The Depression/Creativity Link

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I’m having a hard time writing lately. My brain feels sucked dry, as if I just don’t care about the things that I used to care about. I’m not sure if it’s burn out on the topics or burn out on writing, but getting words out is a serious challenge right now. I think there are some deeper issues here about putting forth a lot of time and effort without seeing a whole lot of pay off, but there’s also something a bit more personal.

In a twist of epic proportions, I have spent most of this month not being anxious.

I forget the last time that happened. It seems this therapy thing is starting to get at the very deep seated issues and perhaps it’s convinced my brain to run a little more slowly. Everything seems a little more balanced: I’m happy with my work, with my relationship, with my friends. I haven’t had any serious depression signs in a while. Cool.

Here’s my worry: I feel less passionate. One of the benefits of anxiety was the heightened awareness that came with it. I noticed things that were a problem and I made connections between things. My brain was always racing, always on. I couldn’t move on from an issue without dealing with it somehow, and that included social justice things that didn’t even affect me. It was how the wheels of my brain and my work kept going. My emotions just don’t hit as hard and as fast anymore, which is really great for being a functional human being who can go through a day without feeling like the world is ending, but not great for someone who wants to have Serious Inspiration.

I feel so tired and dull and numb. My brain is quieter now. I am fairly certain that I’m not as smart as I used to be. I wonder if I’m finally feeling all the stuff that I was pretending didn’t exist for a long time, all the tiredness that comes from pushing too hard for years, the deep hurts that come from using food and work as your only coping skills. I wonder if I’ll swing back towards the middle some day when I’ve recuperated from the long illness that is depression.

I know that it is a myth that mental illness is the way to be creative. I have seen for myself that I think more clearly when I’m not starving or suicidal. But what I wonder is if balance makes passion difficult. When my brain is in the midst of depression and anxiety, writing often feels like the only escape. It’s a necessity. I’ll prioritize it over cleaning or calling my insurance or doing other unpleasant, adult tasks. Without that driving, painful, intensity of mental illness feelings, it’s easier to do all the functional things that one should do. I make more time for my friends, I make time to improve my house, I do stupid adult things like cleaning regularly and researching the best vacuum cleaner. I just don’t have as much time to write because it isn’t a screaming priority. I still care about writing, and I try to make time for it, but when it’s coming after a full day of work and therapy and freelancing and taking care of my cat and managing insurance, I just have less left in me.

There’s a selfishness to being sick that comes of necessity. It’s the selfishness that says I have no choice but to pay attention to me because I cannot function otherwise. I miss that selfishness. Even as I’m learning a different kind of selfishness that comes from saying no and setting boundaries and listening to my wants, I’m still not sure how to balance the things that I’m passionate about with the mundane tasks of existing. Maybe this is why so few adults can keep up their hobbies and passions. Intentional self care is far less exciting than the self care that comes out of desperation.

Without some need or want, my writing doesn’t have the drive that it used to. It comes out slowly when I make myself sit down and create a topic out of thin air. Questions and concerns aren’t whirling around in my brain, ripe for a blog post, the way they used to be.

In many ways this parallels a larger difficulty I’m feeling: a loss of identity. There was so much happening inside my head for so long that I felt as if there was too much of me. These days, I feel as if I’ve shrunk. It feels more manageable, but I’m sad about it too. There isn’t as much chaos, but I’m not sure what’s left. Writing has often served as a stand in for who I am. I’ve stripped away so much of the sickness. Now I suppose it’s time to build up again.

I’ve never heard people mention that recovery might take away some of the abilities that seemed normal for my whole life. Even if overall the changes in my life are positive, any change is hard, and this change has side effects that affect my fundamental self. It’s not as simple as “there’s no relationship between mental illness and creativity.” I don’t think I’ve lost all my creativity, but I do need to relearn how to be creative. I don’t want to ignore it for the sake of presenting a good face on recovery.

So here it is: recovery is making it harder for me to do some of the things that I love. I don’t need them in the way that I used to. I trust that eventually I will figure out how to make this version of my brain work for me, but that doesn’t change that it’s harder now.

 

Getting to the Heart of Things: Am I Just Making It Up?

I had so many issues as a kid

My therapist and I have recently been embarking on a long and poopy journey deep into the recesses of my brain to try to tease out some of the reasons my particular set of neuroses decided to express themselves through my body. Unsurprisingly, I find this a frustrating and unpleasant experience, as thinking at great length about the relationship between my emotions and my body makes me want to stick my tongue out and go “phooey. I just don’t like my body and that’s it.” But I am curious about what made it all circulate around my body. How did I go from needing control and perfection to needing control over food in particular and perfection in the form of an abnormally skinny body?

So we’ve been talking about blurry, early childhood memories, or tenuous connections between what I know I feel and how those feelings express themselves in behaviors, or my early family relationships and lessons. A lot of it feels like looking through darkly tinted glasses: I can make out shapes, but I’m not entirely certain what I’m looking at. I’ll be sure there’s a connection between my feelings of uncertainty early in childhood and my eventual eating disorder, but teasing out that relationship and the catalysts later in life seems impossible. Any given issue, like my need for control, has about 15 different large elements that could have been an important “cause”. We’ll spend an hour delving into a particular relationship or incident, and by the end of the time there will be something like a narrative that offers an explanation.

It’s helpful in that knowing where something comes from helps me tailor my self care and my coping mechanisms. I’m a control freak because I grew up around some volatile people? I’ve surrounded myself with very stable folks who will listen when I tell them I’m scared they’ll get angry with me if I do x action. I seek reassurance that their feelings are stable. Understanding what needs are going unfulfilled helps me to meet those needs.

But on the other hand, I feel like I’m making things up. With so many possible explanations, all of which can be turned into neat narratives, how do I know which one is right? Even more worrisome is the fact that memory is so very fallible. There are many examples of people suddenly remembering things that never happened during therapy sessions, and even if it’s nothing quite that sinister, it’s easy to reinterpret or misremember the past (especially early life) to match your current interpretations. Is it really helpful to try to delve back so far? How much accuracy can I have when I’m partially relying on secondhand information from my parents about my early life, supplemented with fuzzy, emotional memories.

Here’s something that a very literal, black and white, absolute thinker like myself has trouble with: there is no correct answer to the how of my personality. A life cannot be reduced to a couple of simple equations that can be solved if you plug in the correct self care. There is no correct narrative about my life. I do not make sense and I never will. These are not judgmental statements. Ambiguity and randomness are facts of life. We just don’t like to admit that they apply to ourselves, especially when they end up creating pain in our lives.

So is there really any point in trying to make sense of all the billions of small factors that combined to give the world my current self?

I think there is. Each narrative contains some elements of the truth. This week I may focus on some of the difficulties my parents had when I was a child and the ways that it impacted my sense of stability. Next week I may focus on my natural tendency towards order and how it expressed itself as far back as I can remember. The week after I might think about the difficult relationship I had with my brother as a kid. Each of these things contributed something to the way I am right now. When I find answers, I like to hold on tight to them. This is how it is. I don’t get to do that with these kinds of answers. Each one is just a partial, flawed answer. I have to be gentle with them, or they will fall apart. Each time I try to grab onto one too hard and say “this is who I am, this is why I am,” it stops making sense.

The multitude of narratives also helps protect against all the bits that I don’t remember quite correctly. I have to fit competing narratives together, which means parts that don’t make sense get challenged. Any time I become completely convinced that one thing explains all of me, I have to remember how easy it is to tweak my memories to fit.

Of course trusting myself to figure it out in a reasonable manner is even harder as someone with anxiety and depression: I don’t trust my abilities and my brain. This is a hard task to begin with, but for those of us in therapy who really need to undertake it, it’s even harder. It’s easy to imagine that we’re lying to ourselves to make life easier or explain our behaviors away. I once again appreciate the importance of having a therapist I trust. I once again appreciate that this long term work of building a life that balances out my difficulties is impossible when I’m in crisis. I once again appreciate that nuance is necessary even if I hate it.

Posts like this leave me unsettled because there’s no conclusion. I do think that speaking openly about what therapy is like and how it can be difficult is important. I also want to recognize that therapy changes over time. I have been in therapy for almost 5 years straight now, and while ideally therapy is not unending, I have been working on distinct and distinctly important things throughout that time. This feels like it’s close to the end, and that’s exciting, even as I realize that there’s a strong possibility I’ll never be done with the work of accepting that I will never make sense of myself. So no, I’m not just making up stories to make myself feel better. There is some element of self creation in the narratives I choose to talk about, but the overlapping narratives give me some insight into the truth, as far as it exists. That may be the best I can do.

The Pitfalls of the “Gifted” Label

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Note: Sorry I’ve been away for so long. I was putting on a conference and gala at work, then moving! We should be back to our regularly scheduled programming now.

Lately I’ve been feeling a lot of pressure to do something awesome. Maybe it’s the season, or the fact that I’ve been feeling more like an adult than ever (with my real, big kid job, and an apartment that’s just me and my boyfriend), or maybe it’s seeing friends around me graduating from law school or getting books published or starting their own blog networks. Whatever it is, I’m wondering what I’ve been doing with my life

It happens periodically. I grew up with a lot of messages that I was pretty smart and would do pretty cool things. So every now and then I’ll remember when I was 11 and wrote my first draft of a novel. I remember hearing about Christopher Paolini and scoffing, knowing that when I wrote MY novel, no one would be able to tell it had been penned by a teenager. I imagined my name being on everyone’s tongue by the time I was 20, as That Girl who had shattered all expectations, been a prodigy.

I don’t talk about it very often, because it’s embarrassing to tell people that when you were a child you thought you would be a famous writer. But it’s not so ridiculous. My parents and teachers were all supportive in the way that makes you think you’re one of a kind special. I was gifted, I was capable of anything, I needed special work and special challenges to match my brain. At the time, this kind of encouragement was pretty par for the course. It was early in our understanding of gifted kids. I’m glad I got support and I’m glad I had people who pushed me to do more.

But I’ve begun to suspect that labeling a kid gifted is setting them up for disappointment later in life. Last week I was at a conference for work, and saw Rebecca Banks Cull and Diane Kennedy discussing autism and giftedness. They said something that really stuck with me. “In our society, giftedness is synonymous with achievement.” Until that changes, when we tell our kids that they are gifted, we are telling them that we have certain expectations for their achievements. Those expectations are almost always financial success, academic success, or other markers of societal status. More than that, many gifted kids get the message that their giftedness is only real when there is an external way to measure it: IQ, a book deal, a position as a college professor, prestigious awards, or success in their chosen field.

For me, giftedness often presented itself as speed. I picked up on things quickly, I completed my work before anyone else, I always finished tests early, and my work was still typically high quality. I assumed that everything else in life would come quickly too. I was told from a young age that I was working beyond the typical abilities of people my age. I was told I developed empathy early, that my abstract thinking appeared sooner than other kids, and that I had a maturity beyond my years.

So here I am wondering why I feel so behind in life.

I don’t think it’s because I’m actually doing anything wrong. I’m at a pretty average point in life for a 25 year old. But after a childhood being told that not only would I accomplish beyond my peers, but that I would do it quickly and easily, it’s easy to assume that I’ve done something wrong when my life just looks average. It’s easy to think that it was all a lie when people said that I was gifted, or that I have been lazy, or that I have squandered my talent. It’s easy to assume that the problem must be with me instead of with the fact that getting things done sooner isn’t necessarily better, or that working and living as an adult is drastically different from school, or that perhaps my talents are not easily measured by achievements.

The biggest problem with that gifted label as I see it is that it gave me the message that I didn’t really need to persevere. Things always came easily to me, and that was praised. So now that things are taking longer, and requiring more commitment, I begin to think that I’m incapable of doing them at all. I’m certainly not going to stop. I’m going to get a book published. I’m going to make a difference in the world somehow. But it feeds my imposter syndrome in a serious way to look back at the expectations people had for me when they labeled me gifted and compare those expectations with the achievements I have today.

I think that it’s always dangerous to give a child a label that implies they will be successful. The world is too random and out of our control to ever guarantee that. Giving a kid the idea that they can make themselves be successful is a dangerous idea, and a set up for disappointment and self hatred. I must have done something wrong, or I would have changed the world by now.

Or maybe, just maybe, those expectations are too high, unnecessary, and irrational. Maybe I’m doing just fine, and patience is the lesson I needed when I was told I was special. Perhaps it’s still the lesson I need. Average is ok. Average people do outstanding things all the time. There is no essence of myself that is gifted, and is just waiting to escape given the right circumstances. Mostly, doing amazing things is a lot of boring work. That’s what giftedness doesn’t get at. The mundanity of accomplishment, and the way that amazing moments of understanding don’t do a whole lot to pay the bills and get you through the everyday. Instead of focusing on what I haven’t accomplished yet, I want to remind myself that I still bring insight and curiosity and creativity to the world. I am still valuable, even if I haven’t translated Linear A yet.