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TW: I can see how some might choose to see depression as a way to process some injury, but it misses something far greater. It may or may not be productive to find causes to our condition, whether chemical imbalances, genetics, or experiences, but in the greater scheme of things they are not nearly as important as what we can become as a result of deeply understanding the actual experiences of mental conditions. In “The Depression Advantage” I wrote about people that faced much greater hardships than most people ever will. They grew into people that their society revered. They said that their hardships are what made them into what they became. They attributed their growth directly to having learned from their experiences, not from avoiding them or finding the cause of them.

I see depression as the greatest thing that ever happened to me. Why should I care what caused it or try to keep it from happening? This is not a naive conclusion or one to be taken lightly, but it is the result of tremendous work. It is also a conclusion shared by some of the greatest people in history who also chose to face their conditions and learn from them. This is a very hard concept to understand because the natural inclination is to avoid pain and pursue pleasure. Notice that I have never said I enjoy the pain or that it goes away. I cherish the insight and behavioural changes it gave me far more than the “highs” of any experiences.

NT: Your thoughts on the potential benefits of various conditions that you have addressed sound very much like what post-modern and narrative therapists would call reframes, or new ways of seeing things that have characteristically been cast by ourselves or mental health practitioners as undesirable and best done away with. To what extent have you been informed by post-modern or narrative therapy practices and, if you are familiar with them, what is your opinion of them?

TW: I am not that concerned with the narrative of the past. I see some benefits to understanding how we got to the point we are at today, but a much more important narrative is what potential we see in the future. If you look at the narrative of some of the greatest saints in history, you find stories that do not lead to sainthood until they changed their way of looking at life. There is tremendous benefit to looking back at experiences like depression. By remembering the experiences, we can use them to learn more about the details without needing to experience them in the present, but from what I understand, that is not the goal of “narrative therapy.” There is a huge difference between understanding the direct experience of depression and interpreting or retelling the story. It is the difference between having a mystical experience and talking about it as explained in “Deautomatization and the Mystic Experience” by Arthur Deikman - http://www.deikman.com/deautomat.html

NT: I understand that you were misdiagnosed for a long period before being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Could you outline what your feelings are about the way in which bipolar disorder and depression are diagnosed by the mental health complex, i.e. with the DSM as the primary diagnostic reference and a reliance on symptom checklists? Do you think this is a useful system by which to diagnose these conditions and would you recommend any changes to our reliance on the DSM or how it is used?

TW: In every workshop I ask people to tell me what is bad about everyone’s condition and I wrote them down as they call them out. When people stop calling things out, I ask “If someone came in and wanted to know what bipolar (depression, schizophrenia, etc.) is, would this list tell them?” They always add more. I do the same thing for the good side. In the discussion afterwards, I always hear the same things: everybody has these things (meaning non-mentally ill too), we just have it more often and with greater intensity; and none of the things on the list are in the DSM! Is there really some magical difference on day fifteen that changes depression from a bad day to “real” depression? Experientially, there is often no difference between day one and any other day of depression, yet researchers focus on counting days of symptoms or remission because they cannot study the experiences that they cannot have. What does remission measure when you value the experience? Ignorance? It seems pretty clear that the people who write the DSM don’t have any actual experience of the mental conditions themselves. It is like the difference between reading the ingredients on a yoghurt container and actually tasting it. Of course if you spend all your time encouraging people to avoid depression, it is a logical outcome that you don’t ever hear clear descriptions of what it actually is.

NT: I suspect some in the mainstream psychiatric community might take exception to your suggestion that people diagnosed with bipolar disorder are the kinds of people who come up with great ideas and rely on normal people to execute them. They might argue that this has the potential to feed into the delusional and grandiose inclinations that are a hallmark of manic episodes. The more cynical of these commentators might suggest that you are being manic in your suggestions about what your workshop participants might see as unrealistic estimations of the potential value of manic symptoms and that what you are offering in your workshops might be dangerously romanticising these conditions. How would you respond?

 

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