When a stroke felled actor and writer Kirk Douglas in 1996, he thought his world was coming to an end. Now, he considers his stroke and subsequent efforts at recovery to have opened a new window on life.
At the age of 90, Kirk Douglas is an American institution and one of the world's most revered actors, writers, and philanthropists. His 60-year entertainment career has also included speaking trips all over the world to talk about American democracy and freedom, and he has been honored with the U.S. Medal of Freedom and similar awards from many countries and international organizations.
But today, Douglas feels that one of the most important lessons in life occurred when, seemingly out of the blue, he had a stroke 11 years ago. He chronicled that event and therapy in his bestselling memoir, My Stroke of Luck. Earlier this year, Douglas expanded on that topic and others in his new book, Let's Face It: 90 years of Living, Loving, and Learning. Recently, Douglas talked about his stroke and what he considers important in life.
It has been 11 years since your stroke and you look terrific and keep a very active schedule. Are there daily routines that you have that have helped you recover and help keep you feeling good?
My stroke, 11 years ago, was a blessing in disguise. I learned that we take too many things for granted in this world—even speech. We think our thoughts and then we have no difficulty saying it in words. When you have a stroke your mind thinks quickly but your speech reacts very slowly. You have to learn how to use your tongue, your lips, your teeth. I am lucky, although my speech is still impaired, I suffer no paralysis and I didn't die. I have begun to appreciate the gift of life. Of course, I do my speech exercises every day. When I asked my speech therapist how long would I have to do my exercises? Her answer was, "until you die."
Meanwhile, I exercise every day in the gym with a trainer who is 93 years young. My wife goes with me.
You have spoken openly about the depression you suffered following your stroke. How did you overcome this and do you have a message for others who face a similar reaction?
The most difficult thing about a stroke is the depression. When I couldn't talk, I had to cope with a suicidal impulse. I finally realized that suicide is selfish. You are only thinking of yourself and not of the mess you leave behind. The antidote to depression is humor and thinking of others. When I could barely speak, I made up a joke: "What does an actor do when he can't talk? He waits for silent pictures to come back!"
Humor is a very important element in life. I deal with it extensively in my book Let's Face It. But the most important thing to counteract depression is to think of other people. Try to be concerned with the problems of others, try to help them. This will help you deal with depression. (See more on depression, starting on page 10.)
You have said that your family—particularly your wife Anne—was instrumental in helping you to recover from stroke by not coddling you or trying to do everything for you. What is the importance of that for those who have had a stroke and their loved ones? Do you have any other recommendations for others who are now recovering from a stroke?
I am lucky to be married to a fantastic woman—Anne. She didn't coddle me; she helped me. When I was lying in bed bemoaning my fate, Anne would say, "Get your ass out of bed and start with working with your speech therapist." That helped me.
You wrote a terrific book about your experiences with your stroke called My Stroke of Luck. In it, you talked about how you were inspired by others who had endured physical hardship. Can you share an example of someone who inspired you?
It was gratifying for me to know that [this book] helped people with strokes, and also it helped the people close to them. I was helped by a friend who endured so many physical hardships. His name is Jim McClaren. He is a tall, good-looking, young man who lost his leg in a motorcycle crash while he was in college. We became friends after that, and he handled his prosthesis with ease. He participated in triathlons, which included swimming, running, and bicycle riding. He was a champion in the handicapped class.
Then tragedy struck. He was participating in a triathlon in Orange County, here in California. The last event was a 20-mile bicycle ride. He asked me to come and see him, but I couldn't get away. We arranged to have him visit me in Beverly Hills when the race was over. That was not to be. In the middle of the race, his bicycle was hit by a van, and he was thrown into an iron post. I quickly went to visit him in the hospital where I found him completely paralyzed. With a smile he said to me, "Kirk, what are the chances that I would have two similar accidents?" From that day on our friendship continued, with him in a wheelchair. I never saw him depressed. He gives motivational speeches and sometimes he gives me a ride, sitting on his lap, in his wheelchair.
You just celebrated your 90th birthday and wrote another book, Let's Face It: 90 Years of Living, Loving and Learning. What does the future hold for Kirk Douglas?
No one was more surprised than me when I became 90 years old. While trying to blow out 90 candles with my sons Michael, Joel, and Peter, I decided to write my last book. I call it Let's Face It. I dedicate it to my grandchildren and the younger generation. Let's face it, the world is in a mess, and the younger generation will inherit that mess. I think all the "old guys" should never retire but try to help those who have followed them. They will have so many problems to deal with that they didn't create. I hope my book Let's Face It will help. I believe in the quotation by Horace Mann, "Be ashamed to die before you have won some victory for humanity."