Friday, January 23, 2009

Name One Good Thing About Depression. Okay ...

My friend Tom Wootton has published a book called The Depression Advantage.

Whoa! I hear you saying. What can possibly be advantageous about depression?

Mania? The creativity, the productivity, the good times. You can make a pretty good case for some kind of mania advantage. Indeed, Mr Wootton's earlier book is called "The Bipolar Advantage."

But depression?

In my own case, depression has left me for dead more times than I can count. "Finish the job, yourself," Fred (my name for my depression) keeps mocking me. Fred has left me alone, washed up on a strange shore, lost, disoriented, isolated. He has stolen time from me, years of it, lost years, years I will never get back.

As for the years I have remaining, Fred says nothing, just gives me that look.

So, again, what can possibly be advantageous about depression?

Believe it or not, I have two concrete case studies from my own life. Case study number one:

My first marriage broke up in the 1980s. Because of a precious young daughter, the break-up was especially rough on all of us. This occurred several months into a new job. I was one year out of law school. It was my first management position. It involved a discipline (journalism) I had no training for, working in a field (finance) I had no inkling of.

In short, I was an impostor. I had no hope of keeping the charade going. Any second, I was going to call attention to my total incompetence and lack of experience. Any second, someone was going to lower the boom. Since the economy was in a severe recession, losing my job would amount to the equivalent of being pushed from a plane without a parachute.

The stress was getting to me. My behavior was bordering on unpredictable.

Then came my marriage break-up. Once I got over the initial shock, a numbing thudding depression settled in. Oddly enough, a protective depression. In my slowed-down state of mind, the rest of the world no longer seemed so threatening. Likewise, my equally slowed-down behavior brought me into sync with the people around me, allowed me to fit in, settle down, buy precious time.

Make no mistake. I was alone, unhappy, miserable. But my depression acted as vital mental ballast that steadied me, allowed me to keep my cool, to buckle down and learn on the job. I made it through my first year, then my second. After three years - with my reputation firmly established - I was able to move on to greener pastures.

Don't get me wrong. I hate depression. I wish I never had it. I wish no one ever had to experience it. Ever. But if you were to challenge me to name one good thing about depression, well, I just did.

Lots more on this in future blogs ...


Tom Wootton said...

Before writing The Depression Advantage I would have argued with anyone who claimed any good as a result of depression. I struggled with the idea and concluded that the only good is what we make of ourselves in spite of it.

Since that time I have seen many advantages that are of a different nature and am writing a new book about seeing depression, bipolar and schizophrenia from the other side - 'In Order' instead of 'Disorder'.

After John posted this blog entry he contacted me to let me know about it. We discussed the issues and the difficulty of mentioning anything positive for fear that people would be hostile to such viewpoints. I agreed that I would share some of the ideas in my new book and will be making a guest post soon.

In the mean time, does anyone have insights that you may have gained from depressive states or a comment about your feelings on the topic?

Tom Wootton

Anonymous said...

When I'm depressed, I seem to gain a lot more spiritual insight into myself. Somehow, I become more open to God, and I allow Him to "share" more of Himself with me, if that makes any sense. It's in the slowing down that I can really "hear" what God has to say to me. When I'm manic, I'm too busy to stop and listen to anything! So, I've found that depression can be positive in that it slows me down enough to hear the voice of God and to be closer to Him.
Sheri Matsumoto

Karen Randolph said...

I do! Even before I found the Bipolar Advantage, I believed that I lived life as it is meant to be lived; while others, those whom the psychiatric community views as "normal", live a lesser life.

I often discuss this perspective with my psychopharmacologist at the end of many of our sessions. After substituting yet another drug for the one from before that didn't work, I suggest to him that perhaps I am not the one who needs to be "cured". I ask him to consider the possibility that it is I who live life true because I am able to feel the highs and lows to much greater degrees than he will ever know. Of course he always disagrees with a kind smile and an innocent shake of his head.

But it's more than that, not only do I experience--and survive--my own incredible highs and lows, I am also able to connect with others' feelings; sometimes experiencing their emotions more than they can, or dare to.

This enhanced ability makes taking public transportation difficult, for example, because I am aware of how every passenger on my car or bus feels. On really sensitive days, even grocery stores are difficult places for me to be.

In truth, before finding the Bipolar Advantage, I had no support for this belief that what I had/have is a special gift--once I can learn to use/control/honor it--and that is what I am learning to do.

Certainly I still go through agonizing depressive periods; I have in fact just emerged from one of those periods, and during the days that it lasted, I begged to die; I willed myself to die as had the apocryphal Eskimos who no longer felt useful to their communities and set themselves afloat on great ice floats to meet their ends; the pain that comes with depression is piercing.

But as Tom says, in those depressive moments it's important to stop, look around, and realize that this place, this place called depression, is an interesting place to be. "Well this is interesting," I can always hear Tom say when I come up against a new feeling.

And, whether I believe it at the time or not, the pain and hopelessness always gives way to essential epiphanies about myself, my life, life, everyone.

I experience this bipolar perspective; I also experience a clinically depressed life, and I experience a life from the precariousness of ADHD, and as I've gone through it all, I wouldn't wish my life to be any other way.

Two nigths ago my husband told me he trusted me; trusted my every decision; trusted that I knew exactly what I was doing. To many that may seem not so much, but to me it means that my husband has handed me his soul, and that he believes that I will carry it with me keeping it safe for eternity. It means that I DO have a purpose; I was created for a special reason. Would I have been able to recognize that gift as fully if I had been "normal?"

Sophia said...

I tend to have varying levels of connection with the Divine that usually correlates to my ups and downs. I definitely have more insight, creativity and intuition when I'm "up".

I spent a long time - years - hating everything about depression, but late last year I started to look at it differently. The way I look at it is similar to a spiritual concept that we cannot recognize good without bad, or really we can't recognize anything without knowing of its opposite. So, for me, depression keeps me from taking the good days - or happiness - for granted. It makes me appreciate the good times and therefore, appreciate the totality of life.

Kareen said...

I understand completely. After all, what good could ever come from something that drained the very life out of me.

However, I have also become aware of positives from my depressed episodes. One of which is the spiritual aspect. While it feels as if my belief system is failing, I become more aware of the caring God who carries me through.

It may sound like a cliche but the creative aspect is a major perk of depression. The works I like the most usually comes out of a depressed episode.

Because I have been through difficult times issues such as mercy and compassion rate high on the benefit side of depression.

Each person has to look within him/herself to determine exactly what counts as a benefit from depression. I continue to discover those positive aspects.

John McManamy said...

Hey, guys, great discussion. Very much appreciate your input on this very misunderstood topic. Welcome to Knowledge is Necessity. Make yourself at home ...

Francesco Bellafante said...

I first learned about Tom Wootton when I read Philip Dawdy’s interview with him on his blog Furious Seasons back in February of 2008. I remember the excitement I felt simply by reading the titles of his books: Bipolar Advantage and Depression Advantage. Before having read any more of the interview besides just the titles, I was thinking – “That’s genius.”

At the time, I was concentrating on trying to think of ways to transform the way people think about other people who are tagged with the labels of different “mental illnesses.” My thinking had and continues to be shaped a great deal, by the writings of Thomas Szasz. I come from a place of thinking that sounds something like - people who think and act in aberrant ways from most other people don’t necessarily have any biological illness. They’re just different.

Mental illness? What is that anyway, a disease of the mind? What is a mind? My MacBook dictionary tells me it’s “the element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel; the faculty of consciousness and thought.” Okay so how can someone have a sick or diseased one of those? The mind is a metaphor, how can you have a diseased metaphor?

There are people who think and then act in ways that are illegal. These people are breaking laws made by “the people” and we call these people criminals, and you could say that they have “criminal minds.” There are people who, most of the time anyway, stay primarily within a certain range of thinking and behavior that most people would call “normal.” These people have normal minds, I guess you could say. Then there are people who aren’t necessarily breaking any laws, and at the same time they’re not thinking and acting in ways that most people would call normal. If they are thinking and acting in aberrant ways and are getting what most people would see as positive results, then these people are seen as having creative minds, or maybe they’re even seen as geniuses. And finally people that are thinking and acting in aberrant ways who get what most people would consider negative or poor results in life, well, these people have ill or diseased minds—these people have a “mental illness” or a “mental disorder.”

It seems clear to me that it’s all “made up,” and I’m not talking just about the whole classification of human thought and behavior as it relates to any so-called “mental illness.” I’m saying that if you look at all of human experience as a “linguistic phenomena,” if you will, I think it becomes clear that the entire world is completely “made up.” Things happen and then people say or think words about those things. The things that happen and the words that people say and think about those things are never the same thing. They can’t be, it’s not possible. I think people get into trouble when they forget that it’s all “made up.” When people take their perception or view of reality as the way it is versus seeing their view as one of any number of possible views. Trouble enters the picture often when people think the words that they choose to attach to events, happenings, situations, or contexts are “right” and the words that others choose to use are “wrong.”

So back to my genius friend Tom and the words he’s attaching to a certain set of happenings or conditions or circumstances that other people often tag with words like “bipolar disorder” or “depression.” To me, this lies at the heart of why I have, and continue to be so inspired by Tom.

I think his thinking represents a crucial step in the transformation of mainstream thought about the so-called “mentally ill,” that I was trying to figure out a way to avoid. A year ago when I first encountered Tom I was in a place where I basically rejected pretty much all clinical language surrounding aberrant thought and behavior. I simply wouldn’t use those terms; I thought this was a key for what I was and am still out to accomplish. That is to: Change the World by Changing the Words that people use about other people who think and act in aberrant ways. One of Tom’s most significant contributions to my thinking was seeing how he was doing precisely what I wanted to do – changing how people think/changing language – but he was doing so by still employing that language that I was thinking that I didn’t want to use at all. That was genius to me. That is genius to me. Tom is a genius, go read his books, he’ll tell you the same thing. J

Being “bipolar” can certainly be an advantage, if you choose to see it that way. The way I have started to language it lately is that I don’t have “bipolar disorder.” Rather, I’m a bipolar explorer. I have explored the depths and heights of human experience, and I have no doubt that I am better off as result of these experiences. I have no doubt that I am wiser. And I believe I could make a solid case that I could be, at least in some ways, wiser than a person who never goes to these places. It’s like anything else really, the more you do, the more you experience, the more you learn.

What’s an advantage or one good thing about having “depression”? That’s easy, the advantage is that you have an amazing opportunity for personal growth and development. The advantage of “depression” is found when you are able to see that you are in a perfect state to learn valuable lessons.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Francesco. You really got me thinking. My first reaction was to launch into a diatribe against antipsychiatry, but instead I came up with a more nuanced response which I just posted as a blog.

Many thanks for taking the conversation to a new level. Let's keep the discussion going ...

Francesco Bellafante said...

Thank you for sharing that John. Getting people thinking is what I'm all about! Thank you also for the kind words in your most recent post. I look forward to continuing this conversation with you and your readers.

It's funny, I was just talking to Tom (Wootton that is) a couple weeks back about Tom Cruise and that infamous interview with Matt Lauer. I'll probably share my thinking on that subject and your most recent post when I get to it, hopefully before the end of the weekend.

Best regards,

John D said...

John - Thank you for opening this issue so well. I'm certainly one of the people who has been angered by so many books - and I hasten to say I've not read Tom Wootton's yet - talking about the helpfulness, or spirituality or normality of depression. I respect anyone's adaptation to this condition, based on any and all beliefs, that helps them live more fully and happily. What gets me so upset is the proselytizing, often found in almost bitter exchanges in blogs and forums, as if the converted had found the one true way and try to convince all others that they're sadly mistaken. However ...

That said, and stepping back a bit, I also know that when something hits me with such intensity I really have to take a second or third or fourth look. So, chip off my shoulder, I realize that the exchange of views you've begun here is helping me do just that. It's got me thinking in many directions, and, like you, I can see better the "other side." The best way for me to respond more fully, though, is through my blog - simply because I have to sort this out more and that's the way I do it.

Yes, let's keep this going and get into it more deeply.

Thanks again. - John

John McManamy said...

HI, John. In a few days I'll probably be posting a blog based on the old Buddhist saying, "If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him." In other words, anyone who tells you that they have all the answers is an idiot who is full of crap.

So I take your point whole-heartedly.

I'm looking forward to a robust exchange of views here, where we all listen and learn and work our way in fits and starts to our own realizations. So please keep posting here.

Also, many thanks for pointing me to your blog, Storied Mind, where you can expect to find me a regular visitor. (Readers: click the link to JohnD's name.)

Anonymous said...

hi everybody,

Please bear with my poor english...I discovered this blog last year,in the midst of one of my blackholes as I call them (major depression with episodes being the official diagnosis). I was amazed to see that my feelings were actually common and shared by thousands of people in the world, sometimes in the exact same way or at least described with the exact same words. Thanks John for making these topics public, for guilt is a component of depression that can be fought by shared wisdom and knowledge.

I believe that what my depression has taught me is humility. I believe I am more aware now of both my own vulnerability and other's, and more inclined to forgive and care for others. In a world when self reliance is ericted as the utlimate strengh, when the one who fails must have done something wrong -or even BE wrong somehow-, my incapacity to work, love, and interact normaly put me on the side of the road for some time. But from this roadside, and after a while, I could tell that we can be many to feel inadequate,and that anybody can fall and have a hard time recovering at any moment in life.
If anything, I am now a little less judgemental, a little more aware of what being human means.

John McManamy said...

Wow! Many thanks for sharing this, Anonymous. You speak for a good many of us. I know I've been humbled many a time by depression, which taught me humilty - and humanity. Welcome to Knowledge is Necessity. Please keep coming back and please keep posting.