Tom Wootton and the Depression Advantage

Tom Wootton says that a few years ago he would have screamed if anyone had said there was an advantage to depression. So, to get a bit in your face, he named his book, The Depression Advantage. And that book came after The Bipolar Advantage.

I didn’t scream when I saw those titles. As I recall, there was some seething, groaning, a “not another one of those!” – but no scream. Unfortunately, a snap judgment kept me from looking closely at what he had to say for quite a while. That was my loss. Now that I’m past the preconceptions, I’m learning a lot from his ideas.

Seeing Depression Differently

Wootton has spent most of his life struggling with bipolar mania and depression. He’s been through all the terror and despair these illnesses can unleash. He does not underestimate their danger since they almost cost him his life.

Nevertheless, he came to see these conditions in a completely different way than we usually do. He regards them not as simply as symptoms to be gotten rid of but as intense experiences that we can learn to live with.

He believes that we can expand the scope of our manageable experience to include these extremes without feeling overwhelmed and becoming dysfunctional. But he doesn’t stop there. He himself has been able to find a richness and deeper awareness of life from going through them.

As I understand it, this is what he means when he talks about a depression “advantage.” Now, I can’t go all the way with him in that direction. (He referred to one extended depressive episode as “beautiful” – I did scream at that one.) But there’s a lot to learn along the way.

From Crisis to Recovery

He uses an analogy from Daniel Siegel’s Mindsight to capture the way we handle the process of living. In this view, life is a flow of energy and information that we’re constantly responding to, each of us in a unique way. We have a comfort zone in which we feel confident and well grounded. When intense experience pushes us out of that zone, we start to feel lost.

Wootton describes three phases in which we feel dominated by depression or bipolar and focus primarily on the effort to stop the symptoms.

  1. Crisis: Illness corresponds to a breakdown in our ability to handle the flow of energy and information. It becomes too much, and we feel overwhelmed and out of control. From the outset, Wootton is describing illness as our way of responding to the flow of life, not as a thing in itself that invades us and has to be removed.

    He doesn’t in any way minimize the potential deadliness of the loss of ability to handle the flow. Our reaction can be the difference between life and death. His own extremes of mania and depression led him to attempt suicide, and these conditions have been with him for most of his life. He’s clear that we need help in the crisis mode, often in the form of medication and hospitalization.

  2. Managed: Treatment ends the crisis state by cutting down the intensity of life we’re exposed to. It’s reduced to a level within our comfort zone, but it’s a zone that’s far more restricted than the life we want to get back to. In this condition, we feel we can manage with the help of medication, therapy or whatever tools we rely on, but feel fragile. There’s a constant fear that we’ll slip back into crisis.

    Wootton points out that a great many people spend much of their lives in this managed state. Often they believe that this is the most they can expect. The hope is that eventually all of the symptoms can be removed, but they haven’t experienced this yet.

  3. Recovery: Recovery itself is defined by mainstream psychiatry as the complete removal of symptoms for an extended period. “Complete” really amounts to a reduction in the score on a standard scale far below the level of diagnosable illness but with a couple of minor symptoms possibly remaining.

    Wootton believes this approach simply doesn’t work. He cites the most important government study of bipolar as demonstrating that current treatment does not prevent relapse. I think the same is true in depression.

    In his view, the goal of recovery as removal of symptoms only traps people in a vicious cycle. They endlessly repeat the phases of crisis, managed, recovery and then relapse. They keep getting the very same treatment over and over, even though it doesn’t stop the cycle.

From Recovery to Self-Mastery

Instead of focusing on removal of symptoms, he advocates a multidimensional approach of building skills to help expand the comfort zone. In this way, we’re not just restoring the ability to handle the “normal” ups and down of living. We’re getting better at living in the midst of intense experiences we once thought of as purely negative symptoms of illness.

He uses the analogy of learning to play baseball. When he started, he could hit a slowly pitched ball, but as he got older pitching got faster. For a while, he’d lose the ability to judge the speed and angle of the ball and couldn’t get a hit. He was out of his comfort zone. But he stepped a little way outside that zone to learn how to master the next level of play. As he became more experienced, he could hit a ball traveling at a speed that would have paralyzed him at an earlier point in his development.

That’s the way he sees the strengthening of life skills to move from illness to a sense of self-mastery. You learn to handle more difficult and demanding situations by taking small steps and gradually expanding the intensity of experience you can live with.

Wootton organizes this expansion of the comfort zone in three further stages that he calls freedom, stability and self-mastery. I’m not all that comfortable with steps, phases and stages. Every system like this gets creaky and creates its own jargon. But the general idea is an interesting one.

You reach a turning point in dealing with bipolar and depression. You start to feel that you can handle events and actions under the duress of intense conditions you once experienced as devastating. You’re no longer preoccupied with the danger of relapse but are now trying to enhance your abilities to live well.

To achieve that, you need to use tools and therapies that help you with all phases of living – physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, relationships and worklife. He emphasizes that the starting point has to be the full acceptance and awareness of all the dimensions of illness and a commitment to deal with them.

He talks about the need for introspection to identify the specific patterns and symptoms you have to deal with, and mental focus to bring your mind back under your control. As a successful businessman, he urges careful planning to work toward the kind of recovery you want.

It’s a complicated and demanding scenario. Getting to the point of having a “beautiful” experience of depression still sounds far removed from the reality I know. But I’m learning a lot from trying to envision how that might one day be possible.

What do you think about Wootton’s approach?

17 Responses to “Tom Wootton and the Depression Advantage”

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  1. Patrick Day says:

    Tom Wootton’s Depression Advantage cannot be readily understood out of full context. I have read Depression Advantage, his book, and have taken a suite of his courses on-line regarding depression and bipolar in order (as contrasted to disorder). I have also suffered from varying degrees of depression for five years and have come out on the other side, what I call triumph over depression (see blog site http://www.triumphoverdepression.org). Tom would call this self mastery.

    At first I saw depression as the great enemy that needed to be defeated, and I did everything I could to defeat it, mainly taking various “witches brews” of medication. Finally, I accepted that depression would probably be a part of me for the rest of my life, and I became to see it as a friend, a beautiful thing if you will. I became much closer to God and a much more sensitive and creative person as a result of it. I have written one book in depression disorder – Too Late in the Afternoon: One Man’s Triumph Over Depression and one book in depression in order – Murders and Genealogy in Hennepin County. I am a better listener and a much more compassionate and loving person.

    I now have the tools and the increased capacity to be able to live with my depression. I no longer fear it and live one bad night’s sleep away from crisis. I am on the lowest dosage of medication to help keep me out of crisis, I still talk to my brother who is a psychotherapist, and I have blossomed in the spiritual realm immeasurably. In my book, I speak of healing from depression as being a three-legged stool: body, soul (mind, will, and emotions), and spirit – and those three components working in harmony have brought me to the point where I can say (please don’t scream) that I am grateful to God that He allowed me to suffer through depression. It has been a great advantage to me, and now here I am with a calling to help those who are depressed and those who interact with them. It is my purpose in life.

    And even now, when I have some ups and downs in my everday life, my capacity to deal with depression is much expanded from what it once was. That ulitmately is what Tom is talking about. I can live within my depression.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Patrick –

      I believe that purpose and calling have a powerful healing effect. Writing online has been a big part of my recovery – I’ve been helped as much by sharing experiences here as by conventional therapy. It’s wonderful to hear how you’ve transformed depression in your life. Don’t worry – I really don’t scream at anyone’s story. Though I haven’t followed the same path, I’ve probably come to a similar place. It’s not that I don’t have symptoms anymore – I do. The recovery became clear to me when I no longer thought of myself as having depression.

      Thanks so much for your comment.

      John

  2. WillSpirit says:

    Several years ago, when I first heard Tom Wootton say, “depression is beautiful” it sounded absurd. How could such a miserable, shrinking, life-destroying condition be anything but detestable?

    Fortunately, I kept listening, and in time the truth of that phrase hit home. Perhaps it would be easier for us to grasp if it were phrased, “depression can be beautiful.” That would emphasize the potential for low moods to be seen as numinous experiences, just like ecstatic ones, but would also honor how we often feel unable to embrace the more challenging lessons of life.

    The most important fact to know about Tom is that he trained for years as a monk in a Hindu tradition. Hinduism, and Eastern philosophies in general, approach life from a profoundly nonjudgmental stance. All that happens is recognized as somehow useful to the unfolding of the cosmos. There is little tendency to divide people, or circumstances, or feelings into good and evil categories.

    Tom has done us all a service by bringing this ancient wisdom to bear on the problem of mood imbalances. He has worked out a comprehensive system for attaining mastery over one’s emotions, which you have nicely outlined above. But the central and most important point is both simple and profound: it is in fact possible to suffer intense emotional (or physical) pain with complete nonresistance and utter surrender.

    Tom’s is ultimately a call to spiritual realization. He avoids using mystical language because it is resisted by many moderns and because it is unnecessary to this work. Whether we believe in realms beyond the human brain or suspect all that happens can be explained in material terms, we can find a place of calm, deep peace beneath the roiling turmoil of everyday strife.

    So yes, depression can be beautiful. Not because it hurts, but because it connects us to the most profound truths of human existence. When one first enters soulful serenity in the midst of a bleak and crushing mood, one at last learns to value every moment of life.

    I have been blogging since May of 2009, and during that time my writing has undergone a radical shift from describing how bad I felt to celebrating how wonderful it can be to live with a mind that feels everything so intensely. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Tom and all those who work to apply Eastern perspectives to mental health work.

    It is great to see Bipolar Advantage highlighted on your blog. Tom’s program offers those who suffer bipolar and depressive conditions something much more dramatic than mere symptom suppression. It provides a pathway to powerful transformation of mental life.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Thank you, WillSpirit –

      I remember Tom referring to his time at a monastery, but I didn’t realize it belonged to a Hindu tradition – especially given his stories about saints in the Catholic mystical tradition. I have been thinking of his work in spiritual terms, but it’s true that the language of spirituality doesn’t always get a good reaction. Even if sympathetic to that orientation, people can easily compartmentalize what he’s saying and take it out of the realm of everyday behavior. His use of the business planning model, however, doesn’t sit so well with me. I understand using it as a way of connecting with a certain audience, but the idea of goals, strategies, objectives and timelines gets artificial.

      I’m so glad you could give us this overview of your own experience. Hearing what the IN Order approach has meant to you brings it closer to home.

      Thanks so much — John

  3. Will says:

    Maria, great post. People dealing with that depression stemming from childhood, how is it different dealing with that depression if the memories of childhood are supressed?

    • Maria says:

      I believe that we suppress what we cannot handle or are unable to handle. Then, when the time is right we can bring up the memory to deal with it. The body is very wise.

  4. Donna-1 says:

    I do agree that expansion is generally needed by those who have been sucked dry by depression. Life seems to be all about expansion and contraction. Birth. Breathing. Tides. Mental illness. Nothing seems sustained but is in constant flux. I do understand what is being said in the article. Widen your horizons. Broaden your interests. Take chances. Don’t settle for the “managed” life. I’ve been trying to do that for several years now and I keep going back to ease and comfort, telling myself that at least I am not depressed any longer. I’ve told myself that stress was my enemy for so long, I’m beginning to believe it.

    • Maria says:

      I think that the greatest benefit of expansion is that it dislodges established patterns of perception particularly the pessimism and hopelessness caused by long term difficult living conditions. New experiences create a breath of fresh air for the psyche that allows new possibilities. A lot of depression originates from childhood. As adults we get to challenge the mindsets of the past and if we take exceptionally good care of ourselves, help our bodies to heal as well.

      • John Folk-Williams says:

        Hi, Maria –

        Couldn’t agree more. Seeing the self-entrapping patterns and how you look at yourself and behave seem to underlie so much of the healing process. Thank you for these insights.

        John

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Donna –

      I agree that stress can be the worst problem. It made a huge difference in my recovery to get out of a job I could no longer handle. The normal level of stress associated with that type of work was great enough. The added intensity of failing to do it well pushed me over the edge. What I am finding now, however, is that I tend to create stressful expectations for myself without any outside help. Great gift! The goal gets farther away as I approach it – a tricky form of perfectionism. I have to practice stepping back from that inner pressure to get a more realistic perspective.

      John

  5. Evan says:

    I’m pretty uncomfortable with some of this. I do like the idea of expansion. My discomfort is about whether bi-polar and depression are the same as the rest of experience and so just need expansion. Partly they may be about stuff that needs resolving – unmet needs and so on.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Evan –

      The idea of expanding the range of experience you can live with is also the interesting part of this for me. I come to it by way of my own recovery. I’ve been trying to understand why things I would have regarded as depression symptoms a few years ago no longer bother me. Expanding the “comfort zone” does fit my experience, but I can’t buy into the idea of having a full blown depressive episode and finding it beautiful.

      John

  6. Maria says:

    From the point of view of a highly sensitive person like myself, the condition of mental illness including depression is genetically based. Many of us try to be like non-HSP’s which does not help. The non-HSP world often lacks the depth of the HSP world so there is an advantage to being a highly sensitive person. The problems created by our nervous systems, though, can make life very painful.

    I agree with Tom about self mastery. I use Ayurveda for diet and meditation and find that I just have to honor my need for a slower (saner) pace in a frenzied world. To achieve self mastery for HSP’s I think you have to take on your health needs in a serious way and find a way to work that lets you grow in your own way and offer your wisdom and insight for others. Writing is a great way to do that.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Maria –

      Thanks for these ideas. I haven’t looked closely enough at the way depression affects HSPs. I’m always hesitant about attributing different levels of depth of experience to one group or another since I know so many people who break the patterns. I’m never sure what combination of experiences in someone’s life might make them more reflective about themselves than others. Writing has served exactly the purposes for me that you describe. Thanks for coming by.

      John

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