It’s a rare photo in which Gabe appears depressed. He was known for his boisterous, charismatic personality. But, from the time he left home for college, he struggled with depression. This photo was taken at my husband’s graduation from a pastoral training program in June 2004. Gabe would have just finished his freshman year at Wheaton College in Illinois.
I write about his depression because, as Endurance Team members, we are focused on overcoming and suicide seems like the antithesis of that. One thing I’d really like to accomplish through my involvement with the team is to help others overcome faulty ideas about depression and suicide. Ideas that I myself once held.
Not long before Gabriel died, I joined the CTF group on Facebook. A young woman posted a comment on the group wall about studies linking NF to psychiatric difficulties. I didn’t think much about it until after Gabe died. Then I began doing research and found one of the studies she may have been referring to. Here it is from PubMed:
Neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1) is often associated with psychiatric disorders, which are more frequent in NF1 than in general population (33% of patients). Dysthymia is the most frequent diagnosis (21% of patients). There is also a high prevalence of depressive mood (7%), anxiety (1-6%), and personality (3%) disorders. The risk of suicide is four times greater than in the general population. Bipolar mood disorders or schizophrenia appear to be rare. The impaired quality of life associated with NF1 may play an important role in the development of psychiatric disorders. Quality of life assessments may help to identify a population at high risk.
Dysthymia can be defined as depression; despondency or a tendency to be despondent. It certainly describes Gabe at increasingly frequent intervals in the last year of his life. In another study, researchers found no link between the severity of familiar NF symptoms and the severity of psychiatric ones, indicating that something neurological might be going on rather than simple despair over the condition itself.
Since 2002, I have written for a magazine called Christianity Today. One of my articles was about Gabe and a couple others mentioned him. Because I had encountered a good deal of both ignorance and empathy after his suicide, I wrote about his death for the magazine. You can read that article here. It traces a bit of family history, does some education and poses the possibility that Gabe was suffering from bipolar disorder, which a couple of mental health professionals suggested after reading his suicide notes and journal entries. I’m ambivalent about this post-mortem analysis though, because the impulsivity that correlates with his attention deficit disorder combined with his undiagnosed dysthymia could be mistaken for bipolar.
Long before I had a thought about any of this, I wrote about Gabe’s NF in Christianity Today. That article was an investigation into human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research. Through it, I met my friend and NF Endurance Team partner David Brick. David is an hESC researcher at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, CA. When we were training for the Long Beach Half Marathon last year, David did some reading of his own on NF. He found something about the involvement of mast cells in NF. Mast cells are also indicated in asthma and allergies. This got me wondering if Gabe’s severe asthma might also have been a function of his NF. Instead of suffering from three separate diseases—NF, asthma and depression—was he really only suffering symptoms of one nasty disorder? I’d like to know the answer to this question.
The point of my writing about this here is both to alert CTF to these possibilities and to say that Gabe was for all of his life a true NF Hero. He overcame challenges that many of us will never face. The father from whom he inherited neurofibromatosis never acknowledged him and chose not to be a part of his life. He dealt with race issues as well, and was frequently sick and isolated with asthma. NF was always in the background as a concern. And yet, Gabe was incredibly accomplished. You can read about his many accomplishments here.
In one of his suicide notes, he wrote that as much as he kept trying to “pull himself up into the world of real people,” he felt dead inside. That feeling is not failure or a lack of courage; it’s a symptom of clinical depression. A symptom that he did not recognize had a treatment. A symptom he hid well in his lifelong habit of being an overcomer. A symptom I did not understand.
For the sake of others suffering such symptoms, I want to challenge the NF Endurance Team and its members to recognize that our message shouldn’t exclude those suffering from mental illness. Death by suicide is a preventable tragedy, not a lack of character. While we want to be careful not to romanticize or idealize those who die by suicide, we also want to remember that the vast majority of people who take their own lives die from mental illness that is no fault of their own.
So, here’s to my NF Hero, Gabriel Gifford Scheller!
Update: The NYC Half Marathon is just 10 days away and I’ve only raised $350 of my $1000 goal. If you’d like to help me answer the question posed in this post, you can support my efforts here, or you can send a check to: The Children’s Tumor Foundation 95 Pine Street, 16th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10005.