The Unique Terror of Creativity after Depression

Three of my favorite people taking in the phenomenon of a dark, shaggy English horse.

Three of my favorite people taking in the phenomenon of a dark, shaggy English horse.


I have always had a big imagination. As a child, I loved drawing “Sally Winter,” a random character from my mind, in various outfits. I had an imaginary friend that was a giant ape named Trouble. I wrote story about how the “mean old North Wind” found redemption with Santa Claus.

What I didn't understand is that my imagination was also responsible for darker thoughts.

Around age 10, I began to worry that I was losing my imagination. My mind didn't come up with whimsy as easily as it used to. I sat outside with my notepad and made a list of every "imaginative" thing I could think of--bubbles, sparkles, unicorns. What I didn't realize is that the idea that I could lose my imagination (and that making lists might help me cling to a remnant of it!) was itself a work of imagination.

My huge imagination had taken a dark turn as I began watching the news and learning more about the world. While this kind of anxiety grew, I didn't realize it was my imagination. I thought I was seeing the Truth: all the horrors of the world.

I tried to shut up my mind, which is not a kind thing to do to anyone, but it's what you have to do when you feel you are being tortured.

By the time I was fully depressed in my 20’s, I thought endlessly about everything wrong and everyone who was being hurt and everything bad I had ever done and everything dangerous lurking. I coped with these invasive thoughts by watching tons of TV, so that when my mind wandered, it would go to the characters on the shows instead of the awful images that constantly harassed me.

What I understand now is that my imagination never left me for a second. However, without me knowing how to be its guardian, it got hooked on all the shocking things I heard and saw and ran with them into all the darkest places. Because my imagination is so very strong, it was reinforcing itself with more images, more tales, all the time, until that was where my body was living. The hormones and chemicals coursing through me were the same as if I was really living in those horrible scenes.

I needed a boost to get my imagination and my body out of that pit.

Prozac brought new juice to my system--serotonin. I was caught completely by surprise when random, small surges arose in me. It took me a while to even identify this spontaneous sensation as happiness. It was completely strange and foreign to me. After all, for years, I had fought for every inch of non-despair and only sometimes won reprieve from my depression after extensive effort. These happy surges were so bewildering that I half-wondered my body was malfunctioning.

Around the same time, I heard Elizabeth Gilbert talk and, on her advice, began The Artist's Way to unblock my creativity. I enjoyed it immensely, doing tasks that revealed parts of myself that had been totally forgotten while my imagination had been busy constructing a horror show.

Even as I got reacquainted with myself and felt happy and inspired for the first time in years, I was still blocked from actually creating anything.

After about 6 months, I slowly began making things but could only tolerate doing a little at a time. I paid attention and noticed that I was deeply afraid. I was afraid of spending time alone, in my mind, just me and my imagination.

I didn't trust it. It was a relationship that needed serious repair. Like a beautiful, powerful horse that had ridden me off a cliff, we both felt skittish about being around each other again, let alone riding. So all we could do is take it slow--being in the same room, speaking in kind, low tones, eventually coming to touch from time to time.

I began to realize that neither of us had done anything wrong. While I had blamed my imagination for taking me to dark places, I was an inexperienced rider.

I was passive and didn't see the signs of danger, giving it no cue to stop or turn around. We had followed each other over the cliff. Now we had to learn to work together and steer towards the light and grassy meadows.

We have been on a few small rides now. Little by little we are even taking short gallops: a painting here, a blog post there. We are still nervy, wary of each other, but we are remembering that we are friends. As our trust in one another grows, and we go exploring together more and more, I imagine that we will create many beautiful things.

I’m ready to ride.