By Dick Cavett
August 03, 1992 12:00 PM

For years Dick Cavett was the maestro of elevated TV chat, tangling in front of the cameras with all the heavy hitters of his era. A media intellectual with a Yale education and a winningly puckish manner, Cavett presided over talk shows on ABC (1968-74), CBS (1975) and PBS (1977-82). While he seemed to inhabit his television persona as easily as his Ivy League wardrobe, Cavett might have been better suited for a spot on an earlier TV show: I’ve Got a Secret. Truth is, it often took every ounce of willpower Cavett had just to get to the studio each day; for much of his life, he has suffered from clinical depression. “I was able to mask it, “says Cavett. “I could be ‘on’ when it was expected of me. Then I would go home and go back to bed.” Cavett, 55, who currently has an interview show on cable’s CNBC, discussed the disease and how he has handled it, with reporter Veronica Burns.

MY FIRST MEMORY OF BEING SERIOUSLY depressed is in 1959, the year after I graduated from Yale. After a summer doing theater in Williamstown, Mass., I got mononucleosis and went home to Nebraska to get over it. For several years after that, every winter I would develop what I thought was a fatal disease. I knew that I had it. I’d get a physical, thinking my number was up, then the doctor would say I was fine, and I would feel better. I think now that those hypochondriacal episodes were the beginning of depression for me.

I don’t know why they call this thing depression. That suggests a dip in the road or a dip in the stock market or something harmless. Malaise is a much better word for it, so is melancholia. You feel that your brain has been broken. You can’t make any decisions. You’re confronted with two identical blue shirts, and you can’t decide which one to put on. You can read a book on depression with total concentration, but reading anything else is a challenge, even the Redder’s Digest. Once you are into the depression, all you think about are your awful qualities. It’s like 10 McLaughlin Reports, each with 10 people on them, all yelling horrible things about you.

The worst thing though is an absence of feeling. I remember going to the dentist’s office and slogging my way there through a blizzard because I was too tired to raise my arm to get a cab. Then I suddenly thought, “I have a great idea! I won’t get any novocaine and maybe I’ll feel something!” When he drilled into my tooth, the pain was almost a kind of pleasure.

In the early ’60s, when I was living in New York City making the rounds as an actor, I became stuck in this frozen depression for months. What people don’t understand is that depression is a physical presence. Yon can feel it. People say, “Pull up your socks. Why don’t I you just go out and see a movie?” The trouble is you can’t. You can’t do anything. During that time I did nothing but watch Jack Paar on The Tonight Show. I lived for the Paar show. I watched it from my bed on my little black-and-white set on my dresser, and I’d think, “I’ll brush my teeth in a minute,” and then I’d go to sleep and wake up at 3 the following afternoon.

I didn’t starve myself, like some people, or overeat. I just overslept—and had anxiety attacks. My anxiety attack would be in the chest. I can only describe it as a horror centered there. Your nerves are shattered, and you think, “If I could only get in a hot tub, I could soak this jitteriness away.” A lot of sleep and the fact that you usually feel better in the evening make you think it’s going away. But then you wake up in the morning and you realize, “Oh, God, this thing is still here!”

This cycle continued for years. Most of the time I’d feel fine and function normally. Then, with no warning, I”d go into a slide. I was still experiencing dips in 1968 after I got my talk show on ABC. I would be doing the shows and thinking, “Dammit, here I have this witty guest and I wish I were at my best, but I’m in that phase and it’s an effort.”

For years I dealt badly with depression. I didn’t have any particular technique, except a dull sense of “I’ll soldier this through. I’ll wait it out.” My wife [actress Carrie Nye, whom Cavett married in 1964] was the one who pushed me to do something about it. I called psychiatrist Nathan Kline in 1975 after my wife pointed out that I had sat in the bedroom, in a gray bathrobe, most of the day for several week-reading a biography of Noel (inward, which I could read because of my fascination with his recurrent depressions. Kline had been a guest on my show and was an early pioneer in antidepressants. When I called him, I said, “Is it possible that what you and I have talked about on two shows, I have?” And he said, “Well, you’d be in good company.”

Kline put me on medication. The first one didn’t work; it put me to sleep for 17 hours. The next one did. Kline predicted it would take two weeks, and on the 15th day the curtain lifted. M dosage was tapered after six weeks, but later 1 stopped taking the drug because I thought I was doing OK. Worse still, I irresponsibly denied the return of the symptoms.

My biggest depressive episode look place in May 1980. But because depression affects memory, I don’t recall everything that happened. I do remember, vividly, being on the Concorde before takeoff—I was going to England to do some interviews—and bursting into a sweat. It wasn’t the usual “Oh, my God, the plane is going to crash” sort of stuff. It was like a malaria attack. They took me off the plane and put me in a limo and look me to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. They tell me I was in such a state of agitation that I kept trying to get out of the limo in traffic and that my assistant, Jo Muchmore, literally had to wrap her arms around me and brace against the door to keep me from bolting.

Within hours of arriving at the hospital, I was very carefully treated with electric-shock therapy. ECT [electroconvulsive therapy] is horribly misunderstood. People have this ghastly image of someone standing in a tub of water and putting his finger in a socket. I knew better. I had done some shows about it. The hospital requires a release for ECT. I was so disoriented I couldn’t figure out what they were asking me to sign, but I signed anyway. In my case, ECT was miraculous. My wife was dubious, but when she came into my room afterward, I sat up and said, “Look who’s back among the living.” It was like a magic wand. ECT is used as a jump starter to get you back. From that point on—the six weeks I was in the hospital and to this day—I’ve been treated with medication.

What brought on this episode? I have no idea. Usually you don’t know. I’m not aware of any family history of depression. It’s possible that my mother, who died when I was 10, was depressed, judging from some letters I’ve read. There are a couple of references, things like, “I have been so tired these last couple of months.”

I feel fine now. I haven’t been incapacitated since the Big One 12 years ago. There have been some dips, but with my daily medication and weekly therapy I have the means to battle it. I also have the support of my wife, who never threatened to throw me out or to take a walk. When things were bad, she would wisely say, “That’s the disease talking.”

To describe how I feel now, I’ll borrow a line from June Allyson’s Depends ad: “You can get back into life.” I feel really well, have lots of energy and am fully functional. I came out of a dark mine, and I know that if I ever go back in there again, I will be able to get out of it.