BRADDOCK, Pa. - Gisele Fetterman stood outside the bedroom door. It was 6:30 a.m. on Monday. The house was dark. The kids were asleep. Soon, a car would approach the house on the hill, the one everyone in town knew, just past the steel mill. Soon, her husband would disappear into the back seat. The car would take him to a plane, the plane to Washington, and then John Fetterman would be at work as a U.S. senator until Friday, four days from now.
Gisele looked at the bedroom door, waiting.
“How’s John?” people were always asking her now.
“How’s your dad doing?” they asked the kids.
Gisele walked to the bedroom to check. There was her husband, holding an iPad, a small suitcase at his feet. Inside were the black shirts and shorts he’s always worn, and the new medications that Gisele picked up from Rite Aid and sorted for his trips to Washington.
“I’m packed,” he said.
“I’ll walk you out,” she said.
Gisele wheeled the suitcase down the hall, past the blue Post-it notes her husband had left on each child’s bedroom door. “Hug coupon,” they all read. One for Karl. One for August. One for Grace.
How many times had her husband taken this trip to Washington? More than a dozen by now. At first, during the campaign of 2022, a U.S. Senate seat had meant something different to the family, a chance to lead on gun violence, abortion, immigration. Then came the stroke, the auditory processing disorder, the depression that became severe depression. Then came the hospitalization, Building 10, Room 768, of the Walter Reed neuropsychology unit. Then an end date to inpatient treatment and a prognosis: “remission,” the doctors had said, though nothing had ended, really. The center of the Fetterman family, the thing their lives revolved around daily, was now mental health.
“How are you?” people ask Gisele, if they aren’t asking about John. They tell her how strong she is. They tell her how sorry they are. They say they can’t thank her enough. Some send messages mocking her husband’s speech, or to say he should resign. But in a time when more Americans are being diagnosed with depression than ever before, there are people looking around for families like their own, and here are the Fettermans, in view and within reach. All day, more messages arrive - in emails, in tweets, on Instagram. People want to tell her about their own depression, about loved ones with schizophrenia and thoughts of suicide. A man wants her to know about the son he lost a year ago. Another about the brother he lost three weeks ago. A woman texts her to say she’s checking herself into the hospital right now. They tell her they are scared and worried - and they wonder if maybe Gisele is scared and worried, too.
It was light out now, and Gisele and John stood in the garage, talking not about any of that, but about John’s father. He was in the hospital from a heart attack, with the same condition that set off John’s stroke. The news had shaken the family, causing Gisele to ask herself, as she often did now, because she had to, “How will this affect John?”
“Dad comes home . . . ?” he asked.
“Wednesday,” Gisele said.
“Wednesday,” John said.
“We’ll call him every day,” Gisele said.
“We’ll call him every day,” Gisele repeated, a little louder. He still had trouble hearing. “The kids and I will FaceTime him every day.”
Gisele did not live with worry, at least not in the way strangers sometimes assumed.
“Gisele,” people used to ask when she was young, in school, or in job interviews, long before she’d met her husband, “where do you see yourself in five years?” She hated that question. She could never answer, because she couldn’t see herself anywhere in particular. Life was a series of adaptations. Something only had to happen once or twice before it felt normal to her. So now this was normal. How would anything affect John? She didn’t know. And how would that affect her, or the kids? She didn’t know that either. This was a new kind of adaptation. So many families made space for it. And now her family was one of them.
Here came the car.
She put her arms around her husband. She watched the trunk close, watched him climb into the back seat, watched the car pull away, and then she was waving goodbye.
Gisele had tried for years to figure out why John was so sad.
She read books. She asked John to read books. Soon after they started dating, she handed him a copy of “Understanding Depression,” by J. Raymond DePaulo Jr., a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She had been 25 when they met. She was 41 now. He was 54. He never touched the book until this year, when his doctor recommended the same one. Gisele used to ask John’s parents about his childhood, the times he was bullied in school, always the tall kid - so big, with such big ears. She wanted a story that made sense. His mom and dad were teenage parents, and John had told her he felt guilty for derailing their plans for young adulthood. So many times she’d told him it wasn’t true, your parents love you. But how could she convince him if he didn’t believe it himself?
When John was mayor of Braddock, a job he held for 13 years, she watched him return from crime scenes, devastated. John could absorb the pain of others, and she knew that made him a good man and a good mayor, except then he carried the pain around for days. He didn’t sleep. “Why are you so sad?” she’d sometimes ask, and John would say that he wasn’t sad, she was just too happy. “Normal people aren’t like you, Gisele,” he’d say. “Normal people are like me.” Sometimes, Gisele did what millions of people do, and she blamed herself for his sadness. Melancholy, she used to call it. Sometimes, she tried to imagine what it felt like, to be so sad. Gisele was happy. She was eager to share her life on Instagram and make mosaics for friends and mail sunflower seeds to people she met online, because that was how she thought of herself, as a sunflower, craning to face the sun.
It was 8 a.m. now, and John was probably on the plane, or he would be soon.
Gisele didn’t track his every move. The moment his car drove off, she turned around and walked back inside, tending to the dogs, waiting for the kids to wake up. “Get through today,” she was always telling them. “Then tomorrow, we’ll handle it when it comes.”
Today, then tomorrow. She was almost compulsive about living inside those bounds. She never wanted to make a promise with certainty. “I love you, and I hope to see you very soon,” she sometimes heard herself tell the kids as she dropped them off for a sleepover. Once, when her oldest son, Karl, 14, learned a friend’s parents were getting divorced, he rushed into the car after school and asked his mom and dad if they would ever get divorced. From the front seat, John and Gisele answered at the same time: “No,” John said. “Maybe,” Gisele said. If something bad did happen, she didn’t want her kids to feel like it was big enough to break them. She never wanted them to think, “Oh, my God, this is it, this is the end.” Tragedies and accidents did happen. Be flexible and adapt. A man who is a husband has a stroke. Adapt. A man who is a father of three suffers severe depression and checks himself into a psychiatric unit. Adapt. A man who is a U.S. senator says in a televised hearing, “Can you walk, walk- by, my, me, happ- happens when, in Pennsylvania, a working family can’t get insurance coverage?”
Adapt, adapt, adapt.
“Be like a tree,” she told her 12-year-old daughter, Grace. “The wind comes. You have to be prepared for changes.”
“Trees snap,” Grace replied.
“Depending on the kind of tree,” Gisele said. “There are trees that will snap if you’re not flexible. There are trees that will flow with the wind.”
Flexibility, day by day by day - they had always been easy concepts for Gisele. She was 7 years old when she moved from Brazil to New York with her mother, Ester. They were undocumented and uninsured. Ester was a nutritionist in Brazil. In New York, she was a house cleaner. She learned English in four months by watching television. Then she learned to clip coupons, searching the trash outside newsstands each night, so her family would have coupons for tomorrow. She applied for citizenship in Portugal, the country where her husband at the time was born, so her family would have a Plan B, in case they were deported. Adaptation was a necessity. Ester could jump to Plan B in a second.
The day John had his stroke, Gisele again tried to make only promises she could keep. It was Friday, May 13, 2022, four days before his Senate primary. From the hospital, she FaceTimed the kids. “Is Dad going to be okay?” they asked. “I hope so,” Gisele told them.
The public knew even less. The campaign had canceled his events on Friday, then Saturday, then Sunday, initially saying John was “not feeling well,” before finally releasing a statement about the stroke. “The good news is I’m feeling much better,” he was quoted as saying, and “I’m going to be ready for the hard fight ahead.” Two days later, it was the primary, and Gisele was at John’s victory party in his place, telling the crowd that the stroke had been a “little hiccup” and that he’d be “back on his feet in no time.” At the hospital, doctors had told Gisele that John would make a full recovery, but in public, there was a slow trickle of information and the realization that his condition often comes with lasting consequences. It would be another two weeks before the campaign learned about his underlying heart condition, and released another statement from his doctor. It would be another five months before voters really heard what his recovery sounded like, when he was on a debate stage, struggling to form words.
Gisele wasn’t even thinking about depression yet.
In November, after he won the general election, John was the saddest he’d ever been. He wouldn’t leave the bedroom. Gisele would say something, but she could feel he wasn’t listening. He was somewhere else. They could try therapy, she told him, medication. “I’m fine, Gisele. I’m fine. I’m fine,” he’d say. “Dad is having a hard time,” she told the kids. “I think Daddy is depressed.” She tried saying a lot of things to John. It was February when she hardened her voice one day and said, “John,” which she only called him when she was mad. Usually it was “João.” “If something happens and you die tomorrow,” she said, “your kids are going to remember you as a really sad person.”
He’d been a senator for just 43 days.
The next night, when he was admitted to Walter Reed, just outside Washington, she sat down with the kids. “Daddy checked himself into Walter Reed,” she told them. “He’s going to be working on his mental health.”
She said it carefully, just as she’d planned to: as if she had the most amazing news. Their dad was getting help, she told them. He’d learn new tools, find the right medicine, be an example to others - to seek care when you need it. Gisele felt relief. Inside her family, this would be news to celebrate. “Great news,” she said, “like, the best news ever.”
Their news went public the next day. Outside, through her living room windows, Gisele saw reporters and satellite trucks lining the street. She told the kids they were going for a drive. “Okay, Mommy,” they said. “Let’s go for a drive.” They got in her Jeep, and Gisele pulled out of the garage, heading north. And then she was answering questions again.
“Can we see him?”
“As soon as you can, we will.”
“Can we talk to him?”
“As soon as we can, we will.”
“What does his therapy look like there?”
“I’m learning, but I’ll tell you when I know more.”
“How long will he be there?”
“We don’t know. As long as he needs to be.”
She had no idea then that he would be there for six weeks. They kept driving, crossed into Canada, and after five hours stopped in Toronto. She wanted a place big enough to make them feel small and distant enough to feel anonymous. They jumped on the beds in the hotel room. They went zip-lining.
Two days later, they came back to Braddock.
She started visiting Walter Reed every Thursday. She tried to keep the kids busy. She called her mom. When would it end? How long would he be there? She couldn’t see a week ahead, much less five years. What was Plan B?
“No Plan B’s,” Ester said. “We wait. He’s going to get better. You have to give it time. We just wait.”
Waiting now was easier than it had been then.
It was Tuesday - 27 hours since John had left the house for Washington.
Gisele was at the Free Store, the donation center she opened in 2012 when John was still mayor. She grabbed a box of hangers and sorted them into another box. She unloaded a pallet of GNC vitamins and arranged them on a table outside the store. She hung a dress, straightened a display of books, sorted more hangers. She didn’t stop moving. Her cellphone didn’t stop ringing. Gisele’s number was printed on the door.
People knew they could find her here, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. It was at the Free Store that friends or volunteers or customers or total strangers came to talk to her, sometimes about John, but more often about their own mental health. They looked at Gisele and saw someone who could understand.
“I’ll be down shortly,” one volunteer wrote to the store’s Facebook group chat, explaining why she wasn’t there yet, “just having real bad anxiety right now.”
Gisele saw the message and replied, then kept moving.
“Sit, Gisele,” said one of the volunteers.
“I can’t sit,” she said.
A car approached, and a 70-year-old woman who liked to stop by the store to see Gisele stepped out of the passenger-side door. Her husband waited in the car. The woman lived with depression, and grew up with a mother who suffered from it, too.
“I know what it’s like for John,” she told Gisele. “I know what it’s like.”
“People don’t understand it,” the woman said, looking across the parking lot to her car. “My husband doesn’t understand. He’ll never understand. I’ve been married to my husband for 47 years. That’s a long time to be married to somebody who doesn’t understand.”
There was such intimacy to what people told Gisele, and by now she had grown used to it. “I’ve gone back and forth on reaching out,” a friend wrote to her one day. “Most people don’t know this . . . " But her husband had died of suicide, she confided. “I wish I had more to offer in the way of advice to families and to John. Maybe one day with clarity I will.”
Every time she picked up her phone, she knew another message could be there, waiting for her response.
“Mrs. Gisele Fetterman,” one woman began in an email. “I am reaching out to you personally because I feel that you can relate with your heart.”
“So much went wrong,” a man wrote about his son.
“I’m going to the hospital now instead of waiting til tomorrow,” a woman wrote. “I’m so scared.”
“You’re doing a big important thing!” Gisele wrote back.
“I’m walking in, I just keep holding Mr. Fetterman in my head so I can do this.”
If Gisele asked questions during these exchanges, it was always to ask about their situation, not her own. She didn’t seek advice. She was the one listening, sending encouragement, offering support. All day, more messages. All day, people wanted to talk.
“He’s back in the hospital again,” another woman said when she found Gisele outside the store.
Gisele was one of the people the woman told when her adult son tried to take too many sleeping pills and afterward said he was going to drown himself. Now he was in and out of the hospital.
“Talk to me,” Gisele said. She put her arm around the woman and led her to the parking lot to talk in private. “What’s new?”
It was almost 1 p.m. now, time to close. Gisele got in her Jeep and turned right onto Braddock Avenue, heading home. The kids had a pediatrician appointment in 30 minutes. Then she remembered. She swung left and drove northeast. Rite Aid. John’s medication.
When John was at Walter Reed, she had made friends with all his nurses. She still texted with them. She’d made mosaics for the hospital garden. Now she knew the pharmacists at Rite Aid. The medicine was one more thing she had to think about. She couldn’t be impulsive and travel, she’d told herself. She had to plan ahead, which she couldn’t do well for herself, but it was okay if it was for someone else. “What happens if he misses a day?” she said as she got back into her car with the paper bag. She pulled into her driveway.
“Guys!” she yelled, walking inside. She put the bag on the counter and cut up a watermelon. “We’re going to leave soon, okay?” Karl and Grace came running into the living room, racing to the garage to fight for the front seat. “We might have to get shots,” August, 9, told them as he started running, too. Framing, she thought. Just like how she’d told them she had the most amazing news. “That would be a great thing,” Gisele said, and then she was out the door again. Always in motion, always offering advice rather than asking for it, always keeping her brain busy with “Tetris” or sudoku. If she was bored, something was wrong. Those were her days, all through the afternoon, the evening, until it was late and she allowed herself to stop and climb into bed.
A few hours later, at 4:30 a.m., she opened her eyes. She had a new idea.
She got up. The street outside her house, it needed something.
She found white spray paint and a flower stencil. She laid the stencil on the asphalt, one square, then another, and painted until the sun rose.
There were three people Gisele did turn to for advice: John, her mother and a therapist she began seeing in 2022.
It wasn’t because of depression - she’d never been depressed. She cried often, almost every day, but always at things like a sad commercial or something sweet the kids would say. It was just like John had said - she was not a sad person. She didn’t cry at Walter Reed. When she started therapy, she was seeking different answers. Why she couldn’t see herself in five years. What years of living undocumented can do to a childhood. Looking ahead, she saw herself “nowhere,” she told her therapist, like it was a mental block, her sense of time flattened and compressed. She sometimes couldn’t remember if something happened a month ago, or six months ago. She kept her passport in her purse at all times. Just in case - of what? Something, anything.
But now the thing she was trying to understand was depression.
“An awful drone of nullity,” DePaulo had written in his book.
The way John had explained it was this: The whole world can tell you that you’ve won, but all you know is that you’ve lost.
The more Gisele tried to understand depression, the more she thought that her friend at the Free Store had been right: If you’ve never experienced depression, you’ll never really know it. The most hopelessness Gisele had felt was from chronic pain in her back. She knew what that was like, constant pain that seems like it will never go away. Maybe that was what depression felt like.
“But I have no idea,” she said one night, sitting in her backyard.
It was a warm evening. Fireflies circled the rose bushes she had planted. She could see the portion of the street she had painted and wanted to continue the stenciling, up the driveway and all the way to the house. Inside, hanging on the wall of her bedroom, was a collage of the Post-it notes the kids had written to John when he was still in the hospital. “Happy you are becoming happier,” one of them read, and Gisele had the notes framed, because she wanted the memory of that time preserved, not hidden away.
“We just had to face it and see what’s next,” she said of the hospitalization.
“What does next look like?”
She was still finding out. Just a few hours before, walking to her car in a parking garage, Gisele had looked up at the ceiling, sloping at the same angle as the garage at Walter Reed, and then, for a moment, she was there, back at one of her visits. “Major Walter Reed vibes,” she said. And then she simply let the feeling pass. As for the kids, she could see how aware they were becoming: They knew that strangers in a crowd, that friends at school, that anyone might know the intimate details of what their family had been through. Their dad was always so easy to recognize, 6-foot-8 with his slumped shoulders and bald head. But the depression, and the family’s decision to share it, meant that even more people stopped them now. The kids could respond with something simple and short, she told them, a “Thank you so much,” and leave it at that. “Whatever you’re comfortable with.” If they wanted to miss school, they could miss school. They could sleep in and go somewhere or do nothing at all. Whatever the day required, that’s what they would do.
Gisele had friends who sometimes worried that she wasn’t more worried. “Like, ‘This is not normal, your behavior. You have to be concerned,’” she said, repeating what they had told her.
But she wasn’t worried. Half a year had gone by since John had checked himself into the hospital. The kids seemed to be doing okay. John, too. He was taking his medication. In Washington, he was in a new apartment, this one with more sunlight. He was back on the Senate floor, casting votes, learning the job.
What was the opposite of worry? Each day, she realized again that she had been right about what she told the kids when their dad went into the hospital: For her family, it had been amazing news. Every family defined by mental health had its own way. Hers was to stay in motion. To paint the street. To adapt. To respond to every message about John that came along.
“I’m grateful for your encouraging words,” she replied to one.
“I am so sorry your journey was so difficult,” she told a woman.
“May I call you?” she asked another.
Friday now. Another text message came. This one wasn’t about John, it was from him.
“I can’t wait to see you,” he’d written.
How would things be five years from now? Gisele had no idea, but she did know how things were on this day, and she immediately wrote back.
“I cannot think of anything else!”
Demetrius Freeman is a staff political photojournalist at The Washington Post.
Ruby Cramer is a national political enterprise reporter at The Washington Post, writing long-form narratives about people shaping politics. She joined The Post in 2022 after covering politics and campaigns at Politico Magazine and BuzzFeed News.