'Lower than snake's belly' is how depression made Mike Wallace feel

April 18, 1991|By Henry Scarupa

Mike Wallace -- hard-boiled interviewer for CBS' "60 Minutes" -- yesterday took the hot seat himself during a brief appearance at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

The subject was depression -- his own.

Mr. Wallace came to Baltimore to talk about his experience of the illness, which affects one out of 10 Americans, in a dialogue with Dr. J. Raymond DePaulo Jr., director of the Center for Affective Disorders at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The newsman said his presentation -- which drew about 500 professionals and lay people at the Hopkins-sponsored mood disorder symposium -- was part of his "payback" for the extraordinary help he had received.

Clinical depression struck the veteran reporter in 1985 at a low point in his career, when Army Gen. William Westmoreland filed a $120 million suit against CBS and Mr. Wallace. In the middle of the five-month trial, he collapsed from exhaustion and was hospitalized for several days.

"You sit there for the first two months and hear yourself called a liar and a cheat day after day, and you begin to feel lower than a snake's belly," he said, recalling the agony of the trial, which ended when the general withdrew the suit.

For a reporter, the mental symptoms were even worse than the physical symptoms, he said, and included the inability to concentrate, to remember what he read or to hear what he was being told. Treatment, consisting of medication plus "talk" therapy, extended over several months, providing gradual relief.

Although his colleagues were aware something was wrong, Mr. Wallace kept the news of his illness to himself. During that time, he said he "counterfeited" the brash assurance that characterizes his TV persona.

Thanks to modern anti-depressants, 95 percent of the victims of depression can now be cured, according to Dr. DePaulo. Mr. Wallace noted that the last four or five years, since his illness, have been the most satisfying of his life.

"I understand myself better and I understand the parameters of my head and my psyche so much better," he commented.

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