Sen. John Fetterman on depression, recovery, and "making up any lost time"
At six foot eight, Sen. John Fetterman is still a formidable man, despite two serious assaults on his health in less than a year: he suffered a stroke last May, and after a private struggle for years, in mid-February he entered Walter Reed for treatment of depression.
He talked there with "Sunday Morning" anchor Jane Pauley two days before being discharged this past week. "I will be going home. [It will] be the first time ever to be in remission with my depression," he said. "And I can't wait to [see] what it really feels like, to take it all in, and to start making up any lost time."
To colleagues, he'd seemed lost, even at his swearing-in. Later, Dr. David Williamson recognized major depression. A neuropsychiatrist, Williamson has been treating Fetterman. "He had markedly reduced motivation and drive," Williamson said. "The RPM in the brain, how fast you think and how clearly you think, is very substantially degraded when patients get depressed."
"It's reversible?" asked Pauley.
"It's certainly reversible, yes."
One-in-three stroke patients develops depression. Twenty-one million American adults have experienced major depression. What makes John Fetterman's diagnosis unique (but not unprecedented) is a politician sharing it publicly.
"My message right now isn't political," he said. "I'm just somebody that's suffering from depression."
A former steel town outside Pittsburgh, population of less than 2,000, with high unemployment and low income, Braddock put Fetterman on the map – and vice versa. The towering mayor with a Harvard degree and a penchant for hoodies and shorts became a rising political star – and an unlikely darling of the fashion world.
GQ magazine dubbed Fetterman an "American taste god." And then, The New York Times declared Fetterman one of the paper's most stylish people of 2022, alongside Beyoncé and Brad Pitt.
"It was an edgy, modern look," said Pauley.
"It was appalling!" laughed Gisele, John's wife of 15 years.
John Fetterman began his campaign for United States Senate last spring with the wind to his back. But after a stroke at age 52, he would fight headwinds until Election Day, when his health became the issue.
Doctors at Walter Reed have discovered a serious hearing deficit, further complicating the way his brain now processes spoken language.
Pauley asked, "When I talk, what do you hear?"
"I hear you talking," Fetterman said. "And I can understand much of what you're saying. But my hearing has a deficiency that makes it difficult for me to fully understand 100% of it."
"At some point you described what you hear as, like, Charlie Brown's teacher?"
"Yes! Early on, that was more, you know, months and months ago. But right now captioning is helpful for me."
His reliance on closed captioning had its biggest test during the campaign's one debate, which was widely considered a setback. "The debate performance was not you at your best. Was that fair?" asked Pauley.
"If I'm in the race, and I made the decision to stay in the race, it's important that I show up for a debate, knowing it would be challenging. And that's what we did," he replied.
And in November, Fetterman won, flipping a Republican-held Senate seat. But there was something behind that smile: "It's like, you just won the biggest, you know, race in the country," he said. "And the whole thing about depression is, is that objectively, you may have won, but depression can absolutely convince you that you actually lost. And that's exactly what happened. And that was the start of a downward spiral."
"In the interim between the campaign and being sworn in, at home in November, December, depression started gathering strength. Is that correct?" asked Pauley.
"Very much. Very much. I had stopped leaving my bed. I had stopped eating. I was dropping weight. I had stopped engaging some of the, most things that I love in my life."
Including time with Gisele and their three children, aged eight to 14. "I had a conversation with my 14-year-old and he said, 'Dad, what's wrong? We're great, we're here, and you won!' An incredibly sad moment where my 14-year-old can't possibly understand why you can't get out of your bed."
Pauley said, "Someone you love as much as you love your son couldn't make you get out of bed. Couldn't make you not be depressed. You stayed in bed."
"Yeah, that's true."
But he went to Washington, and on January 3 was sworn in.
Pauley said, "People who know you say that that day you looked miserable and lost."
"Yeah. Well, I was definitely depressed," he laughed.
Gisele said, "I think with depression, you're always waiting for, 'Oh, that's the thing that's gonna change it,' right?"
She read as much as she could find about depression: "He just became a Senator, he's married to me! He has amazing kids, and he's still depressed? And I think the outside would look and say, 'How does this happen?' But depression does not make sense, right? It's not rational."
Fetterman stopped eating and drinking. "I was at a Democratic retreat, and many of my colleagues were coming up to me and asking me, 'Why aren't you eating?'"
Pauley asked, "Did you care if you were there, or anywhere? Or nowhere?"
"I just showed up where my staff said," he said.
"Yeah. Exactly, yeah."
"As it was described to me, you were agnostic about the question of living or not at that time?"
"Yeah. Well, I never had any self-harm, but I was indifferent, though," Fetterman said. "If the doctor said, 'Gee, you have 18 months to live,' I'd be like, 'Yeah. Okay, well, that's how things go.'"
A concerned doctor began making arrangements at Walter Reed, and on his son's 14th birthday, Fetterman agreed to go.
Pauley said, "What a waste if you hadn't; recovery was weeks away. For the uninitiated, depression doesn't exist in the same sphere as love. So, the question of how can a man not care about living in a world where those children you clearly adore are living?"
"It makes me sad," Fetterman said. "You know, the day that I go in was my son's birthday. And I hope that for the rest of his life, his birthday will be joyous, and you don't have to remember that your father was admitted."
"Oh, but wait: This is where your renewal began. His birthday is a day for both of you to celebrate."
"Well, that's a good way to look at it," he said. "I'm looking forward to doing that."
"You seem hopeful."
"For the first time, yeah. It's a strange feeling for me to have."
Pauley asked, "Your trajectory, from mayor to lieutenant governor, United States Senator, at 53 in politics, that's a young man. Can you have aspirations? Can you serve beyond the United States Senate?"
"You know, my aspiration is to take my son to the restaurant that we were supposed to go during his birthday but couldn't, because I had checked myself in for depression," Fetterman replied. "And being the kind of dad, the kind of husband, and the kind of senator that Pennsylvania deserves, you know, that's truly, that's what my aspiration is."
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Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editor: Mike Levine.
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