Depression and the Creative Process

Artists are often thought to be highly intuitive people: emotional, erratic, even unstable. History has reinforced the notion of the creative as mentally ill (think of VanGogh, Warhol, Munch), and there seem to be plenty of modern examples that bear this out. I have struggled with a persistent, low-grade depression called dysthymia for most of my life, but for me it has not encouraged my creativity. Quite the opposite: as Moze Halperin says in the February 29, 2016 issue of FlavorWire, “it’s tough to be creative when you are having symptoms of mental illness.”

Tough? That’s putting it mildly. I find it enormously difficult to create in the throes of darkness. I try … I sit there in my studio, for hours sometimes, staring at a blank page or canvas, waiting for the muse. She seldom comes. I long for my art to be therapeutic, to channel the darkness into something prescriptive, to render something helpful, some new and inspiring piece that might benefit myself and others. The absence of this leaves the darkness intact, possibly even thicker than it was before.
In my experience, depression has forced me to look outside of myself for strength. I’ve had to accept that I can’t make it on my own. I need others, and maybe this is the redeeming quality of my mental illness. Our culture values individualism, independent strength, the “me against the world” mentality, but anyone who’s lived very long knows this to be an impossible (and inherently flawed) ideal. We are stronger together. We are designed for community, for relationship, and without it we shrivel and wilt. We weaken.

Art, for me, is therapeutic mostly in my good times. Instead of being an outlet for my pain, it is a celebration of my joy, a positive depiction of beauty. My need to create does not abate when I am low and devoid of deep inspiration, however. It simply means that I need to reach for another medium — pens rather than paint, journals rather than canvas — to keep my fingers busy and my mind from atrophy. In the end, my art may not be the cure for my depression, but it is certainly a salve. I still need human connection on the bad days: coffee with a friend, dinner with my husband, service to others — a way to focus my mind away from myself. And that is a good thing.