Actor Joe Pantoliano may be best-known for playing troubled,rough and unstable characters while on screen. With a credit reel that includes roles from top movies and TV series such as The Sopranos, The Matrix, Memento, The Goonies, The Fugitive, Risky Business and more, Pantoliano says fans are always asking, “What are we going to see you in next, Joe?” like they’re speaking to an old friend.
But amidst all the success, for years Pantoliano—or Joey Pants, as he’s known to almost everyone—was struggling off the screen with clinical depression and addictive behaviors with alcohol, food, sex, shopping and painkillers. Though before he was diagnosed with depression, he had no clue why he felt such unhappiness, and he lacked the context to see his addictions as addictions.
“I just thought they were hobbies,” Pantoliano says.
Diagnosed with clinical depression in 2007, Pantoliano says it was after his diagnosis that he felt a renewal. Before that time, he couldn’t place where the unhappiness and anguish came from.
As a young boy growing up in New Jersey, Pantoliano always wanted to be an actor. He would watch his idols on the black-and- white TV set, knowing someday that would be him and then—only then—he would always be remembered by the world. It would be the antidote to his unhappiness. But as more and more success came to the son of first-generation Italian-American parents, the happiness and joy weren’t there. Something didn’t feel right.
“The discovery is that it’s kind of like what happened to the stock market or those guys who think that if they can acquire all of this wealth and status that it will alter the way they feel. You know, if I’m worth five million dollars, am I going to be five million dollars happier? No,” Pantoliano says. “My demise, my downfall was really my rebirth because it came when I discovered that my life had become unmanageable.”
Under it all, Pantoliano says he knew there was something bro- ken in him. He just didn’t know what it was, and he didn’t know there was a way to make it better. He tried to numb the pain with alcohol, sex, Vicodin—whatever worked. He wanted to feel good at any cost.
“We’ve been programmed to think we should feel good at all times. What I discovered was I couldn’t compartmentalize the pain and say ‘OK I’m numbing the pain and leaving everything else, like happiness, alone.’ So, in numbing my sadness and my heartache, I also numbed my joy. So, I wasn’t feeling anything. And I couldn’t understand why. Those behaviors just wipe out your sense of sensitivity to the world.”
After being in a chronic state of sadness and misery for so long, Pantoliano finally received a diagnosis and was told by his doctor that clinical depression is very common and treatable. He says it was like an epiphany, which led him to realize how he had been using all the other substances to numb his pain.
“I started taking [antidepressants] and kind of thawing out,” he says. “I went to my first Twelve Step meeting. And it stood to reason— I understood what these people were talking about. And I knew how they felt. And they were describing how I felt better than I could.”
It was then that Joey realized that his mother probably also suffered from depression, but was never diagnosed.
“I was coming home [from my first Twelve Step meeting], driving the three short miles back to the house on a very cold January evening and the stars were bright and clear. It was like I had never seen a star before. It just caught my attention. And then I was thinking about my mother. And I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, Mommy had what I have.’”
But, under her circumstances and all that was going on in 1963, he says he doesn’t believe it was in her control to get better, or even seek treatment.
Sick of Stigma
Through coming to terms with his own depression, or brain “dis-ease”, as he calls it, Pantoliano has found a new mission: to help the fight to end the stigma of mental illness in the U.S. We’re all connected one way or another through mental illness, which is something he discovered well enough while filming the movie Canvas.
Canvas—which also helped Pantoliano discover some of his own depression struggles—released in 2006, is about what happens to an American family when mental disease is introduced into the family dynamic. According to Joe, it’s not so much about the dis- ease as much as it is everyone’s reaction to the disease, like, “Why are you acting this way?” “Why can’t you stop?” “Why aren’t the pills working?”
Every time he told a different fan about the ins and outs of Canvas, they would say, “No kidding, me too,” in reference to a family member or friend. Pantoliano soon realized that everyone is dealing with some sort of mental illness one way or another. It also inspired him to start his nonprofit, No Kidding, Me Too!
No Kidding, Me Too! aims to remove the stigma attached to brain disease through education and the breaking down of societal barriers. Its goal is to empower those with mental illness to admit their illness, seek treatment and become even greater members of society.
“I’m sick of stigma,” says Pantoliano. “It’s a nice word for bigotry and fear and discrimination. We’ve got to stop being so nice about this disease.”
He says it’s even something he has discovered in the film industry. Shortly after his depression diagnosis, before starting work on a new movie, he had to disclose all of his health conditions, medications and answer run-of-the- mill questions for insurance purposes.
“They’re hedging their bets and they want to make sure that you’re in good health and you’re not gonna drop dead during production.”
Pantoliano disclosed he was taking prescribed medications— Lipitor, baby aspirin and antidepressants. A few days later, his attorney called saying the insurance company had red-flagged him. He was an insurance risk because of the antidepressants and would not be covered. “I said, ‘Well, you mean I can’t do the picture?’ And he said, ‘You can; you’ll have you sign a waiver.’ I said ‘Well, hold off. Are they insuring my heart?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ ‘But I take the same amount of medication for my heart as I do for my brain.’ He said, ‘Well if you have a heart attack, they’ll cover it.’ ‘But you don’t get my point. Why are they insuring my heart and not my brain? The brain is the most vital of all the organs in our body. If any- thing, it should get preferential treatment.’”
Removing the stigma of mental illness and sharing stories working toward stability, understanding and recovery was the focus of his 2009 educational documentary, No Kidding, Me Too! He says creating and filming the documentary was like divine intervention.
“My intention was to make a documentary as to why there is so much shame and fear around this particular disease,” Pantoliano says. “Why is it OK to have diabetes and it’s a weakness to have depress- ion? Why is it OK for Viagra to get a senator of the United States to talk about the fact that he can’t get a hard on? And that’s cool, right?”
He says it’s time to take the veil away from mental illness and start talking about it in an open manner, especially with younger generations. They need to be able to share feelings and know it’s OK to feel emotions. Because as Pantoliano says, if you are caught in an illness without treatment, and other addictions filter in, it can be a vicious circle of repetitive, unhealthy unhappiness.
“Our philosophy [at No Kidding, Me Too!] is there is no shame in having a mental disease,” he says. “It comes with the territory of creativity. And stop making it a big deal. How do you make it cool and trendy for kids to be emotionally intimate—to talk about feelings for Christ’s sake?”
And in talking about emotions, everyone—young and old— should be educated on how putting things in the body will affect mood and emotion, he adds. For example, Pantoliano says his son, Marco, is a mental health caretaker and spends a large amount of time working out with clients, evaluating students and telling them what they should and should not be eating.
Because of this, Joe says he is very wary of sugar, as it is addictive and will have depressive effects on his mental state.
“Sugar is a drug that’s more addictive than cocaine and heroin. And yet we abuse that drug. But we look at it as a food, not a drug.”
Pantoliano discovered the steps he needed to work toward joy, and he continues down that path and whatever will take him there, including half an hour of yoga a day, staying away from previous hang-ups, being cognizant of the food he eats and keeping up an antidepressant regimen. “My disease enabled me to find my ease I’ve been looking for my whole life. It’s peace of mind that I want.”
To those out there who may be simply feeling bad, Pantoliano says don’t get caught up with whatever the particular mental ill- ness’ name may be. Depression? Bipolar? It’s irrelevant. You feel bad and want and need to get better. And you can.
“Is the pain great enough that it has become unmanageable? Do you not want to leave the house? Can you not finish a project? Get any joy out of the things that used to be joyful? If any of this sounds familiar, then I would say start talking to your loved ones and seek help. There are tons of people that are dealing with this every day and we can get better.”
Joe Pantoliano’s memoir is, Asylum: Hollywood Tales from My Great Depression. Hisnonprofit, No Kidding, Me Too! can be found at nkm2.org