Staving Off “The Darkness”
A Family’s Struggles with Depression and their Good Fortune in Overcoming Its Grip
From The Quarterly, Spring 2014
The Peck siblings—Wendy, Amy, and Robert—have in common a history of clinical depression, something they shared with their late mother. Fortunately, they have all found treatments that worked, and they all also benefit from a Rock-of-Gibraltar father whom Amy says “has essentially saved each of us from the darkness, at some point.”
Arthur Peck, M.D., a retired psychiatrist, and his wife, Judy, raised three intellectually gifted children who are now in their 50s. The Peck siblings took very different directions in life, but all have forged productive and fulfilling paths. They and their father have been determined not to let mental illness upend their lives.
Wendy, the older of two Peck daughters, who lives in a suburb of Philadelphia, holds an advanced degree in urban planning and works with architects and developers on major building projects. Younger sister Amy worked as a legislative assistant on the Senate Budget Committee during the eight years of the Clinton Presidency before moving to St. Louis. There she raises money and community awareness for a food bank that provides nutrition and hope to thousands of the city’s poor.
Robert, the eldest, is a motivational speaker living in New England. In his youth, after graduating summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania, he announced to his startled parents that he was going to be a juggler. And for a number of years he did just that, serving at one time as the “juggler in residence” at an exclusive private school.
Eleven years ago, when Amy moved from Washington, D.C. to St. Louis for her husband’s new job, she had to leave behind a city she loved, friends and career, and not least, her psychiatrist. It triggered a deep depression. “I had thought I could weather the transition on my own,” she says, “that I could re-invent myself as someone without mental illness. But within a month of the move, I was in a bad way.”
Amy called her father.
Dr. Peck will not soon forget that call. One moment it was an ordinary day in his Tenafly, New Jersey home, the next moment his daughter was telling him, from a thousand miles away, that “she doesn’t know how she is going to live through the day.” Not knowing a soul in St. Louis, he called NARSAD, what is now the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation.
A supporter from the Foundation’s inception, Dr. Peck was aware early on of the importance of brain research. His 42-year career in geriatric psychiatry began in 1955 at a time when Alzheimer’s disease, a tragedy he confronted daily, was an almost compete mystery. “No one had a clue how it started or progressed or how to deal with it,” he says.
Responding to Amy’s plight, the Foundation put Dr. Peck in touch with Herbert Pardes, M.D., President of the organization’s Scientific Council. “Dr. Pardes told me he’d make sure someone in St. Louis would see Amy that day,” Dr. Peck says, “And that’s exactly what happened.”
The “someone” was psychiatrist Dan W. Haupt, M.D. Now at Oregon Health & Science University, Dr. Haupt was then a NARSAD Young Investigator Grantee at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. His NARSAD Grant study concerned the metabolic effects of antipsychotic medications, but he also treated patients in the hospital’s psychiatric service. He diagnosed Amy with bipolar depression and prescribed the mood stabilizer lamotrigine (Lamictal®)—and it worked. Amy also credits her recovery to his astute assessment of the person inside her illness and his unpatronizing and reassuring approach to her care.
The Peck children now have grown children of their own, who, like their parents, are bright, independent and engaged in busy lives. Robert has a daughter about to graduate Smith College. Wendy has a son graduating from Lehigh University and a daughter entering Bucknell University. Amy has two sons, the older one at the University of Chicago, the younger one still in high school.
Scientists now believe that many, if not most, mental illnesses have a significant genetic component. Arthur Peck fervently hopes his grandchildren are spared the family’s struggles with depression. He crosses his fingers, saying “so far, so good” and puts his faith in the promise of research if the day should come that more of his family members will need effective treatments to treat psychiatric illness.