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.