Rich girl, poor girl

Attorney Lynn Garson was born into a life of privilege, but her happy ending was hard-earned.

Next week: ‘Greatest preacher that ever lived’ receives Medal of Freedom for civil rights activism.

The older woman sitting across the table from Lynn Garson in the cafeteria of an Atlanta mental hospital had enough. It wasn’t much, really; the kid next to Lynn, a young man with a mischievous way, was messing with the woman’s metal tray, tapping hers with his, drumming his silverware, that sort of thing. But people can explode on you fast here.

Next thing you know, “She’s got a fork in her hand and she’s coming after him screaming, ‘I’ll cut your (testicles) off!’” Lynn recalled. So the kid yells back that he’s going to sever some part of the woman’s anatomy and then starts to come over the table after her, cutlery in hand.

Lynn is telling this story from a 53rd-floor office suite in downtown Atlanta, home of the prestigious law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge, where she works as a health care lawyer. A choice of bottled waters — bubbles? still? — rests on a table near her, in front of a vast wall of windows that overlooks the cityscape below.

It is hard to imagine how this fashionably dressed, well- mannered attorney could find herself in such a bizarre and dangerous place, where crack addicts roamed the hallways, alcoholics fought the DTs, attempted suicides sported fresh stitches and people howled through the night and day. Where they take your shoelaces from you, just in case.

It’s even harder considering how this Emory Law grad was raised: on what amounts to an Old South-style mansion on West Paces Ferry in Buckhead that evoked Tara, with its staff of African-American servants and formal gardens. It was a gilded lifestyle of finger bowls, private schools and trips around the world.

But Lynn wasn’t a visitor when that violent scene occurred in the winter of 2010. She was a patient, suffering from severe depression.

Now the 60-year-old lawyer is on a mission to tell the story of how she got in there, and how she got out. First she told it in a blog, then in a self-published book, “Southern Vapors,” which came out last year.

For Lynn, it’s a form of self-therapy, to be sure. But that’s not her only reason for going public. She thinks it might actually help somebody else who’s going through what she has gone through.

“If I can do it, trust me, a lot of people can do this,” she said. “There is nothing unique about me.”

There is, though. And it started with life at Tara.

Life of privilege
A long, sweeping driveway flanked by twin rows of magnolia trees leads to a white-columned house that is massive and imposing. Behind it the property slopes down to the muddy banks of the Chattahoochee River.

When Lynn lived there in the 1950s and ’60s, the grounds included a pool, a pool house, vegetable gardens and a log cabin, where the laundress and her family stayed.

Inside the home were 17 rooms, including servants quarters that housed the nursemaid to Lynn and her brother, Frank, the children of industrialist Dan Garson and his wife, Charlotte Rosen Garson.

Atlanta native Dan Garson, who died in 2009, ran the woman’s lingerie business his father founded in 1926. At one point the firm, whose main product was the Lovable brand of brassieres, employed 3,000 people around the world. The manufacturing plant sat on what is to this day Garson Drive in south Buckhead until the company was dissolved in the late 1990s.

Charlotte, a native New Yorker who graduated from Northwestern University, ran the Garson home, managing the staff and tending the gardens.

It was a world of sheltered privilege and excessive consumption. Lynn grew up a spoiled little girl — even her friends thought so. But the life she remembers was hardly idyllic, in part because of her relationship with her parents, especially her mother.

Charlotte, according to Lynn and her friends, was a majestic presence, tall, slender, beautiful with a powerful will that could cow the servants, and also her daughter. Lynn grew up feeling immense pressure to be perfect — like her mother.

Nowhere was that truer than with Lynn’s appearance, particularly as it pertained to her weight. If she gained a few pounds, Lynn said she could expect from her mother a “tongue-lashing that would rip my skin off.”

Lynn’s first memory that something was wrong with her came when she was about 6. She was sitting on the couch in the TV room with a half-dozen candy bars lined up next to her and “feeling like I wasn’t safe without them,” she recalled. “I don’t know how I knew that this wasn’t right, but I did. I think I must have already gotten the idea that it wasn’t OK to eat what I wanted, because I knew even then that I had to keep my stash a secret.”

It was an early sign of what would be a life-long struggle with an eating disorder that became intertwined with periods of high anxiety, mood swings and deep depression.

While her parents roamed the globe on business and pleasure trips for months at a time, Lynn says she was all but raised by the nursemaid, Ruth McCreary (now Ruth Flowers), who brushed her hair for hours on end, took the young Jewish girl to services at a African Methodist Episcopal church and prepared back- country meals for her like squirrel and grits with gravy.

“She was the source of a measure of unconditional love in my life and provided a much-needed counterpoint to my mother’s temper, which was often extreme,” Lynn wrote in her book.

One day, when Lynn was 13, Ruth left with no explanation. Maybe it was then that Lynn first lost her way, or so she speculates. Or it could have been something else. She didn't know. Making matters worse, she says, nobody around her seemed that interested in finding out.

A formidable force
Charlotte Garson, 88, has grown frail over the years, but she still has a commanding air. She lives on the entire floor near the top of a premier Atlanta high-rise condominium on Peachtree Road, providing her spectacular 360-degree views of the city. Fine art objects, as well as large portraits of her husband and herself, adorn the pristine rooms, befitting the board member of the High Museum of Art.

Asked about Ruth’s departure, Charlotte said there were things that happened during Lynn’s youth that were difficult to explain at the time. There had been a death in Ruth’s family and she’d had to return to Florida. Lynn was too young to understand, Charlotte believed, so she offered no explanation.

The fact is, much went unsaid in the family and resentments were left to fester.

“I never realized she had this huge chip on her shoulder,” Charlotte said. “I’m a confused mother as far as her earlier life is concerned.”

Charlotte suggests that she may have set an example that was too much for Lynn to live up to.

“My husband used to say, ‘It’s too bad she wasn’t five-foot-eight and weighed 120 pounds,’” Charlotte said. “I think she might have wanted to be me. I don’t know.”

When she was 16, Lynn told her parents she thought she needed to see a psychiatrist. She was advised to keep that thought to herself. They were willing to enlist experts to help her control her weight, Lynn said, but not to address her mounting mental and emotional problems.

Nevertheless, for the most part, to the world’s eye at least, Lynn managed to grow into adulthood and live a functional life.

She left home for college at Tulane, where she studied art, and then Emory University’s School of Law. After graduation, she practiced law for a while, but then traded that stressful life to work for a time in an art gallery in New York.

She later launched Garson Goodman, a retail shop in Atlanta that sold luxury home items. Along the way, she got married, had three children and moved to Hong Kong, where they all lived for a time.

Cycle of sickness
And yet there were times when Lynn would cry for no obvious reason, tears streaming down her face while she shopped in the grocery store, times when her blood pressure spiked, times when she was simply terrified to face daily life.

“Every day it was feeling like the plane was going down,” she said. “That’s too much for anybody.”

There were visits to multiple therapists who prescribed 28 different psychiatric medications, including Prozac, Wellbutrin, Effexor, Xanax, Zoloft, Cymbalta, Lithium, Valium and Adderall. She wasn’t addicted to the drugs, she said, but in time she became addicted to the idea that medication could save her.

There were all manner of diagnoses. Among them: non-specific bipolar disorder, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, binge eating disorder and treatment- resistant depression.

All she knew for sure was that she had a long-term, hard-to-explain mental illness that would sometimes climax in episodes that left her hiding and whimpering under her desk at work, gorging on snacks sneaked from the fridge, or shaking uncontrollably while making a speech at her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.

Lynn’s first hospitalization came in 2000, when she entered Ridgeview Institute in Smyrna for treatment of her eating disorder. It wasn’t until she was released three weeks later that she told her parents where she’d been. Nonplussed, they responded, “Oh, we were afraid that you were coming to tell us that you were going to get a divorce,” Lynn writes in the book.

Lynn’s darkest moment followed her separation in 2005 from her husband, with whom she had a son and two daughters.

“We thought we were going to lose her,” said lifelong friend Cathie Sekendur. “She was so depressed, like she had given up. She felt she had nothing to live for.”

Lynn attributes the breakup in large part to her eating disorder, which triggered a binge-starve depression cycle that roared through her household.

“It was like clockwork,” she recalled. “Three days without eating — only diet soft drinks. Then maybe salads with vinegar only as a dressing and plain baked chicken breasts for three or four weeks. It would get to the point that my mouth would pucker up like I’d eaten a lemon when I took a bite of tomato, my taste buds were so unused to any real food,” she said.

“On the binge side, it would be like somebody stockpiling for Armageddon. I like to alternate sweet and salty, so I’d buy whole cakes, cold cuts, trail mix, M&M’s, ice cream ... The quantity was amazing — I bet I could have out-eaten a linebacker in the pros.”

The split brought short-term relief, but Lynn was not prepared for the emotional fallout. Then living in Virginia near her in-laws, she found herself alone and isolated from her family back in Atlanta and fearful that she would lose her children.

In summer 2008, she entered a mental hospital for the second time, The Retreat at Sheppard Pratt, a private, upscale facility in Baltimore. It cost $12,000 a week, which she could not afford, but her brother convinced their parents to cover the cost.

She still felt lousy when she left, and two years later she would be admitted to an Atlanta facility she refuses to name to protect the people she met there and writes about in her book.

By then she was coming to realize that it was up to her to take responsibility for her problems if she were to survive them. She came to accept that she suffered from what she called “the vapors,” which her friend Laura Schmidt summed up as the inability, when faced with calamity, “to pull up her big-girl panties.”

Lynn had long believed medication helped her, but after being taken off all drugs while a patient at the Atlanta hospital, she felt better, not worse.

She realized she had developed coping mechanisms that hurt her more than helped her and that what she had was in large part an existential crisis.

“There are not a lot of fixes for that” she said, “until you find a purpose.”

Like a job and the book?

"I wouldn't give you a plug nickel for my recovery if it weren't for those," she said.

An uneasy truce
Lynn always performed well professionally, even when she was at her low point. On New Year's Eve 2007, she managed to close two big legal deals while so terrified by life that she would crawl under her desk to hide.

She knew a job would give her the stability she needed to right herself. But work seemed an unlikely salvation. After her last hospitalization, she was told she would never hold a job again and should apply for disability.

She did. But she didn’t give up on her career. Later that year she landed a contract position as a lawyer; the following year she got the job at McKenna Long.

Did they know about her past? Of course not. She wouldn’t tell them until later, after she had proven herself. By then, most of her colleagues were fully supportive. Many of them, including the head of her department, came to her first book reading.

The response she got from some family members wasn’t as positive. Some thought she should have waited until after her mother was dead to tell her story. Lynn doesn’t see it that way.

“A book like this is far more valuable to help people than to worry about whether one person is OK with it,” she said. “And my mother is OK with it. I went to great lengths to make sure she was OK with it.”

Their relationship began to change when Lynn asked Charlotte to read the blog, which eventually became the book.

Afraid her mother might “cut me out of her world,” Lynn was happily surprised by Charlotte’s calm reaction.

“As time went by, my mother continued to exhibit, without drama, a consistent demeanor of sympathy and support toward me,” Lynn wrote in her book. “I began to revise my thinking about her and to review our history through a different lens.”

Still, mother and daughter occupy an odd place now — something that seems on the surface like rapprochement but is clearly more complicated than that.

Charlotte’s initial response to “Southern Vapors,” offered after Lynn bugged her for some kind of reaction, ended up as a blurb on the book’s back cover: “To borrow a phrase, frankly, I don’t give a damn.”

But Charlotte is more philosophical when asked to elaborate.

“This is what she wanted to write,” Charlotte said. “And I feel this is a catharsis. I think it was a great help to her. Of course, the book was written from a child’s point of view and not necessarily factual. It was the way she saw it. It was the truth to her, and I took that into consideration.”

Charlotte blames much of her daughter’s problems on the medications she took for three decades. “They changed her whole personality for a long time,” she said.

And she praises Lynn for her strength in coming off the drugs.

“You have to be a very strong person to be able to do that and to make a success of your life again.”

She doesn’t fully understand the reason for the intermittent breaches in their relationship. Once, they didn’t talk for a year, she said. But now they meet up every week for dinner and trivia night at the Cross Creek Cafe, a cozy little restaurant tucked away on Atlanta’s west side.

There, with their trivia teammates, they debate answers to questions, such as: What was the last school to become a member of the Ivy League? And, how many were the labors of Hercules?

On one recent Tuesday, Lynn sat at the far end of the table from her mother, a half-dozen teammates in between them. The question was posed: What is the average age when someone becomes a grandparent?

Charlotte led the discussion on her end of the table, but Lynn suspected her mother was guessing too low. She walked over to her mother and tried to persuade her to guess higher, but Charlotte dug in and Lynn acquiesced.

Turns out, Charlotte's guess was too low — and wrong. Lynn's son Daniel, who was seated next to his mother, mildly rebuked her for caving in, but Lynn downplayed the matter. Better to keep quiet and keep the peace.

Championing the cause
One Saturday morning last May, Lynn stood in front of a packed auditorium at Emory University. There, she and a dozen other people, including a master magician, a state supreme court justice and the "world's most influential rabbi," spoke at TEDx, a global forum intended to spread innovative ideas in all manner of subjects.

Lynn talked about her mental health struggles. After giving a brief summary of her history, she posed a question to the audience: “Why should you care?”

Then she answered her own question.

“When I hear that 20 percent of the U.S. population will suffer from depression in a given year, it makes me think that you ought to care. Because if it is not you, it is your mother, your father, your brother, your sister, your child, your friend. And that’s just depression. Throw in anxiety, bipolar, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and the rest of the spectrum, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone is untouched by mental health issues.”

Despite the scope of mental illness, Lynn doesn’t think enough people are talking about it. She’s determined to break what she calls a conspiracy of silence by making some noise.

“We are going nowhere fast if we keep this behind closed doors,” she said. “I’m not hearing any coherent giant voice out there on this.”

She would like to be a voice.

“If this was one more story of ‘the world beat me down and I stayed down,’” she said, “it would be sad, but not unusual. The point is to have had these very serious struggles with mental health issues and emotional issues and addiction and come through it.

“There are times I feel I can actually make a difference. Then there are other times I feel like a voice in the wilderness,” she said. “Then I’ll get re-energized. So far, I’m like a horse at the starting gate.”

Because of the volume of books we receive from publicists seeking press for their authors, self-published books tend to get the least amount of notice. But when staff writer David Markiewicz received a copy of Lynn Garson's book, "Southern Vapors," he was intrigued enough by the rough outline to dig deeper and see what he could find out. He grew fascinated by her journey from the heights of a privileged lifestyle to the depths of hospitalization for mental illness. After reading her book and then hearing her speak publicly about her life and her ambition to help others, he believed hers was a story others would want to hear. The result is an inspiring tale of perseverance, self-discovery and strength.

Suzanne Van Atten
Features Enterprise Editor

About the reporter

David Markiewicz primarily writes about the business of health care, including the impact of the Affordable Care Act on employers and employees, for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has also covered various other business and sports beats at the AJC. He previously wrote a Personal Journey about entrepreneur Chris Schutte and his dream invention, a hot dog bun steamer.

About the photographer

Curtis Compton joined the AJC as a photo editor in 1993 before returning to the field as a staff photographer. Previously he worked for the Gwinnett Daily News, United Press International and the Marietta Daily Journal. He has a bachelor's degree from the University of Georgia and won a World Hunger Award for his coverage of the famine in Sudan.