Mike Wallace's Darkest Hour
Mike Wallace's Darkest Hour
In Memoriam: Legendary newsman Mike Wallace shared his battle with depression with Guideposts readers
Like most people, I'd had days when I felt blue and it took more of an effort than usual to get through the things I had to do.
But I always snapped out of it.
Before I knew it, I would be corralling another reluctant interview subject for 60 Minutes or trying to whip a crosscourt forehand past my opponent in a tennis match.
Relentless as ever, basically. (And a pain in the neck to my colleagues at CBS News, who claim that "Mike Wallace is here" are the four most dreaded words in the English language.)
So my down times invariably passed. Until the fall of 1984, that is, when I found myself suddenly struck, then overwhelmed, by something—an emptiness, a helplessness, an emotional and physical collapse—I'd never experienced before.
CBS News was embroiled in a high-profile lawsuit filed by General William Westmoreland over a documentary we had made about the Vietnam War, a special report for which I'd been the chief correspondent.
The case went to trial in early October. Every morning after Mary and I had breakfast, instead of heading to my office in the mid-Manhattan CBS News building on West 57th Street, I went downtown to the federal courthouse in Foley Square.
As I made my way into the courtroom, past the phalanx of reporters, I had a feeling their eyes on me were skeptical. A pretty jarring reversal of roles.
Still, that was nothing compared to having to listen to the other side's lawyers call into question not only the accuracy of our documentary but also my own professional integrity.
You'd think I'd have just let the allegations roll off my back. After all, they weren't true. Plus, as Mary reminded me, I had nearly 50 years in broadcasting to back up my good name.
But day after day, I sat trapped in room 318 at the courthouse, hearing people I didn't even know attack the work I'd done. Given the way trials proceed, I didn't have a chance to defend myself right then, so the accusations ate at me.
Doubts started to haunt me. Did I do something wrong? It was as if all my experience in radio and TV news didn't count for anything anymore. What if I really am dishonest as a reporter? Dishonest as a person?
I tried to keep going on with life as usual. Whenever court was out of session, I worked on stories for 60 Minutes , doing research and interviews at night if necessary. But I had a hard time concentrating. Me, the guy who was famous for never giving up on a story, for asking such pointed questions, they made everyone from gangsters to movie stars to political leaders sweat.
In November I had a brief escape from the courtroom. I went to Ethiopia to cover the famine. The tragedy unfolding before my eyes in that drought-ravaged country, the human suffering I witnessed, resharpened my focus.
With something approaching my usual vigor, I did a segment for 60 Minutes . We edited it and got it on the air. Things are getting back to normal, I told myself.
But as soon as I returned to the daily grind of the trial, that strange, dark malaise set in again. If anything, it was more pervasive than before, casting a pall over every part of my life the way the chill gray of winter seemed to blanket all of New York City.
I didn't have an appetite, no matter what Mary put on the table. I could barely summon up the energy to get out of bed each morning, let alone run after balls hit to the corners of the tennis court. But at night I would lie awake, restless.
Sometimes I'd give up on sleep and switch on the television, looking for something on the late-night shows to get my mind off all my dark thoughts. And even when I could go back to the office and do the work I loved, I felt dead inside.
Maybe the only constant, the only part of my day-to-day life that hadn't changed since the trial began, was what I said before I fell into bed at night. The Shema, one of the oldest and most important prayers of the Jewish faith.
"Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad," I would recite each night, as I had every night since I learned those words growing up in Brookline, Massachusetts. "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One."
I tried to draw strength from that prayer. And from Mary, who was always at my side, incredibly patient with me and my moods. Still, I'd catch her looking at me, her eyes full of worry.
One evening after we came home from the courthouse, she said, "Mike, you need to go see a doctor. Something's wrong."
I denied it. "The pressure of the trial's getting to me," I said. "I'll be myself again once it's over."
Mary insisted on taking me to the doctor. I told him what I'd been experiencing, even swallowed my pride and asked, "What can you do to help me?"
"You don't need help," the doctor said. "You're tough. Everybody knows that. You'll bounce back in no time." He warned me about the damage to my reputation if word got out I was having these emotional difficulties.
Mary was still concerned. "I don't want to be right about this," she told me on our way home, "but I think what you're feeling goes way beyond being under stress. It's taken over your life."
Why is it that the people you love so often know you better than you know yourself? It took a complete physical collapse on the heels of a bout of the flu in December to make me concede I might be in as bad shape as Mary feared.
Right before the new year, I was admitted to the hospital, "suffering from exhaustion," a CBS spokesman announced.