Zachary Levi has a memoir coming out June 28 titled Radical Love: Learning to Accept Yourself and Others. In it, the Shazam! franchise star reveals that his journey of arriving at a place where he could fully practice self-love and acceptance has been a difficult one as he has faced a lifelong battle with anxiety, depression and low self-worth due to being raised in a complicated and abusive household filled with high expectations.
The 41-year-old actor says that he wasn’t able to fully pinpoint what his issues were until a dramatic downward spiral led him to suffer a mental breakdown at 37, a situation so urgent that he sought treatment for three weeks after being overcome by thoughts of suicide. In advance of the book’s publication from Harper Horizon, 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 unflinchingly honest interview that debuts June 28.
Levi, well known for work on other high-profile projects like Chuck, Tangled, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, American Underdog and The Mauritanian (and the upcoming Shazam! Fury of the Gods), also touched on the misconception that wealthy and/or public figures are free from such struggles, how the suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Robin Williams affected him, why he delayed the release of Radical Love and the rituals he practices to stay in a healthy place.
In the opening moments of the podcast, Vargas — someone who has been open about her own struggles with substance abuse and anxiety (and finding recovery) as recounted in her book Between Breaths — praises Levi’s book as “amazing” and “amazingly honest” for how he details his mental health issues.
“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,” Levi explained before revealing his struggles began in his youth while growing up in a complicated household. “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.”
As he got older, Levi, like so many in the same position, treated his issues with a combination of substances and vices. “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,” he detailed. “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.”
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 the thing to give his life purpose. “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,” he said, adding that those feelings can be traced to childhood as a “nerdy” kid who was often bullied. “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.”
Vargas asks Levi to detail the panic attack that ultimately led him to seek treatment and he said he moved to Austin and was having trouble doing routine activities like unpacking boxes and zeroing in on a restaurant. The feeling of despondency mixed with self-hatred and panic created an emotional scene.
“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,’” he continued. “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.’”
Later, he recounts how he ultimately checked into the emergency room due to suicidal thoughts. “I was having very active thoughts of ending my life,” he revealed. “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. … 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 enough to be like, ‘Zach, it doesn’t feel like you’re going to make it out of this.’”
At the suggestion of a “dear friend,” he sought treatment at a psych ward and spent three weeks in “intensive life-changing, life-saving therapy.”
During the interview, he also opened up about how he was affected by the suicides of Bourdain, Williams and Kate Spade. Of Williams, Levi said, “Robin, 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.”
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.”
Even though Levi worked his way through his issues, he still lives with them and is able to manage by a healthy routine with a focus on good diet, exercise and sleep habits. “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. I think one of the most important things, at least for me, is taking my thoughts captive. Our minds are so powerful, but they are so easily, so easily hijacked 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.’”