John Fetterman and the Performance of Wellness

The particular challenge of enduring depression as a public figure

A photo of John Fetterman
Patrick Semansky / AP

Yesterday, Senator John Fetterman, the Pennsylvania Democrat who suffered a stroke at the near-peak of his political campaign last May, announced that he was checking into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to treat a case of obdurate depression. The discussion since then (at least in the mainstream press, and among his Democratic colleagues) has focused, rightly, on what a sea change this is—how it is now possible, as a national politician, to openly declare your mental suffering and do something about it without fear of calamitous repercussions. The benighted days of secrets and shaming are gone; the experience of Senator Thomas Eagleton, who for 18 days in 1972 was George McGovern’s running mate until it was discovered that he’d undergone electroconvulsive therapy years earlier, is now unthinkable.

In fact, Fetterman’s office could have blamed his depression on his stroke, which is a common cause of depression. Instead, it made a point of saying that Fetterman had had depression in the past.

But I would like to focus on another aspect of this chapter in Fetterman’s life. As a national figure, Fetterman was continuously, relentlessly obligated to perform a certain role—that of a competent, confident politician. More than that, possibly: an accessible, obliging politician. The post–January 6 tightening of security notwithstanding, Congress remains one of the most open, porous environments in the country. It’s a place where reporters roam with almost unconstrained access, corralling senators in hallways, committee rooms, the elevator bank just off the Senate floor. Tourists and visiting constituents and lobbyists buzz about.

As a senator, you can never not be on, in other words. Your life is an Ironman Triathlon of outward-facing obligations: constituent sit-downs, committee meetings, caucus lunches, votes on the floor, home-state parades and fairs and school visits and town halls and barbecues where you’re asked to don a puffy chef’s hat.

I have often written about the usefulness of the sociologist Erving Goffman’s distinction between “front-stage” and backstage selves when it comes to politics. To briefly summarize: Our front-stage selves are controlled, formal, fit for public consumption; our backstage selves are unvarnished, less filtered, generally reserved for intimates—the people we are when we drop the facade. (For anyone who’s thirsty for more, see Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.)

Politicians, particularly members of Congress, are almost always required to be front-stage creatures, for exactly the reasons I have described: all those damn committee meetings, constituent sit-downs, puffy hats. We tend to expect a certain level of formality from them—and absent that, a certain consistency of performance.

But depression, almost by definition, is a backstage emotion: lonely, prickly, uncomely. When you’re in the throes of it—something I know a thing or two about—it positively defies salable shtick. What this means is that every high-functioning depressed person has a self they try very hard to conceal. It is work performing your wellness—for some people, it’s more exhausting than their actual day job.

And from what little we know, that seemed to be the case for Fetterman. It is said that he was unhappy that he missed out on (and still hasn’t gotten) the time he needed to properly recover from his stroke. And now here he is, in one of the most public-facing jobs imaginable—possibly even more so than the presidency, where you have the luxury of retreating into the antiqued seclusion of the White House, away from reporters and constituents.

On top of this, Fetterman was spending his weekdays alone, apart from his wife and three children, who are still in Braddock, Pennsylvania. For most of the week, he doesn’t have his loved ones by his side, the people with whom he could safely pull off the mask. Instead, he had to perform all day long, then return to an empty home.

Illness, too, can be cruelly isolating. Fetterman was trying valiantly to adapt to a demanding, high-intensity job with closed-captioning at his desk and audio-to-text transcriptions of committee hearings; he carries a tablet that converts what his colleagues say into text. This technological wizardry might make his work easier to do, but it also sets him apart, accentuating how different his lot is from everyone else’s. I’m guessing it isn’t easy to experience this difference during every interaction he has—not when his condition is so new, not when he hasn’t had ample time to adjust.

Fetterman has basically been forced to contend with the effects of a severe brain trauma while working an absurdly demanding job in one of the most polarized and toxic political climates the country has ever known.

In the coming weeks or months, my suspicion is that most of his Democratic colleagues will be supportive of Fetterman, while the hooligans at Fox and in the even-further-right precincts of the Trump underworld will say that he’s unfit to serve. It’s possible, though, that some of his most ardent supporters will quietly wonder the same. And maybe the demands of the Senate will prove to be too much for him. But Fetterman was handily elected by Pennsylvanians, who knew quite well they were electing a man who had suffered a life-altering upset to his health. Now the question is whether they’ll allow him to acclimate on his own timetable and terms. And that may be the next test of how far we’ve come as a nation in thinking about mental, physical, and spiritual health.