Authors: Ashley Judd
The role was physically demanding and draining, as were the logistics of the locations all over the Bay Area. One frigid morning I would be clambering over rocks to stare at a waxy corpse bobbing in the bay; that night I’d be in a police gym, training to fight like a cop. The length of the shoot precluded me from finding a rental property for the duration. The constant shuttling between sets and temporary dwellings left me feeling continually nervous and adrift. I was disconcerted by a sensation of always being in transition, always on the threshold of something else. It was disturbingly familiar. Without realizing it, I was reprising the pain and uncertainty of my dysfunctional childhood living arrangements, where I never knew what to expect next. This unwelcome déjà vu was fueled by the fact that my rental homes were in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, where I had spent those two soul-destroying years in third and fourth grade.
My anxiety that summer was compounded by the added stress of being apart from my husband for a few weeks at a time. I typically spend a lot of time with Dario during his racing seasons on the IndyCar circuit. I unabashedly regard my husband as one of the greatest open-wheel racers in history, and having grown up with remarkably gifted people, I find it perfectly natural to passionately support his talent and the rigors that racing at his level demands. I love the rhythm and repetition of going to the same events year after year, the arc each race weekend entails, from preparation to practice to qualifying to racing. But film schedules are rigid, like the racing calendar. Dario often flew thousands of miles to be with me between his races, and I cheered up when he was around: We would hike the Marin headlands or he would take long rides on his bicycle, and we often had company when both local friends and family came to visit. However, I was relying on him too much to stabilize my moods, and I found his comings and goings between races to be very hard.
I was plagued by insomnia, a condition I have lived with since childhood, which used to worsen when I was unsettled. Eventually my anxiety kept ratcheting 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 have anxiety. Follow? 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 fifteen 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. And because it worked sometimes, and I had no other tools, I continued attempting to manage everything more and more, in pursuit of the ephemeral relief. By 2002, these survival skills were working against me. My emotional life was increasingly unmanageable. I was sick and tired of being so tired—I fought it all the time—but I had no idea what was really wrong with me, and I didn’t know how to change the cycle, even though I desperately wanted to.
I was never treated for the “spells,” as I called them, that had started when I was about eight years old, and I would lie in bed for hours on end, day after day. Nobody in my family seemed to notice, and I never mentioned it to anyone because I was being taught that my needs and wants were too much, that they were not okay. I had no idea there might be help for a child like me. The episodes continued as I grew older. I never knew when I would “fall through the trapdoor,” as I have come to characterize my episodes of depression, and what might trigger my free fall, and my stays in the lonely hell of depression were of unpredictable duration. 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 in grades six through ten and living with Mom, Pop, and Sister in an old farmhouse south of Nashville that I used to refer to simply as “the Hell Hole,” my young heart was in so much pain that when Mom wasn’t periodically pulling out the gun she kept under the bed to threaten Pop, I often played with it, trying to summon the courage to shoot myself. 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 breathwork (therapeutic controlled breathing), meditation, and yoga.
I was first exposed to yoga when I was a little girl. Mamaw loved taking yoga classes at the YWCA in Ashland, Kentucky. She gave me a book I still have and treasure, with pictures of an animal on one page and a child doing the yoga posture named for that animal on the companion page. I would practice the poses because it was fun, especially on rainy days when she did not take me to the pool, and I dabbled in it over the years. I started a regular practice in 1994, while I was living alone in New York and performing in
on Broadway. It was a bad time for me. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t shake the relentless despair, I was eaten alive with anxiety, and I was desperately groping for some kind of psychic relief. I intuitively took myself to a yoga class. In the practice, I was seeking restorative poses, the ones in Mamaw’s book, like the child’s pose, turtle, and rabbit. They soothe, nurture, and hold the body safe; they are calming to the nervous system—things I surely needed.
The yoga was indeed wonderful for my body and spirit, and the meditation was momentarily calming, but neither was the panacea I’d hoped for. Once more, in the fall of 1996, depression took me down a dangerous path. This time, instead of insomnia, I couldn’t seem to sleep enough. My mood was desolate, and I couldn’t stop losing weight, no matter how much I ate. I attributed most of the exhaustion I felt to a busy work schedule. After the Broadway show, I’d been filming steadily, often working back to back on productions that, however exciting, were also wearing.
A Time to Kill
opened in the summer of 1996, I had gone straight into
Norma Jean and Marilyn
Kiss the Girls
had just wrapped when my baseline mood deteriorated so badly I could do nothing to hold ground.
I was going out with Michael Bolton that fall. Although we dated for only about six weeks, he made a poignant impression on my life. In October I accompanied him to Austria, where he was performing at the Vienna State Opera. I had some clothes fitted before the trip, and by the end of the short stay, they were hanging off me. I slept all day long in the gilded hotel room. Michael would go to rehearsal in the mornings, and I would be waking up when it was time for dinner. I attributed my lethargy to jet lag. Michael proved to be a compassionate and gentle friend. He never tried to push me or shame me; he just left me to my own process. Days later, I began to wonder,
Why can’t I get out of bed? Where does the time go?
Then, by the grace of God, I somehow remembered a questionnaire I had seen in a doctor’s office waiting room. It was 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 …” I didn’t know if I identified with everything, but I identified with enough.
At last, here was an explanation, a name, an actionable thing: depression!
Inspired, I moved faster than I had in days. I practically clawed my way to the telephone to call a therapist I casually knew in Franklin, Tennessee, to suggest a doctor who could prescribe medication. Franklin was the closest thing I had to a fixed address. I had been essentially homeless for the past three years, after the house I’d been renting in Malibu burned to the ground in a wildfire, with all my possessions inside (except Mamaw’s pearls, which I had thankfully been wearing at the time), while I was on the
Ruby in Paradise
press tour. Because I was constantly working at the time, I was living out of hotel rooms, rented homes on locations; and between jobs, because my farmhouse restoration was a long-term project, squatting either at Mom and Pop’s or at Sister’s.
As soon as I returned home and dropped my bags in my mom’s guest room, I went to see the psychiatrist my therapist friend had recommended. I remember feeling incredibly vulnerable in this strange new setting as I shared what I knew then of my story. I waited expectantly to hear her verdict.
“You have mild, anxious depression.”
My first thought was,
If this is mild, I cannot even imagine what major is. I am nonfunctional, and this is mild?
“Where does it come from?” I asked.
“Unresolved childhood grief.”
“Okay, what do I take for that?”
I wanted medication. I had suffered enough that I was willing to try it. I was radically grateful for anything that resembled a viable solution to the problem I had lived with for so long, which until now had not even had a name. She gave me a prescription, and I went home and read the molecular formula and studied the insert. Would it work faster if I took it in the morning? Or at night? On an empty stomach? Or a full stomach? Following the doctor’s suggestion, I started a mood journal to keep track of things so I could give her clear data during our check-ins. Then I just lay in bed, waiting to see if I felt different.
A few days later, I started feeling wildly restless and insatiably hungry. I needed so much food during this time, I would eat raw tofu straight from the package (I was a vegetarian then). In spite of eating like a horse, I continued to lose weight, and I eventually bottomed at 112 pounds, which is far too thin for my five-foot-seven-inch frame (a healthy weight for me is 130 pounds). In the middle of one night, I heard a distinct, piercing cry and bolted straight up from a dead sleep before realizing the noise was coming
. I had started wailing like a banshee. Mom and Pop’s dog, Banjo, who was asleep next to me, went flying off the bed in a panic—I nearly scared him to death. I probably would have terrified myself if I could have considered that disturbing stream of anguish, what it was and where it was coming from. I was purging grief. It lasted over an hour. Confusing words erupted out of me unbidden, things like “I was just a little girl, it wasn’t my fault” and “Why did you leave me at school? I was so little, I couldn’t get home!” and the plaintive refrain of my childhood, “Where is everybody?”
I told my doctor about it the next day, and she said that was something called “freeing of the affect.” Apparently, with the medication beginning to work, emotions that I hadn’t felt because I was depressed were beginning to be released. She said it was normal, and that I would continue to have these episodes, although they would be shorter and less intense over time. Indeed, I started feeling a bit better. But I was by no means out of the woods. There was no way I could start to recover while I was living under my mother’s roof.
Mom loved having me stay with her, and there were some good times. She still shows the guest bedroom to people and says it’s my room. But it was not healthy for me to be there while I was so depressed. I was constantly exposed to the same family dynamics, which I have learned had set up the underlying causes and conditions of my disease in the first place. And nobody could seem to understand. I was accused of being a “wound addict” if I tried to express my feelings of grief. I was being traumatized all over again, reenacting the childhood in which my reality was denied. The situation was not only painful, but downright dangerous.
When my family went away for New Year’s, I stayed home alone. I had been running a low-grade fever for weeks, which for me was a telltale physical symptom of depression, and I was not in any mood to celebrate the holidays. I lay in bed or outside under trees by the creek for days, ruminating about ways to ease the pain I felt with every heartbeat. Mom and Pop have always interpreted the Second Amendment in a particular way, and they kept a lot of guns in this house, just as they did in the Hell Hole. One night, after another crappy day of feeling lousy, when I was rummaging for yet another late-night snack, I opened a drawer and found a loaded shotgun. I thought,
These people have absolutely no idea the kind of distress I’m in; they are unable to see me as I am right now
. It was a long, shaky, cannot-stop-crying, fetal-position kind of night.
Later, I learned that many depressed people are so inert before starting medication that they can’t even kill themselves—but once the meds kick in, they can begin to muster just enough energy to take action. Self-harm was an idea that lived rent-free in my head during my worst depressions, that in the absence of healthy tools gave me essential emotional relief. Next morning, I phoned the therapist I knew as soon as her office opened. She told me to come in, and I lay listlessly on her sofa while she and my general practitioner figured out what to do with me. My GP told me the obvious choice: The Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital in Nashville was an option, but she warned in hushed tones that it would go on “my record.” Influenced by his own stigmatized view of depression, I chose simply to check into the county hospital under the guise of some vague ailment. (My GP is a great guy, but he still whispers in his office when he asks me how my recovery from depression is going.) That day was an interesting turning point in my life. I have wondered what would have happened if I’d gone to the psychiatric hospital and received proper treatment for depression, which I clearly needed, beyond simply taking antidepressants. It might have saved me years of further grief, or it might have done further damage if I had been given the wrong kind of treatment. Ultimately, God had something very special in mind for me, but that would be
down the road.