Joey Pants on Unresolved Trauma, Shame, and Brain Dis-Ease

By John Lavitt 11/01/16

Actor Joe Pantoliano reveals the deep connection between mental illness and addictive behaviors in a no-holds barred discussion.

Joe Pantoliano
Pantoliano has spoken out about his personal difficulties to help remove stigmas associated with mental illness.

Joe Pantoliano—known far and wide as Joey Pants—has been a Hollywood mainstay for over three decades. From Risky Business to The Goonies, from The Matrix to The Sopranos, Pantoliano has been a consistently welcome part of our most defining shows. Apart from his award-winning work as an actor, Pantoliano has made a real effort to help others by speaking out about his personal difficulties and revealing long-term struggles with clinical depression and past addictive behaviors. Through the founding of the nonprofit, No Kidding, Me Too!, he has motivated the entertainment industry to actively raise awareness about such problems. The Fix spoke to him recently about his ongoing efforts and the insight he has gained by taking positive action.

Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, your mother Mary was a bookie and your father Dominic drove a hearse. Although you came from a strong family, you had some experience with being on the edge of what many would describe as normative society from the beginning. How did this experience affect you later in life?

You have to understand that when I grew up and where I grew up, being a bookie was normative. My mother did everything she could to make ends meet. She was a seamstress who ran numbers so we could stay down at the shore in Long Branch, New Jersey during the summer. It was like a summer job for her.
But what is normal? Everybody in my neighborhood was trying to get ahead. Gambling like playing the numbers and betting on horses was a regular part of that blue collar, working class environment. The one thing that we had in common was that we were broke. It was a very diverse neighborhood—Irish, Italian, African American, Puerto Rican—but almost everybody was first generation. My parents still spoke Italian in the house, and they used Italian as a means to keep the kids in the dark when they didn’t want us to know what they were talking about.

Being a wise guy in my neighborhood was like being a movie star in Beverly Hills. It was like a badge of courage. I don’t recall ever going to a clothing store with my mom or a toy store. Everything was negotiated on the streets out of the trunk of a car. That was my normal.

The Vicodin and Percocet seemed to answer a lot of problems, but no doctor ever told me that these pain pills were just like heroin.

You first grew to fame as Guido the Killer Pimp in Risky Business in 1983. In 1985, you played the villainous Francis Fratelli in the teen classic The Goonies. Later, you played mob accountant Caesar in Bound and mobster Ralph Cifaretto in The Sopranos. Do you think getting such positive feedback for playing so many bad guys helped to justify being a bad boy in real life?

My career in Hollywood really started when I took on the role of Private Angelo Maggio, a part that won Frank Sinatra an Academy Award for Supporting Actor, in the mini-series remake of From Here To Eternity in 1979. Later, because of my last name, I certainly was typecast as a mafia guy, but I played a lot of other roles as well. For every bad guy I played, I also played a cop or a detective.

As for the influence of those parts, I don’t know if I ever was a bad boy in real life. People who do bad things justify them so they can do them again. I wasn’t trying to do bad things and justify them, but I was sociologically sick and I was trying to escape those negative feelings. I didn’t need an excuse to be an addict. I just wanted to get away from the shitty feeling that was living inside of me.

You have written in Asylum: Hollywood Tales from My Great Depression: Brain Dis-Ease, Recovery, and Being My Mother's Son about your addictions to alcohol, food, sex, and the prescription opioids Vicodin and Percocet before being diagnosed with clinical depression. What gave you the courage to come forward and write about these tough issues?

I wouldn’t call it courage. I don’t see this conversation or even writing Asylum as a courageous gesture. When I was living in a really dark place, it was almost like you just wake up one morning and you realize how numb you are. At some point, I came face to face with a certain misery that was consuming my life. I asked for help after I was nudged by my family members because they were all about ready to leave me. In that journey to recovery, the daily practice of tolerating the cards that life throws at you became possible. What I came to understand is that when I shared my journey with other people and they shared their journey through their own pain with me, I felt less alone. In telling my story, I hoped to be able to create empathy in other people so through the process of identification, they could access the help they needed.
A lot of what I was doing—those addictive behaviors—was to avoid the unresolved traumas of my childhood and adolescence. If you don’t face those traumas and do your best to resolve them, then things just get worse. In my story, I talked about my seven deadly symptoms—addictions to food, sex, vanity, alcohol, prescription drugs, shopping and fame.

The number one behavior that first helped to make me feel better was eating. I had an eating disorder at 10 years old, and I was eating my feelings away. I grew larger by the year until adolescence set in. I wanted girls to like me and I thought if I lost weight they would like me, so I started starving myself. The hunger created a feeling of euphoria that I liked as well. Shopping became the answer next. When I couldn’t afford something, there was a great relief in stealing. It’s almost like what cutters must feel when they cut themselves. The danger of going into a department store and stealing a sweater led directly to the euphoria of walking out of the store. It was like a brain exercise that primed my brain to get the dopamine going.

If you look at our nation, we all have symptoms of this. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Donald Trump and you’re filling the emptiness with adulation and money, or if you’re a drug addict filling the emptiness with heroin. If you do too much of anything, it’s a sickness. Through therapy, I came to understand that the emptiness was insatiable, and no amount of success or double martinis would fill it up. It doesn’t matter what you use to escape because in the end, it’s really all the same thing.

I actually think obesity is a greater problem in our country than addiction to drugs or alcohol. I think sugar is a much more dangerous drug than heroin.

As a former prescription drug addict, what is your take on the current opioid epidemic raging across the country? Are prescription painkillers too easily abused?

I was prescribed opioid painkillers throughout my life, but there wasn’t a click in the beginning. My depression had to grow to the point where I saw that as an answer. In my early 50s, I had an injury and the painkillers were prescribed again. For the first time, a little voice inside told me, “Hey, this kind of puts a bounce in your step.” I don’t see the villain as being pharmaceutical companies. I needed the medication for my injury. It just so happened that those painkillers spoke to the deadly symptoms in my own personal life. I liked it better than alcohol because it also curbed my appetite. Alcohol also drowned out the darkness, but I also put on weight. The Vicodin and Percocet seemed to answer a lot of problems, but no doctor ever told me that these pain pills were just like heroin. I just knew they worked because they released the serotonin and amped up the dopamine.

For me, it’s not so much about drug addiction, but why is there so much pain in the world? Why is this such an answer for so much of society? Whether it’s drug addiction or alcohol abuse, or eating or shopping or gambling, everybody seems to have something that’s helping them get through their pain. Our entire society is always telling us through television and media that if you buy this product or you drive this car, it will make the pain go away. Most of us are sick and miserable because the TV tells us to be by focusing on the pain. In my journey, what I learned is how to go through the pain and to the other side where it could be processed.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles with his beautiful wife, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.