The Art of Seeing Depression

By Tom Wootton, Bipolar Advantage

James Turrell is one of the most remarkable artists alive. He understands light and perception perhaps more than anyone ever has. He makes artwork that is simply amazing.

By using darkness and almost imperceptible light, his artwork totally changes the way we see the world.

I think his work with light and darkness is a perfect metaphor for trying to see depression in a new light.

When you enter into one of Jim’s installations, it is so dark that you cannot see anything, or at least not much.

The amount of available light is simply too little for our eyes to use.

His artwork is not a pretty picture on the wall, it is the entire environment and includes both the perception of the audience and time as critical components.

If you stay long enough, your eyes begin to adjust to the lack of light and you start to see things that were there all along but your eyes were not yet ready to perceive.

When you go back out into the ‘real’ world, you bring an entirely new perspective and begin to see everything in a whole new light.

Pun intended.

Jim’s work can truly be described as a discovery of the act of seeing.

My own art is similar to Jim’s in many ways. Like Jim, I also do not use a brush to paint a picture, instead choosing to build an environment that blocks out light and helps me to perceive.

Unlike Jim, my art is not in the physical world, it is interior. Instead of blocking out the physical light, I learn to block out the thoughts and feelings that distract me from seeing the more subtle light that shines within each of us.

I then discover deeper truths hidden within my own consciousness.

When I return to the external world I begin to see the same subtle light in the eyes of everyone I meet.

My art is called ‘meditation.’ I have been practicing it for over 45 years, sometimes as much as 8 hours a day. Meditation has given me the ability to ‘see’ things in a much deeper way. It can truly be described as the discovery of the act of knowing.

I recently went through a fairly deep depression and came out thinking a lot about James Turrell. I don’t know if he is bipolar or experiences depression, but if he does I bet he sees it in the way I am beginning to.

When I went into depression the first time all I saw was darkness and pain. At the time I thought it was unbearable, but looking back and comparing it to some of the far deeper states I have been to since, it was really nothing.

As my perception has grown I am beginning to ‘see’ things I never knew were there. In ‘seeing’ them more clearly, I notice that they don’t affect me so negatively any more either.

They now affect me so much more, but in a positive way, at least according to the way I have learned to ‘see.’

On a scale from 1 to 5, I used to think a 5 as experiencing no depression at all and a 1 as so deeply depressed that I was attempting suicide. I thought that 4 was a little painful, 3 even more, and 2 almost unbearable.

In the absence of any ‘light’ all I could ‘see’ was pain and judged my experience solely on that basis.

As I spent more time (against my will) I began to notice many things that were probably there all along, but I could not ‘look’ through the pain to ‘see’ them.

As I started to discover the ‘act of seeing’ in depression I started to ponder the significance of my discoveries.

Each time I was forced to experience depression it became more clear to me. I began to redefine what depression is and better recognize the features that I could now ‘see’ more clearly.

My scale began to change from one based on pain to one based on a much richer perception of what was going on. I still see a 5 as no symptoms and a 1 as so hard to take that I am suicidal, but 4, 3, and 2 have become a rich and varied landscape.

I have also come to understand the significant difference between those who have ‘situational depression’ and those who have what I consider ‘true depression.’

I have learned to articulate that clearly enough to make a difference in the lives of both those truly depressed and those who love and support them yet feel the frustration of not knowing what to do.

Everyone has experienced some form of depression at least once in life. If it was really bad it meant extreme sadness, crying, inability to function fully, lethargy, and dullness of thought.

For most it is caused by some great loss like death of a loved one or some other great tragedy. You wake up in the morning so very sad that you think you cannot get through the day.

If really bad this depression lasts for weeks, and sometimes months as you slowly get used to the tragedy and get on with life.

It might even debilitate you for a day or so, but for the most part you get up, grab a cup of coffee, go to work and somehow make it through the day even if seriously diminished in ability to perform.

That is a three in my book. It is also about as deep as anyone gets from ‘situational depression,’ the kind that comes solely from outside circumstances and not from ‘mental illness.’

A two is not just the same thing with more intensity. In a two the world becomes black and white. There is no color. There is an intense physical pain.

Thoughts become confused. I lose the ability to even remember a time when it was not like this. I can see no future when it might go away. (This is called ‘state specific memory’ and is very common.)

My mind keeps repeating “kill yourself” “kill yourself” “kill yourself” “kill yourself” and I keep seeing visions of car crashes and every other way of suicide that you can imagine. It is all I can do to hang on.

A two is fundamentally different than a three. A two is the worst kind of hell.

Being able to explain it better and help others is great, but there is so much more.

Central to my belief is that nothing is all good or all bad, but a combination of good and bad components. We ‘see’ the good and bad according to our ability to perceive and the filters that we place on ourselves based on how we assign value.

In my struggles with depression I have been frustrated with my inability to ‘see’ any good in it. In my recent depression and thoughts about James Turrell, I have begun to ‘see’ depression in a whole new light.

I am not ready to choose depression, but next time it comes I look forward to exploring a whole new landscape.

I have noticed that aspects of depression that I used to consider a 2 and almost unbearable I am now listing as part of an experience that I rate a 3.

I have also begun to gain tremendous insight into many things, including my spiritual life. It is in the spiritual sense that I have really begun to see that depression can be a great thing.

In my many readings of the lives of saints, pain and despair is often mentioned as a catalyst that helped them to become better persons and act in a manner that is called ‘saintly.’ I have always struggled with the concept and am now beginning to understand.

It was the misery of depression that brought me to the realization that I am mentally ill. The unbearable pain is what helped me to recognize the torture I have done to others.

Without the heartache I would never have learned who I really am and come to understand the power of acceptance. Without the despair I would not have had the desire to become a better person.

The saints all talk about having a despair so strong it becomes unbearable.

The despair they feel is specific, it is the despair they feel from not having a direct experience of God.

The despair becomes so strong that they would rather die than go another minute without Him.

They describe it getting to a point that their own sense of self becomes the thing that separates them and they feel that they ‘die’ into oneness with the divine.

I believe that is what Saint Paul was talking about when in he said “I die daily.”

In my depressions I feel tremendous despair. My mind keeps repeating over and over “kill yourself, kill yourself.”

What if my perception keeps becoming clearer and I start to notice that the despair truly is for God and the self that I am trying to kill is the ‘little self’ that is keeping me from realizing the true nature that I believe is in each of us.

Jesus said “The kingdom of God is within you.” It seems that for at least some of us it is depression and despair that gives us the ability to ‘see’ it.

If that is true for me, then depression is surely the best thing that ever happened to me.

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More articles by Tom Wootton.

Video – The Shocking Truth About Recovery From Bipolar Disorder – with Tom Wootton

Tom Wootton is the author of The Bipolar Advantage, The Depression Advantage, and Bipolar In Order. He has been considered a leading consumer advocate and speaker and gives keynote speeches to conferences nationwide on mental health.

He is President of Bipolar Advantage: Outcome-Based Education for Bipolar and Depression (where you can get his books). Follow the link to get started with the program for FREE.

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Added images:

Top image from book: James Turrell: Geometry of Light.

Saint Teresa from article Making Good Use of Depression, by Douglas Eby.

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