The Gifts of Depression

Gifts of Depression

We need to make room to cultivate an appreciation of the gifts of depression before we can thrive in all states.

I have been trying to let everyone know that it is possible to find value in all states, including depression. The following was written by Margaret Miller and it so captured what I have been trying to say that I asked her if I could share it. I hope you love it as much as I do.

Manic-depression left a decisive scar across generations of my family. For each of us who bears that mark, moods have conferred advantage, as well as disability. I don’t mean the energy of hypomania. That’s a fun enough ride, while it lasts. But it’s nothing compared to the unexpected and enriching gifts of depression, like patience, humility, insight, and empathy.

Once I got a handle on surviving my shifting moods, I began to think about using them. This came into sharp focus while I was taking Tom Wootton’s Bipolar IN Order class. Most fundamentally, the class offers a framework for deepening our awareness of mania and depression, and it demands a formidable level of introspection. For most, the eight-week experience was a bit like putting on prescription lenses after a lifetime of blurred vision. What we saw differed from person to person, but the excitement was shared by all.

A good measure of my excitement has been in response to Tom’s explicit belief that our moods—ruinous and painful as they sometimes are—have value. I’ve thought about this for years, but I never tried to articulate it. So I dug deep and wrote a lengthy post to the class discussion forum, trying to express my experience:

During my first year at university I thought a lot about how I could succeed across the broad range of my responsibilities—a job, reading, essays, exams, meaningful friendships, and, most importantly, thinking. I was aware that my capacity for effective work changed hour to hour, and I became fascinated by capitalizing on the shifts.

Take Chinese, for example. In addition to an hour in the language lab, the Chinese teacher required us to write characters for an hour every day. I knew I could functionally complete the writing practice anytime (after all, others did it between bites at meals). But I wondered how I could maximize the learning by picking the right time and the right frame of mind for the characters to take hold. I discovered that if I practiced writing characters just before I slept, they stuck. That liminal hour was great for non-linear thinking. The characters’ shape, rhythm, and recurring patterns sank in more deeply and made more sense to me over time.

Similarly, I recognized that evening was best for reading. The afternoons belonged to writing, but I found I could edit and revise my essays pretty much anytime. Most important was the very first hour of the day. My professors and peers were demanding, and I quickly understood that simply doing my assignments wouldn’t prepare me for class. So I got into the habit of spending at least 30 minutes before breakfast looking over my notes and, well… thinking. That half hour had nothing to do with cramming; it was about taking in the view from 30,000 feet. The clarity of that view depended upon the brainwork of sleep, when the dust settles and patterns emerge.

Of course I was 18, so my adherence to this schedule wasn’t perfect… But the important thing was that I understood and, over time, got better at thinking about thinking.

In the past two decades, that approach to studying has become a tool for managing mania and depression. In other words, at university I sought to understand the varying capacities of my mind so I could study at a higher level. Later I began to consider my mind’s assets and limitations across a broader time frame—weeks of hypomania and months of depression. Instead of “Is this the best time to write a complex essay?” I asked, “Is this the best time to take risks in a relationship?” and, “Am I really up for a demanding assignment?” or, “How about I forget work, and paint the baseboards instead?”

The backdrop to this cultivation of awareness included many years with a fiercely smart psychotherapist, 20 years of lithium compliance, and the daily joys of a strong marriage and family. Put another way, I’m stable. And that gives me room to cultivate an appreciation of the gifts that come with manic-depression.

So this was the dynamic: An awareness of mind and mood helped me to discern the best use of my mind at any particular time. Eventually that flipped: I discovered that I can sometimes induce the right frame of mind and mood to align with whatever my focus must be at that time. This is quietly mind-blowing. Of course, I’m still like that 18-year-old kid—I have a sense of how it works, but I don’t always do it.

The transition is easiest in the direction of hypomania, but it is always more productive in the direction of depression. In both cases, the shift can last for days, and the gateway experience is usually somatic. That is, by sinking with an intense focus into certain, wholly physical experiences I can significantly shift my moods. A few hours in the ocean or hard hiking in rain or wind can induce extended periods of optimism and motivation, as will that specific propriaceptive pleasure of rock climbing, shifting my weight from toes to fingers, body embracing stone. Of course the most reliable gateway to hypomania is sleep deprivation. But for me at least, that works a bit too well.

I can induce a measure of depression—or at least a few productive attributes of depression—by surrendering to certain slow tactile experiences that demand focus, such as clay, dough, or sanding. Sinking into that mood changes everything. As my mind slows, my writing improves, as does my capacity for meaningful connection with others. Recently I’ve been thinking about a more profound shift toward depression through a practice that I discovered in childhood while tracking and watching for wildlife.

My deepest solitary pleasure as a kid was climbing a particular maple tree near a small stream and sinking into a sort of alert trance—waiting and watching to see who/what might walk beneath me. Sometimes my mind would race, but more often my thinking derailed and stalled. My hearing became more acute, then it seemed to switch off. Eyes open, I saw everything, but nothing. I felt blind to all but movement, all colors washed together. I saw deer, rabbits, raccoons, all manner of birds, snakes, and, once, a family of skunks. Eventually the goal of seeing the animals became secondary to my craving for the stillness of mind, and the animals felt like an intrusion into that state.

Sometimes I stayed in that tree for hours, shaking myself out of the trance only when night’s chill caught me or I heard my mother ring her 10-pound dinner bell. Returning to the ground (in every sense) was awkward. I thought of it as climbing down without a body, because my limbs felt stiff and alien. I always came away from that tree feeling full, but absolutely alone, quiet, empty of language, and slow to recover from the dissolution of self. This state of mind could last for days, during which I felt charged with a sort of richness, yet utterly lonely and quite drained. These are some of the things I feel in depression, still.

I was 22 before I connected my experience in that tree with any notion of meditation. And nearly 30 more years passed before I started wondering if the elements of depression unleashed in that state might hold untapped value. I’m not talking about the simple and sustaining meditations that dot my every day. I’m wondering about a practice of deeper, less comfortable, and more unsettling meditation practice. How would I emerge from that experience? How might that state enrich my writing, my relationships, my moods?

I don’t fully understand this practice, but the broader points still hold: I believe my moods have value (even as they cause me pain), and I recognize that I can profoundly shift them. Obviously this is a work in progress. The operative word here is work, and I’m not always up for it. This requires a willingness to be engaged and a singular presence of mind. It isn’t casual. And to state the obvious, the practice requires mental stability. On occasion, of course, stability is my only goal. Other times, I’m just lazy. But having even fleeting moments of success with this experience has utterly changed my conception of manic-depression. And it strengthens my resolve to keep practicing.

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Tom Wootton founded Bipolar Advantage with the mission to help people with mental conditions shift their thinking and behavior so that they can lead extraordinary lives. His most recent work focuses on moving beyond recovery in bipolar disorder to what he calls Bipolar In Order.