WASHINGTON, May 17 (UPI) -- Actress Delta Burke wants to remove the stigma from depression and give hope to those in psychic pain.
"With help, you can get your life back," she told United Press International in a phone interview from Los Angeles.
Millions know Burke for her role as the persnickety Suzanne Sugarbaker on the long-running sitcom "Designing Women," and more recently on the sitcom "Dag." But few who saw her in these comedic roles suspected that she was in "a dark and lonely place" before she got the help she needed. After battling depression for 28 years, she is now committed to enjoying life and spends much of her free time volunteering for several causes.
Depression affects approximately 19 million Americans each year and can interfere with the ability to work, study, sleep, eat, and enjoy once pleasurable activities, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, or NIMH. Symptoms may include a persistent sad or anxious mood, feelings of hopelessness, guilt or irritability, loss of interest in nearly all activities, decreased energy, difficulty concentrating or making decisions and, in severe cases, thoughts of death or suicide.
"I noticed at 16 that I would be one way and very outgoing and very ambitious and involved in theater and pageants. And other times I would really have to be alone and shut down and be very negative," Burke said.
"And even when I was competing or doing something, it was like I was two people. One of you thought you deserved to be there. And the other one thought, 'Who do you think you are? You aren't as good as any of these people.' "
Sometimes she felt like an imposter who ultimately would be found out.
When Burke went to drama school in London in the 1970s, she noticed the depression would hit more often. "It would last longer and go deeper," she said.
The Orlando, Fla., native went to Los Angeles in 1978 at age 21. "The work would be very sporadic," she said. For longer and longer periods, her real personality would be submerged, and she would "hole up" in her apartment for weeks, not answering her phone.
"It wasn't until 'Designing Women' happened in the '86-'87 season that a show lasted and just kept going on and on," Burke said. "I got through the first year fine, and every weekend I'd be doing press." She could be very happy and outgoing at an event, but then she would be filled with self-loathing. She remembered crying on the way home from an appearance, when a limo driver commented, "Is all this worth it?"
"By the end of the first season, I began hearing more reports about my weight, which was always my weak point anyway. I was always hearing that I was never thin enough," the actress said.
Thin enough for who? Burke was asked.
"Networks would say it. Producers would say it. And in my 20s I would starve myself for, like, five or six days. And for three months, I took crystal meth."
Although the film footage from the period reveals a very attractive woman, "I didn't have a clue that I was beautiful," she said. "I totally bought into what they told me -- that I was not good enough, because the depressive part of me would never feel that I was good enough."
Burke said she felt very vulnerable about her weight, but as she reached her thirties she no longer could undergo extreme diets.
She met her husband, actor Gerald MacRaney, in June of 1987, and they married in 1989.
"This was a wonderful new thing for me, because I'd never had any luck with dating. I'd go for a year at a time and not date. I didn't think I was ever going to marry or be part of a couple," she said.
But the pair came under more press scrutiny. "You're on a schedule that doesn't stop, so you can't do your usual reclusiveness. The press would start to get ugly about the weight, which they hadn't really done before."
Burke kept "slugging along." At the end of the second season of "Designing Women," in 1988, she went off to do a movie with MacRaney. "And I just felt like such a huge fat cow, and that I didn't deserve to live because I weighed 170 pounds, and they couldn't possible want me on 'Designing Women' any more, and they'd be better off without me, and they should let me go." But Burke was unable to get out of her contract.
"I was shutting down, and (costar) Dixie (Carter) called me. ...And I wasn't sounding like myself, and I wouldn't talk to Dixie. And so she came to see me. .... She took me to see a doctor, and I was admitted right away to this hospital. I remember the nurse saying that I looked like a wounded animal when I was brought in. If anyone tried to come see me, I would curl up to the headboard like in fear. And yet I would then try to entertain them with funny stories.
"That's when they first put me on medication," she said. After some trial and error, one was found to be effective. "That got me to a place where I was even able to work with a therapist."
But she was "fearful" to go back to work. During the third season of "Designing Women, in 1988-89, the cast and crew noticed that Burke was not herself.
"I was very quiet, which is not me, and my body language was all different. I was trying to not be noticed. And the press was very much after me at that point. They would hide in the bushes and bribe the maid to get into my house when I wasn't there. It was all about my weight. If I went to an appearance, the press would swarm me. I would pose for the pictures and smile, but they'd be circling, and there was no place to hide. They wouldn't stop after they'd gotten tons of pictures."
She began to have panic attacks at rehearsals, with convulsive movements. "These animal sounds would be wailing from me," she said. Burke feared this would happen before a live audience. But she said her work actually improved. "When the cameras would roll, it was like I clicked into another place where I felt safe. But the rest of my life was falling apart."
In therapy she determined that her panic attacks were triggered by an excessive desire to please. Too many promotional appearances were wearing her out.
"At the same time, you had what you had always wanted, which was a successful show. You're famous, and you're making good money. But all this other stuff came with it that I couldn't cope with.
"After every season I asked to be released, because as much as I loved all that had happened to me coming true, what went with it I wasn't handling well. But my character got to be a bigger and bigger part of the show."
"Part of the recovery was to speak up and say no," she said.
Burke and MacRaney married at the height of these difficulties. Photographers throughout Europe hounded the couple on their honeymoon. "I was afraid to go to a lot of places," she said. "And Mack is very protective."
After the fifth season of "Designing Women," in 1991, Burke left the show. Since then, she began to identify the things that are important to her and to incorporate them into her life.
She stayed in therapy for many years and "made a lot of progress."
"I had written about the depression in my book ('Delta Style'). I wanted to be involved on a national level talking about depression, because I wanted to help people with that problem. I didn't know how to be involved on a national level."
"And that's about the time the Wyeth people showed up in my life. I was considering changing medications. I had publicly acknowledged that I had taken medication, and I guess they were looking for public figures who would talk about that."
The pharmaceutical company proposed that she take Effexor XR. She thought she would try it, and it worked very well. The longer she was on it, the better it worked, to the extent that she could follow through on her charity commitments. So she could "totally believe" in Effexor and in good conscience be a spokesperson for Wyeth's national awareness campaign called "GOAL! Go On And Live!"
Burke said she now knows that she is "not a freak, that there's a name for what I've got and that others suffer from it." The public has been very supportive, she told UPI.
Burke can be seen in the Lifetime original movie "Dangerous Child" as well as in the feature film "What Women Want" with Mel Gibson. She will star in the upcoming sitcom "St. Sass," which will debut this fall on the Warner Brothers Network. Burke described "St. Sass" as her best role since "Designing Women."
She has moved back to Los Angeles. "This is a good time for me," she said.