Pathway To Awareness: Pantoliano Upfront About Mental Illness
Actor Joe Pantoliano is the salt of the earth, with salty language to match. You know where you stand with him, but when he talks, you're instantly at ease.
And Joey Pants, as he is known, has a lot to say.
Pantoliano, of recent "Sopranos" fame, is on a mission to make mental illness sexy. And he's taking his mission on the road through many different projects.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness Moore County, along with the Ruth Pauley Lecture Series, will host Pantoliano as the keynote speaker at the Pathway to Awareness Weekend, scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 4 and 5.
By making mental illness "sexy," the stigma surrounding it is removed, Pantoliano feels.
"I can say, 'I'm out there. I'm one of you, you're one of me,'" he says. "It's cool that we can talk about it. Temporary solutions aren't cool; talking about how you feel inside, that's cool."
Pantoliano is in good company. He is one of about 14.8 million American adults who live with major depression. Ironically enough, it was after he finished the movie, "Canvas," that he was diagnosed.
In "Canvas," released in 2006, Pantoliano portrays John Marino, who struggles with his wife, Mary, and her schizophrenia. He works day and night to stay on top of her medical bills and medication costs, while his son, Chris, becomes increasingly troubled. The film is a heart-wrenching look at what mental illness does to people and their families.
"When I finished 'Canvas,' I was not in a good place," Pantoliano recalls. "My friend Charlie killed himself a week before we started shooting, and I was walking around with that."
For him, there was a lot of confusion, pain and suffering.
"I wanted control and had none," he says. "My life and John's were so parallel, there was no acting required. All I had to do was learn the lines, and even then a lot was improvised."
Pantoliano's depression worsened before it got better.
"There was a feeling of dread and loss. 'Where was it coming from, and is this all there is to life?'" I asked myself. "Then the solution becomes, 'Maybe I should kill myself.' That's a very bad place to be. I wanted peace of mind. There was a hole in my soul, and I tried to fill it up with drugs, alcohol, sex. Temporarily I'd feel better, but chemical solutions weren't the answer."
He had already finished his book, "Who's Sorry Now: The True Story of a Stand-Up Guy," an autobiography in which he looks at his family and town with deep affection and love.
"I wrote that book about a dysfunctional family, a crazy, lovable dysfunctional family," Pantoliano says. "I didn't know crazy was crazy, and it was as obvious as the nose on my face."
"Who's Sorry Now" contains a colorful cast of characters who were Pantoliano's relatives. His mother, Mary Centrella Pantoliano, was so volatile that she might have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder today.
His maternal grandfather, Cosimo Centrella, known to all as Dopey Gus, had shot a man in the leg for spitting near his daughter.
"I just thought this was all just normal," Pantoliano says. "But later I thought, 'Wait a minute. Crazy is crazy.'"
His present family life was no less turbulent. His younger children were afraid of him; his older children wouldn't speak to him, and his wife grew more and more distant.
So when Pantoliano was diagnosed with clinical depression almost three years ago, the pieces fell into place.
"It was like I hit the lottery," he says. "Oh my God, it's not my fault. I'd always been asking, 'What's the matter with me?' I'd say, 'Pull yourself together. You have so much, you piece of garbage. You've got everything in life. Tell me where the problem is, Joey, because I can't hang in there anymore.'"
Today, Pantoliano manages his depression through a combination of 12-step programs on mental health, exercise, diet, talk therapy, and a "minimal amount of pharmaceuticals."
"I try to overcome it," he says simply.
But he does a lot more than that. He has founded No Kidding, Me Too!, a nonprofit organization joined in the effort to educate Americans about brain disease in all forms.
"Through this enlightenment we will teach those suffering from it, and their loved ones who are victims of it, to talk about it openly," its Web site, www.nkm2.org, states.
"The goal is to tear this stigma out of the closet so these people will be surprised to find millions of others like themselves and say, 'No Kidding, Me Too!"
"We're at the center of it," says Pantoliano. "We're not on any side, but because I have this large celebrity-based organization, we're getting more and more attention. I believe you have to get rid of the stigma in order to heal."
The organization believes in the idea that the brain is entitled to the same medical attention and treatment as the gall bladder or the liver.
"I'll go out on a limb and say that the brain is the most important organ," says Pantoliano. "I can get a heart transplant and live, but the brain? But because of the stigma of mental illness, it's not treated the same. We've demonized and romanticized brain disease."
Through his work with NKM2, Pantoliano began work on filming "Hope Messengers," a documentary on mental health, which is set for release in January or February.
"When I got diagnosed, I realized how powerless I was over my illness. I started going around making speeches."
Through this, he met inspiring people who have overcome illness greater than his.
"I'm a storyteller," he explains, "but I can show you these stories, I can never tell you."
Among the many in "Hope Messengers" who share their stories are a vascular surgeon and a world- class equestrian competitor.
The surgeon began drinking at nine years old to calm the voices he heard in his head. The equestrian was just 14 when she began cutting herself to relieve the pain and experience the euphoric feelings she was seeking.
"That's what these Hope Messengers are," says Pantoliano says. "What we're doing is taking a traditionally shameful subject and turning it into an inspiration by just talking about how we feel. People need to know we're not weaklings. The pain is really insufferable. And we know that we either join together or hang separately."
Pathway to Awareness Weekend
NAMI of Moore County will host its third annual "Pathway to Awareness" Oct. 4 and 5. All events are free and open to the public. Pantoliano will speak about "busting the stigma of brain illness" in the Owens Auditorium of Sandhills Community College at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 4.
He will also be on hand for a meet-and-greet session with Pathway walk participants from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 5, at the Pinehurst Village Assembly Hall. During that time, there will also be an "Ask the Professionals" forum with Dr. Fernando Cobos, medical director of Behavioral Services at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital, and Barbara McGowan, LCSW at FirstHealth Outpatient Behavioral Services.
Registration for the 1/2- to 2-mile walk around Rassie Wicker Park begins at 12:30. No registration fee is required, but in order to receive a commemorative T-shirt, a $10 contribution is required.
The weekend concludes at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, with a "Candles in the Sky" observance, in which hundreds of helium-filled balloons are released into the sky in memory or honor of loved ones suffering with a brain illness. Balloons can be purchased for $5 each.
NAMI-MC is a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization that operates exclusively through volunteers and has no paid staff. All proceeds are used to finance events, to continue educational programs, and to initiate projects for the community. All donations are tax-deductible as allowed by law.
For more information, call 295-1053.
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