This spring, after several of my close friends and family reached out to share the news that Mike Wallace, the legendary investigative journalist and “60 Minutes” anchor, had died, I sat down and had a good cry as if I had lost a favorite uncle. I know that it probably sounds strange that I was so personally affected by the passing of a famous newsman whose life was seemingly very different and removed from mine, but the fact is that Mike Wallace played a significant role in life and my decision to pursue a career in public health.
Let me try to explain. In remembering Mr. Wallace, his colleagues at CBS News illustrated his reputation as a fierce interrogator noting that among the most dreaded phrases one might ever hear was, “Mike Wallace is here to see you.” Well, for me, that actually couldn’t be further from the truth.
In 1996, after purposefully stopping the medication that I knew had helped me, I was in the middle of my third—and thankfully last—major struggle with severe and debilitating depression. I had gone to spend the day at my parents’ house where I could basically hide out and not have to keep up the façade of being “OK.” From my cocoon of misery on the sofa, I heard the phone ring, mom answered, said something typically Southern to the caller like, “Well bless your heart!” and then, “Helen, Mike Wallace is on the phone for you.” Those words turned out to be a lifeline and one of the best gifts I have ever been given.
It seems that my mother had seen Mr. Wallace speaking out about his recovery from depression on Larry King and had written a letter to him describing my struggle. Though I would never have imagined it when I was younger watching with my dad as Mr. Wallace went “toe-to-toe” with powerful world leaders, business tycoons and cultural icons on Sunday night television; Mike Wallace and I had a very real connection. We had both experienced the desolation and sheer terror of living with major depression. The connection was strong enough to move Mr. Wallace to pick up his phone in Manhattan and reach out to this young woman in Commerce, Ga. whom he had never met.
I will never forget that when I answered he said, “Helen, this is Mike Wallace. Your mother wrote and told me what you are going through. I have been there myself, and it is hell. Now, why won’t you take your medication?” I said that I hated the idea that I was “damaged goods” who had to take medicine every day just to be “normal.” He acknowledged his own deep sense of shame and helpless ness in the throws depression and went on to explain that he had always been someone who refused to even take an aspirin for a headache, but that he would be taking his antidepressant every day for the rest of his life and be grateful that the treatment existed. Comparing notes on shame and helplessness with Mike Wallace was an almost surreal experience on one hand. On the other hand, it was a very human and comforting connection that really did change my life.
Trying to explain the anguish of depression to someone who has not lived it themselves is almost impossible. Though the exact nature and quality of the pain is unique for everyone, as a survivor, when you meet or talk with another person who has been through depression with a capital “D,” you both know immediately that the other person understands your harrowing journey firsthand.
By the time Mr. Wallace and I spoke on the phone that day, I had already survived two bouts of severe depression. Honestly, I guess I had really known things were not ‘OK” since I was 8 or 9 years old but it wasn’t until I was off at college attempting to fumble my way into adulthood with the rest of the first year students at the University of Virginia that depression hit with its full force. Without the benefit of a familiar routine and established support system, I couldn’t escape the irrational yet overwhelming worries, sadness, guilt and sense of worthlessness. I knew I needed help—serious help—and told my parents over winter break that I couldn’t return to school. “Bottoming out” like that at a time when most of my friends and peers were enjoying new found freedoms and blossoming into their own was excruciatingly painful.
As painful as it was, I can honestly say that when I look back on my experience with depression, the overriding feeling that I have is gratitude. I was truly one of the very lucky ones. I know very well that things could have turned out quite differently, even tragically, for me without the support and connections that I had. I felt safe enough with my family to let them know that I needed help, they had the resources to access competent treatment and I was surrounded by people who were willing to reach out and let me know they cared, even if they didn’t really understand what was going on with me. This is a rare combination, and a case of sheer good fortune and circumstances that I will never take for granted.
Even so, it was still a rough slow climb up out of the abyss. Through therapy and medication, I got well and got on with my life. But the shame of having a mental illness and needing medication dogged me and caused me at points in my life, as I mentioned earlier, to stop taking my medication. Each time I did this, I slowly slid right back down into a severe depression. It was during the last of those crashes that my mother had written to Mike Wallace.
While medication and therapy had helped me get well during each of these episodes, it was the phone call from Mike Wallace that finally put me on the road to true recovery and healing. For that I will be forever grateful. After talking with him, I began to see myself through a new lens. Rather than a weakly failure, I gradually developed a real sense of self-respect as a survivor, a fighter, waging a life and death struggle with something powerful enough to move someone like Mike Wallace, who was willing to discard any reservations he might have had about tarnishing his professional image, and who reached out to share his own pain. He shared it not only with me personally, but with the world, through many interviews and public appearances to support access to mental health treatment, research, and to provide others with encouragement and hope for recovery. After talking with him, not only did I start taking my medication again, I started to make a real effort to acknowledge the gifts and strengths that I had been given and to recognize and share my own story without shame when I thought it might be helpful to someone.
That gets me back to why I chose public health. There is so much pain in the world; there is pain from disease, violence, social inequalities and injustices, and there are no quick fixes or easy answers. Though enormous to me at the time, I realize that my pain was just an infinitesimally small piece of that larger pain. Each and everyone of us wants safety, security and contentment for ourselves and for those we love, but these things are not a given for anyone…no matter what neighborhood you live in, what school you go to or even what good works you do. We all have to work hard and continuously to create and maintain the conditions that make hope and security, even in the face of adversity, a real possibility for everyone.
I chose a career in public health because it allows me the opportunity to do some of that work. There is strong research that shows that building connectedness at the individual, family, community and societal level and encouraging safe, secure, nurturing relationships is protective against violence, suicide and child maltreatment particularly.
The types of connections and relationships that are most important include things like regular social contact, strong family attachments, involvement in community activities, access to services, and communication among helping organizations (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012). On an individual level, it is exactly these types of connections and relationships that led to that phone call from Mike Wallace that gave me back my life. (He actually called me back about six months later to check on me and see how I was doing—amazing!)
Public health, in all its various forms, is not easy work – attempting to understand patterns of disease and behavior, identifying risk and protective factors, developing and testing prevention programs as well as building bridges between the research and practice worlds can be daunting and, frankly, sometimes feels esoteric and quite removed from the impact that we are all so eager to see. However, it is my lived experience that there is real power in the connections we are trying to develop. If we can encourage and sustain these connections at the population level, I believe we really do have chance to prevent suffering.
This essay is an expanded version of a blog post that appeared September 25, 2012 at: http://blogs.cdc.gov/ncipc/2012/09/25/helping-cope-depression-helensinger/