How Will I Explain My HBO Special to My Son?
‘Career Suicide’ is unapologetically honest about my struggles with depression — and the lessons I learned fighting it
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?
This isn’t one of the questions they tell you about in birthing class. There’s a lot of breathing in birthing class, a lot of visualizing. At one point in the birthing class I took, everyone was told to hold a raisin in their hand and to remember that “a raisin is a construct.” (It wound up being a very useful class once we got past all the raisin stuff.)
They warn you about exhaustion. They warn you about diapers, about teething, about tantrums. But they don’t warn you about your own body of work and the potential that your offspring will someday be smart enough to operate streaming platforms without your assistance, at which point they will definitely find it.
This scares me on a few levels. First off, Cal’s mom and I met on a public access television show we worked on together, and it’s an understatement to say that the show was bizarre. Someday my son will find videos of me getting beaten by people with wiffle bats, or of a dominatrix lighting me on fire while I lie in my underwear on a table, or me staring despondently into the camera while a shirtless man we claimed was half fish swings a double-sided dildo around and the crowd chants “The Human Fish loves cock.”
As an artist, how do I protect my son from my art?
My kid and I will have to have some weird chats, someday, for sure. But there’s also a side of these things that I look forward to telling him about. How I pursued art that came from the heart even when it wasn’t leading to money. How my friends and I were outsiders who forced our way into traditional television by building a cult base of like-minded people all over the world. And most of all, how his weirdo artist mom and I fell in love because of that weirdo artist show.
I have a podcast called Beautiful/Anonymous, and I look forward to him finding that one. That’s just me having phone conversations with random people, often people who are in need, or who have survived something, or who need to express their fears and doubts. That one came into being when I was already an adult, and I think he’ll be proud of me when he is old enough to understand how much it prioritizes empathy above all else. That will be a good lesson for him to learn.
But I hold my breath when I think about him discovering my stand up. Not just the bit about having a failed sexual escapade on the roof of noted character actor Alan Rickman, or a pretty intense drug escapade at Bonnaroo. Those can be segued into discussions about sexual responsibility and how one has to be careful when experimenting with substances.
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 talked about sexual side effects, about weight gain, about pooping blood.
I talked about a time I crashed a car on purpose.
The show went well, by the standards of my industry. I did it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Then I did an off-Broadway run in New York that got some very kind reviews. Ultimately, it wound up airing on HBO where, due to the magic of technology, you can access it this very second. Gone are the days of my HBO, when you’d turn it on knowing that Groundhog Day would randomly be playing at some point. You can find my pain at the push of a button.
I know this sentence needs to start with “…and the idea that Cal will see it someday…” and end with how that proposition makes me feel. But I do not know how to write that sentiment, except to say there are no words to capture the mix of emotions that come to life when I think of my beautiful little boy watching that special. I can tell you that I’m writing this at a communal table in a coffee shop and I’m on the verge of tears and I’m pretty certain the girl next to me in overalls feels quite uncomfortable.
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?
What if it’s used against him? What if he’s in the schoolyard, and some mean kids have seen it first? What if I hand them a weapon to undercut the confidence of my son? Will they tell him he has a crazy dad? Will my work be converted into a taunt meant to cut?
Will he see it and be sad for me?
He will find it. Kids aren’t dumb. They find things. It’s out there. I put it out there.
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 argue that the defining element of depression isn’t sadness, but something more akin to loneliness.
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. Because I can’t even begin to explain how true that is. 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.
The idea that my kid would feel that lonely someday… it’s a nightmare I will live with for my whole life.
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. I will let him know that I’ve interacted with thousands of people who say it helped them. Some of them talk to me in person. Some of them send me messages online. 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’ll tell him how strongly I felt that people shouldn’t be mocked for their manner of death, and how much that made people like me hide our conditions. I think that little part, maybe more than any other, drew a line in the sand that did some good for other people.
And I will say all of this not to pat myself on the back, or justify my choices to him, but to let him know that in 2014, my friend Mike Birbiglia told me I had to put this scary side of my life out into the public, because it had a chance to help others. And as Mike told me back then, if you have a chance to help other people, you are honor-bound to take it.
One of the ways civilization survives is by building an invisible safety net of humanity that’s rooted in looking out for one another.
I will tell him that helping others is one of the only things that reliably staved off my own depression 100% of the time. That sometimes your own sense of comfort or safety has to go by the wayside if you see an opportunity to make life easier for your neighbor. 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. That there will be so many times in his life when people help him, in ways big and small, and that when he’s old enough and stable enough to do so, it will be necessary — not optional, but necessary — to find ways to pay that back and help those around him.
It is simply the right thing to do.
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. Sometimes that led to professional momentum and came from powerful people, like when Judd Apatow — a man I’d only met a few times — sent me an email one day that simply said, “Hey, I emailed the president of HBO and he wants to do your special.” I didn’t even have to pitch it.
But that kindness also came from people whose stature I have no idea of, people who were faceless outside of the moment they lent a helping hand. Like the time I was driving cross-country by myself and wound up eating at a picnic table outside of a Sonic drive-through in Missouri, and a young girl with purple hair sat down with her own meal instead of sitting at one of the dozen empty tables, just so neither of us had to eat alone. I told her I was a comedian. She told me she was getting out of that town, and that she wanted to find a way to pay for college in Washington, D.C. so she could become a forensic pathologist. I asked her what that meant and she said it was the study of dead bodies. I laughed and told her that was cool. She smiled and said, “Even though we’ll never meet again, can I have your number?” She texted me once about a year later to see how I was doing. She’d moved to D.C.
Or how, when Cal was born, I received a package from another comedian named Phil Hanley, a guy who I knew and liked and had conversations with, but it’s not like we’d ever gone out for lunch, or even played shows on the road together. And how that package contained a set of pajamas and a little hat for my son, and how the stereotype of comedians is that they only think about themselves, but that Phil, a club guy, a road guy, from the corner of the scene that’s supposed to be callous and cold, went out of his way to do something kind for me. And how whenever I tried to explain to Phil that it made me feel accepted in a way I couldn’t quite explain, he waved it off with humility. How a little pair of pajamas that he, Cal, used to wear, was a representation of people doing small things to help someone else.
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.
There is one thing I won’t tell him: that the thing I am absolutely without question most thankful for when I think of the many reasons I am thankful I never successfully acted on my depression, is that if I had, I never would have met him.
That’s not fair. Too much pressure on the boy.
That being said, I’ll make sure he feels it and knows it in his heart, because it could not be more true.
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 can tell him that part of why I spoke openly about it is that I felt such anger at the idea that I, and people like me, were judged.
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.