Depression, dreams and the creative life

A few weeks ago, I heard author Matthew Johnstone talking about his experience of depression on the BBC World Service, and it got me thinking about the link between depression, dreams and the creative life.

Strikingly, Matthew said he would not change anything – his depression was part of him. Rather than try to kill the black dog, he had learnt how to tame it.

Matthew Johnstone’s book

In the West, we treat depression as an illness, a malfunction in the brain which needs to be cured with chemicals or brought under control by psychological explanations.

Depression challenges all our cultural values. It makes us antisocial in a world where naturally solitary types are labelled ‘poorly socialised’; it makes us still, in a world of manic activity.

Depression stops us from having what we want – which boils down to happiness – and we believe we should always be able to get what we want, because this is a secular world. Without God/fate/mystery, we expect to have control over our own lives.

Nobody would choose to feel depressed, but that is precisely the opportunity depression brings. It brings us to a standstill on our chosen track and, by stopping us from having what we think we want, it opens us up to something new and unexpected. It makes our life bigger.

It’s a well-documented fact that people dream more during periods of depression. Often these dreams are particularly vivid and memorable; they release a torrent of new images which, if we pay attention, can open doorways into new places of the mind, and inspire new directions in life. The loss of these life-giving dreams may be one of the most harmful side-effects of antidepressant drugs.

Many writers label their depression as ‘writer’s block.’ Suddenly the story they thought they had all planned out is stalled, or they can’t find any ideas for the next one. But this is the gift of the black dog for writers – it forces you to be still and receptive, so that new insights and inspirations can come in.

Writer’s block is simply impatience, which means literally the inability to tolerate suffering, delay, toil or vexation (from the Latin word meaning ‘to bear’)

Depression can feel dark and frightening, like a big black dog, but kicking him will make him mean. Don’t try to kill him, but don’t underestimate him either – if he hangs around your house, you need to tame him.

I think the black dog is a special danger for children and young people, before life has given them the perspective of time or put support systems in place. That’s why I wrote my children’s book, ‘How 2B Happy’, in which the very first principle is that we can’t be happy all the time; we have to accept unhappiness. But we can deal with it, and discover what gifts it brings.

In my last two posts, I’ve been talking about synchronicity, and needless to say several blog posts on dreams and depression have come to my attention this week. Toko-pa has written a passionate piece here, in which she talks about ‘the intelligence of our melancholia’ You might also enjoy this piece from ispeakindreams

Has a period of depression ever led to a breakthrough for you?

24 thoughts on “Depression, dreams and the creative life”

    1. Very profound and they (dreams, depression and creativity) weave throughout my story, Supreme Sacrifice, trying to deal with being an #adult child of an alcoholic. The wonderful thoughts from “Dead Poets Society”—Only in dreams can men be truly free. Was always thus and always thus will be.

      1. Hello Rita – dreams, depression and creativity are all, to my mind, ways to depth, and people who have big issues to deal with in everyday life need to root down deep – but if they manage it, they can help and support others

  1. Some interesting points. Depression has absolutely influenced my writing, and much of it relates in some way (thematically) to the depression I suffer on a more or less constant basis. The concept of stillness for writers is important too – and sometimes in the blackest times, the stillness can give clarity.

    Thanks for this post.

  2. Thank you for commenting. I’m very aware that looking at the possible benefits of depression can risk being seen as underestimating the huge challenge it presents. I only feel I can venture into that territory now because I used to suffer on a more or less constant basis too, and I feel I know that black dog inside and out. I’m glad you’re able to transform some of your darkness through your writing – that is a wonderful alchemy.

  3. Loved this! One of those posts that I was nodding in agreement with all the way through! Having battled with depression in the past I truly believe that I had to have a complete breakdown before I could start getting well again. For me depression was like being trapped inside a gold fish bowl. I could see everyone and they could see me but there was no connection. And my mind just went round in meaningless circles! It’s hard to get out of the bowl but it’s possible!
    Must mention ‘How 2 be Happy’ which I bought for my 8yr old daughter who would make extreme statements of ‘never this’ or ‘can’t ever that’. Total drama queen! It really helped her to understand concepts such as: It’s okay to say ‘I’m having a bad day” rather than ‘I’m never going to be happy ever again!’

  4. Hi Carolyn – I forgot that’s what our first connection was – a tweettalk about my children’s self-help books! I’m delighted your daughter found my book helpful. These concepts are so simple, and yet life-changing – when I got them, I just had to share 🙂
    I was nodding too, reading your comment. I used to think of my depression as like a little booth, with all the shutters down. No connection with anything or anyone, just like your goldfish bowl.

    1. Very interesting post, Jenny, but I’m going to be dificult. I’d say there was a great difference between ‘unhappiness’ and ‘depression’. I can be very unhappy without being depressed: I can be unhappy and still work, still function. When I’m depressed I sometimes can’t even get out of bed.

      For me, there seems to be little connection between what’s going on in my life and depression. I think it’s always there, in the background, but occasionally rises up and swamps everything. But I’m old enough now to know that it will pass, if I simply endure it. In a day or two, I will be as pointlessly happy as I was pointlessly depressed.

      But depression is very grim. I don’t need it to slow me down or open me to inspiration. Depression, for me, seems to be a grinding of the nose in the fact that every single second of our lives, as an entire species, is utterly pointless. This is fundamentally true. When I’m happy I simply overlook it and pretend it isn’t there. But it is, and always will be.

      I don’t think Writers’ Block is impatience, either. I think it’s fear of failure, or, sometimes, a signal from the subconscious that you’re taking a wrong path. Again – for me, anyway – it has little to do with depression. There are ways of dealing with Writers’ Block, but depression halts everything except breathing, and makes you wish that would stop too.

  5. Thank you for such a thoughtful response. I wrestled with this post because I had so much to say in a small space – it only occurred to me later that I should have made it into several. I’m glad you’ve put more flesh on the bones here.

    I completely agree that depression and unhappiness are different things, and you describe the difference perfectly – I can function if I feel unhappy, but depression is a total system shut-down. And it is very grim. I also totally recognise that experience of it not being related to what’s going on in your life – I used to think of it as a sort of internal weather-system, a deep numbing fog.

    I suppose what I’m thinking about is the deep levels of the self – so when I said writer’s block was impatience, I was meaning we may be trying to move too quickly when deep personal change is happening, be it processing of fear (of failure or success) or a sense that the plot has taken a wrong turn, or whatever the thing is in us that needs to be shifted. I think of writing as a process which requires things of the writer, and creates an endlessly unfolding transformation in his/her psyche.

    I don’t feel depression is pointless though, and I think this might be because I’ve always followed the unconscious processes through dream-watching. Everything isn’t in stasis when I feel depressed because on a deeper level, life goes on. An area of me exists which is still producing symbols and images, and they are creating the change in me which means I can be effective again.

  6. What a lovely post, Jenny. I often think acceptance is the key, in any situation. If we can learn to accept and not fight against how we feel, the feelings become a lot less painful. Thanks for this, Jenny. Very thought-provoking, as are all of your posts.

  7. Hi Abi – I so agree with you that acceptance is the key. We try so hard to resist what life is, this mix of wonderful and terrible and all points between, instead of flowing with it, and I think the struggle – which we cannot win – keeps us stuck at the bad points much longer. Of course, having said that, it isn’t always easy going with the flow! I found this one hard to write, so I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  8. Really interesting post, Jenny. I agree with your statement that “…it opens us up to something new and unexpected. It makes our life bigger.” I’ve had a few periods in my life when things have felt very bleak… but I wouldn’t want to go back and change anything, because if I hadn’t had those dark times, I wouldn’t appreciate the happier times. I think to be truly alive, you have to be prepared to experience the full spectrum of emotions, even though it can be unpleasant or frightening.

  9. I so agree, Emma – it feels sad to me that we try to block the dark side so completely – if we could, it would be half a life. But we do have to confront our fears, and develop some resilience. I saw a great podcast by Matthew Johnstone who wrote the book I mentioned earlier, and that was pretty much his point. You can’t become resilient except by facing up to difficult and challenging experiences

  10. Thank you for the link to the program I listenend to all 4 sections and thought that it was really interesting.
    I write myself through ups and downs and find that I do dream more when I am depressed. I keep a pen and paper by the bed at all times to I write down my dreams. I think my dreams are usually concerns rehashed, mostly as metaphor. I don’t think other people can interpret our dreams for us as they would look at them from their own life experience but I think if we pay attention to our dreams and those half awake thoughts, which must be written down immedialtely before thye slip away they can often help us identify themes and things that we need to work on.
    Journalling, writing with groups and writing poetry have helped me to gain better emotional balance over recent years and I don’t go anywhere without a pen now.

  11. Wow, what a great comment – you make so many points. I found that programme by chance and am now downloading the podcasts – I’m glad you found it interesting too. You’re so right about dreams – you have to have the notepad ready by the bed – it sets the intention, and means you can record as soon as you wake up. And I agree that no-one else can interpret your dream – in fact, I don’t interpret my own dreams in a closed way, but simply notice the patterns – that’s the word I use – or to use your word, the themes. I don’t work on these themes – I feel that awareness through dreaming is all I need to do, it makes me more fully present with what’s going on in my daylife, and gives me a deeper context. The value of writing in terms of self-development and balance is what interests me most really. In case you haven’t come across it, lapidus is a group all about ‘words for well-being’ – well worth checking out their fb page.

  12. Thanks Jenny,
    I think I have signed in above under an ‘old’ sign in name, well ‘ …just a few little words’ is what call my writing groups/workshops. You do know me, we meet here and regularly on Lapidus. I love lapidus as a place to share, hopefully inspire and recieve inspiration from some great people. I’d second your recomendation to your readers to take a look at the facebook page.

    I like your word ‘notice.’ I was on a Mindfullness & Theraputic writing day recently and it reminded me that I’m must slow down my racing thoughts and just ‘notice,’ without worrying so much. Ahh…

    Karen H

  13. Hi Karen – I didn’t recognise you! Of course I know you. I really like lapidus – I’m always recommending it. Lots of great workshops, and now of course the fb page, which seems to be very well used. See you over there, or over here again soon!

  14. Why should people be happy all the time? Surely happiness exists only because there’s a whole spectum of emotions from your black dog to a white dog, and fifty shades of grey dogs inbetween… sorry, couldn’t resist that! But hope you know what I mean.

    I usually I muddle about somewhere in the shades of grey, with lighter shades of dog when something good happens and darker when something bad. Only by experiencing the dark times do I really appreciate the happy times, which is why the government’s Action Happiness initiative makes me nervous… because it seems to say that if you’re not happy all the time, there must be something wrong with you, whereas I see unhappiness as more of a warning signal – like pain in the body – that something is not right and needs to change/be investigated. If this is something you have control over, like moving house, then that’s good because you can make yourself happier by making the change. If not – like banker bonuses and the collapse of the euro – then that’s bad, and will eventually cause depression because you feel helpless to change anything at all, so you give up trying to change even the little things that could ease the pain.

    So while I’d agree that there’s a big difference between being sad and being depressed, I think that sadness is nature’s warning signal. Prozac, etc. only treats the symptoms, not the problem.

  15. Hi Katherine – I haven’t heard about this Action Happiness thing – it makes me nervous too. I don’t like the labelling of unhappiness or even clinical depression as a mental illness either. Like you, I think it’s part of the human condition, and we have to learn how to engage with it, not try to medicate it away. I do think that some people have a darker emotional climate than others, and will need to develop greater skills to navigate through their stormy nights. My own black dog showed up when I was very young, and he was very black – I’ll be blogging about him next week.

  16. I’ve dealt with depression my entire life. For as long as I can remember, I’ve battled that mess. I attribute my youthful shyness and timidity as the main contributing factors. I never sought counseling for it because I didn’t think that would do me any good. Besides, from what I can tell, most psychologists, councilors, etc. are women who don’t look kindly upon depressed males. I think that’s one reason why men don’t seek help for depression. They know that the mostly female doctors who work with this kind of thing ultimately will mock them. I just sort of worked through my own depression without any help and try not to let myself become so emotionally compromised. I’m also a very creative person, but I fail to see a link between the two. I have found writing, especially in my journal, to be very therapeutic.

    1. Hi Alejandro – I can understand your reservations about counselling, although I’ve never heard of female counsellors looking down on men who are struggling with depression, and I do know a lot of counsellors. I think Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can help people to manage their depression, but for me I guess the most helpful thing has been self-help books. My book ‘How to be happy’, is based on CBT – it’s targetted at kids but the ideas are the same however old you are. And of course, journalling can be a fantastic way of writing through it.

  17. Well the black dog got me this morning big time! As the adult child of an alchoholic my childhood was horrible and it haunts me still. My mother and I just didnt get on too well and in the end I left home and joined the army. I was just 17 Just to say I had some really bad times but returning home was no option. I have been married a long time and my husband suffers from constant depression and is ill a lot of the time. We cant really go away anywhere I live in an isolated place & have few friends. I seldom hear from my children & grandchildren we just seem to be forgotten but part of the problem is the long journey to reach us. My previous art career seems to be in the distant past and I feel unmotivated because my painting is just so difficult depressing thoughts impinge on my efforts to paint a decent picture. Maybe I am just too old now and left it too late to start back in to it.I was quite successful but this place is far from any groups of artists I know only one here and she is a printmaker. I just feel so discouraged I just seem to be a carer and cleaner I always am busy because I have to do all the work in this large house I have to drag myself out of bed and slowly start on my big day of work.everyday seems the same and the black dog hits frequently. My husband refuses to move so I am stuck. Sometimes I feel like just getting out and running away.i wont go into all the health problems I have had and still have I just feel worn out.

    1. Hello, Margie – I’m so sorry to hear of all these trials you’ve had to endure, and are going through still.
      The only part I can really comment on is that I don’t personally feel we’re ever too old to be creative, and as long as we’re alive we have opportunities to live. I think it might be really helpful for you to find someone you can talk things through with – a counsellor or doctor or minister, maybe – because when everything feels overwhelming, it’s hard to find your way through on your own. But there will be a way through.

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