Reflections on creativity and depression and obsession

The suicide death of Robin Williams a few days ago hit me hard, as it did so many other people. I’ve been trying to figure out why, as I can’t really say I was a “huge fan” of his. Not the way some people are. I haven’t seen all of his movies, or watched all of his TV appearances, or listened to all of his recordings. What I have seen of his work, I’ve enjoyed immensely. I certainly admired the man’s comic genius that bordered on insanity.

If I’m honest, a part of me always felt unsettled, inexplicably and vaguely afraid, while watching him perform. Because his comedy was so extreme, so wildly unrestrained, it really did border on insanity. A part of me, the tiny part that wasn’t laughing, somehow sensed there was a dangerous flip side, an equally extreme down side to all that manic genius.

I’ve felt that way watching other performers, mostly comedians, especially early in their careers. George Carlin, Richard Pryor, John Belushi, Jim Carrey, Steve Martin, all the Monty Python guys. Huh. I just realized they’re all men. No idea what that signifies, if anything.

All of them had that same wild talent for pushing at various boundaries, for giving performances that were over the top, or right at the edge, or on the verge of madness. God, what huge risks they took. Not just with whether their manic highs would resonate with an audience, but risking the devastation of what I suspect were the inevitable lows. Now, I don’t know this for sure. I never saw any of them “come down” from a performance, never saw the exhaustion or the toll it took. But it seems likely. It falls in line with Newton’s Third Law: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Extreme highs, extreme lows. And a part of me always rather desperately hoped they had it all under control. More so than it appeared from the outside.

In my experience — and I’ll grant you that my experience is on a vastly smaller scale — those highs and lows are different from depression. I know creativity and depression are linked, but I don’t believe it’s an absolute and inevitable link, just as I don’t know whether those people I mentioned had or have depression. Reportedly, Robin Williams did. Apparently, he’d also recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

It feels important to make the distinction between depression and the highs and lows of creativity. Depression, to me, is not the extreme low point on the rollercoaster of creativity that some people think it is, but more of a stifling thing. A chemical process in the brain that levels off both the highs and lows and has more of a dampening effect, a dulling of the senses, a loss of caring, an overriding hopelessness. Guilt, shame, denial. Dread. Profound emotional isolation. I’ve come to wonder whether depression is the brain’s way of protecting itself from, and trying to prevent, the extremes of creativity. That seems to make sense. To me.

But I’m not any kind of scientist and have no authority to say that other than “it seems to make sense.” Bear in mind that, when I was a child, I was convinced that squirrels could talk. If they wanted to. That made sense to me too. So, grain of salt. I suspect my parents went out of their way to shield me from any and all versions of Doctor Dolittle.

Joking aside, I’m not making light of depression. It’s a horrible disease and I’m sure the science of it is a far more complex and difficult thing than I could ever comprehend.

Anyway. Back to trying to make sense of why this particular death hit me so hard. I still don’t know and perhaps never will. Why Robin Williams? I’m a sucker for the combination of intelligence and humour and he certainly had both, but it was more than that, with him. I think it was his eyes. Whatever intangible quality he had, it was in his eyes. Don’t ask me to explain that because I don’t think I can. There was just something genuine and compelling in his eyes.

Or maybe it’s simply that I feel too much. I have an excess of empathy. It has always been a problem for me, although I try to convince myself that’s an asset for a writer.

Pieces of this quote have been teasing at the back of my brain, so I looked it up and decided to share it here:

“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: a human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him, a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create — so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.” ~Pearl S. Buck

It’s the “abnormally, inhumanly sensitive” part that has been resonating with me the past few days. The words “a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy” have been cycling in my mind. And I don’t mean as a description of Robin Williams, although certainly it could apply to him, but to describe myself.

Part of what I mean when I say “this has hit me hard” is that, for whatever reason, there is an obsessive component at work. Something about this man, and his death, has struck a chord and my brain has become a bit like a tuning fork that continues to vibrate long after it should have gone still. I recognize this because it’s something I’ve experienced before. Many times.

Part of my focus as a writer, my job if you will, is to understand and evoke emotion. I don’t know which came first, my desire to write or my fascination with emotion and psychology. So when people or events touch my emotions deeply, I tend to get sucked in and drown in it. When it happens to this degree and becomes obsessive, what it means, for me, is that I need to step away from it.

Twitter and Facebook and news sites offer up links to a flood of grief and remembrance. The entire internet is full of anecdotes and stories, not just of who the man was and what he meant to so many people, but also stories of other people who struggle with depression. These are all good and worthy and valuable things to share. Respect and gratitude to those who are able to do so. But every single one of them reduces me to tears and subjects me to welling emotion until my entire being feels like a giant raw exposed nerve. I can’t read them any more.

I have to remind myself that while we all share in the loss of this man, it is not personal to me. I didn’t know him. I never met him. It is not a blow to me personally, it is not my personal tragedy. I have to remind myself that I AM abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. That I care too much.

The point of me talking about this publicly in a blog post, rather than just filing it away in my mind as yet another example of my own vulnerability and instability, is that I see other people who appear to be struggling the same way I am. Part of the “problem” with knowing so many other writers and creative types (honestly, it’s a blessing, not a problem) is that a disproportionate number of my friends and acquaintances are equally sensitive, in various ways. We all care too much. And as much as I want to, I can’t make myself dismiss the reports saying that suicide, especially celebrity suicide, can be “contagious.”

If, like me, you’re one of those too sensitive people, I want you to know it’s okay to step away. It’s perfectly acceptable to skip reading that story or not click on that link. It is perhaps even necessary in order to protect yourself.

I’m not kidding. Step away if you need to. I did.

I’ve been mostly offline the past few days, doing ordinary mundane things. I deliberately tackled the most daunting project in my house, the one that has been the primary recipient of my formidable powers of procrastination: my dining room. That place where all the irritating, non-urgent miscellany of my life goes to await its fate. Stuff that you hesitate to throw away because it might be important, maybe, someday, but you’re not sure when or why. The kind of stuff that becomes obsolete with time but that you never quite get around to throwing out. Or maybe that’s just me.

Well, I’ve gotten around to it in a big way this week. Among the things I’ve disposed of are the user’s manuals and warranty information for two different cell phones, neither of which I’m still using, and the user’s manual for a TI-83 Plus calculator that I haven’t even seen since the kids were in high school. There was also warranty information and a user’s guide for the toaster. Who the hell needs a user’s guide for a toaster? And why didn’t I throw it away immediately? Maybe I thought I’d need it if the toaster was defective and I had to return it? Who knows.

Every so often I take a break and do a brief check of social media. Nope, not safe yet. Not for me, anyway. So I tackle the next stack of ancient dusty paper. An invitation to and course book for The Cambridge College Programme, a “thank you for visiting” letter from another college with my child’s name misspelled, a college semester grade transcript. All go into the trash/recycling.

It’s not that I’ve been keeping this stuff on purpose. Although, looking at some of it, I’m starting to wonder whether I’m one of those hoarders. No, there was a time when these things would have been important, depending on various decisions. But then that time came . . . and went . . . and the stuff stayed. Expanded to fit the space available. Someone should invent paper that disappears once its usefulness has passed.

And then there are the cardboard boxes. Okay, I might be a hoarder of those. *cringe* It always seems like there might be a good use for a box of a certain size. You know? Well, two or three seems reasonable, but no one needs as many as I’d mysteriously accumulated. So those are now broken down, flattened, and put into the recycling as well.

My dining room is starting to look like a dining room again. For now.

You might be thinking it’s ironic that in trying not to obsess about something, I’ve written a lengthy blog post on the topic. But I’ve found that putting a thing in writing is often the easiest way for me to stop thinking about it. Getting the words out of my head and into this post is not as counter-intuitive as it might seem. Doing so is as necessary to my mental health as the more symbolic physical manifestation of getting rid of worthless old papers and boxes. It frees up the space and energy necessary to fan the spark of other creative pursuits.

For, as Robin Williams wisely said:

“You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.”

Keep an eye on yours. If you’re at the point where “a sound is a noise” then turn off the noise. Control the input and turn it off if you have to.

If you need more help than simply shutting down the internet provides, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255. No shame, no excuses, no overwhelming aloneness, just help.

Take care of yourself.

 

2 Comments

Filed under creativity, deep thoughts, health and well-being

2 responses to “Reflections on creativity and depression and obsession

  1. jenb

    As always, you have expressed many thoughts that most of us think, but do not know how to express with such eloquence.
    I too have many boxes to sort through when we return…. just thinking about it makes me a bit reluctant to board the plane.
    Lunch soon!

    Like

  2. Thank you, Jen! I’m always a bit surprised when anyone makes the time to even read one of my way-too-long and way-too-serious blog posts.

    And yes, lunch soon! Let me know when you’re back from Europe. Safe travels.

    Like

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