The Best Medicine: Gary Gulman’s “The Great Depresh”

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Depression is not funny. But that does not mean you can’t laugh at it. Case in point: Gary Gulman’s recent HBO special ‘The Great Depresh’ offers an insightful, honest, poignant, and very funny look at Major Depression.

Gulman tracks his battle with depression from his childhood (“the only antidepressants we had access to in the 70s and 80s pretty much were ‘Snap out of it,’ and ‘What have you got to be depressed about?’”) all the way to the present. Along the way, through anecdotes (eating ice cream with a fork), observations (“Depressed people hate laundry”), and reflections (of his childhood, he says: “Think of Charlie Brown, had Snoopy died”), Gulman also articulates several useful truths about the condition, and about mental health in general. 

First is his embrace of therapy and treatment overall. Gulman has been in therapy and on medications for a long time. He also spent time in a mental hospital, where he underwent ECT (he characterizes the name change from “electroshock” to “electroconvulsive” therapy as “a lateral move”). His stance on this history is clear: Therapy and treatment saved his life.

Gulman does not, however, romanticize or sugarcoat the process, describing the frustrations of having to go through multiple antidepressants in search of what works. After rattling off a long list of the meds he’d taken over the years (“…effexa, Celexa, Zyprexa…”), he quips that his doctor finally suggested they just “try drugs that rhyme” (his reply: “Thank you, Dr. Seuss”).

He cleverly pits the side effects of his medications against the side effects of his depression and concludes that he’d prefer the former (“dry mouth”) to the latter (“death”). He’d take diarrhea over depression (“Diarrhea is much more productive than depression. I can get out of bed with diarrhea.”); also, impotence (“Impotence? Yes, I was having so much sex in the fetal position”). He’d even take both of those “simultaneously if I can smile at a sunset… Because when I’m in my right mind, a sunset is a justification for existence. When I’m depressed, I look at a sunset, and I think, ‘Yeah, you gave up too.’”

Second, he speaks in defense of the much-maligned millennial generation, noting that the millennials’ general “softness”—their insistence on safety, their openness to and acceptance of differences—is quite a lot better than the ignorance, harshness, judgment, and bullying that characterize Gulman’s own generation’s approach to mental struggles. (“Millennials, your stance on bullying is to be commended,” he observes).

He even goes on to defend “participation trophies”—that notorious staple of millennial ridicule. To those who wonder how these millennial kids will “ever learn how to lose,” Gulman provides reassurance, noting the abundant learning opportunities down the road: “Are you familiar at all with life?”

Third, he comes out clear and strong against the still-prevalent myth that depression is a driver of creativity, or a necessary price of it, and shows how it is, in fact, a detriment and hindrance. This segment serves to illustrate well a common error of association that generalizes vastly beyond the specific case of depression. When we see people achieve creative feats while dealing with a mental disorder, we often assume that their achievement was somehow driven, aided, or enabled by the disorder. Most of the time, we are wrong.

As with other such phenomena (e.g., children who were spanked harshly and come out OK do so in spite of, not because of, the spanking), depressed people who are creative create despite, not because of, the depression. On the whole, creative people who don’t have depression do better in life than those who have it. Those who have it do better when it’s managed or in remission.

Fourth, his story illustrates how depression (like most mental disorders) can often hide in plain sight, camouflaged under one’s appearance, achievements, fame, and such. Gulman was a large, tall child, so he was expected to be tough. His actual sensitivity was by turns overlooked and ridiculed.

He smiles warmly and tells funny jokes, which is easily mistaken for “happy.” He’s self-aware, smart, and articulate, and a gifted and successful comedian—but none of those qualities can protect against the sinister clutch of depression. This is an important observation since many people still associate mental illness with bizarre behavior and assume that telling the healthy from the suffering is easy to do. It is not.

For example, I have been treating clients with panic disorder for over 25 years, and I can still quite easily fail to recognize that the person in front of me—a friend at a party, a student in my class, or even a client in session—is having a panic attack. Relatedly, Gulman also takes on the popular caricature of the mental hospital as a dark place of bizarre happenings and offers a surprising counter-narrative instead: “It was a very ordinary experience… There were men, women, rich people, poor people. It was such a diverse group.” The people receiving treatment in the mental hospital, like those in any hospital, are sick. But they are people first.

Appropriately, Gulman ends on a measuredly upbeat note. He’s doing better (“My depresh is in remish”), and he wants others out there who are dealing with depression to know that they are not alone and that there’s hope.

Yet he admits to the truth of his condition. There are good and bad days. Some days, he still finds it hard to get out of bed. He thinks he’s discovered the reason: “Life, it’s Every. Single. Day!”


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