The gift of depression and mood disorder

What do you do when your illness feeds your success?

by Sarah Boon


For my 35th birthday I received the gift of depression. It didn’t appear in my lap in a sparkling paper-wrapped box with shiny red bow. Rather it crept up on me slowly like a coastal spring, with January crocuses followed by February daffodils and finally the sweet pink cherry blossoms of March. Knocking on the door to my party, uninvited.

Having been diagnosed with depression at the end of my PhD degree, I recognized the signs. The lack of interest in tasks I normally enjoyed, and the constant craving for just a few more hours of sleep. Withdrawing socially and having difficulty concentrating. Wearing the same baggy cord pants for days on end and crying myself to sleep. And when I did sleep the nightmares – long a problem for me – took over. By far the worst, though, was when I yelled at our new puppy, who didn’t know any better and cringed from the harsh sound of my voice.

From the outside, my illness would have seemed “inconceivable”, as the little man from The Princess Bride would say. My husband and I had a nice house in town, with a large yard and garden, and renovations more than halfway completed. I’d just been awarded tenure and promotion based on an impressive CV of publications in good journals, graduate student supervision and collaboration, teaching excellence, and extensive service to my professional community. I’d finally obtained a research grant I’d been trying for years to get. I was on my first sabbatical, doing research at the cutting edge of my field at a university famous for the depth and breadth of related programs across departments and faculties. I was connecting with an increasing number of interesting scientists and science communicators from around the globe on Twitter. My graduate students were finding good jobs after finishing their degrees, I’d been invited to speak at several international conferences, and many colleagues were interested in collaborating with me.

When I finally saw a psychiatrist, seven months after first going to my family doctor for help, he diagnosed major depression and anxiety, with a side of mood disorder. The latter, he noted, must be cyclothymia rather than bipolar II given how successful I’d been throughout my life.

I wanted to cry and laugh all at once. Yes, my life was immensely successful – from the outside. But how do you explain that you’ve excelled as a coping mechanism? That growing up abused made you feel apart from the world, and the only way to join in was to follow the rules, fit into the boxes, and construct success the way the world understood it? How could I explain the moment I realized that the ‘up’ phases of my mood swings were actually feeding that success? That my ability to get more done in a day than most people got done in a week more than compensated for the ‘down’ swings, when even getting up at the front of the classroom to teach seemed almost impossible.

When your illness feeds your success, how do you separate the two? Where do you draw the line?

I drew the line between the personal and the professional. While my career flourished, our dogs died well before their time, both of them within a span of half a year. In the course of doing field research, I sustained an injury that stubbornly refused to heal, leaving my mobility limited even three years after the fact. My husband and I had few to no friends in the community, and never felt as though we belonged. My ‘down’ cycles also made it difficult to socialize outside of work – it was either work or socialize, I couldn’t do both. I had friends across the country whom I hardly had time to email, let alone call or visit. And our family time in the outdoors had decreased to almost nil – both as a consequence of my work and because we lived a long drive away from the nearest decent wilderness.

As my career star rose, my personal vitality diminished. The ‘up’ cycles became less frequent and the efficacy of work as a coping mechanism began to fail. And into the gap stepped depression. Blowing out of the west like a battering chinook wind. Drowning me like the monsoon rains of a Prairie spring. And as I fell, the reference horizon became more indistinct, until there came a point when I just couldn’t see it anymore.

A year ago, my illness brought me success. Today that same illness has forced me to take a medical leave and left me barely able to make it through a day. Sitting in the psychiatrist’s office, I considered the past months of changing medications and subsequent side effects – including a midnight visit to the ER to beat back a massive migraine that no amount of Tylenol #3 could touch. Slogging through therapy, and surviving the darkest weeks of constant suicidal urges. The glimmers of good in each day as the puppy learned new skills, or I made it to bedtime without crying.

My 36th birthday will likely retain an undertone of depression, and perhaps also a better understood mood disorder. But it has indeed – as unlikely as it seems – been a gift, for all that it’s almost killed me.

I’ve learned how to cherish the smaller things in life. A few hours in an armchair, listening to the stereo and writing, does more for me than an invited talk at a conference with 20,000 attendees. A sunny afternoon in the garden harvesting potatoes overrides the joy of any paper publication. A day in which I don’t want to die is more valuable than a $150,000 research grant.

Mental illness has made me take a wider view of where I’m at – and why – and the route I took to get here. And I realize that I was wrong all along: being apart from the world isn’t something to be fixed by following the rules, achieving external success, or getting people to like you. It’s a state to treasure, a perch from which to observe. It’s a gift in and of itself but – like depression – double-edged.

In a way mental illness has given me my life back. Dented, bleeding and with a few limbs missing, to be sure. But it’s mine to do with as I need, and as I please.

[Sarah Boon is an associate professor of Environmental Science at a small university in Alberta, Canada. She’s also a science writer and memoirist, and enjoys quiet: gardening, hiking with her dogs, and reading.]

[Image credit: Image via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic License.]

6 thoughts on “The gift of depression and mood disorder

  1. As someone who went through something similar, I offer my sincerest condolences on the loss of your dogs. And I know it is still difficult to deal with depression, though you are looking at it from a positive perspective.
    I would like to add mine, however. I am a woman in science who also suffers from depression. I take small issue with your use of the word “even” when referring to getting up in front of students, as though that should be the easiest part of one’s job. For me that can be the hardest thing. When I did research, for the most part it was just me. I had to interact with a small number of colleagues occasionally but they knew me well, so there was no show to put on there. ~30 undergraduates staring at you waiting for you to say something when all you want to do is cry feels worse. I know that my brain isn’t functioning at as high of a level when I’m in my most depressed moments, but I can make up for those if the pressure/deadline to get something done is not immediate. It is much harder for me to get through one (or several) ~55 minute presentations every day. Or have perceptive students ask you what’s wrong.

    • Thank you for your observation. The author can comment for herself, obviously, but I took the “even” to mean the physical act of fighting inertia and getting up and being present, rather than the actual act of teaching in itself. That perhaps is as viewed through my own lens, reflecting days when even just getting out of bed, much less making it to the front of the classroom, seemed like too much. I know that many academics find classroom teaching to be their most daunting or difficult of responsibilities, for a variety of reasons.

  2. First Last – Emily’s response to your observation is correct. I think you’ve misinterpreted my use of the word ‘even’. I meant the act of overcoming inertia, and certainly didn’t mean to imply teaching is the easiest part of the job. I actually find it the hardest.

    Teaching almost requires that you be an entertainer, in order to engage students who in many cases would rather not be in your class. The term before I went on sabbatical, I couldn’t teach without shaking & sweating profusely – and one of my classes was a 3h night class. By the time I finally went on leave, I couldn’t get up in front of a small (~30 people) group of my peers and give a research talk. I felt faint, my throat closed up, my heart raced and my hands shook. Forget if anyone asked questions, or wanted clarification – my brain didn’t (and still doesn’t) work fast enough to process ‘on the fly’.

    I appreciate your comment because it will help many readers understand that, when you’re suffering from depression, you can eventually complete tasks if given enough time and isolation. But your public face suffers – immensely.

    I’m glad to know that other women in science have experienced similar problems with depression – it helps to know we’re not alone.

  3. This makes me even prouder than usual of my close friend who has struggled with severe, unremitting depression since his teens, unable to hold down jobs or complete academic programs, frequently hospitalised… and still determined to pursue a career in research because he loves and believes in it. One of your worst days sounds like his best day. He has had no material successes he can use to validate himself and cope with his illness. No current possibility of a relationship or family. But still he doesn’t give up. He’s nearly finished his MA now, at the age of 34 :) I realise this doesn’t fit your usual brief of ‘women in science’, but I like to give him a shout-out every now and again.

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