I think of creativity as an opposite of depression. As the driver in my life that connects and communicates, it represents everything I cannot do in the midst of the illness. Yet there was a time when it led to panic.
Creativity is usually discussed in connection with the arts, and the idea gets overblown into talk of visions, genius, divine inspiration and all that bluster – but it goes far beyond that setting. It takes creativity to have responsive relationships with the people I love and to have the insight and imagination I need at work to solve problems. It takes a kind of creative energy to live a fulfilling life.
Usually, it’s obvious when I have the vital spark to do life or I have nothing but ashes.There are strange times, though, when I feel a confusing inner struggle, as if a creative drive and depressed emptiness were trying to fill one space at the same time.
The friction between them can spark a terrible panic.
The first time that happened set a pattern that became all too common in later years. A severe depression was coming on, but back then I had no idea what the illness was. All I knew was that I’d either hit a blackout or come apart in panic just when I was deeply involved and excited about something I loved to do.
I was in college when the panic first set in. Creativity then meant acting and writing, and I had been overjoyed to be cast as Caliban in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”.
I was playing a role, but that’s not so different from what any job requires. There is a professional face you put on, a style you need to achieve a certain impact. When you’re well, you’re really into it.
Everything’s clicking. The role fits, and you can do it well. That’s the way I was when rehearsing this play.
It all started wonderfully.
I immersed myself completely in the character. And he’s a pretty strange one to feel comfortable with. In this fantasy play, Caliban is the monstrous offspring of a witch and the devil.
All primal drive and instinct, he can be effusive about natural wonders one minute, and the next he’ll be bellowing in pain or chasing his lust. He’s an intense character, just the sort an actor loves to get hold of. And I sure did.
In the rehearsal room, I slipped into his skin completely, getting the physicality down instinctively, the roaring guttural voice, the crouching walk, the sullen cringing – it all seemed to fit.
But then I’d go home, and intense anxiety began to build. Before long, that feeling exploded into full panic. I couldn’t focus on anything. My life was like a prolonged scream.
All I could do was pound the city streets to wear myself out. That helped, but I could not keep my life together outside the rehearsal sessions. While in that room, I could lose myself in the part and feel nothing but the sheer joy of projecting into this strange creature’s being.
But there was something about crossing the line from daily life into this role that I couldn’t handle.
I had to know what it was, and fast.
For the first time in my life, I rushed to a psychiatrist. He let me pour my mind and heart out for three hours one Saturday morning. With canny quickness, he helped me link what I was going through with my family history and experiences as a kid.
I knew at once how right he was, and I was filled with relief to have an explanation for the craziness I had been experiencing. I felt exhilarated and free of panic, but I paid a big price for that return to what I considered normalcy.
I immediately got out of the play, and I shut out the psychiatrist as well. One revelation was plenty, thank you. I wasn’t going back there again!
What was happening, although I couldn’t see it then, was that depression was taking over even as I felt the panic subside. The acting had triggered deep fears from my past, but the realization of that connection did nothing to undo depression itself.
Under its influence, I cut myself off from most creative outlets, pulled back from relationships and hunkered down in a shell.
Expressing my deepest energy in any context became harder and harder. I had a ready explanation for the creative block, the stoniness of feeling, the loss of concentration, and all the rest. Since I didn’t know much about depression at the time, I assumed the dullness was just the way I was. I had to hide my failures in quiet shame.
There is a line at the end of The Tempest, when all are reunited and the mysteries solved.
In one voyage – all of us found ourselves, when no man was his own.
I wasn’t equipped at that time to “find myself” and continued in the state of not being “my own.” Being shut down in depression came to feel like normal life, though it was punctuated by occasional surges of an altogether different energy.
Fortunately, I never gave up completely – how could I? I kept trying to break through the close walls of depression. It would be many years before I had a different set of tools to work with to change this imbalance of energy.
Do you ever feel extreme anxiety or panic when you’re deeply engaged in something you really want to do? Is there a special setting or event that triggers it? What do you do to find relief?