Do you think this is an impossible notion, this idea that depression can be a gift? Join the crowd! You should have heard the number of people who told me this article couldn't be written. When I told one young director the title and my intention—to support all of you in appreciating your dark moods and, yes, even your failures, so as to ultimately make them not only more productive but less grueling—she was dumbfounded. She said she was sure it was an impossible task because, "You can't change how you do anything when you're depressed. Maybe you can see it afterwards, how ridiculous you were being, but while you're there, it just feels like the end of the world and that's it."
My response was, "That's like saying that an actor, when she's 'in the moment' of acting, can't get any better at remembering her lines, and cues, and blocking, and so on." But, of course, an actor can, and indeed does, get better and better at being in the moment of inspiration and artistry while retaining greater and greater degrees and layers of craft and technique. Why should it be any different in life?
If life is an ongoing improvisation, we get more than enough practice—every moment of every day. Some say we're doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again, just keep playing out the same scenario the same way. But why does it have to be that way? Why can't we learn more about living and do it differently, just like we learn more about acting and directing and writing and do them differently?
Part of the problem is that, in life, we are run, to a large degree, by our feelings, and you can't consciously decide to change your feelings (why my director friend believes she can't change her depressions). But our feelings are triggered by our expectations, beliefs, and interpretations of our experiences, and those can be changed. We can, through all different kinds of personal work, understand numerous perspectives and interpretations of the same experience. And as we understand them differently, our emotional responses will change.
(Unfortunately, there is still a gap between the head and the heart; and one of the most painful parts of the growth process is that transitional period when you can understand completely that your emotional reaction is inappropriate and ineffective, but it still overwhelms you. For those times, at the end of this piece I will offer some practical ways to get over the hump and start out of the slump.)
Most people are unwilling to even address this whole notion of consciously looking at how and why they are who they are and do what they do. Instead, they try to live their lives by whatever current "formula" is being offered by society for success and happiness. Of course, they rarely get success or happiness, even when the recipe is followed to the teaspoon. This is especially true in the arts, where the accepted route to success is only effective for a very small percentage of people. The rest of us go on following the program, putting a good face on it (because that's what's expected), and hoping that when we finally win the success-and-happiness lottery, it will all make sense.
But, in fact, even when the external goals of success and happiness are completely fulfilled, the person rarely is. Why? Because no formula can actually meet the complex and unique web of needs of an individual human being. So the only chance we have to really be happy and really feel successful is if we rip off the clown mask, give up the recipes and the formulae, and begin to acknowledge and understand who we are as individuals and what works for each of us.
The Paradox of Being Human
One of the essential qualities of being human is our complexity, and that complexity includes simultaneous feelings that should be mutually exclusive—what I call "contradictory co-existing realities." (I used to call them paradoxes, until I discovered that the dictionary refused to own what a paradox really is, defining it as something that seems contradictory, but may be true. But these qualities are contradictory and yet are true.)
One of the most common contradictory co-existing realities is "love-hate," the feeling many of us have about a life in the theatre, as well as for certain people in our lives, and sometimes even for life itself. Another one is "happy-sad," felt in some of the most profound moments in our lives, particularly rites of passage like weddings and graduations. There's also "strong-weak," the way we feel when we discover something about ourselves that we can't tolerate any longer and, finally, feel capable of changing. And there are so many others, many that can't even be stated in such simple two-word terms.
Allowing your dark side opens you to one of the most critical aspects of contradictory co-existing realities for artists and creative people: The more deeply you allow one side of the equation, the more deeply you get to have the other. Therefore, the greater our capacity to experience and express the pain, the greater our capacity for joy.
You must have figured all this out in your acting/writing/directing at some point. But if you think it doesn't apply to your "offstage" life, be warned that your work will continue to grow and flourish at the expense of the rest of your life. Because it's equally as true in every facet of your being. Buried pain hurts just as much, runs you more (because it's unconscious), and leaves you emotionally crippled from the effort of suppressing it.
Most of the world, most people with "normal" lives, don't get to learn that the way we do, don't get to experience the beauty and the deliverance possible in expressing moments of great pain and sorrow (think of working on "Hamlet" or "Equus" or "Sweeney Todd"). So, instead of trying to make ourselves look and act as "normal" as possible, wouldn't it make more sense to use the depth and breadth of what we learn as artists to live more full, creative lives?
"Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me, I'm Gonna Go Eat Some Worms"
When I was younger, I assumed that people were the happiest when they got what they wanted. It seemed logical, and I think it's what everyone believes. After many years of living, though, I now understand that it's not true. When people get what they want (or what they thought they wanted), they are forced to confront the fact that nothing is, in reality, the way we fantasize it will be when we long for it.
In actuality, for the most part, people are the happiest when they have hope—when they believe there's a chance they might get what they want in the future. And the time when people have the most hope is when there are possibilities out there, whether those possibilities are mostly fantasy (like a lottery ticket) or fairly grounded in reality (like a batch of submissions in the mail).
But the only way to have possibilities out there is to put them out there, and that is difficult for many people. The reason it's difficult is that putting yourself out there means risking rejection. In fact, in our business, it means guaranteeing rejection, because every step of the process includes multiple efforts to make multiple viable connections—with producers, with directors, with project collaborators, and with audiences—and many of those connections will not work. We must experience rejection.
Our culture teaches us to feel terribly threatened by rejection. Why? Part of it is that formula thing, that our society defines us by externals (how much fame we've acquired, how much money we make, what prizes we've won), and so we're afraid that each rejection defines us. But part of it is because rejections hurt, and our culture encourages us to avoid pain at all costs (take an aspirin, have a drink). Unfortunately, there are huge costs we pay in every situation for our unwillingness to experience pain.
Rejections don't have to be quite so painful. They are not ultimate statements about your worth and value, nor messages from the universe that you have failed. Rejections are just the result of someone deciding that a particular combination of people and circumstances are not going to work together. It could be their issues, it could be something about you (perceived or actual), or it could be their decision-making process itself that is accountable.
And it's so easy for it to happen. Rejection stories abound by the zillions in our business. Let's just use one: At Fred Astaire's first screen test, he was rejected for being too skinny, balding, and only being able to dance "a little." Enough said.
Rejection itself can be turned into a game to diminish its sting. Count your rejections like badges of honor, war wounds. Give yourself a present or prize for each one. After all, you're going to need a lot of "no"s to get to each "yes." In baseball, a batting average over .300 is considered terrific, and that's hitting the ball less than one-third of the time! The "batting average" in our business is even lower.
I know there are lessons to be learned from some rejections—valuable feedback to be had on what you might improve or how you might vary your approach. But sometimes the only lesson is to not take it on and not let it keep you from trying again moments later.
"Gimme a Break"
The end of a show can feel like the hugest rejection of all, even if all actual evidence points to the contrary. With a short run, like a showcase, it is made even more difficult by the exhaustion and emotional depletion of all that work, often scheduled around an income-producing job, and then it's over so fast, and who actually saw it, and what did you really get out of it?
So there is real disappointment. But then, there is also perceived disappointment, the frustration of our unrealistic expectations of the industry. Many of us have a dysfunctional love relationship with this business, somewhat like having an affair with someone who's married. However blissful the time spent together, the time will always come when we are abandoned again, and it won't necessarily ever be there for us when we really need it, like on Thanksgiving or our birthday.
So how do we make the relationship more functional? By accepting how unrealistic some of our expectations are, yes, but also by continuing to build up the real component of the relationship—our craft, our artistry, our belief in our work—so that there is something strong and powerful to balance the irrational self-doubt, the anxiety, the fear that we will never work again.
Dancing with the Darkness
Clinically, there are two kinds of depression: situational (in reaction to specific circumstances) and endogenous (developing from within). But I believe that at least some of the latter is actually cyclical depression, a periodic recurring phase of melancholy in each person's rhythmic make-up.
Cyclical depression feels like it comes from nowhere. It's that irrational gloomy mood, that hormonal funk, that existential despair—the kind of depression everyone tells you to "get over." But why? Dark times serve numerous functions, especially if we don't fight them but go with them—dance with the darkness.
For one thing, if you have been ignoring your frustrations and dissatisfactions, now you can't. When you are depressed, you have to face all your fears and doubts—there is nowhere to hide. And if you are willing to stay in the sadness and uncertainty long enough, you will eventually get some clarity on where you need to go next, and what you need to do to get there.
Dark times are also periods of renewal, times to take care of yourself and allow your system to replenish its strength and resources. If you're afraid that you will stay there forever and never return to the world, know that that is so rare. Go there and be there, and you will know when you are ready to leave the primarily internal struggle of depression and re-enter the primarily external struggle of daily life.
And Now to the Workbook
For those of you who enjoy the tangible, I've got one exercise for you this time, a quick and easy one. Make a list. Actually, make four lists—10 or so entries on each one. Don't think too much; write quickly. Here are the lists: 10 things that give you pleasure; 10 things that make you feel good, that make you happy; 10 things that make you feel good about yourself; and 10 things that make you feel successful.
Okay, now it's time for a little bit of list revision. How many of the things on the pleasure list make you feel worse the next day, or give you pleasure but make you feel bad about yourself? Move them onto a separate list and fill in the empty spaces with things that give you pleasure without quite so much negative residue. How many of the things on the success list make you feel successful in other people's eyes as opposed to really making you feel successful? Move them, too, and fill in the spaces with things that make you feel successful whether or not anyone else knows about them.
Now read over your revised lists. It's fascinating to me how few things end up on more than one of these lists for most people. We don't always think about the distinctions between these categories, but there is actually a great deal of difference between the needs that each group meets.
The next time you're feeling depressed, try and identify where you're feeling the pull-tug, and try to fill it with something from the corresponding list. If you're feeling deprived, give yourself something from your pleasure list. If you're feeling bad about how you dealt with something, do one from your "makes me feel good about myself" list. If you just suffered a rejection, accomplish something from the list of things that make you feel successful. There are many times you can use the "happy" list. And in a really bad period, you can try doing one from each list every day.
For When You've Fallen and Can't Get Up
Sometimes depression becomes a self-perpetuating state, and getting out of the lethargy and gloom becomes the hardest part. For those times, when you can't even remember what makes you feel good and why you should even bother trying, here are some practical jump-starts.
I know it sounds simple, but don't forget to breathe! And not just in and out either, deep breaths. In through the nose and out through the mouth. Slowly—four counts in and eight counts out. If your breathing is extremely shallow (holding the air up high in your chest, in your upper lungs), lie on your back with your knees up and your feet flat on the floor and put your hands on your stomach. Then let each breath fill up your belly like a balloon.
Taking a break for slow, measured breathing is the simplest, most basic form of meditation, and meditation brings greater balance and peace. However, I'm not advocating the Buddhist objective with regard to highs and lows. Buddhist psychology claims that depression is the downside of stimulation, and that if we just don't have highs, we won't be subjected to lows. The desire in Buddhist meditation is to balance at a median point where extremes are not experienced and there is a kind of leveling-off of emotion. I believe in a different kind of balance, the balance of fullness, through allowing the whole spectrum of experiences and reactions while retaining the clarity that this moment and this state of being, however glorious or debilitating, is transitory, and so does not define you or your life.
There is a well of pain and sadness in each of us, the part that cries (or has some urge to cry) at happy endings of movies and Hallmark commercials, the part that gets called "emotional" or "sentimental." It's the part that still mourns every death and loss and disappointment, and still longs for every unmet desire. Many people are afraid of that part of themselves, because they think that allowing all that sorrow is depression (and therefore unhealthy, and definitely un-cool), but depression is more often a state of shutdown and shutout emotion. Depression is more like apathy than sadness. And one of the greatest ways of getting past apathy is to release the well of pain that is always there inside. Releasing the pain will also release all the other feelings suppressed underneath and behind the pain, including all the good, sweet, and hopeful feelings.
So don't be afraid to cry. Cry over a book or a movie or a letter or a song. Consciously trigger the tears. And when they come, allow yourself to weep, even taking it so far as wailing and moaning. If you can't stand the tears all over you or are too self-conscious, take a shower or bath and weep as the water runs over you, washing your sadness away and letting it flow freely down the drain.
What elements refresh you—Air? Water? Earth? Fire? All of them? Open a window and get some fresh air. Take a cool shower. Lie face down on the floor and let go of the need to hold yourself (even better, lie on a patch of grass or dirt and feel the supportive earth beneath you). Light a candle, or a room full of candles. Smell essence of ylang ylang, jasmine, basil, or peppermint, all aromatherapy anti-depressants. Slowly peel an orange and eat it, smelling and tasting each piece. Get outside into the world and take a walk—preferably by a park with some green growing things.
Avoid use of recreational drugs and alcohol. Even large quantities of caffeine and chocolate can cause temporary mood elevation that makes the subsequent lows even lower (artificially lower, not truthfully deeper). Drugs will dramatically alter your mood and seem to offer a high, or relief, but the more depressed you are, the more toxic the aftermath will be. If you indulge, that's okay—it doesn't mean you have to keep doing it, getting more and more sucked into the self-destructiveness; it's never too late to stop. Let yourself off the hook for the indulgence, so you don't have an excuse to do it again out of self-loathing.
Exercise, whether tame or vigorous, is actually a prescribed medical treatment for depression—the recommended dose is a brisk walk for half an hour four days a week. Exercise elevates your mood with no negative after-effects. So does sleep. If you're having trouble sleeping, or sleeping deeply, try lulling yourself into a good night's rest with a hot bath, warm milk or chamomile tea, and meditative music or sound effects (like the ocean).
Get yourself some sympathy and empathy. Do you know the difference? Sympathy is warm, cuddly caring. Empathy is understanding, someone seeing and getting why it is you feel the way you do. You need both. Get them from two different people if you have to. Ask for exactly what you need and want. You just might get it.
5.) Shift Perspective
Marcel Proust said, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in seeing with new eyes." Whenever you're feeling stuck, try to look at the situation differently. How might another person inside the same situation see it? How might someone outside the situation see it? What might actually benefit you from the fact that things worked out the way that they did? Look at past moments that you thought were losses or failures, and figure out what wonderful things happened because of them that might not have happened otherwise.
Laugh. If you can laugh at yourself, great, but all humor shifts perspective, so laugh at something. Try ridiculously funny movies like "The Producers" or "Duck Soup," or absurd songs like those of Weird Al Yankovic. Whenever the mood gets too gloomy in our house, my son chirps in "Time for a conga line!" And whoever is there joins in singing and dancing and kicking down the hall, and within a few seconds, we're all laughing.
Think about it; write about it; talk about it. Any and all are valuable tools for re-assessment. Try to talk to people who offer differing perspectives, so you receive multiple reality checks on what you can get out of this situation.
Another way we get ourselves stuck is to see our goals and tasks as these huge, overwhelming, unapproachable monsters. If you break things down into smaller, more do-able components, it will be easier to find a starting place, an entry point.
7.) Inspire Yourself
If you can, give yourself a creative outlet for your frustration, anger, or despair: Put it in a poem, a sculpture (even from play-doh!), or any project on which you're currently working. If you can't inspire yourself with your own current work, try your past work; remind yourself of what your creativity, your artistry, and your emotions have produced. If that doesn't work, try inspiring yourself with others' creative work, particularly work that has come out of the depths of despair: Van Gogh, Beethoven, Mark Twain, Spencer Tracy, Vivian Leigh.
8.) Do Something Differently
Once you've discovered how easy it is to shift perspective—to see something differently—then take it into action: Do something differently. It could be as simple as your route to the subway or as profound as challenging the ingrained patterns in a relationship. They say you shouldn't make any major decisions when you're in the highest and lowest points of your life, but, as artists, we're rarely anywhere else. If we waited for periods of stasis to make all critical decisions, we'd never decide anything!
One of the greatest gifts of doing something differently is to teach yourself deeply, in your bones, that you can. There is almost nothing that you have to do in the way you've always done it. You can change. It's not simple or easy or without trade-offs, but it can and does happen.
And change will happen anyway, whether or not it's intentional, because life is transitory and ephemeral, and even things that seem to stay the same are never really the same from moment to moment. Even our skin remakes itself over and over again; not one of our skin cells is more than a few years old. We just keep remaking the same scars in the same places on our body. Isn't that incredible? Our brand new skin cells replicate a scar from an injury that they never even experienced. And it makes me wonder: Do we do the same things in our minds?
The Only Constant is Change
Let me say it again. Everything changes. We cannot hold on to any one good feeling forever, and we will not have to endure any one bad feeling forever. Each project will end; each relationship will wax and wane; every baby who lives will grow up; every one of us will eventually die. And we ourselves must change as we experience the world, even if it's by shutting more of ourselves down to deny our experiences.
Since people expend so much energy avoiding pain at such great cost to their potential growth and joy and humanity, I can't help but believe that it must be because deep inside they don't believe this. They don't trust that this, too, shall pass, that it is all cyclical, and that experiencing pain and sadness will lead you through it and on to the next place.
It is not masochistic to welcome dark feelings if you know that you must experience them in order to release them and learn from them; it is only masochistic to seek them out for their own sake. And is it really any less masochistic to deny one's own life and self their fullness in an effort to avoid any pain? What greater, deeper pain will then be felt years down the road looking back at the half-lived life of the half-alive self one chose to be?
If the pain is because you didn't get what you wanted, remember: The outcome we are committed to bringing about may not bring what we think it will. The job you didn't get might have turned out to be a debilitating situation. The show that closed might have kept you from another great opportunity if it were still running. We can never know what would have happened if different opportunities had been offered or different choices made; we only know what happened the way that it happened.
If we continue to strive for some fantasy "happy ending"—if we believe that there is some magical answer or prize that will finally make our lives work and have meaning—then depressions will be powerful slaps in the face to confront us with the fact that we have missed the brass ring, that we have once more fallen short of perfection and bliss.
But if we accept that there is no perfection, no formula, and no happily-ever-after, we can live in our unique and individual understandings of our unique and individual lives. Then, depressions can function quite beautifully as lessons about what is not working for us and where we need to make changes, as well as periodic phases to retreat, and mourn and replenish our resources.
Now that doesn't sound so depressing, does it?
Shellen Lubin is a writer, director, and coach. This article is the third in a series of pieces exploring philosophical perspectives on a life in the arts. The first two were: "Does Life Begin When You Make It? Constructing a Creative Life Now!"—July 9, 1999; and "Whose Work Is It Anyway? (Is the Feedback Ringing in Your Ears?)"—March 17, 2000.