Creativity – 1: Playing a Role

The word creativity has taken on a special meaning for me as the opposite of depression. It's the energy that opens whatever is original, forceful and effective in touching others and building relationships. It's the force in my life that connects and communicates. It's everything I cannot do in the midst of depression.

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, to have the insight and imagination I need at work to solve problems and present ideas persuasively or to be part of a neighborhood, a community. It's really what wakes me up and reminds me who I am.

When I can't summon the energy that's hidden away, I need to keep in mind the person I know I really am. Hard as it is in that depressed state, I have to focus as much as possible on that "real" me whose mind and feelings are full of discovery and new possibilities. It's like sending out the all-points bulletin: This guy's out there somewhere – or lost in here – and I intend to get him back.

After so many years of living with depression, I have a good sense of when I'm in it and  when I'm not. Sometimes I drift along in a middling state when I'm not totally in the depths and appear to be functional, but I can't really focus, I can't will myself to do much, I don't care about anything, my memory and attention don't seem to work. I manage to get things done in a minimal sort of way, but I know I'm not really there. 

It's usually clear to me when one side or the other – the creative or the depressed – has the upper hand. The change happens invisibly, sometimes without warning. I can be firing on all cylinders one day, then wake up the next a wreck. It could also be a more gradual transition, but I know what's going on and no longer spend weeks or months in denial.

Then there are strange times when it feels more like these two are getting in each other's way, struggling over who's moving in and who's moving out. The friction between them can spark a terrible panic. The first time that happened set the example for what has become all too common since then – a kind of blackout or creative block just when I'm getting into something I really want to do.

These days, it could be writing that gets blocked or a major project at work. That first time it happened, I was in college. I had been acting and directing at the drama center there and was cast in the role of Caliban in Shakespeare's The Tempest. So, yes, it was that kind of creativity, but it could have been anything.

I was called on to play a role, and that's not so different from what any job requires. There is a professional face you put on, a style that has to achieve a certain impact. When you're well, you're really into it. Everything's clicking – you've connected with your customers, your clients, your bosses, your audience of whatever sort. You're with them and they're with you. The role fits, and you feel good doing it – if, that is, you've gotten yourself into the line of work that's right for you. That's the way I felt doing this role.

Everything 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. He lives as a servant to an exiled king, Prospero, who has become a benevolent magician, able to summon natural forces to his bidding. All the action of the play is engineered by him to bring about repentance and redemption of the people who betrayed him.

Caliban, all primal drive and instinct, foolishly follows a drunken fellow in hopes of rebelling against Prospero and killing him. Of course, he gets nowhere – this is, after all, a comedy. Because he's a creation of Shakespeare, he speaks beautiful poetry when he isn't bellowing in pain or following his lust. He's an intense character, just the sort an actor loves to get hold of. And I sure did.

In that 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. Everyone watching was impressed as well. But then I would go home after rehearsal, and intense anxiety would begin to build. Before long, that feeling exploded into full panic. I couldn't focus on anything, read a book, listen to a lecture, talk to friends.

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 there, I could lose myself in the part and feel nothing but the sheer joy of projecting into this strange creature's being. I had never felt panic before, but that's what took over in daily life once I had crossed the line to live happily inside Caliban's heart and mind and skin. What was that line, that boundary I was crossing, and why couldn't I live with myself as I did that?

For the first time in my life, I rushed to a psychiatrist, and he promptly let me pour my mind out for three hours one Saturday morning. He helped me link what I was going through with my family history and experiences as a kid – as you might expect. It was all true and filled me 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, (I could never get so deeply into acting again after that), and I shut out the psychiatrist as well. One revelation was plenty, thank you. I wasn't going back there again!

What was happening, though I couldn't see it then, was that depression was taking over. 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 and originality 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. It was just the way I was, and 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 that state of not being "my own." What has since come to feel like an ongoing tension between forces for creativity, on the one hand, and for depression, on the other, didn't seem to offer a choice in those college years. 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? – 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.