Beloved professor shares how she faced her mental illness

For 38 years, Professor Andonia Cakouros quietly battled bipolar disorder. Now she wants to educate others about it.
Mon Feb 10, 2020

Andonia Cakouros built a notable Sacramento State career as an outgoing, engaging teacher and performer. During that time, though, she kept to herself the pain she endured while battling bipolar disorder. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

By Cynthia Hubert 

Draped in a flowing purple garment, Andonia Cakouros glided across the theater stage at Sacramento State in the spring of 2015, her face portraying intense pain and then elation.

As her character from ancient Greece reflected her inner struggles and transformation in “Unveiling the Soul,” Cakouros hinted at the secret she had kept for nearly four decades: Throughout her tenure as a theater professor and stage artist, Cakouros quietly battled bipolar disorder.

Now Cakouros, a professor emeritus who maintains close ties to the University, wants to tell her story, her aim to enlighten others about mental illness and offer hope.

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“Addressing the mental health issue is my most important work,” Cakouros said during an interview in her Woodside neighborhood home, minutes from the University. “I want people to know that they can live a rich, full, magnificent life, as I have,” with the help of medications, therapy and other support.

Her life has been marked by sporadic emotional highs and lows, the hallmarks of bipolar disorder. She still has days when her anxious mind will not allow her sleep and depression makes her feel as though is trudging through mud. But Cakouros has learned to manage her symptoms thanks to years of comprehensive treatment.

“You can get better, but you have to do the work,” which, for her, includes exercise, prayer and meditation, she said.

Cakouros, 67, retired from Sac State in 2015 after 38 years in the Theater Department. “Unveiling the Soul” was her final show, a solo effort she wrote and choreographed. The play, rooted in ancient and modern Greek literature and hymns, explores the trials and triumphs of the inner spirit.

Few who attended the show during multiple performances understood that it was, in part, a reflection of Cakouros’ own struggles.

“I was hinting at it,” she said. “At that point I knew I was getting closer and closer to removing my mask.”

Cakouros joined Sac State’s faculty in 1977 at age 24, straight from graduate school at Northwestern University. She had just lost her father, then helped her mother rebound from a massive flood that ravaged her Pennsylvania home. It was far from a perfect time to move across the country to join a university faculty.  

“I had never thought about coming to California, but God had a plan for me,” she said. She knew little about Sacramento, other than “it was the state capital, and it wasn’t by the water,” Cakouros recalled with a smile.

Once she arrived, though, “it all seemed right.” She discovered that teaching was her calling. She joined the local Greek Orthodox Church and sang in its choir. She acted, sang and danced in theater performances in Sacramento and beyond.

Three years earlier, Cakouros had suffered a serious mental episode, which her doctors described as “steroid psychosis.” They attributed her condition to a medication she had taken to treat inflammation of her vocal chords. Cakouros was manic, hardly sleeping and talking in rapid-fire fashion. “I wasn’t myself,” she said.

After those symptoms passed, she sunk into a depression, then recovered. But looking back, Cakouros believes the incident represented the first signs of bipolar disorder.

During her early years at Sac State, she said, she experienced occasional emotional “escalations” and downturns, but she fought through them, mostly on her own. “I knew nothing about mental illness,” although “at times it felt like something was not right,” Cakouros said.

In 1990, after performing a reading about the Holocaust at the Sacramento Theatre Company, Cakouros broke down.

During intermission, she retreated to her dressing room and picked up a decorative cross from a small altar she had assembled using religious icons and photographs of her family. “I remember going outside, throwing my car keys over a fence and starting to walk with that cross in my hand,” she said.

She wound up in a midtown parking garage, in her stage dress and jewelry, waving the cross and telling strangers that “I am from God, and you might be from the devil,” she recalled. Police subsequently detained her and transported her to a psychiatric facility. Doctors diagnosed her with manic depression, now widely known as bipolar disorder.

“It was a relief, because I knew that something was wrong, and I was told that it was the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain,” a disease as real as cancer or a heart condition, Cakouros said.

For some, bipolar disorder brings dramatic high and low moods and can interfere with sleep, energy, thinking and behavior. People with the condition can have periods in which they feel overly happy and energized, so much so that they develop grandiose ideas and make impulsive decisions such as spending money excessively. At other times, they can feel overwhelmingly hopeless and sluggish, prone to bouts of uncontrollable crying and thoughts of suicide. In between, they may feel perfectly normal.

Cakouros said her symptoms were in the moderate range, and most days she was able to manage them.

Following her diagnosis, Cakouros began taking lithium, a powerful mood stabilizer. She also started attending regular psychiatric therapy sessions.

Throughout, she was teaching, coaching and advising at Sac State during the day and acting and attending theater performances in the evening. She was active in her church, traveled nationally and internationally for conferences, visited her beloved Greece, and hosted gatherings at her apartment.

Still, she remained silent about her struggle to everyone but her siblings and closest friends.

“I was insecure and afraid, and I just wasn’t ready to talk about it,” she said. “I knew there was a stigma around mental illness. I didn’t want people to think less of me, as a person or as an artist. I was the one who always got things done, and I didn’t want that perception to change.

“There is a certain shame that goes with all of this, although there shouldn’t be.”

Cakouros helped quiet her restless mind by talking to therapists, carefully monitoring her medications and keeping busy doing things she loved. Most days, she radiated warmth and enthusiasm and showed no outward signs of her illness. Few people knew that she had periods of insomnia and bouts of depression that tested her strength.

Cakouros never contemplated suicide, she said. But very early in her illness, she admitted, she once “prayed that I would die in my sleep” so that she could find relief.

Even though her students and faculty colleagues at Sac State knew nothing about her mental health struggles, she said, “Their very presence uplifted me.”

“My students were my life,” she said. “I loved every single one of them.”

When she found out that her mother was dying in 2008, she said, “my students gathered around me. They cried with me. They saved me. I don’t have children, but my students are like family.” Sac State, she said, “was and is a magical place for me.”

One of her longtime colleagues, Professor and Theater Department Chair Lorelei Bayne, said that as a professor Cakouros was legendary for her dedication to her craft and her students.

“She had so much respect from her colleagues and students. Caring just emanated from her,” Bayne said.

Cakouros remains a familiar presence on campus, attending theater performances, teaching master classes and keeping tabs on her former department.

Bayne, who also has battled depression, said Cakouros is an inspiration to others who have mental illnesses. 

“She’s had an amazing career and has accomplished so much while dealing with this disease,” Bayne said. Telling her story “is going to have a positive effect on countless students and alums, those she has worked with and even those she has not. I think it’s very valuable.”

Ed Trafton, a Sac State graduate and head of the drama department at Jesuit High School in Carmichael, said Cakouros helped shape his career. She was his first college theater professor.

“I remember thinking right away that she was someone who was so incredibly knowledgeable, incredibly accomplished but also so kind and respectful and engaging,” Trafton said.

“She has a gift for talking to young people. She speaks with them, not at them, and she listens with her full body and full attention. She’s very humble but is an extraordinary acting coach. Her talents are amazing.”

Trafton is among the few people with whom Cakouros has shared her full mental health story.

“I think she’s so open to people and to their suffering because she herself has profoundly suffered,” he said. “Learning about what she has gone through has made me much more attentive to my students and what they might be experiencing.”

Cakouros agreed that her mental disorder has, in some ways, made her a better person.

“This incredible illness is both a blessing and a curse,” she said. “Because of what I have experienced, I can recognize signs and possible symptoms in others, and help them.” During her time at Sac State, she said, she gently steered dozens of young people toward mental evaluations after they showed signs of depression, anxiety or distress.

“I probably took 75 students to counseling,’ she said.

In October, Cakouros disclosed her diagnosis for the first time to Sac State President Robert S. Nelsen, who encouraged her to tell her story. She has joined the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and will attend upcoming state and national conferences. She plans to tell anyone who is willing to listen that even the worst illnesses of the brain and mind can be controlled, and that people who have them can prosper.

Nelsen praised Cakouros for opening up about her diagnosis in the interest of helping others.

“The arts, especially the theater, hold a special space in my heart,” Nelsen said. “Professors like Andonia Cakouros, who help students open their minds and bare their souls, fill that space with hope. Andonia is a beloved member of the Hornet Family, and I am proud to know her. I am particularly impressed by her courage and her decision to share her story.”

Cakouros said her treatments never affected her artistic instincts and abilities. But they have taken another kind of toll, leaving her with tremors in her hands and kidney damage. She said she considers these setbacks a small price to pay for mental stability.

“I would never take myself off of meds, and I would never stop getting therapy, because I choose to live as stable and balanced a life as possible,” Cakouros said. She reads everything she can about mental health and bipolar disorder, maintaining a small library of books about those subjects in her home. She cites support from her family and church, as well as exercise, meditation and good nutrition, as crucial to helping her maintain her health.

Though her primary job no longer is in the classroom, Cakouros will continue to inspire others by speaking out about her illness, her former student said.

“This is what her life’s work has led her toward,” Trafton said. “Her teaching is not finished with her retirement from Sac State. She’s still a teacher through and through.”

But now, her lessons carry a different message.

“My mission now is addressing mental health,” Cakouros said. “I have fully removed my mask. I want to talk about it, and I want to help as many people as I can.”