SOMETHING MORE TO SHARE... / by Shawn Pyfrom

I read the news about Anthony Bourdain last week. But I needed to take a bit of time, to consider my own consequences, before putting this out there. It scares me… But I’ve decided this is important to share. Despite my fear of sharing something so personal, I recognize it’s potential to do something good. So I must put my fear aside to do what’s needed. And since this seems to be a fashion of mine, off I go…

First, I’ll acknowledge the impact Mr. Bourdain has had on my life. His show, No Reservations, was not only a favorite of mine growing up; but it’s among the few things that has inspired my love for travel. I’ve been to a number of places, I never would have traveled to, at the result of his intelligent and mellifluously articulated recommendations. Many of those words have compelled my movements. And I owe a prodigious amount of credit and gratitude to him for helping to shape something that has, now, become so much a part of me. His influence reached beyond my television screen. If not for my travels, I would not be the person that I am. 

When I was stuck in one of the worst cycles of depression I had ever experienced, I found myself moving to Paris at the end of 2016. Something I wouldn’t have done without the impetus for travel - that Mr. Bourdain helped provide me. And when I returned, in 2017, I moved to Thailand for three months to further understand myself - to figure out what was killing me, slowly. Or, perhaps, quicker than I realized…

In 2015, I was sucked backwards into the pull of my depression. And the anxiety of being without an outlet to express myself - one that validated the person I thought I was. 

I’ve been an actor since I was four years old. It’s all I’ve ever known, for a long time. It’s what I identified as, for the better part of my life. It’s the only part of me that received acknowledgment, for quite some time. When I worked, I was given what resembled love (or just enough of it). And when work slowed down, my world went quiet. I was criticized, told what must be “wrong with me”, and treated as though I didn’t exist. I came to crave work. I needed it to feel whole. To feel accepted. Understood. And to feel loved. I came to know acting as a way to feel human - one that was worthy of affection - during childhood, and into my adult years.

When I worked on Desperate Housewives, I began to receive excess “love” and adoration. It overwhelmed me. But it made me feel acknowledged, even though it was solely due to my vocation. And most of that “love” came with hidden agendas - motives that were only revealed once I had trusted a person. And I obliged many of my new “friend’s” desires, as a way to keep receiving their version of love. I gave them money, opportunities, experiences. But as soon as someone got what they needed from me, many times they left. I felt, often, used. And too often abandoned. 

But the truth is… I didn’t know who I was. I had identified too much as being an actor - despite my deeper knowing that I am so much more. I received more affection as an actor, than I did as Shawn, and felt it necessary to accept that as the equation of my worth. So I started numbing myself to ignore the pain and emptiness it left me with, feeling that most people didn’t care to know me. For several years.

Until I got sober. Something new, which gave me strength. And a source of pride, for overcoming what was so difficult. But it became my new identity. Something I could validate myself for. So I wrote an open letter about it, almost five years ago. Which came far too soon, for me, despite it’s best intentions.

I stayed single for a number of years - the result of feeling unlovable... And then I met someone. And fell, quickly and deeply, in love with her. But it was a relationship that held physical distance - she lived in New York, while I lived in LA. Over time, I started to feel alone. And after my open letter about addiction, I found it tougher to get people to meet with me. It seemed my openness about being an addict had left people to question my reliability, when it came to work. And it made me feel unwanted by the world I still felt like I was a part of. An industry, that part of me still required validation from.

When I got sober, I started to feel strong. So strong, I believed I could do it on my own. I had done so much else “on my own”, so why not that? I wasn’t really working a program (AA/NA). I didn’t set up a failsafe. I only knew one way to quell my darkest feelings. But I was determined not to move backwards.

But the months of loneliness, while my girlfriend and I were in different cities, coupled with the lack of opportunity to do the thing I love so much - perform - started to tear away at my strength and healthy mind. I found myself getting on medications - some I apparently “needed” and some I definitely did not. As the void in me expanded, I began filling it with more pills. Which left me feeling like a failure in my sobriety. I had lost complete sense of who I was. My depression became worse. My behavior became more unpredictable. That put incredible stress on my relationship. I put her, and my family and friends, through incredible strain. Something that I now consider to be unbelievably unfair to them. When my, then, girlfriend had attempted every last measure with me; she decided she had to walk away. I felt rejected and abandoned, once more. I felt more unloved than I had ever felt before. Leaving me with a grief I had no tools to deal with. I didn’t want to live - My identity was already deceased. My proceeding actions were nothing short of appalling. 

I put a belt around my neck. I swallowed all of my pills. If it weren’t for my roommate, mother, father, and the girl who had decided to leave; I wouldn’t be here. They all, quickly, rushed to save me - and did. I’m ashamed of my actions, and where they lead. I still carry an unimaginable guilt, for the way I inflicted pain on all of them - and so many others who became aware, after the fact. There was no reason for my response. But it was lead by my illness - and not me. Something I only know, now, with clarity.

After several months of grief and hard work, I found myself getting back on my feet again - with a new understanding of myself. And with much more caution. My ex-girlfriend continued to speak with me, despite her own grief and blame over the situation. And after a while, she gave me a second chance. That, along with the help of my friends and family - the support I received over several months - is what kept me going. They continued to save my life. Through my toughest moments, they were there. I had made my issues glaringly (and unnecessarily) obvious, after staying quiet for far too long. 

After several months, back with my ex, she decided to leave again. Despite the fact that I was back to being healthy, she decided that knowing me was, still, far too much for her. I was devastated and confused. I didn’t understand at the time…but I do now. With even more time, and clarity, I recognize the immeasurable pain I must have put her through. And I don’t blame her for leaving again. She had to take care of herself. She had taken care of me long enough. But, with that… I moved to Paris.

There, I met several people who surrounded and supported me - while staying in contact with several others back home. I told people my story, and they listened. They were there for me. They understood me. And they validated the person that I am - not the actor that I was.

And as time has gone on, I have stayed open. I have informed people when I started to feel my depression creep in. Staying open, has helped people understand where I’m at and how to help me. It has helped people to know when I need help, and validate me when I’m doing well. I continue to build people around me who know me - always. And I now have a program. I am constantly working on myself - and will need to for the rest of my life. I’m doing better than I ever have before - but I’m one of the lucky ones. I know I will never be “safe”, but at least I’m protected. And I have a failsafe if I want it. And I do, now.

So I find myself feeling even more identified with Mr. Bourdain after his “apparent suicide”. And let me preface by saying that I make no assumptions about Mr. Bourdain… 

I have suffered from anxiety and depression for almost as long as I can remember. I started having panic attacks at five years old. My parents have recalled moments where I would gasp for breath and tell them I couldn’t breathe. I recall those moments too. I can remember moments where it felt like I was being sucked backwards into a dark and endless void. I can remember feeling the weight of gravity on my body, and trying to fling it away. At five, six, seven years old. There’s no real reason for why a child should be feeling those things, aside from the explanation that there was something, chemically, imbalanced. An imbalance that lived in my mind. An illness that is mental. 

My addictions stem from that. They are an extension of my anxiety and depression. Something I didn’t discuss in my first open letter. I have felt the impact of those words, shared in the past - along with the condition itself. I have been judged, criticized and given less opportunity for sharing about my personal afflictions. But I wouldn’t take it back if I could. That letter didn’t just help thousands of people - that I heard from and, perhaps, didn’t - but it also helped me. I took ownership. And it helped me as much it helped anyone else. This letter is no different. Because the better we understand one another, the easier our lives become. So I must make it clear that this letter is just as much for the people who don’t suffer from mental illness and addiction, as it is for the ones who do. 

I don’t blame anyone for the way I’ve been judged. They are not at fault. No one is. We are still ignorant to the reality of mental illness, despite our present attempts at awareness. We are only now beginning to wake up to that reality. We are starting to take interest, and show compassion - display empathy. But we are still unaware. So I can’t blame anyone for a stigma I, and many others, still carry. Because how can we know what we don’t know? How can we understand what is still so complicated? 

On a personal note (as this is, obviously, very personal), I appreciate the attempts of all that try to understand - whether it pertains to me, or not. When I read articles and posts from, and about people who have overcome their mental illness or share about their suffering; I feel encouraged. I feel understood. I applaud and cheer for those who have the courage to discuss and elucidate the reality they live in - when their minds have been overwhelmed by the fear of it’s darkest corners. My friend, Colton Haynes, has done this beautifully. As has Zelda Williams and many others. They are some of the many who have influenced my decision to open up this conversation further. And whether this letter reaches many or just a few; the message I’m attempting to convey is important. Because it’s about openness and understanding; that which is misunderstood.

Mental illnesses, like anxiety and depression, are incredibly complicated issues that I don’t have the words to fix. My words can only help others understand mine, and compel a conversation that points to support. Support is one of the more important treatments for anxiety and depression, in my opinion. Without it, those afflicted will only fall deeper into it’s void. 

That said, I recognize the complications those face who aren’t afflicted by it’s immediate pain. It’s tough. I’ve experienced it firsthand with friends who suffer from mental illness. And I’ve witnessed the suffering of those, closest to me, at the hands of mine. I can’t stress enough how complicated I know this issue to be. But if you have the strength; deal with it. Because, at the end of the day, it’s tougher to deal with the impact of someone who has decided to take their own life. 

I’ve been lucky enough to have the support I need, at times. And I’ve been fortunate enough to have friends and family who have picked me up, when I could no longer carry myself further. But I have pushed many out of my life, at the result of my illnesses. People I am, now, in the process of apologizing to. My illnesses have hurt more people than I can count. People I still love so deeply, despite their moving away from me. Because I see how hard they tried before they couldn’t anymore. I have the clarity now to see that. It is the source of great pain for me, knowing how many incredible people I have lost. But almost more-so, because they’ve been hurt by something that isn’t me. I am not my mental illness, and I am not my addictions. Knowing that, has helped me live with this. But I am fortunate enough to gain strength and understanding through all of that, while many are not. And to let my past guide my decisions now. 

However, I know how difficult it is to say something when you’re living in and alongside it. It’s a challenge that I don’t consider light. But suffering in silence is what lead to my destruction. So I encourage you all to help and be helped. To find the strength to say something. Talk about it. I understand all of you. I understand the ones who suffer from the imbalances, and I understand the ones who don’t. This shit is complicated. And I know it. 

And I know that my letters have a tendency to ramble. To jump and move around to topics that are directly related to me, and then address the broader extent of those issues - as they relate to others. But it is only compelled by my desire to understand, and be understood. Something, I know, we all yearn for. I just have the propensity to explain more, sometimes, as a precautionary measure. As a way to prevent misinterpretation. To over-explain, rather than not explain enough. I write in stream-of-mind - with a stream that is a bit cluttered. I hope you stay with me here… And especially since this letter points to understanding; I want nothing left short.

What helps me now, is knowing that I am not the things I’ve done. And I am not the consequences of my past mistakes. I am not my illnesses. And I am not my feelings. I am Shawn - the force that compels my greatest accomplishments, my deepest affections, my consideration for others, and so much more. I appreciate and love who I am now. And I don’t identify anymore with the things that just aren’t me. I challenge the voices in my head, that tell me I’m not good enough or that I’m unlovable. And when I hear them speak - I immediately move to prove them wrong. And I’ve been doing that, now, long enough to know how untrue those voices are. I use contrary-action. When I tell myself I can’t (do something), I show myself that I can. That’s how I’ve come to know who I truly am. I have had depression and anxiety for as long as I could remember. But as soon as I started challenging my negative thoughts, my conditions began to perish. I no longer take any form of medicine (which is not an encouragement to stop taking meds, if you’re on them), and I haven’t felt depression in over six months.

We all live with those voices - sick or not. Those voices are our deepest fears. The things that want us to never try - so we can stay comfortable. Stay in our patterns. Never explore. I encourage you to fight them - prove them wrong. Show them how capable you are. So you can discover yourself - prove what you are not, so you can prove what you are! Make every attempt to show those voices they're wrong. And show them by your actions.

This issue is something we can all do something about. We can all say something. We can all speak to that friend who’s beginning to withdraw. We can tell them how much they mean to us. We can acknowledge how special they are. And we can validate and acknowledge one another - all of our singularities. We can speak up. We can seek help. We can try to understand one other. And we can start to understand that there’s an awful lot that we don’t understand - and give space for that, without judgement. We can go a bit easier on ourselves and others. And understand that we’re all human. This is a human condition, that requires some humanity - but it also requires action…

I’ll end with this… we live in an age of social connection, where our friends and others live in our pockets. We have the ability to reach each another more than we ever have before. So perhaps the next time we reach down to check on our friends (and the people we follow), why don’t we take a moment to think about the one who hasn’t posted in a while. Or the one who is posting that photo, which seems a bit off. Or the one we haven’t talked to in a long time. The one who is showing signs. And send them a friendly message. Let’s keep starting a conversation.

I’m proud of how far our discussions have advanced. But let’s not stop talking, when the topic fades from our newsfeed. We owe it to ourselves to keep moving forward…

 

With so much love and understanding,

Shawn Pyfrom

 

This letter is dedicated to Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, their family, friends and coworkers. Anyone who has suffered, or currently suffers from mood disorders, mental illness, and addiction. And anyone who has suffered the impact of mental illness, addiction, and suicide.