Yes, depression

A new year usually means a list of resolutions, to-dos—an avowal to commit to things and activities that don’t just make us better people but also make us feel better, too.

That distinction—between being better and feeling better—is significant.

We all want to feel better. It’s our God-given right, damn it.

And to be sure, there are entire industries devoted to the eradication of our not feeling better: prescription drugs, self-help books, empowerment DVDs, boxes of endorphin-releasing chocolates.

I’ve thought about that a lot lately, particularly as I emerge from the exhausting shadow of 2010.

Early January is for me, traditionally, a time for quiet and contemplation—acts that are perfectly suited to winter and rain and muted gray days devoid of sunshine and warmth.

Winter, I’ve found, is the most truthful season, stripped bare of pretense. Everything is vulnerable, waiting to be reborn.

For me it is a time for optimism and sadness, reflection and regrets.

Mostly, I’m quiet about such thoughts, because depression doesn’t make for good company.

But perhaps it should.

Last winter, The New York Times explored the benefits of feeling blue in an article titled “Depression’s Upside.”

Having a case of the blahs just might have a “secret purpose … [as an] unpleasant yet adaptive response to affliction,” reporter Jonah Lehrer surmised, drawing on a lengthy Psychological Review article that combined research and anecdotes from the likes of Charles Darwin, David Foster Wallace and various psychologists.

Lehrer’s article is too complex and lengthy to adequately sum up here, but the general conclusion is such: Depression can be beneficial, and perhaps we should learn to “embrace the tonic of despair.”

It’s been more than 15 years since I was first diagnosed with clinical depression, and I’m inclined to agree with Lehrer’s point—which is not to make light of the affliction’s often debilitating effects: the fatigue and sleeplessness, the sorrow and the anger, the anxiety and the malaise.

No doubt, depression hurts.

And though I don’t wholesale agree with the idea of psychologists who claim that “medical interventions can make a bad situation worse,” I can fully support the notion that “sadness comes with its own set of benefits.”

Why should we, after all, be so quick to try to rid ourselves of the feelings that make up who we are?

I’ve taken the meds before—when the anxiety and heaviness become too much to bear—but mostly I try to listen to my feelings. Sounds kind of hippie New Age, I know, but I learned a lot about myself when, years ago, a therapist suggested I stop trying to “shut down” the depression and, instead, allow myself some moments of quiet and reflection—some moments of listening and absorbing and processing.

“The next time you feel awful,” she told me. “Try lying down, closing your eyes and just allow it—just feel awful for a while.”

And so I did. I closed my eyes and I felt awful.

Really awful. And as I felt awful I thought about those feelings and why they existed. Eventually, however, my mind—as minds are wont to do—started to wander off to different, lighter points. Eventually I opened my eyes, stood up and went about the rest of my day. The issues that contributed to my depression were still there, but I felt clearer and more resolute about my ability to deal with them. Happier even.

This kind of “rumination,” psychologists argue, can help us think better, process feelings better and, ultimately, be better. Happier, more creative, more fulfilled.

It’s not a one-size-fits-all fix. It’s not a works-every-time solution. But it’s part of the process and at the top of my 2011 to-do list.