At age 36, Chris Gethard has given up on performing comedy as a cure for his chronic depression - but he has not given up on being a comedian. I am a psychiatrist and I have seen a number of people with mental illness perform pretty good comedy. Then there is Gethard, who seems to me to be the Chris Rock of the genre of self-disclosure monologues about personal suffering - and finding a way to live and love.
Gethard has perfect pitch when describing anxiety, depression, hopelessness, suicidal impulses, alcoholic blackouts and psychiatric treatment. He has a sweetness to him that is not the least bit saccharine, a graciousness too, and he knows when to lighten the mood when the material is starting to get a bit too dark.
From when a boy, Gethard tells us he was panicky, fearful, awkward, and bullied. By the time he was an undergraduate at Rutgers he was having severe depressive episodes and a good dose of paranoia. Like so many youth, he eluded treatment until one night he came close to killing himself by not avoiding a preventable car crash. But it was almost a decade later that he finally surfaced from his psychic abyss, not without a mood disorder but despite it. That’s the silver lining of his monologue, and deserves to be heard by tens of millions of people with mental and addictive disorders and their families and friends.
I loved the way Gethard described his psychiatrist of almost a decade, his fondness for how she helped him as well as her idiosyncrasies and irreverence to convention. He was brilliant in nailing a doctor at a student health service who put his brittle efforts at protecting himself ahead of caring for patients, especially Gethard. His tales of psychiatric medications were faultless in their accuracy and in imparting the many dilemmas of taking a drug that can make you loopy, interfere with ejaculation, cause hemorrhoids and produce muscle spasms, to name a few. Yet he was clearly pro-medication and understood the necessity of his taking psychiatric drugs. He remarked he “takes Wellbutrin [an anti-depressant] for breakfast.” It was heartening, as well, to hear him adamantly dispel the myth that medications destroy creativity; in fact, he made a point of saying they were instrumental to his getting beyond chaotic, inchoate material to the clarity and capability he so keenly evidenced in this show.
In the 75 minutes of Career Suicide there were so many deftly delivered nuggets of hope and direction I wished many of my patients could hear them. We all need to come clean, to face our shame and do the work of building or rebuilding our lives. We all need attachments to people who truly care about us, who will pick up the phone when we need to reach them. We all need to work at making a life of dignity and connection. We need to find what he called “anchors”, those beliefs and activities that will get a person from a Sunday night suicidal frenzy to a doctor’s appointment on Thursday. And there is work, what calls us to get up, get going and do a day’s work whether you are a comedian, plumber or doctor.
Some might find Gethard to be a bit graphic at times, so be prepared for when he bares details about body and its fluids. But compared to Chris Rock, Chris Gethard is a choir boy. There also are plenty of New Jersey jokes but, hey, who can resist - especially if like him you are a New Jersey native. When my wife and I left the wonderfully intimate Lynn Redgrave theatre in the East Village we were uplifted even though we just had taken a journey through emotional hell. We had a lot of laughs. And for me, a busman of a psychiatrist on holiday, so to speak, I was proud to be among those Chris Gethard so kindly appreciated and poked such good fun at. ___________________________________________________________________________________________
My new book, Improving Mental Health: Four Secrets in Plain Sight, Foreword by Patrick Kennedy, will be available on November 1, 2016.
The opinions expressed herein are solely my own as a psychiatrist and public health advocate and public health doctor.