Often before taping episodes of the sitcom Full House, the actress Andrea Barber would go to the bathroom and vomit. The show’s eight-year run coincided with Barber’s adolescence and though she played a confident, loud-mouthed extrovert named Kimmy Gibler on-camera, in real life, she dealt with crippling anxiety. The anxiety would sometimes morph into bouts of depression.
Years later, when Barber had her first child, the anxiety and depression which had always existed in varying degrees throughout her life exploded into a crippling period of postpartum depression. Some days she could barely get out of bed. It got so bad after her second child, that she had to move back in with her parents and be slowly nursed back to health. “It was like being a child again. I couldn’t take care of myself and I needed my mom and dad,” Barber writes in her new memoir, Full Circle: From Hollywood to Real Life and Back Again. “I didn’t want to eat. They had to feed me.”
The deeply personal book describes Barber’s experience suffering from, coming to terms with and learning to live with her mental ailments. It is not a self-help or how-to book, she insists, but “an honest look at my life, the highs and the lows, my successes and failures.”
Folks spoke with Barber from her home outside Los Angeles recently about how she came to terms with her depression, how she learned to talk about it and why she cherishes exercise.
Why did you decide to write this book?
It’s the most comfortable way I can share myself, especially these deep, very personal parts. I’m a very introverted shy person. I’ve suffered from anxiety my entire life. I go into the parts of my life where my anxiety became debilitating. I’ve done so many interviews and red carpet events where you’re just getting sound bites–five minutes here, ten minutes there. That’s really not enough time to delve into such personal, deep issues. And I’ve always been a writer at heart. I majored in English literature. For the first time in thirty years, I’m finally using my college degree.
When you’re in the thick of it you feel so alone and you feel like, God, what’s wrong with me? No one has ever felt like this ever before.
I’ve kept this such a private part of myself for so long. I didn’t tell a lot of people, even close friends, for a long time. But this is an important thing to talk about. The more I started sharing my story with people, the more feedback I got where people are like, “You put words into my mouth; I feel the same way; This is my story.” It actually became a very cathartic experience hearing other people having gone through the exact same thing. When you’re in the thick of it you feel so alone and you feel like, God, what’s wrong with me? No one has ever felt like this ever before. Which is obviously not true. But when you’re down in the dumps, man, it just feels like nobody could possibly feel that bad.
You write, “It’s a shame we don’t discuss mental illness in this country the way we discuss, say, cancer.” How do you think we can learn as a society to talk about it more?
It’s gotten a lot better in the last 10 or 15 years, since I’ve been managing my own anxiety and talking about it publicly. But I feel like it’s still very surface level right now. It’s all about hashtags and posting graphics like, “It’s okay to not be okay.” All of those things are very true and important: hotlines and hashtags are important. But it’s still very surface level. The more honest people can be about their own experiences will only help other people. The onus is on us to reach out to those who are struggling. It’s not on those who are struggling to try to climb out of their hole and call a hotline to talk to a stranger. That’s not realistic for a lot of people. If in your gut you feel like there’s something wrong with a friend who you haven’t talked to in a while, say something. Have the difficult conversations. That’s taking it past the hashtag.
The onus is on us to reach out to those who are struggling. It’s not on those who are struggling to try to climb out of their hole and call a hotline to talk to a stranger.
You write, “[I]t felt weird to admit that I needed help, like I was admitting that I was weak.” How does one overcome this reflex?
I still remember that very vividly, the first time I had to say out loud that I was taking an antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication. And I was admitting that to a nurse! It’s not like I was on live TV. But it still felt weird the first time I said it out loud. That stems from that shame, that feeling that there’s something wrong with me. Now I don’t feel that way. It’s a part of me, this anxiety, but it’s a part of me in the same way that I have brown hair. I don’t pass judgment on it anymore.
I don’t know how I got there. I guess it was just talking about it more. The more times you say something out loud, the more comfortable it becomes. I’ve learned that it’s okay if you suffer from things like anxiety, depression and postpartum depression. These are really common and mental illness does not discriminate against anybody. A lot of people are like, “Oh, I didn’t think anybody like you would ever have a mental illness.” And I thought, What does that mean? Because I’m on TV? Because I’m a celebrity? None of that matters when it comes down to it. We’re all human.
You write, “The medications made me feel less—less sad, less depressed. But the running made me feel more—more resilient, stronger, happier.” How do you contrast the benefits of exercise versus medication in dealing with mental illness?
A lot of people are like, “Oh, I didn’t think anybody like you would ever have a mental illness.”
I still feel that way. Over the last 10 years, I’ve been on medication and then I might go off it for a year or two and then go back on. It’s always an ongoing conversation that I have with my psychiatrist and therapist. The medication is not a fix-it pill. It doesn’t just automatically take bad feelings away and pump you up with good feelings. But it takes the edge off and it helps me keep my head above water so I don’t sink down to the bottom again. The exercise boosts all of those happy hormones and serotonin levels. But it also boosts your confidence in a way that taking pills doesn’t. When I get off a Peloton ride, I’ve got all of those endorphins pumping and I feel great and my body feels great. But I also have this lightness about me where I just feel like, “Yeah, I just crushed that ride. And I’m stronger because I did and I’m proud of myself for showing up and getting the work done.”
Has celebrity played a role in your experience with severe anxiety and depression?
If you mean has it caused or enhanced it, then no. I don’t think there’s any correlation because when I was at my lowest level that was actually in the 20 year period where I wasn’t on TV at all. After Full House wrapped, I was 18-years-old and left the business. That’s when my anxiety started ramping up to high, high levels. Then I started having children and that’s when postpartum depression came in. So it’s not like I was living all of this very publicly, or having to put on a brave face or anything. I was suffering in private.
By the time I came back to Hollywood for Fuller House five years ago, I felt like I had a really good handle on my mental health and I had learned the tools that I needed to learn in order to stay healthy.
And by the time I came back to Hollywood for Fuller House five years ago, I felt like I had a really good handle on my mental health and I had learned the tools that I needed to learn in order to stay healthy. Coming back into Hollywood and having to do live interviews and red carpets definitely ramped up my anxiety because I wasn’t comfortable with those things anymore. I felt like a fish out of water. But it was more like a challenge. It wasn’t anything that ever became debilitating. I was never unable to get out of bed because of an interview or a performance that I had to do. It was just more challenging. It was a good test of all of the things I had learned over the previous decade about how to conquer my demons. I passed and it’s a good feeling because that wouldn’t have been the case 15 years ago.
Have you heard much from other people in Hollywood who are dealing with similar issues since you’ve written your book?
I have. Friends of mine, whether they’re famous or not, have come to me and said, “My anxiety is really bad today” or “I’m having trouble sleeping and eating and I can’t turn my brain off. What did you do?” Some of them are famous and some not. It doesn’t make me feel good to know that my friends are struggling. But it does make me feel good that they trust me enough to share their stories with me and ask for a shoulder to learn on. Sometimes that’s all you need: somebody to hear you, to feel heard and understood.