Not until I was well into my thirties, did I realize that I had been suffering from some form of depression since childhood. Depression was so much a part of my nature that I never bothered to examine it, or its causes. Instead I simply assumed that it would be my life-companion, that I was something of a freak, and that Iâ€™d just have to make the best of it. I hadnâ€™t known anything different, and therefore had no reason to believe that I would ever experience a life lived otherwise. On top of this I was a bit neurotic, being a writer, but that seemed to level out over the years, as have many of my insecurities. As a writer, Iâ€™ve had the advantage of working out my problems through the millions of words Iâ€™ve written. Not everyone is so fortunate.
Well Iâ€™m not a freak, and never was. Neither are you. The truth is, most of the human race suffers from depression in one form or another. For some itâ€™s merely an occasional bout, fleeting and brief; for others itâ€™s of greater duration, making even the simplest tasks onerous; for still others, itâ€™s so crippling that it makes life itself an impossible burden. Coming from a family of two suicides and its share of emotional illnesses, I suppose I know a little bit about depression of that severity.
In comparison to people who are severely, or clinically, depressed, my own case would have likely been considered mild. It never seemed mild to meâ€”hailing from the background that I did, and the virtually insane adolescence that I experiencedâ€”but thatâ€™s because I was the one living it. Itâ€™s also because I, in my youthful bouts of self-pity, mistakenly believed that my life was hard to the point of being unendurable. Of course I had a lot to learn about that which is truly hard, and all the things that actually are endurable.
Does this mean that my difficulties were easy? No. There is nothing easy about being branded a â€œloserâ€ as a child, emerging from a virtually insane adolescence, writing in obscurity for two decades, with almost no one to believe in you but yourself, and still raise a family, open a struggling gallery, juggle the threat of bankruptcy for years, care for all the people you must, daily battle your darknesses, and nightly gain what rest you can. That isnâ€™t easy. Life isnâ€™t easy. If it were, we wouldnâ€™t learn a thing in the process of living it.
But there are far worse conditions to live under, and those are endured by the bulk of the worldâ€™s people, in the bulk of the worldâ€™s nations, every day: in China, Russia, Iraqâ€¦ In comparison to those impoverished conditions, as well as the misery that so many people endure in our own country, yes, my case was indeed mild.
When did the depressions first begin for me? I think when I was about eight, when I first realized I didnâ€™t really fit in anywhere (as most artists donâ€™t), and was terrified that I never would. By the time I was thirteen, this condition made me feel unworthy. By the time I was fifteen, it, and other difficulties, drove me into bouts of erratic and destructive behavior. By the time I was eighteen, Iâ€™d resolved to deal with my shortcomings through hard work, aggression and arrogance. By the time I was twenty-one, I realized that the arrogance had backfired too, that Iâ€™d driven away most of my friends, seemed incapable of making new ones, and felt farther than ever from finding my place in the world. I couldnâ€™t carry on a conversation, couldnâ€™t seem to snap out of my inner darkness, and didnâ€™t feel truly alive. What I did feel was unwanted, untalented, and without purpose. My depressions deepened.
This led to my first breakdown, which I experienced in college. I still remember the hallucinations, the killing despair, the inability to get out of bed, eat, or even answer the phone. Any thought of going to class wasnâ€™t entertained, but thoughts of suicide certainly were. That is until I read Nietzsche: â€œThe thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets successfully through many a bad night.â€
Why didnâ€™t I take that final step? I guess in the end I realized I just wasnâ€™t made that way, and decided to try to accomplish something with my life instead. So I finished with college and hit the road, structuring no career beyond that of the wandering artist, throwing everything I had into the writing basket. Unwise move? Perhaps, but ultimately there are no half-measures in art. Itâ€™s either all or nothing. Thatâ€™s part of the insanity of it. Itâ€™s part of the beauty too.
That first breakdown shadowed me, and everything I did, for two years: it followed me to California, Alaska, and Connecticut, forever with me, never letting me relax. Then I had my second breakdown, in a dark winter in a cabin in New England. I wonâ€™t go into what happened that time, or how long it lasted, but a friend helped coax me out of it, and eventually taught me something about the worth of bearing oneâ€™s burdens with a certain stoicism.
That was in 1983, and that was my last breakdown. Now? I suppose Iâ€™ve been humbled too much, have accomplished too much, love life and art and people too much, to ever go down that road again. Iâ€™ve learned the essential trick of never taking myself too seriously. Iâ€™ve learned to approach life with humor and gratitude, as well as with a determination to never let personal events, or disasters, destroy my essential optimismâ€”an optimism that has been earned through, and tempered by, considerable adversity.
How did I manage to leave the darkness and come to live in a world of light? Iâ€™d love to tell you that story, but that would be a book in itself. Besides, Iâ€™ve never fully defeated my depressions; I suspect I never will. At least twice each year I still go through a pretty bad bout, and each time it lasts for a couple of months. But from experience I know that the depression will eventually lift, and that I only have to be patient, and keep my artistic vision intact, in order to emerge from it. It helps too that I have many people who count on me, and who look to me for guidance and kindness. I suppose you could say that many of those people love me, but the only reason they do is because Iâ€™ve worked so hard in giving to themâ€”a thing that I value even beyond my work (well, as much as my work, which is going pretty far for an artist).
Why have I told you all this? Because I want you to know that if this is one of your difficulties, youâ€™re far from alone. Depression is a common malaise, even more common among artists. I mean look at what youâ€™re up against: nobody needs your work; when youâ€™re unknown, no one wants it; for years youâ€™ll struggle to emerge from the amateur level to the professional, and even then people will be largely indifferent to the thing you create; youâ€™ll have to surmount enormous odds to ever make a living from your work; you canâ€™t walk away from it because it wonâ€™t let you; you have to create, even if it kills you; and the whole time youâ€™re trying to give this gift of wonder to the world, the world doesnâ€™t hear you because it, for the most part, doesnâ€™t speak that language. Who the hell wouldnâ€™t be depressed?
But take heart. Consider how fortunate you are to have your talent and vision, when many people donâ€™t even know the deeper meaning of vision. Consider how fortunate you are to feel alive. That is nothing to be depressed about. That is cause for jubilation.
I know there is no general prescription for everyoneâ€™s private nightmares, and I would be a fool if I believed I could assuage them through the writing of this simple post. Still I urge you to solve your difficulties as best you can, whether on your own, with the help of a therapist, or just the support of those who are close to you. By doing this, youâ€™ll grow stronger, and be better able to give to othersâ€“surely one of the primary reasons for our existence. From inner strength comes good work. Good work can also come from suffering, loneliness, heartbreak, and anger, but in the long run the best work will come from inner strength. Strive for that. You can attain it if youâ€™re willing to pay the price of earning it.