Episode 34: Living with Schizoaffective Disorder, OCD, Depression, & Anxiety – and Surviving Cancer with Vincent Sabella

Episode 34: Living with Schizoaffective Disorder, OCD, Depression, & Anxiety – and Surviving Cancer with Vincent Sabella


Writer and filmmaker Vincent Sabella lives with OCD, depression, anxiety, and schizoaffective disorder. In 2013, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; he has been in remission for six years. Vinny’s film Elizabeth Blue was written after a harrowing year during which many of his medications, with which he is diligent, failed. His husband, Joseph, has been his consummate advocate, and has never been fazed by any of his diagnoses. He sits down with Lauren to discuss his life, his work, and the positive mental attitude he brings to all he does. TW: mental health and suicide.



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Vincent Sabella Elizabeth Blue Filmmaker Uninvisible Pod Mental Health

Lauren: All right, guys, thanks so much for joining us today. I’m here with Vincent Sabella, who is a filmmaker based in LA. He lives with a number of disorders he’s going to tell us about — in the mental health space — and a little extra! So Vinnie, thanks so much for joining us!

Vincent: You’re so welcome. Thank you for having me!

Lauren: It’s my pleasure! You live with schizophrenia, manic depression, anxiety, a pretty focused form of OCD, and, you were just telling me …

Vincent: In 2013, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Lauren: So you really won the lottery!

Vincent: Indeed I did, I won the lottery! (laughs)

Lauren: But you’re here!

Vincent: Yes, I’m in remission. It’s going to be six years on August 1.

Lauren: Then we’re close to the anniversary! Happy early anniversary!

Vincent: Thank you!

Lauren: Isn’t it after five or six years that it’s officially remission?

Vincent: Five years, it's officially remission.

I have to go back every year, just for a scan. But I’m a little bit neurotic, so I go back every six months.

Lauren: I would, too, actually. I don’t blame you!

Vincent: Just to be sure!

Lauren: A lot of what you’ve lived through is woven into your work. Can you tell us how you first realized you had these disorders going on? From everything from the anxiety all the way to cancer?

Vincent: Well, the schizophrenia started as childhood schizophrenia, and it went undiagnosed for years — till I was about 16, when I had my first suicide attempt. And from there, I was diagnosed with depression and schizophrenia. And as the years went on, being a teenager, you get lax with your medication, you don’t want to take it, you think you’re okay. So as the years went on, when I was 22, I had another suicide attempt. And it came out that I had such anxiety, and I was dealing with schizophrenia and anxiety and depression. And then, probably in my late 20s, I developed the OCD. It came out of nowhere. It’s not the typical OCD where I’m washing my hands every five minutes; this is more that I worry that I’m going to get sick and something’s wrong.

I hate to use the word ‘crazy’ … but it makes you crazy.

Lauren: Well, it would certainly affect your daily functionality, right?

Vincent: Oh, definitely. I remember one time I got a little cut on my finger — I think it was a paper cut — and right away, I said, “I’ve gotta get a tetanus shot! Oh my God, I’m gonna die! What’s happening?” And then the anxiety starts and it triggers one thing into another into another.

Lauren: So, going back to the schizophrenia … when you were first diagnosed with that, and the depression and the anxiety, the whole winner-winner-chicken-dinner thing there, what did that look like? How did doctors find out you had it? Or did your family take you in?

Vincent: When I was a kid, I would tell my mother all the time, “Mom, I see this man. He’s all in black. He’s coming out of my closet!” My mother right away brushed it off as, oh, he’s a kid, imaginary friends. And I kept telling her and telling her. And she was totally in denial and brushed it off. We’re going back to the ‘80s now … I was 7 or 8 … and people didn’t talk about mental illness back then. I never heard anybody say, “I’ve got anxiety”, Or, “I’m depressed.” Looking back and seeing this, my mother definitely has some mental issues. She refuses to deal with them. My grandmother was definitely bipolar; she could go from nice and calm to ballistic in a second. So it’s definitely in the family. My sister’s bipolar. My other sister … she’s in recovery now, but she struggled with an eating disorder and spent some time in the hospital.

So the first time for me, I started seeing this guy and then as the years went on, I would hear things. And you think to yourself, it’s your conscience. Is it my conscience talking to me? But why does he sound different?

Lauren: Or do I have a really good imagination?

Vincent: Yeah, you’re a kid and you don’t know. We didn’t have access to the Internet back then. The only way you could learn anything is if you went to the library. And I honestly didn’t know what to look for. If there was Google, I could have typed in “I’m hearing voices.”

Lauren: And you could have self-diagnosed pretty immediately. But that’s a whole other rabbit hole you could go down into, isn’t it?!

Vincent: Yeah, we didn’t have those options back then.

Lauren: And those discussions, even though they still have stigma attached to them now, I feel like they were even more taboo back then.

Vincent: Oh, definitely they were taboo. It’s definitely still in the closet. My mother … it’s very difficult for her to say anything about my problems because she thinks it’s her fault in some way. It kinda is, but …! (laughs)

Lauren: She gave you the genes! (laughs)

Vincent: We’ll let that go!

Lauren: It sounds like you’ve forgiven her!

Vincent: Yeah! After my first suicide attempt, I was diagnosed with depression. And in talking to the doctors and psychiatrists … they were all coming in to this ward where you’re basically in lockdown, and they take away your shoelaces … and I remember having a hoodie and they pulled out the string.  They give you cups with shampoo in them; you’re not allowed any hard plastics, anything you can cut yourself with.

Lauren: Well, that’s thoughtful when it comes down to it 

Vincent: The sheets don’t come off the beds.

Lauren: Wow, that’s extreme, isn’t it?

Vincent: Well, the sheets do come off, but you can’t get them off!  It’s crazy! So, in talking to the doctors, when I was 16, I was, like, “Listen, I don’t know what’s going on with me, but I hear things and I see things.”

Lauren: So this was probably like a textbook case, right?

Vincent: Yeah. And they said, "You hear voices?? How often?” And I said, “All the time.” And they asked, “How severe? Are you able to function?” And I was, like, “Well, I didn’t think it was anything so I always just push through.” So it never really made me not capable of doing anything because I just really ignored it.

Lauren: And it seems like no-one else really noticed, except for when you would tell your mom.

Vincent: I kept it to myself. I was already a weird kid. I liked different things; I was into different stuff. I didn’t want to tell anybody, because then I’d be a really weird kid! So, that’s when that was all diagnosed — when I was about 16, going on 17.

Lauren: Okay, so they diagnosed you with depression and schizophrenia. So when was the rest diagnosed?

Vincent: I actually have schizoaffective disorder.

Lauren: And this is an important distinction, isn’t it, because this is the distinction between somebody who probably needs to be completely hospitalized, who is on stronger medications … and somebody like you who is functional?

Vincent: It’s basically case-by-case. Everybody is different, everybody reacts differently to medications. There are people with the same things I have, who can’t function at all.

So, what I have is, I can see my hallucinations, I can hear them, I can have conversations with them. But I also can feel them. So I have tactile hallucinations, which is very rare.

Not a lot of people have that. We were just talking about our friend Christopher Ashman, who played Tim in Elizabeth Blue

Lauren: This is a really important film that’s related to your experiences.

Vincent:  it's about my my life and living with schizophrenia.

Lauren: But also what was cool was that instead of putting in a male lead, you actually had a female lead.

Vincent: Yes. Because I’m  gay. And I’m married. I have a husband. In the movie, though, I made my role a woman because I just wanted to focus on mental illness. I didn't want this to be a gay-themed thing.

Lauren: You wanted to remove the other themes that would end up blocking the story.

Vincent: Yeah, because there would be too many things going on … like he's gay, and he’s schizophrenic, and he's got all these problems, he sees people … and you know, it was already a difficult film to make. So I didn't want to make it an even harder film to make.

Lauren: Yeah, and at the same time, you put a really strong female lead in the spotlight. Which is always really exciting. Shaking things up.

Vincent: Yes. Her name is Anna Schafer, and she's a fantastic actress. She was on the “dark horse” list in Variety for an Oscar nomination. We were screaming when that happened! The whole film was just an amazing journey from start to finish. The film is a beautiful film, and anybody who's suffering with any kind of mental illness, anything you’re going through - it's very relatable. Yeah, see it, watch it.

Lauren: Yeah. And speaking of the experiences and how personal this was for you, it's not just the schizoaffective disorder; it's also the depression, the anxiety, the manic depression that you live with 

Vincent: The OCD. It’s all combined into one.

I'm diligent with my medications; I make sure I take them every day. And I have a great psychiatrist. And the sad thing is that so many people don't have access to a psychiatrist; so many people don't have access to medication.

Lauren: For you, it took a suicide attempt to get a doctor to diagnose you.

Vincent: Yeah. And even after that, it was still difficult. Because being a teenager and staying on top of it, it's been a struggle. But I have to say, now I'm at a place where my life is good and I've been very good for a while. All my medications are good. Because in 2010, all my medications failed. And we had to go through a whole process of trying medications and trying new things.

Lauren: How did that happen? Was it just that your hormones shifted?

Vincent: Basically what happens is when you're on the same regimen for too long, your body builds up a tolerance. So it’s just not working anymore.

Elizabeth Blue is based on the year in 2010, when all my medications failed ...

... and we had to start doing all these new medications and trying to find the right combination that worked. We finally found it, but it took a year. And my husband actually took a year off of work to stay home with me. Because if he didn't do that, I would had to have been locked up.

Lauren: You needed to be watched.

Vincent: He was with me 24/7, every single day.

Lauren: Isn't that amazing that you have that support system?

Vincent: And that's another thing … people don't have that support system. We were about to talk about the fact that I have tactile hallucinations … and how Christopher Ashman played the villain in the film, Tim. I was standing in my bathroom one night … Tim is a real hallucination of mine. And I could feel his breath on the back of my neck.

Lauren: Wow! It’s that detailed.

Vincent: It’s that real.

Lauren: You call it a hallucination, but to you it's reality.

Vincent: It’s like a false reality.

Lauren: So you know which ones are real?

Vincent: Now I know. But I will tell you, when there's a new one, I'm not sure. There was one day I was walking up the steps to our house, and I was, like, “Joseph!” And he’s, like, “Yeah?”

And I told him: “I just made a new friend. His name's Sal. He's coming up.” And Joseph was, like, “What?! Babe, there’s nobody there.” And then it clicks in for me.

Lauren: And when that happens, do you say, ‘All right, I need to adjust my medication’?

Vincent: No, we don't go there right away, because everybody has breakthroughs — they’re called breakthroughs — and it's the nature of the beast. Nothing’s 100%.

Lauren: It’s a constant balancing act?

Vincent: And it could happen at any point, where I could just completely … I hate to use this word, too, but whack out.

Lauren: I like that you're saying that you don't like using words like “crazy” and “whack out” - because it sort of reinforces the stigma, right?

Vincent: Yeah. I don't like to use those words, but you know, to make it listen-able for your listeners so they can understand …

Lauren: I think that's also a huge distinction to make here, as well … people who live with these disorders sometimes have to make choices with the way that they describe things or with language that compromises. It compromises your experience, and in many ways it minimizes your experience. But you're choosing these words so that people actually have a way of seeing what you're seeing.

Vincent: Yeah, that's why I'm always, like, falling over - “I hate to use that!”

Lauren: I think it's important, too, that people understand why words shouldn't be bandied around in as cavalier a fashion as they so often are.

Vincent: It’s not that I have a problem using the words. It's more the way you use the words, what intention you put behind it. As a society, we're all so sensitive now; you can't say this, you can't say that. I feel like we just need to get over it.

Lauren: But then on the other side of it, at the extremes of it, some people are just saying what they want to say and doing what they want to do, and they're really offending people! (laughs)

Vincent: It’s like a Catch-22. You can't win, you can't lose. You’re damned if you don't say something, you're damned if you do.

Lauren: You’ve got to live with what you can live with at the end of the day, right?

Vincent: Basically, it's at your discretion whatever comes out of your mouth.

Lauren: Yes, just make sure that you are aware of your audience.

Vincent: Definitely! You want to know who's in the room!

Lauren: Well, I think reading the room is a skill, too. Because if you're somebody who has something like autism spectrum disorder, you might not be able to read the room. It’s really interesting.

Vincent: You know, I’m 38 years old, and growing up, there were words used in my house …

Lauren: Like the R word, I bet. We used that a lot in the ‘80s.

Vincent: Oh my God, how did you know what I was going to say??

Lauren: I feel like it was a real New York-y thing because people would just say it all the time!

Vincent: My grandmother's friend … her daughter had Down syndrome. But nobody said Down syndrome. They would say, “She’s ret*rded.” And whispering!

Lauren: And then it used as an insult.

Vincent: It was like it was okay to say it, though, and nobody got hurt feelings. But now, if you say it …

Lauren: It’s not a good word.

Vincent: It's not a good word anymore.

Lauren: I think it's also because of, like, literally what it means. And then the connotation that it took on, the way people used it. But I think the C word, “crazy”, is like that now. Personally, I use that word. And I use the word “mental”, too, to describe ridiculous things that happen. But actually, when it comes down to it, these are words that we shouldn't be using in the same fashion.

Vincent: Yeah, in that context.

Lauren: Which is important. I mean, I always use the word “survivors” instead of “sufferers”. It’s always that balancing act.

Vincent: I feel like I can get away with it because I do have all these ailments! I feel like if I slip up sometimes, all right, I'm okay, I have it!

Lauren: And I feel like you have the right. It's one thing if you've lived through experiences like you have, to have that sort of freedom with language. I think it gives you permission. It doesn't give Joe Down The Street permission, especially if they have no understanding.

Vincent: Especially if you don't have an understanding. If you have an understanding of it, I can totally forgive it. But if you're totally ignorant of it, then just shut up … you don’t know what you're talking about. Why don't you look it up?

So many people don't know what schizophrenia is. It's so often confused with multiple personality disorder. And it’s very, very, upsetting.

I will give you an example … in 2017, I had another suicide attempt, the same year Elizabeth Blue was getting ready to come out. And I was in Del Amo psychiatric facility in Del Amo. It’s a state facility, and the reason why I had to go there was because I was taken to Cedars because I had just filled my prescription. My husband found me on the couch and I was unconscious. Basically, he panicked; I asked him, “Why didn’t you call 911?” He threw me over his shoulder and he drove me to Cedars-Sinai Hospital; we live right down the block from the hospital. So he got me there, and I was foggy — in and out — and they brought me in right away and they hooked me up and just started flushing my system. They didn’t pump my stomach, which was very surprising to me. And it's probably because I have a high tolerance for medication, and stuff.

Lauren: So you were already on high doses?

Vincent:  I'm on high doses. So, that was extreme, but it wasn't going to take my life. It wasn't enough.

Lauren: So you were lucky. But also - don't try this at home, guys!

Vincent: Exactly. One of the questions they had asked Joseph was, did he take the pills with alcohol? And he said, “I don't know.” And the other thing was, did he leave a note? And I did. And so, Cedars does not have a psychiatric ward.

Lauren: At all?

Vincent: At all.

Lauren: This is a huge hospital … and they don't have a psychiatric ward?

Vincent: It’s one of the best hospitals.

Lauren: This is extremely surprising to me.

Vincent: So I spent two days there, waiting to find out if I was even going to be released, or if I was going to be transferred somewhere else.

They come in, they put you on a stretcher, and they tie you up.

Lauren: It's just like you see in the movies.

Vincent: It’s totally like you see on TV when they're putting someone in a straitjacket.

Lauren: Did they put you in a straitjacket, too?

Vincent: They totally belted me down; tied my hands down, my ankles.

Lauren: For someone who's just put themselves through trauma, obviously they're trying to protect you from yourself, but by the same token …

Vincent: They don't realize that they could possibly be causing more trauma.

Lauren: Yeah, that's extremely triggering.

Vincent: Yeah. I had been through it before; I was okay. After it was all said and done, when I got there … I hadn't been in a state facility in a very long time … I was, like, Oh my God, what did I do? You gotta get me out of here.

Lauren: Explain to us the difference between a state facility, and what people can expect in a private facility.

Vincent: A state facility is run by the state, and it's the bare minimum of everything — staff, medication, beds. They want to turn it over as quick as possible. So they only hold you for 72 hours. Because they need the beds.

Lauren: If it's an involuntary hold?

Vincent:  Mine wasn't an involuntary hold. If I went and said, “I need to be committed,” they let you go after 72 hours. But mine was an intentional thing.

Lauren: So it's involuntary?

Vincent: Yeah, it's involuntary. But you’re still on the 72-hour thing. And for the 72 hours, they monitor you. And if they don't feel like you're doing better by the end of the 72 hours, you're taken to another ward, where you could be held up to anywhere from two weeks to a month. So you want to show improvement right away!

Lauren: Well, that’s also a performative aspect, too. Because if you just don't want to go in that other ward within lockdown, then you kind of need to make it look like things are better?

Vincent: And people do.

And to be honest, I wasn’t 100% when I got out. I knew what I had to do to get out.

If you have to go … go, stay in there! Don’t listen to me! (laughs)

Lauren: Really, what we’re communicating here is that it's important to take care of your mental health. If you need to commit yourself, or if you're worried about a loved one, go get help.

Vincent: Yes. Being in there before …

Lauren: You knew the drill.

Vincent: Yes, if I put on a good face, and I took my medication and showed I made a mistake … which is really sad, because they don’t have the resources to really lay into you and really sit down with you, and be, like, “Oh, so you're better? Hmmm. Let’s talk about it.“

Lauren: They don't have time.

Vincent: They don't have the time. Everything is bare minimal. And then, in private facilities, it's like going to Promises in Malibu!

Lauren: A rehab clinic, yeah. It’s like a difference between a five-star resort and a motel.

Vincent: Exactly. It's like a Motel 6. I will say, the state facility, it was immaculate. It was so clean. They definitely didn't cut the budget on the cleaning!

Lauren: And that’s really important because if people get sick on top of what they're dealing with in their mental health ...

Vincent: Yes. There are bed checks every 15 minutes.

Lauren: So you don't really sleep.

Vincent: It's impossible to sleep.

Lauren: Which is a huge part of your general health. But also … I don't know about you … but for me, when I don't sleep, I'm not a nice person.

Vincent: They have to do it. There's no way around it.

Lauren: But that's a real block to recovery, I'd imagine.

Vincent: For me, I didn't sleep for the three days I was there. Because someone's walking in and out. And you share a room with five other people. There were five beds, four desks, and three chairs.

Lauren: What? That doesn’t make any sense.

Vincent: No!

Lauren: Also, if you have OCD, you're going, like, why aren't the numbers matching?!

Vincent: Exactly!! That's what I was like!! Oh my God, why would they do this to me?! And then there's desks, but you're not allowed anything to write with!

Lauren: Of course not. So what’s the point of having the desks?

Vincent: Exactly.

Lauren: So it's just a thing to rest on. That's so weird.

Vincent: Yeah, it just made absolutely no sense! And then you're sleeping on a pillow that's like plastic. And there's no shower curtain. There's no door in the bathroom.

Lauren: There’s just no privacy … or humanity about it, it sounds like. Being woken up every 15 minutes, not having any privacy in the bathroom.

Vincent: If you have any belongings a loved one brings you, they hold it. If you want to brush your teeth, you have to wait for the time to brush your teeth — and they watch you brush your teeth.

Lauren: Yeah, they're not gonna give you a toothbrush because you could turn it into a weapon.

Vincent: Absolutely. There was a girl in there when I was in there … she was a cutter, and she found a way to cut herself. And she was doing it on something in the room, and they had to put her into another ward.

Lauren: Would she have ended up in, like, a padded room? Do those exist?

Vincent: I don't know, honestly, if padded rooms really exist anymore. Because they did at one time.

I mean, there were a lot of things that existed at one time — like lobotomies.

So, I don't think they exist anymore; I can't really say for sure.

Lauren: But that makes me wonder … do you think it's better having mental illness now, than it would have been having mental illness 50 years ago?

Vincent: Oh my God, yeah! Because they just locked you up in … here we go again, I'm gonna have to say it … a crazy house.

Lauren: And they would give you a lobotomy …

Vincent: It’s terrifying what they did, because they didn't know anything. In the ‘50s, in the ‘40s … going back, way back … nobody knew anything about mental illness. There was this great show, actually, The Alienist. It basically dealt with mental illness in the early 1900s.

Lauren: You know, it's great that shows like that and films like yours are getting audiences, and are really attracting enough people to make them something that you can sell to a network or to have in consideration for the Oscars. These conversations are now extending beyond just, you know, the wards.

Vincent: And there are a lot of advocates now for mental illness. A lot of people are coming out saying, I have mental issues. I have OCD, I have schizophrenia, bipolar. Lady Gaga came out. Demi Lovato came out. And there's so many more. And then I think there's a handful of people who get anxiety and think they need to be medicated … but it's not the same kind of form.

Vincent: No, very different. That's another issue. There are doctors that prescribe patients drugs that they don't necessarily need, and that's another thing that's a problem.

Lauren: And overprescribe.

Vincent: And then people OD.

Lauren: I think it's very closely related to the opioid crisis. If it's not a painkiller, it’s some kind of anxiety medication. So, in terms of when you were first diagnosed, and you've said that you've had medication changes over the years … but how have you treated your condition? Has it been Klonopin? And regular therapy? What are the different steps that you've taken, different doctors you’ve seen?

Vincent: Well, for the last 14 years, I've had the same psychiatrist, Dr. Bowman.

Lauren: So he knows you really well.

Vincent: He knows me very well, inside out. He's been there through all the changes in medication for the last 14 years. And before that, I had a psychiatrist in New York when I lived there. Basically, it was the same routine.

One thing that's really important, if you have mental health issues, you need to find a psychiatrist that you really can talk to and work with. One of the things I love about my psychiatrist is that he said to me, “So many psychiatrists forget to be therapists.”

Lauren: So they just prescribe medication.

Vincent: So they just prescribe medication. They’re, like, “What are you feeling? Okay, I’ll write that.”

Lauren: I've actually been to a psychiatrist who was like that. And I remember it was my first experience going to a psychiatrist, and she just wanted to write me prescriptions and barely get to know me. And I was, like, “Oh, thank you?”

Vincent: That’s been my experience, actually, over the years. Finding the right psychiatrist, and not just having someone give me drugs, but someone who would really listen to me and treat me the right way to give me the right treatment. The psychiatrist part was really a struggle through the years. But thank goodness, I'm past that. And it was totally by chance, too, that I found him.

Lauren: That’s so lucky. I feel like sometimes the things that happen by chance are the things that are the most meant to be. So, it's been regular visits to your psychiatrist. And you've also done medication. Are there any other treatments that you do, like mindfulness or anything?

Vincent: No. I just live my life.

I know when something's about to happen. I've been living with this for so long that I know when I'm off. When something's not right.

Lauren: What is that? Can you describe for us what that experience is like?

Vincent: What it feels like? It’s like … did you ever have a hangover?

Lauren: God, yes! Don’t know if I should be admitting that, but yes! (laughs)

Vincent: It feels like a hangover. It's like you wake up the next morning and something's not right.

Lauren: Major brain fog.

Vincent: And that's when I know, okay, let me call Dr. Bowman and see if I should up my dose on something. Because we're at a point now where I can just call and ask. Should I up this one pill because I feel like something's coming on? And there are times when I do do that. And there's other times when I won't even call, because I've been dealing with it so long that I'm like, if I take an extra one, it's not gonna do anything. It's gonna help me …

Lauren: But also, kids, don't do this without your doctor’s approval!

Vincent: Always consult your doctor! Oh, I’m giving bad advice, I’m sorry! It’s knowing your body and it's knowing what you can handle; it's knowing what you can do.

Lauren: And I also think there is that thing of … when you're someone who deals with any kind of illness that is chronic, you're constantly at a doctor's office. Sometimes you’ve got to just give yourself the credit for knowing at a certain point.

Vincent: Absolutely! I love that you just said that.

I'm very aware of my body and how it feels. And if my body doesn't feel right, I know that something's on the horizon.

Lauren: But this is also interesting because it's not just a feeling in your head, right — even though it's related to mental health?

Vincent: It affects everything. This is common with depression … you'll hear this from a lot of people … ‘I can't get out of bed.’ That's something to look for with depression. With all my things, it’s different things.

Lauren: And you can sort of figure out which ones are which at this point. Also, what about this cancer in 2013 … can you tell us how you found that?

Vincent: It was a Sunday in March; it was a beautiful day, actually. My husband and I went to Home Depot, because I had said, I want to do some yard work and I want to get some stuff. I had gotten home, and there was this really, really heavy ceramic pot. And I lifted it up, and I felt something pull. And I thought, oh, that didn't feel good. And Joseph comes out and he's like, “What are you, an idiot? Why are you lifting this heavy pot? Are you out of your mind?” Because seriously, two people needed to lift this pot. Monday morning, I woke up. And I got out of the shower, and my abdomen was swollen. Right below my chest. And I was, like, oh my God, I gave myself a hernia in the abdomen. And I look it up … and you can give yourself a hernia!

Lauren: From what you described about what happened, I’m thinking, yeah, that sounds like that's what it was. But obviously …

Vincent: I was, like, oh my God, I'm going to cry.

Lauren: Because your anxiety is going through the roof, too.

Vincent: Of course. And the OCD, because I’m worried I'm sick now. And I have to get surgery. So okay, I go downstairs to my husband, who works from home. And I lift my shirt and I say, “Do you see that?”  And he says, “What? It’s your abs.” I’m, like, “No! I'm swollen right here.” He says, “Babe, you go to the gym every day. You work out every day. You’re not swollen.” But I'm looking down at it, and I could see it extending. So I say, “Get behind me and look over my shoulder.” And he’s, like, “I don't see anything. But all right, call the doctor. You think you have a hernia? Go. Go to the doctor.” That’s his answer for everything: Go!

Lauren: So you married a guy who supports your anxiety! (laughs)

Vincent: Yes, absolutely!

Lauren: That's one way to make sure that you get out of your head, isn’t it? To call the doctor.

Vincent: Yes. So I calmed myself down, and I said, you know what, I'm going to give myself a day. Maybe I did overdo it at the gym. Maybe it's just swollen; maybe I just pulled a muscle or something. So Tuesday, it's really visible. Joseph sees it now. Called the doctor and got in for the next day. It's a Wednesday now, and it's really extended. And the doctor checked for a hernia — he pushed all over. And he says, “This is not a hernia, definitely not. I want to do an X-ray. And when the X-ray comes back, I'll tell you what I think it might be.” When the X-ray comes back, he says, “It's odd. It's not what I thought it was going to be.” (And I forgot what he actually thought it was going to be.) "It's odd. It looks like you're holding a lot of gas. I'm going to prescribe you some anti-inflammatories. And if it doesn't go down by, I would say, tomorrow afternoon, call me back.” So I go home, I take the anti-inflammatory. I wake up in the middle of the night on Thursday. My stomach is filling up with fluid at this point. And Joseph, my husband, he says, “Okay” … and this is gonna sound a little gross … !

Lauren: We talk about gross things on this show all the time!

Vincent: The doctor had told me, actually, to do an enema — because that could release the gas. So at four in the morning I'm doing this, and nothing's coming out. Nothing at all. My skin is stretching … it's like I'm pregnant … and it's hurting now. So, Thursday, as soon as nine o'clock rolls around, I'm out to here … I call the doctor back and they say, okay, we gotta get him into a gastrointestinal specialist. So he refers us to three of them. They all couldn't see me for about two weeks.

Lauren: And you were, like, “This is an emergency, guys!”

Vincent: Joseph was, like, “Dr Chang, he looks pregnant. He needs to see someone right now!” And he says, “All right. You can go to the emergency room.” Joseph is trying to calm me down, and he's trying to think of things. And in the meantime, he calls the three places and says, “If anything opens up, please let us know." Something opened up! Someone canceled.

Lauren: That’s a good tip, isn’t it, actually?

Vincent: Someone cancelled.

Always say: “If someone cancels, please put me in!”

So now it's Friday, and I'm in. It's about four o'clock. It was the only time, and I remember meeting the doctor. Her name is Dr. Olsen and she looks like a TV doctor. She’s so beautiful!

Lauren: Thats LA for you, isn’t it?!

Vinnie: (laughs) And she comes, she’s joking … “I heard you got lucky, you got a cancellation. Actually, I don't understand why my patient canceled because he had rectal bleeding.”

Lauren: Oh my God, she sounds fantastic! (laughs)

Vinnie: (laughs) And I busted out laughing! And so she says, “Okay, let's have a look at you. Take off your shirt.” And then she says, “You don't look like this normally, do you? Okay, I need to stick my finger up your butt … “

Lauren: Oh boy!

Vinnie: And she knew right away. She said, “Okay, I'm sending you over to Cedars right now. And they're going to do something called the wet scan.”

Lauren: What is that? I’ve never heard of that.

Vincent: Basically, it's an MRI; you drink this stuff. But the reason they call it a wet scan is because you get the results back in rapid-speed time. She said, “You'll get the results back in about 40 minutes.” So I go in. No sooner do I get out of the scan, the doctor calls Joseph. And it's not Dr. Olsen; it’s an associate of hers. And he says, “Is Vincent with you right now?” And he says yes. And the doctor says, “I think you should step away.”

So he told Joseph, either he has a bad intestinal infection, or it's cancer. And we're going to admit him right now.

But then I had to still be admitted through the emergency room. So I have an IV hanging out of my arm, and I'm standing in the emergency room … and Joseph says, “This is not happening.” My husband is a very take-control-of-the situation kind of guy. He’s, like, “No, no, no.” He calls Dr. Chang — because all my doctors are at Cedars … he calls Dr. Chang, and he says, “He's in the emergency room. He has a tube hanging out of his arm!” The doctor made a phone call, and they called my name in two seconds. And they got me in the emergency room … I'm in a bed in the hallway, and they took me up to a room about an hour later. And then we got the final diagnosis. I was admitted Friday night; we didn't find out exactly what it was until the next Thursday. On Saturday and Sunday, they don't really do anything.

Lauren: So you were just on vacation in the hospital!

Vincent: Yeah. So basically, they were just keeping me comfortable. I was on Dilaudid. At this point, I looked like I was pregnant with triplets. And then Monday morning came, and that's when all the tests started. And it was non-stop.

You name it, I had it. I had three spinal taps. I had two bone marrows. They had to put me under and they put a tube down my throat and I had to do a scan … whatever the scan was, it had to be approved by a board of doctors. Because it's so expensive. So I had that. And then I had to have paracentesis.

Lauren: What is that?

Vincent: Basically I had to lay on my side and you know, like a bike pump? They pumped all the fluid out of my stomach.

Lauren: Well, that makes sense.

Vincent: So we finally find out what it is, and it's treatable. And Joseph actually had lied to me and told me I was only stage 3 because he didn't want me to think I was at death’s door. What had happened, though, was they had said, “Okay, we're going to start chemo on Sunday.”

Lauren: This is now like two weeks since the first thing happened?

Vincent: Yes.

They had to monitor my blood every 20 minutes to make sure I wasn't going to go into tumor lysis. That’s when your kidneys can’t process quick enough. I went into tumor lysis.

I had to be rushed to intensive care, and they had to put a catheter in my neck — because they had to drain the blood, have it go through the machine, recycle it, and put it back into my body. And I was in ICU for three days, hooked up to this machine, in bed …

Lauren: Not being able to move.

Vincent: Yes, and then after three days, I went back to a normal room.

Grand total: I spent 22 days in the hospital. And I actually wrote a script called 22 Days. Based on this whole experience!

Lauren: Wow. But at the end of the day, you've been in remission now …

Vincent: Five years, going on six.

Lauren: Which is so exciting.

Vincent: And the magical thing about all this was, I did not have any form of schizophrenic episode, any OCD, any anxiety … anything. Not even depression while I was going through it.

I went through five months of chemo. I had nothing. I was fine. I was totally, completely fine mentally.

Lauren: That’s really lucky.

Vincent: I don’t know if it’s luck or if it was someone saying … all right, he has a lot to deal with with this. Let's not also give him anything added right now!

Lauren: It was the universe blessing you! Because you often hear among cancer patients that the treatments can really get you down. You get so sick so fast, and often antidepressants are prescribed for cancer patients, aren’t they? So it's really interesting that you were lucky enough not to go into a tailspin because of all that.

Vincent: Yeah. How I found that I was stage 4 was because of the bone marrow. It was in my bone marrow. So then they had to to do a spinal tap to make sure it didn't go to my brain. So that was fun!

Lauren: Yeah, I bet!

Vincent: But I will say to anybody dealing with … whether you're dealing with mental health, whether you're dealing with cancer: follow what the doctors say. Listen to your doctors. I know there are people out there who believe in all this holistic stuff, holistic medicine. I don’t, okay!

Lauren: I don’t know if holistic medicine is going to cure your cancer.

Vincent: Well, there are people that really do believe it. There really are. They’re, like, oh, if I drink green grass juice, I'm going to be fine. I actually have read stories of it. And it’s really disheartening. Just listen to your doctors.

Lauren: And listen to your body, too, because that's really what you did — and you knew something was up right away.

Vincent: I have the OCD where I think I'm getting sick — and I actually was getting sick!

Lauren: Was that sort of validating?

Vincent: It kind of was, actually!

I was, like, “This time, this one time  — I’m right! I'm actually right. I'm not imagining this!”


Lauren: You mentioned that Joseph has been with you through so many of your health challenges, and especially when you were diagnosed with cancer. And really sticking up for you in the hospital. Would you consider him to be your advocate?

Vincent: Oh, my God, yes! You have no idea!

Lauren: He sounds wonderful! Thank you, Joseph!

Vincent: If you watch the movie, Elizabeth Blue, the character Grant is Joseph. He's a big advocate; he’s always talking about mental illness. And I think he knows more than some doctors, actually, because he's become such a researcher. He wants to know everything about everything. Even when I had cancer, he was reading everything. Everything the doctors were telling him, he wanted to be a step ahead of them. When the doctors would come back with that information, he would already know what they were talking about. And that's how he is with my mental health. He stays on top of everything. There is this new … I shouldn't say it's new, it’s been around a while … it's called Smart Brain. And it sends electrical waves to your brain. And so this is something that my husband's been …

Lauren: Is it being used to treat schizophrenia?

Vincent: It’s being used to treat schizophrenia, depression. It's also being used to treat people with addiction. And it's really amazing what this does.

Lauren: It’s encouraging some kind of neuroplasticity, it sounds like.

Vincent: Yes. Basically, it's a month-long process and you have to go every day for a month. I think it's either two hours a day, or three hours a day. You sit in this chair, and it does this. And basically you're up and you can read and watch TV. It's very pricey; insurance does not cover it. And we have excellent insurance and we were shocked.

Lauren: So we need your next film to be a big success. So you can go do Smart Brain!

Vincent: Well actually, I don't want to do Smart Brain. And there's a reason why …

I think differently. And I look at all my mental illnesses as some kind of blessing in disguise.

Lauren: Well, it's interesting because when I was thinking about you coming here for the interview, I was, like, you know, we use the term ‘mental illness’, but I don't even like the word ‘illness’ in there — because it's not necessarily an illness. It's just something that makes you a little different. It’s just mental difference, I guess.

Vincent: Totally! So I look at everything I have, and everything I've been through as a blessing in disguise. I don't want to do Smart Brain because I'm a visual thinker. I know I just think differently. I see things differently. I see the world differently. And even though my psychiatrist has told me it's not going to affect anything, I think it's going to change something …

Lauren: Like something fundamental in your brain.

Vincent: Yeah. Something. Like, change the way I think, or anything.

Lauren: And you're fine on the treatments you’re on now.

Vincent: The only reason to do it is to stop treatments, medications. It's not a cure, but it has long-lasting effects. Some people have done it, and it only lasted them a month. And then there are people who have done it, and it's lasted them years. So this is pretty new; it's not that new. The first time we talked about it, I think was in about 2011.

Lauren: Okay, very relatively new, I'd say, in the medical space for sure. So Joseph’s been researching all of these new things that you can try.

Vincent: And he's an advocate for Smart Brain. He says, “Do it, do it, do it.” And I’m, like: “No.”

Lauren: So has it strengthened your relationship, having someone on your side through all of this? Or is it sometimes, “Shut up, Joseph, I want to do it my way.”

Vincent: Yes, because some days, you know, it's like: “Did you take your medication?” “Yes.!”

Lauren: (laughs) And for those who can't see this right now, that's pretty great, Vinnie is just rolling his eyes! “Yes, I've taken my medication.”

Vincent: “Yes, I took the pillllls, awright?”

Lauren: Does he say that when you’re being moody with him … "Have you taken your medication?” (laughs) It’s like when you say to a woman: "Are you on your period?” (laughs) It's the most condescending thing — although sometimes it's true!

Vincent: Yes, sometimes it’s like, "Yes, I took everything, Joseph!” But he's concerned.

Lauren: Yes. And when you're in the hospital and not getting seen right away, you’ve got someone who’s making the calls and making sure you get in a bed right away, which I think is so great.

Vincent: I'm very lucky to have him because I'm not good at talking to doctors. Because doctors have a certain way of talking to you. And I didn't go to medical school. I need a translator! So, thank God, he’s there.

Lauren: That's really wonderful. I’m just wondering how a typical day goes for you?

Vincent: A typical day is like a normal day for anybody. I wake up, I go to the gym. I go home, I write. I walk Jackson, our hound dog.  It’s a typical day, and even if I'm a little off, it's still a typical day.

I treat my life as if every day is a typical day.

Because there's no point in getting down on it, and saying, 'Woe is me. I’m not going to go the gym, and I'm not going to do this … '

Lauren: It’s just that you know what your typical is. Your typical is just not everyone else's typical — and that's okay. I love that. So you've really found a way to remove the stigma for yourself.

Vincent: I totally did. I had to. I didn't want to be … and I don't like to say this either … I didn't want to be one of those people who’s …

Lauren: A statistic.

Vincent: Yeah, I don't want to be a statistic.

I want to be a statistic of a different kind.

Lauren: Of success. Well, it sounds like you've got such a positive mindset. We talk about mindset a lot on the show, and how important it is.

Vincent: Extremely important.

Lauren: For any kind of healing experience, but really just in your everyday life being able to be positive about like, ‘Okay, this is how I am today.’

Vincent: It’s work.

Being positive is work. And am I positive all the time? No.

But for the most part, I like to say … this year … it wasn't necessarily a New Year's resolution, but it was definitely a thing where I was like, I'm going to make more of an effort to be more positive and to have a different outlook on things.

Lauren: So you are really being intentional.

Vincent: Oh, extremely. Because I just think it's good for your mind, your body, your soul, everything.

Lauren: And it's not something where you've sort of gotten there by meditating. You have made a conscious decision that there's going to be positivity every day you're waking up. Which, as you say, is work. But it's still a choice.

Vincent: Yeah, definitely. I'm not getting up and doing yoga and I’m in my downward dog position and I'm feeling great!

Lauren: But you do go to the gym!

Vincent: The gym is therapy for me actually, because I love it. I go for three hours a day.

Lauren: Wow!

Vincent: I've gotten very health conscious. I always worked out and I always went to the gym — but not to the capacity that I've been doing it.

Lauren: Do you think that’s been a reaction to recovering from cancer?

Vincent: Yeah. After that, I stopped drinking for five years. And now I'll just have a glass of wine.

Lauren: You obviously are creating a lot of your own work. And you’re putting a lot of time into the management of your entire being — your body, and taking care of yourself. How are you balancing the demands of work and life, with managing the day-to-day symptoms of mental illness? Or is it just … it goes without saying at this point?

Vincent: It goes without saying at this point. I'm very fortunate in that I don't have to work a 9 to 5 job; I am very fortunate in that aspect. I live a very privileged life. And I don't like to take it for granted. I'm very fortunate that I can do what I want to do — when I want to do it.

Lauren: Getting back to being in the medical system and living through diagnoses and treatments … have you ever been in situations where you've had doctors — or not necessarily doctors — but colleagues or friends or family, who just didn't believe you when you said that something was going on?

Vincent: Yeah, well, my mother totally didn't believe me.

I never had a doctor who did not believe me. Just really family.

And I think it's because, like I said, the period in which I grew up.

Lauren: It just wasn’t the time to talk about that.

Vincent: Nobody was talking about it.

Lauren: So we know that you've created films. You’ve created art out of your experience. Has your experience turned into advocacy on a scale where you're working with mental health organizations? What are you doing with all of that?

Vincent: There’s this great organization; it’s called NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. When we did the film, we donated a portion of the proceeds to this organization. You can follow them on Instagram.

Lauren: We’ll link to them.

Vincent: I'm involved with them. Sometimes they'll reach out and say, “Hey, would you mind speaking at this, or that?” Like, little dinners … because they want survivors. I don't think I ever really called myself a survivor, honestly, before …

Lauren: I’d say you absolutely are.

Vincent: I don't feel like I'm anything special. I just feel like I'm just living my life.

Lauren: I really love your perspective. I think it's so refreshing.

Vincent: I just really think of just living my life. This is what I do.

Lauren: So you have a laid-back attitude about it, considering you have anxiety!

Vincent: To be honest, I wanted to get involved with Covenant House because I have a really soft spot in my heart for homeless youth. Homeless teenagers kill me for some reason; I don't know why. I wanted to get involved with Covenant House, and you fill out the application online. And I couldn't finish the application because I would have gotten rejected — because you have to state your mental health. And they don't want anybody who has mental health problems, because a lot of these kids do have mental health issues.

Lauren: But wouldn’t it really help them to be working with someone like you who's lived through their own experiences?

Vincent: I'm not a licensed psychiatrist. I'm not a therapist, I only could speak from my experience, and they don't want conflicting opinions. Because what works for me …

Lauren: May not work for everyone.

Vincent: Yeah, so I couldn't volunteer. It was upsetting.  I really wanted to work with them.

Lauren: I'm sure there are other organizations, especially locally in LA, that you could get involved with?

Vincent: Because of my mental health, no.

Lauren: Well, hopefully, some of those kids will find you on the Internet and will find your films. So, how important do you think it is for us to be talking about these invisible conditions? That you're living through stuff that nobody can see from the outside?

Vincent: I think it’s important to talk about it if you're comfortable talking about it. Some people don't want to talk about it, because there's still stigma about it.

Lauren: But is the only way to break down the stigma to keep talking?

Vincent: I don't know. I can't give you an answer on that.

I want stigma around mental illness to stop, but I don't want to pressure anybody to be, like, “Oh, let me talk about it because that’s going to stop it." Everybody's gonna have their opinion …

Lauren: And everybody’s going to have their experience. It’s about respecting that, isn’t it?

Vincent: It’s the same thing, if you're gay and you don't want to come out. You shouldn't have to.

Lauren:  Well, it’s interesting … you talk, with regard to mental health, people coming out. So we’re using the same terminology around sexual identity.

Vincent: Yeah, I feel like, if you don't want to tell people to know something …

Lauren:  … that’s your business.  But it’s good because you’ve really put your foot down about what works for you, and what doesn’t.

Vincent: Yeah, I mean, I don't even tell people I’m gay.

Lauren: If it comes up, it comes up.

Vincent: Yeah! I'm not the most masculine guy!! (laughs) If you think it, you think it. If you ask me, I’ll say, “Yes, I’m gay.”

Lauren: It’s just a part of who you are. But it isn't who you are.

Vincent: Exactly! Very wise!

Lauren: But I think that kind of wisdom, I think, is gained with experience. And it's something that comes up a lot on the show, because we go through these experiences that either define us — or don’t. And then once these experiences do shape who we are, we kind of go … well, is my identity, this thing? Or is it a part of me? And I think we all begin to understand that this is just a part of who we are. So … I was wondering if you had some Top Three Tips for someone who suspects they may be entering this world of invisible illness or invisible conditions? Maybe they suspect they have something going on with their mental health or with their body, if there's maybe cancer or something. What would you recommend to people who might be becoming one of us?

Vincent: Go to the doctor!

Lauren: All right, that's number one: Go to the doctor!

Vincent: No, seriously. I would say, just be very aware of your body.

Be aware of your mind. Be aware of your body. If you think something's not right with yourself … go to the doctor! Because you can’t diagnose yourself.

Everybody should go for a physical every year. Even if you're just going for a physical every year, get checked out.

Lauren: In this invisible illness community, so many of us see our doctors all the time anyway! We're regulars.

Vincent: Especially if you have insurance, go! And if you don't have insurance, there are so many urgent cares. If you think something's wrong, go to urgent care. They're really inexpensive.

Lauren: So there are ways to find treatment.

Vincent: Oh, my God … treatment. If you need treatment, the Gay and Lesbian Center offers treatment. They have a whole psychiatric floor, and they have therapists you can go see and you can get medication there. And it’s free!

Lauren: That is amazing.

Vincent: They like, if you can, to make a donation.

Lauren: Which makes up for the people who can't pay.

Vincent: Yeah, and if you're there getting a little psychiatric screening, you might as well get an STD screening. Those are free, too!

Lauren: It’s like a two-for-one!

Vincent: Exactly!

Lauren: The Gay & Lesbian Center, I hear good things about. That’s just in LA, but obviously there are centers all over the country. Now, I know you've made lifestyle changes. You take really good care of yourself and you're aware of your body all the time so that you can track changes in your mental health. Do you have Top Three … guilty pleasures or cheats or even comfort activities, if you feel like something's going on?

Vincent: My husband. If I feel really off, I just go to him. It's gonna sound funny … we put on a movie, and it's so odd that this movie calms me down, because it's The Day After Tomorrow. It calms me down! (laughs)

Lauren: (laughs) Do you think it's disaster movies … seeing other people have a worse time?

Vincent: It has to be. And it's not only The Day After Tomorrow that calms me down …

Lauren: And also, you know what happens.

Vincent: Yeah, and there's another movie …

Lauren: Like, Independence Day … ?!

Vincent: No, Psycho relaxes me. I can't even tell you!

Lauren: That’s so funny! But I mean, that's an amazing film.

Vincent: The Day After Tomorrow is the major go-to when I'm feeling like I need something to calm me down. What else? Guilty pleasures … chocolate! If I'm in a bad mood, if I have a piece of chocolate, it's like a light switch. It's really amazing. Any kind of chocolate. Jackson, my hound dog.

Lauren: Snuggling with Jackson.

Vincent: And the gym. The gym’s a big thing. I'm always talking about the gym, because some people just don't get what it does. It really induces your endorphins and gives you energy. It does so much for you.

Lauren: Physically, if you have the stamina to do it, it’s a great thing to do.

Vincent: And if you don't go to the gym, stretch.

Lauren: Stretching is really good.

Vincent: Stretching is so good for you.

Lauren: And it'll help reduce pain in your body. I mean, when I go to physical therapy, my physical therapist stretches me.

Vincent: You don't have to do yoga; just stretch. Even when you're in the shower, try to touch your toes. Just start out there. And pretty soon you'll be able to put your legs behind your head! You can do it! If you stretch every day, you can really do it.

Lauren: It's about building up that strength. Well, Vinnie, it has been such a pleasure having you on the show.

Vincent: Oh my God, this was so great!


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