I Needed Help, Not Ostracism

By William Frawley
Sunday, December 2, 2007

In our zero-tolerance times, when a public figure melts down, everyone wants answers -- right now. Explain yourself! voices demand. Take responsibility!

But as someone who has suffered a calamitous breakdown, I know that anyone at the center of a public storm needs months to comprehend what happened, move away from shame and give a coherent account of events. In the meantime, the impulse to self-punish and angry demands for retribution from others help no one heal.

Earlier this year, while president of the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, I was, Lindsay Lohan-like, charged with two DUIs. But where Lohan and other celebrities are nourished by their public embarrassments, my meltdown cost me my job and may well have cost me my career. As I grapple with the aftermath, I wonder whether things had to turn out as they did and what lessons should be learned from my crisis.

As is true for most people, college presidents' behavior doesn't always match our ideals. But when we do something embarrassing, the gap between the two is highlighted and our sins are broadcast to all. Then, as Jeffrey Rosen wrote in his book "The Unwanted Gaze," the public quickly mistakes mere information about us for genuine knowledge of our characters. But there's always more to the story, and that critical extra needs to be told openly and in its proper course. A rush to explanation is just as treacherous as a rush to judgment.

I came to the presidency of Mary Washington in 2006 with a solid record of achievement: I had been a dean at George Washington University, published more than a dozen books and hundreds of papers and reviews, won recognition for my teaching, raised millions of dollars. But the way I left -- with no apparent consideration for my illness or my record and no support for my family's transition to a new life -- contrasted sharply with the exits of other university presidents in similar situations. What it shared with them was the realization that the first casualty in such crises -- but the only thing that saves you in the end -- is honesty.

My April meltdown was of my own making, as I've repeatedly acknowledged and publicly regretted. I've always said that I should not have been driving, and I'm thankful that I alone was hurt. I know that my actions cracked the trust that the UMW board and community had placed in me. But their hard-edged reactions also cracked my trust in them.

For 45 years, I had self-treated a case of undiagnosed depression with compulsive work and, lately, alcohol. New heart problems and allergies added to the mix, as did the stress of separation from my family, which remained in Maryland. I wouldn't listen to those who urged me to slow down, and even foiled an arrangement by one of my vice presidents to get me to do so. I didn't want to know myself.

On April 10, I got up at 4:30 a.m., as always. Racing around, I was afraid I'd be late for my autistic son's assessment in Bethesda, which I had already postponed twice. On the way there, I felt as though I was going to have a nervous breakdown. To calm down, I drank some wine (after taking allergy medication) before I got on the road.

I'd never driven to Bethesda from UMW before, and I took the wrong exit off I-495. Confused, distracted and on a twisting road, I went off a curve and flipped the car. I recall little of what happened afterward, except for telling the emergency crew not to defibrillate me because of my history of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, an electrical problem of the heart. That evening, I awoke in the intensive care unit of Inova Fairfax Hospital. I argued my way out, insisting that I had to work the next day. At 1 a.m., I drove back to Fredericksburg. I have no idea how I made it there in my exhausted and still-sedated state.

I got up again at 4:30 a.m., wrote some e-mails (which I later saw were gibberish) and went to work. My startled staff sent me home, but I couldn't rest. Jittery and consumed again with the feeling that I was about to have a breakdown or a heart attack, I drove up to horse country, parked, took in the scenery and drank again. On the way home, I hit a pothole and blew a tire but continued on, sleepless and disoriented.

Thankfully, someone noticed my erratic driving and called the police, who surely thought I was a nut case heading into . . . well, the UMW president's driveway! Filled in by some of my staff who had shown up at the scene, the police recognized what was happening; they charged me with DUI but, more important, took me to the hospital.

The upshot of that 26-hour sequence was six days in the hospital, a newly diagnosed cardiac problem -- and scandal. My story was splashed across the local and national papers and (endlessly, it seemed) on television and the radio. I felt relentless shame.

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