for six or seven years. I finally had a reaction and had to quit taking it. Dr. Kline had also prescribed an old antidepressant, and I still take it. Maybe I wouldn't need it, but I'm not going to take the chance because I am mentally healthy.

"I've had breast cancer. I have a pacemaker. Because I was well mentally, I handled them easily.

"I've been on all kinds of boards. I worked for the Human Rights Commission and was on the board 20 years. I've gotten all kinds of awards, mental health awards, Common Cause, the Martin Luther King award for courage.

Paul and I separated in 1979. It was extremely painful. For a long time, we had a really good marriage, a good life. I'm grateful for the good times. It's not beneficial to think about the ugly things.

"I've had so much love in my life in different ways. I think I've had an extraordinary life, mostly because of the depression and psychopharmacology. Mental health has always been my big cause, but there have been many, many other things.

 "One of the most meaningful things I did was sit with AIDS patients for Covenant House. It was so poignant.

"I am peaceful most of the time, but I can get really riled up about politics, gun control, the injustices in this world. There's always a cause. I saw on TV that over 20 percent of children in this state are poor and hungry. That keeps going around in my head. What can I do? They're having these regional meetings. I'm going to call tomorrow.

"I don't want to stop until I have to." Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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