Joe Pantoliano is one of today’s best character actors. He has more than 100 film, TV and stage credits, including The Fugitive, Risky Business, Memento, The Matrix, and his Emmy-winning role as Ralph Cifaretto in HBO’s The Sopranos. One of his most recent films Canvas, tells the story about how one family copes with schizophrenia.
Mental Health News recently sat down with Joe Pantoliano to learn about his battle with depression and how it has inspired him to help others. Joe has taken a bad time in his life and turned it into a nation-wide project for increasing mental health awareness and a fight against the harmful effects of stigma towards people with mental illness. This is truly a fitting cover story for this issue’s theme Recovery and The Consumer Movement. With the launch of his website, No Kidding Me Too (www.nkm2.org), and a new documentary that is geared towards helping kids talk about their emotional difficulties before they turn into more serious problems, Joe’s new found mission of increasing mental health awareness and speaking out about the harmful effects of stigma is helping many. We are indeed grateful to have had this opportunity to speak candidly with him.
Ira Minot: Joe, thanks so much for meeting with us. We know a little about your story and your battle with mental illness. Was it depression?
Joe Pantoliano: Yes, I was told I suffered from clinical depression.
Ira: I know that very well, having gone through the same thing.
Joe: Did your dad or mom have it also?
Ira: No, not that I knew of. The fact was, growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s, our family (as did many) rarely spoke openly about emotional difficulties, heaven forbid depression or any form of mental illness. And by the way, you and I were both born in 1951 and we’re both 57 years old.
Joe: At least I’m not depressed that I’m older than you! (laughter)
Ira: Can you tell us what it was like when you first felt that there was something wrong and that your emotional state had changed? How did this all begin?
Joe: Over the years talking to people and reflecting on my past I realized that, even as a child, I always had bad feelings about myself and the world around me. To counter these bad feelings, I thought that if I could accomplish things in my life, I could make those feelings go away. I knew it wasn’t a good feeling and often joked that when I was six years old, I may not have been drinking but I felt like I needed a drink to make those feelings go away.
Ira: What were those childhood feelings like?
Joe: I felt different. I felt isolated. I felt alone. I felt ashamed. As a child, I also had some reading and learning disabilities that people in those days didn’t identify or understand as they do now. I was labeled lazy – not stupid – lazy. I was told that if I just worked harder, I could catch up.
At an early age I felt that if I could become a successful actor, if I had money, if I had status, if I had fame, that these things would allow those bad feelings to go away. That’s where my journey began.
It was a long journey of acquiring all the things that I felt would prove that I was truly successful. Years later, when I finally realized that I had achieved all of my wildest dreams, I still felt empty inside. I always thought of myself as a chocolate Easter Bunny. In other words, I looked great on the outside but was hollow on the inside.
Ira: As you pursued your career, was there a major event or did you suffer a breakdown at some point?
Joe: It wasn’t a major event. Wait, I take that back. When I was starting work on the movie Canvas with Marcia Gay Harden in 2006, the heartbreaking story stirred up many memories of my mother, and I found myself having difficulty dealing with people around me. I was right and everybody was wrong. It was then that I had a falling-out with a very good professional friend of mine. We were best friends and she needed my help. Instead of helping her, I was judgmental with her and hurt her very much. Afterwards, she felt that we could no longer be friends. Also, another dear friend of mine had unexpectedly and tragically taken his own life. I was devastated.
In a short period of time I had experienced two tremendous losses in my life. These two heartfelt losses made me realize that my life had no meaning. Even though I had a loving wife, four children, and success beyond my wildest dreams I couldn’t figure out why these good things in my life couldn’t make these bad feelings go away.
When I finally was at the end of my rope and was so despondent that I wanted to die, I had an appointment with my family doctor to check my cholesterol. When I told him how badly my emotional state was, he immediately referred me to a psychiatrist. When I explained to the psychiatrist what was going on, he said, “You have something that can be taken care of. It’s called clinical depression.”
When he said that it wasn’t my fault, and that my terrible state of mind was caused by what science now knows is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, I literally felt as though I had hit the lottery.
Ira: It must have seemed like an amazing discovery to learn this, being in your 50’s, having suffered for so many years, and just now learning that these bad feelings weren’t your fault.
Joe: Before I went public about my brain dis-ease, I first discussed what I had learned with my wife and my kids. I then told my sister. When I told my sister, she was so ashamed that she didn’t tell me that she had been diagnosed with the same thing three years earlier. Both my sister and I then realized that our mother had been depressed all those many years ago, and that’s why we had gotten it too. We just thought that our mom was “Italian American” and that her behavior was cultural rather than any form of a disease.
Ira: I went through the same discovery following my first breakdown in my late 30’s. I couldn’t hide that I was seriously ill, and it was only then that I learned from members of my family that we had other extended family members that had suffered with depression and that a cousin of mine had tragically committed suicide. As we discussed earlier, these tragic family difficulties were always smoothed over and were never really confronted with any sense of reality to what actually happened at the time and over the years.
Had I known that we had a family history and that I might be predisposed to depression, I might have addressed it sooner and with more conviction and possibly could have avoided losing ten years of my life to my own battle with depression.
Joe: Same in our family. It was a heart attack; it was a stroke.
Ira: When you met with your psychiatrist, did he put you on medications right away?
Joe: He gave me the option that I could go on medication that would bridge the gap to clarity quicker. I chose to go on medication, and I still take my medicine for my depression every day, just like I still take my cholesterol medication every day as well as a baby aspirin once a day.
The troubling thing is that I was never yelled at for taking my cholesterol medication and was never yelled at for being diagnosed with high cholesterol. It’s OK with everyone that my body produces too much cholesterol, BUT IT’S NOT OK that my body doesn’t produce enough dopamine to enable me to have a balanced emotional state? That makes no sense at all.
Ira: What was it that inspired you to start No Kidding Me Too?
Joe: It began with my own discovery that we were talking about. I realized that you need to thoroughly overcome the shame and stigma that your illness presents you with before you can get the recovery and the treatment that you really need. You’ve got to believe that you can get better.
In my talks with people I discovered that there’s an upwards of 80% recovery rate for all forms of brain dis-ease just by surrendering to the idea that your brain is designed differently. I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that one in four people have a mental illness, and that 25% of the people in the US will be personally affected by mental illness this year alone.
When I started No Kidding Me Too (www.nkm2.org), I wanted to use my celebrity to bring attention to the issues surrounding mental health and to speak out for eliminating the shame and stigma associated with it.
One of the things we are doing is reaching out to the schools to put our awareness project into the curriculum much like we teach sex education and hygiene, so the kids can feel that it’s OK to talk about mental health and to be more open if they themselves are overwhelmed by a particular emotional problem. Kids should not feel that it’s a sin or a mark against them to be going through a bad time in their life.
In my movie that we are bringing to the schools we explain that some kids are being diagnosed as early as the fifth grade – cutting themselves as early as ten years old – being sexually promiscuous and using heroine as early as twelve years old because they thought by doing so it would make them feel better. The simplicity in a kid saying, “Mom, I don’t know what’s wrong with me but I’m awful tired all the time, and my teacher said that if I feel like that more than three days in a row I should talk about it in school or with you.”
This is an especially important issue, especially here in the tri-state New York area. Kids here have been exposed to 9/11, horrific deaths and an attack on our country. They had psychologists that came to talk to the kids right after this happened and now they’re not around, but our kids are still being affected by it. Same thing with Katrina – these emotional scars in our kids are ongoing.
Here’s another issue. The money the insurance companies would be saving if they covered preventive psychological care to a greater extent is tremendous. In our movie we tell the story of a child named Jordan who jumped out of his ninth-floor bedroom window over 100 feet and didn’t die. The hospital said that they never had anybody jump more than 50 feet and live. His insurance carrier would only cover twelve talk therapy sessions a year, but since his jump they’ve spent over two million dollars on his treatment for physical rehabilitation and operations. They would have been able to save that money if they had allowed this kid to come and talk to someone thirty or forty times a year.
The insurance companies are finally now coming to terms with the cost-benefit ratio and the fiscal responsibility of bringing mental health care in par with other illness treatments. Nationally, we have lost billion’s in productivity in the workplace because of company employees up to CEO’s or VP’s that are afraid to go to their human resources departments to talk about their depression. What happens? They wind up drinking or drugging their problems away and because they are such vital members of their team the company places them in rehab for thirty days hoping they can return to their jobs.
Ira: You certainly have hit upon many of the key issues that the mental health community has grappled with for many years. How can we learn more about No Kidding Me Too?
Joe: I would just invite everyone to visit our website at www.nkm2.org to learn more about our mission, to get involved by helping us in our mission so we can continue with the work we are doing. We hope to be the “go to” organization for college kids and the business community.
Ira: In addition to your outreach through your website and your many public speaking engagements, what other vehicles are you using with the organization to get the word out?
Joe: We have put together a documentary called No Kidding Me Too – The Movie. I will be doing a series of tours – including our upcoming stop at Westport High School in Connecticut where we will be showing the movie to over nine hundred families and teenagers. We also want to take it to colleges.
Ira: If there was one thing you’d like to leave our readers with about your experience and the good work that you are doing, what would you say?
Joe: I would say, “You’re Not Alone” and “You Can Get Better.” I would also say “Surrender and Get Better,” but I am not sure everyone would understand that.
Ira: I do know what you’re talking about when you say that. For years during my own illness, I felt as though I was at a doorway with me on one side of the door and my depression on the other. We were both pushing hard against that same door and no progress was being made. It wasn’t until someone told me to “Let go and accept your illness so you can begin to heal,” that I finally stopped fighting my depression and blaming myself and I began my journey on the road to recovery. It’s a message that our entire readership should understand, and I am glad you said it.
Joe: People tell me that I am brave or that I am doing a great service in coming out about my illness and talking about it openly. In reality, talking about it and knowing that I am helping others by doing so helps to keep me well – it’s the best therapy I have found.
David Minot: I want you to know that I watched Canvas and it brought tears to my eyes seeing the movie. I was a young boy when my father went through his long illness with depression, and seeing the child and the mother in Canvas really brought back a lot of feelings for me. I really think what you are doing for people in the community about mental illness is a truly wonderful mission.
Joe: Canvas is a wonderful movie that more people would benefit by seeing. Tell your readers that they can access ways to see it through our website, www.nkm2.org.
Ira: Joey, you’re the greatest, and we thank you for taking the time to speak with us. I know our readers will really appreciate it.