Recently, I’ve started asking myself a basic question: Why get well? What do I really want in fighting depression? After all, if I’m working on recovery, I ought to be able to see what I’m aiming for. I thought for a long time that what I wanted was to be free of depression. That would be tremendous, of course, but then what? What do I expect my life would be like? I tend to hear several formulations of this. One person wrote to me and mentioned happiness as what he’s looking for, and I’m sure that’s what most people would say.
Saying I want to be happy seems like a self-evidently true thing. A person with major depression can mean by this that he or she wants the ability to think positively and hopefully about life and about self. It’s possible to imagine a life free of depression and all the harm it causes oneself and others. But happiness goes beyond simply not being depressed. There are plenty of unhappy people who don’t suffer from this mood disorder. So if happiness is the goal, it means a lot more than just getting over this illness.
I’ve often thought of the goal as feeling like myself again. After first taking Prozac in the early 1990s, that was exactly what I felt – for a few months anyway. I could suddenly do what I wanted to do. My brain worked the way it used to, my will reacted to my thoughts and feelings and carried out my ideas, everything seemed so easy and natural! Why can’t life always be like this? For a long time, that’s what I thought my goal was: getting back to being me. Wouldn’t life be fine if I could get to this state of being who I really am more or less permanently? I still think of that every time I ride the waves of depression to their peaks and troughs. Just let me alone so that I can be myself again. Isn’t that enough?
But when I think about that goal or the idea of happiness as what I might aim for, I am reminded of a startling book I read many years ago at the suggestion of a marriage counselor my wife and I were seeing at the time. A Swiss psychologist (Adolph Guggenbuhl-Craig) wrote in Marriage Dead or Alive that happiness had nothing to do with this bond between two people. In his Jungian view, the purpose of staying married was not at all to be happy or to achieve a state of well-being. Instead it was the much deeper goal of “individuation.” That Jungian term refers to the process of personal growth by which you work to achieve integration of often clashing psychic drives. I think of it as self-discovery and the completion of the spiritual as well as psychological journey at the heart of living. Guggenbuhl-Craig also calls it salvation. It’s the attainment of a kind of psychic wholeness. Was it possible to think of dealing with depression as another step in the struggle toward self-realization?
And then I started reading the remarkable bipolar diary by the author of Living Manic Depressive. I found a post that hit on this issue exactly but in less cosmic terms than a Jungian would use. He says in one post that he doesn’t want to stop being bipolar. He has defined and built his inner strength by fighting back against this disorder. So if his illness suddenly went away, he says, “I may be better off without it, but I don’t think I would be me.”
Like the author of Living Manic Depressive, I’ve been dealing with my condition since childhood. Of course, I had no idea what to call it or even how to think about what I was going through for many years. But that didn’t change the reality that I was living with depression and discovering who I was partly through my reaction to its effects.
So when I think of how to answer the question Why Get Well? I have to question if getting well is what this fight against depression is all about – and if “just being me” is as simple a matter as getting rid of the illness and becoming my old self once more.
My goal is to become the person I was put on this earth to be, but who should I become other than the person I already am, illnesses and all? Depression is one of the conditions woven into my psyche. There’s no wishing it away. It confronts me every waking hour and pushes me to fight for who I am. I’d better make the most of it. Depression doesn’t seem to be going anywhere without me so I might as well focus on the daily struggle. That’s where I’m discovering what I’m all about. And that’s what I’m aiming for.
Photo Credit: Jane M. Sawyer and MorgueFile