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Saturday, December 25, 2010

On Depression, by Dick Cavett

Smiling Through

Who decided that it’s variety that’s the spice of life?

I submit that, rather, it is contrast that is life’s piquant condiment.

Last week, I attended two events in my home state of Nebraska that supplied both variety and contrast on successive days. A bit like the Mafioso some years ago who got married one day and began a 10-year jail sentence the next (a cynic might consider them both “sentences”).

On the one hand, I addressed a group of noble citizens whose job is aiding and counseling poor devils suffering from depression. “Cavett Returns Home to Discuss ‘The Worst Agony Devised For Man’ ” read the next day’s headline in the Lincoln paper. Despite the subject matter, I got quite a lot of laughs. My credentials? Having been there myself.

The year before I had talked to a similar group of care-givers in Omaha in front of an audience that included what you’d think would be an entertainer’s nightmare: a hundred or more people in the throes of the disease. I expected no laughs.

I had just gotten started telling the grim faces that I knew what they were going through when a large man — in pajamas, as I recall — stood up and slowly made his way toward me.

“Paranoid schizophrenic,” someone stage-whispered to me. There was general tension in the room as the man continued to approach. When he stopped two feet in front of me, and stared at me, I heard myself say, “Come here often?” Loud general laughter broke the tension. He returned peacefully to his seat — probably without having heard me or the laughter.

Miraculously, I kept them laughing for perhaps an hour. Clearly the fact that I knew about their plight from my own experience had a lot — or maybe everything — to do with it.

I was able to say to them, I know that everyone here knows that feeling when people say to you, “Hey, shape up! Stop thinking only about your troubles. What’s to be depressed about? Go swimming or play tennis and you’ll feel a lot better. Pull up your socks!” And how you, hearing this, would like nothing more than to remove one of those socks and choke them to death with it. (Laughter mixed with some minor cheering.)

The reward from this was unique in my experience. Afterwards, those in charge seemed amazed and delighted. One said, “See Clara over there? She hasn’t moved a muscle in her face for six months and you had her laughing out loud.”

(Such inane advice of the “socks up” variety, by the way, can only be excused by the fact that if you’ve never had it you can never begin to imagine the depth of the ailment’s black despair. Another tip: Do not ask the victim what he has “to be depressed about.” The malady doesn’t care if you’re broke and alone or successful and surrounded by a loving family. It does its democratic dirty work to your brain chemistry regardless of your “position.”)

My time with them in Omaha a year ago was not recorded but I would rather have a tape of that day with that audience than just about anything I’ve done. Of the things I said to them I can recall only this story:

Personal item: Once I said to a doctor during a “session” that I wished he could get inside my head for just a minute because there’s no way of imagining what this feels like. “Oh, I know,” he said, “I got pretty sad when my father died.”

Defying standard protocol on the couch, I arose on one elbow, turned to him — he was seated behind me — and said, “Do you think grief is even close to this?” To his credit he replied, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

(The anger you feel at such a moment pumps a shot of adrenaline that can make you feel symptom-free . . . all too briefly.)

The fact that these afflicted people in Omaha knew me to be a “celebrity” had a good deal to do with the unexpected success of the whole thing. Some had even seen me talk about the nasty illness on television in the early ’80s, or in People magazine. While not wishing to become the poster boy for depression, I still found the rewards undeniably pleasant, gratifying and touching.

As in: Dear Mr. Cavett, You don’t know it but you saved my dad’s/ wife’s/daughter’s life. Followed by various forms of, My dad’s seeing that Dick Cavett could have it made him feel he wasn’t a freak, and he finally went for treatment. We are so grateful.

Apparently one thing I said on “Larry King” back then hit home hard. It was that when you’re downed by this affliction, if there were a curative magic wand on the table eight feet away, it would be too much trouble to go over and pick it up.

There’s also the conviction that it may have worked for others but it wouldn’t work for you. Your brain is busted and nothing’s going to help.

The most extreme problem that depression presents is suicide. It’s the reason you don’t dare delay treatment. Don’t mess with it. Run for help — whether it’s talk therapy, drug therapy or the miraculous results of ECT (electroconvulsive therapy, erroneously labeled “shock therapy”). The shock involved is closer to insulin shock than electric shock. It’s a toss-up whether more people have been scared off it by “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” than have been scared off medication by Tom Cruise’s idiotic braying on the subject on “The Today Show.” (Matt Lauer should have hit him with a wet turbot.)

I guarantee that one result of this week’s Supreme Court decision on guns will be the deaths of people who have a gun at home for the first time while in depression. In the depths of the malady, getting a stamp on a letter is a day’s work. Going out to somehow arrange for a gun would be way beyond your capability while stricken. But having one near at hand is another matter. There were times when I longed for my ancient .22 single-shot squirrel-hunting rifle. Luckily it had been given away years earlier.

Suicide rarely happens when you are all the way down in the uttermost depths. Again, it’s too much trouble. Perhaps the saddest irony of depression is that suicide happens when the patient gets a little better and can again function sufficiently. “She seemed to be improving,” is the sad cry of the mourners.

Two prime victims of the disease are your libido and your ability to read. Five times through a paragraph and unable to say what it’s about. But, oddly, you can read a book or article about depression with full comprehension. The two best books I know of are William Styron’s monumental account of his own case, “Darkness Visible,” and Kay Redfield Jamison’s “An Unquiet Mind.”

Damned if I had meant to rattle on so long on this subject, depriving you of my contrasting event, the Johnny Carson Comedy Festival in his hometown of Norfolk, Neb. (I’ll get to that.)

And pardon me for teasing you last time about a promised tale of espionage and murder. The case is more complex than I imagined and will take some time.

And is anyone still wondering about the error by the test-makers on that exam that American students performed so dismally on?

The outpouring of replies to the depression column takes me by surprise. But why should it? I know that the number of sufferers is vast, but may be even more so than I thought. As the number of replies ran into the hundreds I began to think that, as with cancer, nearly everyone has been touched by it, if not personally then among relatives and friends.

Like the gay “love that dared not speak its name,” depression is now shouting.

As the comments neared 500, the word “epidemic” leapt to mind. If it’s inappropriate, it can’t be by much. What a lot of hellish suffering those replies represent. And those are only the ones who wrote — always a minority.

The amount of misery reported is stunning. Humbly I thank, in turn, all those so grateful for what I wrote. That gratitude is heartwarming and makes me want to ask what more I can do for you. Or should I say, us?

I think of Tennessee Williams — a major sufferer — and the vast body of genius work he was so heroically able to turn out despite the company of his own “black dog.” (He credited swimming every single day as “one of my few reliable crutches.”)

“I wasn’t aware of it,” he said on the air when I pointed out to him that in every one of his major plays a character confesses to being up against the dark wall of despair and pleads for advice and is told, in varying words, the same thing. I’ll spare you my list, but in “Streetcar,” when Stella asks how she can be expected to continue her life — now with the knowledge that Stanley had raped Blanche — she is told, “Honey, you just have to go on.”

The number of readers who have managed — and are managing — just to go on is touching.

Cold comfort, when you’re in it. But it’s some comfort to bear in mind the fact that depression is “self-limiting” — doctor talk for “eventually ends.” Of course, it would be nice if they could tell you if you’ve drawn one of the long straws or a short one.

Having dropped Tennessee’s illustrious name here, why not Marlon Brando’s? As a man who had entertained a kennel of black dogs in his life, he was keenly interested in the subject. I told him about a show I had done earlier that year (this was in the mid-’70s) with — brace for another whopping name — Laurence Olivier.

Arriving for taping at his and his wife Joan Plowright’s suite in New York’s Wyndham Hotel, I thought, “Olivier, for God’s sake! I should be jubilant — and all I want to do is roll up in the rug.”

I knew full well that I was botching it. I’d glance at short notes I’d made with no idea what they meant. My head was saying, The Oliviers aren’t stupid. They’re acting like I’m okay but they can see I’m bats. I must be taking 10-second pauses, staring into space. I just knew my producer was about to whisper, “Dick, we’re going to wrap this for now. We’ll get them back someday. Go on home.”

But I made it to the end, murmured some sort of goodbye to Lord O. and his Lady wife and — fogged — found my way home to bed.

Dialogue in Marlon B.’s bedroom (“Talk is the thing I do best here,” he said):

M.B.: Did you look at that show?
D.C.: God, no. Nothing could make me look at it.
M.B.: Do me a favor. Look at it.
D.C.: Do you know what you’re asking?
M.B. [with that penetrating, gnomic stare out of "Apocalypse Now"]: Yes. But you don’t.

Back in New York, with gritted teeth, I got the show out and — fortified with the aid of a Campari and orange juice (that’s what Marlon drank, so now I did) — I hauled the tape out and looked at it, prepared to wince pitifully.

A shocker. I was fine. It was as if the show had been re-shot. The sleepy pauses weren’t there. My eyes were bright and, at times, sparkly. I was interested. Or appeared so. I was — and still am — amazed.

(Back to the top of Mulholland Drive, chez Brando.)

D.C.: How did you know what I’d see? What was happening to me there?

M.B.: I call it “automatic pilot.” It takes over and does for you what you can’t do yourself. Performers have to have it. Almost everybody has it to some degree. It’s a relative of acting.

What good does this story do you?

Since most people can’t test this themselves by taping a TV show, feeling lousy during it, and then watching it, I can assure you that whether it’s enduring an unwelcome house guest, your co-workers or your tax man, one of the wretched ailment’s mysteries is that you are in fact coming off 10 times better than you feel. Or think you look.

Unless you are at hospitalization level, you can, as a number of people wrote, “fool people at work.” Thanks to “automatic pilot,” you can do it. And they’re not lying when they say, “You seemed O.K. to me.”

Keeping that mask on, admittedly, is, exhausting. And you’ll reap versions of “You don’t seem bad off.”

(Proofreading this just now, I recalled Woody Allen’s asking me once, quite seriously, “How am I supposed to know that you have depression?”)

Longwindedly, I’ve already gotten to where “word count” tells me to start winding down. So forgetting about style and literary flow, l’ll just tick off some random shots on this subject, some from the mail.


I’ve decided that the single worst thing about this illness is its terrible authority. I mean the way it thunders at you, “This is the reality. This is how it is and how it’s going to be. Any memories of fun or wellness are flukes, delusions. And will never come again. Now you have 20/20 vision and see life for the dreadful mess it really is.”


Whatever wicked gods that invented this torture should come down with it.


It’s heartbreaking when one reader says “I need help. Can someone please tell me what to do.” Ask your doctor to find you a good psychopharmacologist. In people talk, a pill doctor of the mind. And I don’t mean an herbalist or a swami or a “psychic” or a Scientologist or a phrenologist, but someone with a degree in mind medicine. Your doctor can find one. If he can’t, get a new doctor.


Although on my PBS show I once accused the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi — an endearing old coot (who developed Transcendental Meditation) — of selling water (before they actually did), I don’t belittle meditation. It’s good, a quickly learned discipline, and its effect is cumulative.


(As close as anything on this subject can come to humor: A psychiatrist I knew tried meditation for his depression but was poorly taught — “All I could meditate on was my suicide.”)


The lady’s right who pointed out that you at least do feel better when exercising. One prominent head doc urged it on me strongly, saying, “I’m a great believer in endorphins.” Of course it may take an hour to find your shoes. And to tie them. And find the door. And…


I got a huge laugh “lecturing” to an entire audience of shrinks at Johns Hopkins — contrasting smartly with my audience of sufferers in Omaha — when one asked, as some readers have, “Do you recommend psychoanalysis while in depression?” My answer: “Mostly you don’t know what’s being said to you, you can’t follow the line of talk, you barely know what you yourself are saying and you can’t remember anything afterwards.” “A waste of time?” he asked. “Not totally,” I said, “because you do get a tiny little rise in self-esteem from keeping the appointment.” (I was only half kidding and a bit startled by the robust laughter.)


If you’ve got a solid case of it, I don’t think you should drive. Not only do you forget to look left and right, but I remember thinking how easy it would be to pull in front of an oncoming car on the highway. Someone’s alive because I didn’t. When people are shocked at this it’s because they can’t picture being unable to assign any value to themselves, let alone some faceless stranger … who probably also knows how awful life is anyway.


I looked forward to the dentist because by refusing the anesthetic needle, I’d be able to feel something.


Thanks to the lady who boldly brought up sex; or rather, the death of it. As the old Dark Enemy approaches, the poor old libido throws up the white flag and — as they used to say — “surrenders at the first whiff of grape.” ( I assume the reference is to grapeshot.)

Someone noted that arousal is possible. It is, but with the devilish little proviso that you are invariably denied the, um, ultimate payoff. Sex in the manic phases can spring to life quite abruptly — sometimes dangerously — manifesting itself, as the ads say, “in a variety of decorator colors.”


Dear “CAREY, US ARMY”: Do you really think that keeping guns out of the hands of the suicidal is a serious threat to your dear 2nd amendment? I may have misread you. Even Scalia, and — one assumes — his papoose, Clarence Thomas, didn’t want that.


Funny how people will say, “Do celebrities get depression? I mean, they’re rich and famous.” Most are famous and some still rich, but yes, they succumb like flies. As poor Hamlet said, “O, I could tell you…but let it be.”


I’ll tell you one. The great actor Rod Steiger to whom Brando in “On the Waterfront” said, “Charlie, I coulda been a contenda.” It was scary to hear him tell it.

In a monumental bout, which he barely survived, he said he lived in bed for months. (“If I brushed my teeth it was a big day.”)

After it was over, he was able to (almost) joke that at least his suicide plan was “thoughtful” and showed consideration for others. He said, “I planned to row way out off Laguna beach,. hang over the side of the boat with one arm..and blow my brains out. No one would have to find me. No one would have to clean up.” Luckily for us, he survived to make many more movies.


Artistic types seem to be especially vulnerable and to suffer just as badly as the unlucky mail carrier who gets it. You can imagine how often the envied celebrity gets the criminal question: “What reason have you got to be depressed?” (Would these people, in an influenza epidemic, ask the shivering, chattering victim, “What reason have you got to be sickly?”)


It was good to see how, as the list of comments from readers lengthened, a sort of community seemed to form. People thanked other writers for their words and offered comfort and welcome sympathy. See, Candy Asman, RN, to the plaintive and suffering Ms. Melone. If I were Joseph Pulitzer, Candy, I would give you a prize. And a Nobel, for good measure.


Deeply felt complaints about bum treatment got aired and exchanged. Dear Lisa Your therapist should be pushing a cart in the garment district.


A woman friend named Aden Pryor, possessing both brains and wit — that combination so disconcerting to so many men — put the case quite brilliantly with, “When you’re in it, the brain can only process negative information.”


A few admitted to resorting to booze. I almost can’t type the next few words, but . . . it will make you feel better. Briefly. Then worse. And if you forget that, crochet a sampler (or get someone to make one for you) and mount it above the liquor cabinet. It should read: “Remember: Alcohol Depresses the Central Nervous System!” (Do we really want, just for that mere moment, to make things worse?)


Sorry for the length of this. It’s just an inexhaustible subject.

Closing in a lighter vein, once at Oxford a languid Brit part-time professor (and full-time fop) was cooing to me at an academic cocktail party about what he called “ this depression business.”

“Depression,” he announced, “is for sniveling little neurotics.”

“How, then,” I asked, “have you escaped it?

I have no memory of what happened next.

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