From Inside a Depression

Until I was in my forties, I never really thought about my nerves—a sure symptom of a person with good nerves. I was president of the Dreyfus Fund and a partner in Dreyfus & Co., with responsibilities in research, in sales, and in management. People would ask, “How do you do all the things you do?” “How do you stand the strain?” I hardly understood the question because at the time I felt no strain.

Sometime in my forty-fifth year I became aware of a change in myself. At partners’ meetings, which I’d used to enjoy, I began to notice that my patience was shorter and I was anxious for the meetings to end. Occasionally I felt a trembling inside me that I didn’t understand. On weekend trips to the country it had been my habit to read or take a nap in the car. These trips had been relaxing, but they weren’t anymore. My mind would become occupied with pessimistic and aggravating thoughts, thoughts I couldn’t turn off.

In 1958 I had spent a few trying weeks with a problem in the stock market. It was resolved successfully, but I had been under a good deal of pressure and needed a vacation. I went to Miami and stayed at the Roney Plaza, a nice old-fashioned hotel that I had visited many times before. Usually after a day or two, with the sun and salt water, I would unwind and relax. But this time I didn’t relax.

Some premonition made me invite a good friend, Howard Stein, to come down and join me. Howard accepted, and the next day he was at the Roney. Two days later my depression started. I awoke at six o’clock in the morning in a state bordering on terror. The early sun was shining, and the birds were singing. In my room at the Roney I was in the safest of surroundings. Yet I was overwhelmed with fear. The fear couldn’t have been greater if a tiger had been clawing at the door. I knew there wasn’t any tiger, and common sense told me I was safe. But common sense wasn’t in charge—fear was. The fear was so great I was afraid to be alone. I called Howard, at that early hour, and asked if he would come to my room. When he got there I told him I knew it didn’t make any sense but I was afraid to be alone.

Howard arranged for me to see a doctor, and a few hours later we were in his office. The doctor said, “Miami is the right place for you. Get some sun, go swimming, play a little golf or tennis, and relax.” Normally this would have sounded great. But now this advice didn’t seem right, and at two o’clock that afternoon I was on a plane back to New York. Although it was a Saturday and I wouldn’t see my doctor until Monday, I hoped more familiar surroundings would make me feel better.

I still remember that trip. The plane was half-filled and I had a seat in a row by myself. Even with a dozen or more people in the plane I felt alone, and was afraid. I wanted to ask one of the stewardesses to sit next to me and keep me company, but I didn’t because I thought it would be misunderstood. I couldn’t tell a stewardess that I was afraid to sit by myself.

Joan with Buffy
Joan with Buffy

My former wife, Joan Personette, one of my closest friends, met me at the plane, and I spent the weekend at her home in Harrison, New York. It was difficult to explain to Joan how frightened I was. My brain was filled with fearful thoughts I couldn’t turn off. Saturday night I slept little. Sunday we went out in the cold weather and roasted hot dogs over a fire—something I’d always enjoyed. But this didn’t help. The intense fear never left me.

On Monday morning I saw Alfred Steiner, my family physician. He sent me to a neuropsychiatrist, Dr. Maximilian Silbermann. The first question I asked was, “Have I gone crazy?” I’d never had an experience like this intense fear without apparent cause. And my mood was so pessimistic that the worst seemed plausible. Dr. Silbermann assured me that I was sane but said he thought I was depressed. I remember that he said, “When people are insane, they may think others are a little off, but they rarely question their own sanity.”

That first day Dr. Silbermann asked me what I liked to do, what I really enjoyed. I told him that going to the racetrack was something I enjoyed a lot. He said, “Well, why don’t you go to the races tomorrow? Don’t worry about business.” He also suggested that I not be alone and have someone spend the night with me in my apartment. The next day I intended to go to the races. But I didn’t. They had no appeal for me, and even seemed a problem. That day, when I saw him for the second time, Dr. Silbermann diagnosed my condition as an endogenous depression. He explained that endogenous meant “coming from within,” and he differentiated it from a reactive depression, one with an outside cause. He assured me that this condition was temporary and that I would come out of the depression. He said he didn’t know how long it would take; it could be gradual or it could happen suddenly. Being told this was important to me intellectually, but emotionally I had a hard time believing it.

That was the beginning of a long and close relationship with Dr. Silbermann. For the next few years I was to see him five or six times a week. From the start Dr. Silbermann told me that good sleep was important for my condition and prescribed sleeping medication. With the help of this medicine I slept soundly, and the benefits of sleep carried over. In the morning I was at my best. As the day wore on my mind became busier and busier with worries and fears, and occasional angry thoughts. Frequently around dusk a little depressive cloud would descend upon me; I would tremble and my hands and feet would get cold. Seeing Dr. Silbermann almost every day was important to me. In his warm office, with his friendliness and willingness to listen, I would unburden my brain of the thoughts that were tormenting me. But intense fear persisted for almost a year. During that period I was afraid to be alone, and I arranged for my housekeeper to spend the night at my apartment.

Of course I had my business responsibilities, and I asked Dr. Silbermann what to do about them. He told me that people misunderstood depressions, and it might be best not to tell anyone about it. He suggested that I leave it vague and say I would be away from the office for a period of time. But this was in conflict with my sense of responsibility, and I didn’t feel right about it. Mark Twain advised, “When in doubt, tell the truth.” So I told the truth to my partners and asked them to run things without me for a while. Although I was not aware of feeling better, a realistic source of worry was removed.

Dr. Silbermann advised me to try to get out of the house and keep myself occupied, as long as I could do things that were not abrasive to me. I visited museums. One of my main haunts was the Museum of Modern Art and I had many lunches in the cafeteria there. I became friends with the paintings and with the sculptures in the backyard. The attention I gave these pleasing objects was helpful in taking attention off myself. I had similar benefits from the Central Park Zoo where I spent time with the seals, polar bears, and other nice creatures.

I tried to avoid things that would upset me. I found that my mind would magnify the slightest unpleasantness by some large multiple. Newscasts were anathema to me and I couldn’t listen to them. If a busload of children overturned in Nevada the news would be dragged fresh and gory to our attention in New York. I quickly learned that the news, with its disaster du jour, made things worse. One piece of news I couldn’t avoid was the dog in the Sputnik space capsule. I couldn’t get it out of my mind, and I suffered with thoughts of that dog for many weeks. I gave up watching movies on television. There’d be some sad theme or violent incident that would upset me, and the image of it would stick in my head. I had a similar problem with most books. One author I could always read was Mark Twain. I’m sure I missed many of his subtleties but he never dragged me through unpleasantness.

When I’d been in the depression for about six months Dr. Silbermann asked me if I thought it might make me feel better to be in a hospital. I said I didn’t know but I was willing to try it. So he got me a room at the Harkness Pavilion of Presbyterian Hospital. In the room I noticed that the windows were discreetly barred, and I asked the nurse about this. She explained that sometimes deeply depressed persons had to be protected from themselves.

Fortunately I was not classified as deeply depressed. I had outpatient privileges and walked in the neighborhood a few hours each day. It was cold and I would have a bowl of hot soup in a nice little corner restaurant. During the walks I had plenty of time to think. The conversation with the nurse reminded me that Dr. Silbermann had once tactfully brought up the subject of suicide. Now I gave it honest thought and realized I’d never considered it. Not that life seemed that desirable. At that time everyone was talking about the next rocket to the moon, the first to carry men. In my mood I thought chances for success were almost nil. But I remember thinking if a high authority told me it was for the good of the country I might be willing to make the trip.

After three days in the hospital, not feeling better or worse, I returned home. Each day Dr. Silbermann and I talked over my, mostly imagined, problems. Part of me knew that some of the worries were not logical, but the rest of me couldn’t feel it. Max cautioned me not to make any major business decisions while I was depressed because my perspective would be out of kilter. This was good advice. The Dreyfus Fund was not large at that time, but quite successful, and the only problems it had were the healthy ones connected with growth. Yet on more than one occasion I wished I could give the Fund away.

My apartment was just a few blocks from Dr. Silbermann’s office. Often I would leave for my appointment as much as an hour early and kill time by walking. I usually felt cold, and would seek the sunny side of the street. After the appointment, if it was daylight, I would walk in Central Park. I would still try to stay in the sun. As the shadows moved across the park I would walk faster to keep ahead of them.

During these walks I used to think about my condition. I was aware of daily headaches, frequent stomach irregularity, chronic neck pain, and lack of energy. But my dominant symptom was a turned-on mind that never gave me rest and was always occupied with negative thoughts related to anger and fear. And the fear was the worst. When you have fear in you, you’ll find something to be afraid of or to worry about, even if you have to make it up. This happened to me all the time. I’ll give two illustrations.

One Sunday, on Madison Avenue, I saw a woman looking at a dress in a small shop. She seemed to be looking at it longingly, as though she wanted it but couldn’t afford it. I felt unhappy for her. The dress looked so old-fashioned and unattractive it made me feel even sadder. Now this woman was a complete stranger. For all I knew she might have been able to buy that block of Madison Avenue. But my mood made me decide she couldn’t afford the dress. This unhappy picture stuck in my brain and bothered me for days.

Another incident occurred at a cocktail party. One of the guests, a young girl of seventeen, was introduced as the daughter of a famous movie actress. She mentioned that she would have to leave in a little while because she was taking dancing lessons. The girl seemed plain-looking and I felt sad for her. I knew she didn’t have a chance to be successful, and was trying to follow in her mother’s footsteps because it was the thing to do. When she left, she kissed us all good-bye. She’d even adopted Hollywood ways, and this made me feel even sadder. I worried about this poor girl for many days. It wasn’t really necessary—the “poor girl” was Liza Minnelli.

It is almost impossible to convey to a person who has not had a depression what one is like. It’s not obvious like a broken arm, or a fever, or a cough; it’s beneath the surface. A depressed person suffers a type of anguish which in its own way can be as painful as anything that can happen to a human being. He has varying degrees of fear throughout the day, and a brain that permits him no rest and races with agitated and frightening thoughts. His mood is low, he has little energy, and he can hardly remember what pleasure means. He’s in another country, using a different language. When he uses words such as “worry” and “afraid” he may be expressing deep distress. But these words seem mild to the person whose mood is all right.

The deepest part of my depression lasted for about a year. Then it lessened gradually and there were periods of improvement. These better periods alternated with periods of mild depression for the next few years. “Mild” depression is plenty unpleasant, but I use the term to distinguish it from severe depression. It began to look as if chronic depressive periods might be with me for life. Then I had an incredible piece of luck.

Next Section: An Incredible Piece of Luck