Actor Seeks Understanding of Mental Illness
They call him "Joey Pants" -- not everybody knows how to say Pantoliano. He doesn't mind telling people he is crazy.
"I'm crazy," he said. "And I've made a lot of money being crazy."
He told a Ruth Pauley Lecture Series audience at Sandhills Community College that he had a brain disease, saying it as if it were two words: "dis ease."
Pantoliano's appearance was a joint cooperative event co-sponsored by National Alliance on Mental Health of Moore County during its Pathways to Awareness weekend.
He is an Emmy-winning actor with more than 100 film, television and stage credits -- well-known for such roles as sociopathic mobster "Ralphie Cifaretto" on the landmark HBO series "The Sopranos." Pantol-iano spends much of his time fighting for greater understanding of mental illness. He called his lecture "Busting the Stigma of Mental Illness."
He knows about that firsthand. Pantoliano told the story of his New Jersey childhood and his mother's mental illness in a bittersweet memoir "Who's Sorry Now: The True story of a Stand-Up Guy" that became a New York Times bestseller.
Before the program, Pantoliano joined board members of both organizations for a light dinner and to answer questions.
"My 'brain style' is clinical depression," he said. "That's my dis-ease. I have ADHD, went through a number of 12-step programs. I am dyslexic. It is a lack of dopamine. Now, instead of drinking and taking risks, I walk 35 minutes a day five times a week, take medicine for the dopamine. A lot of things produce dopamine ... instead of the things I did as a kid like shoplifting, stealing, getting in trouble. That felt great. It produced a chemical solution."
His mom's bipolar depression is echoed by the mother character in "Canvas" -- a feature film Pantoliano recently produced that portrays a family's struggle with her mental illness as seen from a child's point of view. Pantoliano plays the father.
"That character is me," he said. "I was that guy. When I was a kid, my dyslexia was undiagnosed. My fourth-grade teacher took the books away from me. She said, 'If you don't do the work, you don't deserve to learn.' I was humiliated that I couldn't read."
He wanted a part in the senior play so bad that he spent hours memorizing lines for the audition, then pretended to be reading the part from the script. It went well until the director asked him to read another section.
"I couldn't read it," he said. "But -- gracefully -- she gave me that part anyway."
That launched his career. His life went differently: food, alcohol, shopping, sex, gambling, drugs -- anything that would deal with his brain chemistry.
"Chemicals helped boost dopamine," he said. "I thought if I was successful, the pain would go away. It didn't. I thought I'd sleep with runway models and movie stars, and the pain would go away. It didn't. I thought, have a kid, and I'll feel better. I didn't.
"Now I get up in the morning, take my brain meds for my brain dis-ease and my Lipitor for high cholesterol. When somebody has diabetes, you don't ask 'Why? What did you do? Why can't you eat like normal people?"
Later, during his presentation at Sandhills Community College, he asked how many people in the audience had asthma. Hands went up.
"Oh my god, there they are," Pantoliano said, nodding with apparent confirmed suspicion. "The asthmatics. (nodding) Why don't you just breathe like everybody else?'
That drew laughter.
"Depression is when your brain produces sadness in situations that are not sad," he said. "My brain dis-ease is the best thing that ever happened to me. I used to take substitute meds to fill the hole inside of my soul that nothing in this world could fill pain I could not describe and was afraid to talk about."
He had advice for parents when teens get in trouble.
"Your kid is caught shoplifting? Call a doctor," he said. "When I drank alcohol, I would break out in handcuffs. Now that I am diagnosed, I do what kids do: talk about it openly. Been diagnosed with Alzheimer's? Have a party. Let your friends come and tell you how much they love you while you still know who they are and can remember what they say."
Pantoliano then sat on the edge of the stage, fielding questions from members of the audience. He talked about being co-president of The Creative Coalition, a nonprofit nonpartisan social and political advocacy organization of the entertainment industry, and about his "No Kidding? Me, Too" organization fighting mental disease stigma.
"Getting better doesn't mean it will always feel good," he said. "God didn't say life was going to be easy -- just that it would be worth it."
Contact John Chappell at 783-5841 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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