Sometimes the Demon Wins: Mental Illness and Creativity

Some of you out there probably noticed that I didn’t post anything last Friday. (And if you didn’t, then drat! I should have kept my mouth shut!) I could say that it was due to my relentless work schedule. I could say that I was sick, or had an emergency, or even that I ran out of things to say and articles to dredge up out of the archives. But the truth is, it was none of those things. I simply couldn’t muster the oomph. I stared at a blinking cursor all day; I had ideas full of charm and wit and GIF-tastic fun, and I couldn’t bring forth the desire to make words form cohesive statements. So I didn’t.

I don’t generally like to talk about this side of myself online, the ever-present darkness that has lurked in the back of my mind since I was a kid. It’s weakness, a flaw, a broken part of my soul that I don’t want people to see. So instead, I obfuscate, deflecting it with sarcasm and illusion so no one sees what’s really happening behind the curtain. But as I’ve gotten older, I realize that pretending it doesn’t exist, denying the effects and havoc it can wreak, is far more dangerous than talking about it.

That’s not to say that I don’t own this part of my identity. I do. I’ll readily admit that I have clinical depression and a pretty severe anxiety disorder, all wrapped up in a nice little ball of personal hell that I contend with on a regular basis. I talk about it openly if asked, or in person. But only the superficial stuff — the medicines I take, the techniques I’ve learned for coping with it. I present myself as a functioning depressive, a victor, a survivor.

Until I’m not.

See, the thing about depression is that it’s often insidious, eroding at the edges of a victim’s reality without them even really noticing. You can be depressed and not feel sad. You can be stuck deep in the quagmire and not shed a single tear. You can be swallowed by the darkness and not feel suicidal. In fact, you can fall all the way to the bottom of the pit before you even realize something’s wrong, because outwardly, you kept functioning, kept trudging through life, kept covering the symptoms with caffeine and other pick-me-ups, kept chalking the fatigue and lethargy up to the toll of being a workaholic. You kept on.

But believe me when I say that you can appear to be “normal” and be exactly the opposite. This is what happened to me last week. I knew I’d been sliding into the pit for a while. I abruptly lost my meds about a month and a half ago due to an insurance kerfuffle and had to go without while I waited to get it fixed. (Don’t do this if you can help it. It’s dangerous and stupid, and you pay for it in ways that aren’t financial.) So I knew that it was likely I would experience the effects of not tempering my demon with the pills that kept it sated. I was on guard, alert; I knew the signs to watch out for.

And I still missed them.

People often ask me what it feels like to be depressed. It’s different for everyone, and there are a million analogies for it out there. We’ve all seen the ads portraying listless people who forgot how to brush their hair or blue-tinged cartoon worlds with wind-up toys. And yeah, I suppose those are accurate — when you’re deep in the Pit of the Unmedicated. But here’s what it looked like for me:

Low-level insomnia, which turned into white-noise insomnia (the kind where your body sleeps but your brain literally won’t turn off), which was followed by exhaustion (because duh! Not sleeping well = tired), which became full-on fatigue, which made getting through the day feel like running a marathon in waist-deep mud, which turned into not wanting to do anything (because yeah, STILL TIRED), which turned into over-sensitivity to everything (sorry, friends and family, I know you don’t hate me and I didn’t mean to be a witch), which turned into festering on misinterpreted actions, which turned into feeling worthless, which then turned into guilt over not being good enough at, well, everything, which turned into stress (oh hey there, anxiety, nice of you to join the party!), which turned into even worse doomsday visions and insecurities and OH MY GOD I’M GOING TO FAIL AT EVERYTHING, which turned into a complete and total brain shutdown and a horrific case of the Blahs, which finally turned into the realization that I had fallen into the Morass of Despair again and GOD DAMN IT, WHERE ARE MY PILLS?

Whew! Get tired reading that? Imagine living it. And through all of that nightmare, I went to work, I kept my house clean, I dog-sat for my sister, I went out with friends, I finished client work on deadline, and I kept going. But even though I managed to maintain my day-to-day routine, and even managed to be at least somewhat social, everything felt like it took a million times more effort than it should. So yeah, I may have checked the boxes on the to-do list, but I was left with nothing at the end of it.

Now, that might not seem so bad to a lot of you. I mean, I’m fortunate in that my personal breed of depression is not debilitating, that the river of anxiety which runs through it often motivates me to leave the safety of my bed and gives me enough energy to at least somewhat function — though it can often take me half the day to even feel awake, let alone present. But here’s the kicker — I’m a creative person. I write, and edit, and draw, and generally view the world through the lens of creativity. But when you feel like a shell of a human, it’s not exactly easy to call up that sparkly inner creativity fairy. Creativity, after all, relies on motivation, inspiration, dreams, and intellect, and when a Mental Illness Monster has your muse trapped in its jaws, there’s not much you can do. You’re empty. No matter how much you might want to, it’s just not there.

So the point to all this, as I’m sure you’re starting to wonder, is that sometimes the demon wins. Sometimes you just can’t muster it. And that’s okay. Depression and anxiety are common among a lot of creative people, so I wanted to take this moment to acknowledge that, to tell myself and all the others who secretly battle against this and feel guilty when they have to take a mental health day, when they just can’t call forth the will to create, that it’s 100% okay. Take that day off. Claw your way out of the pit however you need to. Do it without regret and without guilt. And remember, it’s not weakness to surrender temporarily, to seek help, to do what you need to for yourself. You can let the demon win sometimes; so long as it doesn’t win the war.

14 thoughts on “Sometimes the Demon Wins: Mental Illness and Creativity

  1. I’ve never experienced the full on sort of depression and anxiety that you do, but I teatered on the edge of it for a while many years ago. It was scary and completely consuming, and I cannot imagine what it must be like to constantly have to battle against it-because that’s what it is–a battle.
    I wish I could give you a great big hug and tell you that it will all get better, but I understand that those words, whilst meaning well, don’t convey the true depth of what you’re going through 😦
    But I’ll still send you the biggest virtual hug EVER with the promise that you WILL get through this. People understand, people care.
    Look after yourself, take the time you need to sort through the fog.
    And remember to watch out for my hug!!!!!!!!!
    Melody xxxx

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I think too often people hide their flaws and, even worse, don’t deal with them. What an inspiration you are to be so open and share with us what it’s like, and the encouragement to see how it can be dealt with and still have a functional life. I think you have a lot of good points, but the one that most sticks with me is your last line, “let the demon win sometimes; so long as it doesn’t win the war.”
    I feel a certain kinship with this concept and it’s the underlying message of my writing. But even if I wrote a hundred books, your testimony says more than I ever could. So thank you, and I hope others are touched by this and are encouraged to deal with the demons in their lives.

  3. Oh how I sympathize, I know the demon. In my youth they put me on medication but I tried a few and threw them aside. I spent a long dark time with bouts of utter despair. That’s how I got married both times, I was worth nothing so why not let them do what they wanted. Mine had a nice migraine sideshow. As I got older, after a really bad episode, I forced myself to get a grip or give up. I’ve worked on it for years, and yes, Jesus helped me. Now I find myself slipping and can get out before it gets dire. It was not easy. I’m so sorry yours is so bad you must medicate, it must feel like such an anchor. I could not write then, although I wanted to. Now I can. It was difficult at first, but now I feel competent perhaps, yeah, maybe that’s it. Doesn’t matter. What matters it for you to take care of yourself. Depend on nobody to do it for you, you take care of your self! Please!

    • Thank you, Mary! I actually don’t mind the medicine–I’m far more productive with it, than without, and take such a low dose the doctors say it shouldn’t even work at all–but I totally get that it’s not for everyone. It took me years to find my perfect combination and dose. I think we all find our own ways to deal with it, in the end. Sounds like you’ve found your method, though, so kudos! You’re an inspiration as well. 🙂

  4. This is a great article, and I identify with it so much. Thank you for sharing this with us. You can do this, and you’re not alone out there. I have good days and bad days, and I know how tough those bad days are. I also congratulate you on having the bravery to speak out on such a difficult topic. Despite great strides forward, mental illness is often so stigmatized.

  5. Thank you for sharing. I can relate to every word you’ve written. My medication has silenced my muse to the point that I no longer write poetry. But I had to choose years ago to be able to live or to live without writing. I chose the former. I am open about my mental illness and fibromyalgia, which I also have. When we can be vulnerable and open ourselves up we offer others the opportunity to find out they are not alone and maybe we get someone to reach out for help. Again, thank you for sharing.

    • You’re welcome. Thank you for sharing your story as well! You’re absolutely right; talking about it, even if its painful, can be the difference between someone feeling isolated and alone and someone being able to find hope. If my story gives someone the latter, then I’m more than happy to share it. 🙂

  6. I could have written this myself. Sometimes I think I should go back on meds, but I think I need the mania on the pendulum’s backswing to write. When the worst days hit, I’m usually able to recognize it and wait it out. That means ordering pizza for the kids and curling up into a ball and telling myself over and over, “None of your thoughts are rational right now. Don’t make any decisions until tomorrow.”
    Bad as those days are, I think the long, slow depressions are worse because they creeps up so gradually. I only recognize the deepness of the mud puddle and the fact that I’m drowning when I reach the bottom and push back up a bit; by then things are dire but getting better.
    (((HUGS)))

    • I agree completely. When you can harness the energy that comes from the anxiety half of the cycle, it’s great. But that’s definitely not always the case. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. **hugs back**

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