Friday, February 24, 2012

Ashley Judd: The great pretender

How she removed her mask to share her journey to recovery

Express Staff Writer

Ashley Judd appeared before a packed house Monday night at Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church on Sun Valley Road to share her story of depression and recovery. Photo by Kirsten Shultz

Among the 300-plus who made the pilgrimage to Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church to hear actor Ashley Judd speak Monday night, a few were those who enjoy hobnobbing with celebrity, some were merely curious about her and some were the privately suffering, perpetually searching for the Holy Grail of recovery's promise.

Before Judd entered the sanctuary, attendees—at least those who weren't rooted in their seats for fear of being displaced in the church pews—milled around for at least an hour. They greeted friends, made introductions, bought copies of Judd's book for the signing after and quizzed one another about what brought them here.

There was not the usual dull roar of chatter that precedes a star-centered evening. There was a reverent tone, either because of the venue or the topic. It felt different. It felt cautious, but also optimistic.

Still, from one end of the packed house to another, people familiar to each other from the slopes, the carpool lane or the coffee shop traded their deepest sorrows with people they thought they knew, revealing a connection to a suicide, a troubled teen or a personal struggle.

They established a cellular connection to those who may only have been acquaintances moments before and who were now partners for life in the experience of mental illness. Tears were shed, hugs were given and bonds were formed, all before Judd entered the building.

The night's triumph would be found in the relationships forged in the aftermath of the star's presence. And, most exiting for Wendy Norbom, executive director of NAMI-Wood River Valley, was that because of Judd, there would be a spotlight on mental illness for two days between this talk and a big-ticket lunch in a more intimate setting the next day.

When Norbom started asking NAMI's board to bring to the valley more of its historically and nationally regarded resources a few years ago, the community was experiencing a surge in suicides. Public health offerings had dried up because of the economy and people who previously had held it together were realizing they couldn't anymore.

Norbom was one of them, and she felt there were programs out there and if she could benefit from them, others would too. Norbom wrote the grants, pushed for peer training, reserved meeting rooms, showed up and opened up, and the word began to spread.

The most significant have been NAMI's Connections, a peer-facilitated support group, providing a place for people in recovery from a mental illness to help through sharing of experiences. In one year, attendance has grown from seven to more than 70 at the Monday night meetings at the Hailey Sun Club.

The organization's family services information workshops and outreach work gained an enthusiastic following as well.

Steve Gannon and his fiancé, Susan Spelius Dunning, turned to NAMI when Steve Gannon's son, Dex, killed himself, and now are holding a fundraising concert for NAMI. It was a NAMI relationship with board member Annie Mulholland, whose sister is Judd's makeup assistant, that started the ball rolling for Judd to appear.

When Judd took the podium, the crowd fell silent. Judd lightened the mood by apologizing for tugging at her only winter dress, which was giving her fits because she wore it with the wrong brassiere.

She asked for a moment of silence to collect her thoughts and then began with the "Serenity Prayer."

The audience practically shouted along, "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

"There's a lot of recovery here in Sun Valley," she noted with a laugh and encouragement.

And then, she dropped the proverbial shoe. Along with her name, she carries a diagnosis, recurring major depression with suicidal ideation. "To hear those words with my name ..."

And then, the other shoe, "I have come so far, there is hope."

She then took the audience on an hour-long ride into her madness and out of it again, complete with all the hallmarks of dysfunction, tawdry family secrets, substance abuse, unresolved childhood grief that evolved into depression, resilience, perceptions and realities.

"There is the genetic component, the dysfunctional family component," she said, elaborating that in addition to the chaos of her lonely life as her mother and sister left her to become "The Judds," country-music duo, there were a litany of acts in her lineage, including murder, incest and alcoholism.

"Sick people are not bad people that need to get good," she said. "They are sick people who need to get well."

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Judd said she had no cognitive memory of the good times from her childhood—the bad became the record in her mind and kept her from being able to experience joy, express herself or rise above a constant malaise. Yet she managed to have a successful acting career in films and on stage that earned her Emmys and nominations along the way. She married Scottish race car driver and Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti, and she graduated from Harvard with a graduate degree in public administration.

"Depression was the first and best and only friend I ever had," she said explaining she had tried meditation and yoga and other healing modalities to function, but, "there wasn't enough massage in the world for the pain I had."

She came to understand that the events of molestation and abandonment had altered her brain chemistry beyond the genetic predisposition. Illnesses that should have been cured with rest were never ending.

"There's just not enough sleep to take care of that much depression," she said.

Though she now can track her first symptoms of depression to around age 7, it wasn't until she hit 37 in 2006 that she fell into recovery while attending a family week for sister Wynonna, who was seeking treatment for an eating disorder at a Texas clinic.

After hearing her share about times with a gun to her head, she said, "They invited me to stay." She realized at that moment, "I don't want to go. I was so tired of holding it together. So tired of shame. I could show anger but I couldn't share my pain."

She said the Shades of Hope residential program in Buffalo Gap, Texas, treated her depression like an addiction, and after a lot of hard personal work and some medication, she began to experience the first years of wellness.

"I did exactly as they told me to do. Today, I believe I am not cured, but I am relieved of the symptoms."

Judd brought adopted grandma, "Minnie" Tennie McCarty, founder of Shades of Hope, up to speak.

She related her own harrowing story of her mother's "spells" of hospitalization brought on by suicidal sadness, whiskey and prescription drug abuse. She told of her violent father's demand that her mother get well by putting a gun to her head and promising to kill her and the children if she didn't.

When her father began molesting her, McCarty developed a food addiction that put weight on that would make her dad leave her alone. "My father hated women and he loved sex, but he hated fat women so he left me alone."

"Depression is a disease that won't let you live, and it won't let you die," McCarty said in a healthy Southern twang that sweetened the grim reminiscence.

She said that after nine tries at suicide, she went on to marry two alcoholics and raise seven kids, some of whom are finding recovery themselves.

She praised Judd's commitment to wellness calling her the "poster child of mental health" and urging anyone in the crowd who needed help to get it.

Both women encouraged honesty, disclosure, diligence and caution.

"We have to be selective about whom we share our stories with, but we need to share our stories," McCarty said.

She said the goal is emotional sobriety—"learning to live in balance and to report it when you are not."

Suicidal ideation or mere mentions of self-harm should be given attention.

"Don't ever take it lightly—a lot of people accidentally commit suicide," McCarty said.

Judd said recovery has allowed her to "let people off the hook" for past mistakes and that she has mended relations with her mom and sister.

Judd documented her experiences in her book, "All That Is Bitter and Sweet." She credits her personal suffering for spurring her humanitarian efforts and recovery for this emerging advocacy for mental illness.

She said she chose to accept the invitation from NAMI because the organization faces the issue of mental illness straight on with information, research and support.

And she said that although her experience was unique to her and she was able to take a route of recovery that others might not be able to, she asked that the audience "listen for the similarities and not the differences."

"If one person heard something you needed to hear, we were here for you," she said, and the crowd gave her a standing ovation.

For more on NAMI of the Wood River Valley contact Norbom at 720-9145.

For a detailed description of depression visit

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