I recently read an article in which the author linked depression and the artistic temperament. At first glance, I was a little annoyed. The whole “depressed writer,” “melancholy comedian,” “chaotic performer” thing seems to me a dangerous sort of stereotype to propagate and to buy into. Plus, I know plenty of artistic types who do not struggle with depression. I think.
I think it’s a dangerous stereotype because sometimes artists believe that if they seek treatment for their mental health issues, they will lose the edge they otherwise have to create. And I understand the fear. Antidepressants—especially when they are first taken—can cause foggy thinking, fatigue, a dulling of the emotions and/or other physical side effects that can simply be emotionally exhausting. But I don’t think any of the things I just mentioned are the reason artists sometimes choose not to take their meds. I think the bigger reason is that antidepressants lift the mood from the darker places of the mind. Those dark nights of the soul through which many artists create do provide a certain kind of raw availability that allow him/her to grab onto the minds of the viewers (or readers) and to pull them into the heights of the imagination, as well as into the depths and corners and sink holes of life.
Also, artists search. I will speak for myself: I am on a constant quest to do exactly what Walter Mitty urges us to do in his film, “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel.” That is, after all, the purpose of life, right? Searches, journeys, quests . . . these are the reasons I create. When I am acting, directing, drawing or writing I am striving to understand. Understand what? That depends on the day. The what changes but the why remains consistent: connection. I create in an effort to connect.
Depression makes it hard to connect. Not only with other people but, sometimes, with one’s self. In the moments—or seasons—of isolation that occur within the darker nights of depression, an artist can turn to her art. She can reach inside her thoughts with one hand, grab onto some truth worth exploring with the other, and then pull herself into the exploration: through words, paint, music, a character . . . she can connect with the world through her own creative sensibility. I think maybe she gets used to connecting to her world in that way because connecting one’s self to ideas is a lot easier than connecting to other people. Connecting the deeper parts of one’s self to a concept or a universal truth is easier than connecting one’s self to another person’s individual truth. An artist can work on her art in isolation, thus connecting to thought, but she cannot build relationships in isolation because relationships require a mutual agreement to engage. Thus, the artist can explore ideas, including her own depression, without fear of being discovered. In fact, quite often, it is the artist who appears in her own work . . . some version or angle of herself can be found in one piece, while a completely different side or struggle can be found in another.
Something I have come to learn as an observer of art is that if you spend time with one artist’s work—if you take time to study her progression over time—you will come to know the artist herself. Not in totality, but in her parts. If you watch, look, listen or read any artist, you will certainly be filled with connective topics to discuss at once upon meeting her in real life. All of her parts are there in some measure.
I don’t often talk about my battle with depression. I almost called it a “struggle,” but that would be sugar coating it. It is a battle and I fight to win the war more often than I would ever let on to anyone else. I don’t keep my battle quiet out of fear of rejection or pride (I think) but, instead, I keep it quiet because I don’t like to complain. I don’t like to feel helpless or to appear helpless. I don’t like to be complicated or make others’ lives more difficult by adding my own burden into the baskets of their minds. I prefer not to need help (okay, that’s prideful) and I do prefer to be the one people come to for strength. Whatever “strength” means.
Lately, I have been realizing that my “strength” may never have been what I thought it was. I don’t mean I never had any or that I don’t have any now. What I mean is that the anatomy of my strength is not toughness or an ability to “power up” against people or things. My strength is not loud or boisterous. It does not run or flex or (something). My strength is simple: it is showing up. My strength is in listening, taking steps toward sharing my own life and in making connections between me and others, as well as making connections between people and ideas.
That’s kind of it. My strength is a journey from my heart to the heart’s of others. Whether it be students, friends, family, colleagues or even strangers, my strength is in seeing others.
So, as an artist who is depressed more than she will ever give into or let on, I would like to show myself. I would like to raise my hand and say, “I will allow you to see my hand here as one who is on a journey wearing a backpack filled with depression. There are other things in there, too. There is also laughter, questions, memories, dreams, curiosities and a whole lot of love. And . . . I see you, too.”
Copyright Jill Szoo Wilson
Photo Credit: The featured painting was created by Antoine Josse. Please feel free to visit his Facebook page: Antoine Josse’s Facebook