It’s hard enough to create meaningful friendships and relationships in this world, to withstand the ups and downs afforded by life all by itself. Alienation, financial instability, loss, envy, and heartbreak are all just a part of life. Every few years, some Old White Man creates a ruckus by stating that “Life’s not fair.” However, for those of us with mental illnesses and trauma in our lives, life can seem overwhelming and insurmountable.
The more that I read about the most famous and notoriously depressed and addicted artists of our time, the more I have sympathy. And the longer I slog through life with the emotional bruises caused by my crosses to bear, the more I understand and relate. Years of pain can contort a person into someone that they never thought that they would become. It twists you into a complete funhouse mirror version of yourself, complete with demons, addictions, tics, and triggers.
Depression is like a cannibalization of the soul. It eats away at you, and sometimes, the only way to stave off the pain is to create art. Oftentimes, this art is melancholic, dark, and weary. To someone without depression or other mental illness, it’s easy to label someone as a “downer.” In my opinion, it is the ultimate strength to grow and create things out of pain. However, it can feel as if a race against time and a fight against one’s own malfunctioning brain. It’s the eternal question of whether art can save the depressed person from themselves, or will the illness consume them first?
Take for instance, Nirvana frontman, guitarist, and songwriter Kurt Cobain. In high school, I was repelled by what I saw as sub-par lyrics, mediocre musicianship, and grating vocals against a backdrop of the grunge-y, anti-commercial, anti-everything early ’90s. A decade after Kurt’s passing, I had missed the boat on their prime, and I just didn’t get the appeal. I compare Nirvana to Pink Floyd. I’ve often said half-jokingly that a person can’t appreciate Pink Floyd unless they’re a pothead. I didn’t grow to really like Nirvana until I was forced to peer up at the world from my pit of depression. When my perspective changed, so did my opinion on this ground-breaking band.
When I listen to Nirvana now, I find myself a little closer to the headspace Cobain was most likely in. Loneliness, despondency, and anger characterize the band’s music. Finally, the sonic equivalent of the oppressive emotions so many of us are afraid to express. Rather than causing me to wallow deeper into self-pity and pain, somber art gives me hope, a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel of darkness. It’s the thought that one day, I, too, can create art that outlives me, art that others can identify with that validates and relieves their pain, if only a little bit.
Much has been written about Kurt Cobain’s personal life. He was a domestic violence survivor. He suffered intense physical pain due to an undiagnosed stomach condition. He had depression and bipolar disorder, both of which can be debilitating if not treated properly and diligently. Determined to self-medicate, he developed a much-discussed addiction to heroin. Alcohol and drugs, especially opiates like heroin, seem very appealing to a person in physical and emotional pain. Substances dull the senses, and they’re a quick fix for relief. It’s a vicious cycle, one that ultimately depleted Kurt in the end. I could mention a dozen other famous musicians, actors, and writers whose illnesses fed into drug addictions, whose pain helped to create some of the most celebrated art of all-time, but I think you get my point.
Not all mental illness is co-morbid with addiction, or vice-versa. Drugs and alcohol are just another coping mechanism, a particular path, that the depressed often take as an escape from reality. Sometimes this leads to the endless, self-perpetuating catch-22 of addiction that ends in either death or sobriety. And both can seem equally scary for different reasons.
Sobriety means facing your skeletons in the closet head-on, having to not only acknowledge their presence, but to actively work to rid yourself of that anguish. It’s the most intimidating thing a person can do, and it feels so easy just to put it off or push it away. After all, therapy or treatment mean having to relive that pain all over again. It’s much more comfortable to use some kind of substance to block it out, stuff it down until you can’t remember it, can’t feel it, or just don’t care.
While I don’t want to turn this into a political op-ed piece, the way we regard mental illness and drug addiction in this country is atrocious. Those of us struggling with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and PTSD (it’s not just limited to veterans) are labeled as damaged and defective. The stigma associated with mental health is such that someone who is suffering is considered weak. Better to brave it out and be thought of as strong than to seek help is a myth that many people still believe. We also simultaneously lampoon and glorify mental illness and addiction, depending on the public’s view of that particular celebrity. It’s a fucked-up system that helps no one and certainly needs fixing.
But I digress, living with mental illness is gut-wrenching, difficult, sad, frustrating, infuriating, and physically draining. When you can, laugh at it. Many comics have carved out a career poking fun at their past and present afflictions, diffusing the pain and helping others by being able to relate.
When the arduous task of managing my depression and PTSD feels as if it’s about to engulf me, I write about it. Though my writing may be “too honest,” the act of laying bare my burdens is a catharsis that helps to relieve me of that weight. If some readers think my work, and the art of other depression and aching individuals is too heavy, that’s ok. My art is not for them. This is for everyone who needs help finding their way out of the darkness. You are not alone.