Creativity and Depression – 3

Patrick has written a comment packed with ideas about his responses to depression. I’m especially interested in three points he makes about creativity and imagination. First, he notes that his years of experience of therapy led him to see it as a “misguided enterprise, that of creating and recreating ‘narratives’ to explain events of Mind.” His creative imagination “can spin yarns and unspin them and spin them again” without getting him anywhere. He has come to see depression as a physical problem since it has responded to intense exercise and intense Zen meditation much more than to therapy or medication. Because he now sees the condition as a distortion of thinking, rooted in physical causes, he rejects the idea that “the suffering caused by depression is somehow noble of that it provides special insight.” He has also found that he tends to “become what I consistently think about,” and this insight helps with “understanding the cascading of depression and negative thoughts.” This is not, he says, “a skillful use of creative imagination.”

My experience is close to what he’s saying about creativity and imagination, and I want to bring this out because I’ve encountered many online who see depression in just the opposite way, as a source of inspiration and creativity. Though such different interpretations often lead to bitter debates in this medium, I don’t see this variety of perspectives as a cause of dispute. I’m fascinated by the multiple ways that extremely thoughtful people experience and interpret the multi-faceted condition we call depression.

Jane Chin, for example, has written an extended and inspired defense of her creativity as intrinsic to her, not a product of her depression. Peter Kramer devoted a third of his book, Against Depression, to reviewing the history of the close association between the emotions of depression and artistic imagination. He suggests that changing our view of depression by seeing it as an illness with physical causes could also change the experience of emotions in our culture, pushing us away from glorifying melancholy, despair and alienation and toward focusing more on the strong, worldly directed passions of anger, excitement, joy or grief.

On the other hand, Philip Dawdy has written in the post, Is Depression a Mental Illness? (November 6, 2007), “Besides, there are some positive aspects to depression. It’s a great source of artistic inspiration – trust me on this one.” Dawdy also discussed an essay by Tim Bugansky (author of Anywhere but Here) called I Miss Depression, a recollection of his experiences before having depression symptoms relieved by medication. Bugansky writes that when depressed, though isolated within himself, he felt more intensely alive, completely connected to the world and more creative. He says he doesn’t want to glorify depression, realizes that without his meds he could have become much worse, but nevertheless misses “the brilliant sadness” of his former depressed state.

Siroj Sorajjakool writes in a typically sensitive post about the challenge of living with depression. This is a remarkable reflection on connection and disconnection. He finds that depression, the sense of being wrong in who you are, pushes you to the edge in negative thinking about yourself. This results for him in a very high level of consciousness. In a comment on a post of mine, he writes: “I have been amazed at what depression has done for me and, in a way, I would not have been where I am now if not because of my struggle with depression. Pain is always there but like you said, there is something more, a deeper sense of meaning and satisfaction.” The post he was responding to discusses what getting well is all about. I write there that depression has always been part of my life and linked with the self-discovery that some call individuation or salvation. In that sense, I agree with Siroj. The illness tests me almost every day and pushes me to invent some new way to fight its effects and regain a sense of comfort with who I am, balance in my thinking and renewed energy.

In my experience, depression destroys creativity because it destroys my ability to think, imagine, will. I see these two as opposite psychic forces. It is the creative core of a so far resilient self, holding an outpost never quite overrun by depression, that enables me to fight back. It is imagination working with a remaining spark of life that helps me avoid self-destruction and lets my mind and feelings come alive again. After pushing off the depression, I can be myself instead of that deadly negative monster the illness wants me to accept as who I am.

This brings me back to Patrick and the idea that his creative imagination is not helpful when it generates the “cascading of depression and negative thoughts.” The better side of his creativity reveals positive states that he can imagine and move toward. He says these imaginings come not from abstract theories but from physical experiences that are free, if I’m reading him accurately, of the engineered constraints that try to contain the spontaneity of life. I’m with him there – depression tends to submerge the vital form of creativity. If I’m lucky, enough of the good stuff remains to help me imagine a way out.

16 Responses to “Creativity and Depression – 3”

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  1. John D says:

    Ashlee – I really appreciate your concern, but I think if you read through all that I have written in this blog you’ll see that I have never given up on myself or life. I’m not sure what you experienced, but it seems to have been of shorter duration than the lifetime I’ve been working at keeping depression from ruining my life. Sometimes depression is curable, but if you read about the experiences of those with a really long-term problem I think you’ll find that getting over it is not so simple as you make it sound. Believe me, I have a rich life and have adapted to this problem in ways that have kept alive the resilience and vitality that enable me to survive depression.

  2. ashlee says:

    -JohnD

    hi john(: i’ve also been experiencing depression for the past few months. i was an art student & experience the same problem as you & brian. no creative ideas, no nothing. therefore i decided to stop sch for awhile to recover first before plunging into the heavy sch works & projects. & you know what? i never gave up on myself, i believe that could get over it & continue with my life. how could you let some savage despair comments or thinking disrupt your will to live? look around you,so much less fortunatte ppl out there, ppl who are old & sick, the less impaired. they are worse than your situation,some are born like that, they cannot choose fate, but they can choose the way they react to life. moreover depression IS CURABLE. stop ataring at the computer. get out, get a life. you are still alive & kicking. take this depressive episodes an opportunity as a learning lesson for you to discover & reflect upon yourself. & also cherish your life more.. i myself is a victim of this ‘illness’. BUT i MOVED ON & i LEARN. since i can, why couldn’t you? rmb, “look forward, do not look backward. gather afresh in heart and spirt all the energies of your being, bend anew for a sumpreme effort. & you would succeed” wanting to get well or not solely depends on yourself john !

    so, God Bless ^^

  3. John D says:

    Alina – I’m sorry you’re in such a state – it certainly sounds like depression. I hope you can find some treatment – your regular doctor should be able to help. There is an interesting online support resource for artists, mentioned in the first comment on this page: http://www.bigwhitewall.com/ Perhaps that would be helpful too.

    You have beautiful work on your site, and I hope you can turn this around and find hope in the great creativity of your painting once again.

    John

  4. Alina says:

    I was reading what you all wrote as for me For the last couple of months i am not eating right none of the food is of my taste any more but i did not lose or gain any weight i have sleeping disorders sometimes i sleep up till 17 hours at once sometimes i spend 2 to 3 days without any sleep i feel something is wrong with me, i start crying for no good reason everything irritates me, so i started painting but i don’t know what i paint i don’t know what it means what i paint i just paint i heard that painting is a stress relief but it’s not doing any good for me, i do love to paint sometimes i have so many ideas i want to put on canvas or i want to make something crafty but it may take me couple weeks before i decide to start doing it, my blog is http://www.alina-justsomestuff.blogspot.com i just started it and i did not post any new paintings of mine just some old ones, i am really unhappy lately, i was a party girl i had tons of friend now i have none i used to be the happiest person in the world now i am the saddest, i think it started when i got engaged don’t get me wrong i do love my fiance but i feel underestimated i feel unappreciated i feel really bad, i don’t know what to do.

  5. stephany says:

    You know how a stone looks when we throw it and it skips across a lake? that’s how I feel. The lake is depression and darkness, always there, and I’m the stone trying to remain along the top of the water. In between skips, there are empty places we fall. But you see, the next skip of the stone is still going to happen. Sometimes, the space between the stone’s skip can be days, weeks, months or years. The stone still skips along.

  6. JohnD says:

    Brian –

    I have said in these posts that depression is the opposite of creativity, but I’ve never said it’s the opposite of happiness. In this piece I’m reporting what others have said about finding creativity or renewal in the experience of depression, but my experience has been more like yours. There has been no energy to create or do anything in the midst of it – my depressive spells sometimes resemble the lack of feeling you describe and total detachment from everything. But often they include a savage despair – too much feeling that is completely negative. The other part of depression that is so antagonistic to creativity is the fact that my brain just doesn’t work. There’s no mental focus, my attention is running off in all directions, there’s no energy to think.

    I no longer expect a cure – my work is about living with depression and making the best adaptation to it that I can.

    John D

  7. Brian says:

    I think you misunderstand depression. It is not the opposite of happiness. It is a lack of feeling. A loss of sorts.

    I used to like certain things. I used to hate others. I used to care and be creative. Both in sadness and in joy I would be expressive.

    My experience with depression as been the loss of all these emotions. Both light and dark emotions have fueled my creativity in the past. But now. It’s just nothing.

  8. JohnD says:

    Thanks, Zathyn – You’re touching on something I’m trying to write about now. There’s so much facile writing out there about how great it is to experience depression or other mental illness, that I need to set that aside. Experiences of thoughtful people like you and Stephany make it clear that there is a positive side to the experience of illness that I need to understand better. Hopefully, I can get this post up in a day or two.

    JohnD

  9. http://zathynpriest.com/blog says:

    As individuals we’re also different in the way creativity is either spurred on or crushed by depression. For me, I’ve experienced both sides of the coin. Since July 2007 until Jan 2008 my creativity was pulverised by PTSD. Yet, at other times in my past, it’s been the inspiration behind my work and an insight into thoughts feelings I’m sure I couldn’t have expressed truthfully as a writer unless I’d gone through it.

    It’s interesting to read how depression affects people – from illumination of mind and spirit into complete darkness void of anything. If someone were to approach me now and say, ‘We can cure you of your mental illness, do you want us to?’, I honestly believe my answer would be no. I don’t despise my bipolar/epileptic brain, it has its downfalls but its also got its strong points. That might sound odd, to say I wouldn’t want a cure, but I’d fear a cure would bring an end to my creativity forever.

    Hope you’re doing better, John.

    Regards,
    Zathyn

  10. JohnD says:

    Jane –

    That is a disturbing line of thought – losing depression equated with losing creativity and that idea discouraging people from treatment. For some people that seems to be an untested assumption, but for others it can also be the wrong medication. I’ve tried some antidepressants that removed despondency but did not touch the anhedonia, isolation, or other symptoms. Nothing mattered to me, and creativity was remote, diminished. Those aspects of depression seemed more prominent in the absence of the feelings of desperation. That was a matter of the wrong med. Eventually I found more effective ones. This is something I need to look into more. I look forward to reading more of your insights on this whole subject as well.

    Stephany –

    Your story is quite amazing – I can’t recall anything like that in my experience. It makes me think about other things to try when I am that low. My wife worked in art therapy for a while, and it is remarkable what a healing effect drawing and painting can have. Writing often helps start me on the path back, but usually that’s just grunting out a few words to start the links forming in my mind again. Those aren’t the high points of creativity, but they help get me going in the right direction.

    JohnD

  11. JohnD says:

    Anon for Now –

    I agree with Jane – you have a core of who you are that is getting through. It may not feel like much when you’re in the midst of depression, but it’s there. Sometimes all I can do is stay with the thought that this thing will pass – the illness isn’t all I am. And that’s about all the “fight” I can summon.

    I share your thought about the continuum of states, and the limited usefulness of one basic word to lump them together. There are so many aspects to depression and so many links to other mood disorders that the label often seems too vague and broad. And it leads so many people to confuse this condition with emotional states everyone goes through. Perhaps the names will get more precise when more is known about the causes.

    JohnD

  12. Jane Chin says:

    To “Anon for Now” – that part of you that is able and willing to endure until it’s over is the very part that depression can never touch.

  13. Anon for now says:

    This is an intriguing essay, John. I feel so new at this depression stuff, and have not read about it much at all. This discussion makes me wonder whether there are multiple ways, along a broad continuum from dull/dead to creative/alive, to experience what we label as depression. And whether it would be helpful to give different names to these different ways of experiencing it.

    Perhaps I don’t (yet) see the subtleties of depressive episodes that you and others have been able to identify and write about. I look forward to learning more from you all so I know what to look for.

    For instance, could you write more about that “outpost never quite overrun by depression, that enables me to fight back”? I seem to not have such an outpost: I don’t fight back, I just endure until it’s over.

    (I write from the second of two glorious sunny days that offered me energy to accomplish some things. At this moment, I can’t imagine becoming depressed again, but I know that is risky thinking.)

  14. Jane Chin says:

    Thank you for including my perspective in this interesting and increasingly important subject. It is important because there are people who struggle with the idea that if they “lose” depression, they also lose their creativity, and therefore may abstain from seeking all the help they may need.

  15. stephany says:

    Recently experiencing intense grief, which lingers on the edge of depression I’ve been unable to “feel” depth pain, or even put too many words to it. So I started painting for the first time since I was in my 20’s. I started painting when I as 10 yrs old. I thought I just didn’t like to paint any longer. What I’ve been able to tap into is my grief, just like writing. The painting I did “friday violets” holds special meaning to me, and it’s like I painted a memory and lifted sadness all at once. I feel depression can be an outlet for artistic renewal of the spirit. I also am in a state of mind where I can’t think, remember what day it is, the whole thing–but when I paint I feel, which requires no thinking. If that made any sense at all.

  16. Charlotte Vere says:

    We have had a large number of artist expressing their feelings by submitting work on http://www.bigwhitewall.com – much of which is extremely powerful and demonstrates some of the more negative feelings that very creative people have. We have set up a special ‘Emotion in Art Academy’at http://www.bigwhitewall.com/making-news/ especially for artists with emotional health issues.