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Long fight against a shifty foe
Friend's mental illness grabbed him and would never let go.

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Date published: 7/20/2003


PERHAPS ALL of our advancements in science, medicine, and technology have heightened our frustration when we're faced with issues we can't fix or even understand.

My friend Mark battled mental illness for more than 20 years, but the best efforts of big-city doctors were no match for its insidiousness. They might have finally begun to help, but they could never heal.

Mark and I started our careers together in 1976 with a chain of small newspapers on Maryland's Eastern Shore. He was a sports writer there, but a few years later decided to advance his career by taking a job as police reporter in newspaper-competitive Tidewater Virginia.

We stayed in touch well enough that I knew he was being pressed by his editor to be more aggressive on his beat. I knew Mark was not the sort to assert himself that way, but I was not prepared when he called one morning to say that he had done away with his editor.

He had not, of course, but so began a saga of evolving diagnoses and changing medications that ended when he died last month at age 48.

When Mark and I were starting out on the Shore, it so happened that the company was doing a lot of hiring at the time, and many of the new staffers were around the same age and unattached. We grew into a close-knit group, becoming friends as well as colleagues. Though we've gone our separate ways over the years and many of us have families of our own, enough links in the chain remain that we've generally kept track of one another's whereabouts and well-being.

Many of us shared concerns about Mark. He reached out with letters, and we would write back. I suppose his situation prevented him from joining us in the Internet age, so he was for some of us the last true pen pal.

Over the years he was diagnosed as schizophrenic, then manic-depressive, which now is referred to as bipolar. I lost track of all the medications he said had been prescribed for him.

He eventually tried to return to work as a sportswriter with our former newspaper on the Eastern Shore. It was an admirable gesture by that company, providing Mark with the head start of a familiar setting with familiar faces.

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