Last updateTue, 19 Sep 2017 5pm


'Sopranos' actor talks of overcoming symptoms, stigma of mental illness

Bruce Barton/Town Crier
Actor Joe Pantoliano, above, discusses his experiences with mental illness at the Family & Children Services Circle of Support Breakfast May 7.

Joe Pantoliano is a famous, award-winning actor with a loving, supportive wife and three healthy children. So what was there to be depressed about?

There was no apparent reason – he just was. He tried to suppress it through a lifetime of outside stimuli – material possessions, drug and alcohol use, even through his career as an accomplished actor. He eventually discovered that he had an affliction no different from a physical illness, the direct result of brain chemistry. Once treated, he became a changed man, eager to tell the world what he had learned about mental health and to go public with frank accounts of his experiences.

Pantoliano related many of those experiences Thursday during the annual Circle of Support Breakfast, a fundraiser for Family & Children Services of Silicon Valley. The 65-year-old nonprofit organization provides mental-health care for individuals and families in crisis. Dr. Christopher Capelle, also a featured speaker at the event, was honored for providing Family & Children Services psychiatric consultation for more than 20 years.

Turning point

Pantoliano said depression made him unpredictable, sometimes volatile with his own family, and he spent considerable time in bed. On the day in 2003 Pantoliano learned that he had won the Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Ralph Cifaretto on “The Sopranos,” he took the phone call from underneath the bedsheets.

“At a time when I should have felt the happiest in my life, I was at my lowest,” he said.

Introduced by his wife of 20 years, Nancy, Pantoliano said being diagnosed with clinical depression was the turning point in his life. He realized that nearly everyone has some form of emotional disease, and that he was far from alone in his suffering.

The realization is documented in his 2010 film on the subject, “No Kidding, Me 2!,” and his latest memoir, “Asylum: Hollywood Tales from My Great Depression: Brain Dis-Ease, Recovery and Being My Mother’s Son” (Weinstein Books, 2012).

Growing up in Hoboken, N.J., Pantoliano struggled through school, feeling different but not knowing why. At 14, he was addicted to sugar and gained a lot of weight. Then he starved himself to win over girls.

“I didn’t have a balanced life,” he said. “It was all or nothing.”

Pantoliano explained that he learns visually and audibly, abilities that led him to excel in his career as a character actor, which includes co-starring roles in “The Matrix,” “The Goonies,” “Risky Business” and “The Fugitive.”

“I don’t see myself today as someone who has a learning disorder,” Pantoliano told the large crowd at the Crowne Plaza Cabaña Hotel in Palo Alto. “I see myself with a learning difference.”

Pantoliano emphasized that those suffering from mental health issues should not be stigmatized as being different from normal or in the small minority.

“We all are addicted to something – we’re a culture that is drugging ourselves or eating ourselves or working ourselves to death,” he said. “What’s the difference what your poison is?”

Pantoliano learned to overcome his affliction with medication, bringing balance to his life and making lifestyle changes. These days, he gets his emotional highs from a good diet, exercise, stress management and service to others.

Erasing the stigma

Los Altos High School student Sarah Merrick also spoke at the event. Merrick founded the LETS (Let’s Erase The Stigma) Club to provide a forum for discussing mental-health issues on campus.

Merrick, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, said she’s received “tremendous support” at Los Altos High.

“The important thing is to treat it like any other illness,” she said.

Merrick also credits her family for standing by her.

“I know that without my parents and their support, I wouldn’t be here today,” she added.

For more information on Family & Children Services, visit fcservices.org.

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