Lincoln, Darwin, Depression, and Me

So this is weird:  Apparently the word depression is considered “dangerous or derogatory content” by Google.  At first, this made me angry, and this post was going to be about THAT.

Then I discovered a gift in it.  When I searched on the word depression to find out “why all the hubbub, Google?”, I went down a rabbit hole…and found Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. 

Depression Is Open Minded

We all know by now that people from all walks of life, all backgrounds, and all professions, can and have suffered from depression.  We express a collective shock, disbelief, and sorrow at the idea that someone rich and famous could be so depressed that they would take their own lives.  This shock and disbelief indicate a core lack of understanding of the disease itself.

Depression is not a poor person’s disease, nor a lazy person’s disease, nor a disease that afflicts only someone weak willed or who isn’t trying hard enough or who doesn’t have enough people who love them or who isn’t doing positive affirmations enough.  In fact, some of what I found in my research today suggests the opposite, and allows room for a purpose to depression’s existence that I had never considered. 

It gives me pause in my self judgment.

This thing I learned today has me pondering depression’s purpose – and, frankly, my own purpose as well.  I guess I knew it already, in the way that of COURSE it’s true…but I never really grokked it.  I never let myself really ponder it.  OK…here it is…drum roll PLEASE:

Some of our most important historical figures have suffered from the very disease that is now occupying space in my own head.

Depression May Serve A Positive Purpose

Did you know that Abraham Lincoln suffered what they then termed “melancholy”, and was even suicidal on more than one occasion?  So much so that his friends felt the need to keep watch over him, until the worst of it passed?  I didn’t, and apparently, for a while, history didn’t WANT us to know. 

We know, now, though.  There are many stories from those who knew him about how he suffered, and despite that suffering – and here’s the important part – maybe even BECAUSE of that suffering – he changed our world.  I won’t go into detail here because The Atlantic did a beautiful job talking about it  back in 2005, in this article:  “Lincoln’s Great Depression“.  So it’s not NEW news, but it is news to me.  This article affected me profoundly, and gave me a gift this morning that I did not expect.

Google Delivered

In addition to the article about Lincoln having depression, my simple Google search on the word “depression” also returned an article in the New York Times entitled “Depression’s Upside“.  Charles Darwin also suffered from depression, apparently – to such an extent that he felt he would amount to very little:

His depression left him “not able to do anything one day out of three,” choking on his “bitter mortification.” He despaired of the weakness of mind that ran in his family. “The ‘race is for the strong,’ ” Darwin wrote. “I shall probably do little more but be content to admire the strides others made in Science.”
~ The New York Times, “Depression’s Upside”

Humbling…But Also…AWESOME

If Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin can change the world despite their own mental illness…then maybe I won’t just be stuck here in my room whining and wailing for the rest of my life. 

Maybe depression is just another way of being in the world, and not something that has to stop me or rob me of living.  Darwin wrote words very similar to thoughts I’ve had:  “Choking on his bitter mortification” practically describes my breakfast everyday!

Don’t get me wrong – I’d still rather feel WAY better than I do.  I would still like to feel happy and connected and able to DO things and have fun.  However, in his article about Depression’s Upside, Jonah Lehrer talks about the possibility that depression serves a purpose – perhaps even an evolutionary purpose.

Again, I’ll let you go read that article if you want to know more about his perspective and Darwin’s struggles.  For me, for my purposes here, it has me wondering:  “What is the payoff?”

What Is Depression’s Gift?

What do I get out of being depressed?  What do I DO with it?

Well, this thing right here, for one.  I explore, and I ask a lot of questions, and I talk and write about that exploration and those questions.  Depression makes me look inside – a LOT.  So at the ripe old age of “50 something”, I’m learning things from this round of depression that I had either never realized or not fully integrated…despite being introspective most of my life.

Depression gives me a better chance at understanding myself, if I can stop myself from getting lost in it.

I Learned From Depression That Deceit Is My Kryptonite

For instance, this time around, depression has given me the awareness that when I am depressed and too tired to do anything else, or too lost in anguish and despair (I know – drama queen, right?), I lack the energy to be anything but genuine.  Everything else is just too much work. 

As it turns out, I’m depressed and tired in part because I thought I had to DO that work in the first place!  For most of my life I thought I had to be something other than my complete and glorious SELF…just to make other people happy.  Even in my marriage, as it turns out.

Depression asks very mean and hard questions.  I usually view them as some kind of torture – like there is a sadist living my mind with a big giant D on his t-shirt.  Maybe sometimes Depression is less the villain, and more a really direct and socially inept therapist.

Maybe I Should Stop Avoiding Depression’s Questions

What if the answers are useful, though?  What if “What’s wrong with me?” is actually a good question?  Instead of letting it linger out there, putting my mind in a never ending loop of searching for EVERYTHING wrong with me…maybe I should just answer the question in the proper context.

What’s wrong with me within the context of people leaving me, or losing relationships? 

Well, for one thing, almost every relationship that has ended in my life has ended because of my own choice to protect myself, NOT because of the other person’s love or lack thereof.  In fact, most of them perceived the choice to have been mine. 

The real problem is that I only had to protect myself because I put myself in those relationships to begin with.  Well – most of them.  I didn’t really “choose” my parents and siblings.

Anyway – most of them, whether family or friend or lover, didn’t leave so much as they were pushed out when I said “enough…no more…I won’t bend any further”.  When I stop bending, they leave.  Had I kept bending, they would have stayed until…well, until I stopped bending or I broke, I suppose. 

That is exactly what happened to my marriage.  I stopped bending, so he left.

I Was Being Lovable

That’s a big one, right?  Isn’t that a really GOOD thing to learn about myself?  The answer to the question didn’t turn out to be “you’re ugly” or “you’re fat” or “you’re annoying” or “you’re too high maintenance”.  Much of what went wrong in my marriage is the same thing that has been wrong in all of the friendships that have ended over the years, and even the foundational relationships with my family. 

I whittled away at the parts of myself that I deemed unacceptable to the other person to make myself fit their needs – until it became SO painful and detrimental to me, that I had to stop.

Which means I was being dishonest up to that final point, and I abhor dishonesty!  I hate pretense,   yet I spent much of my life in many of my relationships PRETENDING, to some extent.  Not on purpose.  Not even with my own permission or knowing.  An unconscious pattern to make myself lovable…for survival.

Depression, this time around, has given me the insight to see that on a long enough timeline, trying to be something “perfect” for someone else will fail, and is based in flawed thinking.  In my own defense, it is something I did as a survival strategy – programming that was installed long before I had any say in the matter.  But now that I see it…now that I know, it MUST change.

Depression Won’t Let Me Pretend Anymore

The only relationships I have that have survived over time are the ones in which I gave up trying to be any particular way FOR the other person.  One or two or three people stuck around, when I dropped all pretense, and love me for who I am, differences and flaws and boundaries and all.

Which means ALL of those people that came through my life and then left, including the people who raised me OR married me, lent to my depression NOT because of their actions, but because of my own.  Because I didn’t hold true to myself.

I’ve Been Robbing Myself Of Life…No Wonder I’m Depressed!

Honesty is like air to me – necessary for life, and causing great discomfort when in short supply. You can imagine what our current social and political climate does to someone like me.  Even worse is dishonesty in personal relationships.

Whether I like it or not, ANY level of pretense is a lie for me, and lying is one of the absolute worst things EVER.  So the most out of balance thing I can do is to be dishonest with myself or others.

Yet, pretending to be something I am not is exactly what I’ve done for most of my life in some of my most important relationships.  Just to fit in or impress or make someone else feel better about themselves (so that they don’t view me as a threat).

It has become crystal clear to me that I’ve lived my life thinking that the only way to survive and be worthy and lovable, was to be what someone else wanted me to be.  Apparently I believe – or believed up until now – that to be worthy and lovable…I had to lie???

This is a monumental realization for me.  Be ME, honestly and openly, and let them make their own decisions about whether they wanted me in their lives…or be something else for THEM…and take their decision away.  The first option is manipulation, it’s a lie…and it’s incredibly damaging if you are a person who truly values integrity and honesty. 

I have been being my own nemesis.

Being Depressed Can Really Shine A Light On Things

Depression gives me focused time to investigate those things which make life unbearable.  For me, being anything less than completely myself is unbearable.

Even as I write that, I want to reject it.  Yet, the truth of ME, is that truth is such a core value that any deception is painful.  Even the little, polite, easy deceptions that make navigating social situations more palatable.

For some people, there are levels, and some lies or deception is fine.  It doesn’t bother them, there is no cost.  For me, lying or being lied to are both like cutting little chunks out of my body and soul.  Every single time.

So feeling like I have to do that to be with someone, or accept it FROM someone…whether a friend or a partner…that would be pretty damaging, would it not?

I should probably stop doing that.

Thanks Abraham Lincoln

Thanks Abraham Lincoln, and Charles Darwin, and Joshua Wolf Shenk (who wrote “Lincoln’s Great Depression), and Jonah Lehrer (who wrote “Depression’s Upside“). 

You all gave me a chance to examine how my depression serves me.

Just to be clear – knowing how depression can serve me doesn’t mean I choose depression going forward.  It doesn’t mean that Major Depressive Disorder is NOT a disease or mental illness which I can hopefully treat and from which I can hopefully recover.  It simply means that depression may have origins of both dysfunction AND function…and that examining its function can make it useful when it hits, and give me a path to find my way out of it, just as examining its dysfunction can help in its treatment and relief. 

Maybe understanding depression’s function can even give it, and me, some useful purpose.

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