joe pantoliano

Joey Pants on Unresolved Trauma, Shame, and Brain Disease

joe pantoliano

Actor Joe Pantoliano reveals the deep connection between mental illness and addictive behaviors in a no-holds barred discussion.

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Joe Pantoliano—known far and wide as Joey Pants—has been a Hollywood mainstay for over three decades. From Risky Business to The Goonies, from The Matrix to The Sopranos, Pantoliano has been a consistently welcome part of our most defining shows. Apart from his award-winning work as an actor, Pantoliano has made a real effort to help others by speaking out about his personal difficulties and revealing long-term struggles with clinical depression and past addictive behaviors. Through the founding of the nonprofit, No Kidding, Me Too!, he has motivated the entertainment industry to actively raise awareness about such problems. The Fix spoke to him recently about his ongoing efforts and the insight he has gained by taking positive action.

Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, your mother Mary was a bookie and your father Dominic drove a hearse. Although you came from a strong family, you had some experience with being on the edge of what many would describe as normative society from the beginning. How did this experience affect you later in life?

You have to understand that when I grew up and where I grew up, being a bookie was normative. My mother did everything she could to make ends meet. She was a seamstress who ran numbers so we could stay down at the shore in Long Branch, New Jersey during the summer. It was like a summer job for her.
But what is normal? Everybody in my neighborhood was trying to get ahead. Gambling like playing the numbers and betting on horses was a regular part of that blue collar, working class environment. The one thing that we had in common was that we were broke. It was a very diverse neighborhood—Irish, Italian, African American, Puerto Rican—but almost everybody was first generation. My parents still spoke Italian in the house, and they used Italian as a means to keep the kids in the dark when they didn’t want us to know what they were talking about.

Being a wise guy in my neighborhood was like being a movie star in Beverly Hills. It was like a badge of courage. I don’t recall ever going to a clothing store with my mom or a toy store. Everything was negotiated on the streets out of the trunk of a car. That was my normal.

The Vicodin and Percocet seemed to answer a lot of problems, but no doctor ever told me that these pain pills were just like heroin.

You first grew to fame as Guido the Killer Pimp in Risky Business in 1983. In 1985, you played the villainous Francis Fratelli in the teen classic The Goonies. Later, you played mob accountant Caesar in Bound and mobster Ralph Cifaretto in The Sopranos. Do you think getting such positive feedback for playing so many bad guys helped to justify being a bad boy in real life?

My career in Hollywood really started when I took on the role of Private Angelo Maggio, a part that won Frank Sinatra an Academy Award for Supporting Actor, in the mini-series remake of From Here To Eternity in 1979. Later, because of my last name, I certainly was typecast as a mafia guy, but I played a lot of other roles as well. For every bad guy I played, I also played a cop or a detective.

As for the influence of those parts, I don’t know if I ever was a bad boy in real life. People who do bad things justify them so they can do them again. I wasn’t trying to do bad things and justify them, but I was sociologically sick and I was trying to escape those negative feelings. I didn’t need an excuse to be an addict. I just wanted to get away from the shitty feeling that was living inside of me.

You have written in Asylum: Hollywood Tales from My Great Depression: Brain Dis-Ease, Recovery, and Being My Mother’s Son about your addictions to alcohol, food, sex, and the prescription opioids Vicodin and Percocet before being diagnosed with clinical depression. What gave you the courage to come forward and write about these tough issues?

I wouldn’t call it courage. I don’t see this conversation or even writing Asylum as a courageous gesture. When I was living in a really dark place, it was almost like you just wake up one morning and you realize how numb you are. At some point, I came face to face with a certain misery that was consuming my life. I asked for help after I was nudged by my family members because they were all about ready to leave me. In that journey to recovery, the daily practice of tolerating the cards that life throws at you became possible. What I came to understand is that when I shared my journey with other people and they shared their journey through their own pain with me, I felt less alone. In telling my story, I hoped to be able to create empathy in other people so through the process of identification, they could access the help they needed.
A lot of what I was doing—those addictive behaviors—was to avoid the unresolved traumas of my childhood and adolescence. If you don’t face those traumas and do your best to resolve them, then things just get worse. In my story, I talked about my seven deadly symptoms—addictions to food, sex, vanity, alcohol, prescription drugs, shopping and fame.

The number one behavior that first helped to make me feel better was eating. I had an eating disorder at 10 years old, and I was eating my feelings away. I grew larger by the year until adolescence set in. I wanted girls to like me and I thought if I lost weight they would like me, so I started starving myself. The hunger created a feeling of euphoria that I liked as well. Shopping became the answer next. When I couldn’t afford something, there was a great relief in stealing. It’s almost like what cutters must feel when they cut themselves. The danger of going into a department store and stealing a sweater led directly to the euphoria of walking out of the store. It was like a brain exercise that primed my brain to get the dopamine going.

If you look at our nation, we all have symptoms of this. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Donald Trump and you’re filling the emptiness with adulation and money, or if you’re a drug addict filling the emptiness with heroin. If you do too much of anything, it’s a sickness. Through therapy, I came to understand that the emptiness was insatiable, and no amount of success or double martinis would fill it up. It doesn’t matter what you use to escape because in the end, it’s really all the same thing.

I actually think obesity is a greater problem in our country than addiction to drugs or alcohol. I think sugar is a much more dangerous drug than heroin.

As a former prescription drug addict, what is your take on the current opioid epidemic raging across the country? Are prescription painkillers too easily abused?

I was prescribed opioid painkillers throughout my life, but there wasn’t a click in the beginning. My depression had to grow to the point where I saw that as an answer. In my early 50s, I had an injury and the painkillers were prescribed again. For the first time, a little voice inside told me, “Hey, this kind of puts a bounce in your step.” I don’t see the villain as being pharmaceutical companies. I needed the medication for my injury. It just so happened that those painkillers spoke to the deadly symptoms in my own personal life. I liked it better than alcohol because it also curbed my appetite. Alcohol also drowned out the darkness, but I also put on weight. The Vicodin and Percocet seemed to answer a lot of problems, but no doctor ever told me that these pain pills were just like heroin. I just knew they worked because they released the serotonin and amped up the dopamine.

For me, it’s not so much about drug addiction, but why is there so much pain in the world? Why is this such an answer for so much of society? Whether it’s drug addiction or alcohol abuse, or eating or shopping or gambling, everybody seems to have something that’s helping them get through their pain. Our entire society is always telling us through television and media that if you buy this product or you drive this car, it will make the pain go away. Most of us are sick and miserable because the TV tells us to be by focusing on the pain. In my journey, what I learned is how to go through the pain and to the other side where it could be processed.

On October 9, 2007, you announced on the National Alliance on Mental Illness blog that you had been suffering from clinical depression for the last decade. Rather than hide your struggle from the public, you chose to speak out to help remove some of the stigma commonly associated with mental illness. To help raise awareness, you founded a nonprofit organization—No Kidding, Me Too!—to unite members of the entertainment industry in educating the public. Can you tell us more about this organization and what you have been able to accomplish?

There’s a lot of shame that’s engaged in mental dis-ease. In my own situation, I made the decision that mental dis-ease didn’t have to be a permanent condition. The movies always seem to be telling us that it’s a weakness and that treatment is really frightening. In One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, when Jack Nicholson gets electro-shock treatment, the scene was dramatized to appear frightening. They showed a version of the treatment that was really extreme. When I came out and talked about my clinical depression, I wanted to go against the shame that came with the dis-ease. It was like in the 1950s, when nobody would talk about cancer because there was shame associated with cancer. I felt that I didn’t have the luxury to be anonymous when it came to my brain dis-ease. I needed to talk about it because by talking about it, I needed to help open the door for other people to talk about it. No Kidding, Me Too! was designed to promote emotional intimacy and identification so other people could get the help they need. By showing what had happened to me and how I am now doing better, they could take that step in their own lives and explore their own issues. It’s very similar to what they do in the 12-step programs.

One of the first things my psychiatrist told me to do in my early recovery was to stop watching the news.

In an interview with the Today Show, you said, “80 to 90 percent of people with mental illness have a dual diagnosis whether it’s drug addiction or alcoholism or sexual promiscuity … Mental illness causes you to act out in ways that you think will make you feel good.” Given the prevalence of co-occurring disorders, do you think mental illness is at the bottom of the drug crisis in this country? Does the mental illness need to be treated in order for a person’s sobriety to be on safe ground?

I actually think obesity is a greater problem in our country than addiction to drugs or alcohol. I think sugar is a much more dangerous drug than heroin. I believe the sugar lobby is a lot more powerful than the pharmaceutical lobby. Without a doubt, most people have overlapping behaviors. It’s more than just co-occurring; people are finding many ways to treat their dis-easiness. What’s your drug of choice? Whatever the fuck you happen to have right now when I need something to escape the pain? What’s available? What do you got? It’s all escapism.

One of your most famous quotes is, “It’s all about people. It’s all about the subjectivity of what people love.” Beyond medical treatment when needed, is that part of the key to overcoming addiction and mental illness?

It’s a momentary journey that must be constantly renewed. You go through life and you need to face the pain and struggles so you can grow from the ups and downs of life. There is no permanent happiness just like there’s no permanent misery. It sometimes depends on how fortunate you are or unfortunate you are in the course of a day. Learning to live in the moment and treat your uneasiness in positive ways. An unhappy life is damaging to the physical body. I try to take walks every day and exercise and meditate when I can. These things can really help and can change your mood. The key is often just to start moving. Like they say in the program, “Move a muscle, change a thought.” You can’t fix an inside problem by adding something from the outside. You have to fix it within, and that’s the only way to do it. There’s not enough money or drugs or food or women to remedy the momentary heartache within.

Talking about the nature of your character Ralph Cifaretto on The Sopranos, you said, “Ralphie is an insane sociopath. Because he was raped and abused as a young boy, he could not enjoy normal sex, had to have pain involved.” Dr. Gabor Maté believes most addictions originate from childhood trauma and calls for a more compassionate approach toward the addict. Is childhood trauma at the root of most addictions?

Childhood trauma is the root to most emotional pain, not the addictions. The addictions are the answer to the trauma until they stop working. For many people, alcohol is the answer they find for dealing with social interactions. I have heard it called “liquid courage” before. The problem is not the addiction, but the unresolved trauma. This is why I don’t like people identifying themselves at 12-step meetings as addicts or alcoholics. I also don’t think people should identify themselves by their diagnoses, like I am bipolar or I am a depressive. I don’t see it that way. The addiction was the result of the emotional pain.

If you are trying to fix that pain by feeding the hole, you will always need more of whatever it is you are using, whether it’s food or drugs or glasses of wine or sex. The only external thing that helped my internal dis-ease that worked, that I didn’t need more of after it worked, was jogging. If I was in a bad place, 25 to 30 minutes of running would do away with the bad feeling. I didn’t need to keep running for an hour or two hours or on and on. I don’t know who’s doing research about this stuff, but I think the key to overcoming the trap of these television screens is exercising instead. One of the first things my psychiatrist told me to do in my early recovery was to stop watching the news. And it really did help because all the reporting is skewed today. So much of disease is affected by the cultural and the environmental. By changing your environment and turning off those screens, you are much more likely to find the peace of mind that you want. I know in my case, that’s how I found peace of mind here and there. Not all the time, but a lot more than I ever had before.

In 2015, Writers In Treatment gave you the Experience, Strength & Hope Award for writing a memoir that carried the message. Although you have won countless awards for your acting, what did winning this different kind of award mean to you?

I don’t cotton to awards. I don’t put any value to them, and they are all politically motivated. It’s often just another excuse to raise money for something or self-aggrandizing from the Academy Awards on down. I’m not saying it was like that with this award, but an award is an award to me. When you realize how much money and lobbying goes into most of these awards, you can throw merit right out the window.

I get a bigger kick from somebody stopping me at the supermarket and saying, “Thank you! Your stories have helped me with my own personal struggles.” It’s like being a magician. When you see another magician, you appreciate their abilities and their craft, but you aren’t amazed by the tricks. Being a magician, you know in the end that it’s all smoke and mirrors.

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