07 April 2012

Art, Madness, Depression and Recovery

For as long as I can remember, I have seen art as a remedy for disease. Not so much for disease in the obvious sense, but more so for the feelings of dis-ease that I experienced. When I was five, my grandmother noticed my strangeness, my sensitivity to things. She took me down to her painting studio in the basement of her cluttered old house in outer SE Portland and set me up with my own easel, brushes, pallette. She arranged the jars of turpentine and admonished me with the words, “Dark to light.”

Thirty-five years later, I sat in a session at my first residency of Goddard College’s MFA Interdisciplinary Arts program and heard Michael Sakamoto talk about his work with butoh. He said that butoh starts in the darkness and brings forth the light.

Dark to light. As is all too common, my grandmother is an amazing artist but she is terrible with people. She is smart, intuitive, and talented. Yet she has turned those things into spite, condescension, and arrogance. And in her way, she has also taught me about the distance between these things, and the results that one gets from each.

Depression has been a word in my vocabulary for what seems like centuries. It is all around me. It sleeps in my bed, often, and in the beds of most of my friends and colleagues. We struggle, we recover, we struggle again. Some resort to pharmaceutical medications, others to herbs and elixirs, of varying degrees. Dark to light, and back again.

And we make art. And the art makes us feel better. We write songs and sing them at each other. We splash paint onto the walls, smash clay into vessels and likenesses and tiny imperfect treasures. It is a cycle this, a cycle that humans seem to have perpetuated forever. Art and madness, dark and light, art and madness…

For me, the fuel to this fire comes from that one central question:

What is worth doing?

 I am sure it is the same question that has driven us mad for ages…some go to the church to find the answer, others to the laboratory, some to the garden, and many of us also go to the studio to search and explore and struggle for meaning and purpose. Do we find answers? Not so much. But the pursuit seems to propel itself, somehow:

What is worth doing?

(Someone told me once that the gift of boundless energy would make itself available, if I would honor it enough to recognize that, if I am passionate about something, then I will never run out of the energy to do it. But, if I try to expend that energy doing work in which I do not believe, then the gift will flee and I will face each day in exhaustion and sorrow.)

What is worth doing, and from where comes the energy to face it?

Cumulatively, I have spent years of my life feeling too overwhelmed by this question to get out of bed. It can be depressing. I felt like I would go mad with loneliness because it seemed like nobody wanted to help me figure it all out.  On the other hand, I don’t want to be “normal.” I detest the zombie-like ordinariness of the “mall world,” and have never wanted to belong to faceless masses of breeding suburban consumers. No offense. It's just not my jam.

For many years I embraced the Dark Artist persona, lurching through my life from one crisis to the next. I was so self-absorbed that I didn’t even recognize the absurdity of my own cliché. Then one day I realized that the Dark Artist thing has totally Been Done. I am not saying that there are not resources in the shadows. Indeed, our shadows are inevitable. To run from your shadow is futile. But to chase it is also futile. And boring.

Lately I am thinking on the difference between catharsis and recovery. I have used art for catharsis. It works well. And now I want to push through to recovery.

Meanwhile the day to day reality unfolds and that pesky question still hangs over my bed:

What is worth doing?

I can’t just spend all my time doing self-care and self-indulgent art projects. I want to contribute. I want to leave a mark on the world that people feel good about. I want to nurture non-human species and leave a legacy that penetrates through the human stain. To do this, I have to keep my head together.

Navigating the line between brilliance and madness is a daily practice, like yoga or anything else, and these other forms of daily practice are tools for the trade.

For the last several months I have been on a self-help kick. I say that lightly but I do not take it lightly. I am engaging with the demons I took on as a child, some of whom were cast onto me by abuse and circumstance; but other traumas I chose myself, through my own ego, ignorance and arrogance. And so I have been trying different types of therapy, reading tons of books and websites, and engaging my peers in discussions around how to stay sane without selling out. (At the end of this article, I have included a list of the resources which I found to be the most helpful and compelling.)

If you’ve read my book, Food Not Lawns, you will see that I like to take massive piles of information and distill them into little sets of proverbial thought-points. As such, here is my seven-steps to determine what is worth doing. I see this as a checklist for daily practice and also as a First-Aid reference for when I have been neglecting myself and need to get back on track:

1. Eat.
And drink. Water. Lots of it. Without a nutritional foundation, the body simply cannot (and will not) thrive. Dehydration is probably the number one reason most mood swings occur, malnutrition second.  Vegetables, vitamins, protein-rich meals; these things will make you feel so much better. Someone once said, “Forget diamonds! SALAD is a girl’s best friend!”

2. Move.
Exercise, even 15 minutes of it, has been proven again and again to help with depression as well as just about every other ailment in the book. This could mean spazzing out to some music or going for a long walk, or to yoga or a dance class. It could mean keeping a garden and working in it several times a week. Or perhaps you’ll get rid of that car and start biking to work. All I know is that stagnant water soon begins to stink, and when I have been too sedentary, I can easily slip into the danger zone.

3. Study.
In many ways, I can see how my own scientific ignorance has lead to depression. When I started to understand more about my own body, I started to feel more empowered over it. In addition, learning new skills increases brain power, builds community, and creates options in your life. Always try to learn something every day. If you are too depressed to get out of bed, read a book. It will help.

4. Play.
Everybody needs to have some fun time where nobody expects anything. To me, this might mean taking a long bath or going with some ladies to get lunch. It is play time, without emphasis on product or reward. Sex can also go into this category; we need it, we want it, and we should have it. But be careful! Recreational sex can lead to dark places too.

5. Listen.
On one hand, this means spending time focused on the needs of others. When you are having a really hard time, it may seem like the last thing you should do is go and help somebody else, but truly, it might be the best place to go. Getting outside of your own head seems impossible, but to try is essential. This also points to other types of listening, such as meditation, therapy and co-counseling, and cultivating deep, expressive friendships. 

6. Create
Artistic expression helps us to get those emotions out of our bodies. It also helps us to recognize that everything is always changing. And when you make art, you have a product, and you can use that product to help you communicate with others and to find community and support. This leads us to the last point:

 7. Share.
When you give things away, you build community. Whether it is your time, your art, or the food you grow, sharing builds strength and resilience, inside and out. I guess the place we see the word “share” most often nowadays is on facebook. It is odd. And yet a few weeks ago I posted something on facebook about the line between brilliance and madness and got a ton of great responses. The one that stuck with me the most was Kehben Grifter’s discussion on audience. She said,

“I can confidently say that the art I make has never come from a dark place even if it discusses really overwhelming and depressing realities. Always, since I was a kid, everything I make is FOR someone. For a specific person or audience. I know who it is from when I begin and I hold that in my heart the entire process, my goal being to have that person/people be deeply touched by my efforts. Kind of like how "crush art" works, geeking out on making a certain person happy, but this can most certainly apply to a larger audience that you are holding in your mind. If you can empty yourself out in passionately expressing yourself for that audience, and then get to be physically present (this is key) for the moment it is received, there is a deep satisfaction from not only doing a REALLY good job sharing your love to the best of your ability, but also be able to regain that energy back by observing a REAL thrill back at you. Balancing yourself in this reciprocity is vital to being able to go to crazy places to do your thing, but then always being able to come back to center to do it again. It's the opposite of masturbatory, self-serving ego-oriented art. Madness worship is boring.... and completely insults the intense and transformational power of culture. For me, any good art has a beautiful echo when it is received. That's the bar. Worship surprises and you'll never get stuck!”

This amazed me. I had simply never seen any of it through that lens. She went on:

“Okay you remember in Poltergeist where they tie the rope around the little girl and push her into the tv? And then her family lovingly folds onto the rope to pull her back out? That's your audience holding on to the rope. They are there to pull you back out of the ether and lovingly wipe the nutty-ness and slime back offah yah when you come back to reality. You can wander off to scarier darker and more intense places (learning about how fucked up the world is) when you know you can just give a tug on the rope, and you'll get yanked back out by people who appreciate you. The space of translating terrible and pressing truths is a vulnerable place, I find that metaphor crafting of gnar-gnar into shiny bits leaves my brain a bit damaged from the process. It's essential to have a routine of cleaning out the shrapnel that’s left behind, or you can really start to forget what's real and what's just in your head.

“Oh, and I just want to reemphasize that in the above scenario, the people that bring you back to reality, the co-dependents of your craft, is your audience, NOT your friends and family. Not that they probably aren't also there to help, but I think it's more sustainable that way. If you're dedicated to your craft for the long haul, it's better to not burn out your social support on supporting your profession.”

And so Kehben’s perspective helped me to round out what I was thinking, and to realize that my prior attitude of not caring who my audience was, not intending to show my art or play my music for anyone, had been perpetuating my own dis-ease.

I mean to use the above list as a toolkit for myself, and perhaps some of you reading this will find it useful too. In some ways, the list goes right up Maslow’s ladder. But these are things we can do, in some little way, for ourselves, and on those days when you feel like you just can’t do a friggin thing, then perhaps this will provide a place where you can direct your support people to try and help.

(And if you are really having a hard time and you don’t feel like you have any support people, please, write to me. I am here for you, as others have been for me.)

The wise Alicia McDaid once said that “pain is fear leaving your body.” I believe it. When we make decisions based on fear, we suffer. When we make choices based on hope, we thrive. If we turn expectations into opportunities, we fill our lives with pleasant surprises.


Anonymous said...

Thank u so much for sharing your insights and vulnerabilites Heather! I always learn more about myself when others reveal their thoughts and feelings about similar issues. Depression, dark to light, art, happiness, the meaning of life? What is worth doing>? I too struggle, daily, gripping at passions as if they are the key to my happiness, and yet, daily, depression just hangs over like the oregon weather. Exercise, dance, art, gardens,music, water, juice...all anecedotes to quell the pain. You are amazing and give so much to the world!! Just by being you, through your painting, your music, your books and wisdom, and sharing yourself, so thank you!! I love this site, very beautiful!

Anonymous said...

Art has been my tool not only to assuage the pain, but to learn and grow from it. I agree with you that as artists, we might seek that pain, if only because we feel that it fuels our art. It doesn't have to, and it is our job to find other stories to tell.