Depression ≠ Creativity

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I wasn’t going to write about Robin Williams’ death. I mean, do we need one more person weighing in about the actions of someone we were convinced we knew but had never met? But then I thought rather than exploitation this could be an opportunity.

Here’s the dirty little secret about creativity and depression:

It is not true that most artists are depressed nor is it true that one has to suffer to be an artist of any kind. This is a bill of goods we’re usually sold in countless books, plays and movies.

However, what I’ve found through decades of doing creative work is that many depressed people use creativity as an outlet and that many of these people seek to make their living in the entertainment industry. Therefore, it is more than likely that one would come across more individuals battling depression who are in the biz than say – plumbers or dentists or garage mechanics. Not that these professions don’t have their share of people who have battled all kinds of illnesses, including depression.

I am someone who has battled depression on and off for most of my life and only came to fully realize the full extent of that ongoing battle less than a decade ago. Prior to that I just considered myself to be a person who was overly sensitive and prone to sadness. A lot. And usually in private. Not that I didn’t have the capacity to be happy. I did – do. But when the “sadness” kicked in, there was no telling how long it would last, in what way it would manifest itself or the amount of time it would take for me to “choose” to snap out of it.

Living in the shadows

Living in the shadows

Depression is an insidious illness… condition… or whatever you want to call it. And is quite different from mere sadness. In an explanation that is as good as any that I’ve read, a writer friend of mine who went back to school to become a therapist – and is clearly a good one – posted this in the aftermath of Mr. Williams’ death:

Depression is not sadness. Sadness is a rich, deep emotion that is full of life and heart and feeling. Depression is a bleak, numb, overwhelming sense of emptiness and nothingness. It is psychologically painful and can be physically painful. It can be enormously debilitating and can cause one to lose hope.

Certainly, there’s more. My therapist friend followed this explanation by urging people not to lose hope or hurt themselves but instead reach out to the many people and places in the world ready and willing to help.

Of course, many depressed people have done this and have not seen immediate results. Or have gotten better only to relapse. Yet that is the case for numerous conditions and illnesses – from metastatic cancer to the aggravated sciatica nerve you pull out in your back or side. (Note: Yes, I am currently the “you” in the latter category).   So why do so many of us, including quite often the actual person who is clinically depressed, eventually tire and want to just shake a depressive endlessly until they finally agree to cheer up and thus snap out of it?!

Not going to work.. no matter how hard Cher slaps!

Not going to work.. no matter how hard Cher slaps!

Well, that’s one of the challenges here. Almost everybody, including the patient involved, finally tires of this condition and reacts to it in his or her own individual ways. Among these is withdrawing from the hideously debilitated person – or this hideously debilitating condition – entirely. Which, as we all know, can sometimes yield the worst of outcomes.

I am not writing this to capitalize on Mr. Williams’ death nor to in any way promote myself or my issues. There are better ways to do both as anyone who surfs the web, watches television, or exposes oneself to any news source at all – including this blog – has seen. Rather it’s to reiterate it to all to myself once again. Because dealing with depression is an ongoing education that someone who has it can easily forget to reinforce since it’s so tempting to chalk it all up to just being blue, down or having a bad day.

In the process if even a line of any of this hits home, I’m happy. Well, only as happy as someone like me can be.

….C’mon, I’m only joking!   Well, sort of.

Myths and Truisms in the Arts re: Depression

1. You don’t have to suffer to do great work in either comedy or drama.

... and certainly not to paint a Starry Night

… and certainly not to paint a Starry Night

There’s a way to get in touch with your emotions and not get sucked down with them. You can’t truly, as a writer, present a situation in a thoroughly depressed state anyway. In fact Mr. Williams himself recalled, according to his L.A. Times obit, an acting teacher who years ago once scolded him for being “too vulnerable” in his emotional scene work in class.

Dear boy, said Mr. Williams imitating the teacher in a thick British accent, that was a lovely scene. And your emotions — there was so much of them! But it’s a bit like urinating in brown corduroy pants. You feel wonderful, but we see nothing.

This is not to say that great writers, actors, singers and many other creative people do not tap into deep personal feelings in what they do and remain unaffected. But they also need a bit of distance in order to see the entire reality of what they’re creating. This is a near impossible feat for a person in the throes of clinical depression. And for those few superhuman souls who can surmount the odds and continue to function, it becomes a dangerously slippery slope of existence that can eventually lead to far more troubling results.

2. The brains of clinically depressed people, or those who over a period of time become clinically depressed, are different than those who are non-depressed and often lead to unclear or just plain bad decision-making.

It goes beyond left vs. right

It goes beyond left vs. right

This one really got to me when I first started to do reading on the subject. You mean to say when you’re depressed your brain is literally offor rewired from what it once was if this condition develops over a period of time??? How can that be? Well, rather than me explaining it, take it from the experts we’ve imbedded here.

Expert 1

Expert 2

Expert 3

Now I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand it when someone else tells me to do something I don’t want to do – or deal with an issue I know is wise to avoid. ESPECIALLY, when they tell me it’s for my own good, and MOST ESPECIALLY when they’re right. So finding out that what you 100% think or know you feel deep inside your brain or even soul might not always be the result of clear thinking is, well…let’s say it’s particularly daunting.   Yet in retrospect I realize that my past attitude and behavior towards my own foibles in this area were not unlike the extremely drunk/stoned friend or family member who is utterly convinced they are well enough to drive themselves and you home from their ex-fiancée’s wedding.   Certainly, I would not get in the car with that person. But what happens if you are that person? You can’t stubbornly pretend you don’t have the problem and you certainly can’t always depend on being saved by the actions of someone else you will most certainly choose to ignore if you want a favorable outcome.

3. Art can be great therapy for your mental woes but the entertainment industry does not have a ton to do with art.

It gets hot under those lights...

It gets hot under those lights…

Yes there are elements of it but, on the whole, there is quite a bit more to the biz than that. This makes it quite challenging for artists prone to depression who, we’ve established in #2, certainly don’t want to be told how to live their lives or even what to do by others.

This being the case there are certain questions it helps to ask oneself. Is all your self-esteem entirely tied up with the results of what you do in art and/or the biz? Do you think you’re nothing without a certain kind of attention or success? Are others able to roll with the punches while all you want to do is punch yourself – and repeatedly – when things don’t go exactly your way? A yes answer does not necessarily mean you are clinically depressed but it is also not a sign that you are in a healthy mental state. Consider what active, healthy steps you can take right now to begin to change your mental state. (Note: The correct answer is not always getting a deal, the role or the sale).

and believe me... this doesn't help either.

and believe me… this doesn’t help either.

By the way, it is particularly worth noting that everyone’s artistic career eventually ebbs and flows in popularity, financial success and output. Do an imdb or Wikipedia search of any great “star.” You’ll see many more ups and downs that you imagined. This is particularly true the longer you’re in the game. What is also true is that given advances in medical science there are any number of individuals in their seventies and eighties still doing great work. But with many more failures in their pasts than successes you have in your present. It’s all about how you and your brain decide to look at it.

4. Just because a depressed person is momentarily cheered up by material stuff, or love (in whatever form) or even– dare I say it – faith – does not mean they are cured. Or even okay. What the outside world sees of an individual is not necessarily the inside reality.

What's on the outside doesn't always show you what's underneath

What’s on the outside doesn’t always show you what’s underneath

This truism seems particularly confusing in the case of Mr. Williams. How does someone so jovial, so loved, so successful and recognized, and so wealthy, succumb to….that? It’s complicated. And deceptive. And notoriously elusive in understanding. I hate homilies like don’t judge a book by it’s cover but one of the great ironies of life is that there is more than a grain of truth to even the most overused cliché. If you don’t believe me, go over this list and see how many you really disagree with.

5. Medical care for a mood disorder does not blunt one’s creativity. Nor is it cheating or taking the easy way out. If administered properly it makes the person even more of who they are destined to be. Plus, it can significantly change the course of a drowning person’s life by, in many instances, saving that life.

Remember this is what they are made for!

Remember this is what they are made for!

No one really wants to slow down or admit they have problems of any kind – especially publicly – whether it’s to your friends and family or on the national stage. Not to mention that there are strange moments of really intense and intoxicating emotions associated with these problems that can be oddly difficult to part with.

Still, the chances of controlling any major illness alone without some qualified outside help are about as good as Michelle Bachman successfully running a PFLAG meeting in West Hollywood (Note: Not that we’d need one here). Meaning – it will not end well and any bookie would take that bet.

A parting Note:

Mr. Styron

Mr. Styron

One of our greatest novelists of the 20th century was a man named William Styron. Among other achievements, he won the National Book award for writing the acclaimed 1979 best-seller Sophie’s Choice, an epic story made into a memorable film starring Meryl Streep in the title role for which she won her first best actress Oscar. Mr. Styron later chronicled his 1985 plunge into a near fatal clinical depression and then his successful battle back in Darkness Visible, an exquisite 1990 memoir.

Here is how he chronicled the illness in an article for Vanity Fair.

The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne. The prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of this pain. Through the healing process of time—and through medical intervention or hospitalization in many cases—most people survive depression, which may be its only blessing; but to the tragic legion who are compelled to destroy themselves there should be no more reproof attached than to the victims of terminal cancer.

Mr. Styron could not have been in the best of moods when he wrote Sophie’s Choice – one of the most brilliant and disturbing books of the 20th century – but he was most certainly not in the throes of clinical depression. If he had been, he never could have had the wherewithal to produce such a masterwork. And had he not sought and received treatment after the escalation of his condition in 1985, he would never have been able to write the concise 88 page memoir five years later that grew out of a talk he was asked to give on the subject to doctors at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine after he had recovered. His work and these events all helped usher in a new contemporary understanding of the disease.

This is something to think about for artists and non-artists, depressed as well as non-depressed, people alike.

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4 thoughts on “Depression ≠ Creativity

  1. Excellent piece – thanks! Insight into depression (our own and others’) is hard won and worthy of being shared. I especially responded to the part about unclear decision-making .. Took me decades to understand that my constant, low-grade confusion was an aspect of my depression. Maybe Robin W’s death will raise awareness for this epidemic and help dispel the taboo once and for all.

    • One can only hope – even if it chips away at it a little. What it evokes for me that I also find particularly daunting is the flip side of confusion – “I know what’s best for me because I know me best and you’re wrong” – and then you realize — wait a minute, “Ive been the one wrong about it all this time.” It’s quite humbling.

  2. Depression is insidious. It’s not like we haven’t all experienced it, to some degree or other yet, the profound depression that we have heard more about over the past few years and, recent days, has barely scratched the surface of our understanding. I didn’t know my own mother was clinically depressed for most of her life. People didn’t understand, they didn’t talk about it, they hid it and whispered about it. People who suffered, just withdrew and withered. I have watched it. To a degree I have felt it, though, as you said, sadness isn’t really the same thing, is it? . Personally, I’m prone to deep melancholy which, can be, at times, debilitating. Yet, I can work through it, not drowning in it, having learned a bit about observing one’s mind. I am grateful that I am not suffering clinical depression. I does feel like it is like a deep fog that is creeping into our consciousness and needs to be understood. It is a very big, dark, hidden closet.

    • It’s VERY closety – that’s a good description. Like anything insidious, it helps to talk about it. The more we get it out it the open, the less chance it has to rear it’s ugly, closely head.

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