Artistic Depression

wackedselfportrait
Self portrait: When the Soul Feels Anorexic, acrylic on canvas, http://www.carolineallen.com

A friend once accused me of hiding how hard things have been/are for me in my artistic process. I highlight the successes, rant at the small-mindedness of other people, but never really detail how hard it’s been.

At the very real risk of exposing my soft underbelly (especially in brutal New England), I’m going to write about my own artistic depression. My hope is that this is not a gratuitous exercise, a feel-sorry-for-me rant. My hope is it’ll help others who have such depressions to get up, walk across the room, sit down at their computer, and do their writing.

Since an agent in New York City expressed interest in my novel Earth this week, I’ve plunged into an artistic depression. I wrote my friend Leah in Armenia/Republic of Georgia about my bottomless low self esteem this weekend. She wrote back:

I think your low self esteem is a normal reaction, believe it or not, to the success you are having right now in life. The novel being considered seriously by an agent, the beautiful art you are making, the spiritual growth and family stuff you are healing, the work you are doing with the school children, all of it! Sometimes, I think the struggle to achieve is easier to accept than the achievments themselves!

Yes, I wrote back, having my voice heard and recognized reminds me of all the times I was told to shut up, the times I was beaten up for what I had to say, the times I’ve nearly died because I’ve expressed myself.

I just went into Lowe’s to get nails and screws for my art studio and had to avoid the aisle where they sell rope because my mind bounced madly over how one might buy such rope, where one might find a beam to throw it over, how one might tie a noose knot, how one might…

Here’s where I worry this may sound gratuitous…oh poor little white girl who’s doing her art…what does SHE have to be suicidal over?

That’s what my friend was saying about how I hide how hard this is for me — people somehow have the notion that I find this all easy. I don’t. I really don’t.

I grew up with barely literate parents on a farm. From when I was little, they told me the way I saw things was wrong, even dangerous. When I was as young as 5, my father would hide in the hallway and whisper insults in my ear, stupid, loser, idiot. He used to look at me, grimace and tell me how ugly I was.

Such whispered hate bowed my head down. Despite years of healing, sometimes it still bows my head down.

I was yelled at continually for speaking my truth. Somehow what I believed about the world, about the earth, engendered rage in mainstream, sexist Missouri. I just felt the earth was all we needed. That the rest of the striving was just so unnecessary. And I’m still not sure how this triggered so much rage. I still get confused about that.

At any rate, I learned to shut my mouth. And when I didn’t learn that lesson well enough, I was beaten. Many times. Once when I was a teenager, I was driven off the road by an enraged boyfriend, because I said I wouldn’t marry him, because I said I wanted to go find out who I was. He slammed into my car at 50 mph. He nearly killed me.

In my extended family, many have committed suicide. So many people have shot themselves in the head that I went through a phase where I counted as a success in my family anyone who was still alive. It’s epidemic in our genes. An acceptable way of not living. A consequence of so many sensitive souls (like me) being insulted, beaten down, told to shut ourselves up til we no longer exist.

When I was 30, and I gave up London and my husband and journalism to again try to find myself, I suffered my first artistic breakdown. I spent three months on a futon in a studio apartment I’d moved into in Seattle. Oh God, how I hated Seattle. (Now, I can’t believe how lucky I was to live there and meet so many unbelievably loving people who are still part of my life).

But at that time, I thought it was such a podunk, isolated, depressing place. I wanted my husband back, my jet-setting career. I missed London! Despair rocked my body. I sobbed endlessly. I didn’t want to explore myself, my past, the abuse, the estrangement from the abusive family. It was too hard.

I hit bottom one day. I awoke at 3 p.m., sheets sweat-soaked, the apartment filthy. Either you choose to die, a voice said, or you choose to live.

There was no great urge to live, just a choice. But I knew that to die would be just too hard on the people I loved. So, I said: OK, I’ll live.

I will make this promise, I said to the cracks on the ceiling, I will not kill myself and I will do my art.

I got out of bed. I took file cards and wrote on them: Eat every day. Have you brushed your teeth? Is your hair combed? Did you bathe today? Do your laundry.

I taped them around the apartment. I slowly painfully started to take care of myself. I slowly painfully started writing fiction every day…sobbing at the computer on a rickety table in the corner of the kitchen. I took my healing practice more seriously. I studied different healing modalities.

It took three YEARS to come out of that funk. Three years! As I came out of it, I met a writer woman in London where I went for a short visit. She told me a story of spending three months on the hardwood floor with depression over her divorce. When she stood up finally, she said it looked like a policeman’s chalk outline of her body. Her tissues, ashtray, tea cup, lighter, fags, ganja, rolling papers, wine glass all formed the shape of her body on the floor. She was looking down upon the outline of her depression.

I LOVED her for telling me the truth of her depression. I laughed and fell in love with her.

I told her about the time I couldn’t work because I was so low and had to go to the food bank. How I sobbed about having to go to a foodbank. My parents were right — the way I saw things DID make me a failure. As I stood in line in the drizzling rain, I cried and thought: They were right I am a failure because of the way I perceive the world!

When I got to the front of the line, they gave me a frozen chicken. I told this friend that it was so frozen and hard, all I could think of on the walk home was how it could be used to kill someone. One swing of the chicken and someone would be dead!

She burst into hysterical guffaws. She was a writer too, and right then she came up with a mystery/thriller where I killed someone with the frozen chicken and then went home and thawed and boiled and ate the evidence. I was laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes.

Things have certainly gotten easier/better since those days, but I will say this: when I hit bottom, when I felt the existential angst at that moment at age 30 when I had to make a choice to live or die, when I suffered the realization of being sensitive in such a world as this, with all its murder, rape, war, with all its small niggling brutal insults, when I hit bottom, that feeling of existential angst has never really left me. I think it is really how I feel about the world…that despair is as real as the light and the glory that I also feel, when I’m doing my art and writing.

Now, I just choose. To get out of bed, to sit, to write, to make art, to help others express themselves.

Now, it’s just a constant choice. To live.

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5 thoughts on “Artistic Depression

  1. Hi Carrie, You are so brave. Thank you for that. Creating art, no matter what genre or medium, is an act of hope. And you have created so many wonderful things! For me, I learned long ago not to make it an act of hope that I would end up rich or famous (although truly that still lurks in some part of my intent) but with the hope that I will learn something about myself.

    Lately I’ve been having these fantasies about standing in front of a crowd of people and receiving a standing ovation. It’s such a great fantasy! I have no idea why they are applauding. I hope it’s because they love my book–and me! But in a sense that doesn’t matter. They’re clapping and I’m beaming, soaking in all the love. I often find that this fantasy makes me weep with joy. They love me and I love them right back. It’s so cool!

    Doing anything in this culture of critiscm is such a risk to our fragile egos. Getting out of bed–making note cards–taking a shower–sharing ‘self’ stories–all acts of incredible courage. I’m standing up and clapping for you.

    Lots of love, Luanne

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  2. Carrie, Thank you for sharing so much of your personal journey. Stories help us face our own lives and know we’re not alone. Your story is a hard one and has taken a great deal of courage both to live out and talk about. Blessings to you!

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  3. Carrie,
    I have such admiration and respect for you and your journey as I read this blog today….girl, you have come a long way!!! Thank you for the laughter as well….I cracked up at the site of the frozen chicken as the murder weapon and the “soup”—OMG how funny ecspecially in light of our last conversation—thank God I am not the only lovely luny on the planet—it’s so nice to have company!!!

    Carrie,I do believe that when people finally begin to get what they truly really want and they have come from such a hard place, there is usually a depression that seems to come along for at least awhile….it seems to be the child feeling how deprived she/he actually was and also asking do I really deserve this???!!! But soon, you will get used to it!!!
    I am overjoyed at the thought of you getting Earth published——WWWWWOOOOWWWWW!!!!! YYYIIIIPPPPPEEEEE!!!!!
    And I am soooooooooooooooooooooo proud of you for finding your voice and helping others to find theirs despite all the threats and pain you have had to overcome on your journey!!!
    Well done!!!
    With love & gratitude,
    Ellen

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  4. Oh my. This was what I needed to read today. I set out looking for other artists who struggle and/or bathe in the highs and lows of a sensitive soul. It is so difficult for me to see the world the way I see it- the way it truly is, I believe. And it’s difficult to grasp how others can walk through the land mines of uncertain fate and certain darkness… and just head to work, or coffee, or the gym, or any other mundane activity. It’s as if they don’t see the evils of human nature swarming around them. And to miss a sunset? To ignore the smile of a trusting child? To cry with happiness as you see our connected souls working together to achieve a positive? How are the “normal” people able to stay steady and continue on without a moments pause to give thanks?

    Yes- it’s good to find other sensitive souls in the world. For me, it’s encouraging to see one that has managed to say, “Yes, I’m going to do this. I have a point of view and it’s worthy of being heard”. Thank you so much for writing this. I am not a writer, but am a singer, teacher and photographer. It matters not what your art IS, it matters that you live in it.

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