By his own reckoning, Ron Thompson slipped without warning into a dark corridor of depression that worsened to the point a sister feared he was on the verge of plunging over the edge, right into a “path of destruction.”

The odyssey has lasted some 18 months, dating back to October 2005, when, for a specific reason that eludes him, the veteran Raleigh County legislator began to sense a personality change.

Just what triggered his lapse into a common mental disorder known in medical parlance as bipolar two remains a mystery to him.

Now, he is under treatment, after months of refusing, in deference to an admitted “macho” attitude of self-reliance that insisted whatever made him feel isolated and different could be overcome by his own strong will.

Thompson became a political cause celebre that reached far beyond his two-county 27th District when he neglected to appear at the legislative session’s Jan. 10 start to re-take an oath he has uttered on six other occasions, after winning that many terms before his last successful campaign effort last fall.

That started a series of events that prompted the House of Delegates to declare his seat vacant, then rescind the historic move less than a week later.

Eventually, word came from a Beckley psychiatrist that the long-missing Democratic lawmaker was under treatment which started only 10 days before Thompson lent himself to an exclusive interview with The Register-Herald Thursday. His weight had risen rapidly, but Thompson appeared as cheerful and gregarious as colleagues and news reporters remembered him.

At times, he laughed freely at some of the questions, especially when reminded of the prolific rumors generated by his self-imposed exile from the public eye.

As for one piece of scuttlebutt, Thompson was emphatic — he isn’t facing any legal troubles.

Thompson described his progress in less than two weeks of treatment as a restoration to 80 percent of his health and insists he eventually plans to take the oath of office, but cannot say just when he will reach that point.

“What he has is not bipolar one, which is usually associated with high-manic episodes, you know, crazy episodes,” says his treating psychiatrist, Dr. Ahmed Faheem of Beckley.

“He’s got bipolar depression, which is primarily recurring depression.”

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Thompson opened the hour-long session with words of gratitude for those who displayed support.

“Even people that I don’t even know have come forward and sent cards and letters, and expressed concern and support,” he said in a room at Beckley Appalachian Regional Hospital, where he was taken after his family secured a mental hygiene petition to begin a healing process he had eschewed for a year and half.

“First of all, I want to thank God and thank my family and my friends,” he said.

Thompson acknowledged he failed to appear at Faheem’s office to initiate treatment back in January, “and for that, I offer remorse.”

“Before I entered the hospital, there was a certain stubbornness on my part just to hide away and try to solve the problem on my own, which caused me not to want to associate myself with obviously my colleagues, work, such things as that,” he said.

“But after receiving treatment in here, obviously it is working, in my opinion. I intend when I leave here, sooner than later, going down and taking the oath of office and sooner than later resuming my duties as one of five elected delegates from the 27th District.”

Faheem said there is a marked difference in Thompson from when he first came under treatment.

“It’s an illness like any other illness that he is just recovering from,” the veteran psychiatrist said.

“He is much better than when he came in. If you’ve had a medical problem, it takes you a little time to go to a 100 percent function. If you ever had surgery — I had gall bladder surgery, and it took me two weeks to come back to work. As compared to the way he came in and his family can answer that, he has made a tremendous amount of progress.”

Returning to his familiar routine requires a step-by-step recovery, or what Faheem characterized as “baby steps.”

Thompson had hoped for a swifter recovery, but Faheem said his advice to his patient is to take matters incrementally.

Taking his physician’s advice, he said, Thompson submitted himself to a one-on-one interview with The Register-Herald rather than put himself in the glare of television lights and a room choking with reporters, heaping more stress on him.

“I think this is the first step in that direction,” Faheem said.

“The same thing with going back to Charleston and getting sworn in. I think it should happen in the near future. But again, you know, I don’t want to really set up a date before he feels in the right frame of mind to do so. So one has to understand that Ron really means it, but you don’t want to really push him. You know, 18 months is a long time.

“He wouldn’t be hiding from everybody if he was fine. So I think he is admitting, and his family will tell you, that he has had problems. And I think we need to give him a little time. He knows where he is now, and he intends to go forward from it.”

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Thompson said he cannot explain what sent the emotional side of him into a tailspin.

“That’s the big question,” he said.

“It may have been something that was building up over time. There may have been some family history of bipolar and mood disorders in my family. I just don’t know.”

Faheem called his patient’s case “complicated,” but recalled the lawmaker’s father died during the 2002 primary campaign.

“And you know he was very close to him,” Faheem said. “I’m not at liberty to go into other details. Obviously, like anybody’s family, he has had some family stresses and things like that. So it’s a building up of things, and once you are in that frame of mind, ordinary stresses become much.”

When the ordinarily outgoing Thompson became aloof during the 2006 session, fellow delegates and a newspaper reporter became puzzled by this noticeable shift. At the time, Thompson alluded to his efforts to get treatment for a grandmother in failing health.

But as time dragged on, the legislator’s descent from the public eye sharpened. He bypassed every monthly slate of interims meetings, and two special sessions as well, then ran a nearly phantom re-election campaign. Name recognition still worked its magic. The voters rewarded him with a seventh term, but Thompson still hadn’t come forward.

When his protracted absence ignited a swarm of media inquiries, the pressure began to mount on the new House leadership of Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, no relation to the Beckley delegate.

The speaker gave the missing lawmaker an ultimatum in January — show up or provide a good reason why not. The no-show lawmaker’s response was to impose his own Feb. 5 deadline for returning. But when the day arrived, the delegate asked for an extension until March 1, or 10 days before the session is due to end.

By then, it was apparent on the faces of Speaker Thompson and Rules Committee members that patience had been exhausted. Then came House Resolution 16, declaring his seat vacant, adopted on a voice vote. A short time later, Faheem sent the speaker a letter, explaining the missing lawmaker was under his care. With that, the House reversed its action.

Thompson had become a semi-recluse, and some Beckleyans seemed to delight in sporadic “sightings,” convinced they had see him at a McDonald’s drive-through getting coffee or shopping for groceries at Kroger.

If that were the case, Thompson was asked, why couldn’t he have driven to Charleston and taken the oath?

“It’s just a question I cannot answer,” he said. “I just don’t know the answer to it. There would be more days than not when I woke up and said, you know, ‘Get dressed, go the Capitol and do your job.’ I guess, with the illness, I can’t answer that.”

Thompson said he understands the road to recovery is a long one.

“I know that I’ve received a lot of criticism over this and I understand that, and I respect everyone’s opinion,” he said.

“I would ask that, No. 1, people respect what I’m going through as far as the illness is concerned. And No. 2, that they judge me, and, of course, obviously they’re going to judge me politically, that they judge me on my last 12 years and not the last 12 months. And judge me on my record of serving the people of Raleigh and Summers counties and the state of West Virginia as a House of Delegates member the past 12 years, not what has transpired in the last 12 months. It’s a tall order to ask and I understand that completely.”

Thompson recognized a political reality — that some would never bestow their trust in him again.

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So when did he become mindful that things simply weren’t right with him? To answer that, he used the third person.

“Probably I could really sense he was not the same Ron Thompson in the last session,” he said.

“I could sense there was something wrong in the last session. But it was just my stubbornness and my pride. I just thought I could work it out on my own. Obviously, I could not. And I’m not ashamed at all to say I could not.”

Early on, Thompson said, he didn’t exactly feel depressed, just detached.

“I just felt like I wanted to be isolated,” he said.

“I felt like during the session I was going to go vote my conscience as I always do, do my job and answer constituent requests. But as far as the other stuff that is associated with being a legislator, I just felt like I didn’t want to do it.”

For him, that meant spending off hours alone in a hotel room watching basketball or other athletic outings, far removed from the hubbub of after-hours activity in the capital.

On another point, Faheem likewise was emphatic, saying there was no evidence Thompson’s condition was affected by any controlled substance.

“He is totally clean,” the physician said. “He has tested very clean. His family has not given me any indication that substance abuse has been an issue.”

And Thompson quickly chimed in, “I don’t have a substance problem. I’ve never been a huge drinker. I haven’t had a drink since May 2006. I just never have been a drinker. I’d just as soon have a cold Sprite or Pepsi.”

Susan Harrah of Charleston, the delegate’s sister, said the family felt compelled to take decisive action after Thompson failed to keep an appointment with Faheem. That led to a mental hygiene petition, resulting in his admittance to BARH.

“He was on a path of destruction, which Dr. Faheem will tell you is part of his condition,” she said.

“We could see it. We needed to take some sort of action.”

After dealing with similar cases, Faheem said he was convinced “serious issues” confronted Thompson, and that the family felt it had exhausted every means of getting help before having the petition executed.

His weight has zoomed from a normal 184 to 230.

“You would ask that,” he said, chuckling at the inquiry.

Given his long-standing habit of working out, especially jogging, the question was a fair one, he was reminded.

“I guess that maybe anybody who has seen me, that may be the biggest shock of all over the period of time — a weight gain,” he allowed.

When the waistline expanded, Thompson said he grew concerned that he was beset with a physical malady.

“But my family has a history of weight gain, weight loss,” he explained.

“That’s one of the things I intend on getting back to. Two-thirty as a blimp on the radar screen will be something out of the past. I’m 40 years old, and I will get back to the way I was before.”

Weight gain and loss are both symptoms of bipolar, Faheem said, and one must bear in mind the delegate’s long period of inactivity, which exacerbates a weight struggle.

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Thompson didn’t fault the media, but said the attention riveted on him the past two months hadn’t helped matters.

“The press is just doing their job and I understand that,” he said.

“Some were a little bit more (aggressive) and still are to a certain extent. At the same time, I respect their job. I understand they’ve got questions. Hopefully, with this interview, it will be a start on my way to communicate with them on the illness that I have and regain their trust.”

Faheem said bipolar two is quite common, but said many refuse to seek help, fearing their peers will ostracize them since some are inclined to attach a stigma to a mental disorder, while readily sympathizing over a faulty gall bladder or cancer.

Severe depression has affected a number of public personalities, among them President Abraham Lincoln. As recently as 1972, first-choice running mate Thomas Eagleton fell off the presidential ticket of George McGovern when psychiatric treatments were revealed.

But only in more recent times, within, in fact, the past 30 days, has society come to show a level of compassion and understanding, abandoning to some extent the old fears and misperceptions about mental illness, Faheem said.

Thompson spoke eagerly about jumping back into public life, but again emphasized he cannot put a definite date on such a return.

“Politics is a large part of my life,” he said.

“I love policymaking. You’re aware of that. I think Dr. Faheem and Susan knew that as well. I miss, No. 1, the job that the voters sent me down there to do. And that’s to serve them. And again, I understand their disgust, some of them, their confusion, their concern. I want to thank all the compassionate phone calls and letters, prayers I received, and I intend on when I leave here, and have already started somewhat, rekindling and resparking some of those relationships.

“I’ve always loved the state of West Virginia, doing what’s in the best interest of the state.”

Thompson apologized that his disorder and disappearance from the public eye had attracted so much attention.

“Just be a little more patient, and obviously, I understand that some may not,” he said.

“I understand that the House has taken a lot of criticism under the new leadership of Speaker Rick Thompson, whom I admire and respect and have been a friend with him and his wife a long time. I understand they have taken a lot of criticism for their action both in removing me and then in reinstating me back in my seat. For that (the reinstatement), I’m very, very thankful, and want to thank them for that. I know this sets a precedent in the state of West Virginia. Hopefully, that issue will never have to come before the House or Senate again.”

Given the Constitution, he said the House had no choice but to take the initial action before Faheem stepped forward once the doctor-patient relationship was cemented and treatment began.

Perhaps, he suggested, the Feb. 5 deadline was a mistake in judgment.

“I can’t tell you,” he replied when asked why he would make such a promise before even seeing a doctor.

“I just thought, being such a strong individual, ‘You could do it, you can grab yourself by the bootstraps and pull yourself up, and get yourself out of this.’ But I would encourage anybody who thinks that, read this article; who thinks they can do this, think twice. And really think seriously about getting help. It’s very, very difficult.”

Faheem said the treatment entails both counseling and some medications.

“He has been through a major illness,” he said. “There is no doubt about it.

“He certainly has responded very, very well to treatment. The prognosis with treatment is excellent. Obviously, he will need continued support from his family, with his friends, with everyone. And he will have to watch the stress. He will have to take it one step at a time.”

— E-mail:

mannix@register-herald.com

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