I typically spend a lot of time with Dario during his racing seasons on the IndyCar circuit. But film schedules are as rigid as the racing calendar. That summer he often flew thousands of miles to be with me between his races. I cheered up when he was around, but my mood plummeted when he left again. Eventually my anxiety ratcheted up even when Dario was with me. I tried to make everything perfect for him: the right turkey for his sandwiches, the latest video games in my trailer, as if somehow that would make him happier, and if he were happier, maybe he’d magically be able to stay longer, and if he stayed longer, maybe I wouldn’t be anxious. On the set, I was obsessing about my shooting schedule, making myself a nuisance to the hardworking production staff by constantly bargaining for later call times because I was so exhausted. I kept telling myself I would feel better if I could just . . . get 15 minutes more sleep, come to work later, squeeze in this personal appointment or whatever.
This pattern of trying to control my environment is an old coping mechanism that I developed during my chaotic childhood. By trying to arrange everything outside of me to be just so, I could occasionally secure a modicum of emotional and mental relief from the pain inside. Now, though, these survival skills were working against me. My emotional life was increasingly unmanageable, but I had no idea what was really wrong with me. And I didn’t know how to change this seemingly endless cycle of misery.
These “spells,” as I called them, had started when I was about eight years old and would lie in bed for hours on end, day after day. Nobody in my family noticed, and I never mentioned it to anyone because I was being taught that my needs and wants were too much, that they were not OK. The episodes continued as I grew older. I never quite knew when I would “fall through the trapdoor,” as I have come to characterize my episodes of depression, or how long the spells would last. I might rally in a day or two, or I might be down for three months. During an especially despondent stretch of time, when I was about 14 and living with my mother, her new husband and my sister in an old farmhouse outside Nashville, my young heart was in so much pain that I often played with the gun Mom kept under her bed, trying to summon the courage to shoot myself. I never told anyone, nor knew there could be help for a child like me. On into my twenties and thirties, I had periods of falling through the trapdoor, and I tried to lift my moods and self-soothe with alternative regimens like meditation and yoga.
Then, in the fall of 1996, when I was 28, depression took me down a dangerous path. I slept too much, attributing most of the exhaustion I felt to a busy work schedule. I couldn’t stop losing weight, no matter how much I ate, and I was desolate. My mood deteriorated, and I could do nothing to hold ground.
I somehow remembered a questionnaire I had once seen in a doctor’s office waiting room—a checklist for depression. Things like “Persistent sad, anxious or ‘empty’ mood. Unexplained weight loss. Feelings of hopelessness, guilt, worthlessness. Thoughts of harming oneself. Hyper- or hyposomnia . . .”
Inspired, I moved faster than I had in days. I practically clawed my way to the telephone to ask a therapist in Franklin, Tennessee, where I was living at the time, to suggest a doctor who could prescribe medication. As soon as I got home, I went to see her. She was a psychiatrist, and I remember feeling incredibly vulnerable in this strange new setting as I shared what I knew then of my story. She told me I had “mild, anxious depression.”
My first thought was, If this is mild, I cannot even imagine what major is. “Where does it come from?” I asked.
“Unresolved childhood grief.”
I was silent a moment. “OK,” I said. “What do I take for that?”