So, depression just isn’t going to cut it?

Once upon a time, a girl danced in the chorus of a ballet, not the best dancer and just one of many. She looked out at the audience and wiped away a tear. She wanted her movements to translate, to jump across the lights and move the hearts of those who saw her. That girl has always wanted the beauty, the pathos, the sorrow and grief, the love, the art to cross those footlights and, even if just for a moment, to change the lives of the audience. Can she do it if she is “just” someone who suffers from depression?

One summer when I my depression took a very dismal turn, I tried to heal myself with reading about others who had trod on a similar path. The three authors that spoke most eloquently to me at the time were Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Wurzel, and Kay Redfield Jameson. I found it interesting that I could almost lay out their writings in a chronological pattern, each woman’s writing being reflective of her historical framework. Plath, the legendary writer on depression and on suicide was like a stranger to me. I read The Bell Jar , and it was difficult to relate to that character. She seemed to have so much of what I longed for, and she seemed to not have the darkest of depressions. Interestingly, that summer was not my deepest depression, either, but it was the one where I acted out in the most dangerous manner. For as famous a writer as Plath was, I was confounded that she seemed to almost lack the emotional vocabulary to discuss what she was feeling. It was as if she was still all buttoned up in her appropriate 1950s early 60s buttoned up style. Her character was too simplistic with whom to identify, at least for me. It was an introduction to this type of writing, however. Oddly, she died not long after I was born, and she left loved ones behind. I almost did the same. It was “only a rabbit,” but it was my beloved creature who depended on me. I carry that guilt to this day, but that’s a story for another day.

The next book I read was a whirlwind called Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel. I could identify with her much more readily, and she spoke an emotional language that resonated with me. However, she was an exhausting read. She seemed to have the knack for being in the right place at the right time, knowing the right people, having the contacts she needed. I later learned that she had at least on some occasions been diagnosed as bipolar and that she had a serious Ritalin addiction which worsened as she slid into her second book. I was never one who had to study much at all, but I was amazed completely that she seemed to not study at all much of the time. There was an entire semester spent chasing a man in London, and yet she managed to get credit for that. In and of itself, that was some accomplishment. I learned that Harvard might be a tough school to get into, but it certainly did not seem to be a school that was hard to get through. She was the ultimate party animal, fueled with alcohol and drugs and her own crazy biochemistry. I loved the ride, though, because at least in her depressions, I knew that vocabulary well. I was disappointed in her second book. Loved the premise. It was called Bitch:In Praise of Difficult Women. Amazing book at first, but I noticed her frantic pace had accelerated. It was almost exhausting to read. She had made a name for herself and made her publisher proud. My old school beliefs would have had her publisher taking better care of their asset, but it was clear and later acknowledged that she wrote this second tome on Ritalin. It bounced all over. Then, I read that part about how wonderful it was that both Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, both managed to keep their heads. I didn’t get past that part. I could not believe that she didn’t know better, but given the fact that she was high, it was not a huge surprise. What was the surprise was that no editor caught on.

While Wurtzel’s book spoke to me in a vocabulary with which I was very comfortable, I found the next book I looked at that summer to be sort of the middle ground both in tone, and, as it turns out, in chronology. It was interesting how women of different generations sought to express the pain and confusion of their mental illness. This next book was Kay Redfield Jameson’s  An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness. She wrote about her own experiences with bipolar disorder and those of her brother who suffered and died as a result of schizophrenia. It was a mesh of personal experience as well as scientific information. She was someone who was able to take what she experienced, tie in the science, and learn how to create a career where she was able to care for others who suffered. She became a reasoned voice that spoke out from the desert, from the craziness.

I’m getting ready to read her next book. It’s called Touched by Fire. I have one searing problem with the premise, however. It may be true, but it bothers me. It speaks to how creativity and bipolar disorder may actually intersect in some unique ways. So, what about me? I’m “just” a “depressive.” I don’t have the energy of even hypomania. When I get a spark of energy, it usually comes from a place of anxiety not of pure energy. It’s fear driven, which actually can hinder creativity. I never quite get the mania, and I realize that that is the worst of it, so I should be thankful.

Does depression alone impact creativity and the creative process? Can someone with “just depression” be able to go out in the world and make something amazing? I was reading another book that focused on the role of mentally ill (not by legal standards, but by psychiatric standards) leaders in times of crisis and how at times they are just what was needed. There were some listed there that were “just depressed.” I’m not wanting to run for president or to change the world right now. I just would like to change my own circumstances and my own life. And, in the process, I’d like to improve the lives of those I touch. Is it possible to take this depression, this thing which lingers around the corners of my mind, and turn it into something awe inspiring, beautiful, moving?

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~ by Janice Holladay on September 14, 2011.

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