Creating a Way Out of Depression – 3

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Isabella at change therapy has given me much to think about, as she usually does. In her recent post, she described her take on the link between creativity and depression. She said that unlike my sense of depression disappearing in the midst of creative activity, she saw creative moments as helping her inner life get moving again. Depression doesn’t disappear but is experienced in a different way. By getting unstuck, she is reminded that she is more than her depression. Those special moments bring the bigger reality of life and oneself into view again, and that can begin the process of getting past the pain.

I’ve had that sense of it too. In fact, one of my first steps in climbing out of a dark mood is to start writing about it. Even a few sentences immediately give some perspective to what’s happening. As soon as I put into words the ugliness of what I’m going through, it begins to seem less overwhelming, less the whole of me. One of the first posts on this blog was an attempt to capture exactly that change taking place as I wrote what I was feeling in a journal.

If I’m lucky, though, I can go on from there and become so absorbed in writing that I get into a completely different state. That’s the one where depression disappears. At those times, I feel like my brain is on a different wavelength. Ideas I’ve been struggling with suddenly make sense, patterns become clear, the words flow out as I try to see where they’re going. The sense of quick discovery is exciting, and there’s a rich harmony of feelings welling up, though I’m so focused on writing that what I’m feeling gets pushed off to the edge of awareness.

And I mean creative work in its broadest sense: a piece of writing, a new solution to a problem, a design, an experiment, a performance or even a political strategy, like the creative breakthrough of Gandhi’s non-violent campaigns. (Howard Gardner’s Creating Minds presents examples of creative people of radically different temperaments and skills who worked in many fields. The section on Gandhi is especially insightful.)

It’s clearer to me now what that state I experience is about. Depression, after all, is a kind of non-being. Suddenly, I’m not there anymore – emotions, energy, attention, focus – good-by! And hello, mental fog, paralyzed will, remoteness, indecision, bleakness, and all that blah. But in the richest moments of working creatively (and they don’t come often enough) I am totally focused, energized, active, there. To use an overdone phrase, I really am in that moment – so much so that I am not self-conscious at all. I am doing, feeling, thinking intensely. I am not ruminating or wondering about my stalled will or trying to move with the weight of iron chains around my body. The barriers are down, and I am simply getting this work done.

And that’s what creative work, or any work, means to me – getting it done. It isn’t only about the subjective state of creating, as exciting as that may be, for a lot of excitement without anything to show for it would eventually become frustrating. Creative work communicates with others, and that connecting is a critical piece. It’s the opposite of the isolating impact of depression. For me, the human connection through creative work is life-giving.

So I’m realizing that I probably started this series with the wrong question. I don’t get where I need to be if I approach creative work only as a means to an end – like curing depression or building self-esteem. The question is not how do I capture that wonderful feeling of creative working more frequently and use it as a counter to depression. The question is how do I complete creative work in spite of the presence of depression.

Instead of seeing the solution as stringing together as many of these “high” creative moments as I can, I have to think of the practical dimension of living ordinary life through all the lows that major depression too reliably brings and still in the end complete the most creative work I’m capable of.

The minute I turn that around and view creative work primarily as the cure for depression, the work will certainly suffer. And if I see depression as the reason I can’t do creative work, then I’m on the road to a self-fulfilling prophesy. Either way, I’ll continue to be depressed and I won’t get much creating done.

How do creativity and depression relate to each other in your experience? Your examples always bring out new connections.

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