Dick Cavett details the 'dismal, worthless, black despair' of bouts of depression

Words come easily for Dick Cavett, so he had no trouble yesterday capturing the periods of overpowering despair that have kept this funnyman in his bathrobe for weeks while contemplating the relief that might come from suicide.

Mr. Cavett, 56, strode into a room full of reporters at Johns Hopkins Hospital, his shirt open at the collar, tie slung over his arm, and quipped, "It's no fun being a specimen."


Then, asked to describe clinical depression for those who might not understand, he had this to say: "Everything turns sort of colorless. . . . You find yourself not wanting to go out of the house. You lose all sense of self-esteem. Your manhood is a casualty, and that's a nice way to put it.

"You're in a permanent state of dismal, worthless, black despair that will not end no matter what anybody tells you."


Mr. Cavett's remarks were made at a press briefing before his appearance at an annual conference on depression.

While it always seemed his worst depressions would go on forever, Mr. Cavett brought the encouraging news that they usually do end if the victim gets psychiatric help and, if necessary, anti-depressant medication.

He said it came as something of a revelation 10 years ago when a drug he had been taking for a few weeks finally "kicked in" and began to lift him out of the worst depression of his life. The depression had struck during a period when he was host for a PBS interview show, leading to a string of unexplained reruns when Mr. Cavett simply dropped from public view.

"It was as if I woke up this morning and the curtain rose and there was color in the world and I could think of at least three reasons to live."

Mr. Cavett is the third celebrity to bare his soul at the annual Mood Disorders Research and Education Symposium at Hopkins. The forum is sponsored by the Johns Hopkins Affective Disorders Clinic and a non-profit group for patients and families known as DRADA -- the Depression and Related Affective Disorders Association.

In recent years the forum also has had visits by CBS newsman Mike Wallace and novelist William Styron. Mr. Styron's presentation in 1989 provided the germ for his best-selling book, "Darkness Visible," an account of his slide into depression a few years earlier and his subsequent recovery.

The celebrity appearances at Hopkins have been an attempt to put a familiar face on the disease -- in effect, to let victims and their families see famous people who, like them, have suffered from an illness that can make someone feel so alone.

Indeed, Mr. Cavett remembered feeling that his deepest bout would be "the rule-breaking case," the one that simply would not respond to medication or psychotherapy or the passage of time. He was wrong.


Mr. Cavett began his television career in 1960, writing first for "Tonight Show" host Jack Paar before getting his own morning talk show on ABC and, later, a late-night show opposite Johnny Carson. "The Dick Cavett Show" is currently in its third season on CNBC.

He said he suffered three major bouts of depression -- the first while attending Yale University as an undergraduate and the second a few years later when he was unemployed, roaming New York for an acting job.

The third, occurring in about 1982, was his worst. He said he thought about suicide, figuring it might be the only way to get relief, but never acted on the impulse. "Something inside me saw the illogic of suicide making you feel better."

Not everybody is so lucky. According to the American Medical Association, depression strikes about 5 percent to 10 percent of the population, and some 35,000 deaths each year are attributed to suicide. Ninety percent of suicides result from psychiatric illnesses.

"The glimmer of hope," Mr. Cavett said, "is that there is help available and you're stupid not to get it."