Zachary Levi has a memoir out on June 28 titled Radical love: learning to accept yourself and others† In it is the Shazam! franchise star reveals that his journey to arrive at a place where he could fully practice self-love and acceptance was difficult, as he endured a lifelong battle with anxiety, depression and low self-esteem as a result of his upbringing in a complicated and abusive household full of high expectations.
The 41-year-old actor says he couldn’t fully pinpoint what his problems were until a dramatic downward spiral sent him into a nervous breakdown at age 37, a situation so urgent that he sought treatment for three weeks after being overcome by suicidal thoughts. Prior to the publication of Harper Horizon’s book, Levi joined veteran host and journalist Elizabeth Vargas on her… Heart of the matter podcast for Partnership to End Addiction to discuss all of the above in an unwaveringly honest interview coming out on June 28.
Levi, known for his work on other high-profile projects such as Chuck, Tangled, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, American Underdog and the Mauritanian (and the coming Shazam! Anger of the Gods), also addressed the misconception that wealthy and/or public figures are free from such strife, his thoughts on the suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Robin Williams, why he is calling for the release of Radical love and the rituals he practices to stay in a good place.
In the podcast’s opening moments, Vargas – someone who has been open about her own struggles with substance abuse and anxiety (and finding recovery), as told in her book Between breaths — praises Levi’s book as “amazing” and “astonishingly honest” for the way he describes his mental health problems.
“I’ve struggled with this stuff for most of my life. I didn’t realize I was struggling with these things until I was 37, about five years ago, and I had a complete nervous breakdown,” Levi explained before revealing that his struggles started in his childhood while growing up in a complicated household. “For most of my life, I grew up in a household where my stepfather was a perfectionist at the highest level, his bar was so high, impossible to reach, and then a mother who was a borderline personality. Impossibly high bar. She had an impossible target, because it just kept moving. Anyone who spends time with borderline personalities, if I came home and my mom was in a good mood, I could tell her, “Hey, I’ve didn’t do very well on this test at school,” and she’d be like, “Oh, don’t worry. There’s another test coming and we can work on it,” whatever it was, but if she’s in a bad mood it was the end of the world. I was a disgrace to the family. I mean it was a lot of vitriol, a lot of yelling.”
As he grew older, Levi, like so many others in the same position, dealt with his problems with a combination of means and vices. “I ran to a lot of other things, whether it was sex or drugs or booze or things to distract me from, to numb myself from the pain I’ve been running from for most of my life,” he said. “The irony is that booze can give you this temporary relief, but the next day amplifies that anxiety tenfold. So then you run back to get more and it just becomes this vicious cycle.”
Levi’s career also played a part in how he would beat himself up. At one point, he believed that moving to Austin and building a movie studio would be something to give purpose to his life. “My career was in a place where I felt like, even though I’d accomplished so many things up to that point, I still was, and to be honest, even now I still feel that way. I feel like I’m a little bit of the outside looking in. I’ve never really felt like I’m part of whatever the cool kids’ group is,” he said, adding that those feelings can be traced back to childhood as a “nerdy kid who was often “I think that went with me in my Hollywood career, and it’s reaffirmed to you in the lies you tell yourself when you don’t get certain jobs, you don’t get hired to go do that movie or that show with this level of director or producer or actor or whatever it is.”
Vargas asks Levi to describe the panic attack that eventually led him to seek treatment, saying that he moved to Austin and had problems with routine activities such as unpacking boxes and going to a restaurant. The sense of despondency mixed with self-loathing and panic made for an emotional scene.
“I probably drove around for 10 minutes not knowing which place to eat because I didn’t know which place was the right place to eat, instead of just saying, ‘Zach, just go get some food. It does not matter. It doesn’t matter if you go to that pizzeria or that Chinese joint or whatever. Go get something to eat. If you’re hungry, go get something to eat,” he continued. “I’m in my truck, and vividly I remember holding the wheel and just shaking back and forth, like I was almost trying to shake myself free of what was going on, and I’m just crying. I I’m just crying I’m like, ‘God help me.’”
He later tells how he ended up going to the emergency room because of suicidal thoughts. “I had very active thoughts about ending my life,” he revealed. “It wasn’t the first time I had them. I had been to dark places before in my life, but I think I had people around me in those moments. I had foolishly, I mean, I think I made the right choice by moving to Austin. I don’t think I did it exactly right. I didn’t realize I was on the run from so much, but I moved here and I didn’t have anyone. I had no support structure. … So at this particular moment I am here in this beautiful city, but really alone, and darkness surrounds me again. The lies whisper in my ear and the failure that I felt I was enough to be like, ‘Zach, it doesn’t feel like you’re going to make it.’”
On the advice of a “best friend,” he sought treatment in a psychiatric ward and spent three weeks in “intense, life-altering, life-saving therapy.”
During the interview, he also shared how he was affected by the suicides of Bourdain, Williams and Kate Spade. About Williams, Levi said, “Robin, he was a hero of mine. His talent, his heart, the way he loved people, the way he loved the homeless, the way he cared about them, he was a really, really, deeply empathetic person who really cared about other people, and yet so was. tormented in his own mind. I think that may be part of why he felt so obligated to bring joy into the world. I felt very close to that.”
When he died: “It really, really, really, really, really shocked me because I felt like if he can’t make it, I don’t know how I’m going to end up navigating this life unless I’m on the one somehow figure out how not to keep getting into these places of depression and anxiety.”
Even though Levi has worked his way through his problems, he still lives with them and can get by with a healthy routine with a focus on good nutrition, exercise and sleep habits. “Prayer and meditation are very important, which in some ways are also a bit synonymous, I think. Sometimes my prayer is meditation. Sometimes I just sit there and let God take over what that time is. I don’t say much when I’m just passing time. I think one of the most important things, at least for me, is to capture my thoughts. Our minds are so powerful, but they’re so easy, so easy to hijack when we don’t actually go: ‘Oh, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. I’m doing it again. I’m starting to talk badly about myself again. I’m starting to get harsh or critical of myself. I’m starting to assess where I am in my life.’”