For the past few weeks, I have been thinking about depression – mine, to be exact.
I sense a heaviness in my chest and in my legs. The thought of reaching out is instantly rejected. An overwhelming sense of sadness seems to permeate my mind and my heart.
So much has been happening in the world during these weeks: revolution after revolution, loss of thousands of lives, political unrest as close as my front door. It would be easy to blame these world events for the way I feel but, I know from my past experiences with depression, using these as a reason for my state of mind is a displacement of emotions. There is nothing I can do personally, to make a difference in the outcome of most of what is going on in the universe at this time. I wonder about what triggers my uncomfortable state of mind.
I remember as a child being told how “moody” I was. I remember my anxiety as an “over-achiever” in school, college and grad school. My success in most of my endeavors (of the left-brain type) sometimes made me sick to my stomach with doubt and fear. My career as an organizational development consultant put me in a position of working almost entirely with men. Internally, I felt I had to constantly improve and prove myself. Not a working day passed without my experiencing exhaustion and severe headaches. Outwardly, I was cool, collected, calm and confident.
Ultimately, after ten years of hard work, I became clincially depressed. With the help of psychotherapy and medication, I made my way back through that fog and separateness from the world around me. It was an excruciating time for me and my family, but I must admit to learning a great deal about the cause of the angst and anxiety which had plagued me for so long.
I had never really thought about becoming an artist of any sort. I had many “artist” friends over the years. I admired their “gifts” as painters, poets, writers, even comedians. I supported them in any way I could. When I could no longer work in my left-brain consulting position, I decided it was time for me to find out if I had any creative abilities. I had never taken any drawing or painting courses in school, so I looked for a studio where I could start from the beginning. I gave myself permission to – as I thought of it – be in kindergarten and here I am, thirteen years later… an artist and raconteur (story teller).
My depression has returned a couple of times, although not as penetrating as the first time. The initial symptom is usually my complete withdrawal from social situations and expectations from others. I crave solitude. This is actually healthy for me as it means I’ve expended too much of my personal resources and need to replenish. Then, it’s a matter of reassessing the state and direction of my life. This is where my pain (physical and mental) begins. I question everything. I experience loss and I wonder what my life is all about. I search for information (a left-brained activity) which might help me sort things out and give my emotions (right brain) a rest.
A great deal has been written about artists and depression. A Google search gave me much more information (articles, books, anecdotes, quotations and an A-Z list of artists, writers, musicians, etc. with depressive disorders) than I needed or wanted but, I did discover an interesting Website, www.creativity-portal.com from which the following statement was taken:
” Some people believe there is a definitive link between depressive disorders and the ability to express deep, intense levels of creativity. Others claim there is no link to support the belief.”
Eric Maisel, Ph.D has put forth that depression in some creative people may be a symptom of lack of meaning (or meaning-making) in one’s life. His book, “The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person’s Path through Depression” examines the creative individual’s tendency toward depression and describes a plan for understanding and managing it.
“Creators are not necessarily afflicted with some biological disease or psychological disorder that causes them to experience depression at the alarming rates that we see,” he writes. “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 doubt about life’s meaningfulness are persistent problems – even the root causes of their depression.”
Scientific evidence does show that most artists are not mentally ill, and most mentally ill people are not artists. However, several studies have suggested that artists are more likely than others to suffer from a class of mental illnesses called “mood disorders” which include major depression and manic-depressive illness. Some researchers speculate that mood disorders allow people to think more creatively.
In fact, one of the criteria for diagnosing mania reads “sharpened and unusually creative thinking.” People with mood disorders also experience a broad range of deep emotions. This combination of symptoms might lend itself to prolific artistic creativity. Others believe that artistic occupations might, by their nature, magnify the symptoms of mental illness. Artists, musicians and writers often work alone. When they begin to feel upset or depressed, they would not have as much support or encouragement as do athletes, scientist and business people who work with others. (This, of course, was said before the era of social media such as Facebook or blogs such as this.)
You might wonder what all this information does for me in my depressed state. Well, a couple of things. First of all, it makes me feel less alone and secondly, I am searching for the meaning in my life and my art. I posed a question in my last post that fits so well here, I am going to repeat it. Perhaps it was a precursor to my depression.
“I craved honesty, yet found dishonesty in myself. Why commit to art? For self-realization, or for itself? It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination.” - Patti Smith, in Just Kids
p.s. I painted the above piece during the early part of my depression. I will title it, “Inside Out.”
p.p.s. If you have experienced depression and wish to share your experience, I look forward to hearing from you. Also, if you have any thoughts about the depression/creativity theories, I would welcome those.