Depression doesn't have to stop or kill John Fetterman

Jeffery Gerritt
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)

I rarely feel connected to politicians, regardless of their party or platform. Like the blue-collar people I grew up with, I just don't trust 'em.

Aside from my shaved head and passion for criminal justice reform, I felt no kinship with U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, either — even though I voted for him — until recently, when I learned he had been hospitalized at Walter Reed Medical Center for severe depression.

The buzz now is whether Fetterman will continue as a newly elected senator. That's his decision, and he has time to make it. No one should try to push, pressure or persuade him to resign. Nor should Gov. Josh Shapiro cheer him into an expected return to the Senate — that's pressure, too. Few people have a clue about what John Fetterman is feeling now but, whatever he decides, depression doesn't have to stop or kill him.

U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., walks through the Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol prior to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address at a joint meeting of Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 7, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/TNS)

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A living death: A decade ago, I was crawling through the same dark tunnel. Unlike Fetterman, I didn't go to a hospital voluntarily. Instead, I drove to an emergency room, looking for medication — anything — that would blow away the blues, or at least stop me from blowing my brains out.

For the previous two weeks, I had grown increasingly depressed. I lost my swag and slowly my will to live. I inhabited a world without color or light. Nothing grew there, certainly not dreams or hope.

"Shake it off," my dad had told me a few days before, which just made me feel like a punk. By any objective measure, my life was better than 99% of the people on the planet. But knowing that just added a layer of guilt and shame to an already crushing weight.

After a 15-minute wait in the lobby, a nurse called me into the emergency room. I sat on a white exam table, talking to a doctor for about 30 minutes. Oddly, it gave me some relief. He didn't know me, and I would never see him again. So I answered his questions honestly. He quickly searched my name on the internet and asked me about my work. Then he cut to the chase.

Suicidal thoughts? he asked. Do you own a gun? Feel helpless?

Yes. Yes. Yes.

After several more questions, he stood up. "You're going to need someone to drive you to the hospital."

"Go to hell," I said.

"Either you go," he said, "or I'll have you arrested."

An hour later, at the front desk of a psychiatric ward, I handed a nurse my shoelaces, belt and jewelry, a loss that seemed to strip me of whatever remained of my humanity.

What in the hell had happened to me?

Coming back: Reports on the frequency of depression vary, but some studies estimate as many as 20% of Americans suffer from at least mild or moderate depression. The estimates for severe depression are considerably less.

Like Fetterman, I had experienced periodic bouts of depression for most of my life, but had always pushed through it. Even people who are predisposed to depression may manage it without major disruptions — until some blow knocks them flat.

Fetterman's life has changed dramatically in the past year. His extreme depression is likely linked to his stroke, as well as the stresses of adapting to the life of a U.S. senator. He is also away from his family.

Navigating this ordeal in public may make it even tougher. But maybe not. Depression can isolate a person like nothing else can. Fetterman must know thousands, maybe millions, of people are pulling for him. Even if that support feels abstract and remote, it might help.

My descent was private. My wife and I had separated and I was grappling with several other issues. Losing a job might have cut the deepest. I had always had work, whether I was pounding nails on a construction site, playing drums in a band, or writing columns for the Detroit Free Press or USA Today. Work defined me. Without it, I was lost, nothing.

In the hospital, I met many lost people. I could see their potential, their goodness, their value as human beings, but they couldn't. It hadn't sunk in yet that the same blindness afflicted me.

After six days, I left the hospital with a prescription and started, slowly, to feel better.

To pay the bills, I started freelancing and began months of counseling and therapy. Nine months after I had visited the emergency room, I enrolled in truck driving school and prepared for another life.

I never made it to truck driving school. A week before it started, I received a call from a small newspaper in Texas. They had an opening for a job that paid about one-half of what I was making before. I took it, anyway. Driving trucks could wait. I wasn't giving up doing what I loved.

I worked hard and got stronger. Three years later, I won the Pulitzer Prize for exposing needless deaths in Texas county jails. The Pulitzer came on the heels of several other major national writing awards. The swag was back. Suddenly, I had to choose between several good jobs, a great problem to have.

In my own small way, I had crawled through a dark tunnel and made it to light. In a much bigger way, so will John Fetterman.

I don't know what awaits him; neither does he. Whether Fetterman remains a U.S. senator or does something else, there are tasks only he can perform, missions only he can fulfill, questions only he can answer. With the love and support of many people, he will make his own journey through the tunnel and into the light.

Keep the faith, baby.

— Pulitzer Prize-winner Jeffery Gerritt is the editorial page editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.