On the Edge of Darkness: America's Most Celebrated Actors, Journalists and Politicians Chronicle Their Most Arduous Journey
By Kathy Cronkite
I have known Mike Wallace and his family all my life. Even when I was young, he was one of those rare grown-ups who seemed to take me seriously. Still, I never dreamed that as an adult, I would interview him, one professional to another. I was honored that he would be so candid with me and was struck by similarities between our illnesses. Mike Wallace helped me to clarify the goal of this book. For the first time, I had the experience of recognition, that illuminating moment when you realize you are not alone. I saw that in spite of our differences, we are part of a community of survivors of depression, with the capacity to offer great support one to another. At the same time, this interview revealed the diversity of experiences that are depression and reminded me that my experience is not the experience. And it was a cocktail party conversation with Mary Wallace that awakened me to the importance of addressing the spouses' point of view.
Since the article about Mike in U.S. News & World Report planted the seed that became this book, I sought him out for the first interview. Mike and his wife, Mary, welcomed me in the driveway of their expansive new house on a bluff in Vineyard Haven, Martha's Vineyard. On a beautiful, peaceful summer day, he and I sat overlooking the sailboats in the harbor, the view broken periodically by the massive ferryboat to the mainland of Cape Cod. Author William Styron and columnist Art Buchwald have their summer homes nearby, and the three men and their wives are close friends.
I didn't know what was the matter with me. All I knew was that I was feeling lower than a snake's belly. I was on trial in the Westmoreland suit and that goes to your gut, that goes to your heart. Mary was living with me at the time; we were old friends. She used to go to the court house with me every morning-we'd get up early and go to court and sit there, and I heard myself called dirty names over and over again for five months.
The first three months were the plaintiff making his case. I'd pick up the paper every day, and they were saying "Cheat, liar, fraud," et cetera. After a while I began to feel that way; you suddenly say to yourself, "Well, yeah, they're right."
I still didn't know what it was. I thought I was just down. I remember we used to go to restaurants, and I'd say "Everybody's pointing at me, the cheat, the fraud, the fake." You really believe these things! Astonishing! I had pains in my arms and a kind of weakness in my legs. I would be asking questions in an interview, and suddenly I wouldn't be able to hear the answer, or think of the next question. My mind was on a completely different plane. I had no memory, no powers of concentration. If you asked me questions about a newspaper column I'd read two minutes before, I wouldn't have been able to answer. Mary saw what was happening, but I wasn't willing to acknowledge it.
I couldn't sleep, and because I couldn't sleep, I started taking half a sleeping pill, then it went up to one sleeping pill, and then if I wasn't sleeping, I'd take another. And I was feeling lousy all day long.
When the opportunity came to go on assignment to Ethiopia, it seemed like a good way to get away from the trial for ten days. I thought, "Maybe this will change the way I feel. Maybe I'll be able to sleep. Maybe I'll feel better." Although it was such a joy to be away, the trial was never off my mind, and you can run, but you cannot hide from this damned disease. With the jet lag, and the exhaustion, sleeping in fourth-rate hotels in a Third World country, and a bug I picked up, I became even more vulnerable.
When the trial recessed for Christmas, we went away to St. Martin. I'm a tennis player; Ivan Lendl was down there, and he was practicing. I couldn't watch. I kept looking at the water and thinking "Oh, boy, that's very tempting." I think everybody thinks of suicide at one time or another during his or her life, wonders about it. You get to the point where you say to yourself "Hey, that would be a wonderful. That would kill the pain in a hurry." I knew I was in trouble. Still didn't know what I had.
When we got back, I was in very, very bad shape. I had a doctor, who had been my doctor for fifteen years. Why he did not know, to this day I don't know. He's a wonderful doctor; he just missed it. Mary felt that he should have known and started to treat [me for depression] a lot earlier. I wound up in the hospital for what we called exhaustion, and I was emotionally, physically exhausted. But really, it was depression. While I was in the hospital, I was feeling so bad, he said, "Why don't you talk to the chief of psychiatry? Maybe you'll find something." The chief of psychiatry came in and said, "You're suffering from clinical depression. Not a deep, deep depression, but you have all the classic manifestations of a clinical depression."
I was grateful to have some kind of diagnosis. The mystery was over. I said, "You're sure? That's it? I'm not losing my mind, I'm not cashing it in, there isn't some tumor back there?"
He said, "No, we'll take CAT scans, we'll take all the tests, but no. As a doctor I'm reluctant to say that I know exactly what it is without doing those tests, but I can virtually guarantee you that you have a classic case, not a very deep case, of clinical depression." And I . . . heaved a sigh of relief.
The doctor said, "First, we're going to start you on a drug to arrest it chemically. It will dampen the pain in your arms and your legs, and it'll also put a floor under your depression, so that we have something to work with. Then we'll talk." I talked to him for about an hour a day during the week I was in the hospital. After I got out, I just went on talking to him.
I went back to the trial, and sat there, and it's a funny thing, the psychiatrist didn't know anything about television, and nothing about the news, and had no real idea who I was, but he learned very quickly. He studied it. After about two or three weeks, he said, "All right, we've got to get you ready to testify. Because you're afraid of that." He was right. Because suddenly the fellow who asks the questions is going to be asked the questions. "And then we have to get you ready to lose, because you believe that if you lose, you lose everything, that your life is worthless." And I really did believe it.
In any case, the psychiatrist began to talk to me about myself, and about my mind, and about my spirit, and about what I had done. He started to not psychoanalyze, but give me psychiatric understanding of what was going on. When he gave me material to read about depression, I suddenly realized that one out of every ten Americans has suffered from this disease at one time or another, and that my symptoms were classic, and not mild, but by no means deep. I suddenly realized that my friend Styron and my friend Buchwald had been going though the same thing. But I still was ashamed. So nobody in the shop [CBS] knew. I was trying to do my job, go to the trial, talk to the doctor, et cetera. And not let anybody know.