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How Will I Explain My Experience with Depression to My Son?

26 May 2020 — 7 min read

By Chris Gethard

Thriving with Pride: Three Ways to Support LGBTQ+ Youth and Protect Against Suicidal Behavior

The following is an abridged version of an article comedian Chris Gethard wrote following the premiere of his acclaimed HBO special Career Suicide. The original article can be found here.

May 26, 2020 - I have a son named Cal. He’s three months old and I don’t think it’s hyperbolic at all to say that he is the most perfect being to ever live on earth. He’s adorable and kind and he can already slap things with his hands, which I am pretty certain makes him very advanced. When he wakes up he looks sleepy, until he makes eye contact with me or his mother, at which point he breaks out into a bright, huge, toothless smile, which leads to a rush of euphoria that is the most addictive feeling in the world.

He’s also redefined all of my priorities. My life used to be about any number of things, but now it is only dedicated to one: making sure he has the best life we can provide for him.

I realized this the moment I first made eye contact with him, just after he was born, when he was purple and cone-headed and so, so scared. My desire to protect this kid is a mantle I proudly take on.

But it’s also brought up a question I never anticipated.

As an artist, how do I protect my son from my art?

It’s the idea of explaining Career Suicide that makes me shake. I think about him watching that someday and it puts me on the brink of a panic attack, which is rather fitting, since the special itself is about my own mental instability that often led to panic attacks.

In 2014, I started working on a show with the goal of being as honest as possible about one of the scariest aspects of my life: my mental illness. I wanted to make a show that went into as much detail as possible about my depression without apologizing. I wanted to make the audience know what it felt like to have a panic attack. Not “panic attack,” like some people say when they can’t find their keys, panic attack like “I couldn’t breathe and I fell down on the floor and my whole body is numb and the idea of standing up again fills me with terror.” I wanted to shout from the hilltops that I’m on medications, and that yes, they do have side effects, and none of those side effects are worse than wanting to be dead.

I want my son to feel like his dad is strong. Not for my ego, and not to be macho, but so that he feels safe at all times. I want him to know that I will kick down any barrier that stands in his way, that if anyone tries to harm him I will stand between him and the aggressor so I can absorb the blow. I want him to rely on that strength. If he sees Career Suicide, will he believe in it?

So, I will explain three things to my boy when it is time.

First, I will let him know that when I was younger and I felt these feelings, I went to great lengths to hide them. I felt that I would be judged. I felt that my depression would be viewed as weakness. I was convinced my problems would be a burden to those around me.

I will explain to him that none of those things wound up being true, and that when I found it within me to seek help, the people in my life who loved me rallied to my aid. They exceeded my greatest hopes, allayed all my fears, and helped beyond my greatest expectations.

I will make sure he knows, backwards and forwards, that my greatest fear — my absolute greatest fear — is that he will inherit these insidious ailments from me. The thought that Cal would feel as hopeless as I once did crushes my heart and smashes it to something small, like when you ball up tinfoil and grind it between the heels of your palms. I have said that depression is often viewed, and falsely viewed, as being synonymous with sadness. I argue that the defining element of depression isn’t sadness, but something more akin to loneliness. A profound loneliness that leads to a sense of hopelessness. A hopelessness that is almost impossible to reconcile with the idea that you have to get out of bed.

But I will make sure that he knows those feelings can be real, and God forbid he ever does feel them, that he can talk to me. That I will never judge him. That he is not weak for feeling feelings. That he doesn’t have to worry about my opinion of him wavering, because it would not. After only three months, I know it could not.

I will make sure he knows that my greatest regret in life is that I knew I needed help before I graduated high school and did not actually seek it until after I graduated college.

I’ll let him know that one of my fears was disappointing my dad, and that I was wrong for doubting my father. I’ll let him know that my dad once told me, many years after I had wrangled my emotions and found firmer footing, that “I wouldn’t have known how to help you… but I would have run through a wall to find the person who did.”

I will make sure he knows that I inherited my dad’s desire and ability to run through walls on behalf of his son, and that help is always one sentence, one call, one text away, and that he should never be ashamed of seeking it.

The second thing I will let him know is that Career Suicide, despite any of my concerns about its existence, seems to have helped a fair number of people. Some are other depressed people who say I articulated things they did not know how to say. Others have told me they had people in their lives who suffered, and the special taught them to stop judging and start helping those in need. Most heartbreaking of all are those who lost loved ones to suicide, who say that my special helped them understand a little bit more of their loved one’s thought process, and that the special defended the dignity of those who die in this tragic way.

I will let him know that some used to call suicide “the coward’s way out,” and that the individual piece of Career Suicide I’m most proud of is that I railed hard against that statement. I say “used to” because I hope by the time he is old enough for this conversation, the phrase is long gone.

I will tell him that one of the ways civilization survives is by building an invisible safety net of humanity that’s rooted in looking out for one another.

The third thing I will tell him is the hardest of all. I will have to look my son in the eye and admit to him that yes, there was a time in my history when I was pretty convinced that I didn’t want to be around anymore.

I will hate telling him that.

But I also can’t wait to tell him how incorrect I was. How there are so many things I’ve seen since then that made me pause and say, “Thank God I am here to see this.” Like the Grand Canyon. Or the way the waves hit the walls of the fort in Galle. Or how beautiful his mother looked on that night we had to walk home in the blizzard, and since there were no cars we simply wandered down the middle of the streets in Brooklyn, and how even though we were freezing we laughed the whole time.

I can’t wait to tell him that on my darkest days I was convinced people were bad, and that many thousands of times over since, the opposite has proven true. I will let him know that he has a stable life largely because I have been the beneficiary of human kindness.

I’ll tell him that my depression lied to me in so many ways. It made me convinced I had everything figured out. I knew nothing. I’ve learned so much since the cloud lifted. The depression latched onto the hateful and ugly parts of the world. Those parts are real, but they are not all there is, not by a long shot. People are beautiful. The exceptions are often severe and heartbreaking, but people are, simply put, the greatest. Amazing and dynamic and surprising — and on any given day, it is the people you meet who might give you hope.

My depression was a filthy liar. I’ll make sure he knows that.

Someday my son will have to reconcile the fact that his dad spent a lot of his own life feeling deeply and truly sad, and frighteningly on his own in dealing with it.

The best I can do when it’s time for that conversation is look him in the eye and admit that it’s true.

I will ask him not to judge me. I will promise that I’ll provide him the same luxury.

And I will pray that this little guy, who thus far strikes me as such a sweet little person, will not inherit my illness, but will inherit all the lessons I learned from fighting back against it. I hope he inherits the spoils of my war, while suffering none of the scars.

He’s such a good guy and I will fight so hard for him.

This conversation… it will make the sex talk seem like nothing.

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