What do the following people have in common?
- Isaac Newton (portrayed)
- Winston Churchill
- Charles Darwin
- Ozzy Osbourne
- Edvard Munch
- Ludwig von Beethoven
- Abraham Lincoln
- Ernest Hemingway
- Nikola Tesla
- Edgar Allan Poe
- John Nash
- Vincent van Gogh
- Robin Williams
They were obviously all exceptional people, who contributed to humanity through important scientific discoveries, inventions, political leadership, music, literature, film, and art.
But they all also struggled with some kind of mental disorder.
Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, addictions, schizophrenia, you name it.* And in many cases, they have been central figures historically. What would have happened in World War II without Churchill behind the British helm? Or what would the United States look like today if Lincoln had not given his ultimatum to the southern states? And how far would physics have come without Newton’s laws?
Thalamus is the part of the brain that arranges what information will reach our consciousness, or not. Without the thalamus, we would all drown in all the impressions, and become so overwhelmed that we would not have been able to function in everyday life. Recent research suggests that some psychiatric disorders are associated with the thalamus not functioning optimally and are releasing too much information. At the same time, if you have a thalamus that processes more information than usual, you are also more creative. In other words, there is probably a direct link between some mental disorders and creativity. And when you look at the list above and think about the people you know who both are highly creative, and struggling mentally, it becomes apparent that such a link does exist.
Many have asked why evolution has not eradicated depression and other mental disorders. How can it make sense for millions of people around the globe to suffer intensely because of these diseases? I think the cause can be found in the list above. Humanity is moving forward by allowing individuals to think outside the box; to rethink the problems and challenges we face. And to be able to rethink, you have to partially have an unstable psyche. Those who have an unstable psyche often have some degree of mental illness at the same time. The two qualities often go hand in hand.
The problem is that while this is useful to society, the cost is often high for the individual suffering from the disease. I know this because I suffered from severe depression and suicidal thoughts for more than a decade (I have now been well for close to 20 years).
When you find yourself in a situation where you are struggling with a mental illness, the most important thing you can do is find ways to make the illness more manageable. Doing things that lead to the best possible quality of life, even when things are tough. Fortunately, this is very possible, as I have written about in many other of my blog posts. It is possible to get rid of depression. We are all different and need different solutions. But for the vast majority of us, we can raise the quality of life with simple mitigative measures that are absolutely within reach, even for those who are sick. Take exercise for example; even a few walks a week has great positive effect on mood, energy levels, sleep, etc.
In addition to working on improving your own life situation, you can also look for the positive aspects in the suffering. It may sound provocative, but it is often possible. For example, losing our dad made my sister, my mom and I form a much closer bond as a family. The fact that I was depressed for more than ten years makes it easier for me to help those who are depressed now, because I know what it’s like to be deeply depressed. These are positive things, despite the underlying condition being negative. These are examples of reframing, a technique you can read more about here.
Another way to look at the difficult part of your life in a more positive ways is as follows: It is possible that what makes you sick at the same time enables you to see the world in a way that is impossible for those who are not sick. And as we have seen, it is often such an oblique view of society that takes humanity further; within science, politics, music, art, culture, and other arenas.
Certainly, not everyone can be a Churchill or Michelangelo, but I’m sure you have ideas that can be sown and maybe someday take shoot roots and flourish. Find out what’s right for you and see how you can nurture your ideas in a way that will benefit others. It will be worth it, if only one other person (or just yourself) can enjoy what you bring to the table. That was my idea behind ‘Rise from Darkness’. If only one other person found the book useful, the whole project (which took me ten years) would be worth it. But in reality, I have reached many more.
There’s nothing wrong with you. That you are different from others, and that you think and feel in a different way, is the evolution’s answer to enable humanity to move forward. You are allowed to be proud of it, despite the fact that you might wish things were different, that you were more similar to the majority, with less suffering in life.
*) Some of these people lived hundreds of years ago. There is uncertainty about exactly which diagnosis (if any) they suffered from.