books, depression, faith

A First-Rate Madness


I (Ben) picked up Nassir Ghaemi’s book A First-Rate Madness after reading his op-ed in the New York Times last week. The premise is straightforward: Ghaemi, a professor of psychiatry at Tufts Medical Center, argues that mental illness may actually benefit leaders in times of crisis. In his op-ed, Ghaemi posits an “inverse law of sanity,” observing that

mentally healthy leaders, successful in quiet and prosperous times, often fail in times of crisis; in contrast, our greatest crisis leaders frequently are mentally abnormal, even mentally ill.

A First-Rate Madness ranges across the 19th and 20th century (with a quick toe dip in the 21st) to identify historical figures (all men, it turns out) whom Ghaemi believes illustrate this inverse law. Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, FDR, JFK, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., are all examples of leaders with mental illness — usually depression, but also mania or other disorders. Ghaemi’s examples of sane leaders (he defines them as “homoclites”) are less numerous and more ambiguous: he contrasts Neville Chamberlain with Churchill, then lumps Richard Nixon, Tony Blair and George W. Bush into one chapter at the very end of the book. (If there is one thing Richard Nixon was not, it was a mentally stable individual.)

If Ghaemi’s thesis is a bit broad and his history a bit selective (I’ve only read about a third of the book so far), it is nonetheless one I find very compelling. There’s always a fine line between romanticizing mental illness and highlighting its benefits alongside its handicaps, something we’ve talked about here before. I do share Ghaemi’s belief that, for those afflicted with mental illness, whether leaders or not, “their weakness is, in short, the secret of their strength.”

Ghaemi notes that Aristotle was the first thinker to speculate about the connection between genius and madness. Ghaemi doesn’t look back farther than the Civil War for his historical examples, but I found myself applying his theory to a much earlier crowd. The Bible, for whatever you think about it, is at the least a historical document about some generally pretty crazy people. Almost all the central figures in the drama of Christianity are not sane or balanced. That’s one of the reasons I find them compelling. Ghaemi’s observation that weakness can be a source of strength is simply an echo of what Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians: “The Lord said to me, ‘My power is made perfect in weakness.’ That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”


For more on A First-Rate Madness, here’s a rave from NPR and a rant from Janet Maslin.

depression, faith, parenthood, Sam

Random Thoughts on Fatherhood: Four Months

1. Wednesdays have been my weekday off for the past four years. My routine rarely varied: I woke up, took our MacBook and a good book (or two) to a coffee shop, and hung out there as long as I felt like it. In the afternoon I did work around the house if needed, or — even if there was work to do around the house — napped. Two years ago, when we started volunteering as junior high youth leaders at our church, Erin and I started going to a Wednesday afternoon meeting. After that, dinner. Then pick-up basketball. Then “Lost,” until it moved to Tuesday nights. Now, depending on when basketball ends (since we still live in pre-DVR times at the Vore household), “Modern Family.” Inevitably the day would end with me falling asleep with the lights on and an open book on my chest and my contacts still in, all of which caused Erin great consternation at two in the morning when she’d wake up and say, “You did it again,” and I would stumble to the bathroom, remove the now-burning contacts plastered to my eyeballs, and lament how my thirtysomething body ached in ways it never used to after an hour and a half of physical activity.

I really liked my Wednesday routine. One of the things I was most afraid of when I became a dad was losing it.

I am someone who needs a lot of downtime. When I don’t get it, I start breaking down. A bad Wednesday (too many errands, unexpected work issues, a poor showing on the court) had ripple effects around the rest of my week. So what would I do when I had a kid?

It feels terribly selfish to ask that question. But it was an honest question for me. What if I never had downtime again? What if being a good dad meant forsaking things I not only wanted, but things I felt like I needed to operate and get through my week?

I thought the biggest challenge of fatherhood would be confronting just how self-centered I really am. Certainly that’s been a battle. Now, though, four months into it, I’m surprised at how easily I’ve let go of my old Wednesday routine. Why? It has been replaced by something immeasurably better.

2. Now I wake up on Wednesdays a couple hours earlier than I used to. Sam squawks and chirps into the monitor Erin leaves on my nightstand before she goes to school. (I’m not sure exactly what a baby velociraptor sounds like, but I think Sam does a pretty good impression.) Then comes my second favorite part of the day: I go into the nursery and unswaddle him as he lights up with an expression that says, I know you! You’re coming to get me out of this straightjacket which I’ve already freed one arm from! And then you’ll wipe my butt! And then feed me with a bottle! And make infantile noises and jiggle brightly colored toys above me and pretend you’re a square dance caller when you read me that book about the barnyard animals who dance together! I like you!

Yes, Sam, I will do all of these things. And I will do them gladly. This is what fathers do.

3. After those things, our day can go any number of directions. When it was still warm out, we went for a walk at Sharon Woods in the fabulous Bob stroller (courtesy of the Sweeneys, who graduated to a deluxe double-wide Bob). Sometime we run errands, to the post office or Trader Joe’s or Costco, and are treated with looks that either say, Ah, the modern father, a new breed of domestic creature, or, How did a man with so little hair have a son with so much? (followed by, Does he look like a kidnapper? Maybe I should call the cops). Last week we received an exclusive invitation to a play group with such A-list stars as Kyle, Ava, Jack and Reagan. I was the only father there, and a good thing too: When we found what we thought was a dead mouse underneath a cabinet, it was my duty to dispose of the body. It turned out to be a cat toy. Later I was called upon to kill a wasp. It was nice to feel needed.

4. Shankar Vandatam wrote in Slate recently that parents are addicted to parenthood. He said

Parents spend endless hours commiserating with one another about the travails of parenthood. Yet when researchers present data about children and unhappiness, parents rise up in protest. Research may depict parenthood as a bile-inducing, rage-fueling, stress-producing ordeal, but parents tell us that becoming parents is the best thing they ever did. Nonparents write off this reaction as defensiveness—if you’ve screwed up by having a kid and don’t want to admit it, you pretend to be happy—but parents regularly choose to have more than one child. If parenthood were as subjectively awful as the objective research implies, wouldn’t all parents stop at one child? It’s one thing to claim that a stubbed toe doesn’t hurt, and quite another to aim a second kick at the chair.

So what explains the urge to continue procreating? Here Vandatam brings in the addict angle:

Parenting is a grind, and most parents are stressed out much more than they are happy. But when parents think about parenting, they don’t remember the background stress. They remember the cuddle and the kiss. Parenting is a series of intensely high highs, followed by long periods of frustration and stress, during which you go to great lengths to find your way back to that sofa and that kiss.

We have a name for people who pursue rare moments of bliss at the expense of their wallets and their social and professional relationships: addicts.

Am I an addict now? Do parents pretend to be happy simply to fight off a mammoth case of buyer’s remorse? Are the rare moments of bliss worth the frustration and stress?

What I know is that fatherhood has certainly reprogrammed me. I can remember a time not too long ago when Erin and I revolted at the thought of babies. Five years, we agreed when we got married. (And then maybe another five.) We said all the things non-parents do: We like our freedom. We like going out to movies when we feel like it. There’s something about holing up for a weekend and tearing through a full season of “Mad Men.” We’ll see less of our friends when we have a kid.

Do we miss those things? Sure. We’ve certainly become hermits since Sam showed up. Friday nights are spent on the couch reading magazines. We haven’t been to the theater in six months. We’ve read a lot fewer books and watched a lot fewer TV shows. Our blogging has been a bit more sporadic, depending on the week.

But when I say I wouldn’t trade parenthood for any of that I don’t think I’m rationalizing anything. All of the things we did before we became parents were fun. Now all the things we do as parents are fulfilling, and fun, in different ways. I can’t imagine it being otherwise. We once were not parents, and now we are. It’s as simple and complicated as that.

5. One of the things I most feared about parenthood was passing on my junk to my kid. And by junk I specifically mean depression.

I have been afraid of this long before I actually became a parent. Many years ago, after I got past the fear that my depression would make me unmanageable as a potential boyfriend/husband, I picked up the fear that it would be irresponsible, if not cruel, of me to have kids. Especially a boy. Depression has generational roots, and I can trace them up and down my family tree.

I had the good fortune this spring of taking a class at Crossroads called “Strongholds.” (The alternate title, which will either be more or less creepy depending on your point of view, was “Healing & Deliverance.”) The class was just for men, and over thirteen weeks we addressed various strongholds — fear, religion, accusation, bitterness, to name a few — which have biblical foundations and which Christians believe we were meant to have freedom from.

The metaphor that stuck for me, trying to make sense of generational strongholds, was that of squatters’ rights. Imagine over a century ago some wandering folk set up a camp in your great-great-whoever’s backyard. Instead of kicking them off his property, your great-great-whoever decided that so long as the squatters stayed outside and kept the music down after eleven o’clock, they weren’t doing anyone any harm. So they establish a truce.

Your great-great-whoever has kids, and they understand the arrangement. Maybe they like it, maybe they don’t, but the squatters stay put and everyone gets along more or less.

Then those kids have kids, and the squatters’ kids have kids, and all this new generation knows is that this is the way things have always been. The squatters’ kids believe they own the land they’ve grown up on. And the kids in the house assume the same and let the arrangement be.

How is this like generational strongholds? Because once you’ve agreed to coexist with a stronghold — say, a spirit of fear — then it sets up camp for good. You see this all throughout the Bible, as early as the Garden of Eden (memorably interpreted by David Bazan).

You don’t have to be a Christian to believe that generations pass things on. Think “the apple doesn’t fall from the tree,” or “like father, like son.”

You also don’t have to be a Christian to believe that you can be freed from strongholds, though it certainly helps me believe that. Going through that class, I came to see that there’s no reason why I must agree that depression continues along my family line. So I started praying it wouldn’t. My friends started praying with me. Time will tell, as these things go, but when I look at smiley Sam I don’t feel fear that he is destined to suffer in the same ways I have suffered. I believe things can change for the better. Becoming a father has, if nothing else, made me a believer in the future.

6. My favorite part of the day is bath time. Many of my dad friends told me it would be. When I begin taking Sam’s clothes off on the changing table, he squirms and kicks with joy, the way babies do when they’re about to get naked. While Erin is still filling the tub, I hold Sam in front of the mirror and he grins and kicks some more. I set him in his bathtub and, wide-eyed, he surveys the water around him before he first pees, then starts kicking (again) and splashing indiscriminately. We just recently discovered an octopus squirt toy; when we spray water on his stomach, Sam giggles as if it is the greatest invention on earth.

It’s then that I think, even if all I ever got from being a dad was this giggle, that would be enough. Of course, I’ve gotten much, much more than that.

So yes, I’ll come out and say it. My name is Ben, and I am addicted to fatherhood. And I can’t wait to wake up on Wednesday morning.


[photo: Jenny Beck]

depression, Friday Recommends, sports

Friday Recommends: Joey Votto

Joey  Votto, Baseball, Cincinnati Reds

“He’s intense but mellow. He’s Canadian, you know.”


Reds first baseman and Triple Crown threat Joey Votto graces the cover of Sports Illustrated this week, and we recommend him today not necessarily because he’s a Red (though we’ve got a little of the bandwagon fever this summer), nor because he’s Canadian (which he is), nor because he is in many ways the baseball equivalent of John Stockton: professional, workmanlike, no frills, all around team guy, and virtually unrecognizable outside the world of sports. (L. Jon Wertheim’s article detailing all these traits is here.)

No, we recommend Votto (rhymes with “lotto”) for something that Wertheim’s article only glances over: his bout with, and impressive rebound from, depression. Votto’s father died in 2008, and Votto — in his words — “threw all my emotions aside and just played baseball.” Despite a sadness that he called “totally overwhelming,” Votto played out the season. His grief caught up with him in 2009 when he experienced panic attacks so severe that Votto said, “It got to the point where I thought I was going to die.” Votto admitted himself to the hospital and went on the disabled list.

When he came out, he had a different perspective on baseball: “My attitude changed,” he tells Wertheim. “I needed to do a better job of reflecting and balancing …. Not to disrespect the game or disrespect the fans, but baseball doesn’t own my life. I’m not going to allow it to.”

By not allowing baseball to own his life, Votto has in turn become a reluctant All-Star and potential MVP candidate. Even if you harbor some inexplicable deep-seated hatred of Canadians, it’d still be hard not to pull for Joey Votto. The only thing going against him is that, as detailed in the SI article, he’s a Lakers fan. So he’s not perfect. But we’ll still pull for him.


SI also had an article on baseball and mental illness earlier in the summer entitled “A Light in the Darkness,” which references Votto as well.

depression, sports

Baseball and Mental Illness

Pablo S. Torre has an article in the current Sports Illustrated [June 21, 2010] about a number of baseball players who have recently “come out” about their struggles with mental illness. The article, entitled “A Light in the Darkness,” delves into why baseball in particular seems suited to mental illness, and how Major League Baseball has taken the lead among professional sports in acknowledging and addressing emotional problems. One of the players profiled, Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto, was hospitalized twice last summer for major depression and anxiety attacks. He has since opened up about his recovery, acknowledging that “the stuff I was dealing with finally seeped its way onto the game.” Torre cites several factors at play for baseball players, notably the rate of failure ( “Start with the sheer difficulty of trying to connect with a spheroid less than three inches in diameter that’s moving at 95 mph”) and the solitude of eighty-one games a year on the road. There’s also the more leisurely pace, which allows “pitchers and hitters alike [to] have an enormous amount of time to sit and stew in their mistakes.”

On a separate baseball note, the Pittsburgh Pirates fired twenty-four-year-old Andrew Kurtz, one of their trusty pierogi mascots, for posting a critical comment about upper management on Facebook. As someone who thoroughly enjoyed the between-innings pierogi races at PNC Park, I don’t think management can afford to be so flippant with veteran talent.

depression, music, things that make you sad

Depression’s Downside

Mark Linkous, best known as the leader of Sparklehorse, committed suicide one week ago. An immensely gifted and chronically depressed fellow, Linkous’s music was an acquired taste — the sound of sadness itself, usually, which meant it was best taken in small doses and with a little sunshine after the fact. As this tribute from Robin Hilton at the All Songs Considered blog notes, however, Linkous’s death was hardly a surprise — a sad fact in and of itself.

His last album was the Dark Night of the Soul collaboration with David Lynch and Danger Mouse, exactly the sort of gloomy gorgeousness that was his hallmark.

David Hajdu uncovers this version of Sparklehorse’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” set to a video by Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, whose work seems a perfect match for the music.

depression, things that make you sad

Depression’s Upside

Jonah Lehrer has an article in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine entitled “Depression’s Upside.” He begins with an anecdote about Charles Darwin, who suffered from, variously, “fits,” “excitements,” “flurries,” “air fatigues,” “extreme spasmodic daily and nightly flatulence” and “hysterical crying” — all Victorian classifications for depression. (Flatulence?) More recognizable in today’s vocabulary of mental illness is this sentiment from Darwin: “[I] am not able to do anything one day out of three.” Once he even remarked, “I shall probably do little more but be content to admire the strides others made in Science.”

Lehrer uses Darwin as a jumping off point to discuss the potential evolutionary benefits of depression, i.e. “depression’s upside.” He cites two psychologists, Paul Andrews and Andy Thomson, whose work suggests that rumination — the mental habit of turning over and over a particular thought or problem, the way livestock chew and rechew their food — yields a clarity of thought that enhances one’s understanding of the world. As Lehrer puts it, summarizing their view, “If depression didn’t exist — if we didn’t react to stress and trauma with endless rumination — then we would be less likely to solve our predicaments. Wisdom isn’t cheap, and we pay for it with pain.”

This is not a controversial statement, and yet Andrews and Thomson’s work has earned them critics who note, correctly, that depression is not always interchangeable with sadness or melancholy. There is a bitter clarity that heartbreak and tragedy can bring — sadness borne largely out of circumstances like grief or death — but, as Peter Kramer (the author of Listening to Prozac) says, “Depression is not really like sadness. It’s more an oppressive flattening of feeling.”

It’s a fascinating article, and Lehrer does a fine job making these different theories and studies accessible and easy to understand. He articulates a bothersome riddle — how can something so awful still yield, in scientific terms, an evolutionary benefit? Or, in religious terms, how can God redeem such suffering? Can something so painful ever be a gift? Lehrer writes,

To say that depression has a purpose or that sadness makes us smarter says nothing about its awfulness. A fever, after all, might have benefits, but we still take pills to make it go away. This is the paradox of evolution: even if our pain is useful, the urge to escape from the pain remains the most powerful instinct of all.

books, depression, faith, things that make you sad

Hurry Down Sunshine, Michael Greenberg


When I (Ben) wrote about my ongoing battle with depression recently, several people responded with the same question: Are we crummy friends? They expressed that they didn’t realize the extent of my mental illness. They wondered if they had been aloof or unresponsive in a time of need. (One wrote, “I can just imagine I said something horrifically unhelpful like, ‘Dude, you just gotta cheer up, dude.'”) They may have felt betrayed that I didn’t open up to them. (One said — I hope sarcastically — “Uhg! I’m going to have nightmares! Thank you for reminding me again that I’m the worst person in world.”)

None of my friends are the worst people in the world, and betrayal is the last thing I want anyone to feel. As I told everyone who expressed this to me, my friends have done more to help me than they’ll ever realize. It is my own failure that I’ll never be able to articulate that fully to everyone who has saved me in ways both large and small. But it’s the truth.

It’s also the truth that I did what I suspect most everyone with a mental illness does to their friends: I hid. I elided. I told partial truths. I omitted key facts. (Like, in my case, going to the hospital.)

What’s hard for me to convey, but what I also desperately want my friends to know, is that my behavior had nothing to do with them. It was not a lack of character or trust that made me divulge something to one person but not another. It was, if anything, a matter of practicality. Anyone I saw on a daily basis, I probably had to tell. I calculated who needed to know what in order for me to keep my job, my living arrangement, a social life that I desperately needed outside of work. If I was brave enough, I talked about my depression with those outside my day-to-day life. But talking about it also made it real, which is why not talking about it was such an appealing option. Out of sight, out of mind.

One friend wrote this in response to my post:

Maybe this is something that you can address in future posts. How do we, as your friends, respond? What is helpful and what is just intrusive or annoying or completely missing the point? (Are these questions missing the point?) There is a history of depression in my family which seems to have skipped me, but when I talk to my sisters about the things that they feel and are going through, I feel helplessly inept. That last thing I want is for you to feel that I am cold and aloof and uncaring about your depression.


I thought about these questions as I read Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg. The book is a lyrical meditation on what it takes to support and love someone with mental illness. The first two sentences give you a pretty good idea of what it’s about:

On July 5, 1996, my daughter was struck mad. She was fifteen and her crack-up marked a turning point in both our lives.

From there, Greenberg details his daughter Sally’s manic flights, her hospitalization in a Manhattan psych ward, the suffering he endures as a parent, and the healing and grieving that must be shared as a family. It is a hard, unflinching book, honest about pain and patience. That Sally (and Greenberg) comes out alive in the end is a testament to endurance.

But even after reading it, I didn’t have a good answer for my friend’s question. How do you respond to someone with mental illness?

The first thing I should say is that I did some awful things to friends and family when I was hurting. So I’d rank forgive high on the list.

Right up there with forgive I’d add listen. The truth is you’ll never compel someone to open up about his mental illness if he’s not ready. And no one wants to begin a conversation, “So, how’s the manic depression been treating you lately?” (Mental illness, unlike the weather, doesn’t make for good small talk.) But being there, at that strange and sudden moment when we do want to talk, is a gift that only friends can give.

A corollary to this: You don’t need to be a counselor. We’re already seeing counselors. We don’t need more, trust us. (Hopefully that takes a little weight off your shoulders.)

A caution, particularly if you have your own mental illness to battle: You don’t need to share someone’s pain. After Sally is out of the hospital, Greenberg goes so far as to take a full dose of her medication to “try to see the world as she does.” (This scene — uncomfortable and comical, as Greenberg becomes lethargic but keeps a scheduled meeting with his agent — ends with Greenberg getting a screenplay deal though he can barely put together a sentence.) He sees the world as she does, and in doing so becomes completely useless as a caretaker. The gesture is a noble one, but you don’t have to feel sick to help the sick.

Greenberg makes this point when he says,

Later, when the meds have worn off and I have time to see Sally in the context of my few hours in that numbed world, I realize that the drugs release her not from her cares, but from caring itself. For caring, exorbitant caring — about the meaning of a passing glance from a stranger, the look in a news broadcaster’s eye on television, the fixed fired thoughts in one’s head — is the psychotic’s curse.

Manic depressives can be given to exorbitant caring. If you are one, be wary of just how much caring you can shoulder for another.


That said, nothing has given me better insight into mental illness than reading accounts from others who have survived it. Let’s call this one understand. This is Atticus Finch’s “You never really understand a person … until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” How you do this without falling into “exorbitant caring” is the trick.

What Hurry Down Sunshine adds to “the contemporary texts of mental disturbance” (Greenberg’s own phrase for the likes of Darkness Visible, The Bell Jar and An Unquiet Mind, among others) is an understanding of mental illness as something more than mere chemistry. There is a spirituality and humanity to madness as Greenberg conceives it. In the hospital he befriends an Orthodox Jew named Yankel, whose brother Noah is on the same ward as Sally. Yankel asks Greenberg,

“What do they know from ‘mental illness’ in this place? Maybe you can explain to me what such an expression means. I took Noah to the rebbe who said that he has become lost in his pleading to God. ‘I can’t help you with this,’ he told me. ‘Go see a psychiatrist.’ Our own rebbe! He should know better. There is no medicine for this.”

Another character from the book — Gato, a Dominican doorman — offers his own poetic insight, no less profound for its profanity: “Look, I got a loco of my own at home, it isn’t easy, I know the score, you got to keep loving ’em when what you want to do is shoot ’em between the fucking eyes.” That may not be the wording I’d use to answer my friend’s question, but the wisdom of that sentiment is hard to argue with.


Rachel Donadio offered an excellent review of Hurry Down Sunshine when it appeared in hardcover a year ago. “What sets Hurry Down Sunshine apart from the great horde of mediocre memoirs, with their sitcom emotions and too neatly resolved fights and reconciliations,” she wrote, “is Greenberg’s frank pessimism, dark humor and fundamental incapacity to make sense of his daughter’s ordeal, let alone to derive an uplifting moral from it.” A hearty amen. You can read the full review here.


I realize now that my three suggestions — forgive, listen, understand — form the nice little acronym, FLU. So there you go.