Can Depression Make Us Better People?

Conversation on Depression

Depression can collapse your life the way an earthquake can take down a city. So how could this same depression make us better people? Tom Wootton takes the idea farther than anyone else with his belief that depression can be a beautiful part of your life.

Most of us haven’t imagined such a possibility but have searched for the positive side of the illness, especially after living with it for much of our lives. Since getting to know a little about Wootton’s ideas, I’ve been looking through a lot of personal stories to see what benefits others have found in living with depression.

There are quite a few, although the benefits are usually referred to briefly, often toward the end of a harrowing narration of painful breakdown. If nothing else, depression forces you to look at many dimensions of your life you’d just as soon not think about. It’s a powerful learning experience.

Here are a few of the beneficial changes people have experienced as a result of living with depression.

Creative Thinking

Susanna Kaysen’s essay in Unholy Ghost emphasizes the positive side of the experiences she described in Girl, Interrupted. Self-doubt and despair spur change. She found that what’s good enough for most people is not good enough for a depressive. The slowing down enforced by the illness helped sharpen her work.

The English novelist, Margaret Drabble, has lived with depression for most of her life. While acknowledging its damage, she also believes that depressive bouts feed her art. In an interview for a New York Times Magazine profile, she said: “Happy and buoyant don’t force you into action on the page; you go shopping when you’re up. … [Depression] is useful for stripping off ways of getting through life that prevent you from having to think.”

The psychiatrist S. Nassir Ghaemi recently published A First-Rate Madness about great leaders who lived with depression. He found that illness weighed them down during much of their lives but that they showed their most creative thinking and leadership at times of crisis. He believes that depression gave them a more realistic and inventive view of the future. They could face painful disaster with a sense of possibility that less emotionally tested leaders failed to grasp.

Learning Experience

John McManamy tirelessly writes about every aspect of depression’s miseries in his hundreds of posts at McMan’s Depression and Bipolar Web. However, he has also brought out its more positive side in his own life. One major crisis, he later realized, also served as a stress reliever. It forced him to slow down and enabled him to learn and adapt to a critical transition in his life.

David Karp’s Speaking of Sadness records the experiences of more than 50 people who have lived with depression most of their lives – as he himself has. When people realize that the illness isn’t going away, they adapt to the reality that it is a part of their lives. They become more accepting of its ups and downs, though still suffering through the low periods. They look for meaning and value in depression.

For all the variety of reactions and adaptations to the illness, he found general agreement that it offered a powerful learning experience.

He cites several comments like these: “Maybe this is pie in the sky, but with each [episode of depression] there has been a progressive move upward for me in terms of learning.”

“If we don’t allow [depression] in, it can be destructive. If we allow it in, it is a teacher. I’m saying embrace it, be in it.”

“Pain is very focusing. It makes you realize what’s at stake in life.”

“I think depression has made me a stronger person somehow. … I think I’ve had to develop skills and abilities that I wouldn’t otherwise.”

Deeper Understanding of Life

The turning point in living with depression that Karp describes comes after years of failed efforts to end it. People have to reorient themselves to the illness. He writes: “Such a reorientation, I discovered, involved a cognitive and attitudinal shift from the medical language of cure to the spiritual language of transformation.”

That’s a profound change. Many who go through it believe their depression has given them a level of insight about life that others lack. They see others who seem to swim more smoothly along the surface while they have to fight to get back to the air from deep underwater. They appreciate the spiritual value of life because they’ve seen its extremes, including the temptation of suicide.

Tom Wootton refers to the lives of saints as examples of the power of severe depression as a necessary part of spiritual awakening. It is by responding to such intense pain and adversity that we find the deeper meaning of the experience. For Wootton, the key to seeing the spiritual and other positive dimensions of depression is to focus on how you react to the illness rather than looking only at what it is doing to you. There is no change in the set of symptoms we call depression. The change is in your perceptions, attitudes and beliefs about what it means in your life.

In the epilogue to her powerful memoir, An Unquiet Mind, Kay Redfield Jamison looks back on her life with suicidal bipolar depression and asks herself if she would choose a life with bipolar illness. The answer is yes. “… I honestly believe that as a result of it I have felt more things, more deeply; had more experiences, more intensely; … seen the finest and most terrible in people, and slowly learned the values of caring, loyalty, and seeing things through. I have seen the breadth and depth and width of my mind and heart and seen how frail they both are, and how ultimately unknowable they both are.”

John McManamy describes a similar value in the illness: “But those of us who get through it describe something akin to a spiritual awakening, an emergent sense of greater closeness to one’s own humanity and divinity. We may never lead the lives we once imagined, but in many ways we are leading much better lives than we ever could have imagined.”

Although I’m not used to thinking about the upside of depression, I’ve been forced to look at my life from every angle to make sense of what I’ve gone through. I have a level of self-understanding, of relationships, of the beliefs that give life meaning that I might not have gotten in any other way.

Ultimately, I think we all get desperate to understand depression. It consumes every aspect of living. When it’s severe, it is your life. The whole of it. You have to make sense of this reality in some way. You have no choice, at least not one that you can live with.

Do you believe that depression has enhanced your life? In what way?

Image by _bobi + bobi at Flickr

20 Responses to “Can Depression Make Us Better People?”

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  1. WillSpirit says:

    John–

    Thank you for highlighting the upside of depression. Reframing my attitude toward depression has brought me to a place of greater peace than I would ever have thought possible. There is much to be said for finding lessons in hardship and benefits in pain. It is, I believe, the surest path to a meaningful life. This is a large truth that extends beyond mental health to human experience at large. I’m most moved by Sigrun’s comment above, because it sounds so similar to what I might have written not long ago. My upbringing felt so devastating and my heart so damaged that I believed myself ruined for life. It seemed impossible to imagine that my childhood and mood issues were anything but curses. I am living proof that one can move through and beyond such convictions to entirely new viewpoints. But the first step is to hear that this sort of transformation is possible. By publicizing the truth that depression can enrich, you are offering much needed hope and guidance to your readers.

    –Will

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, WillSpirit –

      As I mentioned to Sigrun, everyone who gets better seems to find their own way through. We’re all so different. I never thought of depression as anything other than a costly burden, once I understood its full impact on my life. So my recovery wasn’t about reframing my experience. (Strange I didn’t do that, though, since my professional work was all about helping people reframe “intractable” problems so they could be resolved.) I thought of it as fighting and winning. It’s only now that I’m rethinking the illness and seeing other possibilities.

      Thanks for your comments – they’re always helpful.

      John

  2. noch says:

    depression has definitely brought out the creativity in me again. in fact i wrote about it for another website as a guest post. it’s perhaps simple, but merely starting to write again, makig up stories for my bear collection, and creating “Bearapy” are some fo the best things that’s happened to me thanks to depression!

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, noch –

      I’m glad to hear depression actually helped you start writing again. Writing has been an essential part of therapy for me, but for much of my life depression was a major barrier to doing it. Not the only one, but it definitely did not help. I guess I’ll never know why I was able to get going again, but writing has made all the difference.

      John

  3. Sigrun says:

    I have been more depressed than non-depressed in my life. My first suicide attempt was when I was ten. I was physically and sexually abused during my whole childhood. Also as an adult I can get depressed when being (re)traumatized.

    I don’t think being in hell has made me a better person than I would have been with an ordinary childhood. May be extraordinarily gifted people can learn something from depression, but most of us are ordinary people.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Sigrun –

      I don’t think it’s about being ordinary or especially gifted. There may be many different ways depression cripples you, but it always gets the job done no matter what special qualities you may have. I was always turned off by any idea that you could find something good in the experience. But people find all sorts of ways to keep going and adapt to the illness. You can wind up believing it’s the greatest or the worst thing in your life. You do whatever you can do to stay alive.

      Thanks for commenting, Sigrun.

      John

  4. Hello, I am the director of a 60-clinician private mental health practice in North Carolina. I am enjoying your blog because of its emphasis on the stories that may be associated with mental health issues, rather that on the illness itself. We recently started an experiment with our blog along the same lines where the posts are talking about the writers’ feelings and experiences, without any mention of specific mental health illnesses or issues at all. In this way, we hope to point out that almost all of us might warrant a depression diagnosis, at least from time to time, if we were to describe our feelings honestly to a professional and ask for help. Mental illness is not something that makes us different from humanity, and therefore isolates us from it, but rather our struggles binds us to one another and connects us in profound way.

    If there is any interest in our blog-the backlink is carolinapartners.com/blog. And thanks for the interesting reading.

    Stanley Monroe
    Executive Director
    Carolina Partners in Mental HealthCare, PLLC

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Stanley –

      Stripping out the diagnosis and language of illness is a great way to approach feelings. It preserves the state of mind you have at the outset of therapy, or the first explanation of why you’re looking for help. You start by trying to understand what you feel, but most of us look to a professional to identify the feelings as a diagnosable condition. There’s comfort in having that label, but the danger is that you’ll focus on symptoms after that.

      I look forward to reading the stories on your blog.

      Thanks for getting in touch.

      John

  5. Evan says:

    I am uncomfortable with this idea.

    I do think that embracing experience is the path to growth. This I think applies to depression too.

    My discomfort is around giving (undeserved) credit to the illness. People deserve the credit for responding so well to such an incredibly difficult experience. Rather than giving the illness credit I think it belongs to the people who respond so remarkably to it.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Evan –

      I see what you mean, but I haven’t intended the phrasing to suggest that depression deserves credit for whatever good can be taken from the experience. It’s the powerful force that “makes” us react, but it’s our reaction that results in growth and awareness.

      John

  6. Judy says:

    This is an interesting topic and yes, I believe that depression can make us better people if we open ourselves to learning from it. A lot of recovered alcoholics and addicts believe the disease has made them better people, as well. I think illness can be a sort of trigger that makes us examine our lives, makes us question who we are, what we’ve been doing, what matters to us. To the extent that we can take that experience and grow from it, there lies its value, I think. I have “Unholy Ghost” sitting here to read after “Struck by Living” and now I think I’m going to have to read Tom Wootton’s book, as well.

    I think depression has definitely made me more compassionate toward others, as well as toward myself (at least more often). I used to be numb and when I started to thaw out, it was similar to the pain we experience if our skin freezes from the cold and then warms up. It hurts and feels good at the same time. I have met wonderful people whom I would not have met otherwise and I’ve also learned what kind of people to avoid because they drain all my energy. I used to believe that it was necessary to please everyone, though not necessarily myself, in order to avoid pain. But that avoidance of pain caused another kind of pain that I can’t tolerate well any more. I guess I’m not at the point right now where I can call depression “beautiful,” but I’m trying to become more accepting of it as being part of who I am and trying to lose the shame of having it.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Judy –

      You’ve put this so well.The freezing and pain of thawing is a beautiful metaphor and really apt. The freeze is quite like the onset of depression. When you can start to feel again, recovering is painful for a while because of your awareness. I agree very much with what you say about avoidance of pain. That never seems to work, and most of us struggle with acceptance of depression. I wonder if we’re ever done with that.

      John

  7. Mavanc says:

    I’ve lived with depression in the 20 years since my sister’s suicide, and my teenage daughter says she’s been depressed her whole life. Instead of trying to medicate or eradicate her depression, I have been encouraging her to embrace it. She is an artist and a sensitive soul, and says she feels different from everyone else. I feel that she needs to find deep meaning in her life, but I tell her, you may never “get over” your depression; it helps you experience life more deeply. Your post confirms my feelings, and helps me realize that I’m on the right track. I’m glad I found your post, through a series of clicks starting with “Beyond Meds”. Thank you.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Mavanc –

      It’s always hard to predict what path a person with depression may take to adapt to the illness. Each one of us has to make a commitment to ourselves to deal with it and adapt in whatever way we can. That’s why I try not to promote any single point of view – and it’s why people often resist advice from others. For most of my life, including these last years of recovery, I have regarded depression as a crippling illness. It cost me far more than it gave. It’s only now that I can look back and reflect on what has made things so different now. I hope your daughter finds her way – she’s very young. The fortunate thing is that she has identified the problem early in her life.

      John

  8. Gianna says:

    Yes.

    This idea of the “negative” not being so negative is something I often explore on my blog. The idea starts with embracing the full-spectrum of our emotions.

    I excerpted the below quote once:

    It may seem shocking to say it but here it is. All feeling is bliss. All feeling.

    “I feel depressed. That is not bliss.” Are you so sure? Is the essence of depression so very different from that of elation?

    Depression is a point on a spectrum or continuum of affectivity. It is energy channelled in a certain way. It only needs a change of course and voila! the same energy is open and joyous and free. This is something about which I can personally speak with authority. How this can happen is another question, which I will not try to answer here, because there is no single answer for everyone….

    Read the rest of where that quote comes from here: http://www.philbruceburton.com/blog/?page_id=63

    It’s a deep truth, this. And a universal one. Nothing new under the stars…

    Talent lies in knowing how to repackage the truth that it might be spread further so that more people might be freed.

    Your blog is looking stunning, John. (and I still come by quite often, just don’t comment too often)

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Gianna –

      Great to hear from you – and thank you for the quote and reference. I’ve often thought of anxiety as an energy that can be rechanneled, but it’s only now I’ve been realizing that the same can be true of depression. I’m looking into traditional sources to learn more.

      You’ve made some excellent changes on your blog, and I might write to ask your advice on how you’ve been handling some of the technical problems.

      Thanks for commenting.

      John

      • Gianna says:

        John…
        you may be interested in Advaita Vedanta (for the really traditional — based on the Upanishads) or what is now called non-dualism in its more modern expressions. A modern day teacher who teaches this stuff is Adyashanti — he’s American, that’s just his spiritual name. I’ve put a few quotes from various of his writings on the blog. He’s very accessible but certainly not the only one talking about this stuff.

        And please let me know what you’d like…most of the technical problems are still problems on my blog. I wish I could get off wordpress.com and go wordpress.org, but the fact is my archives would be decimated. I would really like to go magazine style like you’ve done here and it’s not possible on wordpress.com right now…oh, well my template does allow supposedly it but when I do it, it messes up all sorts of other stuff and the support on wordpress.com has been abysmal when I’ve tried to figure it all out…ha! that might be too much info for this space.

        But get in touch with me anyway…I’d love to connect…it’s been too long!

  9. Larry Drain says:

    This is a great post. Would you mind if I put a link to it on my website.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Thank you, Larry –

      I’m glad you liked the post. Please do link back here – no permission needed. It’s always an honor – and it helps bring people here. That’s what bloggers hope for.

      John

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