When I first met Ina I was admittedly in awe of her. She had the reputation of a rockstar, a teacher who somehow transcends all of the complications of a classroom and soars above the rest of us mere mortals. It would take time before I found myself on a team of teachers with her, time when I was finding my way in an educational environment that was far more difficult than any that I had ever before encountered. Luckily I had the opportunity to enjoy a kind of apprenticeship with some of the finest teachers in the school, especially Ina.
The years when I was on a team with Ina were some of the best and happiest of my career. I learned much but mostly I found an endearing and generous friend and unofficial mentor in her. She helped me to understand that a classroom is so much more than just a place for learning facts and ideas. She taught me by example how to elevate my instruction and to understand and love my students. She was a gifted and generous woman who had been blessed with an abundance of talent that she wanted to share with the world.
Mental illness is a cruel mistress who all too often chooses the best among us for its nefariousness. In Ina’s case her name was “Depression.” Periodically a dark and debilitating sadness would descend over Ina’s more natural impishness and desire to be a happy person. She would experience uncharacteristic fits of crying and worry. Nonetheless she fought back with all of her will. She was not ashamed to admit her illness. She sought help and followed instructions but there is no cure for clinical depression. It is a chronic disease that haunts the mind and rears its ugliness over and over again. Ina’s battle with this debilitating sickness would last her a lifetime and like many chronic diseases it would only grow worse over time.
Eventually the effects of Ina’s illness began to slowly crush her and destroy her world. Ina was a bonafide romantic, one of the reasons that she was such an enchanting English teacher. She loved her husband with all of her heart even though he was all too human and flawed. When he grew weary of her recurring bouts of melancholy and asked for a divorce, she began a slow but steady descent into a kind of hell that few of us will ever fully understand, thank God.
At first she was able to hold things together with the help of her doctors and friends. While she never fully got over the loss of the man she so loved, she did adjust and seemed to find solace in her students and her friends. Over time the effects of being a single parent while struggling with a mental illness began to take a heavy toll on her. She became entrapped in a repetitive cycle of recurring debt and ever more difficult depressive episodes. She developed additional physical problems that were costly and only added to her woes. Still she fought her demons as best she could.
Ina was a very special woman. She excelled in every endeavor that she tried. She played the piano like a concert musician. She was not only well read but she remembered the tiniest of details about the hundreds of books that she had devoured. She was an artist and her beautiful and delicate hands created lovely items of exceptional beauty. She was capable of following hundreds of career paths but it was teaching children that most captured her fancy. When she was well she filled her classroom with magic. Her colleagues often named her as one of the top educators in the school.
Sadly the stresses of life slowly overcame Ina. She was far more giving than she should have been. She purchased expensive gifts for her children and friends. She filled her classroom with the books that she so loved and encouraged her students to read them. Her limited income became stretched to the maximum and the debt that she carried only increased the anxiety and darkness in her brain. She worked multiple jobs just to stay afloat. She sewed craft items and sold them. She played the piano at her church and in tony restaurants. She became an Avon Lady. None of her efforts ever seemed to be enough.
Eventually Ina became a casualty of her mental illness just as so many do. Our system of healthcare for people like Ina is sadly remiss. Without the funds for expensive therapies she was at the mercy of the few charitable clinics that serve some of the sickest souls in our society. She was often unable to even purchase the medication that would have helped her to become better. She lacked reliable transportation for seeing her doctors. Her depression returned more and more frequently and became overwhelming. She often had to beg her family and her friends for help, a situation that both embarrassed and defeated her.
Ina tried desperately to keep her job but she gradually became increasingly ineffective. During a certain school year when her illness had been particularly bad, she missed more than one third of her work time. There were even occasions when she was in such a terrible state that she did not awake to notify the school that she was sick. The powers that be grew more and more weary of her seeming neglect of duty. She was in a downward spiral with no apparent help to forestall the crisis that was taking place inside her brain. Far too many people believed that she somehow had the power to simply think positive thoughts and get back to work. Some even deemed her to be selfish rather than truly sick.
The fact is that we do very little for the mentally ill in this country. We tend to avert our gazes from them and ignore their diseased minds. We still have a very ignorant assessment of those who are unfortunate enough to have sicknesses such as depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety. We somehow believe that they have brought the problems on themselves. That was the ultimate decision with Ina. She was given an ultimatum regarding her attendance at work. When she failed to meet the demands she was fired. Her state of mind became more tenuous than ever. She never again found the good health that would allow her to lead the kind of life that she had worked so hard to achieve. She became just one more victim of mental illness in a country that quite simply doesn’t even seem to want to understand people like her.
We periodically give lip service to the cause of the mentally ill but generally it is not a priority. We throw a few million dollars at the problem and pat ourselves on the back for being so enlightened. We leave those who are afflicted to their own resources. We only seem to care when someone who is very sick goes off of the deep end and commits violence. Then we spout platitudes and go about our merry way. We are never quite willing to mount an offensive against a disease that takes a dramatic toll on some of the best among us. Ina Orton was one of those incredible people that our society neglected. We should all feel a sense of shame that in the greatest country in the world there was not enough money or concern to save her brilliant and loving mind. Our treatment of the mentally ill is a national tragedy and Ina Orton was one of its victims.
There were good people who did their best to help Ina. Her friend, Cynthia, never once abandoned her. Others did small favors for her over the years to keep her afloat. The members of her church cared for her as well as they could. Ina needed intensive therapy and medical attention that was difficult to find. She was often misunderstood. She struggled through one difficulty after another just as most of the mentally ill do. There were those who stood by her but felt helpless in the face of her mounting depression. Unfortunately there were too few avenues of assistance available to help her.
Ina never lost her faith through all of her trials. She regularly went to church when she was not in the throes of her illness. She continued to play the piano for the glory of God. When she did not show up this past Sunday her pastor went to her home to check on her. He found her dead.
Ina was a courageous woman, a fighter. She was all too often alone in her fight to set her mind aright but she kept trying nonetheless. I will always remember her in her finest hours when she soared above the rest of us with her talents and her sweet nature. I pray that the pain that so limited her in her earthly home is now gone and that she has found her place with the angels.