Depression is an uncomfortable topic for me. I don’t like to admit that I have a problem. (Does anyone?) But I have realized that everyone has problems. More importantly, I’ve come to realize there are benefits to having problems. The Stoic philosophers would agree. They believed that the obstacle is the way.
Our actions may be impeded […] but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.Marcus Aurelius.
I try to reframe my problems as challenges. But that can be hard.
You may have heard that the famous actor Anthony Hopkins used to have a bad drinking problem. This is a little bit different than depression, but I think depression must be a factor. I mean, if you are impressed with life rather than depressed, you won’t need any drugs to stimulate you. Surprisingly, after 45 years of sobriety, Anthony Hopkins says. “I’m very happy I’m an alcoholic. It’s a great gift because wherever I go, the abyss follows me.” […] “That’s true! Wherever I move, I can’t go back. Because for me to do that would be deadly, would be suicide. It’s fun to move forward in life and think, ‘Don’t look back, because there’s a big, gaping abyss behind you, and it’s called death.'”
To paraphrase that, I think he is saying that he is using his problem as motivation. He is looking forward to the opportunity, not backward to regret. I think that having a big problem can be a big advantage to the person capable of overcoming them. If you have a big problem, you are forced to face who you are and what you value in life. You are forced to make a choice. Too many people are caught up in modern-day, first-world problems that distract them from what is fundamentally important.
Another benefit, I’ve found — and this may be difficult to explain — is like the opposite of entitlement. Rather than being raised believing that the world owes you something, I think suffering from depression gives you a fundamental awareness that the world doesn’t owe you anything. (For the record, I wouldn’t say I like calling the world unfair. Let’s call life fair in a way that I don’t understand.) But most people seem to think the world owes them a favor, myself included, that’s why we have reminders like: it is what it is; you never know; all good things come to an end; poop happens; and many more. Often, we humans have to remind ourselves that we are not the center of the universe.
In other words, having a big problem puts life into perspective.
Depression is one of the most difficult, I think, because it is a problem that makes you not even care you have a problem, or at least you don’t have the energy to care enough to solve it. If you don’t take my word for it, this study, Global Burden of Disease and Risk Factors* cites depression as the leading cause of years of life lost due to a disability (YLD) for both men and women in 2001. “Years of life lost.” That’s pretty scary. Keep in mind, these are non-fatal conditions like hearing loss or malnutrition. In part, what they are saying is people with these disabilities aren’t able to maximize the life they do have, and perhaps they might lose a few due to hardships. Stress is a killer!
So, if a person has suffered from depression yet succeeds in being happy, they have conquered a really, really big problem. And, if you can conquer that problem, you can conquer practically any problem that life throws at you.
So the next time you are feeling sad, I suggest reminding yourself that if you can feel even a little bit happy right now, you are winning!
PS. Don’t be shy about asking for help. I am a big believer in finding a good mentor.
* Tables 3.12 and 3.13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK11808/