Dealing with the Black Dog of depression

What do Alexander the Great, Hans Christian Andersen, Drew Barrymore, Beethoven, Irving Berlin, Napoleon Bonaparte, Marlon Brando, Truman Capote, Ray Charles, Paddy Chayefsky, Frederic Chopin, Vincent Van Gogh, Winston Churchill, Leonard Cohen, Sheryl Crow and Charles Darwin (and millions of others) have in common? All suffered from Depression or from Manic-Depression in various degrees of intensity.

I Googled “artists with depression” and found an incredibly long list of famous people who suffer/ed from depression or manic-depression. Not all of them are artists (Theodore Roosevelt was a U.S.
President, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, an astronaut and King Herod was, well, a King), but the theme of creativity and unusual thinking permeates throughout the list.

In a piece I ToingToinged some time ago, I mentioned Vincent Van Gogh. Recently, I read a book called “The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person’s Path Through Depression“, by Eric Maisel, creativity coach and trainer. His book is a careful, gentle, observation of links between creativity and depression, mental and genius, inspired and cursed. It is also a personal guide – a “Self-Coaching Journey with The Van Gogh Blues.”

In an interview, Maisel says: “it seemed to me that the depression that we see in creative people was best conceptualized as existential depression, rather than as biological, psychological, or social depression. This meant that the treatment had to be existential in nature.” Maisel argues that creative people (he calls them “creators”, which I like a lot), suffer from depression because they battle to maintain meaning in their life and work. Creators must create in order to assure themselves that their lives hold meaning. (Read an excerpt of Chapter 3 of the book here)

In a letter to his brother Theo, Vincent Van Gogh discussed his creative drive “I feel such creative power in myself that I know for sure that the time will arrive when, so to speak, I shall regularly make something good every day. But very rarely a day passes that I do not make something, though it is not yet the real thing I want to make.” (Letter to Theo van Gogh, 9 September 1882)

Poet and novelist Sylvia Plath said this about her depression “Like a deep woman, it hid a good deal; it had many faces, many delicate terrible veils.” Paddy Chayefsky, speaking through Howard Beale, one the characters in his screen masterpiece Network (1976), says: “We sit in the house, and slowly the world we’re living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials, and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.” Winston Churchill referred openly to his depression as his “black dog.” In one of his frank elf-observations, he said: “I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand right back and if possible get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.”

The incredibly long list of famous people who suffer/ed from depression or manic-depression is a proof that sufferers do not have a specific profile. Here are two very different takes on depression – Paul Simon’s:

Hiding in my room, safe within my womb,
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.
And a rock feels no pain;
And an island never cries.
(I Am a Rock)

.. and Charlie Brown’s:

“This is my depressed stance. When you’re depressed, it makes a lot of difference how you stand. The worst thing you can do is straighten up and hold your head high because then you’ll start to feel better. If you’re going to get any joy out of being depressed, you’ve got to stand like this.”

Maybe depression is part of what people might call ‘inspiration’? In a book called “Touched With Fire“, psychologist, researcher, author and manic-depression survivor Kay Redfield Jamison had this to say about creative aspects of depression survival: “Once back on the other side, if you can somehow struggle with it and come to terms with it, and learn from it, you are a better person,” the psychologist noted. “I see person after person in the arts and science, patients in clinics; there is a sense of having learned from suffering, a recognition of what people have gone through in depression. That ‘word’ is no longer an abstraction. It has a meaning that can help someone reach out to that other person.”

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