Meaning and mental illness

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve probably noticed that writing is my passion and at times even my obsession. But before I became a writer, I studied to be a psychologist, because my other passion (and yes, obsession) is learning about psychology and in particular, psychopathology. Today, I’m going to take you a little ways down that path, inspired by a book I recently read.

Man's Search for MeaningMan’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl is about Dr. Frankl’s experiences in a concentration camp during World War II, and how they came to inspire what he calls “logotherapy,” a type of psychotherapy focused on finding meaning in one’s life. He describes many case studies where he’s helped patients identify meaning in their lives, whether it’s finishing a manuscript or caring for a child, and thereby improved their quality of life, in some cases, “curing” them.

Dr. Frankl wrote this book in 1946, when our understanding of psychiatric disorders was very different, but what he has to say is still relevant. This is not to say that someone in a depressive episode would be cured by a few sessions of therapy in which they identified something to give their life meaning, as are some of the patients in his case studies, but I think even he would admit that some types of mental disorders aren’t cured by talking alone. (Though therapy can still be helpful, along with medication, for a lot of people.)

Instead, what I took to be particularly interesting was his attitude towards suffering. Suffering can be endured, he says, as long as there is meaning in it. With mental illnesses, some degree of suffering is often unavoidable, even with treatment, even with support. For me, during my depressive episodes, my suffering was invisible, impossible to even communicate to others. It came from nowhere, from my own brain, and seemed to me arbitrary and meaningless.

Nietzsche quote

But Dr. Frankl writes: “human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning, and… this infinite meaning of life includes suffering.”

For me, depression is an ocean of sadness, and I sometimes find myself on the bottom of it, miles of black water above me, pressing down. And just the other day, I had a conversation with my therapist about emotions. She told me that there’s a theory that our emotions are adaptive, that they have evolved to help us survive. I asked about the purpose of sadness, and she told me it’s how we develop empathy. That if we never felt sadness, we’d never know what it was like for someone else, and we’d never feel empathy.

As a writer and as a human being, I like to think empathy is part of the core of who I am. It’s how I can live and breathe my characters, step into their skin and feel their fears and desires. It’s how I relate to others, as a caring person, as someone who wants to help those around her.

It also means a lot to me, this idea that sadness is an evolutionary trait. That there is a reason we feel sad, that it’s not senseless and pointless. 

Maybe I got more sad genes than most, maybe the alchemy of my brain, its wiring and vast pharmacy, isn’t functioning the way a healthy one might. (Or likely both.) But on good days I start to think maybe there’s a reason for this. Maybe there’s meaning in it. And although that won’t cure me, although I’m not likely to ever be cured, it helps me to keep going.

One thought on “Meaning and mental illness

  1. Kay Moses says:

    I am so glad you read his book. It is one of my favorites. I liked your comments and insights. Love you

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