Blake, Byron, Tennyson, Woolf, Poe, Plath, Kierkegaard, Pound, Hemingway, Van Gogh, Tennessee Williams, David Foster Wallace: the ranks of notable writers and artists who have suffered, too often fatally, from depression seem endless.
A 1995 Scientific American article says that “artists experience up to eighteen times the rate of suicide seen in the general population, eight to ten times the rate of depression, and ten to twenty times the rate of manic-depression and its milder form, cyclothymia.” These statistics, taken from a number of studies, suggest an association between creativity and madness. But in his 2005 book, Against Depression, psychiatrist Peter D. Kramer, author of Listening To Prozac, argues that this malady has no more to do with creativity than, say, arthritis does, and that both are simply painful diseases that should be treated with the most effective medications we can prescribe.
Tim Farrington is a novelist who has been hospitalized for depression in the past. As he writes in his recent nonfiction book A Hell of Mercy: A Meditation on Depression and the Dark Night of the Soul (HarperOne), Farrington’s descent began at a young age: “I spent my senior year of high school in Honolulu listening to the darker songs of the early Elton John, cutting calculus class to read D.T. Suzuki, slipping away to the Buddhist temple, . . . and in general letting the warp and woof of my tidy American future unravel.” He writes that his first significant bout of depression was not incapacitating, however, and left him in a philosophical quandary:
Was I truly depressed or just awakening to the First Noble Truth of Buddhism, the insight that samsaric life is misery? My melancholy seemed like simple realism: if you weren’t depressed, you obviously didn’t know what was going on. I was becoming conscious of what Gurdjieff called “the horror of the situation.” And so I took long walks and thought about death and the suffering of innocents. I wrote bad poetry. I did not go to Stanford.
Farrington went in and out of various universities while pursuing his own independent study of Western philosophy and “living on cornflakes and macaroni and cheese.” Eventually he settled into Buddhism and New Age practices, lived ascetically in an ashram and later in an urban commune that encouraged the rotation of sexual partners. (They posted a schedule to help everyone keep track.) He married and divorced, cleaned houses in San Francisco while writing several novels that he threw away, and eventually moved to Virginia Beach, Virginia, to teach Sunday school and focus on his body of work.
I like to say that I “discovered” Farrington when I read an early short story of his in this magazine and recommended it to a literary agent. His first published novel, The California Book of the Dead (Pocket), was a humorous portrait of West Coast New Age culture, and he followed it with the philosophical romances The Monk Downstairs and The Monk Upstairs (both HarperOne). He ventured into mystery writing under the pseudonym Frank Devlin and most recently garnered critical acclaim for Lizzie’s War (HarperOne), the story of a Vietnam War–era family that draws deeply on Farrington’s own background as the child of a military father. His fiction is often so funny you’d never guess the author had spent a fair amount of time in the darker corners of the human experience.
Farrington says he is “by no means an expert” on depression. “I’m more like a veteran, I suppose: just one more guy with some stories from the front, someone who kept his head down as best he could.” Nonetheless Farrington is both erudite and refreshingly plain-spoken about the thorny paradoxes that crop up in the discussion of creativity, madness, and the soul.
Miller: You’ve struggled most of your life with depression. How would you define it?
Farrington: Dryness, emptiness, hopelessness, helplessness. A loss of the juice of life, a loss of the energy to engage life, and a loss of any joy or pleasure in that engagement. In deep depression it seems useless, even painful, to lift a finger. It’s a Catch-22: I am aware that I am making my incapacitation worse through neglect and inertia, but any effort to fix it seems pointless at best.
The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists nine criteria for major depression, at least five of which must be present during a two-week period. These range from “depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day” to fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, and suicidal ideation.
I think everyone has a basic intuitive understanding of depression as a morbid state that’s beyond life’s usual lows. The main feature of depression for me, the thing that distinguishes it from sadness and grief, is the sense of hopelessness — that there’s nothing I can do to change this misery or get out of it. There is hope in purgatory; we can suffer and believe it has a purpose in the long run. In the hell of depression, however, hope seems gone forever.
Miller: Would you compare depression to a fever — that is, a symptom indicating something is wrong but not what that something is exactly?
Farrington: That’s not a bad metaphor. All fevers indicate some underlying condition that’s often difficult to identify immediately. The fever is part of the body’s attempt to heal itself, mobilizing the immune system and creating an internal environment that’s too hot for the infectious elements. Left to run its course, a fever will usually correct the problem, but of course too high a fever can prove fatal.
The parallels with depression are easy to draw: You may experience the occasional moderate depression that serves as a wake-up call to change something in your life. Or the depression may pass without your ever understanding where it came from. But, like high fevers, intense and prolonged depressions demand urgent attention. And this is when you have to decide whether to let the depression run its course or to take medication that might help you “cool down” and function normally. Just as a high fever can cause brain damage, recent studies seem to show that prolonged depression may have long-term effects on the brain’s physical structure and chemistry.
When I lived in an ashram, we used to talk about our inner crap getting “burned up in the fire of the spirit.” Depression can be like that. If you know what you’re doing, it’s one way to go, but it’s risky.
Miller: Many spiritual practices talk of overcoming the ego or surrendering to God. Is there a point where surrender or the shrinking of the ego brings on the symptoms of depression? Is a depressive state a necessary stage in the spiritual path?
Farrington: Dealing with the ego is central to any spiritual practice, but so many of the practices we undertake to overcome, shrink, extinguish, or otherwise move beyond the ego are too easily co-opted by the ego. We can end up feeling holier-than-thou pretty quickly. On the other hand, as we deepen our spiritual practice, we can also become more capable of recognizing the ego’s hidden agendas. You could see it as a kind of spiritual arms race: for every soulful insight that frees us from the ego’s control, there is an answering psychic intrigue by the ego, which finds a new way to co-opt each bit of awakening and steer it back toward the same old self-serving purposes.
The crisis comes when we begin to realize that all our spiritual efforts are suffused with ego, and there is no way out of that bind. The Zen koan is a technique for precipitating such a crisis. A koan is a question for which the ego has no answer. After the ego has tried all of its tricks and strategems and failed, the structure of the ego itself begins to fail. Confronted with this loss of certainty and terrifying experience of helplessness, we often teeter on the edge of depression, and it doesn’t take much to make us fall in. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that depression is a necessary stage in the spiritual path, but it seems to me that the path always travels through a territory where one’s particular mental instabilities are going to be exacerbated.
I honestly don’t know if it’s possible to avoid depression as we move into the cloud of unknowing. I do know that it is possible, eventually, to come out of the cloud and live in genuine surrender, with faith, humility, and a realistic trust in the divine, and without depression. But that is a long, intricate process that cannot be hurried or manipulated. Given the psychic stakes and our basic human feebleness, that process will always be prone to disruption and despair. Look at Jesus: He prayed to have the cup of his suffering taken away before he surrendered to it. He fell three times on the way up the hill and felt a sense of abandonment on the cross. It took him three days to get out of the tomb. Of course he went through the process faster than most of us.
Miller: What you’re calling a “cloud of unknowing” can also be called the “dark night of the soul.” The latter phrase is often used casually. What does it actually mean?
Farrington: It was originally used by Saint John of the Cross, a Carmelite monk who wrote in the sixteenth century. His two main books on the subject are Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul. John was an ally of Saint Teresa of Avila, who was the driving force behind the Carmelite reform movement, and one thing to remember is that these books were written for nuns and monks, but mostly nuns, of the Carmelite order. So when John writes about the dark night of the soul, he’s assuming a life that’s far from ours. Most of us are not getting up at 4 A.M. to begin chanting the Liturgy of the Hours all day.
By John’s definition the dark night of the soul is not something that happens to spiritual beginners. He is fairly indulgent of novices, allowing for a spiritual honeymoon period in which you have glimpsed a goal — such as enlightenment or “union with God” in the Carmelite context — and you have focused your life more or less on the pursuit of it. There is a feeling that you’re improving and that, with enough hard work, you will achieve your goal. But then the dark night comes along and changes that.
John breaks down the dark night into two parts: the “dark night of the senses” and the “dark night of the spirit.” The dark night of the senses hits at the point where you have milked your initial enthusiasm for all it’s worth, and you’re starting to realize that reaching your goal is going to take a lot more work than you suspected. You’re going to have to renounce habitual ways of thinking and doing. The dark night of the senses is about living with the dryness of that, living without the traditional pleasures. Again, John of the Cross is assuming a level of austerity that’s daunting to any contemporary reader; it might even sound morbid and anti-life. But if you’ve ever wrestled with the issues of distraction, then you know what he’s talking about: how do you get your mind to stop running after meaningless desires and come home to what actually serves our ultimate happiness?
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that depression is a necessary stage in the spiritual path, but it seems to me that the path always travels through a territory where one’s particular mental instabilities are going to be exacerbated.
Miller: So the dark night of the senses is a voluntary abstention from the sensual pleasures of life? In other words, it’s not like a depression that comes over you, but a deliberate confrontation with that “dryness”?
Farrington: It’s not because of something we do or fail to do; we simply hit a limit in terms of what we can accomplish. There is only so far that humans can go by their own efforts in the relationship to God. The dark night begins when your own efforts have shown themselves to be either empty or not enough. John would say that when you’re no longer able to get juice or joy or fulfillment from God — as you have conceived of God — then God graces you with the experience of the “night.” It’s God’s way of freeing us from our labor, because we can never know God through our own efforts. It’s only when our own efforts fail that we can be open to the grace of God. It’s a gift, a liberation, but that doesn’t mean it’s fun. It’s purgative, like a fast. During the first couple of days of fasting, toxins will start surfacing, and you may feel miserable. But if you can get through that phase without grabbing a hamburger, then there comes a point at which you are purged and feel clarity and lightness. John is talking about a similar process in both kinds of night.
Miller: Is the next stage, the dark night of the spirit, more intense?
Farrington: In the classic reading it is. The division of the dark night into two parts goes back to the medieval practice of breaking down all experience into body and spirit. So the dark night of the senses has to do with the purgation of the body; the dark night of the spirit has to do with the illumination of the intellect. What happens is that all your ideas of God start to ring false. You thought you were achieving something, but in the dark night you can no longer achieve anything. You thought you were a spiritual success story, and all of a sudden the successes don’t seem like successes anymore.
Personally I’ve never found it helpful to discriminate between these levels of experience. Spiritual aspirants love their phases: purgative, illuminative, unitive, and so on. It would be nice if things were really so orderly, but the fact is that the process doesn’t fall out that way. The Eightfold Noble Path of Buddhism, for example, is not sequential but simultaneous.
Miller: Most of us don’t adhere to a severe monastic discipline. When we’re feeling low, we look for the dawn to arrive as soon as possible.
Farrington: Actually I think the dark-night concept has validity in contemporary, nonmonastic spirituality. For me it’s been a crucial thread through several challenges in my life. Once the fever for meaning has begun to burn in you, it builds at its own pace. There are times in life when the heat gets turned up and greater demands are made of us. That can happen inside or outside a monastery. Often the point of living in a cloistered environment is to crank up the heat, so to speak. In the ashram where I lived, we used to have special weekends where we would chant all night. I’ve been in a Zen center where we would sometimes meditate for thirteen hours a day. Those are both ways of cranking up the heat, but ordinary life will do this for us too. Regardless of where we are, intensity finds us when we’re ready for it. What kind of spiritual environment we’re in is not really the issue. I’ve lived in a monastery; I know how much slack there is even there. If you read Thomas Merton’s journals, you’ll see that he had issues with the laxity of monastic practice.
Miller: Are there similarities between following a spiritual discipline and being a writer?
Farrington: For me they amount to nearly the same thing. Writing and spiritual practice both involve a disciplined, committed, and protracted effort to bring ourselves into line with a reality that transcends the ego. Both processes rely on a kind of grace that emerges from a wholehearted engagement with truth. And in both cases, I think, it is “by their fruits ye shall know them”: Any spiritual discipline worth its salt should lead to a more loving, compassionate, realistic engagement with the world. Any authentic writing practice should lead to deeper insights into the human predicament.
I have found there are times when the practice of a spiritual discipline necessarily trumps the writing process; that is, there are periods of deeper undoing when the energy empties into a silence that’s beyond words. This invariably unnerves me as a writer, though I have learned to deal with my terror and to trust those deeper plunges into quiet and stillness. They usually end up being fruitful in the long run, if I can keep from panicking. For me there’s not really a choice between writing and spiritual practice: the practice is more important. If my soul life seems to screw up my writing sometimes, I can’t do anything but accept it. To paraphrase R. Crumb: faith gets me through times of no writing better than writing could ever get me through times of no faith.
Miller: Some artists believe depression is necessary to their work. What are the arguments for treating or not treating one’s depression?
Farrington: It’s impossible to argue with someone who feels that depression is part of his or her artistic process. The poet Rilke was afraid that if he got rid of his demons, he would lose his angels as well. Of course the danger of clinging to our demons to save our angels is that our demons may well take over.
For creative people art is the thread that leads them through the labyrinth of the world, and if they think that treating their mental illness will break that thread, they are going to resist treatment. I felt that way myself for decades. I was terrified of somehow anesthetizing myself to reality, and I was willing to accept mental illness as the price of creativity. In my case it took a genuine bottoming-out to open me up to treatment for depression, and also the inspiring example of a painter friend who’d been in similar straits. She was prescribed an antidepressant and told me that it hadn’t cut her off from her emotional and creative depths. When I tried therapy and medication, it was a revelation. As the antidepressant took effect, I had a sense of the return of my true self, which had been submerged for a long time. The potency of that sense of self was extraordinary. I can testify that seeking treatment for mental illness need not be a betrayal of one’s artistic or spiritual vocation.
That said, we are sometimes too eager to treat depression aggressively with medication. We shouldn’t make an emergency out of every depression. Sometimes people need to suffer through it until they find their own way to treatment. The integrity of an individual soul is important, and our resistance to treatment can be a statement of resistance to the social myth of “normality.” Treatment may help people immensely, but I recommend going gently in selling it to anyone who’s resistant for any reasons, however complex or tangled.
The poet Rilke was afraid that if he got rid of his demons, he would lose his angels as well. Of course the danger of clinging to our demons to save our angels is that our demons may well take over.
Miller: Jungian psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz felt that the point of depression is to push the ego down so far that something else — a divine creativity or spiritual energy — can come in over the top. In other words, it’s getting the ego out of the way. Does this bear any relationship to John’s idea of the dark night of the soul as a gift?
Farrington: For John the supreme reality is God. So if you go deep enough into the unknowing of the dark night, you will find union with the God within you. This was a heretical idea, by the way; John had to be careful not to get himself killed talking like this. In 1310 Marguerite Porete, author of The Mirror of Simple Souls, did get herself killed for saying that the soul is indistinguishable from God. Around that same time German theologian Meister Eckhart talked about emptiness as the essence of God and said, “I pray to God to take me beyond ‘God.’ ” They were both talking about silence, the desert of the soul, the experience of nothingness. Porete was exuberant about it, celebrating a lover’s relationship with her own nothingness. But the early 1300s was a bad time to be doing that. This was the beginning of the Beguine movement, a kind of freelance, nonmonastic, communal women’s spirituality, and the Church authorities of the time feared it. They made an example of Porete, who was burned at the stake in Paris. Meister Eckhart managed to stay within the bounds of orthodoxy and survived.
John of the Cross was careful not to make trouble when talking about “union with God.” He was jailed and beaten up, but less for his theology than for his participation in the Carmelite Reformation. He wrote the actual poem “Dark Night of the Soul” in prison; his later book is an exegesis of that poem. His story itself illustrates a connection between the dark night and creativity.
Miller: Can one get through the dark night without feeling bad? In other words, if we stop resisting and truly surrender to our own emptiness and the inadequacy of our efforts to reach God, can we avoid being depressed about it?
Farrington: It’s true enough to say that we suffer through the dark night because of our resistance, but resistance is our nature. You can reach a point in your practice, however, where what you would formerly have thought of as depression actually feels blissful. That does have to do with surrender.
Miller: To me that sounds similar to the sort of grief or sorrow that has a kind of sweetness to it, when you’re past the experience of desolation and loss and have moved into acceptance.
Farrington: Which comes right after depression in Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief. We’re talking about getting free of old patterns and finding new paths for movement of energy, right down to the neuronal level. But it’s also just recognizing what you can and can’t do as a human being.
The dark night begins when we realize that all our spiritual efforts have been subtly building up our ego and that our cherished notions of God are essentially false idols. Then we lose both our sense of self and of God, and this is where Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief come in. There is an initial denial of the problem, an attempt to go on with business as usual; as that denial is frustrated, a kind of rage kicks in: the anger stage. Then comes a passionate attempt to fix things by trying new tricks and techniques, which is comparable to Kübler-Ross’s stage of bargaining: attempting to cut some sort of deal with reality. When all these efforts fail, we experience what Kübler-Ross calls “depression,” and what John of the Cross calls “darkness, emptiness, unknowing”: the self’s undeniable helplessness after the loss of its former certainties. The final stage for both processes is acceptance, the mysterious grace of the humbled self’s accommodation to an unavoidable, unmanipulable deeper reality. That’s true surrender.
Possibly the heart of our humanity is to want something we cannot achieve by our own efforts. The surrender required for experiencing the fruitfulness of the dark night is a way of living with longing. It’s a kind of waiting that is completed just by waiting — and yet you are still waiting for something.
Miller: Are you waiting to overcome your own resistance — that is, waiting for your nature to change?
Farrington: No, but I think you are waiting for your nature to stop fighting itself. It seems to me that most of the misery of the dark night comes from believing that you’re doing something wrong and should be doing it better. John of the Cross criticizes spiritual directors who send aspirants in crisis back to more-complicated forms of prayer, telling them to improve the content of their prayers rather than advising them to accept the dark night as a time of achieving nothing. You have to let go of your own need for accomplishment.
Another torment of the dark night is the suspicion that, for whatever reason, you are uniquely irredeemable among all the souls who have ever passed through this process, and you have dug yourself a hole so deep you can never get out. I remember seeing a cartoon of a cat who’s gotten stuck in a jar, her face smushed up against the glass, with the caption “Cat, having worked very hard to get somewhere, now wondering where it is she really got.” The dark-night terror can be just like that, where you realize you have crowded yourself into this jar and can’t get out. Perhaps you’ve worked on a spiritual discipline for many years and expected a big payoff, and suddenly you realize you’ve gotten nowhere, and there’s nowhere to go.
Miller: But in the general population depression is not often the result of a spiritual discipline. How do we distinguish between depression as a dark night of the soul and depression as a treatable psychological disorder?
Farrington: It’s not easy. In a way I’ve experienced the path of depression just as exhaustively as I’ve experienced the contemplative path to God. Exactly what I’m going through has always been an issue: should I be treated for depression, or am I passing through the dark night of the soul and therefore should tough it out? A lot of what happens in the dark night is the same as what happens in clinical depression. There’s a sense of complete helplessness and futility, a tremendous anxiety about being unable to pull yourself out of that state, and a sense that you can’t do anything to make yourself better.
Miller: My mother was manic-depressive all her life, and also a “borderline personality,” meaning that her sense of self, her identity, and her behavior were frequently unstable. Is a person in a dark night of the soul similarly unstable?
Farrington: Again, the people John of the Cross was addressing were monastics living a communal religious life. Most unstable personalities had probably been weeded out by the filters of monasticism. John does address people having visions and hearing voices, and he’s very skeptical of all that. I get the sense that he dealt a lot with swooning, spirits, proclamations, and so on. John said that none of that had much to do with God. Zen training is dismissive of such experiences too; you’re instructed just to let it all go.
John also addressed what he called “bad humors” or “melancholy.” He made distinctions between bad humors and the genuine dark night, one of them being the susceptibility to distraction: if you can find something that makes you feel better, then you’re not having a genuine dark night; you just have a weak spiritual practice. John said that bad humors should be treated. They had herbs for it. We use antidepressants.
Miller: If you treat your melancholy, can you still be in the dark night?
Farrington: Yes. What makes it dark is not the melancholy but the genuine realization of helplessness. The melancholia is an emotional reaction to that insight, but the insight itself doesn’t have to be depressing. It’s a question of how you react. The Buddha’s First Noble Truth is that “life is suffering.” That insight may well be the fruit of your dark night of the soul: that suffering is everywhere and you’re relatively helpless to do much about it. But how do you react to that realization? Can you see suffering everywhere and not become depressed by it?
This matter has become sort of politicized. A spiritual practitioner may think that seeking treatment for depression invalidates any spiritual benefits. From the clinical-psychology side, it may appear criminally negligent to let people suffer and call it a “spiritual experience.” Peter D. Kramer makes a strong case that there is no usefulness in depression, that it’s neither spiritually nor artistically rewarding and should always be treated.
Miller: In a depression it might be dangerous to think, This suffering is good for me, so I’ll suffer more until I’m spiritually purged.
Farrington: Right. From the clinical point of view, you may just be reinforcing the neural routes of suffering that are already active in your brain. If you’ve got a feedback loop in your brain for depression, then your spiritual crises will depress you just as your everyday crises depress you. No matter how we define the dark night, it’s important to deal with depression properly, and effective treatment will never in any way be detrimental to a spiritual practice. It won’t pull the plug on your dark night, so to speak. Kramer warns against the “myth of heroic melancholy.” There’s no question that I got into that myth big time when I was younger. I thought it was profound to be depressed about how screwed up the world is.
On the other hand, you can go too far to the other side and become afraid to find anything positive in suffering. Yes, heroic suffering can be absurd, but it’s equally absurd never to allow a moment of moodiness to creep into your experience.
The real question isn’t “Should I seek treatment?” but “What am I ripe for?” Renunciation of the ego is not an act of will; it’s an instinctive reaction to a certain kind of powerful insight. When you’re propelled into a cloud of unknowing that you are willing and ready to deal with, you don’t want to “get better.” You don’t feel exiled from your normal life. You see that what you’re going through is useful and has meaning. When it ceases to be useful and have meaning, then you can go back to the pleasures of everyday life. After many years of the most intense asceticism, the Buddha drank a glass of milk, and that was the key to his enlightenment. That was the origin of the Middle Way, because he realized that asceticism was not the final answer to everything.
Miller: That reminds me of a Franciscan monk I once saw in a coffeehouse. He was wearing the full ascetic uniform of burlap robe, rope belt, and sandals, and ordering a “caffe fantasia”: a rich coffee drink with chocolate and whipped cream and candy sprinkles. He looked like the happiest guy on the planet!
Farrington: In the traditional monastic context, the distraction from the dark night would be some spiritual reading or happy chanting, but I’d much rather have a spiritual life that includes caffe fantasia. I think there are simple pleasures in life that we all deserve. In fact, those pleasures can be as good as it gets.
Miller: But if you distract yourself in order to feel better, might you be short-circuiting a process of spiritual cleansing?
Farrington: I don’t think so. Again, John says that if it’s possible to distract yourself, you’re not having the genuine spiritual experience anyway. So if you want to feel better and can find a way to do it, that’s what you should do.
Miller: The problem arises when people start ignoring or denying their dark feelings because they’re relentlessly focused on the positive.
Farrington: Yes. If Freud taught us anything, it’s that when you scratch the surface of the psyche, you uncover a lot of complexity. We have ingrained patterns of thinking and feeling that do not go away simply because we decide to be happy. That’s just denial. Those patterns go away or change only through the disciplined cultivation of other patterns of thinking and feeling. I do think we can achieve perfect happiness, however. Thomas Aquinas says that our goal as human beings is happiness, and we will find our greatest happiness in the contemplation of God. Aristotle says that we’re born to be happy, and we find happiness only in devotion to the highest ideals.
Miller: A Course in Miracles teaches that “God’s Will for me is perfect happiness.” Of course there’s a catch: the cost of perfect happiness is total surrender of the ego. And elsewhere the Course suggests that such surrender generally takes thousands of years, at least.
Farrington: Buddhism says that the perfect bliss of enlightenment is entirely possible, but how often does it happen? Imagine there are two rings floating in a giant ocean, and two turtles surface somewhere in that ocean once every ten thousand years. As often as one of those turtles happens to surface with his head inside one of those rings, that’s how often someone gets enlightened. Or imagine there’s a bird flying over the highest mountain in the world with a silk handkerchief, and it brushes the top of the mountain once every thousand years. When the mountain has been eroded flat by the brush of that silk handkerchief, then you’ll be enlightened. This is a pretty deliberate pace! All these paths seem to be encouraging us not to be too ambitious about achieving bliss. Now that’s depressing, isn’t it?
Miller: Well, then, let’s talk more about creativity. Many famous writers and artists have suffered from depression. Do periods of depression often precede or overlap productive periods for an artist?
Farrington: I know that scientific studies point to a higher incidence of mental illness in creative types, but I suspect that it just shows up more vividly in artists. An artist’s loss of psychic balance is immediately visible in his or her work. If you lose your balance on a high wire, people notice. If you lose your balance at ground level, you may stumble or reel, but you can conceal it. You have to fall down completely before everyone around you notices you have a problem. So I think the idea that creative people are more prone to depression may be illusory; there could be a matching amount of unreported, undiagnosed psychic misery in the general population. I wouldn’t be surprised if a more discerning study showed that creatively engaged people are psychologically healthier, on the whole.
That said, there is no question in my own mind that periods of depression are often associated with artistically productive periods. Breakthroughs in creative work usually come when the tried-and-true approaches fail. We are looking for a new method, because the old methods aren’t working, and so there is the fear of not knowing what to do, of going beyond familiar territory. Creativity often flourishes in a state of uncertainty that approaches desperation. There is a sense of helplessness as well, and a sharp awareness of needing something that you don’t have. The breakdown of certainties is also fertile breeding ground for depression. The creative process requires that we cultivate the virtues that can see us through these periods: patience, faith, humility, trust in a larger picture, and plain old courage. To learn what we don’t know, we have to go through a considerable expanse of not-knowing. But during creative crises we are definitely more vulnerable to despair, the temptation to give up, and the self-abuse that comes with experiencing failure and inadequacy.
I used to say that my best creative state was a “working depression”: I wasn’t so depressed as to be nonfunctioning, but I was distinctly down. Most of my best work has come slowly, quietly, and with a lot of self-doubt, but not with full-blown depression. Depression itself doesn’t help me write at all. I’m learning to deglamorize depressive emotions and to distinguish between true spiritual surrender and just giving up on myself. I don’t have to be somewhat depressed to write; I have to be somewhat surrendered to write — and there is an important difference. When I was younger I tended to achieve surrender only in the middle of depressive episodes. What’s clear to me now is that depression is largely the ego’s reaction to surrender, because surrender itself is not only painless but blissful. You feel as if you can take a breath for the first time in ten thousand years.
The Buddha’s First Noble Truth is that “life is suffering.” That insight may well be the fruit of your dark night of the soul. . . . But how do you react to that realization? Can you see suffering everywhere and not become depressed by it?
Miller: Do the images, ideas, or feelings that you have experienced in depressed states specifically inform your writing?
Farrington: Depression is like any other debilitating illness: you can learn humility and patience from dealing with it, and you can experience gratitude when it lifts. There are the times when the clouds part and you see the sunlight, or a kid eating an ice-cream cone, and perhaps you’re more grateful for that than ever before. When you get out of the little hole of yourself, you’re more sensitized to others’ suffering and more aware of the complex causes of suffering. So your capacity for compassion is enhanced.
Miller: In your experience what has provided the best route through depression?
Farrington: It’s pretty simple, really: eating right, getting enough exercise, not drinking too much. For me a minimal dose of antidepressants seems necessary; if I go off them, I spiral down.
Miller: You’ve been manic too, and there’s increasing controversy over whether the diagnosis of bipolar disorder is being applied correctly. After all, everyone experiences mood swings to some degree. How do you know when you’re manic?
Farrington: When the police are taking my arms and leading me away! I have just been nuts sometimes. The paradox is that mania can feel divinely inspired. Every impulse, whim, or megalomaniacal thought can seem like the will of God. Through years of reflection I’ve come to recognize mania as an energized fantasy. I have gone for days without sleeping, and it seemed as if everything I was doing was so right, but it was just the ego writ large, taking fantasy as reality. I felt creative, but I didn’t do very good work. Good writing is always a slow, disciplined climb; it seldom feels as if I were being swept along, as it does during a mania.
When you come down from a manic episode, you’re so ashamed of what you did that it makes your depression a hundred times worse. And, going in the other direction, if you’ve been depressed for a while and your mood starts to lighten, you’re so happy that it’s easy to ride it right up to your next fantasy high. Fortunately the drugs for manic-depression have gotten much better than they used to be. In the fifties people were put on barbiturates; in the sixties they started prescribing lithium, which wasn’t a lot better. Lithium just made me feel gray and distant from myself.
Miller: In a recent Authors Guild Bulletin, there was a quote from the correspondence of novelists Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace: “Writing is a way out of loneliness.” Wallace committed suicide in 2008. Most writers find their vocation to be an intensely solitary endeavor. How is it for you? Does writing intensify or ultimately ease loneliness?
Farrington: Done right, the discipline of writing makes your heart more open and soft — or at least it helps you take your head out of your ass. Writing should ultimately decrease morbid self-absorption, not make it worse.
It’s a constant struggle for me to be a decent human being. If my writing is going badly, then the struggle is even more intense. The fundamental urge is to go ever deeper into solitude until something gives; on the way down, there is an absorption in the work that might kindly be called “creative preoccupation.” But when the work is going well, I’m less lonely, because I’m humble, patient, and not fighting anything. In that sense writing connects me to reality. The Desert Fathers in the early Christian tradition said, “Go sit in thy cell, and thy cell shall teach thee everything.” Writing has been my cell, and it has taught me everything.