Depression: The Artist’s Malaise

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 I’d just have to make the best of it. I hadn’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, I’ve had the advantage of working out my problems through the millions of words I’ve written. Not everyone is so fortunate.

Well I’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 it’s merely an occasional bout, fleeting and brief; for others it’s of greater duration, making even the simplest tasks onerous; for still others, it’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 me—hailing from the background that I did, and the virtually insane adolescence that I experienced—but that’s because I was the one living it. It’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 “loser” 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 isn’t easy. Life isn’t easy. If it were, we wouldn’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 world’s people, in the bulk of the world’s nations, every day: in China, Russia, Iraq… 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 didn’t really fit in anywhere (as most artists don’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, I’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 I’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 couldn’t carry on a conversation, couldn’t seem to snap out of my inner darkness, and didn’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 wasn’t entertained, but thoughts of suicide certainly were. That is until I read Nietzsche: “The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets successfully through many a bad night.”

Why didn’t I take that final step? I guess in the end I realized I just wasn’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. It’s either all or nothing. That’s part of the insanity of it. It’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 won’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 one’s burdens with a certain stoicism.

That was in 1983, and that was my last breakdown. Now? I suppose I’ve been humbled too much, have accomplished too much, love life and art and people too much, to ever go down that road again. I’ve learned the essential trick of never taking myself too seriously. I’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 optimism—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? I’d love to tell you that story, but that would be a book in itself. Besides, I’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 I’ve worked so hard in giving to them—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, you’re far from alone. Depression is a common malaise, even more common among artists. I mean look at what you’re up against: nobody needs your work; when you’re unknown, no one wants it; for years you’ll struggle to emerge from the amateur level to the professional, and even then people will be largely indifferent to the thing you create; you’ll have to surmount enormous odds to ever make a living from your work; you can’t walk away from it because it won’t let you; you have to create, even if it kills you; and the whole time you’re trying to give this gift of wonder to the world, the world doesn’t hear you because it, for the most part, doesn’t speak that language. Who the hell wouldn’t be depressed?

But take heart. Consider how fortunate you are to have your talent and vision, when many people don’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 everyone’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, you’ll grow stronger, and be better able to give to others–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 you’re willing to pay the price of earning it.

14 thoughts on “Depression: The Artist’s Malaise

  1. Pingback: Case-Notes from the Artsy Asylum

  2. Much great art and music have been the product of people’s pain. It seems to me that these creative endeavors often help us purge those feelings of depression. It’s awful hard to get unstuck sometimes.

  3. How inciteful. I also experience clinical depression. I find that it is always a little black dog sitting on my shoulder – sometimes darker then others.
    I do agree with what you said in your article and appreciate reading it. This state of depression lives with you all the time only sometimes demanding recognition. I continue to work with my art as it brings me great peace.

  4. CML: Couldn’t agree more. I remember the times when I thought it would crush me. Did I ever discuss it with anyone? Nay, not even my wife. Didn’t want to bore them. Instead, I just turned to my work, and worked my way out of it.

    Cheryl: I’m not sure my gig is clinical, but rather indicative of the human experience overall. Ever notice though how this is such a hot issue in America, and not in places like Vietnam and Nigeria? I wonder what that says about us, and our tendency toward self-absorption. Well, at least it’s being discussed; better than not.

  5. I was working at a gallery and the one-man show, featured artist was in town from the east coast for his opening. He is an artist whose work I had admired long before I found him in my presence (in fact secretly I felt that I personally had discovered him, never mind that it was on the shelf of the local library long before). He asked me to take him to the art museum which thrilled me no end. As we were leaving the museum parking lot, it was quite a hurried visit due to his numerous obligations which it was my job to make sure he got to, he told me the following story:

    I had moved to New York, but my work had created no interest among gallery owners. I was disgusted and fed up and one day I threw down my paint brushes, left my studio in this frame of mind and went for a walk, fuming and muttering to myself. At the time the abstract expressionists reigned supreme and DeKooning was king among them. I was of course well aware of him and who should I see standing on the street corner waiting for the light to change but DeKooning himself. He, of course, had no idea who I was but somehow I mustered up the courage to introduce myself and explain my plight. His response was to say “Depression is to the artist, what black lung is to the coal miner, simply a hazard of the trade.”

    “Oh that’s marvelous” I said, I’ve never heard that before.
    “Why would you?” he said, “It was a conversation on a street corner.”

  6. Paul,

    Your writing about your depression brought tears to my eyes. It always does when I feel that someone understands in a way other than just intellectually. Your frankness also gives me courage to think that one day I might start to share some of my life experiences in dealing with my clinical depression. I usually keep what I share with people, other than close friends, positive and what I perceive to be “professional”. Something in me though always wants to spill the beans and let people know how close who I am is to my art. For now I keep it separate.

    Clinical depression has been a huge part of how I live my life, how I cope, how I make decisions, etc. as a person and as an artist. It can be comparable to any other major disability, only it does not show like a physical one often does. People with disability are often applauded for overcoming the odds and living their lives well in spite of their difficulties. When you live with depression, no one knows what is takes just to get through a day, an hour, a minute.

    As an artist I love to visually express what I see as beauty, especially in nature. It has always been surprising to me that my depression does not come out in my paintings. I am not a poet but I do write poetry, which I keep mostly to myself, and that is where my depression usually comes out. I would be interested as to how other artists find their depression expressing itself, through their art, or not? Does their depression make them treasure and express what makes them happier, or does it darken their visual perceptions and allow them to share that in their art?

  7. I was looking up your pricing advice from the Artist’s Magazine, and one link led to another, and I found myself reading this post. I am so grateful for your openness and honesty. I’m going through a period of struggling with both what I’m doing as a painter and with all the stuff around getting my so-called career going (I tell people I’m self-unemployed), wondering if I should go back to a day job or tough it out, etc etc etc. So many issues… But your comments are so encouraging, so ennobling, and so comforting to read and see that someone struggles with the same issues-piles and piles of them all at the same time (and that’s always how they come, isn’t it?), and prevails. God bless you for your perseverance, your work, and your gift of communicating it-even in the midst of your own trials and busyness. You are a godsend to us in the trenches.

  8. wow…reading the blog and the responses has left me really tearful, but then again these days thats not hard…i dont know whether its helping to read this sort of stuff or not…im 18 and am also depressed…i cant say how long for because i really dont know…i guess end of high school begining of sixth form it worsened a lot but it was silly and never lasted I myself used 2 tell myself it was just me being a teenager lol. But soon il b leaving for art college and the past few months have by far been the lowest…my depression doesn’t come and go…it stays…permanently rather then havin the off bad day I I have the off good day! im so scared of these feelings, this DARK cloud following me to uni..i want to leave this heavy burden behind so iv gone to the doctors…tryed talking to teachers..friends…family..but to be honest its only left me feeling more alone? teachers have been supportive but now im left feeling guilty…i cant bare to face going in, makes me feel bad because i dont want them thinking i dont appreciate their support…friends – argh so many different reactions, some think they understand some really do i think? but they give me so many different opinions and advice i dont know whos to take, what to do..i feel dizzy sent in so many different directions and find myself isolating myself from most of them – not spitefully, its just im not me anymore it takes so much energy to be my old sociable self…and family – even the word family makes me wanna cry?! my parents know…ive never been close 2 them but now..iv never felt soo lonely, they hardly speak to me n when they do its more likely them complainin about me wasting my life – i know thy do really ‘love’ me but thy just dont understand how im feeling..especially my dad. no one can really understand though- how can they when i dont even know whats going on inside my head?i feel so ALONE all the time…unless im with just my boyfriend (i think this might b because i feel certain around him, i know he cares for me n it makes me feel safe and secure? if tht mkes any sense?) but even with him thers times i feel like im not really there…so hard to explain, thats why when i came across this site i thought about writing this..i dont see why any1 would want to read something with me just drainin on and on (that’s how I think my friends etc think so I try not to talk about how I am much – but then I think they assume I must b better? )but, well…reading other peoples made me not feel so alone? made me think that yea some people must understand a little bit…and i can say whatever and no one knows me 2 judge me from it or feel sorry for me…also it goes to show theres always someone worse off then you…

  9. Pingback: Paul Dorrell’s Blog » Friday Tips: Neurosis, The Artist’s Badge

  10. Cat: You are too young to be overly concerned with this. What you’re going through is more typical of the teenage years than you realize; it was certainly typical of mine. Our culture is expert at separating us from one another, or what is called alienation. This is primarily, in my opinion, from our obsession with TV, the Web, and similar destractions. These don’t encourage social interaction. I’d say just examine what you want in life, and throw yourself into it; accomplishing goals does wonders for self-esteem. While you’re at this, please try to be positive, refrain from negative thoughts or words, and give to others whenever you can–especially those less fortunate. Then remember this: as we get older, the angst of our teenage years tends to die away. I suspect the same will be true for you.

    So, chin up, and go out and grab the world by the tail (not everyone puts it that way). Life’s a great ride, if you’re willing to put in the passion.

  11. I’ve never looked up a writer to say thanks for writing a book before, but I’m truely complelled to do so now. I happened upon your book recently and its already helped me to understand myself better, and how to take control of pursuing a career in art. I’m at the beginning, I suppose, after graduating with a degree in fine arts, joining the military to pay for that degree, then after my enlistment, learning to tattoo and doing so for a couple years to get back into art while having to stay in military towns, due to marrying someone also in the military. The military has now moved us to Oklahoma, and I planned to work on painting, which is what I’ve always done, and now hoped to “take it to the next level”…then i found your book, and I’m stunned and motivated…thanks for putting it all down. I’d do anything to be able to paint, including joining the army, or learning a trade that keeps me drawing everyday, and thanks for legitimizing that need in your book. Also, the chapter on “Heritage” has been read aloud in our house, my husband adds to the graditude on that one.

  12. Leigh: Thanks for taking the time to comment. I don’t feel my observations are that unique. This stuff’s been in the universe a long time; it just needed rephrasing.

    Military to pay for art school? Interesting. I recently finished a screenplay about a sculptor who did the same thing, only his stint took him to Iraq–with disastrous results.

    Glad you and your husband dig the part about Heritage. I might be a dyed-in-the-wool Truman Democrat, but I damn sure appreciate the sacrifices of the few to maintain democracy for the many. When you remove the politics and B.S., that’s one tough job, and often a thankless one–in any generation. Maybe that’s why I work with so many veterans’ groups. Also, I always felt I was “there” in a previous life. Don’t ask what that means; I’m not sure I know.

    Oklahoma. The wooded mountains near Arkansas are beautiful; that’s where Pretty Boy Floyd came from. The prairie and low mountains in the west are also lovely, just in a desert way. Tulsa’s a good town, and Fort Sill historic. You’ll do all right there.

  13. Thanks for the thoughts. Came across this in a google search for “depression and art”. I’ve most of my life from very challenging, often disruptive, occasionally debilitating mood problems. It seems that there is a connection between depression and art, and perhaps it is indeed simply a hazard of the trade. Over the past several years, however, I’ve become increasingly frustrated by my inability to control of predict my psychic storms, as has my wife. I’ve decided to face the issue head on, and make understanding these difficulties i’ve faced a primary priority. I’m going to be tracking my mood daily, as well as blogging about what’s going on in my art life and how it relates, at . I invite any and all to take a look.

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