Joyful Heart in the News
Mariska Hargitay's Road to Recovery
Every so often, you meet somebody who exudes gratitude from every pore. And as Mariska Hargitay walks out of her home to greet me in a white bathrobe, with wet hair, a wide smile, and an enviable natural beauty, I immediately feel like I am in the presence of a girlfriend. Everything about Mariska makes you feel comfortable, interesting, appreciated, and, well, grateful to be here. Mariska simply radiates infectious gratitude.
She has just jumped out of the pool, she explains, and being in the water with her 3-year-old son is her favorite place to be. She and her husband of five years, actor Peter Hermann, are tucking their family into their new house on New York's Long Island, busy renovating the details and making it feel like theirs, inside and out.
Soothing ocean and beach hues fill the house. There are shells and books and family photos, including some of Mariska's famous actress mother, Jayne Mansfield, and her father, Mickey Hargitay, a former Mr. Universe. Framed in the powder room is evidence of Mariska's great genetics: her mother's bikini and a magazine cover of her famously fit father.
After an unusually intense spring, Mariska is already feeling healed by this time off with family. She's finally recovered from a severe injury she sustained last fall on the Law & Order: SVU set, one that sent her on a scary, months-long roller-coaster ride. Last October, while shooting an episode, doing her own stunts as usual, Mariska jumped and landed in such a way that a microscopic bleed began in her lung tissue. In January of this year, she was admitted to the hospital. Her lung had collapsed, and it would eventually require multiple surgeries to repair. The experience shook her to the core and cracked open a fissure into old wounds.
The origin of those wounds for Mariska was the death of her 34-year-old mother in a car accident. Mariska, only 3 at the time, was asleep in the backseat. She doesn't remember the accident, but trauma from that experience has forged her current outlook on life. "Losing my mother at such an early age is the scar of my soul," she tells me. "But I feel like it ultimately made me into the person I am today. I understand the journey of life. I had to go through what I did to be here."
The birth of her son, August, in 2006 brought her to a new level of appreciation of her journey. She now lives in what she describes as "an interesting reality between loss and gratitude." But she's quick to note that it's the gratitude side of the equation that is winning these days. "Becoming a parent erased many of my negative childhood feelings and filled them in with something new," she explains. Her husband has been a big part of that healing too. "I wish I'd met him 10 years ago," she confides, as if all the years to come won't be enough time to contain their plans. "But everything in my life prepared me for meeting Peter. I am so grateful."
Looking at Mariska now, 45 and at peace in her place of calm, you see only a woman comfortable in her own skin. "I would spend a year here if I could, reflecting, being with my son and husband," she says. "This is the spot I'd retire to."
But far from retiring, Mariska is hitting her stride, taking center stage in the life she has created. Her role as Detective Olivia Benson on SVU led her to create the Joyful Heart Foundation, which helps victims of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and child abuse reclaim their lives. Both projects — along with her family — sustain her on a deep level. And where she is today is a place she could not have envisioned reaching early in her career, when, she laughingly recounts, she was fired as Dulcea, friend of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, on a movie set in Australia. "I was lucky enough to have a father who said, 'Don't quit.' So I just kept going." It's this buoyancy, this ability not to give up, that has allowed Mariska to take tragedy and loss and turn the telescope around to feel like, in her own words, "the luckiest person in the world."
Do you remember exactly how your injury last fall happened?
On October 16, I was doing a stunt chasing a bad guy. I'd always insisted on doing the stunts my own way, although I don't feel so strongly about that anymore. I jumped and landed on pads, but on the second take something happened — I just landed wrong. I got up and felt that something inside was not quite right. At first I thought I had the wind knocked out of me. I was angry with myself. Later, I thought maybe I'd pulled a muscle, but I didn't focus on the injury and kept expecting it to get better.
What happened next?
I didn't know for three months that something was really wrong. At first I seemed to get better. But then two weeks later I had chest pains and shortness of breath. My grandfather died of a heart attack at 34, and my mom died at the same age. At first I worried it was a heart attack. Then someone pointed out that my heart was on the other side!
On New Year's Day, we were walking on the beach out here near the house, and I felt this sharp pain, sort of like someone had stabbed me. I went down on one knee and just couldn't catch my breath. They took an X-ray and found that my right lung was 50 percent collapsed. I began to panic. I was so scared. I had a procedure hoping to stave off more serious surgery, but it didn't work, and I ended up in surgery about two weeks later.
After I got the clearance to go back to work, everything was normal. They told me the injured lung was now stronger than the healthy one and that there was a greater chance of the healthy lung collapsing than the right one going down again. Then, on March 5, it happened again. I was one out of 1,000, statistically.
What went through your mind then?
I just thought, Please make me better, please make me better. I got really scared that maybe something else was wrong. All those old fears about my mom and my grandfather [both of whom died relatively young] came shooting up.
Having a child changes everything. All of a sudden you have so much to lose, so much to live for. Sometimes things in life happen that allow us to understand our priorities very clearly. Ultimately you can see those as gifts.
How did it feel to be that one in 1,000? Did you wonder, Why me?
I honestly didn't feel that way. I get to be the one in 1,000 in so many positive ways, it balances out. I have so many blessings, and I've learned from all of my experiences and my losses. I think you learn to feel grateful when you are exposed at such a young age to the fact that bad things can happen. I look at all the things life has allowed me to do and I feel like the luckiest person in the world.
What is the most useful lesson the loss of your mother taught you?
Surviving and thriving in the wake of my mother's loss, I learned to believe in God. He has a plan, if you pay attention to the signs. I am inspired by the absolute proof of miracles.
After all of your successes, do you ever find yourself fearing failure?
All the time. It's why being a mother is so loaded. A friend said to me recently, "You're a really great mother," and I said "What?" I feel like I've been preparing all my life, but I want to do all of it right.
What has touched you most working with sexual violence and abuse survivors through your foundation?
I am constantly moved by the incredible courage it takes to heal [from these kinds of abuses]. And it's even harder when there is shame attached to the trauma. All of our Joyful Heart programs [including art, talk, and human/dolphin therapy, in which survivors swim with wild dolphins] are about getting the soul to open up again. I have seen that light rekindled in so many survivors — those are simply miraculous moments, and they're what keep me going in this work.
What, in your experience, is the most effective way to help people heal from their traumas?
The way into trauma is largely, if not completely, nonintellectual. Survivors have said that one of the most destructive aspects of trauma or abuse is the experience of being totally negated, of simply not mattering to another human being. So our programs do the opposite: They work to convince people that they are deserving of care so that they can reclaim a life of joy, hope, and possibility. The whole thing started from intuition, and now there's all this science that backs up these different approaches to healing. When I started, I'd knock on people's doors, and they'd look at me sideways. Now those same people call us up and ask us how we do what we do. It's exciting.
What would you do with a year off? What restores you?
I'd give more time to the foundation. Then I'd focus on some intense vacation time. I'd go to Italy and take cooking classes, swim with my son. I'd eat, see the countryside, and be with my husband and kid the whole time. I'd spend as much time as I could in the water. I'm a water person. Water heals.