The cliché is that creativity and depression go hand-in-hand. Like many clichés, this one is quite true. But creators are not necessarily afflicted with some biological disease or psychological disorder that causes them to experience depression at the alarming rates we see. They experience depression simply because they are caught up in a struggle to make life seem meaningful to them. Eric Maisel, (2002:4), The Van Gogh Blues.
This post has not been easy to write, even though I really wanted to write it. Revealing my innermost, blackest days will rend me wide open for all to see. This post details specific techniques within the process of my healing that I believe were critical to overcoming depression. I hope others might find it helpful to see that it is a long, painful process, but it is possible – largely without drugs.
Warning: long and personally revealing post.
People for whom meaning is no problem are less likely to experience depression. But for creators, losses of meaning and doubts about life’s meaningfulness are persistent problems – even the cause of their depression. Eric Maisel, ibid.
I am a person who lives and has always lived through her creative imagination. I invest meaning and identity into this space and my passion, whatever it is at the time. Thus, I live with the grace of, and am nurtured by, my creative imagination.
If I cannot access that space, then I die.
Several times in my life, I have lost touch with my creative imagination. In each of these episodes, my life had no meaning. I struggled with the simplest of tasks, like getting out of bed and making coffee for myself. From 2003, when my marriage began to falter, I experienced a bout of depression that lasted almost five years. During this time, I tried to commit suicide twice. I got very good at pretending that I was ok even to those closest to me – but I wasn’t. It was only at the beginning of last year that I was able to finally beat back the Black Dog. This was done after years of painful, inch-by-inch progress.
Here are the things that helped me overcome the blackest period of my life.
1. Meditation – Immediate First Aid/Long Term Life Change
I tried anti-depressants on three occasions. I also saw a psychiatrist, three different counsellors and a psychologist. The anti-depressants (SSRIs) caused side effects in me like insomnia, loss of appetite, constipation, sexual dysfunction and worst of all: restless upper-body (like restless leg) syndrome. When the drugs eventually kicked in, I was unable to feel love, hate or any emotion whatsoever. My world was a flat, grey line.
The psychologist suggested that I take up mindfulness meditation and keep a mood diary. I’d done Vipassana meditation retreats in the Blue Mountains during the 1990s and had been a yoga practitioner since 1999. I explained the meditation techniques I knew to the psychologist, and he suggested that I use mindfulness and keep the mood diary.
Very simply, mindfulness is sitting quietly, eyes closed, observing your self talk. It is not trying to stop thought or still the mind. It is just observing. It’s just like hanging out in the back corner of your mind, watching the traffic go by.
Jon Kabat-Zinn is the guru of mindfulness treatment for depression. Mindfulness really works and is backed up by more than 2 decades of scientific study. You can learn more about Jon Kabat-Zinn’s incredible work here. In Australia, you can do 8 week programs based on his work here.
When I practiced mindfulness for 10-20 minutes every morning, I was able to keep myself functioning through the day. It was like a band-aid, though. It gave instant relief, but it did not take away the causes of the depression. It wasn’t the complete cure, but it was the life saver.
I’ve written previously about journaling as a tool for problem solving and personal growth. With depression, particularly while I was on medication, I used journaling to keep a record of how I felt and also to look for triggers. And through journaling, triggers were found. For me the BIGGEST trigger of all time:
If I have a fight with a family member or person who means a lot to me, and then within 48 hours, have another fight with a different but equally close family member or meaningful person, I will plunge into deep depression.
Uncovering this trigger was paramount for me. Without the mood diary and my journal, I would not have done the work that uncovered this trigger. I am not saying that this was the ONLY trigger for me; rather, it was a loud signal that I was at risk of plunging into the Black Hole.
Journaling has also helped me to deal with the anxiety that often leads to depression – the endless worrying about and replaying of situations in your mind. I have written in detail my technique for dealing with anxiety here. Please check this out if you’d like to know more.
3. Removing the Causes
This might seem obvious: removing the causes of depression will cure it. But what if the cause of depression becomes the only thing that gives your life meaning? What if depression extends so long that it becomes a way of life?
Creators have trouble maintaining meaning. Creating is one of the ways they endeavour to maintain meaning. In the act of creation, they lay a veneer of meaning over meaninglessness and sometimes produce work that helps others maintain meaning. Eric Maisel (ibid: 5).
My problem was with relationships. Creating and investing meaning in inappropriate relationships. My whole life became focussed on the pursuit and maintenance of an inappropriate relationship. If you’ve been involved in one of these, you’ll know that the excitement, the subterfuge, the anticipation is addictive. And destructive. These kinds of relationships can consume years of your life.
The only way to remove this cause of depression was to remove myself from this relationship and cease all contact with this person. It was not easy. I had to see this person nearly every day. No matter how I distanced or detached myself, seeing him was a constant reminder. And my need to be liked, to be friendly, did not auger well for any kind of absolute detachment. It was only after this person moved away that I felt truly free, and some recovery took place.
Another cause was my job –which was not only absolutely meaningless, but challenged my identity as well- but I will talk about this shortly.
Thus, removing the causes of depression works, but it’s often not so simple and can mean that you have to take massive action. Life changing, job changing or even address changing action.
4. Love/Social Connections
This sounds lame and cliché: I would not be here if I didn’t have people who loved me. But it’s true.
Two people who loved me were my children. I can only guess at the implications of my depression on my children’s psychology… what issues it will throw up for them later in life. In fact, I can’t bear to think about it.
I had two really good friends who came to my rescue – one who’d seen the love of his life die from an epileptic gran mal; the other who’d been in a similar relationship, who understood the need and the pain involved.
The other person who stood by me, regardless of how hurtful I was, was the person who became my partner. I know that he will read this – and he is the person I hurt most of all. At times, I wasn’t even sure –consciously- that I loved him. Clearly, however, my higher self did love him and wanted me to hold on … to do anything that was necessary to get through the depression and its side effects.
The worst thing about depression is that it makes you withdraw. You retreat into yourself and push everyone away. You don’t want anyone to look at you, talk to you, know that you’re there.
Fighting this isolation is the key – because the alternative is death.
In my case, I had children and pets to look after. I had to do things like grocery shopping. I was able to maintain my job. For others, friends, counsellors and therapists become lifelines. Whoever it is doesn’t matter. Even if it’s a stranger on the end of the Lifeline phone service. Sharing with people, talking and just being in the company of other helps.
5. Life Coaching
After several years, everything in my life seemed perfect. My ‘inappropriate relationship’ was a memory, I had fallen deeply in love with my new partner, I was doing well financially, my kids were fine, but … I could not kick my depression. Nothing I did, thought or even sang would let it release its hold on me.
Journaling helped me uncover the source:
My job was meaningless. Quite simply, I was in a job that had no real job description and no responsibilities. I began to look for another job. After an unsuccessful application to become a researcher at a nearby university, I plunged again into the Black Hole again. I was so devastated by this rejection, ended up back on anti-depressants.
Not creating is depressing because she is not making meaning when she is not creating. Creating but falling short in her efforts is also depressing because only insufficient meaning is produced if her products strike her as weak or shallow. Eric Maisler (ibid: 5-6).
I was so desperate, I decided to try life coaching. I Googled and found Lisa Branigan. I had two sessions with Lisa, and was able to make the plans that changed my life and deal a death blow to the depression which had taken over my life. Lisa’s business is called Quantum Coaching. I highly recommend her.
Within a few days of having the first coaching session, I had arranged a secondment to another government agency. By the time I’d had my second session with Lisa, I had another job offer – to return to the agency that I now work for, where I had previously been employed.
If I hadn’t had this session with a total stranger, who was going to hold me accountable, I doubt that I would’ve created the energy that caused the situation to shift.
Life coaching, when you’re ready for it, works. It is not a replacement for medication or therapy with a psychologist. It is, however, an opportunity to have someone completely unattached to your life examine your situation with fresh eyes. It’s like going to the Australian Institute of Sport and having your running gait corrected instantly by kinesiologists and biomechanics who could see objectively what you couldn’t see right under your nose (or foot).
My journey from habitual depression was not easy, nor was it simple. It took years and I really had to do the deep inner work.
Here’s the nitty-gritty:
- It required some very hard decisions (like changing jobs).
- It required a number of different healing modalities (like medication, meditation, yoga and exercise –which I haven’t discussed)
- It required me to undertake self-study to learn about my triggers
- It required brutal honesty with myself about the reasons why depression wasn’t leaving me alone
- Most all, it required courage to make the decisions, do the self-study and ask for help when I needed it
As you might gather, leaving a long and deep depression like this is a process, rather than an overnight event. After a while, you wake up and realise that all the little steps have linked together and created a long trek out of the Black Hole.
In many ways, this has been the lesson of my life. Depression has given me compassion, insight and undertanding for others that I would never have had before. I can look back and view depression as a teacher, perhaps the greatest teacher I have had in my life so far.