The podcaster: Paul Gilmartin’s podcast, The Mental Illness Happy Hour, is for folks who find Marc Maron’s WTF insufficiently intense, emotional, or personal. The funny, moving, soulful podcast provides a safe place for writers, artists, survivors, and listeners to share their experiences with mental illness in the safety of an appreciative, empathetic, and ever-growing audience. In doing so, The Mental Illness Happy Hour has reignited the comedian’s career after Dinner And A Movie, which he co-hosted for 16 years, was canceled. The podcast’s air of vulnerability and emotional transparency takes its cues from its host, who has been candid with listeners about his battles with addiction, suicidal depression, professional anxiety, and—in an unforgettable episode with clinical psychologist Dr. Jessica Zucker—formative trauma involving his complicated relationship with his mother.
Episode 28: Teresa Strasser
Paul Gilmartin: I had been trying to get Teresa as a guest, and she was very busy, but she wasn’t opposed to being a guest on the podcast. In fact, she was a listener, I believe. But there was some type of hesitation on her part. I can’t remember what it was; it might have just been logistical and that she was so busy. But I went to her house and recorded her, and there are certain times when I go to record somebody and I’m kind of worried that I’m—I don’t know if “imposing on them” is the right word—I don’t know what the word is to describe it.
The A.V. Club: Does it seem invasive?
PG: No, because she’s a pretty open person, but it’s more about how busy their lives are. It’s a pretty intense thing to say, “You’re running around, you’re juggling your career, your marriage, and your new baby. You have all this shit going on, but I want you to stop and focus on the most painful shit you’ve ever gone through for the next hour and a half.” That’s the thing where I sometimes feel apologetic.
AVC: You’re essentially requesting, “Take some time out of your busy schedule to suffer for my podcast.”
PG: Exactly. That’s exactly it. I want to apologize while they’re doing it, because I know it’s so much to ask of somebody. But she and I hit it off when I had been a guest on Adam Carolla’s radio show. So I felt a kindred spirit to her. And the fact that she listened to the show calmed me down. And once we got going, I found myself thinking, “This is the best episode we’ve ever done.” She brought the funny, she brought the pain; she was really forthcoming in talking about her struggles with food and her self-hatred issues. The thing that made it a special episode was when she talked about her relationship with her mom, and how, when Teresa had her baby, her mom came to stay with her. This happens with a lot of parents, I think: They flash back to their childhood when they have a kid. I think she had that experience when her mom came to visit, so all of this stuff was fresh to her. And, to her, the sadness and the pain as she recalled how completely abandoned she was as a child. She talked about how, when her mom came to visit her, how all that stuff came up. And, on top of that, her mom said, “We’re just not cut out to be moms.”
And she believed that, because she was experiencing the anxiety of, “I’m not going to be a good enough mom. I’m not going to be able to do this; this is an overwhelming responsibility.” She shared that she thought the best thing for everybody would be to kill herself, that her child would be better off because she wouldn’t have a mom that wouldn’t be present. And she shared the conversation that she had with her dad when she called to “say goodbye.” She started crying when she started telling this. And it was the first episode that I had put together where I had heard all this before, but when I was editing it, tears started rolling down my face. And the listeners felt the exact same way. The part that made it such an awesome episode for me was that there was just as much funny as there was pain and sadness. That is what I look for in a really great episode: that it feels like a complete experience.
There are some episodes where there is not a lot of humor, and those are awesome episodes; they feel complete. But at the end of that, I felt like I captured this person in that hour and a half. The breadth of what is special about them—that’s what I went for. That’s what I tried to get, and I usually got a feeling in my gut afterwards about whether or not I got that.
AVC: Whether you captured the person’s essence?
PG: Yeah. What’s human about them, what’s frail, what’s awesome, what’s funny, what’s tragic—that’s what I love to get a feeling of when I record somebody.
AVC: With a lot of your guests, it seems like humor is a way to find light in places of unbearable darkness.
PG: I always think back, and this sounds kind of pretentious, but I always think of this quote that—who was the cinematographer on The Godfather?
AVC: Gordon Willis.
PG: He said in an interview that, every shot he has, he likes part of the frame to be overexposed, part of the frame to be perfectly lit, and part of the frame to be underexposed. And when I look at The Godfather, even if you take away all the dialogue, just looking at that movie affects me in a certain way. I think that kind of sums up, for me, what makes us human. We have light and dark and in-between, and the best episodes are ones that capture each part of a person. What is kind, normal, and functioning about them; what is dark and unmanageable; and what is funny and accessible and you need to be around.
AVC: The best episodes take listeners on an emotional journey, where they feel catharsis, release, and a sense of having gone somewhere and discovered something at the end of it.
PG: It probably helps that we both masturbate right at the end of the episode.
AVC: Another recurring theme in your podcast is discovering things about yourself through your interactions with other people.
PG: Yeah, it is. Many times I’m not conscious of it, and so I’m right in the moment, and it’s not something I set out to do. But I try not to shy away when it brings up something intense in me. [I try] to share that, because I know it puts the interviewee at ease. It also helps the listener say, “Wow, here are two people that experienced that same thing. So there’s probably somebody who relates to what I feel, and it makes me feel less alone.” I say it all the time, but I do the podcast as much for me as for other people.
Episode 58: Dr. Jessica Zucker No. 1, Porn, PPD, Moms & Pain’s Painful Truth
PG: The groundwork had been laid for that a couple of weeks before that. I had interviewed Phil Hendrie a couple of weeks before, even though Phil’s episode aired a couple of weeks after the first episode with Dr. Zucker. That was one of my favorite episodes as well, because he’s not only a comedy hero, but he was so forthcoming about how he was sexualized by his mother and how she would be inappropriate with him and then make it seem like it was his fault. And a lightbulb went off in my head. I had known that my mother had sexualized me and been inappropriate, but I pushed it away as it not being that big of a deal. [After] that episode with Phil, there was something bubbling up in me. I interviewed Dr. Zucker the next week, and I hadn’t even really planned on talking about that stuff.
I thought we were going to do some surveys and talk about her specialty, which is postpartum depression and motherhood, and I just remember feeling so safe that when the subject came up—and I don’t know how it came up, maybe I brought it up. I can’t recall. But I had never felt so safe and heard and felt such compassion. I had been to therapy before, and I had talked about this stuff before, but I don’t think I was ready to admit how entirely that stuff from my childhood had affected me. My wife had been telling me that for 20 years: “I don’t think you’ve ever really dealt with the way your mom treated you and how inappropriate she was with you.”
Something about Dr. Zucker—I say this all the time, that the vibe of a therapist has everything to do with how productive you can be—and she’s not even my therapist. This was my first time meeting her and talking to her. But there was a compassion and an authority in her that I believed what she was telling me. I believed the compassion I was feeling from her was genuine. And for the first time in my life, I finally had compassion for that little kid that had experienced that stuff. And it didn’t hit me until I was editing that episode and doing the outro for it. All of that converged, and I said—I’m paraphrasing—that I just want to be understood, I want to be heard, and I want to be felt. And I realized that has been driving my subconscious for my whole life. That’s what doing stand-up was all about, what trying to be the life of the party, trying to be special, trying to be a perfectionist was about. I want the opposite of what that invalidating experience was like as a kid. I felt like [Zucker] held my hand, and she led me through this dark tunnel. She very gently showed me that this is what’s inside of you. And it was just super powerful. I think the listeners felt the same way, because they picked it as their favorite episode of that year. It was a real turning point for me, not just personally, but in the podcast, because I realized that this podcast helps me. It’s helping me figure my shit out.
AVC: Do you feel like you’re being felt and heard on a profound existential level through the podcast?
PG: Yeah. Very deeply. I felt that in support groups before, and I felt that in therapy, but there’s something about doing this and hearing from complete strangers. One of my favorite emails to get is from someone who has listened to that episode, especially a mom who has heard that episode. And they tell me how much empathy they have for me and how fucked up what I went through was. One of the biggest struggles children have when they were sexualized by a caregiver is that they blame themselves. Sometimes there’s a part of it that is pleasurable.
AVC: Well, when you’re a child, you inherently love attention.
PG: Yes! You love attention, so you blame yourself. Then when you get to a certain age, you begin to see things in a different light. The episode that I think was really a spark for me beginning to see that in my own self was the episode with Lia McCord. And at the end of the episode, we had stopped rolling, and she asked, “Can I add one more thing?” She talked about being molested by her father, and there was a period of time where she enjoyed it and initiated it, and she wanted people to know that it wasn’t your fault and you don’t understand that. That was the greatest thing I’ve ever heard anybody share, because I had never experienced something as intense as what she experienced. To me, I feel like the universe is giving me this beautiful thing, and I’m witnessing it. She didn’t have to say that; I didn’t prod her to say that, and what a beautiful thing for somebody to share. What a personal thing to share. Most people would be too ashamed to share something like that, but that helped so many people when she shared that. It helped spark something in me that helped in my recovery.
AVC: It’s a psychological phenomenon that when someone reveals something intimate about themselves, people want to reveal something about themselves in turn. Your podcast seems like a safe place for people to do that.
PG: Yeah. Part of me was terrified; part of me worried that it was exhibitionism, and I addressed that on that episode. I’m really afraid that this is, “Look at me!” etc. But there was a strong voice inside me, that I think had been propped up by the compassion of Dr. Zucker and Lia McCord and people in my support group, where I knew, “No, this is going to help somebody. This was helping me.” Anybody who thinks this is exhibitionistic, this probably isn’t their podcast; this probably isn’t their cup of tea. If you enjoy this podcast, I think you’re going to appreciate this. But I’ll tell you, the first couple of weeks that episode was up, every email I got, my heart would beat quickly because I was so terrified someone was going lay into me saying, “Look at me, look at me. You fucking baby! Throwing your parents under the bus.”
AVC: And we live in this culture that deifies mothers. People take it so personally that they defend other people’s mothers as well as their own, so you make yourself vulnerable that way by talking about your mother.
PG: Almost every person I interview for the podcast is terrified before it starts and is filled with, not some sort of doubt. But then there is some doubt afterward that they’ve exposed themselves too much, and they’re a little bit anxious. And I tell them, “That’s the sign that it was a good episode.” If you aren’t a little bit nervous about your ordeal, you probably didn’t go deep enough.
AVC: If you don’t feel like you’ve revealed a little bit too much, you probably didn’t reveal enough.
PG: Yeah. I think that’s what listeners love: that person feeling vulnerable and going to that place and showing that part that we don’t hide.
AVC: Did you feel like this was one of the episodes that defined the podcast?
PG: I do. As I get further away from it, I’m more confident in my decision to share that stuff and reveal that part of myself. I’ve gotten many emails since then from people who were either helped by that or they were sharing something with me that has solidified, in my mind, that that was an okay thing to do.
AVC: You’ve obviously had a lot of therapy, but was this something that you were finally in a place to confront in a direct way?
PG: I don’t think it was an intellectual thing; I think it was something that was in me, that all the things that had been layered on top of it to keep it down had been pulled away, bit by bit. So suddenly, it was undeniable, and it just came out like lava. I think it was lot of different factors; I think it was kind of the perfect storm of all the work I had done. Because for you to look at a caregiver and think of yourself at 7 years old, and that this person is exploiting you—that’s a terrifying thought. Most kids are going to bury that, because they have another 11 years that they have to deal with that.
AVC: And most people are completely reliant on that caregiver.
PG: Right. So you are going to blame yourself; you’re going to blame anything to bury that, and it gets buried pretty fucking deep. You may be aware that some things happened that weren’t very cool, but you don’t give it the weight it deserves. I think that’s what that episode was all about, and that month or two where I felt that pain from giving it the weight it deserved. Thank God my wife was there when this happened, because when I broke down and told her, “She tricked me. My mom tricked me. She used me.” My wife said, “I’ve been waiting 20 years for you to say that.” It was so comforting to know that voice in my head that was telling me I’m a baby, I’m an attention-getter was not the truth. I needed that. I needed that so badly.
AVC: Sometimes that’s how the universe works. It blasts away your defenses until you are in a place where you can confront something in a way that it needs to be confronted.
PG: I absolutely believe that. And if you listen to the podcast enough, you’ll hear example after example of people who have experienced loss, and it actually transformed them into a better person with more gratitude. In fact, the episode I’m putting up tonight is with Karen Kilgariff, and that’s the arc of her story.
Episode 72: Nadereh Fanaeian
PG: She was a listener that emailed me and said, “I think my story would make for a great episode.” I get emails like that a lot from people, so I don’t automatically go, “Hey, let’s record.” But she gave me some of the highlights of her life, and I was like, “Oh, yeah, this will make for a great episode.” But you never know with someone you’ve never met that’s a listener, because you have no idea what you’re getting into. So we met, we recorded, and it was like—there’s a certain category of episodes that I would call cinematic. Hers and Kristine Keese, the Holocaust survivor—those two episodes, to me, were like movies. [They are] like little audio movies where this person has been in this place and time that has been written about a lot, but that was just a backdrop. Their [personal] story and their relationships were the real story, and those affect me so much because it’s 100 great things all in one. It’s an interesting podcast; it’s the best history lesson you can get.
Ultimately, history is about people, and when we read about it in textbooks, we never know how it’s going to affect this person. Like, what was the plague like for a single person living in a village? And hearing her be at the center of this Iranian revolution, and being on a wanted list because she was a Marxist, and having to flee underground, and her talking emotionally about being a freedom fighter and battling the Iran extremists—and that was just the beginning of her story. There were so many fucked-up things that happened to her that it, in many ways, just left me speechless.
She was raised in the Baha’i faith in Iran, which is a minority religion in Iran. She was treated as less-than, almost like black people were treated in the ’50s, and got married very early, at like 18 or 19. Her husband was a Marxist. This is right around when the Shah was overthrown, so everyone was clamoring for power. And Islamists went out, almost immediately, to eliminate any enemies. So she and her husband fled underground; she’s pregnant, and her husband gets captured. So she’s six months pregnant, going from safe house to safe house, and they’re telling her she needs to get out of the country, because if they find you, they will kill you. She flees the country. Her mother-in-law comes to visit her. She gives birth to the baby. The mother-in-law says, “You know, my son is probably never going to get to see his child, because he’s about to get executed. Can I bring the baby back to Iran, just so he can see it once?” So, she gives the mother-in-law the baby; the mother-in-law keeps the baby and raises it as her own. Then husband is executed.
So, for the next 16 years, she’s trying to track down her son. She does. I think he’s in Sweden or Norway and contacts Interpol. She has to provide all this documentation and tell her son, “I’m your real mother.” She shows him pictures and, of course, it’s traumatic for this kid, because he’s being told now that what he thinks is his mother is actually his grandmother. So it was all kinds of crazy and fucked-up. What’s beautiful is that this whole time she has people supporting her; she has people helping her. And the thing that’s funny about this is that she eventually moves to the United States and becomes a psychiatric nurse. We didn’t even get to that, on a two-and-a-half-hour interview with a psychiatric nurse, on a podcast about mental illness!
So I recorded another podcast with her, and it was just a fascinating episode. She just brings it. The episode is a great example of how fucked-up self-hatred is, because she has such a struggle to love herself, and anybody listening to this episode is just like, “This woman is so strong, and she has such a beautiful spirit.” I think that’s another reason it’s one of my favorite episodes: You see that our circumstances don’t really matter as much as the peace we decide we’re going to have about them and the work we’re going to do to try and work on them and process them and heal them. I think I also love that episode because, like I said, it’s cinematic and it’s compelling and it’s entertaining. I hate to say that about somebody else’s pain, but it’s true. And a podcast doesn’t have to be a lecture on mental illness, because there’s enough of that.
AVC: Listening to the episode, it becomes apparent how universal self-hatred, self-doubt, and anxiety are, and how they transcend all barriers.
PG: Yeah. Here’s another example of why I love doing this podcast: I have a listener who does ultramarathons and just goes and runs 100 miles through mountains. She’s running for, like, 24 to 30 hours. She told me after one of her marathons that she wanted to quit after the 60-mile mark, but she remembered the Nadereh episode and was replaying that in her mind to give her strength to continue. I was like, “Wow, that’s fucking amazing.” When your story is so powerful that you’re giving inspiration to an ultramarathoner, I feel like I have a front-row seat for all of this stuff, and it’s the greatest. It’s just the greatest. It makes me feel like there’s no place I’d rather be.
AVC: It’s a little weird for listeners to be thinking, “Wow, this person’s life is crazy. This is going to be great.” As someone sitting a foot away from them, it has to be even stranger. You’re like, “Wow, there’s a wealth of dysfunction in this person’s life that’ll lead to a great episode.”
PG: Plus I get to see the look in their eyes. That’s why I don’t like to do Skype interviews, because I like to see. You can’t hear it, and maybe it’s not coming through in their voice. Maybe I’m crying, and the listener can’t hear I’m crying, but my guest can see that I’m moved by what they’re telling me. So that’s why I think, the front-row seat thing, it makes me feel really lucky. I feel like it’s something the universe is doing, and it’s my job to just get out of the way, get my ego out of the way and let the universe express itself through this podcast.
AVC: With the intimacy of the podcast, it would be hard to maintain that level if one party is dicking around on a cell phone or staring out the window, so you need that kind of personal physical connection to create that safe space.
PG: I think with somebody, like the Dr. Zucker episode, to be able to look into her eyes had everything to do with the availability of those emotions to come up and out of me. I don’t think that episode would have been as productive if it had been on Skype. I just don’t think it would have been possible. That’s why I like to do a face-to-face episode if it’s somebody I don’t know well. I may be able to get away with [a Skype interview] if it’s with somebody I’ve spent time with and know a little bit. That’s my thought on the face-to-face thing. Plus, I’ve learned the power of just one-on-one, and being honest and vulnerable with somebody, and looking into each other’s eyes and feeling that connection.