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A Veteran TV Anchorman's Toughest Story Was His Own—He Had to Beat Drugs and Depression

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On-camera at New York City’s Channel 2 News just last winter, Jim Jensen, 62, looked like a man on top of the world. An anchor at WCBS-TV for 25 years, the ruggedly handsome newsman was master of his trade, reporting the day’s events with controlled authority. But away from the anchor desk, Jensen’s life was crumbling, his difficulties having begun more than a decade before.

Within four years in the late ’70s, Jensen’s 26-year marriage ended in divorce, a quick second marriage fell apart, and his son, Randall, 26, was killed in a hang-gliding accident. Lonely and guilt-ridden, Jensen began using cocaine. Last summer he entered a New Jersey drug clinic, where doctors discovered he had also become dependent on the Valium he had been taking to help him sleep. With the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, Jensen kicked both addictions and returned to work last fall. But Valium withdrawal soon plunged him into a massive depression that left him unable to eat or sleep. It took two more months in two hospitals for him to regain his mental and physical health.

Back at Channel 2 since June, Jensen is no longer an anchor, but he feels lucky simply to be on the air as a senior correspondent and to be alive. Hoping to offer a high-profile example for other substance abusers, he spoke with writer Jeannie Park about his drug problems and the depression he endured beating them.

Success has a terrible price. You have to surrender a lot of things and you don’t even know you’re surrendering them—friends, family, social contacts, just having a good time. There’s sort of a spiritual hole in you. I was well equipped to be a good reporter—I was very dispassionate and very disconnected. But I remember sitting in my office shortly after I was 40 and saying, “Okay I’m here now, I’m in New York, I’m at the top. How come I’m not enjoying myself?” I had assumed that when one grew professionally, one also grew personally. But what you work on is what you get, and I didn’t go out of my way to make real relationships. I wasn’t even capable of having relationships, to tell you the truth.

My first divorce in 1975 and then my son Randy’s death [in 1979] were the beginning of what I call the spiraling-down process. I didn’t handle either one of them well. I feel very strongly about marriage and believe in it very much, and when there was a divorce, I felt a lot of guilt. I never handle emotional things well at all. I was back to work a week after my son was killed. Everyone was telling me how brave I was. I didn’t think I was brave; I thought there was something wrong, but I didn’t know what. All I recall is that when I got a phone call from my daughter Lisa telling me that he had been killed, my knees buckled. I got a tremendous pain in my stomach for a second. Then I wanted to throw the telephone through the wall. And then there was nothing.

I remember I was sitting there watching a football game, and half of me would say, “Ugh, Giants, third down and seven. They blew it again.” And the other half of me would say, “My son was just killed.” It went on like that, like two people.

After that it was a slow descent that manifested itself by my becoming more and more reclusive, feeling kind of gray. They tell you later, about the drugs, that you really had no choice, you were an addict waiting to happen. Because of the emptiness, you were looking for something to fill it up, to kill the pain.

I’ll never forget that first time, at a party in the early ’80s. It was very chic then. There was a lady at the party who said, “Don’t worry about cocaine. Nothing can happen to you.” And I thought nothing could happen. Nothing had ever tripped me. Nothing. But that was the worst thing I ever did. I mean, can you think of that? An intelligent person such as me, doing something so hideously stupid. Next thing you know, I had a problem.

I was a solitary user. I’d use it at home after midnight, sometimes once a week, sometimes once every two weeks. I would go on weekend binges. It didn’t take much for me. I was never under the influence on the air. Never at work, never. But my conduct around the newsroom was a little erratic. My temper would be short and I wouldn’t be too consistent in the way I treated people. Sometimes I would be abrupt or I’d be silent. I started missing work. I’d miss family functions. You start to look a little seedy around the edges. One day you’re up. The next day you’re down. Then you start lying—you had a toothache, you went to the dentist, a thousand different things. You think you’re fooling everybody, but you’re fooling nobody.

Finally, last summer, the company suggested I take some urine tests. Then people at the station urged me to get help. The heart of any addiction is denial, but when it’s found out, and you’re finally sent to a rehabilitation center, to a hospital, it’s a great sense of relief.

When I checked into the hospital, Fair Oaks, in New Jersey, I was removed from all substances, including Valium, which I’d been put on for 4½ years by a doctor for a sleep disorder caused by anxiety. The Valium turned out to be more of a problem than the other. I thought it was like an aspirin tablet; when I wanted to stop using it I would just quit. Trying to come off Valium can be brutal, but I became determined. At the clinic they have what’s called intervention. Your family members confront you. My eldest daughter, Denene, said, “Dad, I’m not here for you. I’m here for me. Because if you kill yourself, I don’t want to feel guilty because maybe there was something I didn’t do. I don’t want to feel guilty the rest of my life.” That was like somebody driving a spike right into my forehead. I was bound and determined to be free of those substances no matter what. I didn’t want to be sick anymore.

The hospital was very Alcoholics Anonymous-oriented. Alcohol was never a problem for me, but people with all kinds of addictions go to AA. At first I was very frightened to go, so some of the larger guys would actually surround me as we went in, so nobody would see me. It was so ludicrous. I was a scoffer, but these programs work. No longer are you a one-man gang. You all have a mutual problem and are fighting to get over it. You also turn your life over to your concept of God. It’s not a religious concept. It’s spiritual.

After six or seven weeks at the hospital, I was not having any withdrawal symptoms, so I was discharged. I kept going to AA meetings and I felt pretty good. But about a week after I went back to work as an anchor I started getting these terrible pains in my legs and my back. That was the beginning of the Valium withdrawal. The cocaine withdrawal had been quick, but the Valium was a nightmare. I would sleep maybe seven hours a week and eat very little. I would take one hot bath after another, because of the muscle pain. I would be ice cold and sweating. I used to go through three or four T-shirts a night that were soaked with sweat. It was absolute, sheer hell.

One of my daughters, Heidi, stayed with me in my place in Manhattan. She would get up with me at 3 A.M. and pour me a hot bath. She’d put hot towels on my legs and my back for the pain. She’d pray with me, encourage me, yell at me. She was golden. But if you’d known her six or seven years ago, you’d never believe it. This wonderful, warm, sweet daughter was a falling-down drunk, living on a bare floor in Houston. The family almost gave up on her. Finally, God intervened, and she came home and got into a recovery program. And she has been sober for almost seven years. Never did I dream that I would have to turn to my daughter. Daddies are supposed to be the source of help; kids are supposed to come to Daddy. But I had to go to my kids and ask for help. That was a humbling experience.

Last February was rock bottom. The Valium withdrawal leaves you in a terrible depression, and shortly after my 25th-anniversary party at the station, I had these monumental panic attacks in the middle of the night. I would be walking Madison Avenue at 2 in the morning with tremendous physical pain and absolute panic. I was hanging on to parking meters to keep from falling down. I wanted to run but didn’t know where to run to. It got so bad I checked into a hospital in New York, and I was there for a month. Then the company and my family sent me out to St. Mary’s hospital in Minneapolis, which has one of the finest depression units in the country.

It was a monumental depression. You feel as though there’s no future left, you might as well die. There was a bridge over the Mississippi—I thought about that. I never actively did anything, but the thoughts cross your mind. It’s a nutty thing. Somehow the idea of dying gives you a kind of peace. I was there a month, and I slowly began to get better. Of course, time was a factor. As time goes along, you start to get better.

I’m taking an antidepressant every day, but the doctors assure me I will not have to take that the rest of my life. It’s only a matter of a few more months. I see a psychiatrist once a week. I go to an AA meeting every day, and I love to go. It kept me alive, kept me sane, kept me on track. And I made more friends in the last year than I made in my whole life. People I can call up any time of the night or day who will listen to me, talk through a problem. It’s a miracle.

Not anchoring anymore bothered me for a while, but the company had to have some continuity. I mean I wasn’t very dependable. The decisions were made to help me. I’m doing a lot of stories now, and I’m probably going to be a hell of a lot better reporter than I ever was. I feel like a million bucks. For 20 years the company had to beg me to take vacations. They called me the Iron Man, but the Iron Man got very rusty. Now I do more things. Last Sunday a friend and I drove to an antique show in Nyack, N.Y., and wandered around, and we heard music in a church, a pianist and a cellist rehearsing for a concert. We went in the back of the church and we sat there for an hour and a half, listening to this magnificent music, something I never would have done before. I put my head down and said, “God, I cannot believe that I am so well that I can sit on this church pew on a rainy afternoon in Nyack, and listen to a cellist and a piano player rehearse.” It felt so good I cried, and it felt so good to cry because it felt like I was alive.

I celebrated Heidi’s sixth anniversary of sobriety with her this year, and she celebrated my first, which was Aug. 2, with me. I’m a whole year sober. I’m very proud of that. And I’m so thankful to God, my family, my friends and my company. For a guy who went through life with people bouncing off me, like I was a bowling ball, to have so many people love and help me is beyond belief. By admitting that “Yeah, me too, I can get sick,” maybe I can help someone else. Then my life will have some real value.

And something else remarkable has happened. People have always recognized me and said hello but now there’s a different quality to the recognition, a real feeling of support. Sanitation workers driving by, cops, people in limousines, they lean out their windows with their thumbs up and say, “Jim, we’re with you! You’re going to make it!” I’ve got seven boxes of mail in my office. People on the street, they pat me on the back. It’s wonderful. They’re all pulling for me. I can’t let them down.