The Rumpus Interview With Paul Gilmartin
Paul Gilmartin, host of The Mental Illness Happy Hour, is creating a steady rumble in the world of podcasting. In fact, he is making a ruckus. Each week Gilmartin interviews fellow comedians, friends, artists, and sometimes a doctor or psychotherapist. All topics explore the varying facets of mental illness, addiction, sexual abuse, trauma, and all varieties of negative thinking.
Gilmartin is not a psychotherapist, he is not a psychoanalyst, he is not a psychiatrist; he is not even in the mental health field. He describes himself as a jackass who tells dick jokes. I disagree. He may tell dick jokes, but Paul Gilmartin is definitely not a jackass. He is a compassionate, funny human being who suffers from depression and childhood trauma and is on a mission to de-stigmatize mental illness one interview at a time. I am a psychoanalyst and in my opinion Gilmartin is providing an invaluable service to his listeners. His interviewing skills and his desire to connect with people allows for intense conversations that are usually reserved for therapists’ offices. I have recommended his podcasts to patients, colleagues, and friends. Why? Because listening to people being truthful about their flaws and their insecurities makes a person feel less alone. Sometimes patients and therapists also need to know there are others who have suffered in similar ways.
Gilmartin does not claim to be a mental health professional, which is why he begins every podcast with a responsible disclaimer: “The Mental Illness Happy Hour and its forum are NOT substitutes for professional diagnosis or treatment. For information on treatment please visit HelpGuide.org. This isn’t a doctor’s office. It’s more like a waiting room that doesn’t suck.”
Prior to being a podcaster Gilmartin was a comic and the host of TBS’s popular television show Dinner and a Movie from 1995 to 2011.
After listening to dozens of Gilmartin’s podcast interviews I was propelled to contact him. I was wildly curious to know more about this non-therapist who so skillfully interviews people. This is why I find myself rushing to the Sofitel Hotel in Beverly Hills just in time to see a live broadcast of The Mental Illness Happy Hour. I have arranged an interview with Paul for later that evening. It’s kind of funny that a few months ago I was a bit suspicious of this podcast called The Mental Illness Happy Hour. Now here I am, led by my own passions, about to meet a complete stranger who has moved me deeply.
I am nervous. Will I like him? Will he like me? These are the things I am thinking as Paul Gilmartin and I walk down the corridor headed to my hotel room where I am about to do an interview with him. We walk toward the desk and there is a small couch to the right. Paul half-joking says, “Should I lie down on that?” Why am I so damn nervous? I will have the rest of the interview to figure this out.
The Rumpus: How did you feel about the live podcast tonight?
Paul Gilmartin: I loved it. My guest Laura House was so good. She brought two things that make the podcast what it is—she brought honesty and vulnerability. And she brought a lot of humor on top of it.
Rumpus: You two were really well-matched.
Gilmartin: Ah, thanks. What was good is that her humor was not in place of her vulnerability.The thing that I strive for the podcast to be is honest. Humor is always welcomed but there are many episodes we’ve done where there was very little humor, and then there are episodes that are lighter—but they both still have a level of honesty in them.
Rumpus: There is one point when you ask Laura about her use of humor. You did it well, not in a threatening way but out of curiosity. As an analyst I was watching you listening to Laura and I was wondering if you were wondering about her use of humor.
Gilmartin: Yes, I was wondering to what extent humor became a defense mechanism for her. Because all comedians that I’ve met, we are funny, because we had to be funny. Once we begin to, I don’t know—flourish in our normal lives we can decide when to let the humor down and be vulnerable. I think it’s different for each person. I know some people who can never let it down, who are so terrified of silence. Or vulnerability. I knew Laura was not one of those people or I wouldn’t have asked her to be a guest tonight.
Rumpus: Did you know her previously?
Gilmartin: Our paths have crossed a few times. She had been taught by the same meditation teacher that the woman who taught me had been taught by. So we were kind of introduced that way. And we had a lot of mutual friends and we always kind of hit it off.
Rumpus: I have a whole bunch of question here but I don’t mind doing this interview organically. Is that okay?
Gilmartin: Yeah, that’s fine.
Rumpus: A little bit like a podcast interview and a little bit like an analytic session—just what comes to our minds. You had a guest on one of your podcasts and you said that you just couldn’t reach her and I was feeling that way listening to her. I thought when is she going to open up? It was great when you shared your impression with the guest because then she really did become less defensive. What was that like for you?
Gilmartin: Yeah, it was amazing, she just instantly switched gears, and it wasn’t me trying to get her to be vulnerable it was just a question that popped into my head at that moment. Then she said, “My dad was never proud of me.” And she started to cry. Then the interview felt so different.
Rumpus: How long do you wait to ask questions like that? Do you just intuit?
Gilmartin: At that point in the interview I am kind of like a listener. I want to hear their story as much as the listener does. So when I am listening I have the great opportunity to say, “Hey I’d like to hear about this other thing,” but I never have a list of questions to ask people. I may have some thoughts in my mind that I would like to ask them about a subject but I let the conversation go where it wants to for better or worse. I do have the luxury of being able to edit. Some episodes are three hours long and I may have to chop an hour out of it.
Rumpus: You once did this interview with a woman who was a model and you tried so hard but never seemed able to reach her. It was painful to listen to her deflect your questions and I was wondering what that was like for you? You kept trying and trying.
Gilmartin: It’s frustrating because I feel that everybody has something to share. Everybody has some struggle inside them.
Rumpus: You talked about that tonight at the live podcast and I found what you said quite moving. You described the ways in which every person struggles.
Gilmartin: I remember I was reading this interview once; it was with Steve Case of AOL and he was talking about being at the Davos conference in Switzerland, and he is standing there at the bar and he said to this person who was interviewing him something like, “I come here every year and I don’t know why because whatever room I am in I always feel like I am in the wrong room and something better is going on in another room. And I felt, Oh it never ends. Here is a guy who is a billionaire who is hanging out with the most important people in the world and he still feels left out. And that to me is a perfect example that our attitude of what we have and don’t have is the only thing we truly have control over. That’s not only one of the things that saved my life but it helps me on a daily basis stay sane. But that is just one of the many things I need to stay sane.
Rumpus: What are the other things?
Gilmartin: I need meds, I need a psychiatrist, I need a therapist, I need support groups, and I need exercise. But attitude is the one thing that a lot of people overestimate and a lot of people underestimate.
Rumpus: What do you mean?
Gilmartin: Well, the loved one of someone who has depression will often say you just need to stop feeling sorry for yourself. Well, no attitude change in the world is going to get you out of clinical depression.
Gilmartin: By the same token somebody who is an isolator who is incredibly successful maybe bordering on workaholic and is perennially unhappy because they have an 8,000 square foot house and they want a 16,000 square foot house. That person needs an attitude adjustment to appreciate what they have instead of what they don’t have. These are both examples of where a change in attitude can certainly help.
Rumpus: What you are describing in my field is the conundrum of how do you make someone conscious of something that they are not yet conscious of?
Rumpus: And therein lies the work. You do that with your podcast interviews. Very gently you try and expand your interviewee’s awareness. And you do it really well, Paul.
Gilmartin: I try. I try. Thank you.
Rumpus: I think you succeed.
Gilmartin: When my podcast works I think it’s because of the power of someone telling a story. Telling the truth. Nothing, nothing can get to us like the power of telling a story. We know when someone is telling the truth and there is an inherent emotion in telling a story. That’s why we love to go to the movies and read a book. Mental illness or any type of mental struggle is such a complicated and difficult thing to put your finger on. I don’t want to do a podcast about solutions to mental illness. I want to do a podcast about the emotions associated with it and bring comfort and hopefully some entertainment. When I was getting sober I suddenly realized how important comfort and laughter was in healing. Yes, I certainly needed to learn the tools to begin to cope and we do talk about tools on the podcast but it would be vastly different and be a much more boring and dry podcast if it was just tool oriented.
Rumpus: I am always interested when people in analysis or therapy ask for tools. I wonder what they have in mind. Some therapists will be happy to tell you what to do but psychoanalysis, like your podcast, is not about solutions. Often it is about being known and being seen.
Gilmartin: Being felt and heard is profound. The first time I felt heard and seen I cried.
Rumpus: When was that?
Gilmartin: The very first time I was in therapy. I was in my mid-twenties.
Rumpus: How did you find your way into therapy?
Gilmartin: (Laughs a bit) The moment I knew something was wrong was when I was at a traffic light and people were crossing in front of me when my light was green and they wouldn’t stop. They just kept walking. I was late for something. I was honking the horn and they weren’t listening; they just kept walking. They weren’t seeing me, they weren’t hearing me. I didn’t know at the time that that was triggering to me. And I started screaming out my window, “Get the fuck out of the way!” “What the fuck!” I was laying on my horn and out of nowhere there was this guy, like out of a time machine in the fifties, with a fedora and a trench coat and a brief case—might as well of had a pipe in his mouth, and his face was four inches from my face and he just looked me in the eyes and he said, “Son, get a hold of yourself.” The way he said it was a mixture of sadness and disbelief.
Rumpus: What was that like for you?
Gilmartin: That was the first moment I saw that I was not well. And I asked someone who had been in therapy if they knew of a therapist and she recommended one and that’s who I went to.
Rumpus: Is that when you got sober?
Gilmartin: It was probably another 16 years before I got sober. My alcoholism progressed mostly in my thirties.
Rumpus: I remember on one of your podcasts you described a late evening drinking alone in a bar and asking a person next to you not to leave because you couldn’t tolerate the idea of being alone.
Gilmartin: Yes, I don’t ever want to feel that alone again.
Rumpus: And that’s the tagline for your podcast: “YOU ARE NOT ALONE.” This evening you told the audience that it wasn’t until you started podcasting that you felt truly heard and loved. So how did you think of starting a podcast?
Gilmartin: I’d gone off my meds in late 2010. I was on Wellbutrin, Celexa, and Buspar.
Rumpus: Why did you go off of them?
Gilmartin: I was on a diet to combat Candida and I was starting to feel my body change and feel really good and I thought well, I wonder if that is what the depression was coming from so I wanted to try going off meds. My psychiatrist was like, “Don’t. I am urging you in the strongest way not to go off them. Please don’t.” And I thought, he doesn’t know what he is talking about. I got this. So I went off them and I thought that I’d know in the first two months if it was a bad idea. I didn’t know it can take up to five or six months for the depression to come back. My month five was between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And I am suicidal but I think it’s because my life really is shit.
Rumpus: As opposed to being off your meds?
Gilmartin: I was fooled that badly that I was considering suicide and I thought oh my god, this is the lie of mental illness, it’s just in camouflage again and I went back on my meds and within three or four days I was feeling better. I went back to my psychiatrist and I thought, I’d been seeing a psychiatrist for ten years. I’d been in therapy. I was in support groups. I was sober for years, on meds eight years, and I thought if I could be fooled by my own mental illness that badly and I knew I had it and admitted it, imagine what somebody is up against who doesn’t even believe they have mental illness. And I thought: This has to be talked about! And I thought podcasting is the perfect medium for it because it’s not going to be done in a five-minute chunk, it needs to have the raw honesty and vulnerability and humor that my favorite support groups have.
Rumpus: I never knew what a podcast was. I would hear people talk about them but I just didn’t get it. But earlier this year I went to iTunes and I see there is a podcast section, and I click it. Hundreds of podcasts pop up. There is a search box and I don’t want to listen to fluff so I type in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis and your podcast pops up. I see Mental Illness Happy Hour and think, That’s a cool title. I see the station wagon with the pill bottle strapped on top. I decide to give it a try and select the episode with your friend Greg Cheever. I’m listening to it on a long drive from Seattle to Anacortes, WA. I am listening and I keep asking myself who is this Paul Gilmartin and how does he know how to ask these kinds of questions. I found myself wondering if you were a therapist.
I went to a class the next week where I was teaching about transference and countertransference and I recommended your podcast to the therapists. I am all for people in my field also learning from and about people outside of our field.
Gilmartin: Oh. Interesting.
Rumpus: So this is how I became hooked on your podcast. I loved the interview you did with Mick Betancourt. I was so moved by the way you engaged with him and his willingness to share traumatic details from his past. I’ve told many people, patients and colleagues, about this interview because something about hearing someone describe their life, who is not in an office laying on a couch, can be so life-affirming and enlightening. It is one thing to share trauma from your past in a therapist’s office. But sometimes you can still feel so isolated so to hear someone share their life truly does make you feel less alone. This is what I mean that I like learning from outside of my field too.
Listening to men talk about trauma and childhood sexual abuse is particularly helpful for men who have never been able to talk about sexual abuse because they feel tremendous shame. Your podcast can be listened to in privacy and there is a powerful connection when you hear someone else naming something that hasn’t been known or verbalized yet. I so appreciate what you are doing, Paul.
Gilmartin: [Listens quietly.] Thank you, it means so much to me. And sexual abuse is shame ridden. It’s so important to talk about. What a mind fuck. The biggest problem for me in recovering from what my mom did is in classifying it. I still struggle with it. I will still say to myself, “You are just doing this for attention; you are a baby. You are exaggerating. You are throwing your mom under the bus for attention, and you are a fucking terrible person.”
Rumpus: Does that ever lessen for you?
Gilmartin: It has but it’s taken a really, really long time. I don’t know if I will ever feel entirely confident in saying I was sexually abused by my mother. I say I am seventy-five percent confident. I am confident in saying my mom creeps me out, she is physically inappropriate; she did things that felt like she was tricking me.
Rumpus: What’s the twenty-five percent hold out?
Gilmartin: Because she didn’t touch my penis. In some ways, and I know other people feel the same way whose sexual abuse was covert or in a grey area, we wish sometimes that it was overt instead of covert. Grey.
Rumpus: Paul, your willingness to share your anxieties and fears and uncertainties and to be honest is why I, and a lot of other people keep listening to your podcast. Your ability to talk openly about your fears is what life is about.
Gilmartin: The battle you have to get through to get to the next battle.
Rumpus: To name it.
Gilmartin: Yeah and when you can’t name it and you feel negatively about yourself and are afraid of criticism to begin with it is hard to even get out of gate… to be so afraid, doubt your integrity, which is one of the hallmarks of being sexually abused. The things that it leaves you with are the very things that damage you to be healed. And that’s one of the things I am proud of that we talk about on the podcast. It is a circuitous, cloudy road of healing from sexual abuse. I cringe sometimes when I think about the way that I have healed publicly.
Gilmartin: Because I am afraid it looks exhibitionist. It’s one of the things that happens when you are healing from when a parent did weird stuff to you. And I was so terrified. Here I go again making it all about me. And that is something I battle with but when I am in that moment.
Rumpus: Again, for me it is your willingness to share, like this—this is why I love your podcast. Your ability to say that you are afraid that people will think you are an exhibitionist. Being able to talk about fears is what life is about. Fuck the rest. Why would a person want to listen to anything else?
Gilmartin: Sometimes people will say negative stuff. They complain no matter what I say.
Rumpus: How does it make you feel that I say how important your podcast is to me?
Gilmartin: For two seconds I think gosh she is probably right and then I think maybe she is just saying that, and she’s a therapist her job is to make people feel better. But I know you are telling the truth there is a part of me that really resists taking that in.
Rumpus: Do you know why?
Gilmartin: I think it is stage I am working through. It is getting easier to get that I am okay as I am, that I am not the selfish martyr that my mom used to say I was when she was mad.
Rumpus: People are so idiosyncratic and sometimes if you hear that one person who has a similar or identical background, something so unbelievable and traumatic and you hear them say it out loud, it really does make you feel less alone.
Gilmartin: My listeners and I do share shame.
Rumpus: You can’t not share.
Gilmartin: Right, I can’t not. I am just somebody who does. I get emails from therapists who share stuff that they don’t even share with their own therapists. I am really proud with the podcast, that I have created non-judgmental space where people can be themselves.
When listeners like you who are mental health professionals write to me my jaw drops. My fear was I was going to piss off mental health professionals, that they were going to say who the fuck do you think you are talking about these things, but I have been very good about saying I am a jackass who tells dick jokes.
Rumpus: Yea, you’re not a jackass.
Gilmartin: [Laughs.] This is not the doctor’s office; this is the waiting room that doesn’t suck. And I am glad that I said that from the get-go because I don’t fear that anymore. And if I do get a criticism from a mental health professional it is more like, hey I thought you should know this or I really love your show, etc., but maybe a better way to phrase this is… or they might say: did you also know that this can happen? They (therapists) are so incredibly supportive. That has helped my confidence immensely.
Rumpus: Good. Oh, before we end, my Passover question: Why is your podcast different from all others?
Gilmartin: The things it shares with others but the thing that makes it different is that there is not a divide between the listeners and the guests and me. We are all interchangeable. I interview listeners, they help me, I help them and it truly is like a waiting room. I don’t think anybody has ever put a microphone in a waiting room.
Rumpus: Any worries or questions before we end?
Gilmartin: I don’t think so. I am beyond flattered. This is what I hoped would one day happen.