The Van Gogh Blues
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The Van Gogh Blues

The Creative Person's Path Through Depression

Eric Maisel, PhD

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  1. 272 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

The Van Gogh Blues

The Creative Person's Path Through Depression

Eric Maisel, PhD

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Creative people will experience depression — that's a given. It's a given because they are regularly confronted by doubts about the meaningfulness of their efforts. Theirs is a kind of depression that does not respond to pharmaceutical treatment. What's required is healing in the realm of meaning.In this groundbreaking book, Eric Maisel teaches creative people how to handle these recurrent crises of meaning and how to successfully manage the anxieties of the creative process. Using examples both from the lives of famous creators such as van Gogh and from his own creativity coaching practice, Maisel explains that despite their inevitable difficulties, creative people possess the ability to forge relationships, repair themselves, and find meaning in their work and their lives. Maisel presents a step-by-step plan to help creative people handle their special brand of depression and rediscover the reasons they are driven to create in the first place.

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Meaning is our territory, and casualties on the battlefield of meaning are our subjects. Depression in creative people is essentially a meaning problem and must be handled by a meaning expert: you. Right now you may not consider yourself a meaning expert or even understand the phrase. But as you read along, you will come to understand what a meaning expert is, what she does, and why you must become one.
To be more accurate about it, you will want to become a meta-meaning expert. Your job isn’t to find one particular meaning and adopt it as your way of life but rather to learn about the vagaries of meaning, about how meaning comes and goes, about what sustains meaning, and why meaning sometimes vanishes. Then, when you feel yourself becoming depressed, you will know to say, “Must be a meaning crisis!” You will know what to do next to plug up the hole through which meaning is escaping. Even the greatest meaning expert can’t keep meaning from leaking out and draining away, but you can learn how to restore meaning and recover from meaning crises.
A rocket engineer builds rockets and out of self-interest is obliged to say, “Space travel is good.” He has no vested interest in stepping back and thinking about the pros and cons of space travel. Likewise, a minister has a vested interest in saying, “My religion is the true religion.” A therapist has a vested interest in diagnosing and treating according to the nostrums of his profession. Most people are invested in a single point of view and find it much too troubling and troublesome to step back, take the “meta” position, and ask, “What is really going on?”
You must take this meta position with respect to meaning if you are to understand your episodes of depression and craft a life you deem worth living. If you don’t become a meta-meaning expert, you will find yourself unhappy, regularly uncreative and unproductive, and sometimes even suicidal. Your two eyes are not enough—you must cultivate a third idea with which you monitor the ebb and flow of meaning in your life. Just as you can’t sense the fact that billions of neutrinos are passing through your body as you read this passage, most people can’t sense that they are engaged in a never-ending interplay with meaning.
This will be new territory for most of you. Probably you’ve studied a little psychology, philosophy, religion, and other disciplines that claim meaning as their subject matter. But none of these fields demands that you come to your own conclusions about what meaning means. I believe that you need to do exactly that, that the crux of the matter is articulating what life will mean for you and how you will keep personal meaning alive in the face of repeated meaning crises. We will have to use language in new ways because no common vocabulary of meaning currently exists. We will also need to think in new ways, as if we were brilliant babes in the woods looking at life for the first time.
Let me preview what answers won’t work. It will not work to say, “If I manage to create, that will be enough meaning for me.” It will not work to say, “If I divine what the universe wants of me and if I obey its commands, that will constitute my meaning.” It will not work to say, “If I lose my mind, that may bring some peace.” It will not work to say, “If I blend in and accept the meanings of my culture, that ought to work for me, since it appears to work for other people.” It will not work to say, “Maybe I can revisit some former meaning, say my birth religion or that philosophy I dabbled in when I was 19, and fully embrace that received wisdom.” These familiar answers will not work. To understand why, we need to investigate what meaning means to a contemporary human being, to someone who knows too much to make do with old answers but who hasn’t stretched into the skin she needs to wear: the skin of a heroic meaning-maker.


Consider Barry. Barry is 37, was married for a few years and currently lives alone, has at times smoked a lot of marijuana, and for more than a decade marginally survived on the interest from savings left to him by his parents. In his 20s, Barry wrote three novels that were never published. Then, at 34, he had a novel published that became a bestseller. His life changed: He became seriously depressed.
He spent the year after the publication of his novel publicizing it and gearing up to write its sequel. But no sequel visited him. Serious and self-respectful enough to know not to embark on a meaningless new novel just because he was a hot commodity, he nevertheless felt intense pressure to come up with a sequel and to “strike while the iron was hot.” But a year passed and then another without a good idea for a novel arriving.
Barry had been periodically depressed before his best-seller but now found himself suffering from the worst depression of his life, one that was practically paralyzing. To the casual outsider, including an unwary therapist, it looked like Barry must be having psychological problems. Did he “fear success”? Was some sinister Oedipal dynamic playing itself out where Barry felt like he had “murdered his father” and was now “sleeping with his mother”? Did his success and the subsequent strain for an “even bigger” hit trigger a latent biochemical major depression? These are a few of the reasons Barry would have heard proffered by professionals as to why he was seriously depressed when, by all rights, he should have been happily writing his sequel.
The fact of the matter is that Barry finds himself in the grip of a profound meaning crisis precipitated by two events: writing a bestseller and struggling with his best-seller’s sequel. It is a meaning crisis on several scores. First, as long as Barry possesses no idea for his sequel, he is bereft of meaning. He can go through the motions of living, he can order Chinese food, chat at the cafĂ© with acquaintances, watch the evening news, and so on, but the absence of an idea for his sequel is the defining fact of his existence. He “ought to be writing his sequel,” but no sequel is there yet, and its absence is a meaning killer.
He can force something out and manage to write each day, and indeed on some days he does exactly that, starting one novel, writing a few pages, then abandoning it. But these false starts and appropriate stops wear him out. Rather than providing him with occasional meaning—meaning for a day, as it were—they underscore the fact that no meaning currently attaches to his life. He is aware that his ideas for a sequel are second-rate and that he is writing just to be doing something, which makes the experience of writing meaningless.
Second, he has learned the impressive, disconcerting lesson that having a novel published and soaring to the top of the best-seller lists does not settle any meaning questions. All his life, up to the point of his success, he supposed that something would change with success. He wasn’t naive enough to imagine that life would become a bed of roses, but he supposed that with success would come some ease. Then he would be able to exorcise a few demons and feel better about himself and the facts of existence. In short, he imagined that writing a best-seller would prove a positive existential landmark.
Exactly the opposite happened. He found that his meaning problems doubled or tripled, not halved. With success came a new, deeper doubt that any activity, even his cherished writing, could make life mean anything. From this dark doubt flowed an inability to feel pleasure, which he now suffered from for the first time in his life. Previously, writing gave him pleasure, revising gave him pleasure, many aspects of his life gave him pleasure. Now nothing gives him pleasure, not fan letters, accolades, and certainly not his writing, which is currently “all wrong.” His success, which he had dreamed of but the reality of which is a meager thing, has produced the bizarre result of removing all pleasure from his life.
Barry’s meaning crisis has many facets. First, he possesses no current meaning while he waits for a sequel to make itself known to him. Second, he has learned the terrible lesson that his meaning problems will not end with success and instead have taken on a new, implacable face. Third, the very nature of meaning appears to have changed. The good meaning he had hoped to make and which he perhaps did make in his successful novel is no longer enough. Now, with expectations on him that he write at the same level or higher, he is obliged to make “even greater meaning.” The meaning bar has shifted higher, and he faces his personal variation of the question Tolstoy had to answer and never could: “What is an adequate sequel to War and Peace?”
What was previously meaningful, to simply write, no longer is. Now he can only think of the activity of writing as “writing for the critics,” “writing for posterity,” “writing impressively,” “writing an important sequel,” “writing mistake-free and mess-free,” “writing for his many fans,” and so on. Before, the act of creation made sufficient sense. Now, only the act of creating something worthy and wanted makes sense, which is such a change in his meaning field that no sentence he writes, however fine or refined, passes muster. He requires a sequel in order for meaning to be restored but, ironically, he has less chance than before of writing well, now that his meaning field has been drastically altered by success.
Fourth, he finds himself attacked by waves of guilt and doubt about the path he has chosen to travel, that of an isolated, alienated writer. Previously, his path and his creed made sense: “I am a witness, a truth-teller, an artist.” He could forgive himself his failures at relationships and his shortfalls as a person by arguing that his art had to come first, that he was destined to write and was put on earth to create, not to relate. Now that formulation makes less sense since he sees exactly what success means, does, and brings. Perhaps he should have lived differently, loved more, tried harder to make friends and be a friend. Thoughts of this sort now plague Barry.
What could be odder than to have no doubt while having no success and then tremendous doubt as soon as a great success hits? How upside-down that sounds! Yet isn’t the experienced cleric more prone to doubt than the seminary student, the experienced therapist more prone to doubt than the intern, the experienced professional in any field more prone to despair and meaning loss than the innocent who still believes? This is Barry’s situation. Now he knows about publicists, interviewers, regional marketing managers, and everything else that exists behind the veil. This knowledge brings with it a giant doubt about the true value of his path.
Fifth, and worst of all, his enjoyment of time has changed. Before, when he finished writing for the day, and even if what he produced was poor or skimpy, he could move on to the rest of his day and find meaning in his other activities. He could read a novel, sit in a café, get excited about a woman. The hour he spent over a beer in his local café was fine, full of the simple meaning that human beings experience when they sit among their fellow human beings in cafés. Formerly, that hour constituted no meaning problem, even though he was not actively making meaning.
Now he can hardly sit still. Suddenly—and horribly—what used to feel fine as a way of passing the time between episodes of real meaning-making now feels meaningless. Since he is not writing, since he is not sure that he wants to write, and since he no longer knows what path he ought to follow, all his seconds are colored by his discontent and malaise. His meaning problems have made him manic. He finds himself in a strange rush, pressured to get from the cafĂ© back to his apartment, pressured, as soon as he gets back to his apartment, to go out again.
This restlessness, as he runs from one place to the next, looking for meaning but experiencing only a meaning vacuum, continues while he sleeps. Barry has become insomniac. To a therapist, his insomnia is a classic symptom of his depression. To a meaning expert, his insomnia is the natural result of his current meaning crisis, as the anxiety of meaning gone missing pesters him day and night and prevents him from resting. Though insomniac, he also sleeps for long stretches during the day. Sometimes he dozes off at 10:00 in the morning and sleeps until 4:00 in the afternoon. To a therapist, this is another symptom of depression. To a meaning expert, dozing off in the middle of the afternoon is an escape from the experience of meaninglessness.
Of course Barry is depressed. If he visits a therapist, however, he will not be asked about his meaning problems. He may be asked to talk about his childhood. He may be told that he needs a medical consultation and may soon find himself on antidepressant medication. A behavioral therapist may pinpoint as the problem the fact that Barry isn’t writing much and may help Barry articulate a writing plan. Barry may be told to write such-and-so-many words a day or spend such-and-so-many minutes in front of his computer. A relationship therapist might focus on the lack of intimacy in Barry’s life and discuss with him how he might meet someone and fall in love. Literally not one of them will say, “How has the meaning in your life changed recently, and what do you suppose these meaning changes signify?”
What if Barry tells his therapist the following very clear thing? “There can be no meaning in my life until a good sequel to my successful novel makes itself known to me, plus I no longer believe that I will ever settle the meaning issues in my life, plus the very nature of meaning has changed by virtue of my success, plus my enjoyment of time away from writing has altered dramatically, plus many more meaning problems than just these are currently plaguing me.” The average helping professional will shrug her shoulders in response, not knowing what to do with this information.
Not knowing what to do with it, she will ignore Barry’s understanding of his situation and reply with some variation of the following dodge: “Yes, that may be true, but I still believe that we should focus on ‘X.’” “X” may be the possibility that Barry has a biochemical imbalance, is unconsciously raging against his dead parents, is too isolated and alienated for his own good, and so on. The helping professional—psychotherapist, psychiatrist, herbalist, cleric, social worker, counselor—will return Barry to the territory with which she is most familiar.
In fact, Barry may agree to be redirected. He may let go of his formulation of the problem and agree with his therapist’s reframe, as any one of the things that she says may be true and because they connect to the fourth facet of his meaning crisis, that he has been neglecting aspects of his life for the sake of his art and that those neglected aspects probably need addressing. He may say, “All right, doctor, if you say so.” Indeed, it may ultimately help him to work on relationship issues or to ventilate simmering resentments about his childhood. This work may lead to a partial meaning restoration and may help Barry feel less depressed, as he ingests chemicals or tries to lead a less-isolated life. His therapist may be able to chalk Barry up as a success, and Barry may feel better by having focused on what his therapist chose to address.
These gains are likely to be short-lived, however, because Barry has not done the work that would allow him to understand the ebb and flow of meaning in his life. He is not much better prepared than before to understand what his writing can and can’t mean, what an intimate relationship can and can’t mean, what further success or future failure can and can’t mean. He is not only a depression-waiting-to-happen (all creative people remain that, no matter how expert they become at understanding meaning) but he is also opaque to himself and therefore more prone to bouts of depression than he would be if he studied his own meaning field.
The situation I’ve been describing is utterly typical: A creative person is confronted by meaning problems that escalate into a meaning crisis and precipitate depression. As typical as this situation is, however, it hasn’t been named or examined before. Standard procedure is to deem Barry ill. He has mental problems, the disease of depression, and so on. Some years back, the first label to tack on Barry would have been “neurotic.” Today, the first line of naming is to call Barry “a patient suffering from the treatable medical illness of depression.” Although antidepressants, the treatment for the latter, are demonstrably more effective than psychotherapy, the treatment for the former, the naming is no improvement at all since it continues to obscure what is really happening.


Let’s consider a sec...

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