In the latest episode of Heart of the Matter, Elizabeth Vargas is joined by actor Zachary Levi, who opens up about his lifelong struggle with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts while starring in hit television shows like Chuck and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and blockbuster movies like Shazam! and Tangled. Zachary shares that after living with anxiety and depression for most of his life, he turned to substances to mask childhood trauma. After experiencing a life-altering panic attack, he sought out therapy which he credits with saving his life.

Zachary sits down with Elizabeth to discuss not feeling confident, especially in Hollywood, how he has learned to practice self-love and his new memoir, Radical Love: Learning to Accept Yourself and Others.

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Episode transcript

Elizabeth Vargas:

Hello, everybody, and welcome to Heart of the Matter. I am your host, Elizabeth Vargas. Today, I’m very lucky to be joined by an actor that you may have seen on the big screen, the small screen or on a Broadway stage. He is Zachary Levi, best known for his role as Chuck in the hit NBC series called Chuck. He starred in the movie Shazam, had a big role in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and was even a Tony award nominee for his role in She Loves Me.

Zachary’s an incredibly talented actor and comedian, and now he’s an author with a memoir out called Radical Love in which he’s incredibly radically honest about his lifelong battles with anxiety and depression. It was so bad at one point he says he contemplated suicide and checked himself into a mental health hospital. It’s really important these days for people like Zachary who are in the public eye to be speaking so openly and honestly about something people keep very, very private and often battle with in very painful ways. So today, I’m really, really excited to welcome to Heart of the Matter Zachary Levi.

Zachary Levi, welcome to Heart of the Matter.

Zachary Levi:

Hi. Thank you for having me. Pleasure to be here.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Congratulations on your new book, Radical Love. By all accounts, it’s an amazing book and amazingly honest, really, really, really honest at a time when I think we really need people to be brutally honest about mental health issues, but you were quoted as saying a lifetime of historically crippling anxiety and depression is something that you’ve struggled with, “That stems from childhood trauma and voices in my head that said I wasn’t good enough.” I think somebody would look at you and think, “This guy has it all. How did he have those voices saying you’re not good enough?”

Zachary Levi:

Yeah. Well, I think therein lies the rub. I’ve struggled with this stuff most of my life. I didn’t realize that I was struggling with these things until I was 37, about five years ago and I had a complete mental breakdown. Actually, when I moved here to Austin, I had all these dreams and a head full of steam and I was like, “Oh, I’m going to go do these things I’ve always dreamed about doing,” and then I didn’t realize just how much of that was really me running away from my problems. I didn’t realize how much I was still deriving so much of my self-worth from all of these external sources.

The truth is when you are struggling and you know that other people must think, “Well, this guy, he’s got a career, he’s got all of the trappings of this life.”

Elizabeth Vargas:

“He’s starring in movies. He’s starring in TV shows.”

Zachary Levi:

Exactly.

Elizabeth Vargas:

“He’s winning awards.”

Zachary Levi:

Yeah. You hate yourself even more because you think to yourself, “Why should I be struggling with these things when I know from the outside people would think I shouldn’t be struggling? So why am I struggling? I should be able to work through these things.” So it compounds your problems even more I’ve found. I’ve talked to other people who have also been in situations where they’re living lives that other people might consider enviable, “Oh, I wish I had that life,” and yet you are crippled inside, emotionally, mentally, psychologically crippled inside, and that just makes you feel even worse about your problems. Ultimately, like I said, five years ago, I had a major breakdown, but that-

Elizabeth Vargas:

What happened?

Zachary Levi:

Well, so, oh, gosh, well, so many things. I mean, I had this dream of moving to Austin, of building this movie studio and doing all of these things. Again, that was like, “Oh, that’s my purpose. If I can somehow finally go do that, then I’ll have worth in my life. Then I’ll be the guy that God created me to be.” Ultimately, for years and years and years, I was struggling with self-worth. I didn’t realize this. I didn’t understand that I didn’t love myself. I didn’t understand what self-love really was until I fell apart and went to therapy at 37.

I got out of LA in a hurry. I sold my house. I broke up with a girlfriend, who was a lovely girl, who was also from Austin, but I thought, “Oh, I don’t know. This doesn’t feel right, and I’ve got to go do these things.” So it was really a confluence of a lot of things, of just a lot of blows, a lot of hits to my psyche and my ego and not realizing that I was white knuckling through life all the way up until that point.

I think a lot of people don’t realize that they’re doing that. I don’t think a lot of people realize just how much our survival instincts are constantly being activated, our sympathetic nervous system versus our parasympathetic nervous system. If we are in fight, flight, freeze, fawn most of the time, that is really doing a massive number on your body, on your soul, on your heart, on your mind.

I was running to lots of other things, whether it was sex or drugs or booze or things to distract me from, to numb myself from the pain that I was running away from most of my life. So yeah, all of those things kind of culminated. My career was in a place where I felt like even though I had accomplished so many things up to that point, I was still, and to be honest, even now, I still feel this way. I feel like I’m a bit on the outside looking in. I’ve never really felt like I am a part of whatever the cool kid group is.

This has been since I was a kid. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been nerdy. I’ve been picked on and bullied and. Again, always on the outside. I had lots of friends throughout high school and I was even friends with some of the cool kids, but I always felt like I was never cool. I was never a part of their clique. I was always like a little bit of a joke to them.

I think that that carried with me into my career in Hollywood, and it gets reaffirmed to you in the lies that you tell yourself when you are not getting certain jobs, you’re not being hired to go do that movie or that show with this level of director or producer or actor or whatever it is. Though I had been very blessed and I had starred in a show like Chuck and I had been in a movie like Tangled and continued to do, I mean, I was a working actor. I was making good money. I had-

Elizabeth Vargas:

Yeah. A lot of actors are waiting tables still hoping for just a single role and you’ve gotten a dozen of those roles.

Zachary Levi:

Yeah, yeah, but as it turns out, when you have parenting, that it does not celebrate your even small accomplishments when essentially everything is kind of just not enough. The majority of my life, I grew up in a household where my stepfather was a perfectionist on the highest of levels, his bar was so high, was impossible to reach, and then a mother who was a borderline personality. So she didn’t have an impossibly high bar. She had an impossible target because it kept moving.

Anyone who spends time with borderline personalities, if I would come home and my mom was in a good mood, I could tell her, “Hey, I didn’t do so well on this test at school,” and she’d be like, “Oh, don’t worry about it. There’ll be another test and we can work on it,” whatever it was, but if she was in a bad mood, it was the end of the world. I was an embarrassment to the family. I mean, it was lots of vitriol, lots of yelling.

So your little kid brain doesn’t realize that this is what you are taking in. You just think this is normal. I think that’s what … One of the biggest things I’m trying to get through to people in the book is that, first of all, you are lovable and you are loved or should be. We are all lovable simply because we are. We are all miracles, ultimately. Whether you believe in some form of spirituality or you just believe in science, even scientifically, we’re still a damn miracle. The fact that we exist on this little, as Carl Sagan would put it, this little blue dot in the middle of this massive universe, and we still haven’t found any other life anywhere else. We’re these miracles and we’re all bumping around and we ought to treat each other as the miracles that I think that we are.

So I think that’s really important, but I think also understanding that my stepdad and my mom, as abusive and as difficult as they were and were to live with, they themselves were also abused. They themselves are products of their environment in the same way that I am a product of the environment that I was raised in.

These were massive, massive understandings that I came to when I went to this three weeks of intensive life-changing, life-saving therapy because when I had my breakdown, I basically got to the point, and it wasn’t the first time I had felt like I didn’t want to live, but it was certainly the most darkness that I had found myself in, and I really just felt like I had failed all of life. I felt like anyone else in my position would have taken all of the blessings that they had been given and made a far better life with it.

No matter what I looked at, no matter where I turned my relationships, my career, it all just felt like I had failed at all, and I didn’t really want to live on this planet anymore. I wanted to be done with it. And I will say, it’s not like you just get fixed. I went to this therapy. It helped me tremendously. I felt like, “Oh, okay. I got fixed,” and then a couple years go by and the pandemic hit, and I wasn’t working again.

Now, it wasn’t my fault that I wasn’t working. Nobody was working and it was all because of what was going on in the world. Yet, I still couldn’t sit and be okay with just being with myself. I wasn’t okay if I wasn’t going and doing something that was proving my worth in this world.

So I had another. I had a relapse of this massive, “Why do I hate myself? Why am I still struggling with loving myself?” That was a major revelation in that, “Oh, it’s not a sprint. This is not a I’m going to go do three weeks of therapy and somehow after 37 years of not knowing how to love myself I’m just going to magically be healed.” I’m still on that journey now, and the book, it reflects that in the book. I thought I finished the book.

I basically finished the book, was ready to turn it in. The pandemic happened, and then I fell apart again and I thought, “Well, I can’t release this book. I can’t tell people, ‘Hey, here’s how you go love yourself,’ when in fact I have gone back to now not loving myself again,” but that, I think, made the book a little more special, a little more rich because I learned a lot more in that time and I could apply that to what we talk about in the book. I don’t know. I mean, all of those things are … There’s lots of themes that I’m trying to get people around on, but ultimately, it’s love.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Let’s go back to what led you to seek that treatment? You write that you had a really bad panic attack when you were at a restaurant. Do you remember how that felt because I had panic attacks all the time as a child, and I’ve had them sporadically as an adult constantly. I also describe my childhood as white knuckling it, and I really relate to when you say you couldn’t sit with yourself. I found being alone in a hotel room when I was traveling almost unbearable. I had to go do something. For me, it was often going downstairs to the bar to have a drink, which was what led to my downfall, but I couldn’t sit with myself. So tell me what happened. I mean, describe for our listeners who’ve never had a panic attack what that felt like in that moment, why you felt like you needed to go to the emergency room, and what the nurse there told you.

Zachary Levi:

Yeah. Well, so in the book, yeah, there is one particular story where I’m at this restaurant here in Austin, and it felt like even more than a panic attack, to be honest, because with a panic attack, and I’ve had them a bit. I had them when I was going through a very difficult time in my marriage and divorce. I have had them in other points in my career, in various work situations, but this was different in that I was not just having a difficult time moving. I was actively despising myself in the midst of the panic attack and I didn’t know what to do.

Earlier that day or in that week, it’s all very much a blur, but I, basically, for example, I had moved all my stuff to Austin. I had boxes of plates and things and whatever, and I was in this rental house and I couldn’t even bring myself to unpack the boxes because I didn’t know the perfect place to put these plates. If I didn’t put them in the perfect place, then I was failing, failing putting plates into a cupboard. How do you fail putting plates into a cupboard? It was because no matter what I did as a kid, there was always this very harsh criticism, this very harsh judgment of, “Why did you do it that way? Why did you do it that way? That was stupid. That was stupid.”

So these things are flying through my head. The reason why I think I was having the panic attacks that I was having was because I just kept feeling like, “I don’t know how to do any of this right.” I don’t know how to even leave my home and run errands without feeling like, “I’m going to do them incorrectly. I’m going to fail them. I’m going to …” It doesn’t matter. For example, I would look at my room as a child and cleaning my room. If I had things on my dresser and things on my bed and things in my closets that were all needing to be reorganized or cleaned up, I would analysis paralysis.

I would sit there and I would freeze. I didn’t know these are little panic attacks, but these are the little panic attacks I was having where I didn’t know where to begin the process because if I didn’t do it in the exact perfect order that was the most efficient and somehow the most perfect way of doing it, then I was judging myself. I was prejudging myself before my parents or anyone else could judge me.

Sitting in this parking lot at this restaurant, I was having that while simultaneously also feeling just incredibly lost and despondent because I had no idea how to get myself out of this, but I knew that I had to put food in my stomach. I drove around probably for 10 minutes not knowing which place to eat because I didn’t know which place was the right place to eat as opposed to just saying, “Zach, just go eat some food. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you go to that pizza joint or that Chinese place or whatever. Just go get some food. If you’re hungry, go get some food.”

So that was already circulating, and then I’m sitting in my car, I’m sitting in my truck, and vividly, I remember I was holding onto the wheel and I was just shaking back and forth that like almost trying to shake myself out of what it was going on and I’m just weeping. I’m just crying. I’m like, “God, help me.” I was somebody who’s been very spiritual my whole life and has always had a very, I think, pretty deep faith and a belief in a God and a God that loves me.

I was absolutely lost. I did not feel God in any way, shape or form. I felt like, again, my life was a failure. I felt like there was nothing that I could do that was right. I felt like anything that I did someone was going to say, “Well, why did you do it that way?” because that was just so, and it’s self talk. We talk to ourselves the way that our parents talk to us. If we had good parenting, if we had parents that were really chill, and really loving, and very empathetic, and patient, and kind, and graceful, well, guess what? Good chance, you’re going to speak that way to yourself, but if you did not have that and I did not have that, I just continued to regurgitate the same types of criticisms, the same types of judgments. That’s where most of my panic attacks I think came from. So that’s what was going on in that restaurant parking lot.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Why did you go to the ER?

Zachary Levi:

I was having very active thoughts of ending my life.

Elizabeth Vargas:

You were thinking of suicide.

Zachary Levi:

Suicidal thoughts, yeah. It wasn’t the first time I had had them. I had been in dark places in my life before, but I guess in those moments I had people around me. I had foolishly, I mean, I think I made the right choice in moving to Austin. I don’t think I did it exactly the right way. I didn’t realize I was running away from so much, but I moved out here and I didn’t have anybody. I didn’t have a support structure. I didn’t have friends. I didn’t have a job going on at the time. I didn’t have anything that was any scaffolding that was holding me up emotionally or mentally.

So in this particular moment, I’m out here in this wonderful city, but basically by myself, and the darkness surrounds me again. The lies are whispering into my ear and the failure that I felt that I was was enough to be like, “Zach, it doesn’t feel like you’re going to make it out of this.” So I was actively thinking about, “Well, if I was going to end my life, how would I end my life?”

Fortunately, I talked to a really dear friend of mine and he Googled some stuff online for me and said, “Hey, there’s a psych ward at one of the hospitals, main hospitals here in Austin. Drive there. Go there.”

I was terrified because I knew that, and I talk about this in the book, I knew that every single time I’ve ever had a job, you fill out these physical questionnaires and whatnot.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Right, for insurance companies.

Zachary Levi:

For insurance companies. One of the questions they ask you is, “Have you ever been hospitalized for any mental health issues?” I was like, “If I do this, will I ever get hired again? Will I ever even work again or will I just be this insurance risk that none of the studios will take a chance on?” but I was out of options. Also, while I actively was thinking about ways I might end my life, the thing that kept me alive ultimately was I was thinking about my nephew. My sister had just had her first child. He was the light of our family as children often are.

I knew, even in all that panic and all that terror and all of that depression and everything, anxiety, I knew that if I killed myself, my family would be very, very, very affected, but beyond that, because I’d already rationalized that. I was like, “Well, they’ll get over it. They’ll eventually get over it, maybe, whatever.” I don’t know. When you’re in that level of depression, you think, “Everybody will be better off without me, anyway.”

Then I started thinking about my nephew, and I realized that if I killed myself, my sister would be so distraught and so despondent and so upset that she would not be able to be the mother that she needed to be for her son, and that just made me think of how I never had the mom that I needed in my time when I was a child and I was like, “I can’t fuck up this kid’s life. I can’t be the reason why this kid did not have a healthy present mother in his life.”

So that was really the only thing that kept me from doing some really, really tragic, drastic thing to myself, and because of that, when my friend said, “Hey, there’s a place you can go to right here. Just go. If that’s the only option you have right now, then go.” I, in tears, drove myself over to this place and went to go check in.

It was all a very terrifying experience. I mean, they don’t know you from Adam. They don’t know what you’re dealing with. I sat down with some lovely people, but they’re some social workers who are just trying to get to the bottom of how desperate is this situation, and my options were, “You can stay overnight,” which I was terrified for because then I’m going to have to write that on a piece of paper for the rest of my life or, “We can give you essentially the equivalent of Benadryl, which will sedate you enough to calm you down.”

Actually, internally I was laughing. I couldn’t believe that I’m at this place where I’m pretty sure I don’t want to live anymore, but my two options are one, I don’t think I can do because of the long-lasting ramifications of what that would ultimately mean or Benadryl, but also, I also understand why they can’t just prescribe you hardcore psychotropic or antidepressant drugs. If you don’t know what’s going on with somebody biochemically, you can’t just start giving them-

Elizabeth Vargas:

Well, and by the way, an antidepressant is going to take weeks, if not, months to kick in.

Zachary Levi:

Exactly, and it’s going to take a long time. So they obviously were doing their job exactly as they were supposed to be doing it, but if you have found yourself like I did where you’re already … That’s why it’s important. That’s why we got to catch these things before we completely fall apart. That’s why in the book I talk about I think that one of the best correlations I can make to mental health is dental health. We have to treat our brains like we treat our teeth. We have to wake up and brush our mind. We have to floss and brush it before we go to bed. This is prayer. This is meditation. This is eating well. This is working out. This is self-care.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Sleeping well.

Zachary Levi:

Sleeping well, all of these things. The older you get, the more delicate all of that is. The younger you are, and this is very well-documented, but the younger you are, the more your little ego is able to handle all of these blows, all of these things that happen to you and still be able to just keep pushing through, but the older you get, the more all that stuff starts to really not work for you as well or as efficiently.

If you do struggle with any type of mental illness, it just exacerbates the older you get, and that’s very similar to if you had a cavity and you don’t take care of that cavity, well, guess what? In a few months or a year, you’re going to need a full blown root canal. That’s ultimately what I found myself in. My mind was in need of a massive, massive root canal. Even still, I didn’t realize there was some other work that needed to be done in there that the pandemic ultimately showed me.

Elizabeth Vargas:

You write in the book about your thoughts of suicide. You write, “People say that suicide is the most selfish thing you can do because it’s inflicting pain on the people who care about you, but when you’re in the depths of despair, it certainly doesn’t feel that way. It feels like you’re such a burden on everyone that by killing yourself you’re doing the world a favor.”

I was really struck by … That’s pretty powerful. I think, for example, when Anthony Bourdain committed suicide, a lot of people were like, “What? How? Why? How did he feel that depressed?” Like you, a man on top of the world with everything, all the trappings that we all think we want that would make us feel good, and if I only had that, it’ll all be better, and he had all that, and you had all that. I’m curious as to how much, for example, when that happened to him, you write that this is something you’ve been struggling. Suicidal ideation is something you’ve struggled with most of your life.

Zachary Levi:

Yeah, I mean, throughout my life, not consistently, but there have been I would say three or four moments throughout my life where I’ve definitely gone to that place in my head. I would say, though, that if ultimately taking your own life, let’s say it’s rungs of a ladder and you got to get to the 10th rung in order to actually act on it, I’ve gotten to the ninth. I’ve never gotten, thank God, I’ve never gotten to that last 10th rung that, by the way, plenty of people get to. Anthony, obviously did. Kate Spade, another person who these people that we look at, Robin Williams.

I mean, now, it turned out that Robin was dealing with a lot of degenerative stuff that was going on in his mind that they ultimately found out about, but Robin, I mean, he was a hero of mine. His talent, his heart, the way he loved people, the way that he loved the homeless, the way that he cared about them, he was a really, truly, deeply empathetic person who really cared about other human beings, and yet was so tortured in his own mind. I think that’s maybe partly why he felt so obligated to bring joy into the world. I felt very, very akin to that.

So when he died, it really, really, really, really, really rocked me because I felt like if he can’t make it, I don’t know how I’m ultimately going to continue to navigate through this life, unless I can somehow figure out how to not keep falling into these places of depression and anxiety, but to your point about Anthony Bourdain, we all hear all the time about the uber wealthy or the uber rich.

Everyone says, “Money can’t buy you happiness, and it’s all the really wealthy people in the world, they’re really not that happy. If you ever met anybody who’s really wealthy, they’re really not that happy.” We hear these things. We all might even believe them. I think maybe we want to believe them because most of us-

Elizabeth Vargas:

We’re not.

Zachary Levi:

… are not uber wealthy. Exactly. So we’re like, “Yeah. Well, I’m glad I’m not uber wealthy because at least I’m not totally jacked up and super depressed,” but there is a lot of validity to that because money can’t ultimately buy you what is actual happiness. It can buy you things that bring you temporary happiness. Again, there’s been so many studies done on these types of things. For example, the rush of dopamine that one gets when they make a purchase, right?

Now, the uber wealthy are going to go buy a yacht or a Lamborghini or a plane or whatever it is, and they’re going to have an incredible rush of dopamine, but what’s fascinating is that that same rush of dopamine is the same rush of dopamine that somebody with an average income gets when they buy a Mazda Miata. It’s the same. If you actually boil it down, if you measure it, there’s no difference. You don’t get more because you have more money and you bought a Lambo instead of a Miata. It’s the same, which is ultimately also a really gnarly trap to fall in my mom because my mother struggled with self-love her entire life because she had a mother who was very psychologically abusive to her and never really showed her love, never modeled self-love and never really showed motherly love to her, consistent, real, unconditional love, which is ultimately what you need as a child.

So my mom, for the rest of her life, was trying to find happiness in so many other things, and she found retail therapy. My mom was constantly shopping all the time. She was shopping with money that we didn’t even have. She was the queen of credit cards and layaway. I mean, in the ’80s, that was a-

Elizabeth Vargas:

I remember layaway.

Zachary Levi:

Oh, my God! I mean, you remember. I mean, my mom had layaway at Mervyn’s, at Marshalls, at JC Penney. She had it everywhere and she would just constantly go because my mom felt like, even though she didn’t have wins in other places, if she could go find some incredible dress or jacket or something that was on sale, and my mom just going in and making little payments on the layaway because she felt like, “I’m winning. I’m winning right now.” She would get her little dopamine hits.

I, fortunately, have never had a retail therapy situation because I haven’t really, not that I haven’t gotten dopamine hits from getting a new toy or something like that. Mine were always other addictions that started as a child in video games. I mean, I was constantly running to these other worlds to escape the traumatic, abusive household that I was in. I had no idea that that’s what I was doing, but those addictions lead to other addictions later in life.

I became addicted to cigarettes. I became addicted to attention, addicted to making people happy. I mean, oh, my, gosh, as an actor, as a little kid, when I found out I could make people laugh and that made people feel good, I was like, “I don’t ever want to stop doing this for the rest of my life,” not realizing that I was actually addicted to that because it somehow gave me a purpose and a value outside of myself.

So Anthony Bourdain, he had so much on the outside. You could say, “Sure, you’ve got all this on the outside,” but that doesn’t mean that deep down he actually loves himself. Just because everybody else might think, “You’re the greatest guy. Oh, my gosh! You’re so …” whatever that is, I mean, I’ll go to conventions and I meet thousands of fans and they’re incredible to me. They just love on me and I just love back on them. I see it as more than anything.

I think people lining up for me to just give them some love, but no matter how much all that happens, if you don’t ultimately still start with your own reservoir of self-love, not only does everyone else’s love not really take root, but oftentimes, it makes you in some ways feel kind of worse because you are essentially thinking to yourself, “I’m a fraud. Why would these people love me? They don’t even know me. They don’t know the depths of the depression or anxiety that I deal with, and if I can’t love myself, how could I possibly believe that any of their love is real? How could I possibly believe that any of that means anything to the value that I have as a person?”

Yet you are stuck in this really weird dance with it. You need it, but you don’t believe it. I think it was somebody like Anthony Bourdain. He was very famous, very popular, very loved, very good at his job, and he shined lights on so many different cultures and people, and you’d think, “Wow, that guy’s really got it together,” but biochemically, I mean, there are so many things that can go on in our minds and people have no idea what’s going on, and that was actually one of the biggest revelations I had when I went to therapy, which was just how easily our minds can be deceived, just how easily our minds can hijack or rather our bodies can hijack our minds or however you want to slice that, but dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, these are massively important hormones that flow through our bodies on a regular basis or should be flowing through our bodies on a regular basis if we’re living healthy lives and if our bodies are operating on a normal, healthy level.

If we’re not sleeping enough, if we’re not eating correctly, if we’re not moving our bodies, if we are not also, by the way, really, that’s why therapy is so incredibly important because if you can’t get these things out of your head, if you can’t get these little bits of lies and deceptions, which we are so good at telling ourselves, if you can’t get them out of your head and get them to some a professional where they can be the mirror back to you and say, “Oh, wow. That’s a lie. Should we not talk about that? Why do you think this thing about yourself?” and then you start to explain it, and then as you’re explaining it, it becomes very evident that, “Oh, wow. Why am I doing that?”

Friends and family are great. I tell everybody, if you’re struggling out there, start with friends and family. Talk to somebody. Silence is the killer. I was sitting in so much silence about my unhappiness because partly I didn’t know that I was unhappy. I thought I was just angry with the way that the world … Moving out to Austin and building this movie studio, I wanted to do that because I wanted to fix the world. I wanted to go make a better thing. I wanted people to be taken care of in an industry that I feel like doesn’t ultimately take care of the people that work in it oftentimes.

So that drove me and I didn’t realize that it wasn’t just me wanting to make a better world. I was deeply unhappy. I think that Anthony, no matter how much he accomplished, was still actually probably just deeply unhappy in his life.

Elizabeth Vargas:

So after you went to the hospital and were given the choice between checking yourself in and getting a massive dose of Benadryl, you end up checking yourself into therapy, an inpatient therapeutic setting.

Zachary Levi:

Yeah, essentially. It wasn’t so much a facility as much as an organization, a great organization that they curate an experience for you, meaning they operate in a couple different places in the United States. One is in Southern California. I didn’t want to go there just because I felt like I’m from there. I’d be tempted to see friends or family or whatever. That might kind of muddy that up a little. They had another one, another area they operated in in Connecticut.

Essentially, what they do is they find you a house to stay in. They work with all the local therapists and psychiatrists in that area, and then they coordinate all of your appointments and you go to all of these places. So I mean, essentially inpatient, but not necessarily specifically at a facility, but yes, I checked myself into that program and I was there for three weeks, and thank God because it saved my life.

Elizabeth Vargas:

What did you learn there?

Zachary Levi:

Well, I learned that I didn’t love myself. I learned that I didn’t even understand the concept of self-love. I didn’t really understand … First, I had heard self-love. I mean, we hear about it a lot, “Do you love yourself? You should love yourself.” I don’t know. I wasn’t actively, in my mind, I wasn’t actively, I wasn’t cutting myself. I wasn’t wanting to harm myself. I didn’t realize that a lot of my drinking or recreational drug use or various things that I was doing were in fact hurting me or were not allowing me to really metabolize my pain, which is hurting me. We have got to do that. If you’re just running from your pain all the time, it’s going to catch you eventually.

So those things were very important for me to recognize and why I didn’t love myself and giving myself a break. I mean, that’s one of the biggest things that I think we all need to do. We’re all doing the best we can with the tools that we have, but then in learning that about me, another thing that I learned was, oh, my gosh, my mom and my stepdad and anyone else in my life who has ever been, let’s say, less than stellar in the ways that they have treated me or perhaps even been downright abusive to me were also, and here’s the kicker, doing the best they could with the tools that they had.

That was a huge, huge, huge revelation for me because we can all hold on to the trauma. We can hold on to the abuse. We can hold on to that pain. We can hold on to that anger. We can hold on to that unforgiveness, but as many other wise people have said in many other ways for many, many years, “Unforgiveness is like drinking poison hoping that the other person will die.”

Forgiving another person is not forgive and forget, “Oh, it’s okay,” hug and kiss and make up and not have any boundaries. Forgiveness is recognizing that that person, as crazy as it might sound, wasn’t doing anything to you personally. They were acting out of their own trauma. They were acting out of their own unhealed, unresolved trauma that they were unaware of, and for you to be able to recognize that and allow for that.

For me, one of the practice that I try to do is I try to see everyone, and I mean everyone, and it’s not that it’s easy all the time, but I try to just imagine everyone as their five-year-old self because at five years old, by and large, kids, they’re open and they’re lovely and they’re optimistic and they are not judgmental. They’re not seeing color and race and faith and any of those. They just see another kid or whatever.

We all have these things that are built up in us, particularly when we are hurt by people, and we go, “Oh, bad person, evil person, monster.” We vilify them in our own hearts and our minds, and collectively, we do this. So for me to be able to really, really, really love myself meant I had to forgive myself. I had to accept that, “Hey, Zach, all these things that you’re beating yourself up about, you shouldn’t be because you didn’t know better. How could you possibly be angry with yourself if you didn’t know X, Y, or Z?”

So you go, “Okay. So I need to apply that grace to myself,” but you can’t ultimately fully do that unless you’re willing to do that with everyone else. I mean, to correlate it to let’s say a spiritual analogy, it’s like when Jesus talks about forgiveness and talking about, “Judge not lest ye yourself be judged.” There’s real stuff in all of that.

It’s like, “How could I possibly believe that I am a product of my environment but not my parents?” You can’t. If you really want to get to the end of hating on yourself, if you really want to figure out how to radically accept, radically forgive, and radically love yourself, well, guess what? The other side of that coin is you’ve got to radically accept, forgive, and love all of those people that you really don’t want to, you really don’t want to.

Elizabeth Vargas:

It reminds me of something that, first of all, in recovery, I’m in recovery because I ran away from all my anxiety and numbed it with alcohol. One of the things they say in recovery is that forgiveness, you don’t do it for them, it’s a gift to yourself.

Zachary Levi:

Exactly.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Because to live in resentment and anger, I’m drinking the poison. He’s not drinking the poison, I’m drinking the poison. He’s not stewing and having internal fights in my head. It’s ruining only one person’s life, my life. So forgiveness is actually a gift for yourself, and it isn’t saying what you did was okay. Not at all.

Zachary Levi:

Not at all.

Elizabeth Vargas:

It’s simply saying, “I’m going to forgive you because,” as you just put it, “you were a product of what happened to you as well.”

Zachary Levi:

Yes, yes, and allowing yourself to release that. You can’t go back and change it. Sitting and stewing and being angry about something that’s happened to you will not change the fact that it happened.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Right, but it will change your life right now and your decisions going forward in a negative way.

Zachary Levi:

Yes, yes, 100%. Again, this is why I think that terms like forgiveness and terms like love, we really need to reevaluate how we look at these things. Forgiveness doesn’t mean the forgive and forget. Forgiveness doesn’t mean, “You’ve hurt me. I forgive you and now I’m just going to allow you to continue to do whatever you did and maybe I’m going to get hurt again,” because that’s unfortunately what most people, I think, think about forgiveness. They think, “Well, I can’t forgive this person because then they’re going to do this to me again.”

I go, “No, no, no, no. You can forgive them and also prevent them from ever doing that to you again because you can have boundaries,” but we don’t understand how to have healthy boundaries, and partly because, particularly when it comes to family or those closest to us, which tend to be the people that hurt us the most, we think and we are often emotionally bullied into these ideas. If you try to have a healthy boundary with your parents, for example, and they don’t understand, they’re like, “Why aren’t you picking up my phone calls? Why aren’t you coming over? Why can’t I come?”

If you try to hold those boundaries, typically people who don’t respect boundaries start freaking out, and then we start to crumble because we’re like, “I don’t want my mom or dad or sister or brother or wife or husband or whomever to be upset with me. I don’t want to be the cause of this. So I’m just going to now relax these boundaries so that they’re less volatile, so that there’s more peace in all of this,” but we have got to be willing to look at even the people closest to us in our lives and say, “I am going to choose forgiveness. I’m going to choose to even love you but from a distance, and I will have boundaries up to the extent that I need to have them for my own peace of mind, my own emotional wellbeing, all of those things.”

Zachary Levi:

That is perfectly right. That is perfectly healthy.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Finally, I’m sure you’ve seen the statistics after this pandemic. The rates of anxiety and depression are off the charts. Self-harm among teenagers and young adults is off the charts. Drug overdoses are off the charts. We are a nation really, really struggling when it comes to mental health, and you write in your book, “If you’re feeling overwhelmed, rundown, fearful, stressed out, anxious, depressed, alone or anything that may be robbing you of your peace or your joy, talk to someone. Do not believe the lie that you are going through this alone because you aren’t. You could be sitting next to someone right this second who struggles with the same issues you do. Maybe that person can help you. We are all in this together.” That’s pretty amazing.

Zachary Levi:

Yeah. I mean, the first step is acknowledging that there’s a problem, right? Well, you’re never going to acknowledge that there’s a problem unless you can actually speak, unless you can get it out. Our minds are incredible. These things are unreal. Cool. They’re so powerful. They’re so creative. I mean, it separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom in a lot of different ways. They’re incredible, but they are also so delicate and can be hijacked so easily just based on a little lack of dopamine, just a little imbalance in that, and you can go from starting your day feeling optimistic and, “Everything’s okay. I can absolutely accomplish whatever’s ahead of me,” to “The world is falling apart. The sky is falling. The world is falling apart. I’m a failure. I am buried in the minutiae of my …”

I mean, so often I would wake up for years and I would lay there paralyzed because I would just think of the list of things that I had yet to do or the things that I had said I was going to do and haven’t done and just sitting there and sitting there and just piling up and piling up and piling up and piling up. I would just be catatonic and frozen, and all because my biochemical levels were off.

I think it’s important that we can understand that, “Oh, I’m thinking really not good things right now.” Well, guess what? You shouldn’t be operating on those thoughts. We need to be able to recognize when we are stuck into these places.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Reach out.

Zachary Levi:

Reach out. Exactly.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Tell somebody.

Zachary Levi:

Ultimately, right. So we get trapped. Because of all this, the imbalance in our biochemicals, we get trapped in our minds. We don’t say anything. We feel like, “I am uniquely broken. There’s nobody that’s going to understand this. Doctors have never seen anything like this.” It’s a lie. All of that is a lie. The darkness sends those lies into our minds.

The first step is acknowledging, and that means speaking. You have got to speak it into existence. You have got to say, “Hey, I am feeling stressed out. I am feeling …” By the way, sometimes we don’t have the words for these. I didn’t even know what anxiety was until I went to therapy. I didn’t realize that this constant feeling I had almost all of my life was in fact anxiety. I didn’t know. I just felt an uneasiness. I just felt like, “Why don’t I feel okay in my skin or in this place?” or whatever it was.

The irony is that booze can give you this temporary relief, but then the next day amplifies that anxiety tenfold. So then you’re running back to get more and it just becomes this vicious cycle. You can speak to this.

That’s what I think ultimately where it has got to start and I wrote that, I remember I think I was on a subway in New York and I was sitting across from some folks on a subway. And I was struggling in my mind and I was thinking about what I was struggling with

I was just looking across at some strangers and thinking to myself, “How do I know that they’re not also dealing with the same shit?” We know know. We could be sitting right next to somebody on a subway or on a plane or in your living room next to your loved ones and you have no idea unless you actually say, “Hey, I’m feeling this way,” but we get very embarrassed. That comes from a lot of the stigma that’s existed on mental health for a long time, which I am very grateful that is starting to actually really subside.

We are finally, so many athletes and so many actors or other people that have platform are speaking out and saying, “I struggle with this,” and that is normalizing it, and that is helping other people to feel like, “Oh, I guess I can talk about this and I won’t feel like a crazy person. People aren’t going to look at me sideways and be like, ‘Oh, whoa, whoa, whoa. You’re struggling in your mental health. Does that mean you got to be in a straight jacket in a rubber room?'” because 40 years ago, that was a pretty common thing for people to just, “I don’t know. That person sees a therapist?”

I mean, I remember growing up and watching movies in the ’80s and ’90s. It was still all a joke. If there was a therapist in the movie, it was a joke that this person had to go to this therapist or whatever it was. Now, it shouldn’t be a joke. That should be everyone. Every single one of us needs to go to therapy, even people who think that they don’t need to go to therapy. In fact, they’re probably the ones who need to go to therapy the most because we all think, “I got it. I got it. I got it. I got it,” but we don’t because we have no idea how our minds work. We really don’t.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Yeah. Today, how do you keep bright-sized for lack of a better term for it, but on the beam emotionally, mentally, spiritually? How do you do that?

Zachary Levi:

All of those things we were talking about. I think that diet, exercise, sleep. Sleep is a huge part of it, huge part of it.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Me, too. Me, too. It’s the first thing. If I don’t sleep well, then I won’t work out and then I don’t eat well because I’m tired and I’m cranky, and it’s learning to recognize, “Okay. That’s the one thing I need before everything else.”

Zachary Levi:

Yeah. Yeah. So diet, exercise, sleep. Prayer and meditation are very important, which are also somewhat synonymous I think in some ways. Sometimes my prayer is meditation. Sometimes I’m just there and allowing God to take over what that time is. I’m not really saying anything as much as I’m just spending time.

Elizabeth Vargas:

No, I remember Russell Brand said, “Prayer is when I talk to God and meditation is when God talks to me.”

Zachary Levi:

Talks to me, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly.

Elizabeth Vargas:

I thought that was very true.

Zachary Levi:

It is. It’s very true. It’s very true. It’s when we just shut up and allow that silence to be.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Be still enough to hear.

Zachary Levi:

Yeah. Yeah. I think one of the most important things, at least for me, is taking my thoughts captive. We are so, I can’t say it enough, our minds are so powerful, but they are so easily, so easily hijacked if we don’t allow, if we don’t really go, “Oh, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. I’m doing it again. I’m starting to speak ill of myself again. I’m starting to be harsh or critical of myself. I’m starting to judge where I’m at in my life.”

There are so many things in my life where I go, “I wish this was different and I wish that was different. Why didn’t I do this? Why didn’t I do that?” I go, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, Zach, Zach, Zach. See, you’re doing it again. You’re doing that thing again.” So that’s a huge part of just maintaining my own mental and emotional wellbeing is recognizing when I’m starting to fall into those old bad habits because we will. You’ve got to recognize that you’re going to fall into the same mental loops because they’re literally ingrained into your brain.

Your brain goes, “Oh, when you get to this point, think about this,” and when you get to that point, think about this. When you get to that point, think about this.” Then you end up in this thing. It’s a physiological thing. So that is a huge part of just trying to maintain that and, again, reaching out to friends. When I’m feeling down, getting a reminder from a friend being like, “Zach, you’re good. Let me just give you an outside perspective.”

Elizabeth Vargas:

A perspective check.

Zachary Levi:

Yes, because we need, because it’s so easy for us to just look at ourselves and think all of these things, but it’s because we struggle. We’re struggling and people outside of us can be that third party not to always lean on to be therapy, by the way. I don’t think that we ought to hope that our friends and family are going to be our therapists. That’s not their job. More than that, they’re not qualified, and as much as we all might wish and they might even wish that it can be unbiased, completely unbiased advice, it’s just not possible because our friends and our family all have an idea of who we are, who they want us to be or what they want our relationship to be or whatever it is.

So they’re going to have, whether they like it or not, little bits of agenda or bias or whatever. A disinterested professional third party has nothing to do other than just help you unpack that stuff and really work through it. So those are all things that I try to do to keep it going.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Zachary Levi, the book is Radical Love. You’re definitely doing a huge job of chipping away the stigma about mental health issues, and this is a message that a lot of people need to hear. So thank you.

Zachary Levi:

Thank you so much. Thank you for having me and for everybody who listened, thank you for listening, and I hope you guys get a chance to check it out. If you do, I hope that it resonates with you and helps in some way.