Mariel Hemingway knows balance. The Academy Award-nominated actress continues to pursue her career, while also succeeding as a health activist and author, eco-enthusiast, executive producer, and a loving mother of two grown daughters.
Getting to the “best place in her life” took hard work and much conscious thought. She is an inspiration to many and proudly shares her story as an international spokesperson for mental health and suicide prevention.
In her new documentary Running From Crazy, which she produced with Oprah Winfrey, Mariel shares her struggle to overcome her family’s haunted legacy. Generations of depression, alcoholism, and addiction plagued the family tree which included her famous grandfather, Nobel Prize winning writer Ernest Hemingway, one of seven in the family to commit suicide.
Mariel fought depression for much of her own life, but as the youngest of Ernest’s three granddaughters, she gravitated toward healthier choices in a family that as a young girl, she understood to be normal. Her oldest sister Joan (“Muffet”) was in and out of mental institutions for much of her life, and her supermodel sister Margeaux died of a drug overdose at 41.
Today, she is an avid rock climber and feels that putting herself in uncomfortable situations, like scaling mountains and talking about her family, makes her stronger. She considers it an “ironic metaphor,” which is compelling when you hear Margeaux use the same phrase in the documentary as she watches a bull fight and compares it to her own life…“the struggle, the blood, the pain.”
So what allows people with the same family struggles to go in such different directions? Conscious awareness that enables healthy choices, says Mariel. “I was depressed my entire life until I wasn’t. I didn’t realize that I was depressed because I functioned to my normal. But I do feel that in many dysfunctional families there is that one person who says, ‘the buck stops here.’ I just didn’t want it to continue. I saw seven suicides, I saw the mental illness, I saw the substance abuse which was self-medicating the depression. I started putting the pieces together and it was clear to me that this was something I needed to do.”
Certainly family dynamics play a role as shared in this very personal documentary, but Mariel has spent her life devoted to healthy habits and avoiding the self-destructive path to which every other member of her immediate family, and many other relatives, succumbed.
She came to understand the importance of exercise and nutrition on mental wellness and admits to following “every guru and trying every diet” in a search for herself. “I have learned so much from every experience, and what it led me to was me. We are the answer to our own problems. It doesn’t mean that you don’t need help and that you shouldn’t seek help, but you have to take responsibility for your own well-being.”
She adds that most people feel isolated in their story and emphasizes the importance of speaking with others and realizing you are not alone, which can be hard. “In my family, speaking up could be dangerous,” she says. “When you grow up in an alcoholic home, you don’t know your situation isn’t normal. It’s your home, your family; you love them; they just happen to be crazy. Expressing how you feel, or what you think, can ignite the explosive behavior that often accompanies substance abuse. So you learn to keep things to yourself.”
Mariel still carries scars from this existence. “Sometimes when my manager calls, the first thought is ‘did I do something wrong?’ It’s an interesting program in your brain that takes a lot of work to unravel.” She says the first step is becoming aware of internal issues and facing them.
“As women, our inner dialogue can be so self-abusive because we feel that we have to do things perfectly. We are not meant to live without sadness, but depression is real and needs to be addressed, and as women, we often feel that we failed if we suffer depression, and therefore don’t seek help.”
We discuss the fact that one in four women ages 50-64 is on an anti-depressant. “The idea that pills are a solution to problems we can solve through eating the right foods, getting proper exercise, breathing clean air, learning how to breathe, and drinking water greatly concerns me.”
This doesn’t mean some people don’t need medication, she adds. “But the biggest proponent for keeping mental balance is your lifestyle. And there is no ‘one size fits all.’
Discovery of good health is a journey, because every experience tells you something different. I believe it is about discovering what foods make you feel amazing and making conscious choices which come from the adventure that is our health.”
Mariel emphasizes that everyone has a story, but the story does not have to define you. “My journey has been looking at the inner dialogue and finding health. We all have a dialogue, and we all have a story, and it needs to be told, but once it is out there, then we need to let go of it.” She realizes it sounds easier than it is.
“We all fear the unknown. If you are by yourself and you fear your memories overtaking you, you have to realize that memories have no power over you. They are only memories; only images in our mind. Your memories can be replaced by your emotional reaction, and an emotional reaction will give you space to push that memory aside. If you were abused or hurt, you begin to realize that this memory cannot hurt you anymore.”
She adds that it is important to revisit and to make peace with those memories. “It’s worse when things are left in your head. When you actually revisit it, dissect it, you realize that your current reality with the memory isn’t as bad as the thought stuck in your mind. It is very, very healing to go through this practice.”
How does one find the light when life seems so dark and heavy?
Mariel feels that stillness and mindfulness can sharpen current awareness and help you move forward. “Mindfulness practices are very, very powerful because they help guide you towards making better choices in your life – especially about your food, exercise or finding that thing that makes you feel passionate and good.”
Gratitude. How you wake up and greet your day will have significant impact on how your day proceeds, and gratitude plays a big role. “Wake up slowly. Think grateful thoughts, even if it’s as simple as ‘I am grateful for this cup of coffee,’ and then visualize how you want your day to be. Concentrate on the emotional aspects. ‘I want a day full of joy, laughter, or success and happiness.’ This simple practice is amazing. It changes everything.”
Many professionals agree. In his daily meditation Grateful Me, Deepak Chopra, MD, notes that the simple practice of gratitude is a transformational act. “When we can put the stories of our lives on pause just for a moment and marvel at the miracle of this life we are living, we begin to change our entire experience.” He adds that when we invite the practice of gratitude into our daily lives, “we become alchemists turning dark into light, scarcity into abundance, and fear into love.”
Meditation. Mariel adds that a good way to open your mind is by sitting in stillness for 5-10 minutes a day and allowing yourself to just be. “It sounds very basic and crazy, but learning how to be still, how to slow down and to breathe creates space in your life and opens your mind. It also helps you make better decisions.”
Connecting with nature. As a child in Ketchum, Idaho, Mariel would escape outdoors as often as possible. It’s where she “felt alive.” She spends much of her time there today. “Nature is a powerful healing tool. Most of us don’t take the time to observe nature closely, starting with stillness and observing the hummingbirds, watching them, and listening to the sounds, smelling the smells. Honoring nature is extraordinary.” She adds that even if you live in a city, planting herb gardens or going to a local park is a necessity for good health.
“Sometimes you also need to hear someone else’s story to realize that it is okay to feel as you do.” Her goal with Running From Crazy is to utilize the film as a tool to help people realize that they are not alone and that there are solutions, and then to talk about health.
She and boyfriend, Bobby Williams, also have a wellness program Running with Nature, to help others discover how to be their best person.
“My life’s journey has been extraordinary so far. I’m so very grateful. I am proud to say that I love my life today. I feel peaceful, centered, and I laugh more than I ever have. Being of service to o others, and helping them find their voice and tell their stories inspires me to live each day fully, with purpose and joy.”
For local resources on mental health, visit www.Up2Riverside.org or call Eisenhower’s Behavior Health Clinic (760) 837.8767. Running From Crazy is scheduled to air on the OWN Network this year, and Running with Nature is available online.
Interview and editorial by Lauren Del Sarto. A very special Thank You to Summer Kath and Cambria for arranging this opportunity