This month I had the pleasure of talking to Joe Pantoliano about his recently published book Asylum: Hollywood Tales from My Great Depression: Brain Dis-Ease, Recovery, and Being My Mother’s Son. Below, he discusses everything from stigma toward “brain dis-ease” to his personal struggles with and recovery from the “seven deadlies.”
Pantoliano is also the founder of No Kidding, Me Too! (www.nkm2.org), a nonprofit organization “whose purpose is to remove the stigma attached to ‘brain dis-ease’ through education and the breaking down of societal barriers.” He produced and directed the documentary No Kidding! Me 2!!, an intimate look at the experiences of Americans living with mental illness.
Pantoliano has more than 100 movie, TV, and stage credits, and won an Emmy Award for his work on “The Sopranos.” His first book, the memoir Who’s Sorry Now? The True Story of a Stand-up Guy, was a New York Times bestseller. He was born in Hoboken, N.J., and today lives in Connecticut.
Q: In the introduction of Asylum, you say that you wrote the book “to eliminate the shame and obliterate the blame.” Why do you think there’s so much shame surrounding “brain dis-ease”?
A: It’s a question that’s been asked in the last 200 years, 2,000 years. I’ve been thinking up quotes that have caught my attention since I got into this advocacy and I put them on Joey’s pages. One of the things I like to quote is from Socrates:
“…madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we received the greatest blessing. …the men of old who gave things their names saw no disgrace or reproach in madness; otherwise they would not have connected with it the name of the noblest of all arts, the art of discerning the future, and called it the manic art… So, according to the evidence provided by our ancestors, madness is a nobler thing than sober sense… madness comes from God, where as sober sense is merely human.“
What I do for a living requires a lot of states as an actor. They trained me to utilize my God-given gift by a series of exercises and getting yourself into a meditative state. Concentrated relaxation was important.
When you have inspired moments in your work, how do you take credit for that? You really have nothing to do with that. What if we chose not to call it mental illness? The fact we’re a bit more sensitive to our environment, it’s applicable to what we pick up, and so it’s the manic art. The dopamine and serotonin are just pumping; it’s an unrealistic high you’re creating. And when you run out, [when you’re] on low, you’re crashing down.
I found out that Abraham Lincoln had melancholia and was dyslexic. He didn’t write long speeches. There’s evidence that the evening before he went to Gettysburg, he talked to his driver about the battle and actually wrote his notes on the back of an envelope.
These inspired moments create our heroes. And then history decides to eliminate what they deem negative. The future Americans don’t need to know that he had melancholy or that his wife died in a mental asylum.
I also think that we perpetuate the stigma and shame. As different organizations continue to try to end the stigma, they’re creating it. They try to raise money to find the cure for the passion. I believe [brain dis-ease] is a result of our environment.
We as a species [need to] learn to embrace the warning signs. All it is in most cases is that we’re warning ourselves that we’re afraid of losing something.
I actually got a message from a musical performer and he said, “I have this terrible anxiety, I don’t know what to do with it.” I asked, “When do you get it?”
“Right before I go on.”
I told him, “But everybody gets that. That’s good. It’s your inspiration starting to kick in. You want to work inside of it.” I think that TV, commercialized advertising has given us so many new diseases.
That’s what we should do with mental health. Get these people to advertise that it’s actually cool to talk about your emotional life, cool to have feelings and be out there. It’s what makes you unique.
[But I also learned] that I have a mood dis-ease that’s driving me to feel this way. This is fixable, and we are not alone.
Q: In your book you talk candidly about your struggles with clinical depression and what you call your “seven deadlies”: food (overeating or starving); vanity (such as status symbols); shopping and shoplifting; success; sex; alcohol; and prescription drugs. Can you talk more about your struggles?
A: What I discovered first of all, when I started working with a psychiatrist, Dr. Telly, was that I was sublimating my mood swings with alcohol and the abuse of painkillers. I was killing the pain inside of me but ultimately killing myself.
Even though everything was great and I should’ve been feeling wonderful, I had nothing but confusion. What was I confused about personally? When did this happen? Where did my smile go? Why do I feel this way?
I was turning 50, and I wasn’t ready for it. My friend had committed suicide and all of the coping mechanisms that I’d created weren’t working anymore. The feeling was the same. When I was home back in N.Y., I realized that in numbing my pain, I couldn’t compartmentalize my pain only. I had to numb everything. My joy, my happiness. I couldn’t feel anything.
I never thought my mom was mentally ill. She wasn’t crazy.
In 2005 I made a movie called Canvas, in which I played a loving father of a 10-year-old son. We find out that my wife is sick and has schizophrenia with auditory hallucinations. The film focuses on what happens to the family and how her illness affects the neighborhood. (Everyone becomes embarrassed and they withdraw from us.) As Marsha Gay Harden, who plays my wife, began putting her character together, she started reminding me of someone — my mother.
I never thought my mom was mentally ill. She wasn’t crazy. She wasn’t seeing things. I just thought she was Italian-American. When I started getting better, I realized that the feelings I was having resembled what my mom went through in her early 50s.
I was wrong. [Her behavior] wasn’t willful. I thought my mom chose to be miserable and she could’ve fixed it if she wanted to. Then I realized I had what she had. She was not responsible.
When the movie came out, everybody praised my performance. Everywhere I went I met marvelous examples of recovery. [In fact] There’s an 80 percent full recovery rate of all forms of brain dis-ease.
Q: What has helped you recover?
A: What changed my life was having had a spiritual awakening and going through the 12-step program. I was as sick as my secrets. A lot of what was troubling me was the past that I stuffed down as well as my feelings.
In the first step in recovery, you admit that you are powerless over fill in the blank, sex, drugs, gambling, alcohol. I couldn’t just play, I had to bet the house. I couldn’t have a piece of cake, I had to have the whole pie. I was powerless over life, and [my life] had become unmanageable.
I was taking a leap of faith. There was a power greater than myself. I chose to believe that there was a God.
If you’re an atheist, you can praise the universe or the sun to help you stay away from [problems like] gambling. Make that leap of faith and ask for help today.
In the next step, you say that “I believe in you,” and you let him do it. Then, you admit everything you’ve ever done in your life, including all the shitty things. You tell them to another human being; you can tell it to clergy, your sponsor, your psychiatrist. In doing that, a big weight is lifted.
Then you make a list of all the people you harmed and amend that. And to every person you ever screwed, you say you’re sorry — unless to do so would injure them any further.
[Today] I also go to the gym, I do yoga, I try to meditate, I try to take a nap, take a walk.
Doctors say that if you change your behavior, if you move a muscle [that can] change the thought. When you’re in crippling depression, you get up and put on your favorite movie, dance or jog.
I also can’t have anything with sugar. It alters my state of mind. That’s why I go to meetings; I can talk about the cravings, what pissed me off this morning. Yesterday I wrote a long letter to my wife and daughters, because I was frustrated that they don’t clean up after themselves. I learned that in the 12-step program.
That’s what I’m doing today. I’m semi-retired. I’ve been semi-retired since I’m 18 years old.
Q: In the book you also include the words of your wife, Nancy, who shares what it was like living with you when you were severely depressed. What would you like families to know if their loved one is struggling with a form of brain dis-ease?
A: They should just listen. I went to Iraq with Lisa Jay and Dr. Bob Irvin from McLean Hospital, where the soldiers shared their experiences with us. The biggest pain in the ass of all is when they tried to talk about how they felt, but people would just compare [their problems].
Talk to one another, say how you feel and leave your rank outside the room.
Q: In Asylum, you write that in many ways your dysfunctional life was rewarded by being an actor. For instance, you channeled that trauma into your acting roles. Many people worry that treating their brain dis-ease will sap their creativity. Do you think that’s true?
A: When my doctor, Dr. Telly, pitched the idea of medicine, I was worried because my emotions are my instrument, my business. In my work I could always feel my feelings. In my first acting class I was told that you got to keep the child inside of you alive. You have to be as innocent as a lamb and as ferocious as a tiger.
It was just in my life that I couldn’t [feel my feelings]. In my family life, I was taking a beating.
But Dr. Telly said that this medicine is so miniscule that if you were pissed off, you’d have the appropriate response. And if I didn’t like it once I started taking it, I could stop.
When I started taking antidepressants, I didn’t have to take the alcohol or Vicodin. [Before] I thought that I made myself nuts with the kind of work I learned, creating a non-linear reality to the reality that was happening in [my performances]. But the doctor said that what I did was create a craft that could sublimate pain into a character. And so there were baby earthquakes instead of having the big 9.4.
Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know?
A: The reason why I’m talking about [brain dis-ease and my struggles] is that I’m hoping [it will get people talking]. I gave the book to a mailman, because he wanted a copy. I saw him today and he said, “Joe, I’m reading your book, and I’m liking it so much and I can relate to it.” People are writing me, they see what I’m talking about and they want to feel better too. That’s the whole point of this. You know, we can heal ourselves. We can be healed.