Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Creativity and depression

I'm sending thoughts and prayers to Heath Ledger's family, especially to his daughter, today. I cannot imagine how difficult this time must be for them, especially with the media furor.

Many of the journalists have commented on the link between creativity and depression. I know that artists, writers, musicians, and actors have a consistently higher -- much higher -- rate of alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide than the general population. Depression is rampant. Lately, even before this tragedy, I've been wondering what it is about the creative mind that makes us subject to the black pit so much more than "normal" (for want of a better word) folks.

There's a place inside herself where an artist goes - and I include writers and actors and musicians in the word artist, here -- to find the emotion that resonates through our work. Some of us have much darker places than others and must enter those shadowed nooks and corridors of memory and experience in order to create.

Yet others can write/paint/sing about pain from a more surface perspective. They don't have to FEEL the pain to translate it into art. Maybe it's a glib shallowness; maybe it's a healthy way to live and create. Certainly, it's an individual experience.

But for many of us, the experience of channeling creativity invokes the emotion described, and we often feel it at a sharper level than even what we put on the page. The pain informs our work and deepens it; the empathy colors our perspective and point of view. Does it make the work better? It does, or at least we believe it does, to the point of being afraid to seek out medication or therapy with which to better cope with the demons devouring our equilibrium.

What is the answer? I wish I knew. "Outing" depression as a chemical imbalance instead of stigmatizing it as it was in years past is a beginning. Perhaps studies proving that creativity does not suffer when the lowest of lows can be softened would be another step forward.

As a child, I believed that I must live in a garrett in Paris, freezing and starving but for crusts of bread and sips of wine, in order to be a "real" writer. As an adult, I know that creativity doesn't depend on external trappings. As a writer who wrote an entire chapter once in the midst of the hell that is Chuck E. Cheese, doling out "more tokens, Mommy!" every page or two, I can promise you that surroundings mean nothing when the story has you in its hot and sweaty embrace, urging you to write on, write on, write ON.

But who can prove to us that treatment for depression won't blunt the edges of creativity? And until they do, will we be forced to watch shining talents crash and burn all around us?

I don't know. I don't have any answers, just unanswerable questions. I do urge any of you reading this who have suffered with depression to talk to somebody about it. Get help. We're all in this together, and my thoughts and prayers are with you, too.


Jessie said...

I think, in the case with Heath, it was more telling that he invested so much into the Joker character that he couldn't *sleep*. To me, that's something extremely amazing...and frightening. I don't want the artists I enjoy (be it actors, painters, writers, fandom members) to actually suffer for what I'm enjoying from. But that's me. I don't want to cause someone that kind of scarring, and it will and can scar you, being a person hiding the effects while having a brain that works overtime.

I'm probably a person with depression, but undiagnosed. Mostly because without insurance, I can't afford anything and I barely scrap by with my necessary meds. And I think there is a correlation with artists and depression because you can't turn your brain off, you can't make it right. I just wish people would stop judging when it comes to legitimate problems. Everyone needs help sometimes. And being famous shouldn't be worse for someone. I think honestly sometimes the public forgets that celebrities are people, too. They're not greater than God. They're fallible and have weaknesses like the rest of us.

Hmm, I need to write up a post on this on my blog sometime tomorrow after class. I was talking to my Sociology prof earlier and it got me thinking. I'm still processing what I need to say about it all.

All I wish for the most part is that my generation would stop dying. Please.

Stacy L. said...

Alyssa - I agree with you that any form of mental illness, and I do believe depression is a form of mental illness, need to treated with the same compassion as any other form of medical treatment. I feel horrible for celebrities when you see them just trying to walk to their car and they can't because they are being hounded. I'm sure that, that has an impact on their mental state as much as how deeply they feel their character in a movie. I can't imagine not being able to run to Target with no makeup on. Okay, I know I got off track. Sorry.

I feel horrible for Heath's family and for his daughter, who will grow up never knowing her father. That is the biggest tragedy.

Like, Jessie, I don't want the artists I enjoy, whether an author or an actor, to suffer for the joy they bring me.