Sunday, 24 June 2007

Creativity and the Upside of Being Down

From when I first experienced depression, to the day I received the first copy of I Had a Black Dog; it has been a long and craggy path. Not all of it good and not all of it bad.

When the mental wheels fall off the trolley of life it can take you to interesting and uncharted situations, many of which I have had, much of it with a creative monkey on my back.

In Stephen Fry’s brilliant documentary The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive he asked the people he interviewed (most of whom were artist’s, musicians and actors who suffered degrees of Bi-Polar) that if they had a magic button in front of them that would make their lives instantly ‘normal’ would they push it? The majority of them said no.

I too would say no. Yes there have been times in my life that have seemed insurmountable; where given the opportunity I may have traded in both arms for a spot of normalcy and a cup of tea; but in good old fashioned hindsight I wouldn’t change a thing.

I am a great believer in the old clich├ęs that good can come of bad and that things do happen for a reason.

I used to think that my creativity was part of madness but I’ve come to realise that it’s played a very big part in my recovery.

My dip into the dark side has been reasonably well documented in my creativity whether it be music, sculpture, drawing, writing and photography. It’s not to say that my art always reflects my good or bad mood state but it has been an essential tool in dealing with it.


My interest in photography was spurned from one of my worst depressive episodes in San Francisco. When I moved there I was single, I didn’t know that many people and the job I had gone there for was a real dud.

Photography was my way of making myself get out of the house. I began to seek beautiful images in areas you would least expect to find them like industrial wastelands, shipyards, railway lines and bad, down trodden areas in the city. I called this somewhat dangerous pastime ‘hunting’ it was all about finding the elusive gold in the ashes, the gem in the crud. Which in the abstract sense was exactly what I was trying to do with myself.

One aspect of photography that quickly became evident is that it taught me to be keenly present. Being depressed and present aren’t your typical bedfellows but photography taught me to be aware of where I was, what I was looking at and how long I had before the light changed. This is a tool I still try to use on a daily basis even when my camera isn’t present.

You can see some of my photography on


Where photography kept me present, illustration could set me free, it’s a download from the hard drive. It filters all that mental spam, virus’s and corrupt images.
When I allowed it my hand becomes the barometer of my mind.
I have often looked at what I’ve drawn and have had absolutely no idea how I did it but there was always a sense of peace that followed it.

Whether you like or dislike my drawings or photography is irrelevant. The point I’m trying to make is that creativity can act like a cathartic exorcism for anyone suffering from a depressive illness. You don’t have to be artistic to create. Most importantly,
no one need look at what you’ve created or know that you’re making it; it’s just for
you and the well being of your soul.

Freud called depression ‘rage turned in on itself’. Rage, anger, melancholy are all corrosive, destructive, ugly energies that need to be channeled into some sought of productive / positive outlet.

If you can put aside any self-doubt, judgment and criticism, muster some energy, pick up a pen, a brush, a crayon, a type writer, a drum, a set of bag pipes or what ever takes your fancy and channel some of that energy, it can only be a very good thing.

You never know what may become of it and where it might take you.

Woof woof !

Matthew J

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