Depression is much more common than most people think. I’m not talking about the occasional bout with the blues. I’m referring to a deep sense of helplessness that lasts for weeks and months at a time. The swimming in an ocean of gray is experienced by members of your family, your friends, and by people with whom you work. Why don’t you know? Because people fear being seen as weak. People are afraid they will be viewed as broken, or crazy, so they hide it. Fear is a major reason men don’t get help when they need it. They keep quiet, hold it all in, so as to save face. That fear is something I know all too well.
My honeymoon period with Nicole lasted one week. After that, we began to struggle with issues in our marriage. Within six months of being married, we were searching for a marriage counselor. The quick collapse of my marriage filled me with a sadness that was layered atop my depression. It was a bad period.
While at work on General Hospital, I would sit in my dressing room with my mind looping like crazy. I wasn’t sleeping, so I was tired. I wasn’t eating, so I was fatigued. It was all I could do to get on stage and get through my scenes.
My dressing room was directly across the hall from the dressing room of the late John Ingle, who played Edward Quartermaine. One afternoon, John stopped in to see me.
“Do you want to talk?”
John was one of the most caring and sincere men I have ever known. I broke down. The weight of everything finally became too much to carry. I think it was not just the weight of my marriage, but the weight of my time on The Cosby Show and of being clinically depressed.
“Nicole and I are having a lot of trouble.”
“Yes. I kind of sensed that.” John got to the point. “Do you want to stay married?”
John then went on to share with me some of the issues he was having with his family. John had several children and marriage problems were not unique to me and Nicole.
“I have the number of a woman you should call.”
I sighed. Nicole and I had already been to a couple of marriage counselors and I hadn’t liked any of them. I wanted to save my marriage and these counselors seemed intent on preparing us for divorce. I read once that the only occupation more hated than used-car salesman is marriage counselor. I don’t doubt it.
“No thank you.” I waved him off.
“I wouldn’t offer it except my daughter swears this woman saved her marriage.”
I took the number. Nicole and I are still married today because John Ingle came to my dressing room that day and gave me the number to Dr. Bonita Wirth.
It was through our counseling with Dr. Wirth that I began to accept that I was clinically depressed, that I had a mental illness. I knew I was depressed, but clinically depressed? No way!
“I don’t stay in bed with the covers pulled over my head, I don’t abuse alcohol or drugs. Sure I eat too much fast food from time to time, but nothing dangerous. Nicole and I have an active sex life…I am not clinically depressed,” I demanded. “Besides,” I continued. “This is about our marriage and not about my blue moods.”
“Yes!” Dr. Wirth agreed. “You function with depression just like some people function with alcoholism.” She sat forward in her seat. “Not everyone sits in a dark room. Many people who are clinically depressed get up every day and go to jobs, have families, and live what seem like normal lives.”
(All that may have been true. What remained unclear was what my being depressed had to do with the laundry list of things I thought Nicole was doing that irritated the shit out of me.)
Dr. Wirth explained: “The depression is such a weight on you that it is preventing you from being able to work on the issues that are impacting your marriage.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I want you to treat your depression, so you will have the energy and vision to work on your marriage.”
In other words, I could only be married to one woman, which meant the gray bitch had to go!
Here again was someone trying to get me to take medication. Only this time, my marriage was hanging in the balance. I could have my marriage or I could have my pride, but I couldn’t have both. I agreed to go to a psychiatrist and get a prescription for an anti-depressant.
The psychiatrist started me on a very low dosage of Prozac. Oh man! Talk about stigma! Could it have been any worse? Getting my prescription for Prozac filled was worse than the first time I bought rubbers. I was embarrassed and tried to hide my eyes from the pharmacist. I cringed when the pharmacist read aloud what was on the prescription bottle. I was fearful that someone standing near-by would hear. “Okay, MR. PHILLIPS. Thirty Milligrams of PROZAC!”
Shhhh! Do you have to blast it all over the store? And it’s not like no one in this place recognizes me. I worried.
“Girl guess who was in the drug store today buying Prozac?”
“Olivia’s Daddy from the Huxtables.”
“You mean Justus Ward from General Hospital?”
“Yeah, girl. A BIG OL BOTTLE.”
My imagination went wild and the thoughts mortified me.
“Joseph,” Dr. Wirth began, “you have a chemical imbalance, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. If you had diabetes, would you be ashamed to buy insulin?”
That kind of put things in a bit of a different perspective.
It was about three weeks after I began taking the Prozac that I began to notice that I was speaking to people on the street, saying, “Hello.” I was laughing and feeling a bounce in my step. The sun was out. There was light in my eyes. As odd as it may sound, I began to cry at the realization. I had been so depressed that I hadn’t even realized how down I had been. For years–decades really–my day to day life had been lived in a range of depressed and less depressed. It had been so long since I felt fully alive.
The real irony for me is that I had experienced my three years on The Cosby Show through the fog of depression. What would those years have been like if I had been seeing clearly? What kinds of friendships might I have cultivated? How many missed opportunities for love (and yes, sex), or business would have been realized? How much sooner would I have taken that little redhead in my arms and professed my love?
Depression is a liar and a thief. I have been fortunate in that the gray lady didn’t rob me of everything, not that she doesn’t continue to try. Like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne 1987) she stands at my side declaring, “I will not be ignored.”
And so I battle. Now, however, I am better armed. I continue to take my medication, but I have also discovered Transcendental Meditation, prayer, and loving my children. Oh. And an occasional bowl of good pipe tobacco never hurts.