“Depression Has Been My Great Blessing”

Against all odds, Joey (Pants) Pantoliano made the leap from Hoboken, NJ, to Hollywood, achieving everything he ever wanted. Yet inside he felt empty—until he got the diagnosis that turned his life around for the better. 

Maria Lissandrello
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Joey (Pants) Pantoliano has a lot to smile about: A loving wife. Great kids. A grandson. His dog, Bogie. A little thing called an Emmy. And these days, he actually does smile—but it wasn’t always like that.

For years, America’s favorite bad guy (paging Ralphie Cifaretto) felt like he was mired in quicksand.

“Why isn’t this enough, Joey? It’s the question I’d ask myself over and over again,” says Joey, author of the book Asylum: Hollywood Tales from My Great Depression: Brain Dis-Ease, Recovery, and Being My Mother’s Son (Weinstein Books). “I was famous. I was wealthy. I had a beautiful wife. But too much was never enough.”

Food. Women. Alcohol. Drugs. Scrambling for success. Splurging and spending. Feeding his vanity. They were the things Joey could never get enough of—what he calls his seven deadly symptoms. “I knew there was something wrong. I believed it was a character defect. I was numb…and I didn’t know why.”

The not knowing almost drove him to take his life. “I couldn’t fix it; I didn’t want to live anymore,” admits Joey, who grew up in Hoboken, NJ, a poor kid with a big dream: making it in Hollywood. “If I could become a famous actor, I thought three things would happen: 1) I would be immortal, 2) I would be attractive and 3) I wouldn’t have to worry about money,” says Joey. He achieved fame, yet happiness eluded him.

A few years ago, during a routine checkup for high cholesterol, his doctor asked him how he was feeling, and the floodgates opened. “ ‘There’s something going on with me; I don’t want to do anything,’ I told him. ‘When I go out to dinner, I’m not there. I just want to go to bed. I feel like I’m walking through water.’ ”

Next came the four words that changed Joey’s life: “You have clinical depression,” the doctor said.

“I felt as though I’d hit the lottery,” says Joey. “These flying monkeys in my head had a name: depression.” And there was hope. Doctors have therapy for that, and pills for that, and they can teach you how to manage depression the right way, Joey remembers thinking.

That was back in 2005, and today he says the diagnosis has been his greatest blessing. Here are just a few reasons why:

“I no longer surrender to the anxiety of tomorrow.”
“Depression comes from [worrying about] the past, and anxiety is worrying about tomorrow,” says Joey, who has stopped doing both. His secret? Staying in the moment. When his mind starts racing, he pauses. “I look down at my feet. I look at the rain. Everything’s moving. Everything’s alive. It gives me a sense of pleasure and enjoyment. I make a list of all that’s good. I’m bald but I have hats!”

“I learned it wasn’t my fault.”
“I realized I had something in me that I didn’t put there. I had a mental illness, a brain disease. I had been saying to myself forever: Shame on you, Joey, shame on you. What else do you need? You’ve got all this and you’re mired in quicksand. Now I didn’t have to feel that way anymore. Knowing you have brain disease is when the healing begins,” says Joey.

April 2012