The face of depression: one man’s tale – Feature – Brief Article

Aarti Totlani

Eight years ago, 60-year-old Ernie Pohlhaus slumped behind the wheel of his car and told his wife he couldn’t drive. Later that night, he was convinced that FBI agents had surrounded their house. The next morning, Ernie was sure he was going to die from kidney pain. He was taken to the emergency room. After an onslaught of tests, doctors realized he was experiencing a psychotic episode brought on by depression. He was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Ernie had been a happy, healthy man, a few years from retirement. His daughter, Jeanine, a photographer, dealt with his illness the only way she knew how–by taking pictures. Here, she shares photographs of her father’s battle with a serious mood disorder.

Ernie’s illness shook the family emotionally and financially. To avoid the stigma of being mentally ill, he retired without disability. Thereafter, he lost much of his pension benefits. Though his children, John and Jeanine, moved back home to support him through the first difficult months, Ernie has depended mainly on Joan, his wife, for strength. During the past eight years, Joan has worked off and on as a director for an educational learning center, but she stays home with Ernie when he lapses into depression. Although things have changed, the little routines of daily life keep her going.

Two weeks after Ernie entered the emergency room, his doctors announced that there was nothing physically wrong with him. They recommended psychiatric help. The next day, John drove Ernie to Philhaven Hospital in Mount Gretna, Pennsylvania. Ernie didn’t know where he was going or why. He was unable to speak or even smile. He just knew that he was sick and he couldn’t go home. While his wife held him, Ernie was in a different world.

Ernie was once an energetic social worker for the state of Pennsylvania. His condition, however, changed all that. Joan tried to explain to her husband that his depression was causing his sickness and that he was too ill to return home. But he was hurting too much to understand what she was saying.

Ernie stayed at Philhaven for a few months. After sampling an endless list of antipsychotic drugs and antidepressants, he was still depressed. Time was running out–his insurance coverage would expire in a few days. The insurance company and his doctor persuaded Ernie to try electroshock therapy before the coverage ran out. He decided to undergo treatment. To ensure his body could withstand the shock, he was given several tests, including an electrocardiogram. In all, he had 13 electroshock therapy sessions.

For the Pohlhauses, electroshock therapy sounded like something out of a horror movie. But the doctors recommended it. The nurse at the psychiatric hospital led them into the recreation room and turned on a video about the treatment. Ernie watched the tape in a drugged stupor. Joan tried to hold him, but his body was rigid.

Home from the hospital, Ernie took to his bed for months. With his family’s encouragement, he gradually started seeing friends once a week. He and Joan visited Jeanine in New York. They took the subway to see the Christmas lights at Rockefeller Center City life, though, was overwhelming, and Ernie tired easily. Back home, he took on a full-time job teaching German at a local high school. His family was thrilled. But he earned only one paycheck. Joan knew he had stopped going to work but didn’t embarrass him with questions. One day, she dropped him off at the school and watched him from the rearview mirror. He headed to a nearby diner, where he spent his day. Going to work exhausted him, but he couldn’t face telling his family.

Ernie’s family and friends have been a mix of both supportive and ignorant. The less understanding ones look down on him and believe he could snap out of his depression if he tried. Joan’s longtime friend, Lili Walters, is not one of those friends. Lili, a massage therapist who believes in alternative treatments, has stood by the family. She offers massages, advice or just an occasional helping hand.

On bad days, simple tasks can be frustratingly hard for Ernie. Joan asks him to help around the house, but he doesn’t like being told what to do. And although Joan hates being a taskmaster, she feels she doesn’t have much choice. Sometimes they argue, but apologies always follow.

Family dogs Sauza and Francis are therapeutic companions for Ernie. After the electroshock, he suffered manic episodes. At odd hours, he would drive for miles in his pajamas looking for oysters and gourmet food. During these manic episodes, Sauza, the 11-year-old boxer, would refuse to recognize Ernie. Later, Ernie knew he was recovering when Sauza began sleeping next to him again.

Ernie naps in the lobby of the Hotel Hershey after celebrating his 40th wedding anniversary recently. He’s no longer depressed. He spends his spare time singing with the Harrisburg Choral Society, and his rendition of “Danny Boy” at the neighborhood bar has made him a local celebrity. Still, he hates his medication. The lithium stabilizes him, but it also numbs his emotions. He’s taking drugs for his diabetes and heart disease, as well. Used together, the prescriptions make him sick and exhausted. He spits out the pills when no one is watching. Other times, he just forgets to take them. Joan grows tired of policing Ernie–it puts a strain on their marriage. Together, they take the bad days with the good, trying to find value in each moment he feels well.

Additional photographs chronicling Ernie’s illness will be published in Darkness Observed (Power House, 2003).

COPYRIGHT 2002 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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