Saturday, November 9, 2013

'Cheat the Asylum of a Victim'

George Albert Smith's 1909 -12 Breakdown"

Mary Jane Woodger   The Journal of Mormon History

Though many LDS General Authorities have struggled with physical challenges, George Albert’s nervous collapse, as it was called, reached its nadir in February 1909, leaving him so impaired that he was unable to work or even to deliver a public address. A decade later, he recalled in a conference address,

 “I have been in the valley of the shadow of death in recent years, so near the other side that I am sure that for the special blessing of our Heavenly Father I could not have remained here. . . . The nearer I went to the other side, the greater was my assurance that the gospel is true."

George Albert wrestled with both physical and emotional health issues throughout his life, but this article focuses on conditions leading to an episode of nervous exhaustion that lasted from 1909 to 1912,
then describes an experience Georg e Albert had in the spring of 1911 that changed his approach to both physical and emotional limitations.

The story of his triumph over these maladies, is documented in surprising detail in his correspondence and journals, much of it quoted here for the first time, and in related papers of those close to him. His story deserves telling for the hope it conveys to individuals likewise suffering from physical illnesses that often bring in their wake emotional distress and the inability to serve in Church callings despite their desire to be healed, faith manifested in seeking priesthood blessings, and earnest prayer. Although it is possible from a modern perspective to offer appropriately tentative diagnoses of the organic cause of his ailment and also his mental depression, Smith felt that prayer was his main resource in dealing with his condition.

Complicating a physical diagnosis is the mental component. Apparently debilitating fatigue without an obvious cause and depression can be traced back as far as Asael Smith, Joseph Sr.’s father, and coming forward to John, Joseph Sr.’s brother.

Accompanied by Lucy’s uncle and aunt, John and Lucy Acomb, George Albert reached Ocean Park, California, on April 13, where they rented a beach cottage for twenty-five dollars a month.
Lucy Smith apparently stayed in Salt Lake City with the children. Even though George Albert had spent much of his time in bed in Salt Lake City, there had still been visitors, conversations, news, and
emotional engagement in his apostolic tasks. Here, there were no meetings, no visitors, and no speeches. Instead, he spent his time  sleeping and walking on the beach. He was examined by an un-
named doctor in Los Angeles who was unable to find a source for his nervousness and fatigue. The only thing the doctor found was that his “twelfth rib was out of place under the eleventh rib.” The doctor
instructed him to rest, relax, and receive some kind of “treatments” once a week.

This prescription left George Albert feeling depressed and inadequate, and also feeling that he was letting everyone down. If he wasn’t really sick, then he was doing wrong by resting. His strong
sense of duty burdened him with feelings that he was neglecting his responsibilities. With nothing to distract him but mild recreation and “rest,” he must have continued to brood intolerably.

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