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.
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.
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?