Depression and The Creative Mind: Embracing Our Normalcy
by Ingrid Schaffenburg
I know there are lots of people speaking out right now about Robin Williams and I don’t mean to jump on a bandwagon here but I genuinely feel moved to speak out since the tragedy of his death brings up a very important issue that’s close to my heart. The issue of depression and the creative mind.
I, like millions of others, fell into shock upon hearing the news that one of my favorite actors of all time had taken his own life.
What? How could that be? He was such a brilliant artist! So full of light!
Then, remembering what I’d been told years ago about the fact that all comedy is birthed from pain, I sat back in quiet reflection and deep compassion.
But of course.
And then sadly, it all made sense.
Light and dark exists within each one of us, just as it does in the outside world. The capacity to which we can shine our light seems to mirror the capacity to which we feel and experience darkness. It’s a doubled-edged sword that has some of us walking the edge of the blade from time to time. In reflecting on the enormity of light that Williams emitted on such a consistent basis for all the world to see, I can only imagine the level of darkness that he dealt with behind closed doors and the demons he must’ve faced.
Artists are, by and large, deeply sensitive souls. We have a heightened awareness of the world around us, which moves us to a place where we must express. Our feelings and thoughts are too overwhelming to stay within us. Within these relatively tiny temples of ours.
This buildup of feeling is where art is born.
Some studies show that the brains of creative types have a harder time processing emotions therefore they must create in order to understand what they’re feeling. To understand the world around them. This is when art doesn’t feel like a choice but more like a calling. A need. Makes perfect sense to me. Others simply feel moved by what they see or hear and are inspired to translate that into artistic expression. To communicate an experience.
The origin of creativity is as individual as the person. That we know. But what isn’t quite understood is whether creativity makes one more vulnerable to mental illnesses such as depression, or whether it’s the other way around. That falling in to the depths of despair causes one to then create. Either way, there seems to be some link. In Van Gogh Blues, Eric Maisel says that most every artist out there battles with bouts of depression. We don’t have to look far in the writing world to see evidence of this with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Leo Tolstoy. And, of course, those who could no longer face that battle anymore and chose the ultimate way out like Silvia Plath and Virginia Woolf.
In her article, A Little Weird? Prone to Depression? Blame Your Creative Brain, Dr. Susan Biali outlines a few main points drawn from a book written by neuroscientist Nancy C. Andreasen. Her summary includes the importance of surrounding ourselves with a solid support system and allowing ourselves to nurture and treasure our art as the gift it truly is. But most of all, she makes you realize there is absolutely nothing wrong with you and says, “this book will make you feel blissfully normal in your strangeness. It was pretty much one big sigh of happy relief and recognition for me.”
And I think that’s the bottom line. Is realizing we are completely normal. That despite feelings of isolation, we are not alone. That what we experience as artists is the same across the board. And that outward success many times has little effect on what we experience inside.
If we can preserve the sanctity of our journey and allow this awareness to help us navigate darker times with greater ease, perhaps there will be more acceptance of the process and less of us who feel inclined to take that final step. Martha Graham told us “no artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
So with that knowing let’s have the courage to embrace our true nature, recognize the gift in our own “spark of madness,” reach out to others when we need support, and no matter what, just keep on marching.
Ingrid Schaffenburg is a Dallas-based freelance writer who has a passion for helping others lead fuller, richer, more joyful lives. She holds a BS in journalism from Texas Christian University and has worked in entertainment for more than a decade. Her book, Threadbare Gypsy Soul, is due out this fall and she currently blogs at ingridschaffenburg.wordpress.com.