Mental illness doesn’t run in my family, it gallops. But it never really affected me until seven years ago. That’s when I fell into a dark depression. Surprisingly, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. How could something as debilitating as depression be good?
The answer is that it was the catalyst for my personal growth. I’m a more open and compassionate person now, and humble too. Depression will do that, no extra charge.
When I hit age 57 an avalanche of health issues swept me off my feet, literally. I couldn’t get out of bed. I would hear my wife drive off to work and be overwhelmed with loneliness. I knew it was foolish to feel abandoned by such a trivial separation, but I still crawled back under the covers. The serpent wrapped himself around me. “I’ll do anything you want,” I whispered, “I’ll even kill myself. Just make the pain go away.” He smiled and squeezed even harder.
I recall reading Abraham Lincoln’s own words about his bout of suicidal depression in January of 1841. “I am the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth… To remain as I am is impossible: I must die or be better.” I took solace in knowing that one of America’s greatest presidents shared my malady. I also wondered how he pulled himself out of it. In August of 1841 he told his close friend, Joshua Fry Speed he was not afraid to die, but he had an irrepressible desire to connect his name with something that would contribute to the interest of his fellow man.
Reading these words, I realized that Mr. Lincoln found his answer by serving others in political office. Lincoln was never “cured”; he suffered through frequent bouts of “melancholy” till the day he was assassinated. But he chose to find meaning and vitality in his life not despite his suffering, but because of it.
Recovering from depression was the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life. It made summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro feel like a cake walk. Kili was four days of casual hiking and one night of sleep deprived, migraine inducing, lung busting exhaustion. Intense, but short lived. I woke up for months with depression and confronted those same symptoms over and over and over again. Surviving it gave me a sense of confidence that anything is possible. I’ve written my first book, Love and Prozac, a novel based on my evolution through depression. I’ve become an executive and life coach. I speak in public to community organizations and schools about healthy male behaviors, mental health, and the keys to finding your potential, passion and purpose. I also cry more often. I owe all this to my depression, though I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. There are more intelligent, less painful strategies for personal growth.
I am humble enough to know that I can’t control the future, but I do consider myself recovered or, more precisely, evolved. Saying otherwise would be a self-limiting belief that does not serve me or speak my truth. I’m not saying I won’t ever feel sad, anxious or even depressed, I just won’t react to my feelings with maladaptive behavior. Life for me is meant to be lived full of both pain and joy, fear and love, humility and grace. Being sensitive has an upside. I’m less judgmental of myself and others. I have more intimate conversations with friends and family. That’s made me more resilient. I savor the goodnight kiss I give my wife every night before I fall asleep by her side.
I’m grateful I was suicidal. It brought me to where I am now; stronger, more vulnerable, wiser and more compassionate. It also led me to support others through life coaching. I can’t be depressed while I help someone else. And let me be honest, my depression was a state of self-absorption.
When I hit the brick wall of depression, I decided to do whatever necessary — climb it with ropes, dig a tunnel under, sledge hammer a hole through — to get to the other side. My biggest breakthroughs came from meditation, spending time with friends and family and listening to my own inner compass. What was important to me, and what did I want to do with the rest of my life?
Each of us deserves a rich, meaningful life. What will it take to create yours?