I’m listening to a Howard Stern Wrap Up Show from last week, and they’re debating whether Howard is depressed. I think “depression” is a label too frequently slapped on people—a blanket term which helps no one except doctors and pharmaceutical companies make money. Howard sees the world too clearly, and his problem is his inability, or unwillingness, to mask his pain with drug cocktails—or alcoholic cocktails, for that matter.
Howard is sensitive—a fact he spent much of his early career evading and diluting. He learned early that people betray you, and this is the lesson on which he built his understanding of the world. Howard’s father was largely absent, especially emotionally. He didn’t play ball with Howard; he didn’t even want to talk to him. This was devastating, and still is, as evidenced by Howard relating the song “My Hero” to his dad. We’ve heard recordings of his father’s treatment of him, in those rare moments when he did pay attention. “I told you not to be stupid, you moron,” is one of the Stern show mantras. Howard is not so unique in having been the victim of his father’s own issues, but he is unique in sharing both what happened, and how it affected him (and continues to do so).
Howard’s mother used him for companionship, making him a friend and confidante instead of providing the reassurance and psychological support a parent is supposed to. When he didn’t react like she wanted, she punished him by not speaking to him. Howard’s equating the song “Locked Out of Heaven” to this speaks volumes. She also failed to protect him, forcing him to continue attending an unsafe school—even on the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. I know Roosevelt well, and it is something of a miracle that Howard made it through unscathed.
But he is not unscathed. He walks around damaged, as as all do. We have all been hurt, largely by our parents and other influencers. I do want to make it clear that in most cases, these people were not aware of what they were doing. People carry out the patterns they were raised with, and they fool themselves. The largest problem Howard experiences is an inability to fool himself.
Therapy helps us see that things were not our fault, but it cannot take away the pain of betrayal. A father ignoring and raging, a mother confusing and endangering—these lead to a state which some might call “depressed.” But what does such a label do to help? Rather, this word weighs us down further.
Howard surrounds himself with many wounded people, who mask their pain in different (usually comical) ways. Is this a coincidence, that he found these people? Is it the Law of Attraction? Certainly it’s been his choice to employ them. Ronnie the Limo Driver is perhaps the most extreme example of a damaged person in Howard’s employment. Howard jokes about the letter scrawled in crayon, and the Playboy mud flaps. But he did hire him, and he’s kept him through various insults such as the petcock incident. How many people would put up with this constant refrain from an employee: “What the f’s wrong with you?” But Ronnie is rewarded for his bad behavior. Howard has joked about the absurdity of his limo driver’s image plastered on a billboard, and yet, it was Howard’s doing which led to it. Recently we’ve learned of psychological damage done to Ronnie, which may explain some of his deviance. Does the commonality of childhood scars bind Howard and Ronnie?
There is childhood pain behind many of the Stern Show “cast”; here are a few examples:
Robin: Molested by her father, and lost her foster little brother, who she’d taken care of. “One less egg to fry.”
Scott the Engineer: Electrically shocked for bed wetting.
Richard: Bonded with animals who then became meals.
Sal: So much pain and confusion resulting from his narcissistic father.
Gary: Mentally ill mom.
Jason: Psychological abuse by his mom.
I found Howard Stern when I was a teenager, on a day I was trying to escape the pain of my own upbringing. I’ve been listening to him since. What I loved, and still love, about Howard is that I can rely on him for the truth. No matter how painful it is.
Am I depressed? To depress means to push something down—to flatten it. In that sense of the word, yes. I’ve been flattened. But it was outside elements which did this to me. Just like Howard, I have been mistreated and I don’t have the capacity or willingness to pretend that nothing happened. Recently I went through something so traumatizing that I view the world in a worse way than ever, and I don’t see the point in getting up from the floor. I’ve been unable to write, which shakes me to the core, because writing has always been my saving grace.
In my writing, I’m always asking the question: “Why do people hurt each other?” This is what Shakespeare did in all of his works. There’s no way for me to answer this question, any more than Shakespeare. In the past I felt that by addressing it through consequences, whether in history or present, perhaps people would think. I felt that we needed to take a look at what we’re doing, and what we’ve done. But now, I’m not sure what the point is of doing this. I feel hopeless about the world. People didn’t listen to Shakespeare. Why would they listen to me?
But people do listen to Howard Stern. His show is not a display of depression. It is the brilliant work of a realist, who presents us with a divine comedy about ourselves.