Five years ago, Kirk Douglas was living the life of a Hollywood screen legend. But Douglas, then 80, suffered a debilitating stroke. He tells the story of his journey back to health in his new book, My Stroke of Luck (Morrow). He discussed his recovery with TIME.
How has your life changed on a day-to-day basis since your stroke?
You know, when you have a stroke, it's so depressing. Especially an actor who can't talk. What do you do? Wait for silent pictures? It's so depressing. You have suicidal impulses. But eventually you realize that depression also comes from too much self-awareness, that you have to reach out and think of others and help other people. If you do that, really, it's almost selfish, because it makes you feel good. It relieves a certain amount of your own problem--not all, of course, but a certain amount.
You write that you were so depressed after your stroke that at one point you loaded a gun and put the barrel in your mouth. Were you serious about suicide?
I was never more serious. But as I put the barrel in my mouth and it struck my teeth, I said, "Ow!" Then, of course, I started to laugh. The whole thing became ridiculous. What am I doing? But I think that's very common. That's the nadir, the lowest point.
Did you take antidepressants while you were recovering?
Yes, I took a pill called Zoloft that a lot of people take. Did it help? I don't know. I felt I was quite depressed with the pills.
How did your stroke affect your relationship with your wife?
Well, I tell you, my wife was fantastic. The meaning of tough love comes from my wife. [I would say,] "Honey, I would like to have breakfast in bed tomorrow." [She would reply,] "Breakfast in bed? Sleep in the kitchen." She knew when to be tough, and she was very patient. We have been married for 48 years. In two more years, inshallah, as the Arabs say, God willing, I'm going to propose to her again, and we will have a second wedding.
Many actors complain that it's harder to find work when they get older. Was that true in your case, even before your stroke?
As a matter of fact, it's getting pretty good after my stroke. I did two things after my stroke, [the film] Diamonds and a segment of Touched by an Angel. Now I'm looking forward to doing a movie with my son Michael and my grandson Cameron--three generations. We have a script that we're working on. We'll probably shoot it in March, after I come back from my book tour in Europe.
Do you still enjoy acting?
From a different point of view. I don't have the obsessed quality of making a movie. Maybe I made too many movies--83 of them. But I still look forward to the movie with my son. I never have done that. I don't know--that might be a bloodfest. Who the hell knows?
What advice would you give to others who have had strokes?
Never give up, and try to develop a sense of humor. Try to laugh at yourself. Think of other people. I get so many letters, phone calls--"Kirk, will you talk to my mother? She's just had a stroke." I am amazed at how many people have strokes. I admire people like Michael J. Fox and Christopher Reeve, who use their handicap to try to help others. You also have to do your exercises every day. I still do my "oral aerobics."
Do you have any fears of having another stroke? Do you think about it?