THE BLOG

'All of My Family Members Were Addicted to Something, Forever'

05/01/2015 11:59 am ET | Updated May 01, 2016
Chris Baldwin

In early April, Gary Mendell, founder of Shatterproof, gave actress/writer Mariel Hemingway a call to discuss family addiction, mental health, and losing loved ones.

Gary:
Can you discuss how it's felt to move through the pain of losing a loved one due to addiction?

Mariel:
I didn't know another kind of family. All of my family members were addicted to something, forever. So, I only knew of addiction. It was the norm in my home. I learned early on to play the role of savior -- I'm going to help people, I'm going to fix it, I'm going to make it better -- because that's what I decided would be helpful. But realizing that, you know there was so much unhappiness and a lot of drinking, and then with my sister Muffet taking tremendous amounts of drugs, and Margaux drinking and doing the same, what you do is you learn how to survive. And I think when you're in it, it's like being in battle, you don't know how much trauma you are taking on until you leave it. I mean, it wasn't until I left home and I was no longer in that environment that I started to realize that maybe that wasn't a normal way to live, and that you could make different choices.

Gary:
How did going through the loss of Margaux form your resolve to bring tools, and empowerment to others, by speaking about addiction and mental illness?

Mariel:
Our family was in such denial that she actually committed suicide and we talked about not talking about the issue. My father told us after the coroner initially said that it was not suicide -- that it wasn't and that was the family line on the subject. It wasn't until after he died and I was hosting one of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's dinners that I actually admitted on stage that she committed suicide. It was a relief to tell the truth.

We played this game in my family like it wasn't happening. And so at AFSP, that was kind of the beginning of starting to speak out. But it really wasn't until I co-executive produced "Running From Crazy" with Oprah Winfrey and decided to write the book that I really started to understand that one of my reasons for being here at this time was to share my personal journey and story so that other people would feel safe, proud and strong enough to talk about theirs.

This builds trust in each other, and cultivates a sense of connectedness from which a sense of support, relationship, mindfulness about and compassion for others becomes the norm. Being able to speak, share, and get early intervention diminishes one's sense of isolation, whether they are personally experiencing mental-health challenges, or whether their sister, brother, parent, or neighbor is living with it. I wanted to stand with others who have known the type of suffering or experience I endured and say to them, as they have said to me, You Are Not Alone. We Are All Connected.

Gary:
Right. What has the reaction been to you sharing your story?

Mariel:
What I find so interesting is that we all come from some form of "dysfunction." It doesn't mean anybody has been bad, it just means, we're human and therefore most likely, imperfect! Some people think that if you're a known person, a "celebrity," that the pain of loss or seeing others in addiction, crisis, or living with mental challenges is less or different than their own anguish.

But when I speak around the country and work, and others get a sense of my story, my heart, my humanity, it's clear that I share the same fears, heartache, concerns they do... and I understand the daily challenges of supporting those with special needs, whether it is a family member or spouse with addiction, depression or other issues, or whether I may feel sad one day and need to unplug and "gather" to get strong again.

I think it's so helpful to people to hear all kinds of people tell their story and, if I can turn the light on for a handful of people -- it's worth all the time and travel to connect with those of like mind and heart.

Gary:
Right. And I think a large part of the solution is talking. That, by itself makes people feel better. Just releasing the shame by itself is a medicine.

Mariel:
Absolutely.

Gary:
When Margaux passed away, how did you handle that? How did you handle that emotionally?

Mariel:
I didn't handle it very well. Although, I thought I was handling it really well. I thought I was taking control but what I realize in looking back on it, is that I actually thought that it was being passed to me. I thought, "She's gone. And now, I'm, I'm you know, I'm alone." You know, my oldest sister suffers from mental illness. She's got schizophrenia; she's had suicidal tendencies. Margaux is now gone. I'm the only one left. So, I actually thought I had become her in a way. So, I didn't handle it well in the beginning.

It took me a lot of time to heal, in talking and doing all the different things that I do in my life, you know, whether it's meditation or I did something called brain-state technology, for me to understand. I did so much work. I've done tons of talk therapy. And I've done all kinds of good and sometimes eccentric things.

I really think that lifestyle is a big deal. I meditate twice a day, I eat really well, I exercise, I get out in nature. All these things they're very important elements to healing and living my life most fully.

Gary:
With all the addiction and mental illness that's been in your family, how did you handle it with your two daughters as far as how open were you? How honest were you about the history in your family with your daughters?

Mariel:
I was very honest. I was very honest in opening up with them about the addiction and the problems. What I didn't talk about was my own fears about mental illness based on knowing how it had affected others in my family.

Now, of course, I'm extremely open, but when they were growing up, I was really adamant about them knowing all the things about addiction and why it was such a dangerous slippery slope, especially for them because, genetically, they have that in them.

I was very clear about the fact that my sister made choices that made her life difficult, and not only my sister, the one that killed herself but the one that's still alive.

Gary:
Okay. Just a few more questions, to help other people with the issues that both our families have suffered, talking about it reducing the stigma and isolation is certainly a big help in the right direction that we've mentioned, as you said. And healthy lifestyle is really important as you said, there's no question. What is the major policy you think that we could make around this country that would improve things for so many people faster?

Mariel:
I would love to collaborate with Michelle Obama and her team. I can envision her program focused on greater use of organic foods, fitness and lifestyle linked to mental-health optimization and discussion. And you know there are so many school shootings around the country. Those are not gun issues. Too often, they're mental-health issues. And I think that we need to have dialogue with bigger people, with people who can influence policy. It has to be addressed at a high level. So, that's why I'm so passionate about integrative health and wellness. So I'll keep talking, advocating, and lending my voice to the conversation about mental health and suicide-program awareness

We are both committed to our work and being of service to others as and where we can be.. And I feel like we're at the tipping point when it comes to this conversation about mental illness and addiction, The dialogue is starting to be heard in more places, in more languages, and with less darkness around the discussion.

My book, "Out Came The Sun," is intended to bring more light where once there was none.

Gary:
Absolutely. And I completely agree with you. And the keyword was every day, just part of our everyday life. Just make it more into mainstream.

Mariel:
The more we talk about mental health, the more we get the anti-stigma message out there. This is really key to enabling open, real, and compassionate discussions. Mental illness is prevalent and becoming more so due in part to the stresses of modern-day living, compounded with many other factors. Too many of our extraordinary military vets are suffering profoundly as they are not getting the mental-health and wellness support they need and deserve. Their families deserve the same. We owe them our support.

Thanks to better and more education and a greater public understanding of the issues associated with addiction or mental illness, more people have open minds and hearts, more compassion, patience, and interest as they meet people of all circumstance and ability. What a gift to be able to share our life experiences with our friends, family, and community without a sense of shame or disease. This simple shift will enable those who need help or support to be able to ask for it and hopefully find it locally and comprehensively. We all have so much to learn from one another ... Imagine seeing life from different perspectives without judgment but rather with Awe.

Gary:
The last thing that my son Brian said to me before he died was, "Dad, you know, 300 years ago, they used to burn women at the stake in Salem, Massachusetts, because they thought they were witches and then they learned they weren't. And they stopped." He said, "Someday, hopefully, society will realize I'm not a bad person. I just have a disease." I mean he just -- he just nailed it. And the question is... are they going to take 300 years or are we going to be able to turn this around just the way they've done with AIDS?

Mariel:
It's so true. I really think that we will. But good on him for recognizing that.

Gary:
Yeah. He just, he just had it. And, one of the things we're doing now, that you've heard, is that we're doing these rappelling events around the country. And it's not the rappelling. It could be anything, but the point is we can open up the paper any weekend, in most cities in America and find out that people are doing a breast-cancer walk, a bike MS, walk for JDRF. And the fact that we're doing activities for addiction is normalizing it. People are out there just talking about it like another disease and that's why we do it.

Mariel Hemingway has two new memoirs out this month, "Out Came the Sun" and a version for teens called "Invisible Girl."

This post is part of a series in a partnership between The Huffington Post and Drugs Over Dinner in conjunction with the launch of the latter's new website, www.drugsoverdinner.org. DOD provides the tools and the inspiration to gather those that you care about, to break bread, and have a compassionate conversation about the role of drugs in our culture. To see all the posts in the series, read here.

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If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.