I always thought actor John Leguizamo was surprisingly underrated. I could never understand why because I think he is both funny and dramatic. His role as Tybalt in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version of Romeo + Juliet is a case in point.
Anyway, I had the pleasure of getting to know John Leguizamo better when I watched his one-man play Ghetto Klown on HBO.
The play is semi-autobiographical, as Leguizamo depicts his path from obscurity to stardom using comedy, pathos, song, dance and a veritable plethora of impersonations. How he is able to manage so many character impressions is beyond me.
Leguizamo described how he moved from stand-up comedy to television, with a small role in 1986 on Miami Vice. This opened up an opportunity to act in the 1989 film Casualties of War, alongside Sean Penn and Michael J. Fox. Surprisingly, after filming concluded, Leguizamo stated in Ghetto Klown,
So I came back to Queens a very disillusioned young man.
And, I gotta tell you, I got very depressed, man.
And when I’m depressed, I gotta be honest with you, I sleep too much, I don’t go out.
I don’t want to see nobody.
And then I drink too much coffee, and then, of course, I can’t sleep at all.
And then I drink too much and I lay around thinking about death.
Then I can’t stop beating off and I hate myself.
I’m disgusted with myself.
And I can’t leave the house because I repulse myself.
But, yo, when I hit bottom this time, I heard a voice in my head. “John, stop playing with your little gangster and pick up a pen and wrote down your experiences.”
He is referring here to one of his early acting coaches and mentor, Sylvia Leigh.
And, yo, I finally heard her. And for the first time in my life, I sat down to write and I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, man, till I crossed that wall of fear that you may not have the talent that you hope you had. And I wrote and I wrote and I wrote till I didn’t feel invisible anymore.
Such episodes of depression became the creative spark for Leguizamo to write his one-man shows Mambo Mouth, Spic-O-Rama, Freak and Sexaholix: A Love Story. He told interviewer Hugh Hart of FastCompany,
It’s true! Every time I’ve had one of those deep paralyzing kind of shut-in depressions, it makes me want to prove something. Bottoming out helps me focus. I guess it’s nature or my inner self telling me I need to deal with certain things, to grieve. When I surrender to the depression, there’s like a re-birth and I’m ready to create something.
As one who has himself suffered bouts of depression throughout life, times when I’ve felt so down that I even planned how to end my own life, I know the danger of wallowing in self-pity. Leguizamo’s description of his depression is candid and confronting, and I really appreciate his description of an antidote that helped him rise out of his depression: writing down the memory of his experiences. Committing to an action helped focus his attention and changed the way he thought about himself and his circumstances.
There’s another creative artist, a song writer, who has similarly inspired me and who drew out the same antidote for overcoming depression, but with a slight twist. His name is Asaph and his story is recorded in The Bible.
Psalm 77 portrays a period of depression when Asaph felt all alone and could find no comfort. Except for the masturbation, the symptoms of his depression are remarkably similar to Leguizamo’s. He too turned to the memory of his experiences and wrote them down —which is why we have Psalm 77 available to us to read, among others. However, instead of lashing out against those who wronged him, Asaph remembered how God had intervened to save him and his people:
11But then I recall all you have done, O Lord;
I remember your wonderful deeds of long ago.
12They are constantly in my thoughts.
I cannot stop thinking about your mighty works.
(Psalm 77:11–12; see also Ps 42:6)
Interestingly, he remembered good times of the past, but the memory of them only saddened him. He could not come to terms with why his times were so tough now?
The turning point came when Asaph, instead of focusing on himself and trying to rouse himself out of his funk, instead remembered that God was with him in the past and would continue to be with him in the future, come what may. He wrote down his thought process and, at the end, remembered his source of hope and found comfort.
Now, let me be clear: I am not a psychologist; I am a pastor. So, I can only give pastoral advice. Nevertheless, I believe it is fair to say that those whose depression requires serious professional intervention, and possibly even medication, are the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of us suffer what would be considered minor depression —sometimes called “the blues”. Minor episodes of depression happen to far more people than are willing to admit. It can also lead to full-blown clinical depression if not treated.
One treatment for depression —but not the only treatment— is cognitive reframing, which is just a fancy way of saying, “getting another perspective on your problems”. This is a cognitive therapy for depression, meaning it uses your capacity to think through your problems, especially with support from friends or help from a therapist. Over time, you will realise that there is another way to look at your circumstances, even if the problem is you, another perspective that is more positive and healthy. This new perspective can lead to breakthrough.
Yet, it should be noted, this is often harder than it seems.
A way to kick start this process is to commit to a purposeful action, which is to couple your thinking with a behaviour. Both Leguizamo and Asaph did this to overcome their depressions: Leguizamo wrote down his experiences and turned them into theatre productions; Asaph wrote down his experiences and turned them into the words of a song. The process of performing these actions helped them to reframe their experiences, to put them into another perspective, and their creative output became cathartic.
There is a difference here between Leguizamo and Asaph. In Leguizamo’s performance of Ghetto Klown, while he warned his audience that his is a “cautionary tale”, he seems to offer us a lesson that he himself didn’t learn. While he was able to turn his depressive episodes into creative output, the fact that he wrote multiple one-man plays seems to suggest that his cognitive reframing did not actually sort out the problems that led to the depression. While he gained insight from his experiences, he doesn’t seem to have gained wisdom. I was left wondering that he was blaming others and not looking deep enough into himself.
Asaph, on the other hand, likewise committed himself to a purposeful action that resulted in creative output. In the midst of his writing, you can see him discover that God was with him all along. He wasn’t distant from Asaph. Asaph was merely not noticing God’s intervention on his behalf. Once he gained this insight, Asaph gained the wisdom of knowing that he was not alone that God was working with him in the midst of his circumstances. Whatever Asaph was contributing to his circumstances, God was protecting him but also helping him to overcome himself. This, to me, seems to be a much healthier result, compared to Leguizamo.
I too hit a seriously low period of my life in the mid-1990’s. I was a senior pastor for the first time and the pressure caught up with me, especially the pressure of realising my own hurts and inadequacies. I burnt out and began suffering anxiety attacks.
Along with seeking counselling, I began to exercise. I committed myself to running. I was going to apply to the Australian Army as a chaplain, but I needed to pass Basic Training first. Running would help me lose weight and get fit. Slowly at first, intermingled with walking. Eventually, I worked my way up to running 30 minutes straight. The running not only helped me to lose weight but it made me feel better about myself and eased my anxiety.
The running was purposeful, as I was applying for a new job. The Army rejected me, however, due to having the minor medical condition of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Nevertheless, I reoriented my goals around achieving increasing distance and speed. I will never be a fast runner, but doing something made a difference to me, as it did for Leguizamo and Asaph. Like Asaph, more so than like Leguizamo, the action helped me to gain a healthy perspective and to see that God was with me.
When you feel the ‘black dog’ nipping at your heels, you can muzzle it by speaking openly about it. Do not suffer in silence. There are friends and family and mental health professionals who are ready to support you.
Secondly, gain a new perspective on the circumstances that are causing you to feel sad. Reframe your thinking, remembering that, by faith, God is with you and “this too shall pass”, as the saying goes. Knowing that God is with you, in the good and bad, can make a huge load of difference. You are no longer alone in your circumstances, no matter how desperate they may seem. This truth provides an ability to persevere that is truly supernatural.
Finally, if you find it hard to change your thinking, you can kick start it by doing something. Commit yourself to some kind of action, something that has some purpose in it. Whether a creative pursuit or a project or an exercise, the act of following through on your commitment, beginning with small steps, can energise you in ways you would not have imagined.
What actions have helped you to overcome any episodes of depression you have felt?
What poems, stories, or bible passages have helped you to reframe your circumstances?