Most survivors of childhood emotional abuse don’t cut free from their parents, but actor and author Wil Wheaton is an exception. He made the decision to completely disconnect from his parents as an adult. Join us as he explains why he took this major step, how he did it, and how it continues to impact his life and parenting.
Producer’s Note: We couldn’t fit all the amazing information from Wil’s interview with us in May into just one episode. So here’s part two. It’s filled with revelations about his past you haven’t heard before and won’t want to miss.
Wil Wheaton, celebrated actor from “Stand By Me,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “The Big Bang Theory,” and more has come out with “Still Just a Geek,” an updated memoir with all new material as he reexamines his upbringing in Hollywood and opens up about his life, falling in love, coming to grips with his past work, choices, childhood trauma and family, and finding fulfillment in the new phases of his career. This isn’t your typical celebrity memoir – instead, Wil is in conversation with his past self, engaging with his 2004 memoir through updated annotations. The result is fascinating as present-day Wil gets to confront his past toxic thoughts, hold himself accountable for his problematic behavior, and show what mental illness looks like as well as the path to healing. See more at WilWheaton.net.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hey, everybody, I’m your host, Gabe Howard. And back in May, Wil Wheaton called into the podcast to discuss his new book, “Still Just a Geek.” Now that episode is available. It’s called Advice I’d Give My Younger Self with Wil Wheaton and I strongly recommend checking it out. Now, many of you don’t know, but when I sit down with the guest and I interview them, not everything that they say can make it into the episode, usually for time, sometimes for content, sometimes because, well, I just fall down a rabbit hole. So we have to structure the episode in such a way that unfortunately things get left out. Now, I was really sad about some of the things that we cut out of Wil’s episode because I thought they were really great things and I wanted people to hear them. And luckily I have an incredible production team and they said, You know, Gabe, we can do a part two of the Wil Wheaton episode. Now, I got excited because I thought that meant Wil was going to come back and hang out with me. But what they said is we would just take the stuff that we cut from the first interview and create a second episode, and that is what you’re going to be listening to now. So to get us started, the first question that I asked Wil was, Wil, why are you so open about your mental health struggles?
Wil Wheaton: I am a survivor of childhood narcissistic abuse and childhood exploitation. As a consequence, I have PTSD, I live with generalized anxiety disorder and chronic major depressive disorder. I suffered for decades because mental health was taboo in the family that raised me. Mental health and mental illness were viewed as weakness and covered up with a blanket of shame. I suffered for so long when I could have been just helped by therapy and medication. As a consequence of how long and how much I struggled and suffered, I’ve really dedicated a large portion of my public life to working to end the stigma that is associated with mental illness. It’s not something that we choose. You would never say that a person is weak or that they deserved to have a broken leg. And mental illness is no different. It is no different from a physical illness. And I think that it’s real important that I use myself as an example because I have a very good life. I have a wonderful career. I have an amazing wife. I have gorgeous, wonderful, magnificent children who I adore. I am talking to you from inside my game room at my house with five classic arcade machines in it that I’ve wanted my whole life. I am still a person who has days where I feel like I just can’t get out of bed. It’s just a real struggle, and I talk about it so that hopefully I can be to a person I will never meet who Jenny Lawson was to me when she wrote about her experiences with mental illness.
Gabe Howard: Well, thank you so much again for your vulnerability. I have to ask, and it’s not a mental health question, but longtime listeners of the show know exactly what I’m going to ask. What are the five arcade games?
Wil Wheaton: Tempest, Tron, Donkey Kong, Mr. Do! and Robotron.
Gabe Howard: Donkey Kong is a classic and one of my favorite games. When I was young,
Wil Wheaton: Mine, too.
Gabe Howard: It took so many quarters from me. So many, so many quarters.
Wil Wheaton: My big fun hobby right now. My reward for all my hard work at the end of the day is to sit down at Donkey Kong and play it. I’m working my way toward the kill screen. I’ve actually been
Gabe Howard: Nice. Nice.
Wil Wheaton: Studying Donkey Kong strategy. I absolutely love it. As part of my PTSD therapy, I have created this thing in my head where the person I was as a kid at these various stages of my life, I have to think of as a separate entity from who I am at this moment in my life. So that when I remember the things that I lived through, I can, as an adult, be the person that the young version of me needed who wasn’t there for him at that time. And while I am doing this thing playing Donkey Kong, I’ve been doing all this what I guess is called inner child therapy work, which is to talk to the younger version of myself and let them know, like, dude, all that stuff, it sucks and it’s really terrible. And I’m going to tell you that because you don’t give up, because you fight through all of this. I get to have this amazing thing that you always wanted. And David Ponomarenko, my editor, was so wonderful and supportive and David was telling me, you have this incredible opportunity here to look back on these things and address them, learn from them, and talk about how you’ve learned and grown from them. And the choice that I ended up making was to be the person I always needed in my life to the very best of my ability. And the person I needed when I was writing that book was someone to hold me and love me and tell me that it’s going to be okay and that these things that I think are so unbelievably consequential in this moment, when I revisit them 20 years from now, I will have forgotten they ever happened.
Gabe Howard: You were famous as a child. And for people like me, all I saw was the fame. I mean, you were on TV, you were on Star Trek, but behind the scenes, fans were writing you hate mail. Adults were literally threatening your life. And I want to remind the listeners, you were a teenager when all of this happened. You’ve talked pretty openly about the lack of support that you have received from your parents. How did all of that affect you then and how does it affect you now?
Wil Wheaton: Yeah. There was a time when that was really challenging for me. I took it all really personally. There was a time where a big, big part of me believed all the cruel lies the man who was my father told me about myself. So whenever someone said, I like this thing you did, what I heard was, you tricked me into thinking you don’t suck. And whenever someone said, I don’t like this thing you did, what I heard was, I actually see through you. And your dad is right. And as I recognized those cruel, abusive lies for what they were, I developed the ability to separate myself and who I am from what people say about me and what people say to me. So if someone’s going to be yelling at me or be shitty at me about something like that, it’s not about me. It’s all about them. And in this specific situation, you’re just talking about a bigot telling on themselves. And honestly, that person’s opinion is so useless and meaningless to me. I just don’t care. If they want to dump it on me, who at almost 50 years old could just go, Oh my god, you’re like a dog that won’t stop barking instead of a child or a twentysomething who’s insecure and afraid and doesn’t feel supported in the way that they deserve to feel supported? Great. Bring it on.
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Gabe Howard: And we’re back with the continuation of our May interview with Star Trek and Big Bang Theory star Wil Wheaton. Now, Wil, please correct me if I’m wrong. You no longer have contact with your parents, is that correct?
Wil Wheaton: That’s correct, yeah.
Gabe Howard: How were you able to do that? I ask because most people who are the victims of even the most extreme child abuse are unable to sever those ties, to set up those boundaries. There’s just something that draws them back. So it’s very much an advanced skill to be able to set up that firm boundary and keep it.
Wil Wheaton: So yeah, the first thing is that the man who was my father treated me like crap my entire life. He really went out of his way to make me feel like I was unworthy. He really made it clear that I was a disappointment or that I wasn’t doing whatever I needed to be doing. I was just not enough for him. He was implacable where I was concerned. My mother is an incredibly manipulative person who uses people. She uses everyone. And it kind of started with me when I was seven and she was like, You’re going to go be an actor now. And I didn’t know any better. Those two dynamics played out through my childhood and my teen years, my adolescence and into my twenties. And they were really painful. They were really hurtful. When I ultimately said, I cannot do this anymore, my dad had not made an effort to contact me himself for four years. And when I saw that, like in retrospect, I’m like, Oh, they’ve been telling me all along who they are. They have been telling me since I was seven years old. He has been telling me he does not love me. He doesn’t even like me. She’s been telling me the only thing that matters in my existence is what other people think about her and how my behavior is then reflected into her. In spite of all of that.
Wil Wheaton: I clung to the hope of a relationship, a healthy, loving relationship with them for decades after it was clear that was never going to happen. And I know there are people listening to this who are nodding along, who have experienced the same thing. I want them all to know, I see you. I am so sorry. I know how it feels. I know how hard it is. Not having parents sucks. Not having parents hurts. There is a black hole in my life where my parents’ love should be. A friend of mine who shares a lot of my experiences in his own way describes us as orphans of living parents. And when it came time to, like, really make my last effort, I spent an unbelievable amount of time writing a very long, carefully considered letter that I sent an email. And the crux of it was, I want to have parents. At the moment I feel like I don’t and I feel like my dad has never loved me. And that hurts a lot and I don’t know what to do about that. My mom did not reply to that email for four months. My dad did not reply to that email for six months When my mom replied to that email, it was deny, deflect, lie, blame, gaslight, everything I had come to expect my entire life.
Wil Wheaton: When my dad replied to my email, he said, the subject line said, Your mother wants me to email you. And I was like, Okay, so you don’t want to email me, you don’t care about that. And you want to make sure that I know that from the very beginning, going into it. I deleted it without even opening it. When those things happened, I sat down with my wife and I said, I have to admit and acknowledge that they are incapable of being the people I need and I am not going to continue hurting myself over and over and over again while I wait for them to be something they are just never going to be. And in all of that, there are times where I still doubt myself. Because that part of me that was conditioned and groomed for 35 years, that part of me still is like, but mom is going to be upset. And I just have to tell that part of me like I know she is going to be upset and it’s not our responsibility anymore. And quite frankly, it never should have been. It’s not easy. It’s not easy at all. It’s really hard. It’s really painful. But the alternative to where I am now is a place that hurts all the time. And I would rather not have parents that have my parents.
Gabe Howard: That’s a, that’s a bold statement. And many people can’t bring themselves to say it.
Wil Wheaton: Yeah, I know that. And there’s, it is extremely important to me that there’s likely a person who’s hearing this who doesn’t want to say that out loud. That’s absolutely okay. Don’t force yourself. Don’t pressure yourself. Listen to your feelings. You know, a big thing for me was my mom telling me that my feelings weren’t real, that I was making it all up or my dad saying I’m being dramatic or I’m being, I’m being unreasonable or something that diminished and invalidated what was really sincerely happening inside of me. And for those of us that come to this point where we feel like this is the choice we have to make, it can be real hard to make that choice because it goes against everything we have been taught. It goes against everything we have been conditioned to expect and everything we’ve done in our entire lives. And if you’re not ready to do that just yet, that’s okay. That’s really, really okay.
Gabe Howard: Wil, I want to remind our listeners that I am not in your game room and that I don’t live in your house and that, well, we’re not personal friends, but by all accounts, you’re a great dad and you’re a great husband. I only bring this up because of how rare that really is. The cycle of childhood trauma does tend to continue into adulthood. And unfortunately, we learn to be adults from our parents. We learn to parent from our parents.
Wil Wheaton: When my son Nolan was five, he had a temper tantrum in our living room. I don’t remember what it was about, but I didn’t engage with his tantrum and I didn’t take him seriously. I was relating this to my therapist and she said, Why did you choose to not take him seriously? And I said, Well, because I don’t want him to think that that’s an okay way to respond and that’s an okay way to behave. And she said, You’ve told me over and over and over again how much it hurt you when your dad would mock you and not take you seriously. And I went, Oh my God, you are absolutely right. I had no idea. That was the first time, 26 years ago, that I thought about ending generational trauma, breaking generational trauma. Part of my work as an adult, you can’t do this when you’re a kid, has been to recognize that my parents are awful parents. There are also people in this world. What was going on? What was going on when my mom was 30 and I was seven? What were they doing? Like, what was going on in their lives? Who were they as people? And by doing that, by thinking of them as people who have the same screw-ups, as people who in their case, hold values antithetical to my own, they’re people. Like what was going on for them when they when all of these things happened?
Wil Wheaton: And thinking about that, I could really see, oh, my God, my dad is like basically an extension of my unbelievably racist grandmother. My mom constantly talked about her alcoholic father, and how her mother didn’t support her. What must my mom have felt like as a teenager and a twentysomething and a young mom around those people? Like, I get it. I understand. I can see the things that led to them being selfish narcissists. It wasn’t like they became this way. They’ve been this way their whole lives. I just wasn’t aware of it and seeing what things went on that contributed to them treating me the way that they did. I made a commitment when Nolan was five to do things differently and raise my children so that they would feel empowered and confident, kind, compassionate and empathetic. I had to teach myself all that stuff. I didn’t learn any of that from my parents. I really had to learn it myself. And it all came from How can I not make another person feel the way I feel all the time that I don’t like?
Gabe Howard: Wil, thank you for that. I keep coming back to, and I want to apologize in advance for how callous this question is going to sound. But the general public is often thinking, but all of this was so long ago. It’s over now. We’ve forgotten about it. We’ve moved on. Why haven’t you?
Wil Wheaton: So think about what the Internet did to Rebecca Black in the late 2000s, just because she was a kid who wanted to have fun singing a song and how cruel all of that was. The thing is, once the mob moves on, they’ve got a new target 24, 48 hours later. They don’t think about it at all. They’ve largely forgotten about it. But for the person who was targeted for that amount of time, it doesn’t just go away. It doesn’t just stop. Like the cruel, hurtful things you did, don’t stop mattering because you have forgotten about them or decided they weren’t important. When I was a kid, I didn’t have someone to turn to. And it is one of the reasons that I started my blog in 2000. I got so tired of people thinking they knew me. I got so tired of an entire lifetime of being told, largely by my mother, This is what you have to say. This is how you have to present yourself. This is how, this is what people need to believe about you. I was so tired of all of that. I was like, You know what? I’m a person and I want to tell my story. I’m a lot more than Wesley and Gordy. And Wesley is not this thing that some of you on Usenet in 1989 decided he is.
Gabe Howard: Speaking of which, you maintain a pretty awesome web and social media presence that I advise all of the listeners to check out. The website is WilWheaton.net and that is .net, not .com. Correct?
Wil Wheaton: Dot net. That’s correct. Yeah. There’s a whole story that goes with that, but it’s.
Gabe Howard: But, but you’re Wil Wheaton. How did they get .com from you?
Wil Wheaton: In the early days of the Internet, somebody squatted it. So I was like, Cool, I’ll just buy .net. I don’t care. In the early parlance of the internet, in early networking configurations, .com referred to something that was commercial. Dot net referred to something that was a network of people. Dot org was an organization, generally a nonprofit. Dot edu, colleges. Dot gov, government things. When I saw that WilWheaton.com was unavailable, I actually got kind of excited because I was like, You know what? I don’t want to be a commercial thing. I want to be a person in a community. And choosing .net was unintentionally deeply symbolic toward the way I see myself and who I wanted to be and who I am working to continue becoming; a person, not a product.
Gabe Howard: I love that explanation. Sincerely, Wil, thank you so much for being here.
Wil Wheaton: It’s been a real pleasure. I’ve enjoyed speaking with you very much.
Gabe Howard: I’ve enjoyed speaking with you as well, Wil. I want to give a big thank you to all of our listeners, of course. But I also want to remind them to check out your book. It’s called “Still Just a Geek” by Wil Wheaton. It’s available on Amazon, just like my book, “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations.” If you want to hire me as a speaker for your next event or buy a signed copy of my book with free show swag, you can learn about all of that on my website, gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It is absolutely free. And can you do me a personal favor? Share the show, recommend the podcast to your friends, family members or colleagues. Share the show, it is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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