Sunday, October 23, 2011

Descending into the underworld, the labyrinth, the abyss...


I'm not right now (thankfully)...but it's something that many of us struggle with, it seems, many times in our lives.  Reading Terri Windling's series of blog posts 'On Creative Burn-out', it seems that creative people of all types struggle with this strange circular journey.  Round we go, heading up and up, feeling on fire and full of creatives sparks, then suddenly we find ourselves over the top and heading down the other side...down into doubt, melancholy, greyness, lack of inspiration, lack of motivation.  Deep into some dark place that we're sure we'll never climb out of, we'll never find the key, we'll never find that magic spark again.


Although many of us realise we're not very good at dealing with it, it seems to me that artists and musicians, writers and pretty much anyone who lives a creative life, at least has some understanding of this cycle.  Many of us know deep down that sometimes we need to stop and refill the well of inspiration, go off by ourselves perhaps, and give ourselves time.  Not always easy of course, in a world dedicated to deadlines and 24/7 and better, bigger, faster, NOW.  And we may fight it, ignore it, deny it, try and push it aside, but most of us know that sooner or later, we'll have to give in and let it run its course.  And we also know (though it's often hard to remember) that quite often, we will discover something new, a new direction, a different way of seeing, a solution to a problem, in that very darkness we've been trying to avoid.  That usually, if we don't dig our heels in and refuse to go, kicking and screaming all the way, then the journey, though painful, might actually be worth it.

But I don't believe this cycle is peculiar to artists.  I think it is a HUMAN cycle.  And I think it is a human cycle that for too long the modern world has been trying to pretend doesn't exist, and that it does so at great risk.  Because I suspect it may be one of the reasons that, despite living in absolute luxury and abundance compared with so many in the world, we seem to be in the middle of an epidemic of depression.

Now perhaps I should say right now, that I am not a psychologist or a doctor.  And I don't for a moment believe that every case of clinical depression can be cured by someone patting your hand and saying "it's OK, you'll be fine, there's nothing to be afraid of, it's just going to get dark for a while".  That would be ludicrous.  So what you have here is simply the musings of someone who has suffered from grief, depression (PND to be specific), and also has spent a fair bit of time on the ups and downs of the creative ferris wheel.


In 2000, a week or two after I lost my little girl (story here for those who haven't stopped by before), I remember sitting in my doctor's surgery sobbing my heart out.  As you might expect.  And she offered me anti-depressants.  She said it wouldn't take away the pain, but it would take the edge off my grief.  I was floored by this.  Why on earth did I need to 'take the edge off my grief'?  Why would I want to take away the pain?  I believed I was feeling exactly what I SHOULD be feeling given the circumstances.  And more important, exactly what I NEEDED to feel in order to mourn properly, to walk the journey that can not, must not, be avoided, to heal and to come out the other side stronger, with peace and acceptance in my heart.  But it seems there was something unacceptable about my grief, about a woman sitting sobbing her eyes out.  Visible grief is just not acceptable in polite society.

A few months after the birth of my last little one in 2004, I could feel something was not quite right, but it took the visiting health sister to pinpoint it.  She very gently suggested to me that I might be suffering something more than just 'baby blues'.  And I'm very grateful that she pointed me in the direction of a women's health clinic with a counselling and group therapy service.  With all due respect to overworked GPs, I think it's pretty likely if I'd visited my local medical service, I would have been given a prescription for anti-depressants after a short consultation.  I know people who have.

Clearly, I did not have as bad a case of PND as some women suffer from. I managed to function OK (mostly, though there were times when I just curled up on the kitchen floor and sobbed), I looked after my girls and I did not actually have a problem bonding with my littlest.  I just felt as if I was disappearing, fading away into nothing, that everything I'd ever been, everything I'd ever done or created, everything I'd imagined or built, was gone and would never be back.  I loved my girls so fiercely it hurt, and yet there was resentment too, a truly horrible twin-sided coin.  And yet, meeting with other mums (who also looked normal on the outside) going through it too, talking and having a good cry in the one on one sessions with the counsellor, got me through.  As well as, it MUST be said, with huge support from my family, who understand the need for a good cry and a good talk, and my poor Beloved, who had been through so much with me, and somehow trusted that I'd get through this too if I was allowed to find my own way.

But I also know mums who were given anti-depressants and years later were still on them, afraid that if they give them up, those feelings might come back.  I've met people who mentioned to their GP that they've been feeling down lately, and were given prescriptions.  It seems that we are afraid of being sad, or melancholy, or down.  Even that society demands that we must not be.  And yet, aren't these emotions all perfectly normal?  

On the Beyond Blue website, there is THIS checklist.  If you have more than 3 of the symptoms for more than two weeks, you probably have a depressive illness.  I just tried it, ticking all the boxes that equate to how I feel when I'm in a creative funk and can't muster the energy or the motivation to even pick up a pencil.  I scored 11.  Most of the time, I don't go for a whole two weeks feeling like that, but there have been times when I have.  Or I've had some of the symptoms for that long (or longer) but not all.  I've had ups and downs most of my life, and even as a kid I had my 'melancholy' times.  The PND WAS scary, it lasted a long time, but generally, I don't panic when I'm feeling down because I KNOW this feeling. I know it will be a pain, and I hate being there, but I know it will go, and it might even leave behind something useful.  It's kind of normal.

But what if I didn't know?  What if I hadn't really felt this before?  What if no-one around me could tell me about it, what if I'd never seen anyone else deal with it?  It would scare the hell out of me I think.  And I wonder, I really wonder, whether we set ourselves up for a bad dose of it by allowing ourselves to run to the point of empty, because we don't know we shouldn't?  We don't allow ourselves 'downtime' until it becomes 'DOWN time'.  We are part of the natural world, and without any exceptions I can think of off the top of my head, it works in cycles: action/inaction, growth/rest, flow/ebb.  In order to flower in spring, the almond must sleep through winter.  This is what I said in comment to Terri's 2nd post:
The need for fallow time. Everything else in the natural world works in cycles of activity and inactivity, fallow and productive. Why should we humans think we are any different? And yet we push ourselves, or allow others (clients, deadlines, family and so on) to push us to keep going, not stop (or feel guilty if we dare to), and keep producing. No wonder the well gets empty, the creative flowering grows weaker and less beautiful. But it's not just in the arts, it's everywhere. I just noticed a headline yesterday, that Australian workers are working longer than ever hours, and yet are more inefficient than ever before...hmmmm, I wonder why?!

A few years ago, I attended a workshop led by Wendy Rule, an amazing singer/songwriter.  As a pagan/wiccan, she's interested in myths and archetypes, and is endlessly inspired by the myth of Persephone and her underworld journey, the cycle of descent and ascent.  And she said something that stuck in my mind.  That this descent into the underworld is a necessary journey, it's a chance to 'cleanse', to slough off the unneeded bits of our psyche that have outlived their use, to 'lose the baggage' we've been carrying around.  And without this voluntary going down, going within, this withdrawing and retreat time, we end up carrying around all these dead bits of ourselves, parts that rot like bits of old meat, more than likely making us sick in the process.  That might sound a bit 'out there' but if you think of people who have worked so hard for so long that they burn-out or suffer from a break-down, then that's pretty much the same thing, just in less colourful language.

So I wonder...if there were elders (who had journeyed there before) to tell us 'it is not an abyss, it is a tunnel with a light at the end of it', would we be less scared?  If we regularly allowed ourselves time to be truly 'fallow' would the journey be shorter and easier than if we fight it all the way?  I wonder too, if we medicate at the first sign of the downward journey (instead of waiting to be sure it's something more than that and needs more than just time and retreat), are we in danger of precariously balancing ourselves forever on the edge of what looks like a terrifying bottomless black pit?  When if we allowed ourselves to step down gently into the dark, we might find a well trodden path that is not so dark or terrible, and we might find we have things to leave there, and new things to bring back into the light.  

Because it's in the dark that old things compost down into rich new soil.  And it's in the dark that the seeds that become the trees that provide the oxygen we breathe, germinate.

24 comments:

Heavens2Betsy said...

Your post and thoughts are beautiful and really resonate with me on many levels. As a long term sufferer of depression I recognise much of what you say and could say it as my own. I have never looked at it in the way you are and it is really helpful to do so. I have been through a long and arduous fallow period only recently and am reaping the benefits of experiencing it even though that was hard to do. Wise Elders with their Wise Words are what we need to help us to make sense of this way of experiencing ourselves. I believe depression is not only destructive, but humanises us when we are lost. penny

mel said...

brilliant post.

i absolutely agree that the cycle is natural...i call it a "deepening" and fully accept the gift of it. i still berate myself for it though, feel guilty that i *should* be doing this, that or the other...that i must be "lazy" or "feeble" for not pushing onwards instead of allowing myself to sink into the quiet and stillness...

i really do believe that modern medicine has done a great disservice in the way it freely hands out pharmaceuticals...while there are many people who are genuinely in need of them and benefit from them, so many others are simply numbing themselves in the interest of pushing onward...

and i'm right in the middle of a deepening at the moment so writing this has me knackered....*grin*

jinxxxygirl said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly.

Els said...

Lots to read ! Thank you !
Love the spiral .....

Swan Artworks said...

Bravely and eloquently put, I could've been reading about myself at many points, this is such a generous thing you've done to put it into words so freely here.
And I agree with this:
"...I don't believe this cycle is peculiar to artists. I think it is a HUMAN cycle."

These days I understand myself and my dark times better and find it easier to accept and name it for what it is,(and even talk about it - that's something!) but the first serious bout I had in my late teens lasted ten years and I was truly at the mercy of it and myself. I was stuck and couldn't get out, and couldn't accept I needed/deserved help.
But we really do learn and grow and your words are such a familiar tale and comforting to share in and take strength from.
Thankyou Christina...

Michelle said...

Your words truly resonate for me and I appreciate your absolute honesty and ability to share things which are obviously very painful and personal to you.
I do believe that this is a cycle, and a necessary one for us all. No, I don’t mean that we should all sink down into deep depression – but we should be able to accept (and not beat ourselves) when we need time to ‘fallow’, to step back, to go down into the darkness and to mentally rest on some level.
At the times when I have been the least inspired, when tears have just flowed and I feel like crying because inspiration is there in front of me and flies away, like a bird just out of my grasp – I realise that this may be a time when I need to stop worrying, thinking, obsessing about creating. And just live, day to day experiencing other things and stop ‘thinking about making’.
When I do this, inspiration returns often in places I would never think of finding it.
Thank you for sharing this – it’s something that touches us all on differing levels.. and is part of the process of living. Without darkness there is no light, no polarity.. and as someone once said, “You can’t light a candle without casting a shadow” – we cannot live in light all the time.

Mo Crow said...

Thank you Christina, your words ring deep and true, it's the writers and the poets and the artists and the musos who can bring these experiences up out of the deep and describe them or paint them or turn them into music who help us see that we are all a bit broken & it's in that very brokenness that makes us more interesting and our work real...as Leonard Cohen said-
"Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in."
and I am reading Annie Dillard's "Holy the Firm" an indescribably beautiful expression of being so totally human it hurts.

Richard Jesse Watson said...

Thank you for the beauty of your words, and your honesty. Profound insights.

Lynn said...

Thank you for this post.

There is the cult of "happy" in so many cultures which neglects a whole other - and at times very necessary - part of the human experience. One of the problems with ignoring or denying these dark journeys is that there can be trouble recognizing when one has gone from a healthy, natural dark path, into something much darker and potentially destructive, which might require help (in one of its any forms) to get back from.

And I feel that our removal from natural cycles both within and without ourselves ( which is such a staggeringly recent phenomenon) is affecting our deeper selves in ways that need to be looked at and resolved - in part through the illumination and healing properties of art.

Oya's Daughter said...

Been there, done this, having it currently. In my case it's due to also having a long-standing disability on top of everything which makes working literally painful, and I'm often forced to stop because I have to. But I'm also in the process of moving to a new place which may actually give me the spark I need. I'll let this cycle roll...as it always does.

Purpletreebird said...

Brilliantly worded and I agree totally. I don't have the words to add to this today because my brain is befuddled through not sleeping but I was reading a book by Thomas Moore last night who had written something very similar, to feel the depths of sad and melancholy feelings instead of thinking it as a negative thing that must be avoided.
Jess xx

wildish woman said...

Just thank you.

earthangelsarts said...

Thank you lovely shining star for sharing this truth and love. X

Valerianna said...

I JUST sat down to give this a "proper" read, my earlier visit was too much of a skim in between things! Wonderful post, Christina. I just chimed in on the subject - more or less - over at the forest. I love the spiral painting, too! And, I finally DID share some music. I made two films with my songs as soundtracks. One you know from the CD, one from a recording done deep in the belly of the Earth.... where one might find Persephone..... Blessings from up around the globe.

Barry said...

MIA-challenging post - but as I got to the end It hit me that that the spiral was upwards to the light not downwards to the dark. And love the great use of blue in the art work. Go well. B

Julia Guthrie said...

I read Terri's post on that subject also, & it must surely strike a chord with every creative person!
I think it makes us better in the long run though, as we come back renewed each time, with something new to share :)

I love the blue paintings!!

H A R R Y G O A Z said...

Have a SUPER week !

stitchinglife.com said...

This is my first visit here, and I find so much that resonates. I too have believed this for a long time - that the cyclical up/down pattern is natural for everyone. Artists just notice it - recognise it - more. We no longer embrace or accept death as part of life, and most of us are out of balance. Thank you for this post; it's a rare pleasure to read something so eloquently expressed. Will be back :-)

southernwitch said...

Your thoughts are beautiful and just what a friend of mine needs to see right now. Thank you so much for sharing this...

by Teresa said...

I just found your blog from reading Rima's blog about Gypsies. I love your artwork!! I invite you to visit my blog too.. I'll be back.

Teresa in Oregon USA

gz said...

An insightful post, well written-thankyou.
I lost my Man last May. Few seem to want to acknowledge how you feel, or that it is natural. Even some who have lost someone themselves are afraid to, perhaps because they would then have to face their own feelings.
My doctor's prescription? Talk to his/our friends. Share our loss and celebrate his being. Not to be so hard on myself. There are still times that bring me up short, there always will be: but that is not wrong.
Blessings Be

FaunSerpentine said...

Feeling very calm after taking in this slow moving blue.....

kat said...

bless you, and thank you for sharing this, it is indeed good to know that many of us share this experience and, as you say, it is part of simply being.

ruthie said...

Dear Christina, catching up on this thread (late as ever) I am overwhelmed reading your words.

You are so right; it is a human cycle, a “circular” journey with no beginning or end. The modern world has disguised this need to experience the cycles, has made taboo the willingness of folk to be open about emotions. Have you seen the talk by Brene Brown about vulnerability? Inspiring.

I am so glad to hear that you had wonderful support to help you though your hard times. There was a time in my life when I was prescribed antidepressants; I spent too long with a head stuffed full of cotton wool. I eventually gave them up; my raw feelings came back, the healing process then began. It is a fundamental process the feeling, the journey, the healing & the new found strength & peace that these cycles give.

In the past my “dark times” have floored me, but I am learning the process. This last time I made a “conscious” decision not fight it, to be fallow & low and behold, it passed & sure enough I found solutions in “the darkness”.

We all need fallow time, time to find our feet on that well trodden path and time to let that “magic spark” find us again. Thank you for being so open & for sharing, for giving hope & inspiration to the folk around you x x

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