An Interview with Comedian Sam Grittner


Sam Grittner, a writer and stand-up comedian, recently wrote a moving piece, “Dying to Live,” about life after a suicide attempt. I reached out to ask him a few questions about sharing his story and being in recovery.

How did it feel to share your story online? Was the reaction what you expected it to be?

Sharing my story online about attempting to kill myself was the most freeing experience I’ve ever felt. Before I published it I ran into an old friend who asked how I was doing. I tried to lie by omission and dance around the truth but I ended up breaking down and telling her everything. I didn’t want to keep it bottled up and try and fake my way through conversations. I had written one other essay about depression, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts (“A Funny Thing Happened When I Was Typing My Suicide Note…”) and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Both times I was worried that people would view me as weak, or that I was oversharing, and both times the response has been nothing but love and support. I’ve gotten hundreds of emails and messages from people saying thank you for giving a voice to these subjects. This wasn’t the reaction I expected. I thought it would resonate with a few people and, the Internet being what it is, I’d get some nasty replies and that would be that. I had no idea how personally this would connect with so many people or the ripple effect it would have on my life.

Was there a book or anything that you read online that motivated you to remain in treatment?

What motivated me most to stay in the outpatient treatment was a stack of letters from my family and extended family. My brother’s wife’s sister, who is truly an angel, took it upon herself to have everyone write about what I meant to them and what it would mean to them to lose me. I reread one letter once a week. I can never say enough good things about my entire family.

Have your creative pursuits, such as your stand-up, been therapeutic for you?

Talking about it onstage was easier when it was the story of the suicide note. It was definitely therapeutic and cathartic for me and the audience response was tremendous. I’m only now getting to the point where I feel comfortable going back up and sharing about the actual attempt and stay in the psych ward, but I am incorporating it into my routine. I’ve found that being unabashedly honest onstage reaps huge rewards, when it’s done well and in the right context. I’m also keenly aware that people aren’t paying to hear what I should be telling my therapist.

Do you have a go-to skill that you learned in the partial hospitalization program (PHP)/therapy that you use when you’re feeling anxious/depressed?

My go-to skill from PHP is called “opposite action.” It’s what George Constanza did in a classic episode of “Seinfeld.” I ask myself what I want to do in any situation and the answer is always fear-based, so, I do the opposite of whatever my brain tells me to do. The louder my mind is opposed to something, the more I know it’s exactly what I need to do. If my brain says: “Stay in your room and cry and eat cake while listening to Elliot Smith” I go for a walk, grab a smoothie, and contact a friend. I might treat myself to the cake.

People in PHP gave me a lot of strength because I could relate to what they were going through. How was group therapy helpful to you in your recovery process?

I was very apprehensive about group therapy at first. It was intense but incredibly helpful to my recovery. The insight I gained from the people in the program and the ways I identified with them made me realize that I wasn’t alone in my heavily distorted thinking and self-image. I’m forever grateful to them for sharing their experiences with me, it takes mountains of inner-strength to share your most intimate thoughts with a group of strangers. I’m indebted to all of the people and doctors at the Mount Sinai PHP program.

I sometimes find it difficult to do things that I know will improve my mental health, such as exercise regularly. How do you maintain the motivation to continue caring for your mental health?

I maintain my motivation for mental self-care by using the CBT, DBT, and emotional regulation techniques I learned in the PHP. I’m also fully committed to a recovery program for my substance abuse issues and alcoholism. I know that by pairing those two things, I will be okay. Remembering what it was like in the ward is also a great motivator to stick with my mental health regimen.

Do you plan on coming to Chicago to perform stand-up?

I am currently so broke that when I check my balance on an ATM it makes a frowny-face, but I have extended family in Chicago and would jump at the opportunity to perform there. I’d like to say within the next three years I can see that becoming a reality. Any club owner that wants to fly me out to perform at their club can certainly do that. I’ll even do group therapy with them, if they’re so inclined.

You can read more of Sam’s writing here and follow him on Twitter @SamGrittner.

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