The Quest to understand depression continues

Over a year ago I finally decided to step out of the depression closet, inspired in large part by the suicide of Robin Williams and other celebrities like him.

In that blog, I made a pact with myself to better understand my particular case, before my symptoms got any worse. This crippling condition has affected many members of my family and although they’ve largely suffered in silence, I knew I couldn’t. I’m blessed (or perhaps cursed) with a big mouth and an even bigger, more obnoxious voice. I might suffer, sure, but I certainly won’t do so in silence.

A part of me assumed the struggle would be relatively easy. Don’t get me wrong, I knew there would be setbacks and obstacles to navigate, but it’d be like a videogame. I’d just level up and learn some “coping strategies” to deal with them. Having scrounged up the gall to admit I had depression, I thought I’d done the hard part. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel to true spiritual enlightenment, and it was lined with rainbows, unicorns and a boyfriend resembling Chris Hemsworth.

To nobody’s surprise but mine, I would be in for a rude awakening. As it happens, I would have several rude awakenings over the next 18 months, and surely many more to come. Getting an accurate diagnosis and therapist that gets my unique kind of crazy (and can cut through my penchant for self-aggrandizing bullshit) was an ordeal in of and itself. She’s introduced many therapeutic strategies, from medication to meditation, designed to bust my bad habits, but I’m an old dog, very resistant to new tricks. Especially when they involve sitting still and not thinking about anything.

I’m not hyperbolizing when I say facing the many struggles of depression has been tough, and often feels pretty near impossible. But I’m also confident in saying I think it very much is possible. I don’t mean to skirt around my story – I’ll share the nitty-gritty of my personal and largely ongoing story of depression in due time – but first I want to jump to the punchline. Spoiler Alert!

The more I’d learn about what’s causing and fuelling my depression, the less depressed I’d feel. This gave me a hunch. What if a curious sense of wonder, the same thing that fuels my creative drive, is the antidote to depression?

Maybe you’re thinking this sounds like New Age mumbo-jumbo, so I’ll serve you up some pretty basic brain science to present my hypothesis. When depression tells us we’re “worthless” and “unlovable” or we feel the impulse to have another glass a wine to numb the pain to those ruminations, we’re activating parts of the limbic brain where instinctive, subconscious emotions originate, which is why depression or anxiety can seem so out of control.

But when we wonder or get scientifically curious, we activate the conscious, decision-making parts of the brain and we gain what the experts call “psychological distance” – that lets us better understand even life’s most difficult problems. It might not be possible in the middle of a panic attack or a night of binge-drinking, but when we have the courage to dig deep the next day – perhaps during that walk of shame – we can deploy our imagination to better understand what triggered the situation, and learn to avoid those situations. And the more we break our more self-destructive bad habits, the more self-aware – and resilient – we become, for when real shit happens.

This all gave me the idea for 1001 Ways to Wonder, a web-series kind of like the science documentaries I’ve made for the Nature of Things, where I could routinely test my theory. Each week I’ll wonder about something, usually the sort of something that might normally drive me crazy, but instead I’d ask how or why it’s driving me crazy. Then I’ll head out to talk to the scientists, armed with my curiosity and my camera, to get the answers.

I know, for example, that a bad breakup or even innocuous rejection can trigger World War 3 trauma in my brain, but why? I’ve got a pretty bad case of road and dodgeball rage, but does that mean I’m predisposed to Hulk-like aggression? I’ve said depression and addiction run pretty deep on both sides of my family, so genetics must play a part, but are we talking leading lady or supporting role overacted by Nicolas Cage?

I don’t think you need me to tell you why we need something like this, so I won’t turn this into a PSA. There’ll be plenty time for preaching later.

Here’s the thing, I honestly think we can beat our depression – or at least come to healthy terms with it. But that requires opening up and talking about the things we instinctively want to avoid.

Welcome to 1001 Ways to Wonder – now let’s science the shit out of depression.