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On the Couch... with Dick Cavett

An American icon shares wit and wisdom about depression.

Source: Cavett

The first celebrity I ever heard talk openly about depression was Dick Cavett.

I read about his depression in a magazine back in the 1980s - and saw him on various talk shows describing his depressive experiences. Learning of Cavett's depression was extraordinarily meaningful for me, because it offered a sense of relief from the shame I was experiencing from my own major depressive episode.

Best known as being the host of The Dick Cavett Show, Cavett interviewed writers, artists, actors, musicians and political figures of the 60s 70s and 80s - legends of the time - with a quick wit and gentle style. Cavett was a fixture in my house growing up. I can summon snippets of turtlenecks and ankle boots, swivel chairs and wide lapel shirts with ease. And then there's his unmistakable voice.

The son of schoolteachers, Cavett was born in Nebraska and excelled in school and sports. He received a scholarship to Yale University in Connecticut, where he first majored in English, then shifted to Drama. After graduation, he found himself in New York taking on odd jobs (store detective, a copy boy, label typist) while honing his acting and writing skills. Cavett got his break when he was hired as a comedy writer for Jack Paar, host of "The Tonight Show", and continued writing comedy when Johnny Carson took the seat from Paar. Several years later, Cavett began his now legendary talk show, which ran for nearly three decades.

Cavett is a man of many talents, and though he suffered great bouts of depression, he seems no worse for the wear. Just wiser. Cavett reveals himself to be a serious student of mood disorders, knowing the subtle textures as well as the devastating degrees of its symptoms. He's been to good doctors and not such good ones. He's been on good medications and not such good ones too. He's even had to venture down the road of experimental treatments to help relieve depressive symptoms. More than anything else, Cavett impresses as a man who has been challenged by a chronic illness, but sees himself - and others who live with depression - as more than a diagnostic label.

Cavett easily moves within and around his personal history with a balanced dose of humor and seriousness. He also knows his research, keeps up with current trends and does his part to debunk stigma by lecturing and making personal appearances. He happily agreed to talk with me for an article for Psychology Today.

Serani: Thank you for taking the time to talk about your experiences with depression. I know it will help many readers.

Cavett: Well, let's hope so.

Serani: You had your first depressive experience when you were at Yale. Freshman year, right?

Cavett: Oh, yes. Sometimes I forget that because by comparison, that depressive experience was mild.

Serani: What was going on then?

Cavett: Well, I was thrilled to be at Yale. I suspected it was going to be the best four years of my life. And yet suddenly in the middle of my freshman year, I lost interest in everything. I would find myself literally standing in the doorway wondering if I should go to class or go back to bed. For the longest time I was sad. Really sad. And I thought how none of this made sense to me because everything I wanted was here. One day, I finally went to the college health center.

Serani: You did?

Cavett: I saw a woman there who told me I was in need of sleep. But I was really in need of much less sleep. Oh, and she told me something about getting a B40 toothbrush or something like that. And to get more exercise.

Serani: So your first intervention for depression didn't really go very well.

Cavett: (Laughs) I guess that was my first intervention. Yeah, I think I didn't get what was really happening to me then and the woman there certainly didn't either. There were two major episodes of depression that came later in my life. And, oh, it was so baffling. You know when you have the flu and you can't remember when you felt well? And then when you feel better, you can barely remember feeling sick? The authority of depression is horrifying. I felt like my brain was busted and that I could never feel good again. I really thought that I was never gonna heal.

Serani: You've mentioned how the depths of depression are so overwhelming that if a magic wand was available to rid the symptoms, you'd be too fatigued and hopeless to use it.

Cavett: Yeah, if it were 8 feet away, it would be too impossible a feat to go and get it.

Serani: We know that mood disorders often have a genetic basis. Did anyone in your family experience depression?

Cavett: Not that I know of. My mother died when I was 10. My dad didn't have anything like that going on. But I inherited some family letters and noticed several references to my mother having a hard time... or seeming very, very low. That's the closest I could come up with depression in the family.

Serani: When was it that you finally learned you were experiencing depression?

Cavett: It was well after college that I learned about depression. I got my first job for Jack Paar. I realized I was sleeping 14 hours a day and just living for the Paar show. I used to sit all day in my cruddy roach ridden apartment - not even wanting to go out and buy food. I would spend days reading "The Variety of Religious Experiences" by William James from beginning to end - and not remembering at all what I read.

Serani: Oh, I know what that's like. The cognitive fog and slowed thinking. Just terrible.

Cavett: Yeah, I would get three or four sentences into a paragraph and not get it. I'd try again and still couldn't get it. But making the effort to read was better than sitting in my apartment doing nothing or sleeping all day. One day, I'll have to give old William James another try again.

Serani: What did you do to treat your depression?

Cavett: Well, I first tried talk therapy. But you know, certain therapies aren't very good for depression.

Serani: I agree.

Cavett: Therapists need to give a depressed patient support and direction.

Serani: Acute intervention.

Cavett: Right. I did psychoanalysis for a time, and it was just not the right kind of treatment. You're too out of it to know what's being said to you - or what you're saying. You can't keep your mind on a sentence.

Serani: What else did you do to treat your symptoms

Cavett: I took medication and had ECT.

Serani: Tell me about your medication experiences?

Cavett: Well, I first started on a MAO inhibitor.

Serani: How did you do on that? Were there a lot of side effects?

Cavett: I don't know because it didn't really help so I stopped that. And the doctors tried me on some other ones. Then those didn't work. Then I went on something else and then something else. But what really helped me was ECT. In fact, right after the first treatment, I felt good. It's not like the movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo' Nest." Being held down by big strong men is long a thing of the past. You know, I got anesthetics. It was all very well done.

Serani: Did you have any side effects from the ECT?

Cavett: Not that I can recall. I don't really remember how many treatments I had. Like, I think you get 10 or 12 - or something like that. But I can tell you that I looked and felt better. I greeted people cheerily.

Serani: What is your current treatment regime?

Cavett: I see a doctor at intervals and have found a medication that works well for me. I live a sensible life. You know, I don't take on too much. I haven't had any issues in a long time, thankfully.

Serani: You do a lot of advocate work for depression. Going to conferences, doing interviews. Do you worry about being the poster boy for depression?

Cavett: Well, yeah. I do get bored stiff with the subject sometimes. But it's important to get out and talk about things. You know, the one thing that keeps me going is when a person tells me, "You saved my father's life". There's that half-assed notion of celebrity, you know, people think if Cavett has it, maybe I don't have to be ashamed of mine.

Serani: But it's not half-assed. Research shows that high profile individuals, like you, reduce stigma and help educate the public. It's really a great thing that you do this.

Cavett: You know, you're right, thanks for correcting me. By the way, does the phrase "abhorred anise" mean anything to you?

Serani: Uh, no.

Cavett: (Laughs) It's an anagram for your name. My anagram curse has struck again!

Serani: (Laughs) You know, speaking of a humor, does finding something silly or nonsensical help you when you're depressed? I know that it's helpful for me to stay away from dramas or heavy subjects when my depressive symptoms appear.

Cavett: I remember being alone in Montauk by the sea one time, feeling very, very depressed. My late wife was away doing a play in Chicago. It took all that I had to just get the dog to come upstairs and turn on the television. Well, on came an old "Saturday Night Live" episode that I happened to be hosting. I saw myself smiling, cheerful - happy as a clam. I was sparkling. I was funny. And watching that was like a tonic. Had I not watched it, I think I might have stayed in that drowning darkness for more days. Perhaps it can be an area researched more in psychology. You know, seeing yourself in happier times. Maybe there's something to that.

Serani: I think you're on to something there.

Cavett: My anagram curse has struck again. Check out "airhead boners". See if that isn't your name...

Serani: (Laughs) You know, I don't think I've ever laughed so much while talking about such a serious topic.

Cavett: Happy to be of service.

Serani: Well, thanks again for taking the time to talk with me, Mr. Cavett. Your experiences will be a great resource for people who have depression - and for those who know someone who lives with it.

Cavett: Well, good then. And thank you, Deborah, for making talking about this painless.

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