I was a successful actor. Then I had more and more success. I won an Emmy for my role on The Sopranos and I thought: That’s it? The Emmy was supposed to make me feel better. I left it on the floor of my car. It didn’t give me the feelings a life you dream about is supposed to give you. It wasn’t enough. It was never enough. Success didn’t cure my clinical depression. I started to self-destruct.
It was two days before shooting began on Canvas in 2005 and I was about to hit bottom. Ironically, I was working on a film about mental health. I got a call from my old friend, actor Charlie Rocket.
Charlie was a brilliant actor and comedian and a self-ordained minister. He married Nancy and me, our ceremony like a sketch on Saturday Night Live. He surprised us and our 300 guests by presiding over our nuptials in his magenta tuxedo and John Lennon rose-colored glasses. He spoke of those rose-colored glasses as a metaphor for married life in his wonderful, deep voice, sounding like the voice of God Himself. He was so funny that director Andy Davis cast Charlie on the spot for his next movie, Steal Big Steal Little. Charlie was my go-to man for many of my problems.
So when Charlie called out of nowhere, I was glad to hear that voice. In our fifteen minute conversation, we shared a couple of laughs, and made plans to get together with friends over the Thanksgiving weekend, some eight weeks away.
On my second day of shooting, Nancy called to tell me Charlie was dead. He had slit his throat with two kitchen knives, one in each hand. He didn’t leave a note.
How could this be? I just talked to the guy. There was no evidence that he was troubled in any way. How angry must he have been?
Later I learned that suicide without warning is actually very common. People experience a wave of despair and fury, sort of like a stroke, and they seize on the idea of suicide and just do it — a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
It was a great awakening for me. I had to come to grips with why I was so depressed. My wildest dreams of becoming a professional actor came true. I was rich and famous. I defied the odds of my humble beginning of living in the projects, having a father with a gambling addiction and a controlling mother. I rose above being called a screwball as a kid, and dummy and even retarded. No one knew about Dyslexia or ADHD in my day.
The barrage of emotional assaults starting with 9/11 and ending with the suicide of my friend, layered with my own diagnosis of clinical depression, led me to become an advocate for people struggling with mental health.
The month of May is Mental Health Awareness month. It coincides with the release of my new memoir, Asylum: Hollywood Tales from My Great Depression: Brain Dis-Ease, Recovery and Being My Mother’s Son.
I hope to inspire the conversation around all forms of mental illness. But let me get this out of the way right now. I loathe the term mental illness. It implies something in my brain is permanently broken, and that I am (or anyone like me is) less than. Well, I got news for ya . . . our brains are not broken. They’re just human. I prefer to identify these moods as uneasiness or dis-ease. Brain dis-ease.
My dark moods sprouted into all kinds of human behavior that I now understand were really forms of self-medication — my seven deadly symptoms.
- Food. Overeating or starving myself.
- Vanity. Pursuing status symbols.
- Shopping. Or shoplifting.
- Success. Seeking fame to avoid nihilistic thoughts.
- Prescription drugs.
Let’s remove the stigma attached to brain dis-ease and break down societal barriers to empower those with brain disease to admit to their illness, seek treatment and become even greater members of society. I want being brain sick or mood sick to be as accepted as the common cold. Our brothers, sisters, mothers, wives, husbands and best friends all have different kinds of mental dis-ease.
Why is our society more accepting of any other body part breaking down except for our brains? You don’t hear people whispering to others, “Hey Arnold, did you hear about Wilber? He’s got high cholesterol.” When did it become cooler to have erectile dysfunction than brain dis-ease?
Insurance is more likely to cover any vital organ other than your brain. Our brain is one of the only organs in the human anatomy that cannot be replaced. Insurance might cover your brain if you get a tumor, but if you are depressed, you’re on your own.
I was so sad for days after I found out about Amy Winehouse and then Whitney Houston. I loved their music. I admired both for their fearlessness, originality and the grace of their unattainable gifts. After years of public scrutiny and insatiable media appetite for their mysterious misery (if it bleeds it leads) isn’t it time to break down the barriers and courageously talk about the pain, the dis-easiness and the symptoms?
It’s time for us to move away from ignorance, denial and fear.
My nonprofit organization, No Kidding Me Too, aims to eliminate the bigotry, stigma and shame that surrounds brain dis-Ease.
I want people suffering from depression and brain dis-ease that you are not alone. The hole in your soul can’t be filled with alcohol, drugs or sex, but it can be filled with help. You can overcome it.
Let’s learn from our fallen angels and realize our dis-ease is our cure. Mental dis-ease is as much a challenge as a source of strength and motivation to achieve our personal victories. It’s a gift that gives us our strongest blessing, our divine gifts.
We only need to talk about it.