By Laurette Folk
I don't think anybody who hasn't been through depression knows what it's like to be frightened out of your mind every day from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep...terrified that something is happening to you and not knowing what to do. You are in a dark wood; there isn't a path. Nobody is saying 'Go that way.'" Nobody is saying anything.
This is a quote from Lord Melvyn Bragg, a veteran broadcaster of the former South Bank television show (UK) who suffered several bouts of clinical depression, the first one occurring at 14 years old. I too have been in that dark wood as a child and an adult, and I have known that obstinate grip of fear.
It was as if someone re-coded the software of my thoughts, infecting me with a cognitive virus that brought on a diatribe of angst. I literally tried joyous thoughts on for size; they perched a moment like a sparrow on a pine branch then flitted away. Ultimately, I became curled up in the corner of my mind—my thoughts on one side, me on the other—as a person would be if a snake slithered into the room. I knew it was depression when I couldn't wave the snake out of the house and into the garden.
With every new depressive episode, however, I began to understand the key components. Stress, rejection, ennui were prominent, as were hormonal and seasonal changes. I had eventually realized that the driving force behind my depressions was my refusal to recognize myself as an artist and my insistence on remaining in a meaningless career that did not engage my creative prowess the way I needed it to be engaged. Woolf writes in A Room of One's Own:
When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to.
The gift, in this case, is creativity. When a creative person is not following her bliss and is continuously put in a situation hostile to creativity, the creativity becomes perverse. So, instead of being a constructive force, creativity becomes destructive; this perverse creativity can translate into a form of mental illness like depression, anxiety, or addiction.
According to Kay Redfield Jamison, professor of psychiatry at John Hopkins, artists are eight times more likely to suffer from depression than the general population. It’s in how we’re wired. Neuroscientist Nancy Andresan claims that depression is intertwined with "a cognitive style that makes people more likely to produce successful works of art."
At the heart of this cognitive style are two things: persistence and the inner critic. Andresan conducted a study on 30 writers from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and discovered that "successful writers are like prizefighters who keep on getting hit but won't go down. They'll stick with it until it's right." The inner critic that constantly clamors that one’s work isn’t good enough is useful; as Jonah Lehrer says in his NY Time article "Depression's Upside." It's that belaboring inner critic that produces a more refined prose: "the sentences [are] polished by our angst."
However, in creativity perverse mode, persistence fuels the circular patterns of woe, and the inner critic is amplified such that it looms larger than everything else. In my novel A Portal to Vibrancy, Jackie, my autobiographical protagonist, speaks of "the devil," a serpentine creature that embodies all of her negative impulses. (If you're a Catholic, this isn't far-fetched). In the beginning of the novel, these impulses or thoughts consist mainly of temptation, like stealing a Reese's peanut butter cup from the drugstore, and sexual acts. Later in the novel, the devil matures along with Jackie and becomes so prominent "he" strikes her down at every turn and is like an oil slick moving into the rippling tides of her thoughts, destroying her clarity, forging guilt, and forcing her into alienation.
In this way, Jackie's inner devil is a metaphor for clinical depression. At the point where the devil is most conspicuous, Jackie is not exercising her creativity, and the inner critic that would normally keep her focused on perfecting creative tasks has no immediate artistic vision, is out of control, and paving a path of destruction.
Like Jackie, depressed people closely adhere to the diatribes and fears of the inner critic-turn-reptile; they are in the dark wood. How can an artist reclaim her creativity? Well yes, first she could find a room of her own, and second, a room in her mind.
Meditation is a way of establishing that room. John D. Dunne, PhD, co-director of Emory University's Contemplative Practices and Studies program studies the effects of mindfulness and compassion on depressed patients. He exclaims that depressed people "hold onto (negative) thoughts very, very strongly" and "the goal of mindfulness meditation and compassion is to end this self-focus, this negative tone."
The first step to ending this self-focus/negative tone is to recognize it. It’s almost cliché to say that sitting with one’s feelings and identifying them helps; the reason it does is because one begins to realize the witness self. The witness self is the true self, the one who simply notices, making no judgments or analysis on negative thoughts. With enough meditation, space begins to develop around the witness self and it is in this space that compassion shows up. Compassion is the antithesis, the anecdote of the inner critic/reptile; it is a sort of balm that relaxes us and with this settling one might see the beginnings of a plan, an idea, the silhouette of the muse.
The physics of compassion-as-anti-depressant make sense, whether the compassion be received or given. Compassion requires empathy, the ability to see self in other; in this way it eradicates the isolation effect of depression and promotes a sense of connection. In A Portal to Vibrancy, Jackie begins to break the cycle of negative self-focus by first receiving compassion from an old friend, a fellow creative type who understands her despairs. This gives her enough space in her head to make a plan.
The plan is to move farther away from the inner reptile and commit a creative and compassionate act: Jackie proposes that she will heal her grandmother of her agoraphobia by planting a vibrant garden to lure her out of her house and into the world. Jackie's compassionate act is meaningful to her and not entirely unselfish: if she can help her grandmother with her mental illness, then she can help herself. The fact that it is a meaningful act is key.
But Dunne's cohort Charles L. Raison, MD asserts that "many people with mood disorders find they can't do meditation when they're depressed. Their thoughts are too overwhelming. They are anxious, nervous, and can't sit –and likely they need antidepressants."
While I have experienced this first hand, my conviction is that the use of an antidepressant is only the catalyst. Creative depressives need to not only right their brain chemistry through medication, they need to alter their belief systems with new practices and then reap the benefits of new artistic inspirations. In short, they need to redress their creativity from destructive to constructive and see that mindfulness/meditation/compassion/creativity is a valid way of life and positivity has a momentum as well. Good begets good, eventually.