Depression: The Artist’s Malaise
Not until I was in my thirties did I realize that I’d been coping with some form of depression since childhood. This was so much a part of my nature that I never bothered to examine it. Instead I assumed that I was something of a freak and would 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, going under the delusion that this condition was rare, and that I’d best keep quiet about it, lest the shame of my malady become better known. On top of this I was a bit neurotic, being a writer, but trusted that would level out over time.
Well I never was a freak and neither are you. What I didn’t know, when younger, is that the vast majority of the human race is often coping with some form of depression. For some it’s just an occasional bout, fleeting and brief; for others it’s of greater duration, making even the simplest tasks onerous; for yet 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 illness, I’m familiar with depression of that severity.
Compared to people who are severely, or clinically, depressed, my own case would have been considered mild. It never seemed mild to me—hailing from the background that I did, and the insane adolescence that I went through—but that’s because I was the one living it. It’s also because, in my youthful bouts of self-pity, I sometimes believed that my life was hard to the point of being unbearable. Well I had a lot to learn about what is truly hard and all the things that are actually bearable.
Does this mean that my difficulties were easy, or that yours are either? No. There is nothing easy about working in obscurity for decades, while still maintaining your optimism, loving others, remaining inspired, taking rejection after rejection like blows to the gut, maintaining your dignity, maintaining your sanity, earning a living, coping with creditors, finding time to sleep, and still giving all you can to your part of the world. That isn’t easy. Life isn’t easy. If it were, we wouldn’t learn a damn thing in the process of living it.
When did my depressions begin? I think at about age eight, when I first realized I didn’t fit in with conformist society. By the time I was thirteen, this made me feel unworthy. By the time I was fifteen, it drove me into bouts of destructive behavior. By the time I was eighteen, I resolved to deal with it through hard work, aggressiveness, and arrogance. By the time I was twenty-one, I realized the arrogance had backfired, that I’d driven away most of my friends, seemed incapable of making new ones, and felt even farther from finding my way. I couldn’t carry on a conversation, couldn’t snap out of my inner darkness, and didn’t feel alive. What I did feel was unwanted, untalented, and without purpose. My depressions deepened.
This and other complications led to my first breakdown, in college. That was followed a year later by a worse breakdown, when finally I began to contemplate suicide—a definite sign that I was taking myself too seriously.
Why didn’t I go that final step? I realized I just wasn’t made that way, so decided to accomplish something with my life instead. I mean I felt like I’d been born a loser, that no matter how hard I worked it would all come to nothing, that in the end I’d always fail—at art, love, achievement—and that this fate had been preordained. Realizing this, I said Hell, what do I have to lose? From there I began to rebuild, realizing that every minor victory was a step toward the next. Somehow after that I learned humility, how to poke fun at myself, and rediscovered joy—whether joy in the moment, or in completing some gargantuan task. I’ve been building from that point ever since.
It was also at that time that I began reading Nietzsche: “The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets successfully through many a bad night.”
So I moved ahead with renewed vigor, throwing everything I had into the writing basket. Unwise move? Perhaps, but there are no half-measures in art. It’s all or nothing. That’s part of the insanity. It’s part of the beauty too.
That was in 1982, the year of my last breakdown. Now? I suppose I’ve been humbled too much, have accomplished too much, and love life too much to ever go down that road again. I tend to approach things with humor, and a determination to never let adversity destroy my underlying optimism—an optimism that has been much tested by adversity. This isn’t to say that I don’t still have my moments of self-doubt, I’ve just learned to control them.
How did I manage to leave the world of darkness and come to live in a world of light? By trying to give more than I take. Besides, I’ve never fully defeated my depressions and am fairly sure I never will. Roughly twice each year I still go through a bad bout for a couple of months. But I know that each will eventually lift, and that I only have to keep my vision intact in order to emerge from it whole. It helps too that I have many people who count on me. I suppose you could say that several of them love me, but only because I’ve worked 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 this? Because I’m aware that many of you deal with similar issues, but are reluctant to discuss them—as if this common occurrence is a mark of shame. I want you to know that you’re not alone. Depression is a part of the human condition, especially among artists. I mean look at what you’re up against: when you’re unknown, no one wants your work; for years you’ll struggle to emerge from the amateur level, then even after you become a master, society will be largely indifferent to whatever you create; you’ll have to surmount enormous odds to make even a modest income from your art; 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 present 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 vision, and to be able to act on it, when many people don’t even know the deeper meaning of vision. That is nothing to be depressed about. That is cause for celebration.
Neurosis: The Artist’s Badge
This ties into depression, but must be addressed separately. I’ll be brief, since it’s more important to focus on your art, the creation of it, and the eventual succeeding of it. The difficulty is I can’t do that without first covering these essential subjects.
Just as with depression, in my opinion the larger portion of our planet’s population is in some form neurotic—whether mildly or severely. This naturally includes artists. It may well include you. I’ll tell you right now that it definitely has included me over the years.
Is an artist’s form of neurosis any worse than that of the average person? Not in my opinion. Is it better? No. Is it more interesting? If it produces good work, yes, and sometimes even if it produces bad. Does that excuse artists from confronting, and dealing with, their neuroses? No, though not all people are capable of this sort of self-examination. But for those who can, that journey of discovery and self-awareness may be one of the most profound you’ll ever take.
Either way, being a bit neurotic doesn’t make you different from everyone else, it only makes you part of the family. Please don’t ever fall under the illusion that your quirks make you inferior; to the contrary, they make you like the rest of us. Observe them, know them, work on them, but whatever you do, please learn to deal with them. Otherwise, unfortunately, they will in time deal with you. I’d rather you were their master, not the other way around.
It may seem foolish to discuss this, but as with the previous subject, I don’t feel I have any choice—especially during this time in history when so many of us live lives of emotional alienation.
Few things have been more important to my work than the intense love I feel for certain people. I went out of my way to cultivate this after I hit my thirties, since when younger I excelled at the opposite. Now though love feeds me every day.
When I was a younger man working on my first novels, my self-absorption, anger, and ill-informed opinions tended to drive others away from me. That made for many lonely nights with the typewriter—not necessarily a bad thing for a writer, although there were some days when I just wanted to knock myself off and get it over with.
Living that way at times seemed hard. Oh I had my share of old friends, but our friendships were primarily based on our partying past, with little bearing on the present or future. I also had my share of lovers, but eventually my uglier traits would drive those women away, and I’d be alone with the typewriter again. In other words I wasn’t really connecting with anyone, yet so desperately needed to.
This can either make you crazy or make you strive for change. Well I was already crazy, so decided to try for change. I went about it in many ways, but the most basic was by admitting my faults, then trying to improve on them. This was an exasperating process, where for years what little progress I made hardly seemed to compensate for the pain and humiliation I experienced. But still I kept at it, forcing myself to face myself, mostly because I’m one of those people who can never seem to go through life in the way I started out, so am constantly working to evolve to a higher plane.
Fortunately, through all those strange years, my closer friends never gave up on me, and to them I owe a great debt. These were kind people who were happy with themselves, their place in life, and wanted to see me get to a similar place. Their gentle patience was a gift I didn’t deserve, but they gave it anyway, which made that time of transition much easier to bear.
The years went by. I became a husband and father, and realized that my children needed to be raised by an adult rather than a self-absorbed, overgrown boy. So apart from everything else I’d worked on, I began working on that. I’ll likely be working on that one for the rest of my life, but only in a way that fits—part boy, part man; part mischief-maker, part disciplinarian; soother of insecurities, wrangler of the same. Sure, I don’t fit society’s typical definition of an adult. Thank God, since that usually means in order to be an adult you have to lose the kid in you, and a kid’s capacity for joy. I simply can’t accept that. I’d be dead as an artist, and man, if I did.
As I matured love became easier to win, but more important to give. Love of family, friends, even warmth for the occasional stranger who only needs a moment of my time or a kind word. This is the kind of love that feeds me each day.
Then there is romantic love, which is altogether different but just as important.
I’ve been lucky enough to fall passionately, insanely, connectedly in love several times in my life, with women who felt the same toward me. It was glorious, wildly erotic, and inspiring beyond words. Each of those loves was precious; not one will ever die, since real love never does, despite the inevitable flaws that all loves have.
When I met the woman who would become my wife though—Annie—I knew we were fated after the second date. She was the only one I’d encountered who was willing to endure the difficulties that we both knew lay ahead, since I was an unpublished writer. I felt she would give me the love I needed, just as I would give her the same. Fortunately we were right. Does this mean it’s been an ideal marriage? Judging from our periodic fights, I’d say not. Besides, I’m pretty sure there is no such thing. But ours has been a very human marriage, with all the usual ups and downs. I’ve no doubt more of those await us. We’ll deal with them in our own way, since our mutual respect is deep, and since neither one of us tries to force the other into being something we are not. In other words, we give each other a lot of room.
With the other loves that ended, I always felt changed by the time I recovered from the loss—more open to the world, and more grateful. Had I held myself back, the road would have been calmer but so much less interesting. As much pain as the woman or I might have gone through on parting, I would do it all again just to feel the ecstasy, the certainty that I had known this person before, likely would again, and that it wasn’t really ending here. Of course love of that intensity normally doesn’t make for a stable marriage—not that marriage is for everyone—but if you’re wise enough, perhaps it can.
You can try to work without requited love, like Emily Dickinson or Edgar Degas. They worked exceptionally well without ever realizing their amorous dreams; in fact you might say that their frustrations sparked their work. But to me it’s much better if you can open yourself to this emotion, whether you’re straight, gay, sexually driven or sexually indifferent. Don’t worry if no one taught you how to love when you were a child; it is entirely possible to teach yourself. But other people can teach you even better. Let them. And if you fail to inspire love the first or second or twenty-fifth time out, don’t worry. Like depression, this too is far more common than most people admit. But I believe the whole attempt, and journey, can be improved upon with practice. Just be patient with yourself, and by all means maintain a sense of humor.
Romantic love has always been, and always will be, a maddening, ecstatic but painful journey—without maps, with many wrong turns, and a lot of wrecks. Yes it has its risks, but I’ve always felt that the bigger the risk, the more rewarding the payoff. The deeper the wound too when everything busts up. But wounds can build character, painful though that process is.
Remain open to all that love can offer, if that suits you. It’s one of the greatest gifts of living in this world. It can bring the pot to boil. It can open the floodgates. It can set the fires roaring. It can also destroy you if you let it, but that’s a gamble you have to take, and since you’re an artist, gambles should be nothing new. Within reason, you should be willing to take them all.
Man, that was a messy, emotional and rather personal chapter. But art largely comes from emotion, and there’s just no way I’m going to write this book without addressing these subjects. Of course practical advice, based on my years as a gallery owner, is equally important, and I cover those details thoroughly in the succeeding chapters. But the practical aspects are only half the story, and I simply cannot write a half-book, let alone one with the tone of a motorcycle repair manual. You’re all real people, with real lives and challenges. I’m not about to ignore the significance of that. I cover these subjects because I know they must be discussed, yet rarely are. Well now that we’ve discussed a few of them, we have the foundation and tone with which to discuss the rest.