"I Didn't Know What Was Happening to Me": Hollywood Pros Share Stories of Overcoming Depression and Anxiety

5:45 AM 1/17/2020

by Matt Baer, Kirsten Chuba, and Falen Hardge

A producer, a hit songwriter and a showrunner open up about their experiences: "I live with the reality of five years taken away."

Profiles in Courage - Split-H 2020
Courtesy of Alex J. Berliner/ABImages; Neilson Barnard/Getty Images; JC Olivera/WireImage
  • Matt Baer

    In 2002, after seven years of working at a leading management/production company, I was let go. My boss' smugness and lack of support destroyed my self-confidence. I had stuffed away the mental pain.

    While starting to accept that trauma, something always felt wrong physically. I read the well-regarded book, The Mind-Gut Connection, to seek help with stomach issues; visited an acupuncturist and chiropractor for my back pain; appointments with my internist occurred so frequently I said there should be a mint on the exam table pillow, as if it was my hotel room. Normal medical problems turned into "overwhelming health anxiety."

    Having writer meetings bestowed some pleasure. Yet no matter how hard I tried to focus, my mind roamed like a panicked child lost at a theme park.

    The psychologist I saw for anxiety felt that depression was mixed in, resulting in a prescription for a mild antidepressant that provided modest improvement.

    My father died suddenly … followed by a brutal injury to my neck. A full-throttle depression ignited. While family and close friends knew what was happening, I was aware the topic wasn't high on the industry-approved list of lunch or screening conversations.

    In show business, masking feelings is a daily occurrence. Agents and managers fear that telling their client the candid truth might result in the client firing them. People who don't like each other mask that fact upon seeing each other in social circumstances. When someone is depressed, it takes every ounce of energy to mask how you are truly feeling, in hopes of not being perceived as a downer.

    I saw a cognitive behavioral therapist who believed medication was not necessary. The reality that brain chemistry actually can change during depression wasn't championed in his course of treatment.

    Major depression takes an enormous toll. Leading the charge for me was lethargy similar to the flu, inability to see joy in anything, instantaneous irritability, headaches and difficulty making decisions.

    Mornings were the worst. It was difficult to get out of bed and looking forward to the day ahead was impossible. The therapist recommended I get out on the weekends, go to the beach, take my mind out of the crippling space it resided in. The beauty of the outside held no interest. Exercise is recognized as a relief for depression. I found that true. However, 45 minutes at the gym didn't change the rest of the day.

    I finally met a psychiatrist, Dr. Todd Sadow, who specialized in anti­depressants. He saw the depths of my despair and diagnosed the right amount of medication along with proper talk therapy. The dreary brain fog that devoured my life cleared.

    Thankfully, around the same time, the project I'd been working on for 14 years, Unbroken, finally got made. My career came back, along with my being fully present for my wife and sons.

    Depression is often perceived as something one should be able to "get over" without understanding that weakened brain chemistry needs correction. I live with the reality of five years taken away by anxiety and depression and cherish finally escaping their grasp.

    Now, at age 55, when talking with friends or making new ones, I have a sixth sense if they are suffering … in the way they talk or in the sad, glossy look in their eyes. I'm able to guide them via my own experience and say they have nothing to hide. As a community, Hollywood often leads the way in changing perception, and we are making strides in educating people that depression hits a wide swath of personalities and it can be lifted with proper treatment.

  • Tayla Parx

    Tayla Parx (who’s had 11 Billboard Hot 100 singles, including Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next” and Khalid and Normani’s “Love Lies”) suffered a stress-related seizure in 2018 resulting from anxiety. After getting better by “tuning in to herself” and practicing mindfulness and gratitude, she’s giving back to the music community by hosting Burnout camp, a multiday experience dedicated to self-care and mental wellness. The application-only meet-up for music industry creatives kicked off in October in New York with four days of activities such as tai chi, sound baths and color therapy. Upcoming camps are set for Nashville, L.A. and London. Parx, 26, who goes on tour in support of her album We Need to Talk in late January, spoke to THR about the Burnout concept: “It’s about becoming a kid again and exploring things that make you smile and feel something.”

    What pushed you to a breaking point in your career?

    So many of my friends were asking me, “How do you do it?” I had 30 songs come out in a year because I was doing people’s full albums in 2019. It was nuts. I was literally so anxious all the time and I didn’t realize why. The scariest moment in my life [happened] — when you are reading an email and you fall over and you wake up and your friends are looking over you. You’re working your ass off and that’s great, but you really need to take the time to tune in to yourself to understand what can feed the soul.

    Who is the camp geared toward?

    Songwriters, producers and people who are not signed. It’s key to have numerous types of people in different places in their careers. The older writers and producers can be rejuvenated by the young hungry writers and producers, which is incredible. You forget why you do this, so when you see somebody young and hungry, you start to get inspired.

    How do you see all the stress in the music business manifesting itself?

    We all experience burnout. A lot of people go through it and don’t realize it is burnout. With songwriters it’s “I can’t write a song” and “I have writer’s block.” The same amount of determination you have to check your Instagram is the same amount of determination you should have with checking in with yourself. You can’t not take care of your mental [health] and your brain and your body and expect to produce good content.

    What did people get out of attending the camp?

    People were asking to come from all over the world. I’ve found there are a million different ways to be happy. For some people, meditation is good, for some color therapy is good. Burnout allows me to say, “Try these ideas and see if they work for you,” because we all win when the creative is thriving. We have to start focusing more on mental health in order for our entire world to be in balance.

  • Kate Purdy

    Kate Purdy, a longtime writer-producer on BoJack Horseman and co-creator of the philosophically minded Amazon animated series Undone, has been surrounded by conversations about mental health her whole life. Her grandmother, as well as two great-uncles, had schizophrenia, and her parents have dealt with depression and anxiety. In 2012, while wrapping up a writing stint on Cougar Town, Purdy, now 40, suffered a mental break: “I was experiencing depression and anxiety and was having physical ailments — rashes and skin peeling. I didn’t know what was happening to me or why.”

    As her depression and anxiety mounted — brought on by expectations “of how I should be or how my life should be” — allergists and dermatologists didn’t know what was going on or how to help. Eventually, Purdy says, she found a “transformative” Ayurvedic healer in L.A. (Surya Spa’s Martha Soffer) who “was very present and helped me by making me part of her family — giving me love, which is what I really needed in spite of what my status was or whatever success I had had.”

    Purdy now meditates daily, which she says is “the most profound technique” to support her health. The key, she says, is to remove herself from the material world of expectations and Hollywood pressure to a spiritual place where she can reconnect with her own humanity.

    “Ultimately, we’re so much more than people who work in the industry. That’s not going to save us or bring us joy necessarily or connect us with other humans.”

    Purdy has not only channeled much of her personal history into Undone, which touches on themes such as trauma, spirituality and alternate reality, but also has implemented practices as a showrunner to help create a healthy work environment. “We try to keep good hours, especially with the writers, and try to keep a very loving, peaceful environment, where people can approach us and feel comfortable.”

    Growing up, Purdy never told anyone about the mental illness in her family. “It was probably one of the things that I was most embarrassed about,” says Purdy, who is gratified by the many fans who’ve thanked her for telling her story. “If we can talk about it, then we feel less alone and it’s more normalized.”

    This story first appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.