12/05/2013 08:02 EST | Updated 02/04/2014 05:59 EST

Romeo Dallaire Has Turned His Depression into Purpose

When I read that Romeo Dallaire had been in a car accident on Parliament Hill just outside of East Block, I wondered if it was due to fatigue. I have never known him to be other than fully occupied and frequently exhausted in the course of his heavy schedule. Later, when he confirmed he had fallen asleep and that he was haunted by the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide about to be commemorated in April, it all made sense. And it will only get worse when he flies back to that nation in a few months, visits the gravesites, witnesses again the countless skulls, and has to verbally reflect on his earlier experiences.

Romeo has a lot more than just memories to fight. As he explained this week, he fights depression and remains medicated for Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). Some people suffer wounds that never show up on their physical body but that are far more painful than anything that bleeds.

This is the way it is with depression, and it should never be underestimated. Romeo is a high profile example of millions of Canadians who combat it every day. Author Barbara Kingsolver, put it like it really is:

"There is no point treating a depressed person as though she were just feeling sad, saying, 'There now, hang on, you'll get over it.' Sadness is more or less like a head-cold -- with patience, it passes. Depression is like cancer."

For many people suffering from depression, hope is often far harder to achieve than despair. It pulls one down, ever deeper, and refuses to relinquish its hold. It's not just about loneliness or despair, but rather the inability to get one's head above water. It isn't something you really get past; instead, you merely endure it. This will sound counter-intuitive, but sometimes going through depression is the only way of getting on in the world.

Which brings us back to General Dallaire. At one point in his troubled life, following Rwanda, that depression drove him to attempted suicide. He had witnessed so much death (800,000 perished in Rwanda), that his own felt like the only chance at redemption.

Romeo isn't in that place anymore, but it can still tug at him, pulling him into the fog that eventually refuses to relinquish the human spirit. He doesn't want to go there again and so he rightfully takes medication prescribed by his doctor. But he takes the challenge to another level. He doesn't ask that his pain be taken away, only that it becomes purposeful and redemptive for others. And so he gives, and gives, and gives. There's no point in judging him because only a few in history ever faced what he did. His ghosts, therefore, are uniquely and terrifyingly his own.

He has turned his pain into a purpose, and in so doing he can get up every day. He might experience trouble finding the redemptive in life, but it has no difficulty whatsoever finding it in his greater calling to humanity. He is a walking story of life somehow lived to its fullest when the person himself feels so empty. There is a deep and abiding beauty in the man, in part because he carries his own cross, and bears the marks of his own crucifixion. As he stands at present, he provides hope in those deepest portions of human suffering and refuses to leave the forgotten only to be endlessly remembered. He lives with his ghosts, fights for the outcasts that still remain, and always reminds his fellow citizens that life is never to be lived for oneself.

How did Romeo Dallaire handle his depression this week? He got in his car and went to the people's house -- Parliament -- to bring that gravitas of service to a Senate struggling for the very meaning he represents. He took his place in the Senate, rose at the appropriate time, and apologized to his peers and the country for not taking care to monitor his depression better. Then he asked all for forgiveness. Who does that anymore? Stephen Harper? Justin Trudeau? Thomas Mulcair? Duffy or Wallin? Not a chance; which is what makes Dallaire's lessons learned from his personal depression one of the crowning glories, not only of his life, but of Parliament's.

Maybe someday, those in politics who feel they have hurt Canadians by their poor behaviour will rise before the people and simply say, "You deserved better than how I acted. I sincerely apologize and I promise to watch my own conduct more circumspectly. And one more thing: forgive me, so that I can know you still have faith that I can make a difference in my public life."

Romeo and I have worked on projects together, referenced one another in our books, and attempted to make this country's image in the world matter. Beyond that there is nothing similar to us. He is a hero, not just because he fought in Africa, but because he fights inside his own mind and heart. He goes to the Senate for us, for the Rwandans, for the UN, for humanity, driven by the ghosts of his own existence. He has turned depression into purpose. I'm sure I speak for all of us when I say, "Journey on Romeo. You're forgiven."


Controversial Canadian Senators