What Has Depression Taught Me?

A lot.

Posted Mar 28, 2018

Pantheon/David B. Seaburn
Source: Pantheon/David B. Seaburn

Only when I was diagnosed with depression in my late 40s did I come to realize I had been depressed since my teen years. What I had always considered a character flaw marked by weakness, inadequacy, and perceived failure was primarily the product of chemistry, genetics, and circumstance, a formula that has shaped me as much as anything else in my life. Only now, in my late 60s, so many years into this experience, this relationship, do I think of my depression as more than a tormentor. I can’t say that I have befriended my depression, as some advise; I have never thought of it as a thorny little companion on a buddy road trip. It is more like an unholy ghost that has shadowed me for as long as I can remember. A constant companion, yes, but not one I would have intentionally chosen, not one I would have selected for life’s long journey. It is a companion, though, that I have tried to understand more completely with each passing decade. It’s easy to identify depression’s negative effects, but discovering its many positive influences has been a more valuable exploration. Five come to mind almost immediately.

1. Looking deeply — There is no doubt that depression often takes me into dark places where fears and anxieties lurk. But it has also enabled me to look deeply at life itself. I have learned that "deepness" is a rewarding place, even though it may seem like a wilderness. It can be spare and unforgiving, but it can also illuminate unexpectedly, helping me see in ways I hadn’t before. I have learned that by going through the darkness, rather than avoiding it, I can find some light. I think this has added to my resilience.

2. Respecting uncertainty — For me, doubt, in all its many forms, has been a byproduct of depression. It has fueled my struggles with self-doubt and its more toxic cousins, self-criticism and self-loathing. But living with doubt has also taught me to embrace (as best I can) uncertainty and to see the value of "not knowing." Embracing not knowing means accepting that life is by its very nature an endeavor cloaked in uncertainty that mostly we cannot know; that doubt is not the enemy, it is not the opposite of faith — it is a source of wisdom; it facilitates asking questions while looking for answers; it teaches that questions are often more important than answers, because they are the womb from which curiosity and creativity and wonder are born.

3. Cultivating humor — Despair goes to the heart of depression; to despair is to feel hopeless, to feel anguished. For me, the opposite of despair is humor. I developed a keen and versatile sense of humor at an early age, and it has served me well. Humor enables me to step back from desperation's slings and arrows so I can look at them from different angles, often discovering perspectives that stand despair on its head, disarming it with a laugh or a wry smile. It helps me see things differently, more lightly, no matter how heavy the circumstance may be. For me, humor is often the mother of hope.

4. Developing empathy — Sometimes mucking around inside my own pain is all-encompassing, inescapable. But there is no doubt that it has also helped me understand the pain of others, to stand inside their dilemmas, shaking my head and thinking, "Yes, I can see why you feel this way." It is the reason I chose professions (ministry, psychotherapy) that are focused on alleviating the pain of others. Pain is evidence of being human and sitting with, talking to, and lifting up those who are suffering is the heart of compassion.

5. Seeking meaning — I cannot count the times I have wrestled with whether life has any meaning at all and whether being here matters. While this has often been wrenching, it has in less desperate moments reminded me that there is no more important question in life than the question of its meaning. It is the question that life most wants us to ask of ourselves: What is the meaning of being here? Where do I find meaning? How do I create meaning? Asking these questions and seeking answers to them is how we carve out a purpose for our lives.

I am certain that this is not the experience of everyone who is depressed, but it has been mine.

David B. Seaburn is a writer. His most recent novel is Parrot Talk. Seaburn is also a retired marriage and family therapist, psychologist and minister.