Joe Pantoliano's Crazy Beautiful Holidays

We all know of his film work and his Emmy award for “The Sopranos” — what isn't as well known is his personal mission to remove the stigma of mental illness

It was one of those typical holiday 'What up?" calls. Joe answered the phone upbeat and talkin' turkey. Dogs were barking in the background. 

Actor Joe Pantoliano is a busy man these days. We all know of his film work and his Emmy award for his role as Ralph Cifaretto in “The Sopranos.” What isn't as well known is his personal mission to remove the stigma of mental illness.

In his role as founder of No Kidding, Me Too!, Joe just returned from Toronto where he gave the keynote speech for the Canadian Psychiatric Research Foundation's Annual Silver Dinner.

More on NKM2 in a minute.

Our conversation that day centered on his NKM2 documentary that shares the stories of people hiding behind the stigma of a mental disorder. He’s on a mission to get this film seen by more people, especially during a time of year that triggers an emotional roller coaster for a lot of people.

Joe expressed his delight and frustration over other well-meaning groups and organizations that share a similar mission. His delight is in the growing support for the cause. His frustration is in the messaging of some of these new groups.

Where Joe and NKM2.org see mental illness as a normal human dis-ease as any other body organ malady, some organizations still take the position of US helping THEM where WE are normal, THEY are not. Yet we (the normal people) encourage and provide support for them (the abnormal people). He can't help but notice the irony in groups that want to wipe out the stigma of mental illness by perpetuating the stigma. 

For Joe, there is no distinction between them and us. It is a WE-are-one world where the human spirit in all its iterations is not only normal, it’s crazy beautiful. And therefore loved, appreciated and valued equally — without judgment or stigma of any kind.

It's a world of unconditional love instead of toleration. It's a world Cifaretto wouldn’t comprehend.

Joe feels blessed to be able use his public recognition to command a stage to deliver his message — whether it’s in Canada or during his trip to see the troops in Iraq this year. Many of our soldiers spoke to him privately about their own emotional trauma.

More than a few of our men and women in uniform spoke about their struggle for the first time. And felt the relief that comes with sharing such a personal story with someone who fully understands.

For many people far away from any battlefield, the winter holiday season is a time for family, love, laughter and abundant gifts. For others, it's a time that leaves a cavernous hole in the heart. A profound sadness is triggered by thoughts of being somehow 'less than' or "not normal" if you're not fully engaged in a joyous happy holiday "like everyone else".

To add insult to injury those with a mental disorder of any kind become the whispered about, tolerated or pitied person at the end of the dinner table. Joe knows what that feels like. He was one of those people. There was a time when his inner emotional roller-coaster ride rendered him the “angry man” his family also suffered to endure.

Fearing criticism or worse — being ostracized from The Biz — Joe didn't seek help let alone confide in anyone else about his emotional pain. Inside he suffered in silence. Outside he was on the verge of losing what he loved most – the warmth of his family.

Sick and tired of being sick and tired, he got some professional help. The more he learned about mental dis-ease the more he realized how “normal” it was to either struggle or know someone who struggles with some sort of "brain illness.”

As he began to speak openly about the challenges that come with his now diagnosed clinical depression the response he most often received was "No kidding, Me too!" He was alarmed. He thought his suffering was his alone.

Think about it. Some people feel a bit “blue” around the holidays because another year has gone by without achieving an inner longing. Others feel lost or empty because they think there's something wrong with them because they 'should be' happy. There's the depression that comes from being disconnected somehow, often through early childhood conditioning or unrealistic expectations.

There are lots of people like Joe, living — now thriving — with clinical depression. And there are those who have a brain functioning to the beat of an entirely different drummer. The Scarlet labels of shame for this type of dis-ease include bi-polar and schizophrenia. 

All fall under the umbrella of a mental dis-ease and discomfort. Not being able to embrace what we don't understand, the 'labeled' people become marked and isolated with their pain.

The total numbers of people who experience a mental illness of one form or another are in the millions. So, it’s quite normal to have or know someone who has such a dis-ease. After all, the brain is a body organ — as is the heart, lungs, liver, kidney or stomach. No one shuns a person who seeks treatment for a heart condition yet there is a reproach around any illness involving the brain. Joe's mission is to eradicate this stigma.

Through NKM2 Joe unites members of the entertainment industry to help educated the public about mental illness. By being the voice for and providing a forum for everyone to see and understand how we are all crazy beautiful, Joe spends his days feeding his soul instead of his woe.

For more information see NKM2.