Mayim Bialik, known for playing Amy on The Big Bang Theory, is dishing on her real-life depression and anxiety so others might see a way forward.
By Michele Wojciechowski
Since joining the regular cast of the hit sitcom The Big Bang Theory in 2010, actress Mayim Bialik has found fame and honors for playing nerdy neurobiologist Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler—love interest and now wife of Sheldon Cooper, the brilliant but socially inept theoretical physicist.
Interestingly, Bialik herself has a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA. Her studies illuminated her own depression and her family’s history of mental health problems.
“Three of my four grandparents fled Eastern Europe just before the start of World War II, and our family has experienced a lot of stress and trauma, which finds a way to be passed down one way or another,” explains Bialik, referencing the Jewish exodus to escape Nazi racism.
“I have been in therapy since I was about 18 years old, and I imagine that I will be in therapy for the rest of my life.”
Her graduate studies not only gave her insight into her own issues, she says, but hands-on exposure during clinical research also broadened her perspective.
“Working in the field of mental health as I worked on my thesis helped me understand where we all fit into the spectrum of mental health. … I have gained compassion not only for people in my family, but for people outside my family who struggle as well.”
Bialik, who turns 43 in December, says that she doesn’t go into detail about her specific symptoms of depression and anxiety because the condition can look different for different people.
“Some of us get very overproductive. Some of us suffer in relationships or in our social life. But for many of us,” she adds, “depression is something we don’t tend to publicize, especially since there has been a stigma for so long.”
Going public is exactly what Bialik has been doing of late. She began to speak more openly about her mental health challenges a few years ago, around the time her father passed away and her family experienced other significant losses.
“There was so much more conversation about [depression] in our culture in general, and …. I was inspired by other celebrities—such as my friend, Wil Wheaton—who were being brave about being stigma-free,” she reflects.
“Kristen Bell and Mariah Carey and so many others have chosen to be brave and share their experiences. I think that for a lot of people who know about celebrities and often identify with celebrities, it helps for us to remember we are all in this life together, and no one is immune from an illness.”
Bialik knows from celebrities: She was starring as the title character in the sitcom Blossom in her teens. That came only two years after she set out to break into show business, starting with small TV walk-ons and a few movie roles (notably as the young version of Bette Midler’s character in Beaches).
At age 11½, Bialik persuaded her mother she was serious about an acting career. She’d been in plays in elementary school, and says that growing up in a traditional Jewish household in San Diego “got me used to performing in a sense.”
“My father was also a drama teacher, and while he was not my drama teacher, he often had video cameras out around the house, and he would let me practice things on camera,” says Bialik, who attended middle school and high school in North Hollywood.
Meanwhile, her teens and 20s were punctuated by depression, anxiety and panic attacks. Even before that, she recalls, “I was a very anxious child.”
She might have found support and validation among her extended family, but that kind of thing wasn’t discussed.
“My family has just about every single thing that appears in a psychiatric diagnosis manual,” she says. “I say that with a smile and a laugh because some people in my family don’t believe in diagnoses, and the way things have worked for so long is that a lot of families don’t really talk about this stuff.”
In a video she recorded for the Child Mind Institute, Bialik talks about what she wishes she could have told her younger self. One message: “Something will work. It’s just going to take—sometimes more research, sometimes more referrals, and really figuring things out like your life depends on it. Because mine did.”
Asked about her stark words, Bialik emphasizes the importance of reaching out for help and seeking useful interventions.
“The complexity of depression is such that …. without the proper treatment, your brain can absolutely take you to the darkest places that humans can go to. Many of us who have suffered have found that there were turning points when we needed to make changes or there would be dire consequences.
“Like many of the other people in the world who live with mental health struggles, indeed, our lives depend on us getting the right help.”
Bialik says she benefits from the resources and services available through the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), so she’s happy to lend her visibility to the organization as part of her personal efforts to speak out. One effort was her PSA for NAMI’s #stigmafree campaign.
“I was thrilled to be part of their campaign to talk about the impact that the words we use about mental illness can have on people. The fact that we are talking about mental health so differently is what I hope will shift the stigma,” she says.
Although some people with depression and anxiety find sharing their stories to be therapeutic, Bialik doesn’t see that for herself.
“I don’t know if talking about it publicly helped me. The reason I chose to talk about it was because of my hope that it would help others.
“For me, the real relief that I get is by having a support system, going to therapy regularly, having supportive friends, and having a spiritual program and faith that I will be okay no matter what.”
Bialik also relies on regular exercise and connecting with peers for the give-and-take of shared experiences.
“There are things that I need to do to stay healthy so that the likelihood of having depressive episodes decreases. … I also know how to identify depression as it is starting so that I can try and not let it escalate,” she says. “There are many excellent resources and workbooks available online to help chart moods and such.”
The Big Bang Theory’s massive fan base means Bialik resurfaced in the public eye in a big way. She had stepped back from acting in 1995 when Blossom’s run ended after five seasons, deciding instead to pursue higher education. She met and married Michael Stone while they were both in graduate school, and they continue to amicably co-parent their two sons even after their divorce in 2013.
All told, Bialik says that she took 12 years off, although she did some voiceover work and a few TV guest spots during that time.
“It was a nice way to keep up my creative side, and honestly, working helps maintain my health insurance,” she admits.
She also kept up with her academic side, teaching neuroscience and chemistry to teens in the homeschooling community. That interest carries over to her current day job.
“There are definitely episodes of The Big Bang Theory where I love the science. We also have a physics consultant named David Satlzberg who is a physics professor at UCLA. It’s really fun to talk to him about all the research he has to do when our writers come up with something scientific on our show,” says Bialik.
“I was not raised being interested in science. My parents were both English teachers, and it wasn’t until I had a biology tutor on the set of Blossom that I really started getting interested in science when I was 15.”
Bialik says she and her current castmates have a blast on the set of The Big Bang Theory. For example, Simon Helberg (who plays geeky engineer Howard Wolowitz) “always makes us laugh the most, and my favorite thing is when he does impressions. I remind him that I am his biggest fan pretty much before every tape day.”
With the surprise announcement that the show will end its successful 12 season run in May, the cast, writers and crew promise to deliver “a final season, and series finale to an epic creative close.”
In an op-ed post, the actress gave a heartfelt statement about the cancellation: “This is hard. I love coming to work and pretending to be Amy. She’s a riot. She’s me, and I am her. And soon she will not be mine to create.”
Bialik went back to full-time acting so she could be more available to her kids—now 10 and 13—as compared to the demands on an academic researcher. She’s a practitioner and proponent of attachment parenting, a philosophy she explains in her 2012 how-to book Beyond the Sling. She’s written two other child-centric books—one for boys, one for girls— about navigating puberty and reaching one’s potential.
(Her authorial credits also include the cookbook Mayim’s Vegan Table, reflecting a lifestyle choice that seems natural for someone who advocates for the ethical treatment of animals.)
Bialik continues to write about parenting—as well as relationships, health, spirituality, women’s issues, and behind-the-scenes scoops on her show—on the website GrokNation, which she founded in 2015.
“I wanted a broader platform where I could share my thoughts about things besides Judaism and parenting, which is mainly the blogging I had been doing. We chose the name because our site seeks to help people understand things in a very deep way, as a way of introducing a concept of empathy into our lives,” explains Bialik.
(Her site’s name has a suitably nerdy heritage: Sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein coined the word “grok”—meaning both “to comprehend intuitively” and “to relate with empathy”—in his 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land.)
Although some may say that Bialik lives a charmed life, she admits in a video on GrokNation that she’s insecure like a lot of other humans. She talks about how seeing “people looking like they have an amazing life” on social media can skew perceptions and make those who are struggling feel like they’re the only one with problems.
“There are so many ways that the chemicals in our brains work against us even if we have a life that others might think is enviable,” she says, adding: “Our DNA can predispose us to [poor] mental health no matter how much money we make or how beautiful we are or how successful our lives may seem.… Mental health does not discriminate.”
Bialik fights that feeling of being alone in battling her symptoms through peer support and her relationship with a higher power.
“Depression, in particular, is a very insidious struggle. It defies logic and truly creates a cycle of despair,” she says. “When people say to anyone, ‘You have nothing to be depressed about,’ it’s generally one of the least helpful things you can say to someone who is depressed…. I’ve learned that compassion is incredibly important.”
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What works for Mayim Bialik
Wise words: I have a book of inspirational and motivational thoughts. I read one before I get out of bed every morning.
Meditation: I recently started meditating more regularly and being in touch with a power greater than myself, which I call God, every morning before I get out of bed. I [also] do guided meditations from a free app on my phone.
Catnaps: I have started realizing how important it is to nap when I am able to, even for 15 minutes.
The great outdoors: Being in nature in general helps my mood tremendously.
Printed as “Ask Amy: Mayim Bialik tells all,” Fall 2018
via Esperanza – Hope To Cope
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