Fame, creativity, and depression

One of the most shocking news items of 2014 was the suicide of actor and comedian Robin Williams. How could a man so talented, so seemly full of laughter and joy, choose to end his life? It seemed that Robin Williams had it all: fame, money, and the love of millions of people. Yet Robin Williams was terribly sad. He spoke openly about his battles with depression. People in his life believed him and tried to help him. Health professionals took care of him. Somehow, one night, it was not enough. Depression won, and the world lost Robin Williams.

Many famous people publicly acknowledge their battles with depression. Are famous people more likely than the rest of us to be depressed? Probably not—we just hear more about their struggles because they are famous. The prevalence of depression among the famous is most likely about the same as its prevalence among the general population. Maybe famous people feel safer talking about problems that the rest of us prefer to keep hidden.

On the other hand, some observers have noticed a correlation between creativity and depression. Not that depression makes people creative—just the other way around; depression saps the ability to create and to communicate. But people who see themselves as outsiders, members of minority groups and others at the edge of society, frequently produce more art (music, literature, etc.) than the general population. These people often have a stronger sense of humor, which again seems to be fed by their perception of themselves as outsiders. If creativity and humor are evoked by estrangement from the world, by a sense of alienation, then a correlation between depression and creativity does not come as a surprise.

Soren Kierkegaard, in writings such as The Concept of Anxiety (also translated as The Concept of Dread) and The Sickness unto Death, seemed to suggest that depression is a normal reaction to the way things are in this world. By “the way things are,” I do not so much mean wars and poverty and crime, but rather the individual experience of sensing the difference between who I truly am and who I could be and ought to be. Satisfaction with that difference, Kierkegaard indicated, is worse than being depressed over the difference. Yet the chasm between who I am and who I should be is unbridgeable. The only sensible response to becoming aware of that difference, it would seem, is despair.

Of course, neither you nor I can experience another person’s emotions or can tell how another person truly feels inside. I do not know if my depression is like that of others or is unique. All I can do is to describe how I feel in the midst of an emotional trough. I wake up in the morning, and getting out of bed is a chore. Brushing my teeth is a chore. Taking a shower is a chore. I push myself to accomplish these chores, even though I cannot think of a good reason to do them. I drive to work, but I am not interested in the things I will do at work. The family might plan some entertainment together—a movie or a baseball game—and I go along to be a good sport, but I would rather sit alone at home. Worst of all, when I am driving, I imagine what it would be like to drive the car off the side of the bridge into the river. I can find no good reason not to do it. I am not looking forward to anything in the near future, or in the distant future. If a doctor told me that I had an advanced case of cancer and I could not be saved, I would take that as good news, not as bad news.

That is how I feel when I am depressed. I assume the feeling is similar for other people. But what causes this feeling of dismal despair? Depression, as far as I understand it, is a symptom with various causes. For that reason, the same solution is not effective for all people facing depression.

It seems that there is a genetic predisposition to depression; people from some families are more likely to experience depression than people from other families. Depression can be the result of chemical balances in the human body. It can be a response to current, on-going stresses; or it can be a response to events from long ago—sometimes events that are remembered, and sometimes events that are forgotten.

Some people can find relief from depression by getting proper nutrition, accompanied with enough sleep each night and enough exercise each day. Others take medicines that help to relieve depression. Others need therapy to discuss their current stresses and past problems with a therapist. Still others, including Kierkegaard, find solace in religion. Often several of these sources of relief are needed in combination. What works for one person does not work for the next person. Just because I swallowed a certain pill or attended a certain church and started feeling better, I cannot conclude that every person with depression should take that pill or go to that church.

Well-meaning people try to help. “Cheer up,” they say, “Things can’t be so bad.” They encourage the victim of depression to be busy doing other things, especially things that help other people. “Then you won’t have time to be depressed,” they say. Still another solution—one I tried for many years, until I accepted that it was not working—is to ignore the feelings of depression, do the right thing in spite of those feelings, and pay them no mind.

We all have bad days now and then. Depression is like a string of bad days. It is like a bad cloud that will not go away. It is like a trap with no hope of escape. Depression is a most dangerous symptom precisely because it robs its victims of hope, convincing them that things will never improve no matter what they do.

If you know these feelings, I hope you are finding help. If you have not looked for help—if, like me, you tried to fight your way through on your own—please take the next step. See a family doctor, to find out if your depression is a symptom of some physical problem. See a counselor to talk through your feelings and to track them back to their origin. Reach out for help, call out for help, and keep looking until you find help. You are worth it. And you can be happy again.

If you know someone who appears to be under that cloud, talk to that person. Listen to that person. Encourage that person to get professional help. He or she is worth it. And he or she can be happy again.

Thank you for reading.

J.

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