On Depression and Creativity

Whenever a famous artist attempts or commits suicide, articles pop up like skin boils with headlines like, “Robin Williams’ death rekindles questions about creativity and depression“. Since I’ve been dealing with a bout of depression for a little under two years, I thought I’d look at this through the lens of the one creative person I spend the most time with, me, and report whatever insights I can.

I think we are still in the grip of a category error that leads us to confuse modern diagnoses of clinical depression with the 19th century’s most poetic ailment, melancholia. Critics of 19th century literature and art have killed a lot of trees and spilled a lot of ink defining melancholia, but one characteristic that all their definitions have in common is an intensity of feeling, whether that feeling is alienation from the self, from the perfect world of the imagination, or from nature; or whether it’s a feeling of morbid fascination with doom and decay. For the romantics, these emotions were to be pursued zealously and felt deeply, and to live a complete life one was obliged to use the imagination to conjure images that fed both joyous awe and deep despair. What has struck me most about my own depression is that it doesn’t feel like much of anything. Depression dulls my capacity to feel. Living with it is like wandering through the day on a full mind and body anesthetic. A sensation has to be extraordinarily painful or pleasant for me to even notice it. Otherwise, as Patrick Bateman would put it, “I simply am not there.” Furthermore, my depression isn’t about anything in particular. I can’t be fascinated about doom and decay (two subjects that usually get my heart started), because I can’t be fascinated by anything. Life during depression settles easily into a kind of low gray doze.

For this reason, I have a terrible time being creative in the midst of a depression. Instead, I watch a lot of television, read a lot of books, and play a lot of video games. I don’t much enjoy doing any of these things, but because I’m introverted and naturally withdrawn, these activities can keep me distracted for weeks. Doing creative work requires focus, energy, and discipline, all of which abandon me at these times. I can write while depressed, but it takes a lot to sustain, and I have little left for anything afterwards.

Things get worse still when depression’s crummy little cousin, anxiety, comes to visit. Like my depression, my anxiety is rarely about anything specific. It’s just a general state of worry that usually spins around my head a few times before lighting on a convenient topic…usually finances.

I remember a particularly irritating student of mine who freaked out at the sight of a spider that wasn’t much larger than the tip of a pencil eraser. It took a half an hour to settle him down. Visits from anxiety are a lot like my dealings with that student. I see it coming, say “Oh, shit” and know a good portion of the rest of the day’ll be wasted on it.

Together, these two insidious guests do more to stunt my creative work than any other force in the world. Their most destructive power is the one they have to limit my imagination. My depression works 24-7 convincing me that there is no other legitimate way to experience the world but through it, that the world can never change, and that I can’t change either. Anxiety is its louder partner in this, shooing me away from any experience that might bring new sensations.

When I’m thrall to depression, you could run me to the Egyptian ruins that inspired “Ozymandias” or to the alpine country village that made Beethoven compose the 6th symphony, and all I’d do is say, “Nice. When can I get back to Seinfeld reruns and Arkham City?”

Fortunately, my partner saw the signs and brought me some cognitive-behavior therapy books that have helped me recognize how depression works and how I can talk my self through it. Also fortunately, I now have mental health coverage (thanks, Obama), so I can see a therapist every other week to hone my coping skills. Thanks to them, I’ve been able to get back to productive work, and stalled projects are once again moving forward.

As I see it, depression is to a creative person what a severe concussion is to a football player, a career threatening injury that requires prompt and effective treatment. Without the treatment I’m receiving, I couldn’t feel elation, agony, or any of the other sensations that fuel the work that entertains you, the reading several. The poetic melancholy of our great-great grandparents can give birth to creativity. Modern clinical depression is its killer.

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