This is Part 1 in a series on depression in creatives.
Let’s play a little word association.
When I say someone is DEPRESSED, what comes to mind?
How about: Gloomy and unshowered. Paralyzed with anxiety. Unable to work. A drag to be around. Crying all the time. Never leaving the house.
That’s the stereotype, isn’t it? And there’s some truth there. Allie at Hyperbole and a Half draws a vivid picture of this kind of depression. (Update May 2013: Allie has also posted Part 2 of her depression story, where she delves into not-feeling and not-wanting-to-exist. Powerful stuff.)
But depression has many different faces and manifestations.
I was one of the walking depressed. Some of my clients are too.
We don’t collapse and stay in bed all day. We keep working, keep writing, keep looking after our families. Keep blogging and tweeting and going out with friends. Keep taking our car to the service station. We just do it all while being profoundly unhappy.
Because we’re strong-willed creatives. We are so strong that we endure unendurable situations far longer than we should. We are deeply committed and we want to do our best for others.
Jen Lee has coined the term Dutiful Creatives to describe those of us who are inclined to take care of our responsibilities before anything else.
“If life were a meal, you’d consider your creativity as the dessert, and always strive to eat your vegetables first. Pacing and knowing how to say No are your strengths, but your creativity is more essential to your well-being than you realize.” from Jen Lee’s Quiz: What Kind of Creative Are You
Too many years of denying ourselves the pleasures of our creative pursuits and it’s no wonder we blunder into sadness.
10 Signs of Walking Depression
“I once read that succumbing to depression doesn’t mean you are weak, but that you have been trying to be strong for too long, which is maybe a form of denial. So much of life happens somewhere in between being okay and complete breakdown—that’s where many of us live, and doing so requires strength.” ~ novelist Matthew Quick
Walking depression can be hard to recognize because it doesn’t fit the stereotype. But it’s just as dangerous to our well-being when left unacknowledged.
This list isn’t meant to be an exhaustive diagnostic. But these are some of the signs I’ve observed in myself and those I’ve coached:
Nothing is fun. You root around for something to look forward to and come up empty.
You can’t find flow. Working on your creative projects feels like a grind, but you keep plodding away. There is research that shows that neuroticism (the tendency toward negative moods) is associated with lower rates of flow.
Your energy is low. Maybe you’re not getting enough rest because you’re too anxious to sleep, or you’re trying to cram too many tasks into a day, or you’re punishing yourself by staying up. Whatever the reason, you are effin’ tired.
You feel worse in the morning and better at night. I remember explaining this to a friend, who found it mystifying. In the morning I felt the crushing weight of all the things I had to do that day. In the evening I was temporarily free from expectations and could enjoy a moment’s respite.
You have simmering resentment toward the people you’re helping. Sure, you’re still doing what everybody asks of you, but you stew in anger the whole time.
Your self-talk gets caustic. You say nasty things in an effort to shock yourself into action. You use shame as a motivator.
You feel distanced from people around you. It’s hard to have genuine, intimate conversations because you have to keep up this front that you are alright.
You deprive yourself of creative work time (the artist as sadomasochist). This helps you exert some control and stirs up feelings of suffering that are perversely pleasurable. Also, taking on new projects that prevent you from writing or making art lets you prove to yourself that you’re still strong and capable.
You notice a significant mood change when you have caffeine or alcohol. A cup of coffee might make you feel a lot more revved-up and optimistic. A glass of wine might make you feel really mellow and even ~ gasp! ~ happy. (That’s how I finally realized that I was depressed.)
You feel like you’re wasting your life. Strong-willed creatives have a high sensitivity to the inherent meaning in what we do. Creativity coach Eric Maisel calls this our “existential intelligence.” If our daily activities don’t carry enough significance ~ if they don’t feel like a worthwhile use of our talents and passions ~ then soon we are asking ourselves, “What’s the point? Why should I keep going?”
Why is it hard to admit that you have walking depression?
You may recognize many of these signs in your life but still be slow to admit that you are depressed. Why is that?
Because it feels presumptuous to put yourself in that category when you’re still getting by. You feel like it would be insulting to those who are much worse off than you.
Because your pride and your identity take a hit. You have to admit vulnerability and allow that you are not the all-conquering superwoman you thought you were.
Because you realize that you and your life need to change, which feels like more work piled on your plate.
Because you are admitting your own responsibility for your unhappiness and that can trigger self-judgment.
Because you might uncover grief or anger at those around you for not seeing and taking better care of you.
What to do, what to do?
I’ve posted another entry about how creatives heal from walking depression, and here are the highlights:
- Make use of medication and other physical treatments.
- Do talk therapy.
- Practice gratitude.
- Make connections.
- Reduce your responsibilities.
- Spend time creating.
- Change your thoughts.
- Develop a meaning practice.
- Change your life.
These steps are simple to say, not easy to do, so make sure you get as much support as you can.
Important: If you are in dire straits, please contact your doctor or visit the International Suicide Prevention Wiki to find a hotline near you.
Are you surprised that I work with depressed creatives?
Some people wouldn’t want to touch them with a ten-foot pole (see stereotype above).
But I have a tender heart for people who find themselves in this place. I know ~ God, I know! ~ what it feels like. And I know how to find the path out. I can sit with deep sorrow and speak hope. I can come alongside and walk with you towards happiness. This is what my coaching service, Enter the Labyrinth, is all about.
Of course, coaching is not therapy, and my clients have other professionals who help them deal directly with their depression. I believe that therapy is awesome for artists and I highly recommend it.
But coaching can be an invaluable part of the recovery process. A creativity coach gets your artistic needs and identity in a way a doctor or therapist might not. One of my clients had a doctor who suggested she just do writing as a hobby so she could stay in her draining government job. I had a well-meaning therapist tell me the same thing. But a creativity coach knows that there comes a time when 15 minutes a day doesn’t cut it anymore.
Let me know in the comments: do these signs ring true for you? Have you ever been depressed and kept on walking?
[Special note, July 2013: One year later, hundreds of people a day are still finding this post. Your comments are heart-breaking and heart-lifting. I can't respond to every comment, but please know that I read each one and send you my love and hope for healing. Keep letting us know that you're there.]
Photo credit: Oleg Sidorenko