MAKING PEACE AND POSITIVE GROWTH: "I LEARNED HOW TO ACCEPT MYSELF AND I LIKE THE PERSON I AM NOW."
Toward the end of our interview, Richard seemed to express a tentative sense of hope regarding his ability to cope with his depression. Depression did not have to be a death sentence, even though it could be if left unchecked. It was also not an all-encompassing facet of his personality. He sort of reconciled himself to the idea that every person has something difficult to deal with in life, and depression happened to be that difficulty for him. In the narrative he constructs of his life, depression plays a role, but he does not have to allow it to control the entire plot and conclusion.
I just think it’s like it’s like part of my life, that’s just part of my, like a story, you know what I mean? That’s just like, and . . . not a bad thing. That’s just life, you know? I mean some people have like cancer in their life, or they have, diseases or, that’s just like mine, the thing I have, you know? And to me, at least it’s something that, you can, deal with, it’s not a l- it can be life threatening, ‘cause you can do- make bad decisions. But uhm, at the same time, it can be treated, it’s treatable, you know? So I don’t look at it as a bad- that’s just like- it’s like s- a cigarette smoker or something it’s a bad ha- something that’s a bad habit, it’s bad for you but, you can try to do stuff to stop it. So that’s you know. I don’t I don’t feel like bad about myself because if I have it or something.
When Richard characterized it as “a bad habit” or something that can cause you to make bad decisions, he seemed to be saying that depression has the potential to lead to a damaging shift in perspective. It was this shift in mentality that he needed to periodically overcome over the course of his life. However, he also seemed to feel that because he had struggled to return to a positive outlook on his life, he had actually grown and become a better version of himself. Many have discussed positive growth, the concept that people can actually benefit from painful experiences and emerge even stronger and healthier because the experience helps them evolve in some meaningful way. Although Richard’s experience with depression was excruciatingly painful and at times became life-threatening, in looking back on its effects he was actually able to reflect on some of the positive contributions it had made to his life. Richard felt that because of his experiences, he became a more complex, interesting, and insightful person. The Richard he imagined he might have become had he never been depressed felt simpler—blissfully happy in his ignorance of the deeper plights of life, perhaps—but in a onedimensional sort of way.
Let’s say I didn’t get depressed at that point, I would have been that same person though . . . I would have been like a conservative dude, like voting republican.
To be one of those people in the corner- (I think he was going to say office)
I don’t know . . . I would have been . . . just like a you know, like a dumb, like a dumbed-down person, like just very like a regular Joe, like not thinking about life. Like happy-go-lucky you know what I mean, but not really realizing though . . .
It was as if Richard felt that his experience opened his eyes to deeper meaning in life, that he had inside information about important matters that transcend the happy but oblivious pursuit of a mundane existence. He made it a point to emphasize that depression was not a necessary ingredient to this deeper understanding but that it could be a byproduct in some cases. He also added that there are likely people struggling with depression who don’t gain this insight or feel this sense of awareness in a positive way.
‘Cause I have deep- it makes you have deep thoughts, you know what I mean?
A lot of people in life maybe go through life without deep thoughts about life. You know? They just accept everything that’s thrown to them from school, and from religion. They just accept life as whatever they’re taught. So, the only thing that I r- being depressed put me on another route, away from that and then I started to read, maybe different authors and just read different, watch different movies, listen to different music, and just get more you know, but . . . I mean,
I don’t know if everyone that gets depressed has that experience too they might just get depressed and still be, you know don’t really learn about life either. You know what I mean? But for me though it ended up working out that way.
Richard had managed to emerge from his depressive states in which he saw his future as foreclosed, and to arrive at a place in which he could find hope, meaning, and purpose. He described the “silver lining” he now sees and spoke about his future in a much more positive way. The suicidal thoughts still visited him from time to time, but they were more transient now and did not consume him or stifle his wishes for the future.
It’s weird though ‘cause like like I said I have good feelings about the future and everything, and I don’t think like life sucks overall I think life is- life is good you know. I’m healthy you know what I mean, other than depression or whatever but. . . . Other than that I’m pretty you know healthy or whatever. I have good I have good outlook on life. It’s just that at the same time, I can get like . . . have suicidal feelings, like a couple times a week. Here and there, like for maybe, I can think about it for like a couple of minutes and then I can make it go away, you know what I mean? It’s not like when I was younger and I would be depressed, suicidal like for like a week straight every day and I’m thinking about it. You know that’s like I still get a I still get the feelings here and there. But I can deal with life.
Interestingly, in some respects, Richard seemed to have developed a narrative for the trajectory of the life he might have lived had he never experienced depression, and it was not quite the image of blissful ease one might imagine. In a sense, he found a way to turn the alternative narrative of his life sans depression into an unappealing version of existence. During the interview, I think I must have sensed this possibility, although when I asked him about it the question felt spontaneous, like my own association that I had often wondered about but never had the opportunity to ask another person. This was our exchange:
M: Do you think if you, if you had the choice, would you, to not have ever experienced depression, would you, decide not to?
R: Uhm, that’s a good question. Yea- you want to know something? Okay.
I don’t know, if this like answers your question, but I- I’ve thought something along those lines before, which is that, okay well you know like I said when I was younger I was shy, and I was very unexp- you know, unexperienced at life.
I wondered if I like stayed in school, and I just like became an accountant, and went on, you know got a job, and married some woman and had a do- dog and two babies, and a house . . . I probably would have been just like a cornball - I- this is the way I look at it I would have been like just like a cornball dude because I had like no life experience. I had no stress in my life. I was just like . . . okay here’s what I got to get. I have to achieve these things. I would have just been a cornball.
Richard described his hypothetical self as “a cornball dude.” My immediate associations are to the kind of character one might find in a black and white television sitcom from the 1950s, a family man with a sparkling smile and a gleam in his eye. He is the kind of person who can get away with winking casually as a form of expression. This image depicts someone warm and inviting. It is not an unpleasant existence. However, this may be precisely the point. Struggle can help a person develop. Richard seemed to attribute a cheesy quality to his imagined non-depressed self, as if he would be lacking in depth or character. He seemed to envision himself as a person who would just be completing the rote tasks of a life by pursuing the societally designated milestones. A dog and two babies and a house: “I have to achieve these things.”
Richard also seemed to have assimilated his current identity with positive characteristics that were unique to his struggle:
And then but then, because I had a depression, my life went another way, and then I learned how to you know I l- I learned how to accept myself, and I became you know, more social, and then my life is different- went a whole different path, and I like the person I am now. But, but I have depression in my life, but I like how I am now though, you know what I mean? So, maybe depression, is a g- is a good thing in my life in a- in a weird way, you know what I mean?
In a in a very weird way, you know it’s kind of good.
Through his struggle, Richard learned about who he was and who he wanted to become. He grew to accept and appreciate his unique identity. This achievement, of learning to recognize and care for oneself, is perhaps one of the core struggles of human existence. David Foster Wallace said in an interview with Lipsky (2010) that he believed the very purpose in life is to learn how to love ourselves:
If you can think of times in your life that you’ve treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they
were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves. To treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend. Or a tiny child of ours that we absolutely loved more than life itself. And I think it’s probably possible to achieve that. I think part of the job we’re here for is to learn how to do this. (Lipsky, 2010, pp. 292-293)
In some respects, Richard has actually achieved this goal, or at the very least he has found his way to a space of self-acceptance that he can try to more permanently inhabit. In many ways, depression had been the catalyst that guided Richard into this space; by battling his personal demons of selfloathing, boredom, and anguish, he eventually learned to appreciate himself and life more. Although this struggle may be an ongoing battle—as it is for many people who experience periods of darkness—it no longer consumes him. He actually envisions a life worth fighting for, including getting married and having children. When I asked Richard how he overcame the moments when suicide entered his mind, he said:
Just knowing that I think it’s, that I think it’s real stupid . . . It’s like, I’m glad I didn’t succeed you know? Because I could have succeeded and I’d just be . . . you know life would be simple because I would be dead. But at the same time . . . you know . . . if you, you why should you give your chance away to be on earth? You know it’s so- it’s stupid.
He then said suicide or euthanasia might be justified in cases of a terminal illness, where the person is in extreme physical pain and death is imminent. But for him, it is worth the fight because his story did not need to conclude by his own hands.
So . . . I just I just I just think I realized that suicide is it’s like stupid if you’re not like in pain . . . I don’t know that much about it but I think I could support, be behind someone wanting to do that if they’re like in a lot of pain from like an illness, or they’re terminal. But just to do it at like you know a young age or, is just, it’s not it’s not a good look. You know?
When reflecting on some of the harsher aspects of human existence and how difficult and painful they can be, David Foster Wallace says, “I think the reason why people behave in an ugly manner is that it’s really scary to be alive and to be human, and people are really really afraid” (Lipsky, 2010, p. 291). Foster Wallace continues:
Fear is the basic condition, and there are all kinds of reasons for why we’re so afraid. But the fact of the matter is, is that, is that the job that we’re here to do is to learn how to live in a way that we’re not terrified all the time. And not in a position of using all kinds of different things, and using people to keep that kind of terror at bay. (Lipsky, 2010, p. 292)
Richard’s statement, “maybe depression . . . is a good thing in my life . . . in a weird way,” seems to suggest that at least in some sense, he has achieved this goal of living a life that is not so terrifying all the time. The challenges remain, but he has developed a multitude of tools for dealing with the darkness, and the experiences that led to this development contributed to the person he ultimately became and grew to love.
1. Richard’s difficulty in formulating his experience is evident in the language he uses. There are frequent pauses, fragments of thoughts that then continue in a different direction, and many instances of repetitive phrases that are meant to clarify or ensure that the other person is still following his train of thought. This is addressed in more detail later in this book. There are some places where ellipses are used to fill in spaces where leaving all of the original text would have made it very cumbersome to read. However, in an attempt to represent Richard’s narrative as accurately as possible, much of his stylistic way of speaking was left intact.