Working with depression
“I was feeling so sad all the time, and I couldn’t shake it. I started burying my feelings, and it got to a point where I couldn’t even tell my family or my friends, ‘I’m twisted,’ or ‘I’m exhausted,’ or ‘I’m so angry.’”
Alicia Keys [right] added, “I became a master of putting up the wall so that I was unreadable.” [People, December 13, 2007]
One of the reasons we need to manage depression as creative people, is so we don’t get too walled off or shut down to create.
For some people, it may be a more severe form, such as the Postpartum Depression that Marie Osmond experienced.
As she described it: “I’m collapsed in a pile of shoes on my closet floor… I have no memory of what it feels like to be happy. I sit with my knees pulled up to my chest. I barely move. It’s not that I want to be still. I am numb.”
But probably for most of us, it is a less extreme form, such as dysthymia, and is likely to be an existential depression, as psychologist and creativity coach Eric Maisel, PhD describes in his book The Van Gogh Blues.
He writes, “The cliche is that creativity and depression go hand-in-hand. Like many cliches, this one is quite true.
“But creators are not necessarily afflicted with some biological disease or physiological disorder… They experience depression simply because they are caught up in a struggle to make life seem meaningful to them.
“People for whom meaning is no problem are less likely to experience depression. But for creators, losses of meaning and doubts about life’s meaningfulness are persistent problems — even the root causes of their depression. … Virtually 100 percent of creative people will suffer from episodes of depression.”
One of the artists quoted in the book is Caroline Bertorelli. “I get depressed quite regularly and often,” she notes. “It used to distress and frustrate me that I have such a tendency. But as I grow older, I see my depression as a valuable time for introspection and deep thinking about life.”
In our interview, Eric Maisel commented, “I believe that it serves us best to learn how to reduce or eliminate both depression and anxiety from our lives, as I do not hold them as useful in any way. I think that pain is overrated.
“That isn’t to say that the following might not happen: you work honorably and well on a creative project, you finish it, you are depleted and no new project wants to come forward, and after a certain amount of time the blues strike, since you aren’t making sufficient meaning and don’t feel quite up to making new meaning.”
He adds, “This sort of depression can creep up on any working artist. The depression is not useful in and of itself but it is a clear signal that the time has come to see if new meaning can be made.
“It is the time to get back on the horse and back into the studio. Maybe there is nothing there yet and maybe you will experience days or weeks of nothing particularly generative happening.
“Be that as it may, the depression was not a gift; it was merely the warning sign that a meaning crisis was brewing or had erupted—and that action, even if futile at first, was now required.”
From Investing meaning in our art – an interview with Eric Maisel.
The action to take to relieve depression may be to “get back on the horse and back into the studio” – or it may require some more formal help.
Christina Ricci fought anorexia and depression in her younger years, and says she overcame her problems with the help of a psychiatrist.
“These are things you can’t always deal with alone, so I went to therapy,” she said. “Sometimes people need to seek professional help. Along the way I discovered that you can choose to be happy.”
From (Manic) Depression Confessions: Christina Ricci and Mel Gibson, by Liz Spikol, HuffingtonPost.
On the excellent blog Storied Mind, in the article Creating a Way Out of Depression – 2, is this quote about creative work:
“Near the beginning of Julie Fast’s Get It Done When You’re Depressed, she quotes an artist suffering from depression who made an important discovery.
“Although she had been thinking she could not work when depressed, a friend asked her if she could see any difference in the quality of the work she produced when feeling good and when feeling bad. She realized that there was no difference.
“That was an eye-opener. She realized that even when she felt low and lacking the will to get to her creative work, she was still capable of producing the painting that gave her such deep fulfillment. Now she’s focused on her work, rather than on her feelings about whether she’s able to get started. For her, this realization has made all the difference, and she’s painting whether she’s excited about her work or unable to stop crying.”
Another perspective is provided by Andrew Solomon in his book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression: “It is possible (though for the time being unlikely) that, through chemical manipulation, we might locate, control, and eliminate the brain’s circuitry of suffering. I hope we will never do it.
“To take it away would be to flatten out experience, to impinge on a complexity more valuable than any of its component parts are agonizing.
But pain is not acute depression; one loves and is loved in great pain, and one is alive in the experience of it. It is the walking-death quality of depression that I have tried to eliminate from my life; it is as artillery against that extinction that this book is written.”