May 4, 2010
Posted: 04:28 PM ET
May is National Mental Health Awareness Month and The Sopranos’ Joey Pantoliano wants you to talk about your brain!
Pantoliano directed a new documentary, titled “No Kidding, Me Too,” about fighting the stigma and shame associated with mental illnesses (which he calls a "dis-ease").
The idea behind the film is that everyone knows someone who either lives with mental illness or is affected by it. "No Kidding, Me Too" is available now through CreateSpace, Amazon.com’s DVD-on-demand service.
Pantoliano talked to the LKL Blog about his own mental "dis-ease." After a friend committed suicide, Pantoliano told us how he struggled with a feeling of being "underwater," something he'd felt for a long time. He went to a psychiatrist at the suggestion of his doctor and Pantoliano was diagnosed as clinically depressed. It was the moment he said he felt "relieved." That it wasn't his fault.
With his new film and his NKM2 (No kidding, me too) organization, Pantoliano is speaking out so others know there is help and you can get it.
LKL Blog: Was this a feeling that you’ve had since you were a little kid? Or did it come and go? Did you always know something was wrong?
Joey Pantoliano: It was a feeling I had ever since I was a little kid. But I’d lose weight and I’d feel better. Or I’d get a job and I felt better. And then a job would end and I’d feel like I’d never work again. I was defined by the jobs that I had or the movies I was in. I was defined by the women that I slept with or the women that I married or the women that I cheated on. For me, too much was never enough. I needed to feel good quick.
I was desperate. The doctor gave me an anti-depressant. And said I could get to the bottom of what was troubling me quicker. I asked him if it was going to affect my work and get in the way of me having feelings. Because I didn’t want to get any more numb than I was. And he said I wouldn’t.
For me, taking that first step was believing there was a power that was greater than mine. My life was falling apart. My kids weren’t talking to me. My wife had said that I put up a wall that was so high, she couldn’t handle it anymore. I just didn’t feel like I wanted to live. So with the help of my psychiatrist and these drugs, I started getting better. And my kids started seeing a change in me. And the change was working – exercising, doing yoga and doing this 12-step work that was introduced through a friend. And believing in a spiritual center.
As I got better, I got the will to live again. I started working again.
A couple of days later, my lawyer called and said there was a problem. They aren’t going to insure me for this movie. And I asked why not? And he said, “Because you’re taking an anti-depressant. And you can only do the movie if you sign a waiver stating if you have a nervous breakdown, you’ll be financially responsible if there’s a slow down or a stoppage due to your absence.”
I said, “But what if I have a heart attack? I have a history of heart disease. Are you telling me they’ll insure my heart, but not my brain?”
And that’s when I decided I was going to say something about this. As I talked about it to my friends in show business, a lot of them would say, “Oh, I just don’t tell them. I lie on the form. I just take my medicine and go to work.”
LKL Blog: The statistic [from the National Institute of Mental Health] is that one-in-four adults in the U.S. have some diagnosable mental disorder. And it’s not just these people, it’s their family and their friends who’re affected. Most people know someone who is suffering. So if that’s the case, why is there a social stigma associated with mental health issues?
Pantoliano: I just don’t know. And that’s why we’re going to beat the s–t out of it. We’re going to blow up the stigma. We’re going to use our celebrity and show America that this is the rule, not the exception. And there shouldn’t be any stigma. Especially when you have upwards of 70% recovery. What we want to do as an organization is embrace this culture and get kids in the first grade to know it’s cool to talk about your feelings. We want the government to provide mental health education, starting in the first grade, so there’s no way these kids can be taught to be ashamed of their feelings.
And the cool thing is we have Ang Lee and James Cameron and Jeff Bridges and all of these people and more on our advisory board. Using celebrity for good and not making a joke out of it.
LKL Blog: You don’t like the term “mental illness” – why?
Pantoliano: Yeah, I never had peace of mind. There was always something troubling me in my heart. There’s a pressure in my chest. It’s a “dis-easiness.” It’s an uneasiness. It’s not permanent. It will pass.
I have a heart condition, I don’t have “heart illness,” I have heart disease. If I have diabetes, I don’t have “kidney illness.”
I have a brain disease. Which I like to call “dis-ease,” because it’s not permanent. It comes and goes. I can continue to take my medicine, exercise and talk to other people that know what it’s like to feel like I feel on the inside.
LKL Blog: You’ve got the film, the organization, the celebrity public service announcements. Why? What are you battling against, what’s the purpose of all this?
Pantoliano: We’re just ignorant. I feel like me sharing this with other people, it helps me to get through the day. I’m thinking less about me and more about somebody in real pain.
I thought it was my fault for such a long time. You’d be surprised by how many Americans think they are just being lazy or they’re just being selfish. Or that they don’t know why they can’t stop drinking or are a drug addict or cheat on their wives, for that matter.
When I go and talk about this and I hear what they are saying, it’s empowering. I never felt this playing a part in a movie. I never thought I’d change someone’s life.
LKL Blog: So talk about the documentary – what will people see?
Pantoliono: I want them to see themselves.
The people in the documentary have given up their anonymity and they’re being upfront. And now the whole world knows what it’s like to be them.
There’s no stigma with the heart, the liver, the gall bladder. If you show up at the hospital and say, “My gall bladder hurts,” they’ll pay for it. If you go in and say, “I’m depressed and I want to kill myself,” they’ll say, “Well, have you tried to kill yourself yet? No? Ok, we’ll cover you for three days.”
Why is it people get yelled at? Mental illness is the only diagnosis you can get yelled at for having.
The documentary is fun. We don’t have any heavy music. It’s not woe is me. It’s really uplifting and entertaining. I’m showing 13 year old kids they don’t need to become drug addicts or alcoholics to show something is wrong with them. The disease is first and the addictions come second.
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