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.