`There is a correlation between depressive personalities and depression, but people who are suffering crippling depression don’t create anything… Sylvia Plath wasn’t a good writer because she eventually committed suicide. In fact, her career was cut short and I mourn all of the many, wonderful books we might’ve had.`– John Green, The Poetry of Sylvia Plath: Crash Course Literature 216
[TW: Depression Talk incoming]
When I was looking for this quote, I frequently caught myself staring at the wall just above my laptop screen for long periods of time without even realising. Even as I’m writing this post, I catch myself staring at the blinking line after each word, just fixating on it fading into and out of existence. This post was meant to be up several days ago. No line I write is good enough. I find myself falling asleep at my desk, despite only being awake for 3 hours. I have the energy to get to class, sometimes, but not to participate like I usually do. Cooking is too much effort, let alone writing, or preparing for D&D, reading, or writing this very blog.
I have clinical depression and this is my life when I’m in a depressive episode.
I’m not alone in this, of course. Even on my floor at University, several of us have mental health problems. It’s common. So is GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder), the other mental illness I have been diagnosed with. I’ve suffered with these illnesses for years, I was diagnosed with GAD in 2009 and clinical depression in 2014, and only recently can I claim to be `coping`. Over these years I’ve faced the same toxic, infuriating sentiment again and again, which goes something like this:
“Oh, you’re depressed? That means you’re destined to be an artist! All good artists are depressed!”
They always bring up the same arguments again and again, using artists like Vincent van Gogh and Silvia Plath as significant examples. They think that like turning milk into butter, eventually my suffering will be turned into internationally acclaimed art. It’s certainly true that artwork can be made from depression. I have a whole chapbook of poetry about the subject, sitting unpublished on my computer. There are a few reasons that I feel that this is the case, the first of which being the obvious. Depression and mental illness are all consuming. It can take you entirely out of business for days, weeks or months. There’s little room in your life for literally any other inspiration. Hell, why do you think I’m writing this post? Processing feelings of depression into art is a good, healthy way of processing these thoughts.
This leads me nicely onto my next point. I think a large part of why depression is such a source of inspiration of the work of artists with the illness is the desire to be understood. Don’t take this the wrong way, I am absolutely not saying that works about depression are trying to provoke sympathy, though that is an inevitable side-effect. Mental Illness has an ability to feel unique, as though the sufferer is the only person to ever feel this specific brand of Awful and with that comes, naturally, the need for people to see and understand it.
In addition to this, however, is the saddest, but I think most realistic reason for why there is so much art produced of this. Maybe this will finally remove the romance from the situation. Maybe it will finally shatter the illusion that Mental Illness is, in any way, glamorous. Depression, and Mental Illness, by its nature, saps joy. Mental Illness consumes. By making art of it, we can make ourselves understood, yes, but further than that, we can create a funeral pyre to everything it has taken. Every idea we couldn’t get out of bed to write down. Every opportunity in our lives we’ve had and the illness has ruined. All the happiness and productivity it’s consumed, and will continue to consume. We will never see more books from Sylvia Plath, because depression consumed those, and her along with it.
One day, I went onto Flickr to look at the photography of my favourite artist, who channelled his heart into his work. He took depression and made it visible. Made it real. I looked everywhere, but I couldn’t find it. In a depressive episode, he’d deleted every single photo.
When you are at your lowest, you don’t make anything. You don’t do anything. You don’t feel anything. It is not the artistic condition. It is not a resource. It is an illness. Stop telling artists that their Mental Illness is the only thing that makes them a talented artist. Stop encouraging artists who are ill to avoid treatment, because it can kill them. Mental Illness is not the source of creativity, so stop acting like it is.
`Last night, I painted my nails when I was hungry / I can’t eat until the paint is dry./ I don’t want to go into more detail because what if you mistake this poem for an instruction manual? / I don’t know how to talk about the rabbit hole without accidentally inviting you to follow me down it / When recovery is not all yoga mats, tea and avocados / it is work.`