An interview with Tom Wooton
Interview by John Soderlund
NT: From what I understand, your first book, “The Bipolar Advantage,” and your more recent book, “The Depression Advantage.” begin from the premise that some of the symptoms of both conditions can increase the depth and scope of functioning of the people who are diagnosed with them. You seem to suggest that, while they are difficult and painful emotional conditions, they have the potential to ultimately enrich the lives of sufferers beyond what might otherwise be possible. Could you explain the areas in which this enrichment has been most apparent to you and give some thoughts on why you think this was the case for yourself and for others you have met during your work?
TW: The premise of both books is that we must come to acceptance, engage in introspection, learn skills to focus our minds, create a viable “business plan,” and get professional help. Part of acceptance is to realize that our condition has both good and bad aspects to it, which is true of all of life. As a precursor to addressing the concept of acceptance, I encourage people to look at their condition from both good and bad aspects. I strongly believe that looking at only the bad aspects (or worse, avoiding looking at it for fear that you cannot handle it) will never help one to grow to the potential that we all have. It is only in overcoming our hardships through facing them that we become better people. Functionality is addressed in detail in “The Depression Advantage.” There is a chapter called Redefining Functionality that talks about how functionality is state specific, meaning that functioning while manic should be judged mainly on how we act, while functioning while depressed is mainly about what insights we can gain.
NT: You’ve run workshops with a great many people, during which participants are asked to enumerate the advantages they derive from their manic symptoms. What would you list as the most commonly valued symptoms of mania and of depression, on the basis of your interactions with sufferers of both?
TW: Brainstorming, out of the box thinking, drive, ambition, creativity, energy, enthusiasm, and willingness to try new things are very common advantages that are most often mentioned. Obviously those are benefits from the narrow range of hypomania before it gets out of control. Unfortunately, because of the general unwillingness to look at depression and the preponderance of “avoidance therapy,” I seldom hear many advantages beyond some philosophical ideas that perhaps we become stronger from depression and more empathetic towards others. The good and bad lists are built first before anyone hears about the importance of acceptance, introspection, focus, business planning, and professional help, so it is more a measure of current thinking before the paradigm shift that I am advocating. What never ceases to amaze me is that almost every group comes up with more positive than negative aspects. I draw no conclusions from this other than the hope that people do want to see their lives as positive and when given the chance can enumerate many perceived positive aspects to what is generally regarded as a terrible condition. What I myself would list is a totally different matter. The intensity of depression is the best thing that ever happened to me. Sometimes the physical pain is so intense that it becomes the only thing in my consciousness. There is an incredible “peace which surpasses all understanding” in that state. Those that have never been there have missed out on one of the richest experiences of life. The insight that comes from understanding the experiences instead of avoiding them is what we should be looking for. Teresa of Avila is quoted as saying:
“It sometimes happens that, when a person is in this state of great pain, and has such yearnings to die, because the pain is more than she can bear, that her soul seems to be on the very point of leaving the body... Relief comes as a general rule, by a deep rapture or some kind of vision... it produces the most wonderful effects and the soul at once loses its fear of any trials which may befall it.”
And people who have never been there think I should avoid it because they are afraid of it? “The Depression Advantage” is about a paradigm shift in how we see states of consciousness. It challenges the limited definition of functionality, creates a new scale of where our experience lies, explains the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects to the states, sets the standard we should be shooting for, and spells out a clear path to achieve our highest goals instead of accepting a diminished life. Central to all of that is the fact that the only legitimate measure of success is to change your behaviour. Mindfulness is a great start. Just make sure it leads to actfulness.
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