Grossman uses sense of humor to help destigmatize depression
February 8, 2005
Years before she began having real suicidal thoughts, and acting out on them, Julianne Grossman was a big fan of “Harold & Maude.” The black humor of Hal Ashby’s 1972 romance between a flamboyant octogenarian and a depressed 20-year-old struck just the right balance of the bleak and the comic for Grossman.”Ruth Gordon’s joie de vivre, and the ridiculousness of Bud Cort, trying to off himself while his mother’s filing her nails – hilarious!” she proclaims.Grossman never imagined how close to home the issues raised in “Harold & Maude” would hit. An only child raised in Woodland Hills, Grossman was accustomed to a reasonable degree of happiness in her personal life and success in her work as a voice-over actress. In 2002, however, the fates seemed lined up against her: Laser surgery left her with chronic dry-eye syndrome. A never-ending construction project just outside her door compounded her agony. And the decision to move her office into her home isolated her from the world. The antidepressants didn’t help, but did add yet another layer – sleeplessness – to her miseries. And the Ambien she took to relieve the insomnia only deepened her depression.
Soon enough, there was Grossman, an attractive, successful 32-year-old, doing her Bud Cort impersonation – but with rat poison instead of a blade to the wrist.”Everything in combination led to an inability to think clearly. And suicidal thoughts,” Grossman said. But after being locked down in three different hospitals, she had her medication switched to Effexor – “‘E-f-f-e-x-o-r, one of the SSNI, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor class of medications,” notes Grossman precisely – which seemed the cure to her ailments. “Within days of that, I woke up and the clouds had lifted.”Grossman had some performing background. She had studied theater at London’s Regent’s College, and had some opera training. She was in the New York production of the Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna comedy “Bermuda Avenue Triangle.” But that was all well in the past; she had given up theater for Voicetel Productions, her company that specializes in corporate voice-overs. “I’m the hateful lady who tells you the number you’re calling is busy, or your check has bounced,” she quipped.Still, there was a need to put her experience on paper. So Grossman bought a laptop and started spending time at coffee shops, pouring her days of depression into words.
“When I got better, in August of 2002, it tickled the back of my brain to write about this,” said Grossman, who lives in L.A.’s Studio City. “I discovered I had a real joy for writing. Which I never knew. I loved choosing the right words to convey the heaviness of depression and also the ridiculousness of my situation.”It was little surprise to Grossman that she could find humor in her own suicidal impulses. “I have a pretty warped and twisted way of seeing the world,” she said. “The only way I know to make things jive, all the sadness in the world and what I went through, is to laugh about it. Laughter kills the demons. And there were a hell of a lot of funny things that happened. My most severe suicide attempt was swallowing rat poison – which is kind of funny in a way.””From Bonkers to Botox,” Grossman’s one-person show in which she plays some 25 characters – doctors, fellow patients, herself, and her father, who Grossman says gets all the best lines – debuted at the Stella Adler Theater in Los Angeles last summer. The show might have completed its existence there, had Grossman not had a chance encounter with a friend she hadn’t seen in years. The friend happened to be in the development department with HBO. She saw the show and convinced the rest of the HBO programming team, which runs the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, to check out “From Bonkers to Botox.”Though she is now creating a screenplay out of the show, Grossman is more intent on working to destigmatize depression than she is on her performing career. “There’s always been war, disease, heartache, family dissent,” she said. “It’s only now that we’ve begun to admit that there’s all this strain we’re under. People are coming to grips with and talking about their problems. We realize now there shouldn’t be any shame associated with mental illness.”
Grossman finds no better way to deliver that message than through humor. And taking a sympathetic look at a person in bad shape offers plenty of room for laughs.”People don’t want to see a play about someone who has their s— together,” she said. “They want to see someone before they got their s— together.”Julianne Grossman performs “From Bonkers to Botox” today, Wednesday, Feb. 9, at 9 p.m.; Friday, Feb. 11, at 7:30 p.m.; and Saturday, Feb. 12, at 3:30 p.m. at the Hotel Jerome.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org