This is Part 3 in a series on depression in creatives.
When you are deeply unhappy, antidepressants can be a godsend.
The boost to your serotonin levels may give you more emotional energy, help you sleep better, quiet your frantic thoughts, and allow you to face your life with renewed strength and creativity.
You could liken it to getting an epidural during childbirth. There’s no shame in using anesthetic to help you deliver. That’s a personal choice you make given your needs in the moment.
But using only medication to deal with depression is like getting an epidural but never birthing the baby ~ masking the existential pain without moving through and beyond it to the new life that wants to emerge.
If you want to deal with the root causes of your unhappiness, then taking medication isn’t enough.
I started taking an antidepressant the same week I realized that I had the symptoms of clinical depression. I wanted to give myself the best chance I could to move beyond the grey, grinding existence that I had tolerated for too long. I also began therapy and cut back my responsibilities. And slowly, tentatively, I started to pray again.
Three years later, as I was weaning myself off my meds, I came across Eric Maisel‘s book The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person’s Path through Depression. Suddenly I had evidence for what I believed intuitively ~ that I was unhappy (and couldn’t enjoy anything, and didn’t want to get out of bed, and had obsessive thoughts) not because I had a family history of depression or because there was some deficiency in my brain functioning, but because my life was far from what I wanted it to be, and I needed to make changes if I ever stood a chance of being happy and healthy in the long-term.
I’ve since read and appreciated many of Eric’s books, including Fearless Creating, Coaching the Artist Within, and Creativity for Life. I chose to train with the Creativity Coaching Association specifically because I wanted to learn from Eric how to work with the creativity and life issues that writers and artists face. I even had the opportunity to be coached by him, and I loved his compassionate and pragmatic approach.
We differ in some of our beliefs ~ Eric is an atheist and I am a Christian. He believes that the universe is indifferent to humanity and I believe that the universe conspires to help us.
But our values match up nicely: we both see great importance in creativity, self-responsibility, growth, human connection, and making meaning. If you don’t know Eric’s work, I’m happy to make the introduction, and if you do, this is a chance to catch up on his latest offering, the book Rethinking Depression: How to Shed Mental Health Labels and Create Personal Meaning.
Does depression really exist?
Eric spends the first part of Rethinking Depression explaining why he doesn’t believe that depression is a mental disorder at all, but rather a normal emotional response to the challenges of life that happens to have physical manifestations.
And he doesn’t like the way that depression has been medicalized and pathologized, and people have been channelled into using drugs and therapy alone to deal with natural but pervasive sadness.
He is concerned that the construction of depression as illness rather than emotion is preventing people from dealing with it effectively.
I had the chance to ask Eric his thoughts on the idea of walking depression ~ chronic unhappiness in strong, driven creatives.
Alison: What obstacles seem to stand in the way of people recognizing and dealing with this level of unhappiness?
Eric: We have lost our ability to use words like sad and unhappy and in a culture-wide way we instead speak of ourselves as depressed. Once you start using the language of depression it is a very hard to recognize that you must deal with life and not with an illness or a mental disorder.
A second huge issue is that people have evaluated life negatively, have decided that life is a cheat, and don’t know that they have made that evaluation. Their days are colored by that pessimistic evaluation and yet they don’t know that that unfortunate transaction has occurred.
To begin to use normal words like sad and unhappy and to check in with yourself about whether you have evaluated life a cheat are two important tasks facing every contemporary person.
This feels true for me. I had a hard time recognizing that my unhappiness was negatively affecting me until I connected my symptoms to those of clinical depression. And at the time I thought that I was stuck with my circumstances, that I had no right asking for more joy or fulfillment from life.
If meds aren’t enough, what else do we need to address our unhappiness?
Whether or not you accept Eric’s premise that depression is a fiction, there’s no denying that misery is real. We have all kinds of really good reasons to be sad. I asked Eric what he sees in the creatives he works with.
Alison: What is your experience with this kind of ongoing unhappiness showing up in your coaching clients?
Eric: Most of my clients are blue a considerable amount of the time. This chronic, low-grade sadness arises for many, many reasons, among them that creating is hard, that dealing with the marketplace is hard, that getting to your creating when you must also earn a living is hard — but perhaps the single most poignant and pressing reason that this blueness persists is that it is hard for a contemporary smart, sensitive person to keep meaning afloat. It is hard to believe that we really matter or that our efforts really matter.
The program in Rethinking Depression addresses all of this and especially the latter issue, because the idea of value-based meaning-making that I promote in the book is the very best way to keep meaning afloat and to help reduce at least that percentage of a creative person’s sadness.
A big yes from me on all counts here. Much of my despair over the years has come from not having the time and energy to write, not being able to finish a new book, and doing paid work that seemed unimportant. Recasting my life according to my values has been pivotal to finding more joy and creative flow.
Do-it-yourself meaning: the answer to existential unhappiness
The remainder of Rethinking Depression describes the program that Eric mentioned for deliberately supplying the meaning that is lacking in our lives.
One way to deal with the inevitability of unhappiness is to lead a life based on existential ideals. You take as much control as possible of your thoughts, your attitudes, your moods, your behaviors, and your very orientation toward life and you turn your innate freedom into a virtue and a blessing.
This existential program emphasizes the existential, the cognitive, and the behavioral. Living authentically means organizing your life around your answers to three fundamental questions. The first is, “What matters to you?” The second is, “Are your thoughts aligned with what matters to you?” The third is, “Are your behaviors aligned with what matters to you?”
It should come as no surprise that this is the very type of work that creativity coaches do. It’s what I do with clients through my Enter the Labyrinth coaching service. And it works. I asked Eric:
Alison: Why and how is your meaning program so effective for this kind of sadness?
Eric: The program I describe in Rethinking Depression does a better job than most self-help programs in taking reality into account.
I make it clear that meaning is a subjective psychology experience that we can create and influence, that our evaluation of life as positive or negative is in our hands, that we can form a strong idea of meaning that supports our daily efforts at making meaning investments and seizing meaning opportunities, and in other ways deal with human sadness, even of the most profound kinds, by looking life in the eye rather than looking away.
The very idea of making meaning versus seeking meaning can have its own curative effect!
To me, this is the new life that wants to be born out of our existential labour. The process is harrowing, but it’s the only conclusive way to address our meaning crises.
I hope that Eric’s message will help more unhappy creatives undertake this important work. The world needs more writers and artists who can face the void and still make true and beautiful art that matters to them.
This post is part of Eric Maisel’s blog tour for Rethinking Depression. To read more posts about the book, check out his tour schedule. Thanks so much to Eric for sharing his thoughts with me today.
What do you think about the role we assign to medication versus personal meaning-making, when dealing with debilitating unhappiness?