Scandal, drugs, assault, outright crime — American voters have learned to forgive all of these. But historically, there’s been one thing that no politician returns from: mental illness. No one knew that better than Jason Kander, a former Army Captain who returned from Afghanistan and immediately began a meteoric political ascent, one that took him from the Missouri House of Representatives at the age of 27 to the first name on Barack Obama’s lips when he was asked in 2017 who he saw as the future of the Democratic party.
Pollsters polled, cameras flashed, TV interview requests came flooding in. Jason’s star got shinier and shinier. At night, though, when his world grew quiet, Jason was unable to sleep for fear of paralyzing nightmares. He was on high alert every waking minute, and increasingly distant from his wife and infant son. Like many vets, Jason had left the war, but the war hadn’t left him. He didn’t want to believe he was suffering from PTSD because he had never heard of anyone getting over it. So instead of seeking help, he did what the Army had trained him to do: suck it up. And he did, for 11 years, until it nearly took everything from him.
From our politicians, Americans like to demand humanity, even vulnerability — but not too much. Biting your lower lip is good; outright tears suggests you’re unstable, even weak. Admitting to depression or anxiety is still the kiss of death. But with America going through a profound mental health crisis, especially among vets and teenagers, it’s high time to normalize getting help for mental illness, just as we do with physical illness. Because if we continue to punish politicians for taking care of their mental health, we’ll be stuck with the politicians who don’t.
In an exclusive excerpt from Kander’s new book INVISIBLE STORM: A Soldier’s Memoir of Politics and PTSD, the veteran turned politician faces his demons and realizes he needs help.
On October 1, 2018, I walked into the Kansas City Veterans Affairs Medical Center and found my way to the small one-room office of a veteran service officer. Only two people in the world knew what I was doing that day: my wife, Diana, and my campaign manager, Abe Rakov.
I wrote my name on the sign-in sheet pinned to the wall outside and fell into line behind a handful of other vets, some young, some old, leaning against a wall in a hallway that doubled as a makeshift waiting room. All of us were new patients, waiting to be enrolled in the forbidding maze that is the VA system. Twenty minutes later, an overworked gentleman in a red American Legion polo shirt emerged from the office, glanced at the sheet, then looked up at me. His eyes widened.
“Whoa,” he said.
“Yep. That’s me,” I replied.
I pulled my baseball cap down a little lower as I followed him into the tiny office. I was relieved when he shut the door.
I was hoping no one else recognized me. But there wasn’t much chance of that. For most of 2016, you couldn’t watch television anywhere in the state of Missouri without seeing my face at damn near every commercial break, either heroically lit up, smiling, and approving this message (those were my ads), or distorted and melting nightmarishly into the faces of Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Sanders (those were the other guy’s).
My new friend began to go through the mental health intake questionnaire. Over and over, I found myself saying yes to his questions, and within minutes, he said, “It sounds like you need to see someone today.”
The next thing I knew, he led me down to the emergency department and left me with a triage nurse, a very warm, older African American woman. She gave me a little slip of paper to fill out, and there were two questions on it:
“Have you had suicidal thoughts?”
“Yes,” I wrote.
“Have you experienced intrusive dark thoughts? If yes, for how long?”
“Yes. Ten years.”
The nurse looked at my form.
“Ten years?” she exclaimed.
“Honey, where you been!?”
The one place where you don’t want to be famous is in a psych ward. As I went through intake, I caught staffers suppressing double-takes when they recognized me. Finally I was put in a windowless cell with pale-green walls, where I sat hugging my knees in a hospital bed, dressed in a set of dark-green scrubs that were about five sizes too big. Because I’d said I was suicidal, the staff had taken all my belongings, including my belt and clothes, but I guess they figured that I wasn’t going to kill myself with a paperback. They’d let me keep my book: an advance copy of Rick Ankiel’s autobiography.
Unless you are a pretty serious baseball fan, you may not be familiar with Rick Ankiel. He was a big-league pitcher, a phenomenon, a major talent of his generation, until suddenly, in the middle of a playoff game, he lost the ability to throw strikes — forever. A friend in the publishing industry had randomly sent me the book. Now it seemed like a cosmic joke.
I wasn’t really in the mood to read, though. A nurse was in there with me too, to keep an eye on me. When I had to pee, she turned her back to give me some privacy.
So this was suicide watch.
I sat there in my scrubs and I tried to wrap my head around where my life was headed. Answering yes to all those questions — How often do you feel unsafe? Have you had thoughts of ending your life? Do you have difficulty sleeping due to memories of past events? — had driven home just how desperately I needed help and how close I was to hurting myself, or worse. But I also knew clearly that just a few miles away, a huge campaign machine was churning away to get me elected as the next mayor of Kansas City. I was going to win too — not only was I up in the polls, but I’d raised three times as much money as the nine other candidates combined.
It was funny, in a way — how many countless hours had I spent in windowless rooms, making calls for hours on end to ask campaign donors for money? At least this windowless room had a toilet, even if it was of the no-lid, stainless-steel variety.
Finally, after about half an hour, a psychiatrist, a young resident, came into the room. It was evident that he didn’t know who I was, which was a huge relief. I was used to feeling people’s eyes on me wherever I went, but usually it felt oddly comforting, even powerful. But here? It was humiliating.
For the next thirty minutes, I confessed everything I’d spent years hiding from the world: my night terrors, my consuming fear of someone hurting me and my family, my ever-present anger, my unrelenting guilt and punishing shame, my inability to feel joy, and my increasing dislike of myself. I told him how much of a burden I’d become to everyone around me. To my surprise, he seemed to take it all in stride. He asked what I had planned for the rest of the day, and I said I had to go pick up my son, True, from school at 4:30. “That’s good,” the doctor said, which I took to mean, “If you’re making plans, you’re not going to kill yourself today.”
But maybe he wanted to double-check. He reviewed his notes, looked up at me, and asked, “Do you have a particularly stressful job or something?”
Now, I was used to introducing myself dozens of times a day, but it hadn’t been a real introduction for years. It was more like a pantomime of humility. When I said, “Hi, I’m Jason Kander and I’m running for …,” I was usually flanked by people wearing T-shirts with my name spelled out in giant letters.
So I said flatly, “I’m in politics.”
He seemed curious. “What does that mean?”
I thought about listing off my résumé. Should I start with my time serving in the state legislature? Being elected secretary of state of Missouri? Running for the US Senate in 2016 and just barely losing? Should I talk about getting ready to run for president and giving speeches in forty-six states in the past year alone? Or how I decided to run for mayor instead? I figured I’d just cut to the punch line. “Well, I almost ran for president, but then decided to run for mayor instead, and tomorrow I’m planning on calling that off.”
“You were going to run for president?” The doctor blinked a few times. “Of what?”
He looked confused. In fairness, you would be too, if you were a psych resident and some random thirty-seven-year-old in ill-fitting scrubs on suicide watch claimed to be a presidential candidate.
I knew it would sound silly to answer his question, but I did. “Of the United States.”
He looked skeptical, or maybe he was suppressing a chuckle. “Who told you that you could run for president?”
At that point, I went from feeling mortified that everyone else had recognized me here to feeling irritated that this guy didn’t believe me.
“I don’t know what to tell you, man,” I said. “I mean, I spent an hour and a half talking it over one on one with Obama in his office, and he seemed to think it was a pretty good idea.”
The doctor sat back in his chair. “Barack Obama told you that you could run for president?” He tapped his notebook a couple of times with his pen, then pursed his lips. “So how often would you say you hear voices?”
Adapted from Jason Kander’s new book INVISIBLE STORM: A Soldier’s Memoir of Politics and PTSD. Copyright © 2022 by Jason Kander. From Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.