Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Is There Anything At All Possibly Good About Depression?

In a blog piece late last year, Therese Borchard (pictured here) of Beyond Blue wrote:

I spent my adolescence and teenage years obsessing about this question: Am I depressed or just deep?

When I was nine, I figured that I was a young Christian mystic because I related much more to the saints who lived centuries ago than to other nine-year-old girls who had crushes on boys. ... Now I look back with tenderness to the hurting girl I was and wished somebody had been able to recognize that I was very depressed.

In my own blog piece a day or two later, I reported that I very much identified with Therese:

I just know that had we been in the same class at grade school, while the other kids played ball during recess, Therese and I would have found a quiet spot to sit under a shade tree, sharing cookies our moms packed and discussing how Augustine of Hippo must have felt after Alaric the Visigoth sacked Rome in 410 AD.

But here’s the rub. Were Therese and I two sensitive souls waxing philosophical, or two depressives acting strange? In her piece, Therese cited Peter Kramer MD, author of "Against Depression" (from a NY Times piece) in support of the proposition that depression and thinking deep are clearly distinct. Says Dr Kramer:

"We idealize depression, associating it with perceptiveness, interpersonal sensitivity and other virtues. Like tuberculosis in its day, depression is a form of vulnerability that even contains a measure of erotic appeal." First the ancient Greeks, then Renaissance thinkers, and later the Romantic movement assigned spiritual and artistic and even heroic virtues to melancholy. Nonsense, Dr Kramer responds. "Depression is not a perspective. It is a disease."

Therese found comfort in the realization that her capacity to think deep, even at a young age, although unusual, was not pathological. Her personality was fine. Her depressions were another matter. Nevertheless, she was not prepared to go as far as Dr Kramer, noting that “some of my depth caused by depression is a good thing. Not on the days where I'm in excruciating pain, of course.”

The viewpoint I expressed was fairly similar to Therese’s, but with this overlay: I feel my depressions are both part of my illness and my temperament. The illness aspect is an alien invader that I would gladly kill off. The temperament aspect, on the other hand, is a true part of me that gives depth and meaning to my experiences.

In a blog piece from last week, Therese revisits Peter Kramer, but adds: “However, having said all that, I do hereby appreciate the gifts that this ugly and manipulative beast has laid upon my table.” Then, David Letterman style, she serves up a Top Ten list of good things about depression. Number Nine is too juicy not to quote in full:

I have fascinating conversations with strangers.

Here's how the majority of my first conversations/introductions go with people who I sit next to on the plane, train, or at my son's soccer games:

"So what do you do?"
"I write a mental health blog."
"Oh. That's interesting. How did you get into that?"
"I had a major nervous breakdown and wanted to kill myself for about two years. So one day I told God that if I ever woke up and wanted to be alive that I would dedicate the rest of my life to helping people who are trapped in the Black Hole. That morning came. And you, what do you do?"

On a more serious note, Number Five:

I am more outwardly focused.

Abraham Lincoln taught me this one. Poor thing did not have the benefit of medication. But my friend Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of "Lincoln's Melancholy," says the most important contributor to his climb out of the Black Hole was turning to a greater cause ... of transforming his melancholy into a vision for emancipation. I get that. I really do, because I feel like Beyond Blue and my outreach efforts on behalf of those cursed with brain chemistry inspire me with a mission worth getting out of bed for.

Therese also notes that, among other things, depression has: Made her a better writer (with “material oozing from my very heart and soul”); Given her perspective (“When you've lived on the fault line between death and life for years at a time, the little stuff doesn't matter as much.”); Honed her sense of humor (“Just like G. K. Chesterton once wrote, ‘Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.’"); and made her more compassionate (“My mood disorder didn't just disrupt nerve cells in my brain, it also expanded my heart.”)

Therese’s post drew 47 comments, and to my considerable surprise they were overwhelmingly favorable. This, from Bill, is fairly representative:

I'm a better human being, man, counselor, writer, father, and potential catch (had to throw that in) thanks to my circumstances. Absolutely, my feelings often twist me up in knots, but at least I can feel...unlike so many hardened souls in this world. I am who I am. More so, I will be who I choose to be. I was dealt a hand, and I'll play it ...

And, from the dissenters:

“Nothing is really good about the actual depression - it is a monster, an evil entity living in our minds,” and, “from where I stand, depression has been an enemy and a robber of happiness.”

There is no right or wrong, of course. On one hand, there is no denying the malevolent nature of depression and what it has done to us. Similarly, society-at-large has absolutely no appreciation for the destructive nature of this illness and what we have to endure.

On the other hand, for all the hardship, horror, and humiliation I have faced as a result of my depressions, I know I am a much better person as a result. I may hate the illness, but over the years I have learned not to hate myself. Until I read the comments to Therese’s post, I thought she and I were in the minority. Sometimes it feels good to be wrong.


My favorite blogger Therese has a terrific book just out: Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression and Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes, which you can purchase from Amazon by clicking the link.

Check out my first review ...

... and my second. 

Also, check out Therese in a live interview, Thursday, 1 PM EST, on Blog Radio.


Dawn said...

Dear John,
I read Therese's post first (sorry, but I read her first) and now yours about being "a better person" because of depression. As an artist, mother, teacher, wife etc. who is now approaching her first year depression-free in perhaps a decade,(yeah, it took that long for someone to say bipolar) I agree most overwhelmingly with Dr. Kramer. Disease, NOT perspective.
What you and Therese share is the perspective of
health, or recovery, and the gifts that recovery have given you. These gifts of humor, humilty, compassion, a looking outside yourself are gifts often given those who successfully conquer formidable illness or trial, not just depression. Overcoming cancer, death of a child, or physical disability also may bring about these perspectives and those who pass through these difficulties also speak about "the gifts given, lessons learned."
But, please plese, let us not speak about depression as a gift anymore than we would speak about cancer as a temperament. We need to speak about depression as a multi-tentacled monster so that "society-at-large" can appreciate the destructive nature of this illness.

John McManamy said...

Hi, Dawn. I greatly appreciate your comments. I have written extensively on the horrors of depression. Having experienced it myself and witnessing close up the suffering around me, I have no wish for anyone to experience for one day one of the most malevolent forces of nature.

You may be correct in saying that Therese and I are looking at the issue from the perspective of health and recovery, but from my personal point of view this perspective helps me stay in recovery.

There is a lot of dangerous talk these days by very ignorant people who treat depression very lightly. That all we have to do is embrace our gifts and we'll be well. I'm not one of those people and neither is Therese.

It's very important that we have this conversation, so please feel free to post any time.