In the creative professions, mental illness and depression can be celebrated and even venerated as an unavoidable way to access our muses. The romantic vision of the tortured artist is one we’ve all seen. The man or woman dressed all in black, pining for their lost love or just mad at the world, channeling their pain into their art. One of our most celebrated artists, Van Gogh, spent time in a mental institution and cut off an ear while painting his most gorgeous visions. Hemingway famously quipped, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
But I am here to tell you, your pain is not required to express your art, and the depression and grief that invades you as a result of suffering can block your creativity. Yep. That cruelty to yourself actually keeps your muse away.
The belief that your pain and suffering is necessary to express your art is, at best, wrong-headed. Shifting your mindset to embrace the idea that you can express yourself creatively with a joyful attitude and contented, balanced life is my mission as a creativity coach.
But sometimes the depression and pain can’t be avoided.
I live with a low-grade depression that some days takes me out of play even now when I’ve learned what I have to do to deal with it. But it’s nothing compared to what others struggle with. My depression can be managed by setting aside one day a week to rest and rebuild my energy. If things get a little too heavy, volunteering usually sets me on my hopeful and contented path again.
Chronic and clinical depression needs more support than that.
Way back when I volunteered for a hospice organization (which is a great way to put your own problems into perspective), our continuing education included a talk from an expert in depression who discussed suicide. After all, suicide among those with terminal illnesses is more common than in the general population.
The thing that stuck in my mind from this talk was the fact that suicide was the terminal end of depression.
Depression is an illness, like the illnesses we saw every day at the hospice house. And that, if someone’s life ended in suicide, we could reassure their family that this act didn’t reflect on them or their actions, but that it was the illness wrenching control away from their loved one just like a tumor taking over a vital organ.
Little enough comfort for the bereaved, for certain, but something that carried forward with me.
Now, this does not mean that every person struggling with clinical depression will commit suicide. Depression is not a terminal illness. But it does mean that we need to treat it with the seriousness that we use for any chronic illness.
And that means that, just like we need to go to the doctor for physical pain, we need to get appropriate treatment from a trained professional for our mental health.
Now, I am not a trained therapist. I am a creativity coach, writer, and former hospice volunteer who carries the wisdom of a certain age and experience. You need a fully trained and accredited therapist to support you with your mental health—and that’s not going to be me.
But I am here to tell you, you are not required to suffer from mental health issues because you are a creative being. Suffering is not necessary to bring out the beauty in your work.
The only thing your creative work needs to come alive is you.
So reject this romantic fantasy of the tortured artist, and get the help you need to support your mental health.
If you don’t know where to start, click here to visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
And if you need someone to hold your hand while you make the call, reach out to family, friends, or me. I’ll stand by you as you negotiate the necessary systems and encourage you in your search, guiding as I am able and stepping aside when appropriate.
The only thing that IS required by your art is YOU. Only you can bring your art into the world.
And I know I’m not the only person who would love to see it.
LA (as in tra-la-la) Bourgeois uses Kaizen-Muse Creativity Coaching tools™ to break down resistance, procrastination, and overwhelm while gently encouraging you with humor and heart. Are you ready to embrace joy as you pursue your creative goals? Discover more at her website, labourgeois.biz
Depression is an illness and one that needs help like any other illness.
And no, pain is not required to write. I used to hear about authors like those you listed who suffered and I wondered if I should be writing since I was so normal.
Hi Elizabeth - an interesting post from La Bourgeois - talking about some of these hidden diseases - being more open must help ... we can all appreciate others' challenges. I'm fortunate - but appreciate seeing how others cope. I've appreciated the blogging world when I've felt down - not that I expressed it at the time/s ... I can cope and am just cheered by comments to something I've written. All the best - Hilary
Volunteering is a wonderful way to deal with depression or any other problems. Focus on others and one's own problems begin to fade...
Great points about writing and depression. Writing does not require suffering and the struggles with illnesses of all kinds, or trauma, can take away from the creative process rather than add to it. Depression is a serious illness and not something to court or seek for creativity.
*YES* to all of this^.
Jane Yolen has a good post on the fallacy of the notion of the tortured artist. That oft quoted "...All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed" (Hemmingway) is romanization and mystification of the process.
Thank you, LA! The perfect post for mental health awareness month.
I have several chronic illnesses, a few pretty nasty, but not depression. To not be able to trust your own mind would be the worst. Kudos to you and I love that you give us all permission NOT to be miserable in our writing!
A great post and very helpful. Thanks so much.
A very informative post. Truly needed in this day and age. More power to you. Keep going, my dear! Have a beautiful day.
Very encouraging post, Elizabeth. Thanks for sharing.
What a great article, Liz. Thanks for sharing.
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