Depression is an illness — and it’s time we got real about that

Lately I’ve been thinking about Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, and not just because it’s Mental Health Awareness Month. Fetterman did a very honorable thing when he was very sick: He let the world know about it. He let it be known that his sickness was depression, that he needed a long time to get better enough to return to work, and that he needed hospitalization to do that. And now he is better. He was helped.

Though it’s none of my business, I wonder how his after-treatment is going. Does he see his depression as a chronic thing, one that he’ll work to ward off throughout his life? How is his self-care? Is he making time for what his health demands?

I wonder about these things, though my speculations are all projections. That’s because I’ve been hospitalized three times for mental health myself. One of those was after my suicide attempt the night of Sept. 30, 2014, following a day of dissociation while at work at The New York Times, where I was an editor until later that year.

I’d had phases of depression since my teens in the mid to late ’70s. At first, I didn’t have a label for what I was experiencing. I just knew I had days when I wanted to fall to the floor in the halls of Manning High School in small town South Carolina, just fall, not get up, and admit I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t get through the next hour, or this life.

I told no one, of course. At the time, I felt like it had to stay my secret.

In a bad monthslong bout as a junior in college, I tried to share my state of mind with two close friends. They shut me down: one by avoiding me with an abrupt directness, another by telling me flat out that she didn’t want to hear it. I learned not to try that again. It reinforced to me that no one wants to hear about a person’s depression. I believe that today.

Sure, we’re more compassionate about the abstract idea of depression, and that’s progress. But the details of how it manifests, those still look like moral failings that are best left unspoken. They’re messy. They’re shameful. We try to stuff them way down, when the exact opposite is what will help us get better.

During the phase of depression that led to my suicide attempt, I’d been struggling but largely hiding it, as I’d always done. But this year the sickness was more severe. My mental illness snuck out of me a few times in indirect and, for my personality, bizarre ways as early as January 2014. The biggest warning sign came that June, when a cry for help led to my first, and quite traumatic, weeklong hospitalization. Afterward, I forced myself to get back to normal right away, taking an out-of-state trip on the weekend of my release to pick up a new puppy. But I had severe panic attacks on the highway whenever the car windows were open.

Nope, I was not well — in fact, I was worse. Still, I put on my mask of friendly functionality, and it held up — until the day it didn’t. 

On the September day that almost ended with my death, I’d gotten atypically angry at the top of the work morning when told to cut a freelancer’s book review by some 400 words. My objections went on until I yelled, “Then you can cut it yourself!” An improper threat, yet one that’s happened in a newsroom before. 

My mask of friendly functionality held up — until the day it didn’t. 

A colleague told me later that the thought the anger was unusual coming from me, as I was typically a polite Mr. Dependable around the copy desk. But he chalked it up to my finally having some of the normal give and take of our workplace. Most others around me, including the friend who told me to trim 400 words, told me later that they didn’t notice the outburst at all.

This rare fit, which I’d presaged the night before in a brief but explosive argument with my partner, was like an earthquake. The tectonic plates of my mind shifted, one might say. I spent the rest of the day somehow doing little work. I mostly wandered around the photo and culture departments in a slow trudge, feeling that I was in a bubble, not sure whether I or my co-workers were real. I fixed my wordless stare at the people around me, standing a few feet or a few inches away.

No one seemed to notice.

By the evening, after walking into traffic on Manhattan’s 23rd Street (again with my curious fixed stare as cars slowed to a stop in front of me) in midtown Manhattan, and then taking a train home — during which I did little but write “I want to die, I want to die, I want to die” in a notebook — I arrived in the dark Ossining, N.Y., Metro North station, stared at the Hudson River, and wandered around the parking lot, knowing I was going to kill myself.

It was the most blissful peace I’d ever experienced.

The sickness can make it all make sense, somehow, even when it’s not the case. I left no note. I just wanted to take the trip into the afterlife as soon as possible. Getting past my partner, who was fast asleep in an easy chair, I settled upon my task.

I had no gun at home — I’m not an arms enthusiast, thankfully — so I tried to slit my wrists. To help me on the ride, I took handfuls of prescription drugs. And those put me to sleep before I could manage to sever my veins. In my last moment of semi-consciousness, I must’ve felt something like guilt, because I texted this to my therapist: “Sorry. Knives too dull. Txvvys$.”

My therapist saw the text right away and knew what it meant. He tried to call my sleeping partner, who didn’t answer, so he then called the Ossining police. They found me and got me to an area hospital, where I spent that night and the next day in intensive care. When my partner called, I didn’t want to talk to him. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I was ashamed and sad I was alive.

After a week of hospitalization and five more weeks of full-time outpatient therapy at a nearby treatment center, I was shaky but sure I’d had a breakthrough to health in the wake of my breakdown.

Both during treatment and afterward, I told a few colleagues and friends of my attempt. While I still felt guilty and ashamed, I’d also hoped that the truth would set me free, as they say. But my truth wasn’t exactly embraced.

My two immediate bosses knew pretty much from the start, and both were compassionate in small but meaningful ways when I returned to work. Others there and in my circle of friends were mostly sympathetic. But they were also uneasy; I had to make them feel OK about it by changing subjects quickly and reassuring them with the mask of the jolly good fellow.

Does our reticence to know about such a catastrophic event help? Or does it make a mental health crisis into a Great Unmentionable?

A couple of folks told me how selfish I’d been — not terribly helpful, especially as I couldn’t have discerned what was selfish at the time. Others tried to placate me with bromides, which felt dismissive. Some put me off completely. I don’t blame them. I might’ve been uncomfortable, too.

Maybe that’s why no one acknowledged some warning signs that summer, including the days I showed up for work, sat down and sobbed at my desk before taking on my first article. And I was in a friendly environment where I felt secure! Maybe they were preserving my privacy, then and after my attempt.

Still, does our reticence to know about such a catastrophic event help? Or does it make a mental health crisis into a Great Unmentionable? Would we react the same to news of a heart attack?

Feeling that I needed a change, I took a buyout soon after returning to work and spent the last day of my almost 18 years at The Times on a New Year’s Eve shift, setting off with a new goal to do something pure by teaching high school. Now I’m back working as an editor, and very satisfied.

Why tell this story? Because I was a high-functioning professional and person, active and lively, who tried to hide his ailment from those nearby until he had a nearly terminal breakdown. And that just shouldn’t be. We need radical change in our national conversation about mental health, acknowledging depression as the serious everyday illness that it is.

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From the perspective of one in recovery, I’d say we have a long way to go. In fact, I had to think hard about whether it was even a good idea to make this public disclosure. When I had my last hospitalization, a week over Thanksgiving 2016, the policy in the New York City school system didn’t allow me mental health leave, as I’d had at The Times. I feared I would lose my job while trying to get well.

And I did get well, and I’m still better now — benefiting from exercise, medication, meditation, and therapy, if always at risk of more major depressive disorder. The peace I’d felt that fateful night had nothing to do with being alive, which I now fully embrace and celebrate.

Truth is, though, I’d feel the need to say I was well even if it weren’t the truth. Because I know that we don’t quite accept this invisible illness as we do Parkinson’s disease, or even substance abuse. Yes, we feel sympathy, or even pain, when Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, or the “mommy blogger” Heather Armstrong dies of depression. But mostly, we don’t want anything to do with such struggles.

I’m a gay man who came out during the early years of the AIDS crisis, as did many others. And that exposure made a huge difference in the rights and health of LGBT folks. Perhaps we can learn from that and more of us can come out with our mental health challenges, as Sen. Fetterman did, as I’ve just done. Because Lord knows we have to change the status quo, don’t we?

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