I spent about ten minutes today working on a new art project. It made me feel better—happier, optimistic, positive– than I have in weeks. So it’s frustrating that in periods of stress or difficulty, I find myself ignoring my creative side. Bluntly: this is stupid.
Many links have been found between “creative” people and a tendency towards depression. Define creative however you want. One psychiatrist did a ten year study of men and women involved in a variety of professions. Between 59 and 77 percent of the artists, writers, and musicians in his study suffered from some form of mental illness, particularly mood disorders, compared to just 18-29 percent in less artistic individuals.
I know working on something artistic makes me feel better. I’ve relearned this lesson time and time again. Why do I keep denying myself this outlet?
The most basic reason I can come up with is family. My dad has a story of when I was little, and he asked me what I wanted to be. My response was, “A Palomino”. What I really meant was “palette”, as in painter’s palette. I wanted to be an artist. I spent tons of time drawing and sketching. Wherever I went, I gave away my pictures. I would save ones up that I drew during day care, and pretend to “sell” my work to my parents at the end of the day. I loved pencils, crayons, markers, watercolors, any artistic medium I could apply to paper.
And I very very clearly remember the day my mother told me, “You can’t be an artist. You don’t make any money doing that.”
Money has always been the key criteria in anything for my mother. As far as she was concerned, the stereotype of the starving artist was absolutely, unwaveringly accurate, and no child of hers was going to be so irresponsible. (This despite the fact that my dad made his living as a graphic artist for the federal government.)
And yet, wherever I went, whatever I tried, invariably, my efforts were noticed. I entered a children’s art contest at a local art supply store. I didn’t win, but the employees loved my efforts so much, they awarded me “staff favorite”. My mother did ceramics in her spare time—attracted to the paints and creative opportunity, I started to join her, receiving compliment after compliment. In high school, one week into the “Art 101” elective my freshman year, my art teacher asked me to participate in independent study, fearing I would be bored with the run-of-the-mill projects he assigned the rest of the 29 students in the class.
It was always assumed I would go to college. My parents had worked their butts off attaining AA degrees, while working full-time and raising me. I didn’t have a free ride, or a college fund, but my parents were willing to take out student loans with me so I could continue my education without working full-time.
The “You can’t be an artist” stipulation still applied.
I tried a few majors: I loved reading and writing, so how about English? I quickly realized this path led to teaching, and after just graduating from one of the poorest high schools in Sacramento, my memories of leaking classroom roofs (it rained on me in French class) and car fires in the parking lot were a little too recent. Public relations—the Exxon Valdez crashed in Alaska, and it became suddenly clear there were a lot of potential downsides.
Communications let me work in journalism, dabble in the fun side of PR, and take a creative writing course. I graduated, and moved from my tiny college in Ashland, Oregon up to Portland. It was the mid-1990s, and one of the worst times, up until recent memory, to get a job.
Fast forward twenty years.
I put my other talents to use, and ended up in project management—except the multinational software giant I worked for relegated me to “administrative assistant”. Never mind that those of us with that title kept the company running. There was no opportunity for career advancement, no bonuses, no sabbaticals. One boss expected me to fetch his dry cleaning and his coffee for him—in 2009.
In 2013, after another disappointing boss/job combo, my wonderfully, amazingly supportive husband helped me make the decision to leave behind the benefits and seeming security of the techmonolith to try contracting. The idea: increase my skills, get some different job titles, and gain some distance between my old world of “admin” and my new one of “Program manager”.
The thing about contracting is…well, there’s so many things about contracting. The person you work for lives in another country, and takes over a month to figure out the basics to get you started. You may take a gig on the promise of better pay and more hours in the future…only for those things to never materialize. And of course…contracts end, leaving you compulsively checking email for updates and scanning the web for job opportunities.
I am a champion level anxiety queen. I don’t deal well with change. I second guess my decisions constantly. In the past, situations like I’m currently experiencing have caused insomnia, appetite loss, mood swings—and hey, there it is: depression. The lack of controls gnaws at me—how can I make myself more marketable so these things don’t happen? I obsess over studying whatever I think will make me more employable, and suffocate thoughts of maybe playing with some watercolors, or sketching in the backyard for a few minutes.
Remember, I was talking about my creative side?
Right now, I’m on week two of being seriously underemployed. I’m combatting it by allowing myself to spend some time in creative endeavors. A little creative writing. Some mixed media work. Some rubberstamp card making. It’s working. It’s helping.
Creative people may suffer more from depression, but I suffer from depression when I’m not being creative.
This post is two birds with one stone…helping me figure out why I won’t let myself BE creative when I’m under stress. And being creative while I’m under stress.
Gotta go, the first layer on my canvas is almost dry.