The Chicago Syndicate: "On the Couch" with "The Sopranos" Psychiatrist

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Friday, June 09, 2006

"On the Couch" with "The Sopranos" Psychiatrist

Friends of ours: Soprano Crime Family

In her memoir, Lorraine Bracco opens up about her career, her marriages and her victory over depression.

You may know psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi on HBO's hit series, "The Sopranos," but there's a lot you may not know about the actress who plays her, Lorraine Bracco. In her revealing and sometimes shocking memoir, it's Lorraine herself who's "On the Couch."

Here's an excerpt:

Doctor, Heal Thyself

Hope comes in many forms.
— Dr. Jennifer Melfi

The postman tried not to look at me as he handed me a large stack of envelopes. The letters were official-looking, and many were stamped with alarms that betrayed their contents: "Extremely urgent" ... "Second notice" ... "Last chance."

"My fan mail," I joked, but he didn't laugh. He looked embarrassed.

Well, who wasn’t?

"Some fans," I mumbled to myself as I added the letters to the growing mountain on my desk. I hadn’t opened a single one. Even then, I knew it was nuts. Look at me, the famous actress in her gorgeous riverfront home, living her fabulous life. Was this someone’s idea of a joke?

In their increasingly frequent correspondence, my current group of "fans" expressed hurt, disbelief, sadness, and regret. But it was still early in our relationship. They had yet to progress to anger, hostility, and retribution.

Dear Lorraine,
I'm sure it has slipped your attention that your account balance of $36,590 is six months past due. I know how busy you are, but ...

I hate to bring this up, but the law firm is after me about when they can expect another payment on your past due account, which now totals $1,422,872.23 ...

Your check for $940 for the hearing transcript bounced. Please send another check so I can process your request.

Republic Bank will immediately commence foreclosure unless they receive a payment of $41,065 ...

I hate to be a pest, but ...

The phone rang. I considered letting the machine pick up, but on the fourth ring, I grabbed the receiver.

"Lorraine?" It was my manager, Heather. Her voice sounded strained. "Have you read the script?"

"Huh? Umm, it's around here somewhere," I said vaguely.

"It's been two months," she pleaded. "They're waiting to hear."

"I know, I know." I looked around the room. Where had I put the damned script? "Heather, I don't think I can handle another script about the mob. I mean, how many Mafia roles can a girl play? If that’s all they think I'm capable of, then shoot me now."

Heather was getting tired of me. "Lorraine, will you do me a fucking favor? Will you read the script? The guy’s coming in Tuesday. He wants to meet you."

"Fine, I'll read it," I shouted back at her. "You're a pain in my ass, Heather."

"That's why they pay me the big bucks," she said, and hung up.

"Mafia television garbage," I muttered. Was my career in the toilet or what? I needed to make some real money here, and they were sending me television pilots about mobsters. Jeez. No wonder I was depressed.

I always figured there were two kinds of people in the world — the cheerleaders and the grumps. I was a cheerleader. The pep talker. Always ready with the pom-poms, always up for anything. I'm your girl. You need someone to take a carload of kids to a horse show? Call me. My energy knew no limits. I could sew a hundred sparkly beads on a costume for my daughter Margaux's school play, cohost a benefit with Bobby Kennedy for Riverkeeper, and still be on a set the next day, raring to go. But as 1996 drew to a close, my razzledazzle had definitely fizzled. The cheerleader had left the building, replaced by a listless, middle-aged woman who couldn't get out of her freaking pajamas until midafternoon.

I felt stagnant. Not calm and still like the Hudson River on a mild day, but stale, like a swamp, a place lacking a fresh infusion of life. When I first started feeling down, I'd told myself that I was worn out, and who could blame me? I'd just come through a six-year custody battle for my daughter Stella that was so horrible and so bruising I felt like I'd been beaten up. I'd won my daughter, which was a huge blessing, but lost everything else: my friends, my dignity, my reputation. Despite my work in movies like Goodfellas, I was a good two million bucks in debt, and on the verge of losing my house. I had my two beautiful daughters and a husband, yet I was as alone as I'd ever been in my life. My marriage to Eddie Olmos — only a couple of years old — was shaky at best, and it looked like I was going to be losing that, too. On my worst days, I imagined being penniless, having to pack up my daughters and move back in with my parents.

What the hell? I was an Academy Award–nominated actress. Famous, glamorous, living in the big house overlooking the Hudson River. I was the envy of the ladies in the local PTA. People stopped me in the produce aisle of the supermarket to ask for my autograph. If they could see me now. If only they knew.

When the court awarded me custody in September 1996, I didn't even have a chance to be elated. It should have been over, but of course it wasn't; there would be appeals and endless wrangling over child support, and the steady flow of bills, bills, bills. I just couldn't take it anymore. Eddie was working in Los Angeles, and our long distance marriage wasn't working at all. I needed a shoulder to lean on, and it wasn't there. In the past, I might have felt sorry for myself and had a good cry. But at this point, I was too numb to cry. At first I thought I just needed a few days to get my act together, a little time to recuperate. But a few days turned into a few weeks, then a few months. And I wasn't feeling better. I was feeling worse.

My days took on a blankness, one after the other, one day the same as the next. Thank God I wasn't a drinker, and I didn't do drugs; otherwise, I'd have been a goner for sure. Thinking back on how vulnerable I was, I really feel for people with substance-abuse problems. But my days were devoid of such drama. After Margaux and Stella left for school in the morning, I'd sit with my coffee, aimlessly paging through magazines or staring out at the river.

Sometimes I'd get a surge of energy and put a load of laundry in, then forget it until Margaux discovered her favorite shirt mildewing in the machine and screamed, "Motherrrr!" I'd call my parents: "How ya doing? Good. Fine. Fine. Okay. Fine. Love ya." I was a bad actor. I plodded along, forcing myself to go through the motions, trying to be the same old me everyone knew. But I was counting the hours until I could get back into bed and pull the covers up over my head. Sleep was my only relief.

It wasn't until later that I'd be able to put a name on what I was experiencing: depression. It's a clinical condition that afflicts thirty four million Americans at some time in their lives, which means that there were — and are — a hell of a lot of others out there feeling painfully empty and lifeless, just like me. But it took me more than a year to reach that realization. In the meantime, I didn't know what was wrong with me, and I definitely didn't know what to do about it.

Many people think depression is a big, dramatic black hole that swallows you up. But it doesn't have to be. It's not necessarily finding yourself thinking about suicide, which I never did, even on my worst days. It's something much worse, if you ask me. I'm an actress, so drama I can do. But this was the antithesis of drama. It was as though I were floating in a great thick bog of stillness, and it was that dullness I couldn't stand. The damping down of all my feelings. The absolute, complete joylessness.

Joyless or not, I knew it was extremely important to keep up appearances, so I wasted a lot of energy that I didn't really have pretending to have a sunny disposition, pasting a big, fat fake smile on my face. I had to show the world that I was okay and could be trusted. I had to prove that I could work, raise my kids, run my household, appear at charity benefits — do all the things I'd always done. At the time, I thought the worst thing in the world would be if anyone discovered how I was feeling. I mean anyone. No one could know — not my mother, not my sister, Lizzie, not my friends, or the people I worked with. So I hid in my house. I avoided talking to my friends. If anyone mentioned that I looked beat, I'd say, "Yeah, I'm tired. It's been a rough year." Everyone pretty much took me at face value and let me off the hook. People don't want to know, they really don't. Not because they don't care, but because they don't know what to do. Basically, they're afraid.

Hiding my feelings was really just a symptom of my disease. The shame you feel when you're depressed is phenomenal. You think you're weak, and nobody wants to seem weak. Nobody wants to look mental, especially in show business. As it is, if you're a forty-two-year-old woman, you're hanging on by a thread most of the time anyway. If there's a difficulty, a problem, you can just forget it. God forbid a rumor should start. A few juicy tabloid mentions and you're toast. It's no wonder it takes so long for people to get help.

My daughter Stella was ten then, full of energy and spirit. She'd come bouncing in the door from school, calling to me, "Mommy, Mommy," talking a mile a minute about her day, sharing every exciting and mundane thing that had happened since that morning. I'd put a smile on my face while listening with only half an ear and thinking about sleep. That definitely wasn't me. I adored this little girl, and normally I hung on every word out of her mouth. It was all part of a vicious cycle. The worse I felt, the less I cared, and the less I cared, the worse I felt.

Stella mostly bought my act, but my sixteen-year-old daughter Margaux wasn't so easily fooled. She saw right through me, with that terrifying teenage acuity of hers. "What's the deal with you?" she'd ask, staring at me hard. I didn't know, so I just said, "Nothing. Everything's fine." Margaux would roll her eyes, letting me know she didn't believe it for a minute. "Okay. Everything's fine," she'd say, parroting me sarcastically.

Even the animals had my number. The dogs would watch me morosely, their eyes seemingly reflecting my depression, their normally high spirits dampened by my mood. My plump, normally affectionate cat would push himself up and lumber out of the room when he saw me coming. "No way am I dealing with her crap," his disappearing tail seemed to signal.

My deepest fear was that I had permanently messed up my life. You see, although I can say I didn't exactly know what was wrong with me, I suspected plenty. Depression didn't just arrive out of the blue. It followed several years of a downhill slide, most of which was self-imposed.

In 1990, I'd been at the top of my game. I was nominated for an Academy Award for my performance in Goodfellas, and I felt as if nothing could touch me. In a business where your self-esteem is always on the line, it's impossible to describe the overwhelming relief of being successful, even if that success is fleeting. Being considered for an Academy Award is a powerful rush of affirmation in a very crazy, quixotic business.

But I had a secret that I kept well hidden behind my glittering smile. As my career became more satisfying, my personal life was failing. More than anything, I wanted a sense of loving calm at home, but this dream was shattered. It was such a wild juxtaposition: in the eyes of the world I was a movie star, and I'd have to stop a minute and think, Holy shit. They're paying me to do something that I love. But I'd get home and it was nothing but catastrophe. At this point, I'd been living with Harvey Keitel for eight years, and we were as good as married. We had the girls — my daughter Margaux, from my previous marriage, and our daughter Stella — and we'd just bought a beautiful house overlooking the Hudson River in Sneden's Landing, an exclusive enclave north of New York City. But it wasn't all tea and roses. I wondered if Harvey had the capacity for contentment. He seemed to be filled with rage — at the world, at his parents, at the industry, and at me. Some people would say it was this rage that made him such a compelling presence on the screen. Well, fine. He's a brilliant, riveting, intense actor. But we were living with it every single day. When Harvey was home, the girls and I just wanted to stay out of the way. We tiptoed around, walking on eggshells. But a lot of the time he wasn't home. And there were times, sometimes days on end, when I didn't know where the hell he was.

Thanks to MSNBC

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