My Melancholy Baby

Another part of my manuscript to be assembled at a later date.
Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid
pain but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is
why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition,
to be sure, that his suffering. has a meaning.
Viktor Frankl

Not only does it reside in the darkness of night; the underbelly of a rotting rat; or the heart of a seven-year-old boy, it’s everywhere. A formidable enemy, I might add, that doesn’t need a space to be present. Sometimes referred to as extreme sadness, downheartedness, melancholy, but more often than not, we call it depression. While we can’t see depression, we certainly feel this inanimate object unrecognizable as a living being. It looks like air, but feels heavy, like a cloud of tears.

In my mind, that’s where it resides if I don’t run it away. My mother referred to depression as having a bad case of the “nerves.” “I’m having trouble with my nerves today,” she often said.

To talk about depression by itself, is leaving out part of the equation — trauma causes depression that demands a coping mechanism to survive. In years past, I was unaware that trauma was the cause of my unhappiness. For me, it was simple. When I felt down, alcohol  made me feel better, allowing my mind to embrace a happy place, or a place where I could wallow in my misery.

Now, as an adult and well into therapy, I’ve identified my trauma and know when the depression is about to appear. While it’s invisible, I feel an imaginary, dark-cloud moving my way. As with any storm, that’s a signal to take cover.

Throughout society we’ve seen a caravan of famous people who committed suicide. National media suggests that the victims were addicted to drugs. While that might be true, we need to examine what caused their drug addiction. It could have been the sweetness of a joint, the glow from heroin, a chemical imbalance in our brain, an escape from the trauma induced depression, or the use of drugs to reach higher levels of creativity.  

The recent death of American actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, brought admirers to their knees, and gave reason to reflect on his magic. Hoffman was possibly the greatest actor of our generation. Each time I’ve viewed one of his performances, I came away with a clearer vision of life. His creativity was never in question, and the mastery of his craft was always on display. Now, we are left with his work to examine, enjoy, and yes, even taste the power and sweetness of its nectar.

 Mr. Hoffman, tell me your secrets, from where does your magic come? Creativity and technique determine one’s artistry. Of the two, creativity can seem elusive, leaving us to lurch for fire-flies in the night. Other times, creativity seems to swallow us whole; oh, such a glorious feeling, as if we are falling in love. Where did Hoffman find his magic? Were they random thoughts, these bits of creativity, ideas that blossomed at will; possibly rare like a whip-poor-will’s call at morning’s first light? Or were they biological, originating from a handful of neurons located in his brain? Was his creativity there for the taking or did it sometimes appear in private moments or in the night when the soul longs to be fed. And who can deny that Philip Seymour Hoffman was a hungry man.

Viewed from above, the human brain appears as the two halves of a walnut — two similar, convoluted, rounded halves connected in the center by a thick nerve cable composed of millions of fibers that cross-connect the two halves, which are called the left and the right hemispheres. The left half of the brain controls the right side of the body, the right hemisphere controls the left  It could be said that we have two brains in one, each able to operate independently or together as one.

 Kay Redfield Jamison, author of “Touched With Fire:  Manic-Depression Illness and the Artistic Temperament,” writes about the connection between mental illness and the artistic mind. While some might doubt whether a mental illness has creative advantages, Jamison makes a strong case from her study of numerous artists — poets, musicians, writers, painters — who suffered from depression. Ancient Greeks believed in the link between creativity and madness. The Renaissance thinkers held a slightly different view. They believed that total madness prevented the artist from using his abilities, but that the sane melancholic could find a path for artistic achievement. By the eighteenth century, balance and rational thought trumped the previously held beliefs that inspiration and emotions were the primary entrance to genius. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reflected a moderation of earlier views due in part to the influence of academic psychology and psychiatry. Extreme madness lacked the sustained discipline and balance needed to reach great heights. Still, melancholy associated with mental illness, combined with one’s talents, produced extraordinary works.

As writers, we must find the gems of creativity that reside somewhere in the grayness of our brain, and then we develop them. Philip Seymour Hoffman did. From desperation, perhaps, or just plain curiosity, artists sometimes turn to drugs to find that special place that legend describes; a place without emotional boundaries where we seemingly float in complete ecstasy. But we all know the problems with prolonged drug use. We might die or exceed the “recommended” dosage and simply lose control of the mechanics needed to perform.

 Is there another way to reach our creativity?  I believe there is, and I promise, you won’t die. Watch a young child’s reaction to music. They dance around, bend and twist, laugh and giggle, and soak up the magic in the air. They are creative. Now fast forward to a later time when the aging process brings on restrictions, inhibitions, stiffness, and a concern for what others might say about our behavior. Find the child within; learn to dance in the clouds.

 My path to creativity was not predetermined. It came from my struggles as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I was in a bad state of mind but had a therapist who literally saved my life. Through her help, meditation, and self-exploration, I began what I later believed to be a spiritual path. My life changed, not instantaneously, but slow and steady. I learned to feel, to trust, and ultimately, to love; accompanied by an openness to see the previously unseen, and an ability to be nonjudgmental. I found the “sweet part of the bat,” where I hit home runs whenever I chose. Creativity is there for the taking. Ask and you shall receive.

The second step is to develop our technique. The better command of our medium, the more success in communicating with our creativity. The artist writes, practices, or paints  every day. It’s such a rush when it all comes together; maybe a sentence or two, a phrase, chapter, or possibly a book. Take what you get and savior the taste. Remember the process and how it felt. Next time will be easier.

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