Tom Wootton, who was diagnosed bipolar after a long battle with inconsistent work and relational behaviours, is an emotional alchemist for the 21st century. As antidepressant drugs become ubiquitous, and knowledge of their side effects grows, the time has probably never been as good as it is now for a reframe of the depression epidemic.
Wootton’s reframe is contained in two books. The first, The Bipolar Advantage, apparently penned in an apparently manically productive week during 2005, spells out Wootton’s early manifesto for a re-examination of the benefits of mania. His more recent book, The Depression Advantage, was published during 2007 and extends the thread to the upside of depression. His books are supported by wide-scale public talks, in which he encourages his similarly diagnosed participants to enumerate the benefits of their emotional condition. “Then accept ourselves. Until you accept yourself as you are, you are in deep trouble. “To love myself today for what I am, while striving to change things to allow me to love myself even more tomorrow,” he exhorts his audiences.
The upside of mania is clearly evident in the productive capacities it brings to many who have experienced it. But Wootton has a tougher task convincing us about the benefits of major depression.
“It is in the spiritual sense that I have really begun to see that depression can be a great thing. In my many readings of the lives of saints, pain and despair is often mentioned as a catalyst that helped them to become better persons and act in a manner that is called ‘saintly.’ I have always struggled with the concept and am now beginning to understand,” he says on his website www.bipolaradvantage.com. On the website, his picture runs alongside no less than Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Tennessee Williams and Theodore Roosevelt, among others. But Wootton’s spiritual angle on depression is probably his most compelling invitation to the meaning that is discovered by many who survive their depression. He echoes many of the more academically presented arguments of Elio Frattaroli, whose seminal 2004 work Healing the Soul in the Age of the Brain, drew attention to the dangers of the increasingly ubiquitous, lop-sided biological view of depression.
“It was the misery of depression that brought me to the realization that I am mentally ill. The unbearable pain is what helped me to recognize the torture I have done to others. Without the heartache I would never have learned who I really am and come to understand the power of acceptance. Without the despair I would not have had the desire to become a better person,” Wooton writes. Wootton’s take, however, is clouded by a poorly articulated view on the origins of depression. He goes as far as to suggest that the origins of major mood disorders are of little concern to him. His view is more utilitarian, addressing the allegedly “dysfunctional” implications of both conditions. He explains:
The orthodox solution for mania is to keep it from happening for fear that it will get out of control. But what if we could keep it in a range where we could still handle it? Through medication, therapy, personal insight, and determined effort, many people find that they can eventually enter hypomanic states and function just fine. Their increased ability to perform more than makes up for the negative parts. In some cases their efforts to control themselves becomes (sic) strong enough that they are able to control the negatives and, at least for low levels of mania, they are indeed enhanced by the condition.
“For example, if I could write a book in a week, people would consider this a major accomplishment. I did write a book in a week. But during that time I did not interact with anyone. I barely ate. I didn’t sleep. I ran my body ragged. I was impatient and crabby, and I was no fun to be around. In other words, I was highly functional in one part of my life but dysfunctional in other important aspects. Yet by our society’s standards, the book was a great accomplishment.
“Still, I would say that other weeks – entire weeks when I never got out of bed because I was so depressed – were far more productive. During those weeks, depression gave me something far more valuable than a mere book. Depression gave me insight and the ability to change the way I see the world.
Wootton credits depression with some of his greatest insights and adds a welcome voice to the long-forgotten notion that pain has been a source of inspiration for some of the most profound artistic and philosophical ideas the world has produced.
“Weeks, and sometimes months would go by when I rarely got out of bed. I was profoundly sad to the point of despair. The accumulation of horrible symptoms can be described as hell. Yet depression has served the function of changing my life for the better.
A key figure in Wootton’s effective channelling of his moods was Lee, a senior monk with whom he worked at a monastery. Lee’s modelling of a more considered, unattached response to the frustrations of the world was gradually internalised by Wootton as an alternative to his rageful, knee-jerk response to others.
“Everything that happens to me; a post on a bulletin board that I do not agree with, an event that happens on the street or in a store, my daily interactions with my wife, my friends, and everyone I meet, creates the same process in me. My first thought is to go into a rage. I then think ‘I want to be a better person’ and try to temper my reaction. If I am doing well I choose to not react right away and I think about how I would react if Lee was there. I sometimes even act in ways that would make him proud.”
In the interview that follows, Wootton responds to questions about his epic struggle with his moods and how ignoring the absence of stars on his belly has helped others to see what beautiful, naked bellies they have.
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