Douglas deals frankly with stroke, depression
By Thelma Gutierrez
(CNN) -- There came a time, Kirk Douglas says, when he didn't want to go on.
The legendary actor, known for his tough-guy persona (not to mention the physique he showed off in movies such as "Champion" and "Spartacus"), had suffered a stroke in 1995. The affliction left him depressed and unable to speak.
"Imagine an actor who can't talk," Douglas, 85, says. "You feel your life is over." So, one day, he opened a drawer in his house and picked up a gun.
He put the barrel in his mouth and prepared to pull the trigger. And then he felt a twinge -- not of guilt, or shame, or sadness, but of pain.
"It was funny," he says now. "When I put the gun to my mouth, it hit my tooth. I said, 'Ouch.' It struck me funny a toothache would prevent me from killing myself."
That was the day, he says, his life changed. He began to battle his depression, focusing on happy memories and enjoying the support of his family, particularly Anne, his wife of 48 years.
He started seeing a speech therapist so he could learn to speak again. He even resumed acting, appearing as a boxer who had had a stroke in the 1999 movie "Diamonds."
Through it all, Anne was determined to help Douglas help himself.
"I said, 'Here's the telephone, you call,' or, 'Here's a piece of paper, you write,' or, 'If you want breakfast in bed, go sleep in the kitchen!'" she laughs.
"It taught me so much about myself and it made me a better person," says Douglas.
But his moment of victory was still to come. He was to appear before millions of people to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1996 Academy Awards, something he did not want to do.
According to Anne, Kirk wanted his son, actor Michael Douglas, to accept the award, but Michael refused.
She says the family had to resort to tough love, forcing Kirk to rehearse his simple acceptance speech -- "Thank you. Thank you very much. I love you." -- "150 times a day."
On the night of the Oscars, Anne says her husband sprang a big surprise on the family.
"He gave a six minute speech he had worked out all by himself, perfectly done."
Anne and her four sons sat in the front row, shedding tears of amazement.
Now Douglas wants to spread the message that there is life after a stroke -- and he appreciates every moment of it.
He and his wife are now ambassadors for the Entertainment Industry Foundation's National Cardiovascular Research Initiative, sponsored by Bristol-Myers Squibb. And he has written a new book, "My Stroke of Luck" (William Morrow), detailing his struggles with his illness.
"I don't want people going through what I went through. If I can help them avoid it, I will," Douglas says.
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National Cardiovascular Research Initiative
American Stroke Association
National Stroke Association
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