Ken Gordhamer is a credit manager at a hotel. He was 53 when I interviewed him in Kansas City, MO, on July 23, 2015.
I have to say, going into this, having read some of the stories on your website, I feel a little guilty for being depressed about my life. I have a very good life. I did even then.
It doesn't surprise me that it's probably fairly common, because depression doesn't have a reason.
I was working as a night auditor at a little hotel, an awful job. I'm built for it—I'm a night owl and I like numbers, but it's a terrible job. [We had] three little kids, one infant. I hated my life. I hated everything about it. I didn't know why. I was depressed. Didn't know that of course, just thought I had a terrible life.
I don't know for how long, but I started cutting. I was doing it quite a bit. I remember I cut myself once and it was really bad. I still have a scar from that one. I was holding a paper towel to it and reading a story to my son at the same time. That was weird.
I don't know what it was about this one particular day. I explained all this to my daughter, my oldest child, just a few years ago. As I said to her, maybe I had a bad day at work, maybe I had a fight with my wife, I don't know. I don't know what it was, but I decided I'd had enough, at that point.
I locked myself in the bathroom. I remember intentionally locking the door so my kids wouldn't find me. I got in the tub and tried several times [to kill myself]. I couldn't do it. I sat there until the water got cold, and basically thought, "Well, that's a helluva thing." I got out of the tub, dried off, and went to bed. That was a very low moment.
I don't remember if I told my wife about it at the time, but very soon thereafter, I was able to get therapy for free through the company I worked for. I went to therapy a few times on my own, and then [the therapist] wanted my wife to come. We had some good sessions talking about what was going on in my life. The therapist was not good, but that didn't really matter.
[During] the last free session, I had an epiphany. We were talking about things that I was interested in, because I told [the therapist] I hated my job. I had told her that I found forensics interesting, as in forensic medicine. I had also told her, in the past, that I got anxious around other people and didn't like speaking to other people.
She said, "Well, I'm not sure forensics would be a good idea for you, since you don't like speaking in front of people." She was thinking, like, high school debate forensics. That struck me as so hilariously stupid that I got giddy. It lifted the veil.
I thought, "My god! I am so much smarter than this person." It's not her fault. In hindsight, it wasn't that stupid.
That was my last session. That's when I started learning about depression. That was maybe 1994. It took me a lot of years to learn what depression does to you. As a matter of fact, it wasn't more than a year or two ago that I started finally putting it all together—the lies that it tells. The voices in your head that are you, but they lie. I've learned what that voice is and that it's not true. Then I can write it out.
I can feel it coming on, and I know what it is, [though] not always. It's funny how insidious it is. I could be depressed for a couple of days and not know it, but then it'll finally occur to me what's happening and that will solve it. Well, it won’t solve it; it'll diagnose it. That's where I am now: I know it for what it is, I know it's not my fault, but it still gets hard.
Des: Tell me more about your wife: where was she? Was she supportive in the moment? Did you tell her directly that that was what you did, or did you avoid it?
Ken: I don't remember. Knowing me, I avoided it.
At some stage, she knew. At some level, she always knew. She gets depressed, too. It definitely runs in her family. Her dad [died by] suicide not that long ago. Maybe five years ago. I know depression has a strong genetic side, so she gets depressed, too. She's never been into therapy, but she understood completely. She was so supportive and [still is]. We've been married for thirty-three years this year.
Des: That's awesome.
Ken: We both think that the other one is too good for us. That's how we stay together.
Des: I like that one a lot. That's cute.
Ken: Yeah. She saved me.
Des: You were telling your oldest child about this recently. How do you explain it to a grown child? How do you drop that bomb?
Ken: My wife actually told her what happened. I don't know why or in what context, but she told me she had told her, so I had probably better speak to her. I agreed.
I wrote her a long email and told her basically all of what I told you. She was obviously very upset, but I tried to use it as a teaching opportunity about depression, with a certain amount of parental, “There, there. It'll be okay." I couldn't get past that. After I sent her the email, I gave her a day. Then I called and talked to her, and we talked for a long time.
I think kids need to know these things at a point when they can understand it. I have not specifically told my other two kids, although I did copy my oldest son on the email, so he knows.
I haven't talked to my youngest. I don't know why. I have a hard time explaining it to him. I think he gets depressed, too. He recently came out as bisexual, and he's a Brony and a geek. He has suffered in his life, so I have a lot of compassion for him. He lives with us. We're both gamers, so we play together and talk about the same kind of stuff.
I'm probably not a very good father, but I'm a pretty good friend. I'm certainly not Ward Cleaver, but I think that's a misguided image of fatherhood. When I say I'm not a good father, I'm not a good father in that sense. I'm not a good "by definition" father. All of my kids are independent, have gone their own way and think their own things, and I think that's a good thing.
Des: It’s been twenty years. What does the depression look like over twenty years? Have you continued to have suicidal thoughts?
Ken: I do. Probably once a month, but it's fleeting. I know exactly what it is, and I just ride it out. Right after therapy, they did give me Prozac. I lasted on that maybe a couple of months.
Des: That was Prozac's heyday, too.
Ken: Yeah. It just left me flat, so flat that I couldn't stand it. I quit taking that, and I haven't taken anything since. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but it has worked for me. I know that what works for me does not work for everybody.
It's funny—in the last maybe five years, I started talking about depression as a demon that I would hear and sometimes even see. I had a very vivid [experience]. I don't want to call it a vision, because I really saw it, but my interpretation of it is up for grabs.
My biggest stressor in life was driving to and from work. I hated it. I drive on pretty gentle streets, but other drivers drive me crazy. I started viewing the really bad ones, the ones who really pissed me off, as demons.
There was one time this van was in front of me—a white work van, unmarked. There were two guys in it, and they were driving thirty in a forty-five. I was on my way to work, and I was behind it. I thought to myself, "I'm going to allow this." I stayed five car lengths back riding thirty miles an hour, and was just going back and forth between "C’mon!" and, "This is okay."
I finally got to where I turn off for work, and that van was continuing straight. We stopped at the red light next to each other. I looked over and the driver was a demon. He was kind of a Freddy, Friday the 13th-looking face. He looked over at me and leered with his tongue hanging out of his very demonic-looking face.
I was going to say, "I don't think that that's what I really saw," but that's what I saw.
I think it helped me to isolate that feeling into an object. I could treat that object as a separate thing. It's not me, and, real or fake, it doesn't matter. It's over there, and I can deal with that if it's not in here. I don't know if that's healthy, but it was an awakening for me as a way to deal with it.
"It's okay," has kind of become my mantra. Good or bad, everything is fleeting. The good will stop, the bad will stop. It's all cool. It's all okay.
Des: It's true, though it doesn’t always feel that way.
Ken: No. No, you have to fight it sometimes.
Des: Talk about the community of gamers, because I know there's a serious depression situation there.
Ken: Yeah. I wish I knew what that was.
Des: I mean, you can find it almost anywhere—comedians, you know? Places you almost wouldn't expect.
Ken: Yeah. Well, I think the creative mind is a weird mind. It's funny, though, because the gamer community was bad. It's still very toxic in certain places, but I think in a meta sense, there is a realization coming that maybe you need to start treating those digital people as real human beings.
I never really got into the mass online gaming. I really don't like people and I know how toxic they can be, so I never really got into that. I mostly play by myself or with my friends. Because I'm a gamer from way back—from the 70’s, D&D, you know—it's always been me and my close friends. The thought of playing with strangers... ugh.
My son does it a lot, and it is a harsh world. It's kind of the school yard squared because of the anonymity. The bullies are powerful, or at least they feel that way. That’s never been a real problem for me because I avoid it. I was an adult by the time you could do that, so it wasn't that hard for me to just ignore it.
For my son, where that is a big part of his life, it's probably a lot harder. He did find an online community—the Brony community—that buoyed him, supported him, and entertained him, and that made a big change in his life. I think he's kind of letting that go now. I think he got the help he could get from that. It's helped him broaden his horizons a little bit and he's able to take on the world a little better because of that.
Des: What does your personalized self-care look like?
Ken: Well, I did start meditating. I don't practice. I don't follow any particular method. I just meditate. I stop for twenty minutes and just breathe. I think that it has helped me. I couldn't really tell you how. I've been doing it now for a couple of years.
I avoid like the plague all those "Seven Habits of the Happiest People" [books] and all that stupid crap, because you're not going to develop the habits of the happiest people in the world. It's just not gonna happen. They're already happy and they have certain habits. It has nothing to do with you.
I bet maybe deep down, maybe they're not all that happy. I don't really care if they're happy, and they don't care if I'm happy. I'm not gonna be happy all the time.
That's what the Buddha said. Quit trying to be happy all the time; it's not gonna happen.
Des: Smart guy, that Buddha.
Ken: He really was. I think he would probably look askance at most of the self-help crap that goes on these days in his name. Just stop. Just do what's good for you and quit trying to get it out of a book. Read the books, alright? Do the meditation, do the yoga, whatever. Whatever works is gonna stick, and whatever doesn't work, quit fighting it and let it go. That's what I do. That's what works for me.
Des: Yeah. That's what I was thinking about. You read those lists and it's like, "Well, I don't want to do yoga." Similarly, with meditation, it took me a while to figure out how I meditated best. It needs to be tactile, and no one really tells you that's an option. Every list is exactly the same and doesn’t account for personal differences.
Des: They're like, "Listen to the thing with the mountains and the streams," and I give no fucks about a mountain and a stream. I need something that makes sense, and it's the same way with self-care. For me, it's a big cup of coffee and walking around the city.
Ken: Exactly. Meditation is doing what you're doing. Whatever it is, you're doing, do that. That is meditation.
Des: Yeah, I'm interested in that. You get the list, but they're never like, "Actually, think about what it is that you love and do that." That's never a suggestion for self-care.
Ken: Along a similar line, you've got the "How to Find Your Dream Job" lists. The first thing is always, "Sit down and make a list of the things you love to do," the old, "What would you do if you had a million dollars?" question. It's all a bunch of crap.
I was gonna say, very, very few people do what they love. That's not true. I think it's more true to say that very, very few people love what they do. Even if you're doing what you love to do, sometimes it's a pain in the ass. I think people are surprised by that, for some reason.
Des: I don't know why.
Ken: It instantly becomes no fun, although I gotta say, for me, it happened. I watch a lot of YouTube videos, a lot of Minecraft videos. I thought, "I can do that."
I did it a few times. It's a pain in the ass! It’s not, “Sit around, play games, record it, and make a million dollars on YouTube. Dream job!”
Ken: Oh my god, editing. It's horrible. And you have to be good at post-production to make good videos, and they don't tell you that. I try not to dwell too much on hating my job because everything is a job. Sometimes you like it, sometimes you don't.
Des: Doing what you love always turns into a job. Or, if you turn it into a job, it is going to suck sometimes.
Ken: Absolutely, because jobs suck.
Des: Yeah. But you can come back to it more easily if you love it, I guess.
Ken: I suppose that's true. You can become proficient at it easier. Obviously, there are advantages to doing what you love for a living, but it's never a circus ride. It's never all fun and games.
Des: That is true. How much TV do you watch?
Ken: I used to watch a lot, pretty much from the time I got home until the time I went to bed every night. I've replaced that with YouTube videos, and I’m starting to replace that with actually playing games. I'm always media-buried, whatever the media is. Before I started watching TV, I was reading books and even that is media.
Des: In April, I started keeping a log of every time I would find a reference to suicide in any kind of media I consumed. I realized it happens a lot, a lot more than I even thought. I was wondering if you had a similar experience and what you think about it.
Ken: I do notice it. Most of the time, I just laugh. Sometimes it's insensitive and I find myself trying not to be that offended. It's like, "Hey, you can't say that. I've been there."
The people who are really vehement [about it] get under my skin, so I try not to be that person. I try to keep a sense of humor about it. I joke about it all the time with my wife. Sometimes I think I go too far when I remember, "Oh, crap. Her dad [died by] suicide."
That whole process was interesting, going through that: having somebody close [die that way]. He was very sick. He was in a wheelchair. I don't know what he had. I don't think anybody knew what he had, but everything was swollen. His legs were so swollen that they actually seeped liquid. He could barely move his fingers. He hadn't written in years. Finally, he reached the point where he knew he was gonna be [significantly impaired], and he decided to end it.
I strongly support that. He made the choice. I think it was a strong choice. I look at that in very different ways from what I did. I try not to think of it this way, but I still look at what I did as being weak, as giving in. I know that's not necessarily true, but it's how I look at it.
For him, it was strength. I was in the minority opinion on that. My wife agreed, but the rest of the kids and their spouses felt differently. They're of the classic [mindset], "Suicide is so selfish, you're only thinking of yourself when you do that." He wasn't. He was thinking about his whole family.
Des: Yeah. It's a shame that he had to go alone, and that he had to go violently. They’re different things. It's why I can't figure out how people are against physician-assisted dying. It sucks that we have these antiquated views of things like that, that we can't step outside ourselves for just a moment.
Ken: Yeah. I got a copy of his 911 call. I got a copy of the police report. I have the gun. The police didn't want to give it back to us, but I kinda pushed to have it. I don't know why, because I have other guns. It's not like I needed a gun. I wanted that one, I want to pass it down to my kids and I want them to know what it is.
Des: Talk about that more.
Ken: It is one of those lifetime events—birth, graduation, and death. That is his death personified. It has a story. It has a spirit. I'm a very strong believer in spirit. I don't know if you've read any Robert Moss; it’s kind of a non-religious spirituality.
I think there's something about that gun that means something. I don't know what it is. I don't really care what it is, but it has weight. It has existence in this world and another world. Or—and I say this because I always try to be honest about my feelings—maybe I just want it to. Maybe it doesn't. Maybe I just hope that whatever I leave behind will have some weight. Maybe that's it. I don't know which it is. It doesn't really matter which it is.
Des: You said that you want your kids to know about your experiences with suicide. Why is that so important?
Ken: I don't know. I do think I was a bad father, but they turned out great.
I don't think you have to be a great father for your kids to turn out great. I don't know if it's an American thing or global thing, but I think it's an advertising thing: the storytelling, swing-pushing, breakfast-cooking dad. This image in America, the image that advertising creates for people. I think advertising has gone further to create more suicides than anything else in the world. They push this image of consumerism, beauty, and conformity that anybody with the slightest difference feels. It's a crime.
Des: Well, what kind of father are you? They sound great.
Ken: They are great.
Des: I bet you were a great father.
Ken: Well, I was angry. I was depressed. The way I described to it my wife, I'm pathologically lazy. I don't want to do any of that stuff. Even when I had to, I'm sure they could tell that I was only there because I had to be.
That's not universally true. My wife and I met in high school. We were both in band, and felt very strongly about the kids doing music. We didn't make them do it, but they all did it to one degree or another. My older son played the saxophone. My daughter played the violin and was in choir. My youngest son played the trumpet and was in choir.
I’ve been to my share of school music performances. My god! Sometimes three or four a week, all through school, from fourth grade on. Those I did knowing that they were going to be horrible, but I did willfully because I wanted to support them. I loved that life. That was my life, and my mom never came to any of those things.
The music stuff I loved supporting. I didn't necessarily love going every time, but I went every time. I let them know that I was proud of them for doing what they did. I never insisted that they stick with it, but I did want them to try it, because it was so valuable for me. I think you learn a lot from music—the study of music and the performance of music in front of people. In that regard, I think I coincidentally handed them a wonderful tool for their lives.
The thing is, while I don't consider myself a good parent, even great parents have lousy kids. I'm not sure how much parenting is involved in creating a reasonable human being, because terrible parents have wonderful kids. I don't know, maybe it's more likely for terrible parents to have terrible kids.
I was going to say that what I did do right was, I tried to show them my relationship with my wife. We laugh and kiss and hug in front of the kids, and have a good time with each other, with them. When that was happening, yes, it was very good to teach my boys how to treat a woman or spouse, and how to be treated by a spouse.
The sad part of that is that I was angry and depressed a lot when they were the youngest and [in their] most formative years. I regret that, but there's nothing I can do about it. I dodged three bullets and they're all fantastic kids.
[When I said] it's important for me to leave something of myself behind, I have. I have descendants and they're good people.
If you're hurting, afraid, or need someone to talk to, please reach out to one of the resources below. Someone will reach back. Please stay. You are so deeply valued, so incomprehensibly loved—even when you can't feel it—and you are worth your life.
You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada), or The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. If you don't like talking on the phone, you can reach Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, or check out Lifeline Crisis Chat. If you’d like to talk to a peer, warmline.org contains links to warmlines in every state. If you're not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world.
Ken's story is sponsored by a grant from To Write Love On Her Arms. Thanks also to Andy Dinsmore for providing the transcription to Ken's interview, and to Sara Wilcox for editing.
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