Art and Depression


It’s funny how our perceptions often mirror our internal states. Where one day you could be feeling blue and every painting you look at (or produce) feels like a Munch painting and other times you feel as joyous as one of Matisses’ late collages.

Of course, your state can really reflect the type of work you’re doing. Trouble is, you might not always be aware of the state your in. It can slip slide around a lot. I know, as I have had, and continue to battle depression myself.

It feels odd to admit that I suffer from depression. I think I have probably had it in some form or another since I was rather young (I’m closing in on 50 now) but I never knew it. But I had all the classic symptoms – feeling alone, hard time focusing, bouts of aggressiveness, feeling trapped, etc.

I remember showing my wife some of my art from my college days and it was really bleak. Kind of Giacometti like. Small figures alone in the vast space of paper or canvas. I’ll admit, I got a little uneasy looking at them but I don’t really do that anymore. What would be the purpose.

So I went on with my life and basically had no solid relationships until my late 30’s or so. Not much seemed to be working at all. I would try things and then become completely unfocused. And I would just stay in my apartment and read most of time. I also slept a lot.

Now from the outside, someone must have seen something but nope, not even my parents, whom I have always been close to. Admittedly, I probably did a good job of hiding (or disguising it) because I was first a graphic designer, then a IT professional (to pay the bills) so I did have social interaction with the corporate structure, all the while continuing to make art.

But once I left the companies I worked for, it was right back to the same fearful, trapped, alone lifestyle and my art, again, really reflected that. It was crap. I tried, really tried to get involve in relationships with women but I always seemed to attract an unhealthy partner.

Truth be told, it was probably (almost certainly) me who was the problem. I didn’t really have a solid base to move from. I really didn’t feel worthy of someone. I kept telling myself that I wasn’t good enough for this person or that person. Stuff I feel embarrassed and ashamed to admit because it’s such a lie.

I lied to myself all the time. I ended up drinking, involved with drugs to a degree. I guess I was just trying to relieve the weight of the dark cloud that seemed to hover over me. I realize that sounds dramatic but, at the time, it was very real.

Anyone who has gone through or suffers from depression knows what I’m talking about. It’s really a a kind of living hell where can’t seem to get any relief and you view life through such a dark and bleak and contracted lens.

For me it got to the point where I had some really bad episodes in my later 30’s and 40’s. Things like crying uncontrollably for no reason, not wanting to be around anyone and literally feeling like an animal trapped in a corner with someone (or something) always trying to threaten me. That’s what it felt like.

At some point I had to move in with my parents because I just couldn’t function very well. And, of course, they had no idea what was going on. I think they just saw a very unhappy and lonely son. I had 3 brothers who were all married, all had kids, all seemed somewhat happy and fulfilled and I felt so completely and utterly alone.

It finally got to the point where I had to see someone. I don’t think I or anyone close to be knew what was going on or what this thing was. But it soon came to light that perhaps depression was part of it. And for the first time, I really felt like at least this horrible thing had a name, something I could call it, maybe even control it to some degree.

For me, I really didn’t care what you call it, I just wanted some relief and my life back. I was so strung out, miserable (most of the time) and, of course, alone.

So I began to get treatment. I began to take some medication and the depression sort of went away but I still had some pretty bad days. This was like 10 or 11 years ago and it was about the time I started dating my current wife. I just feel so bad sometimes that I really scared her, I said some really cruel things, I really tried to push her away (like I guess I did with everyone else) but she wouldn’t let me.

She was such a powerful force of love that she sort of crushed it. We completely rised up together. She brought so much light that the darkness was no longer there. It couldn’t live there. She stayed, she said, “WE’LL find the right combination (of medication) that works for you.” And we did. Almost like a miracle, things began to lift, everything seemed to float more (it didn’t feel heavy like it used to). I felt like things that were completely out of my reach were now possible.

My life, my art, my business all seemed to get better. I was making progress. I went from living in my parents house upper bedroom to getting married, having immediate stepchildren and starting a business all in a matter of months. It was the beginning of a new life.

That, to me, is where creativity (via art) can best blossom. When you’re feeling healthy, when you’re well rested, when you have a sense of possibility, of lightness (as opposed to heaviness) That’s where creativity can really emerge. Creating art under under the weight of suffering? What kind of life is that?

I feel pretty clear of it most days (as I take medication every day) but I do think I have occasionally lapses. My wife is pretty good at sensing these things (probably because she’s an RN) so we can normally ward off something before it has a chance to gain any momentum.

Looking back, I hate thinking that it took so long to diagnose depression. I hate all the time and years it cost me. No one should have to suffer like that. And I ‘m not trying to compare it to other more deadly and catastrophic illnesses but it sure felt that way to me. It’s a horrible, downright insidious condition that robs people of joy, light and happiness.

Lot of people tell me, “great, it made you stronger” Fuck that. It robbed me of time, of facets of my career, of relationships, most everything that make life worth living. So, no, I’m really not thankful for it but I have accepted it. It’s the hand I was dealt.

My only hope is that if you or anyone you know might be suffering from depression that you reach out and help them. There are so many good organizations that can really help, that really know this disease, the symptoms and how to treat it. If that sounds daunting to find the right one, a good place to start is always your doctor.

Love and light

Image above:
“La Tristesse du roi (Sorrows of the King),” 1952
Henri Matisse
Gouache-painted paper cut-outs, mounted on canvas
292 x 386 cm
© Succession H. Matisse

5 Responses for “Art and Depression”

  1. Oh Doug- thank you for sharing your story. Bringing all of that darkness into the light of day will help others. I try to make my artwork a beacon for others and you are doing the same. good honest purging!

  2. Becky Joy says:

    A lot of what you are saying so relates to me. I’ve dealt with depression that was finally diagnosed in my 50’s. Life is so great now, but I feel like I had to start all over and relearn things. And so much time lost with my art, grandchildren that were born that I don’t remember that time. So much lost. As you say, you can only accept it. I try to tell myself some redeeming bits like an appreciation and drive to achieve now in my 60’s. At least, life is so much better! Good luck to you.

  3. Sherrie says:

    I remember as a small child feeling like “someone had died”. I am currently taking medications for depression, anxiety and anger. I honestly believe creative people deal with depression more than anyone else because we are highly sensitive people. We have a difficult time blocking out other peoples “vibes”. I have always been self-critical and felt like I never did anything right. I think that goes along with always seeing something in your artwork you want to change to “make it better”.

    Look at the Famous Singers, Actors, etc. that have died due to drugs. I think they were trying to self-medicate instead of going and getting the right meds from the doctor.

    I have decided I will draw or paint what my heart desires and believe that God gave me this gift. There are times when the Devil tries to step in and keep you from creating your joy. I am learning to shut my ears and keep my faith because I will be creating something that will say, “Sherrie painted this” after I am 6 feet under! In Literature, Music, Art, Medicine, etc. you can leave your footprint. But in your everyday “other job”, no one will remember you or your job.

    So leave a legacy behind for our future children…they will be amazed and so glad you did!

    Take care and God Bless,
    Sherrie

  4. Susan says:

    I’ve always been an honest and open person with my feelings, but perhaps there’s a deeper, darker place that is terribly lonely that I do not speak of. I mean, that’s sometimes a creepy thing to tell someone. It’s not like people leap out and start cultivating a friendship when they hear that! Truth is, I keep up a very happy, outgoing, fun-loving exterior that people do not believe me when I tell them how I feel about myself. I’m quite certain that this has affected my life in every way. And, it most certainly it has affected what I accomplish as an artist. By most accounts I’m this very talented, creative artist. But, it goes in one ear and out the other. I can’t absorb any of it! It really weighs me down. As a matter of fact, I just woke up this morning with a feeling of dread that EVERYTHING in my life has be colored by this negative attitude. There’s no telling how differently things could have been if I didn’t interpret things the way I do.
    Anyway, you are very brave to put this out there like you have. I’m very happy for you that you have moved beyond it. What it is teaching me is that I have to come clean and admit that I need help, whereas I have been refusing to believe I need it all these years!

  5. Jacqueline Ariano says:

    Sania, you are always so inspiring! Look forward to your first show.

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