Warning: This article discusses suicide and depression.
RUSSELL SENATE OFFICE BUILDING
A HOT SUMMER DAY
JOHN FETTERMAN, the junior senator from Pennsylvania, is lumbering through the corridor that senators use to get from their offices to the Senate chamber, usually when it’s time to vote on a piece of legislation. You can get there by foot or ride a little trolley car, which he calls the subway. He is joined by four staff members, one of whom walks backward in front of him holding an iPad equipped with software that translates what people say to him—and what he himself says. After his stroke in May 2022, it became difficult for him to process language and to speak clearly. Even 14 months later, it’s hard to talk with him in the corridor above the noise of the trolleys and the background chatter.
“So you prefer to walk rather than take the subway?” I ask.
He looks at the iPad. The screen reads, “walk brother subway.” He looks at me curiously.
His path to this moment has been both well-documented and little understood. He grew up in York, Pennsylvania, south of Harrisburg. He played football at a local college, then got his master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School. He returned to Pennsylvania, to a small, decrepit city called Braddock, and worked helping residents earn their GEDs. In 2005 he ran for mayor of Braddock and won. He has lived there for 22 years now. He and his wife, Gisele, made a home out of a converted car dealership with their three children. In 2019 he became the lieutenant governor, and in 2022 he ran for the United States Senate. His opponent was Mehmet Oz, the television doctor and longtime New Jersey resident. During the campaign, Fetterman suffered a stroke, stayed in the race, faced Oz in a disastrous debate, and won anyway.
This has all been well-documented and little understood.
When we arrive at the Senate chamber, Fetterman, 54, stands in the doorway and gives an “aye” vote. He is not allowed to actually step onto the floor, because he chooses not to wear a business suit, as required by the Senate dress code at the time. So he gives a thumbs-up. It’s just easier this way, and much more comfortable.
Back in his office, he sits behind his desk for our interview. He is wearing a black short-sleeved button-down, baggy black shorts, and black Hoka sneakers with black ankle socks. The lights are off, and sunlight fills the room.
A successful recovery from a stroke can take months or even years. During this healing process, the brain seeks pathways around damaged tissue to function properly. I will speak to Senator Fetterman several times over a period of months. At the beginning of our first interview, when I start talking, he looks at his iPad screen.
JOHN FETTERMAN: Please don’t take it personally. I’m reading off a screen to make sure I hear everything. I’m not ignoring you or checking my email or something.
RYAN D’AGOSTINO: The stroke itself. What do you remember about it?
JF: I was walking into my SUV after using the men’s room at a Sheetz, and my wife, Gisele, said, “My God, you’re having a stroke.” And I was like, “What the hell are you talking about?” This side of my face was drooping. My security detail turned on their lights and started driving to Lancaster General. I was arguing the whole way. I was like, “What are we doing? I’ve got to get to...” This was just a couple of days before the primary, and we had an event at Millersville University. I’m like, “We got to go. We got to go.” And my speech started to make—I was arguing all the way till we got there, but my brain was fighting to get—literally, I was in the process of dying.
I look back and I’m like, If all this would have happened when I was asleep, I never would have woken up. Or if we were in a remote part of Pennsylvania, I wouldn’t have made it.
RD: It’s not hard to find clips on Fox News, even now, where they grab a moment of you mushing words together.
JF: They love it. They’ve never lost their hard-on for trying to point out that I missed a word or two.
RD: Is it hurtful?
JF: It’s not that it’s hurtful, but it’s dismaying. I would never make fun of, be like, “Ha ha ha, you’ve got a limp!” I don’t understand anyone that gets their jollies off that, because it could be your brother, it could be your father, it could be your child. It’s almost like middle-school kind of obnoxious. Don’t you reach a certain age where you’re just like, Yeah, we don’t be like this?
RD: Do you hear it as it’s happening and you think, Shoot, I missed a word?
JF: Of course. I know when I’m missing words. It just doesn’t faze me anymore.
After his stroke, compounding the agony of having private health struggles play out so publicly and in the inhuman forum that is contemporary partisan politics, Fetterman plunged into a deep and sudden depression. It was so severe that over time he began to contemplate suicide. In February, he checked himself into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he received treatment for six weeks.
RD: You were the kind of person who could look at Braddock, Pennsylvania, and see beauty and potential—that suggests a positive, optimistic disposition. And yet you end up battling depression. At what point was it clear that something was really, deeply wrong?
JF: I made the decision to do the debate. And there was a lot of “Show us your medical records. Show your medical records.” I said, “You want to see my medical records? Okay. We’re going to do a debate. You’re going to see our ‘medical records’ right up there in front of you—in front of everybody.” You can’t show people much more about where you’re at than you can by just getting out there.
I knew it was going to be rough. I mean, like, no shit, guys. I have an overpolished TV guy like that—but I believed that people deserved to know this is where I’m at. This is what’s been done to me. So I did it, and I knew it was rough. And then I knew that’s when something broke, where I knew that the depression was a filled [free] fall. After that moment, that was all the tinder that was accumulating, accumulating, accumulating....
RD: Yeah, but then you win.
JF: I did win! But I didn’t expect that I was going to win, to be honest, because we were getting—it was a blowtorch. “You’re a ‘retard.’” “You’re a vegetable.” Could you imagine if on the other end I was making fun of someone who had a stroke? What the fuck is—what the fuck is wrong with you? You know? And that was—at that point, I all but stopped eating. I was dehydrated.
We won by five points. The last time this seat went to Democrats was in the ’60s. But even then, it didn’t matter to me. I didn’t have any interest to be a senator after that. It was rough. You would think that, Hey, you won, and it was good. But it wasn’t. It was confusing and hurtful to my children, because they thought, You won. What’s wrong with you? What’s wrong with us?
I stopped getting out of bed. I stopped going on walks. I stopped listening to music. I stopped watching television. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and I barely sat at the table. Christmas, of course, I love that, and I’m ashamed to say that I wasn’t part of the Christmas. It was my wife getting all—our youngest child still believes in Santa. I wasn’t a part of it in terms of doing up the decorations or helping her buy parents—excuse me, presents. In the middle of winter, I had comfort in knowing how it was dark early. I cringed whenever the clock said it was a time that most people would be out of bed.
RD: And here you’ve been elected to the United States Senate.
JF: I was more preoccupied with the things closest to me, and that is my family. And I was a fame—excuse me, I was failing as a father and I was failing as a husband. And if I can’t deliver for my family, how the hell can I start delivering for the people in Pennsylvania?
Finally, I had an opportunity with Walter Reed. But for that kind of intervention, I don’t know where I would be at. And I am so grateful for that.
Fetterman’s father, Karl, suffered a near-fatal heart attack days before this interview. Fetterman has been visiting him every day in the hospital.
JF: I can’t imagine if my dad’s heart attack would have happened six months ago, what that would have done to me. So thankfully I’ve been able to be back to 100 percent, at least in terms of feeling good about everything. I’m able to pay it forward and to visit with my father all the time and be there and be there for the family of that.
Let me say this to anyone that’s thinking about this: There is a way out. There is a way out, and do not ever, ever, ever, ever hurt yourself. I considered that, because if I hurt myself, then I am leaving a blueprint of my children that in their life, when things happen or things are bad, that this is what Dad did. That’s the blueprint, so I can do it, too.
He is crying now, sitting at his Senate desk.
JF: Anyone reading this story: Don’t ever, ever, ever, ever consider hurting yourself. Get your help. I never thought it would work, and I was skeptical. But don’t ever give up. Get help.
We have all had times when we’ve had to muster some determination. Some strength. Some perseverance in the face of hardship. Those terrible months after a loved one dies. A polyp that might be benign but they don’t know. A downsizing that sends you hitting up LinkedIn in your 50s.
A massive stroke.
Now imagine you’re famous. And not only famous but a politician, and not only a politician but a politician in an era when if you suffer a stroke that affects your speech, people in the other party and on propaganda networks—who know nothing about you but feel that they have license to destroy you—call you some awful things. Do you persevere in the face of hardship? Do you soldier on, stay in the race, do the debate, serve your constituents? Or do you say—and who could blame you?—to hell with this.
RD: This is all kind of hard to imagine, because I’m looking at someone who has always looked great—he’s the mayor! He’s a senator!
JF: That’s what’s so fucked-up about depression. Even if you won, it convinces you that you’ve lost. I was on borrowed time from after the debate and the Election Day. Put together Scotch tape just to hold me together between the last couple of weeks.
RD: There was a sign in Braddock: DESTRUCTION BREEDS CREATION. Did you come up with that?
JF: Yeah. I use that as kind of—this was early on when you had a community that was genuinely torn apart, lost 90 percent of its population.
RD: The reason I ask about that phrase, “destruction breeds creation,” is that there’s a metaphor there. You were almost destroyed.
JF: Yeah. I didn’t have a near-death experience, because technically I had died. It wasn’t like seeing lights or whatever, but it was feeling that everything was being bounded up in things, all coming up through, and I was going to go up to a window into the sky. Then I was woken up by the doctor who was standing over me, and he had an X-ray of my clot here that technically killed me, saying, “We got this. You don’t have to worry about your stroke.” And if this doctor that cathetered it up my leg—I mean, it’s astonishing technology—if he was running late for work or if he was on vacation, I would be up there with the harps. People in their middle age talk about their mortality. I’ve experienced my mortality, so I’m not afraid of it anymore.
THE FETTERMAN HOME
TEN WEEKS LATER
FETTERMAN SITS CROSS-LEGGED on the couch, looking at his phone. Gisele corrals their two dogs—Artie, a three-legged rescued pit bull, and Levi, another rescue—and tucks her legs underneath her on a chair by the window. Their cat, Potato, roams around the room, which feels big enough to play soccer in. (This was the showroom of the car dealership, after all.) There’s an indoor hot tub in one corner, and then a mile away, in the opposite corner, is the open kitchen, as well as two couches facing each other.
A year ago at this moment, Fetterman was in the fight of his life, campaigning against Oz, his speech severely impeded, political opponents calling him names. Today he is smirking at the news on his phone, much of which is about Republicans feigning disgust at his flaunting of the senatorial dress code.
RD: When we first met, your father had recently had a major heart attack. Your uncle had died the day before of stomach cancer. You’ve been severely tested. How’s your father doing?
JF: I am so happy to be able to share that he is almost back to 100 percent. He was clinically dead for about 20 minutes. It’s remarkable that he would have even survived. And yeah, the next test was with the whole dress-code thing, where there’s an undeniable fixation of Fox News and that whole universe trying to tear me apart. I just was able to laugh and observe it and not have to internalize a lot of that.
RD: Do you think a year ago it would have been a different story?
JF: Oh, yeah. And I will never be arrogant and think that I’ve licked depression or I don’t have to be vigilant or there aren’t going to be tests. But I am so rooted in gratitude post that my father recovered, that I have a wonderful family, and I’ve been able to resist the dark conversation about finishing myself off.
RD: I’d love to talk about what this past year or so would have been like without the support of your wife, who I imagine was just—
GISELE FETTERMAN: The best!
JF: She is. Just ask her. But no, she was incredibly supportive.
GF: Even how I delivered the news to the kids was important. I was like, “Guys, family meeting. We have some amazing news to talk about. This is really exciting. Dad is getting help, and we’re so proud of him for that.”
RD: Did you hear from the Bidens through all this?
JF: He has been above and beyond kind, supportive, and decent. It would have been very easy for them to kind of quietly back away. But it was the opposite. He doubled down on me, and I’ll be forever grateful of that.
RD: I interviewed him while he was vice president, and about two weeks later, my younger son suffered a massive brain hemorrhage. He was seven. It was caused by cancer, which we didn’t know he had. And my cell phone rings the next day. “Ryan, it’s Joe Biden. God-dammit. I’m so sorry. What’s going on? Tell me. How’s your boy?”
Fetterman looks at me for a good minute, then out the window. Across the street, the smokestacks and refinery fires of a U.S. Steel plant cut into a blue sky. He looks back at me.
JF: The one thing that may put me beyond would be something happening to my child.
GF: At the airport last week, remember that woman came up to you, John? We were at the airport coming back from D. C., and a woman came up to sit with him and said that her 16-year-old tried to kill herself and agreed to get help only after John went public about it.
RD: Knowing the John that you’ve known for so long before the stroke, before all of this, was it hard to reconcile those two people in the same person?
GF: John always, I think, had some depression. So I read every book on depression 14 years ago, and I would bring it to him, like, “I think you’re depressed.” There are things that we can try, and he would say, “You’re just too happy, Gisele. I’m not depressed. You’re just too happy.”
RD: Do you think that as a younger man or even a boy you had depression that went undiagnosed?
JF: It did. I don’t even know if I’d call it depression, but melancholy. But my origin story is more complicated, because I was an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy to two teenagers that were just casually dating. And I always felt a sense of responsibility or ashamed, because I was essentially a mistake. So I’ve never been able to have anything but a low opinion of myself.
GF: And I fight that so hard with him, because I want him to accept the love that he gives to everyone. Somehow everyone is deserving of it—but not John.
RD: Just from when we spoke in Washington to now, your speech seems so much better. I don’t know if it’s just different days, but—
GF: No, it’s healing.
RD: What’s the prognosis?
JF: I’m healing. The thing they’ve always said is, you’re never guaranteed to go back to be ing 100 percent. Nobody knows fully how the brain is, what's the word—neuroplasticity. Your brain tries to find a way to deal with the fact that there is a mass of dead cells from the stroke. The brain finds a way to work around it, and the more time that goes on, your brain becomes more and more successful in getting better.
I feel better, and I’m able to have conversations where I’m not having to say, “What was that word?”
Now I’m giving interviews on the fly, which is part of the way of life in the Senate, where you’re walking down a hall, and that’s where reporters are waiting, and they’re like, “Hey, can we talk?
That was a major thing: I couldn’t talk to any of the reporters. I had this horrible paranoia that every time I spoke to somebody that’s recovering—or, excuse me, that was recording it—it’s going to end up on Fox News or on Twitter. Like, “Bahahhhh, he’s Sling Blade!” It was like a narcotic for them. It’s such recreational cruelty for them.
GF: There are days now when he doesn’t use the translation software at all.
RD: How does listening to music work?
JF: Early after the stroke, it was like whwhhwhwh—I knew it was noise, but that’s it. And now I’m able to enjoy it so much.
RD: I would think sports would be easy to watch on TV.
JF: If I have a free Sunday, hey, I’d love to watch the Steelers. That might be fun—but I got three great kids that I love and that I want to hang out with! And the next day I’m going to have to get on a plane.
When Gisele and the kids were trying to schedule their first visit to Walter Reed—the kids’ first visit—I was objecting. I was thinking, No, the kids don’t want to see me. And there was a therapist there, she was younger—everyone there is in the Army. And finally she said something that changed my whole life, probably the trajectory of my whole life. She said—and kind of seemed like she dropped out of character—she said, “Kids always need hugs from their daddy.”
I’m going to get emotional just talking about it, because that just shattered my whole—I was like, Oh my God, it’s true. I immediately agreed to schedule the visit. That changed everything. It was freeing, because it allowed me to accept love.
As Fetterman was talking, Gisele had disappeared in silence—I didn’t realize she’d gone—and reappeared behind me holding a frame, two feet by three, containing yellow and pink Post-it notes on which the Fetterman children had written notes to their father. “Best Dad Ever”... “YOU SHINE”... “Hey!! Dad just to let you know I am always in your hart, Love You”... “Happy You Are Becoming Happier”...“You INSPIRE”...“You are amazing”...
GF: During our visit, the kids stayed in the room and I went for a walk with him—there was a healing garden. When we came back to the room, the kids were all over the floor, making these notes.
JF: Walter Reed is on a base, and I was desolate. I was being observed 24/7. And there is a Wendy’s on the base that you can walk to. And I took everybody to Wendy’s—Wendy’s!—and it was the first time we were able to be together again. And we had this amazing meal there.
GF: The kids had garlic fries.
Fetterman looks off, lost in his own incredulity at sharing a meaningful family meal of garlic fries and Baconators. One of the dogs curls into a sunbeam on the floor.
RD: When do you have to start thinking about reelection?
JF: Well, that’s kind of well into the horizon. Now it’s just being the kind of senator that Pennsylvania deserves. And I’m grateful for the choice that they made to give me the ability to serve, and I think the depression has made me a much more effective and empathetic senator. After kind of dying, I’m just grateful for any time, whatever that is. I think about that if things would have been different, myself and my father’s circumstances, I’d be gone and then my father would be dead, and what our families would look like, and it would be profound.
My dad, he’s 73, but now hugging my father is so special. Now when I go visiting him, it’s a religious experience. It really is. It’s profound.
RD: Kids need hugs from their daddy.
Fetterman smiles at this and points at me.
JF: Right after that happened to my dad, I put this picture on my phone: It’s my dad holding me when I was not even a year old. From that moment up till the time where he was on a ventilator, I’ve never seen him as anything other than the guy holding me. Strong. Talk about winning the lottery. That one of the people that I love most ever, to get him back is remarkable.
My poor mother, too. Talk about the commitment of marriage and having kids, as if once kids are 18, they’re over with.
RD: The commitment to a marriage is so important, and hard. The night my son got sick, he’s in the operating room for six hours having brain surgery. And my wife took my hand and said, “No matter what happens, this can either break us apart or bring us closer.”
JF: I wish I had that exact quote [said] to me after I had my stroke. So succinct and profound and critical.
GF: And emotionally mature, too.
JF: I want to needlepoint that onto a pillow. Because of the viciousness and the stress of the campaign, I was able to slide back into that kind of bickering and that kind of pettiness, too, because I wasn’t able to process the kinds of craziness and be the kind of more grateful, loving husband or dad.
GF [smiles, sighs elaborately]: It’s okay. I always spread love.
Fetterman looks down at his phone screen to see what she said.
JF: That didn’t come through. So I guess I’m okay with whatever you said. Sometimes it’s better if I don’t hear some of her, ah, comments.
RD: Is talking about all of this sort of a form of therapy?
JF: It’s more like affirming gratitude. It’s like, my God, I don’t want anybody else to suffer. Isn’t that what any politician should really want out of his or her career, to reduce suffering and make things better?
RD: For people out there who are struggling and wanting to know: Once you go through intensive treatment like you did at Walter Reed, what does the other side look like? What do you have to do?
GF: He meets with his doctor weekly. That counts as therapy. And you eat really well. I’m a natural nutritionist. He eats a ton of greens. He doesn’t eat any sweets at all. I’m the one who eats a pint of ice cream every night before bed.
RD: The role that you’re finding yourself in, as advocates for mental health, seems natural.
GF: We’ve become like a little suicide hotline. I get so many messages on Twitter. He’s Zoomed with folks. Complete strangers. It happens every week, either someone who decided to go get help or finally decided to go to therapy. We had a dad reach out about their 12-year-old daughter, who was trying to get into treatment and showed videos of John. What a privilege. To be allowed into this very vulnerable space.
JF: And I try to process what my son August would think about if I’d have done the same thing as another dad I heard about who made the opposite decision I did. For the rest of that son’s life, he will always wonder why Dad wouldn’t stay.
Fetterman starts to cry and can’t speak for a long moment. When he finally does, he is barely audible.
JF: I’m so sorry that he wasn’t able to overcome the darkness, and I’m so grateful that I did.
He puts his thumb and forefinger into his eyes, as if to try to dam the tears.
JF: Excuse me. Saying something could break the chain that leads you to taking your life. I changed my mind.
It’s hard to overstate the power of this moment. It wasn’t long ago that an American in high office showing such vulnerability in public wouldn’t have been allowed or tolerated. We have been terrible at dealing with mental health in this country until very recently. Now we’re merely bad at it. But this determined public passion play of Fetterman’s—his willingness not to hide behind opaque, lying statements crafted by Washington flacks but rather to show himself, sometimes painfully, as a flawed and healing human—has already made the junior senator from Pennsylvania a consequential figure in history. In a single year, he’s done more to destigmatize stroke and depression than any of the ancients on Capitol Hill have in a lifetime.
He could have succumbed to the disease that came after him. He could have run from public life. But he did neither. He’s here, getting steadily better, showing us how it’s done.
The midafternoon sun warms the dogs by his feet, warms Gisele’s shoulders as she watches her husband. She untucks her feet and walks over to show me a long wall of family photos—the kids on Halloween, the kids at the beach, the couple in Washington. There’s one of Fetterman as a child with his father.
Fetterman walks over to the kitchen, frowning at some piece of news on his phone, his six-foot-eight frame silhouetted against giant plate-glass windows. The kids will be home from school soon, and then it’s the weekend. I’m down the hall, lost in the illustrated story of his life, when he calls out:
JF: You’ve been here for quite a while. Want an Almond Joy?
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, contact the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988 for free and confidential support.
This article appears in the December 2023 issue of Men's Health.
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