A creative Catch-22

depression lilacIf you are an online friend, you may have noticed that you haven’t heard much from me in quite a while, either here or in your own online space. As is so often the case when a relationship quiets, it’s not about you. It’s me.

It’s about something I’ve rarely spoken about and never publicly written about, here or anywhere else: depression.

Depression is not a constant companion of mine, but it has been a recurring visitor throughout my life. It’s the kind of guest who occasionally stays longer than is reasonable. Once she fully unpacks her bags and moves in, it’s hard to get rid of her. She wears me down to the point that I feel unable to do anything to send her on her way. That’s the trouble with depression, right there:  The main symptom, I think, is knowing that you need to be doing some things to feel better but feeling incapable of doing any of them.

It’s such a sneaky, insidious thing for me. It comes on slowly, making it hard for me to even realize what’s happening. It looks like the problems are external–and real, outside situations are the precipitating cause for me–but at some point something crosses over and the actual source of trouble lies within.

Now that I’ve had it named for me, again, I can see that depression knocked on the door well over a year ago, and the first real symptom was my loss of interest in doing much of anything creative–despite the real joy I once felt in the large creative project of making a house/home with Cane and writing about it in our blog.

When I began writing this new blog, I thought perhaps the problem was about the kind of creative work I’d been attempting. In the past two months, though, it has become increasingly clear that my struggles aren’t about reasons for creativity, or creative mediums, or time, or any of the other things I’d considered. Regardless of how I’ve tweaked any of those things, most of the time I just haven’t been able to feel much more than listless about creating or interacting with other creative people.

Until a weekend or two back, when the clouds parted for an hour or so on Saturday morning.

The night before, I’d read a post on a writing blog, Bethany Reid’s A Writer’s Alchemy. She shared Jane Hirshfield’s “Woman in a Red Coat” and suggested a writing prompt based upon it (“write a poem that, without ever saying ‘spring’ or ‘April,’ without tulips or daffodils or cherry blossoms, is obviously about spring”), and for the first time in years, I felt the stirring of wanting to write a poem.

The next morning, I sat down at my kitchen table and looked out the window and then the words came. Most of it came out in that first session, but after a week of tinkering, I ended up with this:

Some Mournings
All you see through
the kitchen window are beads
of rainwater dangling from the needles
of your neighbor’s pine, each a clear jewel gleaming
grey against the sky’s dull cheek.
ou know those translucent gems

hang above swells of emerald lawn,
sumptuous velvet clothing
earth fecund with possibility,
but your eye searches only for what is missing:
blooms not loosed from lilac knots,
eggs not hidden for a holiday hunt,
wings not emerging from the chrysalis of your grief.

depression boughAlthough it’s a melancholy poem, there was joy in the writing of it, my mind fingering words as Hirshfield’s speaker might the collection of stones in her pocket, searching by feel for ones just the right size and shape to pull out and arrange within the lines. It felt good to use my brain that way. It felt good to feel good.

Perhaps part of the want’s origin is that the prompt came from Bethany, a writer I first met just about 30 years ago in Nelson Bentley‘s poetry workshop at the University of Washington. Bethany was a little older than I, and far more skilled. The editor/publisher who published her first book also published my only one, and he pointed me to her blog a few months ago. I was happy to see that she is still writing, has never stopped writing, even though it brought to the surface disappointment and regret and sorrow about my own work as a poet.

In the past few weeks I have been thinking of those who exhort would-be writers to find the discipline to write, and all the years I thought I didn’t because I lacked some kind of necessary backbone. I’ve been thinking of Tillie Olsen‘s Silences, that seminal treatise on the barriers women face in finding the conditions necessary for substantial creative work. But it was another work, a blog post by Momastery’s Glennon Doyle Melton on connections between truth-telling and depression, anxiety, and addiction, that has seemed most important to me.

Now, maybe this is just a case of the blind leading the blind, but she put into words something that I’ve long felt. She suggests that, perhaps, the problem really is in the world more than it is in those of us who have such difficulty accepting it on its own terms:

But other times—we turn on the news or watch closely how people treat each other and we silently raise our eyebrows and think: Actually, maybe it’s not me. Maybe it’s you, world. Maybe my inability to adapt to the world is not because I’m crazy but because I’m paying attention. Maybe it’s not insane to reject the world as it is. Maybe the real insanity is surrendering to the world as it is now. Maybe pretending that things around here are just fine is no badge of honor I want to wear.

Yeah. Maybe the logical response to the world and the often-heartbreaking condition of simply being human, with all its difficulties and struggle and loss, is to shut down. Because that is what depression is for me:  It’s not about getting really sad, it’s about getting really numb. It’s about turning away.

Writing that’s worth anything demands that we see and feel. You can’t write when you are numb and turned away, because what truthful writing demands most is that we pay attention, that we care, that we feel hope. Because if we don’t feel hope and write the truth, what’s the point of writing (or painting or singing) anything?

We like to romanticize our mentally ill and addicted poets and artists who create great work. We like to think that their art emerges from whatever it is that makes them fragile, and we acknowledge that, yeah, it sure must be a bitch to have to live with that, but isn’t it sort of wonderful, too? To be such an artist?

Well, I don’t know. I’m not one. But from my own brushes with with both mental difference (thanks for giving me an alternative to “ill,” Glennon) and creative expression, I think not. I’d like to walk through the world without seeing all the cracks in it. I’d like to pass others on the street and not feel how hard and painful and difficult simple existence is for so many of us. I would like to have no more days in which being human feels too difficult to bear and I wish I no longer had to.

Since I know that’s not really possible, for me and for many others who struggle with this kind of sensitivity, what I’ll ask for instead is that we might see some nuancing of the archetype of the mentally ill artist. I’d like us to realize that, most likely, the Virginia Woolfs of the world create in spite of their difference, not because of it. There are a lot of us who never do, and there are so many healthy artists who create great work. Sure, a certain kind of sensitivity is necessary to produce meaningful work, but slipping over into illness is not a requirement for art. It’s not romantic and it’s not productive.

For me, the whole thing is a Catch-22. Writing fuels depression. Not writing does, too. Makes me feel like a ping-pong ball, flying back and forth between paddles of competing need, or like a tightrope walker, constantly keeping my balance while walking a narrow, tottering line from birth to death, holding my core taut to keep from swaying too far one way or the other.

depression pine tree









26 thoughts on “A creative Catch-22

  1. Heart says:

    GREAT post! IMO: This IS what your meant to write about. You hit the nail on the head, thank you.

    I too come from a long line of ‘sensitives’ (see; “the highly sensitive person” http://hsperson.com). I was unaware that my lineage of intuitive/depression, was a double edged sword. On the one hand I could see/sense what others could not & therefore made me a good ally/friend for council. But then there were long bouts of hopelessness/listlessness that I couldn’t find the tools/friends/articles/therapists for encouragement to get out of my funk. All the things I used to enjoy left me & I just couldn’t find my way back…

    I continue to force myself to engage in a project till it is finished, just to feel a little accomplishment, to leave a little of my self imprint on the world. But I think the greatest imprint I can leave, is my intolerance for injustice & standing tall in my convictions.

    To hold my sensitivity/depression in balance, through creative expression & spiritual journey. These times of ‘deep thoughts’ (expressed through my work in the world) have also risen to give me the understanding/compassion for others who have walked this path & that too is a contributing imprint of our life. Maybe when it was written “to hover between Heaven/Earth”, was eluding to “dancing on the head of a pin”, because that is what this ‘balance’ feels like. Delicate.
    Thank you so much for sharing, You inspire me!

    • Rita says:

      Yes, a delicate balance. Hard to do, often, in a world that rarely deals in delicacies, isn’t it? Knowing how to manage intolerance for injustice is a tricky one for me. I sway back and forth between speaking out/taking action and retreating from it. I have difficulty knowing which stance is best when. But I’m working on figuring that out. Glennon writes of not being able to come out of addiction with the idea of accepting and simply rejoining the world that helped drive her into it, but coming out with a mission to make it better. I know that’s crucial, figuring out how we can make the world a better place. Thank you for taking the time to write to me. It’s so helpful to hear with this business of living is like for others.

  2. Marian says:

    Oh Rita, this post brings me to tears.

    For what it’s worth, you’re not alone. I too, have had bouts of depression, punctuated by what has at times been debilitating anxiety and OCD, and so much of what you describe in this post – your feelings about what it is to be human, with all of its inherent struggling and suffering and loss, as well as the words you’ve quoted from Glennon – ring absolutely true with me as well. I sometimes wonder how other people seem to be so happy, so well-adjusted, so able to NOT be worried about everything…and then I consider the possibility that they simply aren’t paying close enough attention, and that it would perhaps be helpful if I simply closed my eyes more. (It’s also occurred to me that there are many of us, all feeling the same way, and all simply feeling the need to put on a facade…)

    I do find a certain solace in nature. About a dozen years ago, we took a trip to the Rockies with our older two children, 7 and 5 at the time (just less than a year before our youngest was born). I was in a really fragile state, emotionally, but there was something about being in nature – seeing towering spruce trees perched on rocky ledges with barely a whiff of soil to grow in, seeing how plants and seedling trees just spring up everywhere, life scrabbling for existence in every tiny space it can possibly find – that did something for me, that somehow made me feel more positive (even while recognizing the fact that life in nature is not quite the same as life for humankind). And ever since that trip, I’ve made an effort to pay closer attention to nature – to the way perennials emerge from the ground in the spring, to trees budding and blooming – and I do find there’s something healing about observing all this, seeing how nature simply goes on with things even when we’re struggling. In a way, it takes me and my worries out of the picture, which feels like a bit of a relief, if that makes any sense at all.

    Years ago I read that women (in general) want (and offer) commiseration to each other, and that men (in general) want (and offer) answers. This means I probably annoy my friends by offering possible solutions more than I should, so my apologies in advance for this next bit, which may come off as meddling… Perhaps it’s the science geek in me, or the former pharmacist, but if I’ve read something pertinent to a health issue someone is having, I can’t quite seem to stop myself from passing it along. I know that you have (or have had) struggles with your family and with food and nutrition. I don’t know if, with all that, you yourself are eating as healthily as you perhaps could. There’s a website I’ve found to be really informative, called nutritionfacts.org. It’s run by a medical doctor who specializes in preventative medicine and nutrition. He looks at studies, sorting out the good science from the bad, and makes short videos on a wide range of health topics. He has a number of videos concerning nutrition and depression, and it seems the evidence is quite compelling: what you eat can affect not only your physical health, but also your mental health. Anyway, just food for thought (pun intended) and I do hope I haven’t overstepped with this.

    Your poem is beautiful, by the way. I hope you find your way through this soon, and are able to find joy in words once again.
    Marian recently posted…So a Meat-loving Omnivore Comes to Dinner at a Vegetarian’s House …My Profile

    • Rita says:

      Thank you for all of these words, Marian. Not meddling at all, and I’m looking forward to checking out that site. About the closing eyes, strategy: Yeah, I don’t think it works. I think that’s what I’ve been trying to do. In fact, I think depression might stem more from that than from anything we see when we allow ourselves to really see. Depression is about going numb, not about feeling too much. I so want to be someone who can be happy simply puttering around in my own life–growing vegetables, sewing curtains (or grocery bags! :-)), cooking good food, reading long, lovely novels on rainy afternoons. But I don’t seem to be built that way, and I suspect you aren’t, either. I’ve tried to get there by shutting the world out, but the only way I can do that is to go numb. And the things is, I don’t think you can turn numb on and off. I can’t be numb to the world and open to my family and friends. We’ve got to feel it all if we want to feel any.

      I appreciate what you are saying about nature. Until 2011, I lived at the base of Mt. Hood, a short walk away from the Sandy River. Although I’m really not an outdoorsy person, I did find a great deal of solace in nature. The river was a lifesaver during my last ride at this particular rodeo. It’s what you said, something about seeing how it just goes on with things, regardless. (Of course, worrying about what we are doing to the natural world, worrying that it won’t just keep going on, that we’ve screwed it for future generations, is one of the things I struggle with.) Perhaps I will see what I can do to get closer to nature in the suburbs I now call home. 🙂

  3. Kate says:

    Not to quote your whole post back at you but this:

    “The main symptom, I think, is knowing that you need to be doing some things to feel better but feeling incapable of doing any of them.”

    And oh my word, THIS:

    “Well, I don’t know. I’m not one. But from my own brushes with with both mental difference (thanks for giving me an alternative to “ill,” Glennon) and creative expression, I think not. I’d like to walk through the world without seeing all the cracks in it. I’d like to pass others on the street and not feel how hard and painful and difficult simple existence is for so many of us. I would like to have no more days in which being human feels too difficult to bear and I wish I no longer had to.”

    I’m sorry you are going through this and I hope your days are brighter soon but I’m so grateful you shared. I struggle with depression as well (my doctor actually said April tends to be the worst month for women with depression ???) and it’s a blessing when someone else GETS IT (though I wouldn’t wish it on anyone).

    Thoughts and prayers.
    Kate recently posted…Tuesday ThingsMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Thank you, Kate. Yes, the responses to this post have shown me how powerful it is to know that someone gets it. (I wonder why April would be harder than any other month, and especially for women? That doesn’t make much sense to me…) It surprises me to learn that this is an issue for you, too. I suppose because your blog is so joyful and full of good things. Just goes to show, we can never really know how things are for someone else unless they’ve told us.

      • Kate says:

        Ha! It’s staring down the barrel of a whole summer with kids home. 🙂 Not truly, but my guess is that April can still be very wintery here and we’ve just hit the end of our tether (and are in serious need of some Vitamin D.)

        I’ve actually written a few posts about depression – but it’s been awhile. I’ve always found depression difficult to write about unless I’m dealing with it and this was the first winter in 7 years where I didn’t need medication. I wish I could be more like Glennon and share thoughts when not dealing with a recurrence.

        XOXO. Thinking of you!
        Kate recently posted…Tuesday ThingsMy Profile

  4. Jen says:

    I too am sorry that you have been struggling and sorry that I didn’t think to ask. I think I just thought that perhaps you were quiet because of the hecticness of the end of school and all that comes with modern education. Depression – serious, long-lasting, overwhelming depression – is not something that takes residence in my soul; anxiety on the other hand…that beast I know particularly well. I know it keeps me from doing the things that I think I should, that I want to, that I need to. So I empathize, and I hope soon the sun is shining consistently.
    Jen recently posted…Photo Friday – The Love EditionMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Thank you, Jen. And no need for apologies! There has been a fair amount of hecticness (a word I must incorporate into my vocabulary), both at school and home, so that is partly the cause of my inactivity online. I’ve been told that anxiety and depression are often closely linked. I’m sorry to hear that’s a struggle for you. Sometimes I wonder if all/most of us who write/interact through writing are dealing with one or the other. There’s something about this way of connecting that can feel more manageable than others.

  5. Erin says:

    You know, I thought that maybe you were uninspired or just not feeling the new blog. 🙁

    I have had major depression, I would say, at least the past 15 years (only diagnosed about three years’ ago). The thing is, you don’t notice it creeping in until you’re suddenly there, surrounded or drowning, and then it’s so hard to see a way out.

    Speaking from my own experience, don’t try to wait it out and see if it goes away. Depression can seem situational, but I’ve found those are just triggers – the depression doesn’t really go away, when the situation changes, it just lies in-wait until you’ve stopped noticing and then morphs into something else. Antidepressants can really help.

    Erin recently posted…balance.My Profile

    • Rita says:

      Thank you, Erin. I’m not just waiting it out. I know that doesn’t work, not really. I’m sorry to learn that this is a struggle for you, too. Wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

      • dearmaizie says:

        No, I didn’t mean you were going through menopause and that was the cause of your depression. I said once you make it through menopause everything about your life becomes clearer and the tendency toward depression diminishes. First of all, I would never imply that you are going through menopause. I don’t even know how old you are. Sorry you misunderstood and sorrier I didn’t make myself clearer. I was trying to inject humor and clearly it fell flat.

  6. Shannon says:

    Wow, Rita. You’ve written a great piece here and expressed yourself and these concepts so well. I thank you for sharing this part of your life with others. I understand so much, especially as it relates to creativity.

    I go through periods of time where I so desperately WANT to want to be creative, but have neither the mental and emotional tools to craft something creative nor the energy to even want to try.

    It’s like I’m sitting in a dark room feeling all over the place for my creativity, knowing it’s somewhere right around me, but I just can’t find it no matter how much I want to (and know it would help me).

    Then when, as you say, the clouds part for a moment and something does strike into me a spark of usable creativity, it’s like someone just casually came into my dark room and flipped on a light switch. Suddenly I can see everything I need to be creative sitting all around me where I knew it had to be. And this stranger, Inspiration, is just standing in the doorway looking at me like, “Dude. The switch was right on the wall where it always is.” And all I can think in reply is, “WELL IT WASN’T THERE WHEN I LOOKED FOR IT! But, thank you, stranger for turning on my light.”

    There’s probably some super zen thing about the switch only being there when you’re not looking for it, but when I think too much about cause and meaning…that’s a whole ‘nother rabbit hole I can get lost in. And I’m trying very hard to live in and pay attention to the moment these days. This moment, right now. And that is what I wish for you, Rita. I wish for you to find some sort of joy in each moment, even when you’re sitting in the dark waiting for your Inspiration Stranger to find your hidden light switch.
    Shannon recently posted…The Crazy Lady Who Circles Her YardMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      This really made me smile. I know you know all about dark rooms, and I know these are serious issues, but I love the way your writing can get me to lighten up. I’m trying to stay in my moments, too, and to notice what is good in them. I think that’s probably the light switch to which you are referring, if not the electric wire that runs to it. It’s always so good to hear from you. Thank you.

  7. May says:

    Hope I don’t wake you with my screaming….I just read your comment on my blog and thought to myself that I hadn’t checked your old blog in a while just to see if anything new was going on. So, even though I should be asleep, I clicked over. And I was rewarded with THIS! So excited! I have missed your insights into students and parenting, and your mid-century decorating projects, your wit–and well YOU! I see that the very first post I chose is far more deep than I can tackle with my current need for sleep. So, I will be back soon, rested and ready to hear what you are saying. Just know that I am drifting off very pleased to have found this place.
    May recently posted…Graduation TToTMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Ah, thanks, May. I don’t think I’ve been doing anything too scream-worthy here. Might get back into the swing of things now that the school year is ending, though. 🙂

  8. May says:

    So the writing fuels the depression too? That surprises me partly because I would have guessed it might be an outlet from the depression, but more so because it takes energy to write. So, I would have thought it is an exercise that would be associated with the absence of the depressive cycle.
    My “difference” is anxiety brought about by the hormonal changes of menopause. When it is at its worst, I can’t even imagine writing. Now, mulling over your words, I do think that if I wrote at that point it truly would increase my anxiety. I imagine that must be the same with the depression too.
    I hope the longer days of natural light and the slower pace of summer give you a break from the depression for the weeks ahead.
    May recently posted…HappyMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Thank you so much for these words. Things are much better for me now than they were in the spring. Therapy is a wonderful thing. Sometimes we need the questions and perspective of someone else to get us recalibrated. At least I do. 🙂

    • Rita says:

      Oh my goodness–no books. That feels…so far away right now. But thank you for the belief that it might have. Maybe some day.

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