Depression and Imagination

I’ve been looking back at the way I’ve thought about depression and my stance toward dealing with it, and I’ve started to wonder: Could I imagine and adopt in my life a different approach to this illness?

What starts me on this track is my encounter with the experiences of so many other thoughtful fellow-sufferers who have achieved a way of living with depression that finds some positive value where I find none. What are they seeing that I’m missing? As I’ve indicated repeatedly, I see depression as an intruder, a trespasser that steals the vital energy of creativity that is its opposite. My last post recognized that while others whom I respect may have very different experiences, I have always wound up cheering on a Jane Chin or Therese Borchard or Peter Kramer who see depression as a disease that is just as welcome in life as cancer. – Ah, cancer—well, that gives me pause. I find a similar tension in the experiences even of terminal cancer patients. Some kick at their condition in anger and bitterness while others find a transformative spiritual experience in what they have to endure. This has nothing to do with the fact that cancer is a disease; it has everything to do with adapting to the experience of living with a potentially deadly problem. My own experience with cancer brought out a fighting spirit that got me through and that persists in my stance toward depression. I firmly believe in the need for using all available treatment options in responding to depression -it is an illness that can kill me. What I’m thinking about now is the way I live my life with this condition as a permanent part of my mind, body and soul. Can or should I adapt to it in a different way?

I’ve been trying to pull together my own sense of how my imagination has brought about my current adaptation to illness with ideas from Donald Karp’s intriguing book, Speaking of Sadness. The results are surprising.

Karp detects a pattern in responses to depression among the fifty people he interviewed, patterns that resonated with his own long experience of living with the condition. The pattern begins with an effort either to deny that depression will interfere with normal life or to seek diversion or escape from pain though intense involvement in other activities. When those strategies failed the people in his interviews, they tried hard to fix the problem by getting help from therapists and medication or alternative remedies. Sooner or later, they were forced to realize that these methods could only alleviate but never cure the problem. Faced with the reality that depression was not going to disappear, they set about finding strategies of coping and adapting to a life lived on different terms. What Karp found most often was that this last stage led people to see an advantage in their condition, either a special sensitivity to life, a creativity or a deeper spiritual awareness that non-depressed people seemed to lack. This is exactly what I have not found, or at least I have never imagined my experience in this way. Perhaps imagination is the key.

There are elements of our mental and emotional experience we want to disown, others we want to claim. When I am in a creative mode, I’m truly experiencing things in a different way than I usually do – it is part of my soul I want to cultivate, own, prize. When I am in depressed mode, I’m also experiencing things in a different way from “normal” life or thinking or feeling, yet I want to fight, disown, expel it. In this blog, I’ve often imagined depression as a person I fight in anger, sometimes as a pair I have to stumble around with, always as a presence I am trying to get rid of. My creativity is part of the real me, depression is a diseased burden I’m trying to cut out.

This way of imagining and feeling about depression has been a powerful tool in keeping me functional, and it’s been an adaptation that has generally worked. But the question I am asking myself, given the differing experiences of others, is: Could I come up with another strategy based on a different way of imagining what’s going on in my psyche, mind, emotions, soul?

One aspect of my current adaptation is that I live in cycles with highs of intense creativity and lows of intense despair with normal functionality on the way up and the way down. I feel the highs and relatively normal periods as the real me and the lows as an alien personality that is stealing my place in the world.

Is it possible to imagine and really experience all this not as an opposition of forces, a constant battle, but rather as a unified psyche through which different forces flow at different times? Is it possible that it’s neither “creativity” nor “depression” that I’m reacting to and experiencing but an underlying power of life that wants to push itself into the world? A power that sometimes terrifies and paralyzes me, even when I recognize it as creativity?

I don’t know, but I’m exploring the possibilities. What do you think?

Image Credit: Some Rights Reserved by Karo666 at Flickr

8 Responses to “Depression and Imagination”

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  1. JohnD says:

    Janice –

    That’s a beautiful description of the worst aspect of depression. The paralysis and mental drift and confusion (Lincoln referred to being reduced to a state of imbecility) are far worse for me than the emotions of depression. Have you found any way of breaking through that state? Of course, it’s part of the condition that you don’t want to do any of the things that you know are helpful – or you can’t will yourself to do them.

    Have you found any kind of medication that helps, even partially, or a form of therapy or diet or anything? If I can force myself to write even a few lines, I find that helps stir up something active.

    My best wishes to you,


  2. Janice says:

    My depression takes on bodily form, it paralyzes me. My mind and heart still want and feel and wish to be productive, but I am so weighted down I cannot make my limbs move to accomplish anything. I fight it, and tell myself, “Just do one thing today that you can see, just one thing that you can look at and say, I have done this today”, and sometimes I am able, but other times I am not. It is spring here, an early spring, and I have bought all kinds of seeds and bulbs and want so much to plant a beautiful garden because I derive true joy from seeing things grow and bloom (in spite of me), but thus far I have only been able to find the energy to buy even more seeds and bulbs that may not get planted. It is this immobilizing effect of depression I really loathe.

  3. Jane Chin says:

    Anon, indeed there may be that very possibility for you – a “holding onto” our identities.

    This is not a trivial matter, and it is no small feat to uncouple what we often spend a lifetime reinforcing (i.e., “I am my depression” and similar false statements).

    But it CAN be done. And you CAN do it.

  4. Anon for now says:

    stephany and Jane, thank you for your comments. This discussion is helping me draw some parallels between a multi-year period years ago — during which I dove into an intensely difficult childhood issue — and the episodes of depression I’ve had lately. Then, I let go of an identity I had unknowingly been carrying since childhood. I wonder now if my recent depressive episodes are a response to my unwillingness to face another need to “dissolve [my] old identity” — that is, a push to explore what is incongruent in my life. Maybe I’m avoiding, as I did before, my next “renewal process.” Hmmm…

  5. Jane Chin says:


    Are you familiar with how Eckhart Tolle “became” Eckhart Tolle? He suffered from depression for a long time and had an enlightening experience where he was said to “dissolve his old identity” and recognize that “he” is not “his painbody”.

    One can say that it was because of his experience with depression that led to an opportunity for enlightenment.

    I am not as familiar as Tolle as I’d like to be (I’ve said elsewhere that I’m probably one of the only 10 people on earth who’s not read his “Power of Now”), but I was intrigued with this aspect of his “backstory”.

    You are in my thoughts,
    Jane Chin

  6. stephany says:

    I think it’s unified. When we leave for a depression, I think we fear losing ourselves and not being able to return to what we considered good, and OK; as in with the writing and creativity part. What happens, in essence, is when we are departed into that alien area–is we come back with more of ourself, maybe even look at it as a renewal process, instead of a depression. So when it happens [the depression]allow it to happen, and understand based on past experience, that it really does come and go. In a way isn’t that a strange comfort?

  7. Thanks, Jane –

    Your question makes me realize that I’ve probably stated this too much like an intellectual exercise. What I say about the cycles of high and low is really the problem I’m trying to deal with. My current way of handling depression still leaves me with such long lasting lows that have a terrible personal cost. Quite apart from the experience itself and its impact on my marriage, these low periods have undermined my effectiveness in the work I’ve been doing for the past couple of decades. I’m starting to develop a new line of work as a result. So there is much room for improvement, and that’s why I am searching through all the alternative approaches I can find. It’s not the external therapeutic methods I’m looking for but a change in internal belief about who I am and what I feel in relation to this illness. I’ll keep writing about it since that is my process for discovering things – and also the most effective part of my current adaptation.

    Thanks so much for your concern. It really helps.


  8. Jane Chin says:

    Hi John,

    As I was reading your writing here, I wondered, if your current adaptation has been working for you, as you said, “This way of imagining and feeling about depression has been a powerful tool in keeping me functional, and it’s been an adaptation that has generally worked” – then is there a reason why you want to change it?

    While you did not explicitly state it, what you said, “But the question I am asking myself, given the differing experiences of others, is: Could I come up with another strategy based on a different way of imagining what’s going on in my psyche, mind, emotions, soul?” gave me a clue.

    If you’d kindly permit me to speculate, my interpretation of this statement is that you are wondering about a possibility of a different type of adaptation – an inclusive one – perhaps you may even say “an integral one” where you begin to recognize this “Jekyll and Hyde” as one.

    I’m also speculating that you are exploring this possibility because you wonder whether an inclusive adaption may work even “better” for you than the current adaptation you have. What “better” means is up to your individual definition; no one else can define that for you.

    My best wishes for you,