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Mental illness strikes J.R

WGY radio host's wife says her husband has been diagnosed with a form of depression

By MARK McGUIRE, Staff writer
First published: Friday, October 4, 2002

Capital Region radio host J.R. Gach attracted fans and detractors for his often virulent on-air style. Now those close to Gach are wondering how much of his rants were a result of a mental condition: He has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

According to his wife, Suzie Gach, the WGY (810 AM) afternoon drive-time personality suffered a nervous breakdown in August -- and contemplated suicide -- before being diagnosed with a form of manic depression.

Suzie and J.R. Gach
PHILIP KAMRASS / TIMES UNION
Suzie and J.R. Gach
His doctors "didn't know how he worked for as long as he did," Suzie Gach said.

Gach hasn't been heard on WGY since early August. Since mid-August, he has received in- and outpatient treatment for Bipolar II disorder at Four Winds-Saratoga psychiatric center, his wife said in an interview Thursday at the Times Union. She brought with her a seven-page typed narrative of what the couple has been through.

Suzie Gach, who briefly filled in on her husband's show in late August, said the couple decided to come forward to silence wild rumors that have reached several Internet sites.

In an e-mail earlier this week, the radio host declined comment. Suzie Gach said the couple later decided she should openly discuss his illness.

"The whole time I felt the stigma of mental illness coming over us," Suzie Gach wrote in her account of the past two months. "If only blood was involved, then we wouldn't have to keep it a dirty secret."

Paul T. Copp, administrative director of Ellis Hospital Mental Health Services in Schenectady, described the disorder as a serious mental illness that is cyclical and incurable, but treatable. The condition is marked by severe bouts of depression.

"For a lifetime, (those with the disorder) have a lot of major depression, and they come in episodes," said Copp, who was speaking in general terms and not about Gach's case. "It's major depression, and it's serious. ... People suffer."

Suzie Gach said her husband has exhibited signs of depression at least since they were married 14 years ago. She believes he sabotaged his previous radio jobs in Baton Rouge, La., Buffalo and Anchorage, Alaska, because he felt he wasn't worthy of his success. Suzie Gach only recently learned her husband had been receiving a large volume of the antidepressant Prozac from a Buffalo friend who is a doctor.

Since arriving in Albany in the fall of 1998, Gach has developed a loyal following. Although his was not the top-rated show, it scored high with young male listeners, a group coveted by advertisers. His show has been punctuated with many "live" commercials in which he endorsed products and services.

Gach's afternoon show has also been marked by controversy. His frequent targets included police, the elderly and minorities. But over the past 18 months, his outbursts -- on and off the air -- became more vigorous.

At the same time, Gach suffered frequent memory loss: He would forget phone numbers and other bits of information. He grew more belligerent, vocally wishing for the deaths of others. "I was getting uncomfortable listening (to his show)," his wife said.

Incidents of road rage grew more frequent as well, and his outbursts went beyond verbal abuse. At one point, Gach bruised his wife's arm with a kick, she said.

"He would say horrible, horrible things," Suzie Gach said. "He doesn't remember doing this."

He initially refused to seek counseling, claiming that it would imperil his show. "It's not a 'radio guy' thing to do," his wife said. "How could he ever admit to doing this, to feeling this? He had to get the young demographic. He had to be young and hip and cool."

On Aug. 10, the couple flew to Tampa, Fla., for a vacation at his parents' home. But "nothing made him happy," Suzie Gach said. "Nothing put a smile on his face." The radio host spent most of his time sleeping; for hours, he would stand chest-high in the ocean, looking around.

On the flight home a week later, Gach grew extremely agitated. "He was mad at coming back to work," Suzie Gach said. Sitting in a window seat in coach, Gach rocked back and forth, ripped at his seat belt and harangued a mother trying to soothe a crying child.

"I knew he wasn't a threat to people," Suzie Gach said. Still, she was terrified that if airline personnel "saw how angry he was, there was a chance they could put the plane down."

The next day, he mostly slept and spent time on the computer at their rented Guilderland home. After dark, he walked out to the garage, keys in hand.

"He knew how he was going to do it," Suzie Gach said. "He was going to commit suicide, doing the carbon monoxide thing with the hose. To this day, he regrets not doing it."

On Aug. 19 -- the day he was slated to return to work -- Gach was inconsolable. "He cried and cried, and was shaking. He said, 'Why didn't I do it last night? Why didn't I do it when I had the nerve?' "

Suzie Gach called her physician, then dialed 911. Social workers and Guilderland police responded, and Gach was taken to Capital District Psychiatric Center for evaluation.

Still, he stayed home for more than a week ("It was hell; he just sat and cried," she said) before being admitted to Four Winds for an eight-day stay.

He now attends outpatient therapy daily. As for progress, Suzie Gach remains optimistic, although, "I don't see it yet."

Clear Channel Communications Inc., which owns WGY, has declined detailed comment on Gach's absence, saying only that he would return when he gets better. On Thursday, Albany Vice President Dennis Lamme remained reluctant to discuss the particulars of his condition.

"We respected the man's privacy," Lamme said. "If (the Gachs) wanted to come forward, that's their call, not ours."

Suzie Gach said her husband wants to return to radio. "I don't know how he can," she said. "If he does go back, he won't be J.R."

In an effort to divorce himself from his past furies, her husband now goes by his given name, Jay. "It's like J.R. is gone," said his wife. "He likes Jay -- he is a nicer person."



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