Mar 082007

“My mother slept with an axe under her pillow,” one woman recounts in a plaintive voice, “We lived in terror that my father would return to murder us in the night. For some reason, I don’t know why, but I was always expected to be happy.”

Inside a recent video installation at the Power Plant Gallery in Toronto, Venezuelan artist Javier Téllez has installed two facing screens at opposite ends of a long, dark room. While Carl Dreyer’s 1928 silent masterpiece La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc plays on one screen, intimate interviews with twelve women living inside Rozelle Hospital, a mental institution in Australia, play on the other.

Jeanne d’Arc, whose claim to divine revelation got her burnt at the stake in 1431, is shown on the left enduring a brutal inquisition by the Church. On the right, one of the youngest Rozelle women tells of being committed for being too expressive in class. Looking from left to right, from Jeanne’s torture to the heartbreaking stories of the locked-up women, a strong case is made for their relationship. Six centuries later, very little has changed.

According to a recent study by the University of Toronto, prescriptions for antidepressants in Canada increased from 3.2 to 14.5 million between 1981 and 2000. But despite this medicalization frenzy, depression is on the rise. The World Health Organization (WHO) has predicted that by the year 2020, depression will be the second leading cause of the ‘global disability burden’.

Though pharmaceuticals mean legitimate salvation for many, (and this essay is not written for those for whom this is true), they have become the catch-all solution to our collective gloom. Instead of investigating the intelligence of our melancholia, North America has fallen under a prohibition of sadness. “Part of the nagging worry about Prozac and its ilk,” says prominent bioethicist Carl Elliott, is that the ills they treat are part and parcel of the lonely, forgetful, unbearably sad place where we live.”

Marion Woodman, prized Canadian Jungian analyst and author, tells us that what we are experiencing as a culture is the loss of the symbolic life. We have displaced our natural impulse to worship the sacred onto the material world. We accumulate wealth instead of strengthening our values, pursue knowledge instead of wisdom and choose status over interconnectedness.

The antidote to this terrible crisis of meaning is what Woodman calls the “Mature Feminine.” It is the domain of interiority, the body, feeling and dreams. The Mature Feminine is about really listening to one another, digging in the unconscious dirt, and enduring what Jung called “the empty stillness that precedes creative work.”

Painting by Tomasz Alen Kopera

Instead of seeing depression as a dysfunction, we might begin to welcome the slowness depression brings. We might recognize the accompanying inwardness as an intelligent response to the manic culture we live in. And, if we can withstand it, we may even find that it opens the door to beauty.

According to Gregory Orr, author of Poetry as Survival, the land of suffering can be exceedingly fertile soil. It is, as Orr puts it, “where energy and intensity concentrate.” It is from “that place just beyond, which chaos and randomness reign,” that our greatest inventions originate. “When I write a poem to help myself cope with a serious disturbance,” Orr goes on to say, “I do so by registering the disorder that first destabilized me and then incorporate it into the poem. The literary result is the poem of survival.”

This idea of healing the wound by entering into it is antithetical to our dominant ideology. But there is an old myth told by Lakota elder, Lame Deer, which speaks to the importance of injury. After you die, it is said you meet an old hag in the Otherworld who will eat your scars and then let you continue on. If you have none, she’ll eat your eyes instead and you’ll be blind in the next life. Or as Leonard Cohen poetically puts it; There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.

Determined to keep their eyes open, mental health activists have followed in the footsteps of other stigmatized groups and through education, protest and pride, an international movement has been born. Scar-having folks, including high profile celebrities, are pulling their mental disabilities out into the open, demonstrating that life, in fact, can still thrive for the mentally ill — even if it isn’t always Happy about it. One of the most inspiring pioneers in Canada’s growing mental health awareness is Toronto’s own Lisa Brown, who started out in the early 80’s as a registered nurse at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

Over the years, she began to notice the great number of clients who displayed high creative ability. At first she organized small jam sessions and visual art displays to give the clients a means to bring their art to a larger audience, but soon participation grew overwhelmingly until finally she founded the Workman Theatre Project (WTP) in 1991. In the short decade and a half since WTP’s birth, it has collected an impressive membership of artists (professional and amateur alike) with, or recovering from mental illness, who are producing outstanding works of art, as well as mentoring in every discipline imaginable. WTP not only provides a creative outlet to those suffering with mental illness, but serves to reinforce the bridge over stigma.

In 2003, WTP and CAMH partnered to create the Madness and the Arts Festival, an international undertaking that brings together diverse artistic groups with similar missions from around the world to present their performances/artworks to the public. It is here that we begin to see the global force that the ‘Mad Pride’ movement is becoming. But as Brown explains, “We are not an advocacy organization. For as many clients who are dead-set against using pharmaceuticals because it dulls their creative senses, there are just as many who say taking meds is the only way they can function.” Indeed, rather than taking sides, WTP remains neutral on the issue, putting all of its resources into the creative work. Somewhat exempt from the stigma that mental illness carries, artists are serving as the footsoldiers of this burgeoning movement, coming out worldwide about their struggles with depression and addiction, giving testimony to their suffering, and sharing in their healing.

The creative process not only has a restorative effect on the individual psyche, but extends outwards to those listeners, readers and watchers who respond to it. The redemption is felt vicariously, as Orr explains, “as if it were, in some way, their own.”

Maybe instead of asking how to do away with our gloom, the braver idea is to remain attentive to it. If we welcome our personal sadness, we may recover a sense of meaning in our lives and possibly even contribute something valuable to our collective in the process. Maybe one day we’ll even do as Lebanese poet, Kahlil Gibran, writes and bleed willingly.

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A writer, artist and tender of dreams, Toko-pa has been interviewed by CNN News & BBC Radio and her writing has appeared in publications around the world. Thanks to Skype, she works with dreamers internationally in her Private Dreamwork practice, based on Salt Spring Island in Canada. You can find Toko-pa on Facebook or sign up for her mailing list to receive news about upcoming events.

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  48 Responses to “Bleed Willingly – A Fresh View of Depression”

  1. Well done! I love the”mad pride”!! I am a strong believer in lying in the ashes, as our ancestors understood as being part of life. I gave 20 years of massage and energy work, and Iwould begin every session with holding the clients feet to ground them. Any one on drugs, esp anti-depresents, I could not ground, often I felt no presence of chi at all!! I now do some health councelling and there is rampant guilt and shame around sadness and depression, so many trying vainly to hide it, only to escalate it. I too have found the most pro-active form of release, even when one is on the drugs, is to create. For some the outward work leads to the inner, either way, that is all pain is saying, is “pay attention in the now”, P A I N.

    • Very insightful comment. “Pay attention in the now”, PAIN. Pain does absorb so much of one’s attention that it leaves little room for anything else. Living fully in the moment may lead to more pain, but staying in the pain to avoid pain gets me nowhere.

  2. […] his reductionist approach suggested those wishes were disposable.  Carl Jung, on the other hand, championed our madnesses as having an intelligence we would do well to heed.  Wishes are born to be […]

  3. […] Bleed Joyfully: a fresh view of depression […]

  4. ‘The intelligence of our melancholia’ – what an arresting phrase. I’ve just scheduled a post about depression, Toko – when it goes live I’ll link to yours. Nice coincidence 🙂

    • I’m so glad you found this article Jenny – it’s a piece I am very passionate about and am hopeful to spread it’s message as far and wide as possible – so, yes please do use any quotes & link back here. Much love to you!

  5. Entering the wound reminds me of Pema Chodron and Jung, advocates of different techniques, who tell us that exploration within is more valuable than externals props and solutions. This is easier for some, for introverts, but can be done with a guide by those who have difficulty. Thanks for posting this.

  6. […] passionate piece here, in which she talks about ‘the intelligence of our melancholia’ You might also enjoy this piece from ispeakindreams […]

  7. Thank you.
    That’s all.

  8. Great post. Thanks for sharing. Depression and how we writers can learn to use it is something I feel very strongly about 🙂

  9. thank you so much for this very perceptive view of depression…appreciate the insight you bring…has help me view it as a gift now instead of a damaging force in my life…many blessings

  10. […] read more about the link between Creativity and Mental Illness, here is an article I wrote called, Bleed Joyfully: A Fresh View of Depression  Add […]

  11. i suffered from depression for many years, the only way i rose above it was to do something creative, so i began writing. but everything i wrote was depressing, and in some strange way healed me a little bit each day as i re-read my short stories and poetry. today i can say i am a survivor who bled joyfully.

  12. Well written. I have long thought the same. When I have had my own periods in the underworld I have gone willingly to that other place, to see what needs to be stripped away, what I am not listening to, what my soul is yearning for. At those times it has been dance, art, mosaic, nature, dreams that have allowed cathartic experiences to occur which have nourished me at a soul level. I integrate creative, symbolic, spiritual and relational connecting experiences into my life rather than waiting to need them.
    This epidemic is another example that the human race is not listening to our bodies. Our bodies are yearning for something different, they are not being nourished by what the media and advertisements tell us will nourish us.
    Yes, we don’t need mindless, addictive, soulless, passive, dulling entertainment, video games or whatever people do, I don’t need them we need to create for ourselves soulful, sensory, aesthetic, spiritual connecting experiences. Well done Tokapa!

  13. Thank you for this.

  14. Brilliant essay!! Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

  15. I have just come away from a very interesting session with Dr Liz Miller, the author of ‘Mood Mapping’ where a very interesting perspective arose about depression in that the symptom can have two quite distinct meanings: 1. where the person’s self-esteem and/or well-being is low the ‘depression’ is rooted in tiredness/exhaustion (depressed people are generally if not all tired) This ‘tiredness’ is not limited to the physical it also relates to the psychological ie thinking & feeling. 2. Where the person’s wellbeing/self-esteem is good/high the ‘depression’ is related to lethargy associated with boredom ie the person is in deep need of engagement or occupation which feeds his/her soul being. Contrary to the lethargy type requiring stimulation, the exhaustion type requires rest and recovery – not generally accepted in our (UK) culture hence the prescribing of anti-depressants to get the person on his/her feet again (as fast as possible) Ironically, anti-depressants only actually work in 17% of cases (pharmaceutical companies are making enormous amounts of money out of products which mostly don’t work!) There are many better ways of helping people to recover not least just giving them time & and an appropriate space to be.

  16. Talking Out of Both Sides of My Mouth

    Clinical depression is a biopsychosocial/spiritual disorder that can cause excruciating and needless suffering. When helped by intervention, including medical (e.g. medication, electro convulsive therapy), those who suffer can find life-saving relief that would be beyond cruel to deny. That being said, medication is not for everybody. And there are those that would refuse it based on preference alone. But make no mistake–depression, from severe to mild or chronic, is hell on earth.

    However, the medical model is reductionistic and biased. We are human beings, not human brains. In fact, our brains are developed by the nature of our early attachments. In fact, scientists are discovering that brains can actually change (because there is neuro-placisity) by nurturing, compassionate and empathic relationships (including therapeutic ones).

    And as human beings, we live in a psychological context, a social environment, and a spiritual dilemma (that of finding or making meaning). As the Buddha so aptly realized, life always includes suffering. How we encounter, experience, express, and relate to our suffering is of vital importance– a key to our survival and a door to enlightenment. Denying sadness and even depression is tantamount to denying our humanity and our valid experience. Medicating feelings is anti-life.

    Just like anxiety, depression can be a normal response to certain conditions. People that do not have clinical depression feel depressed at times. Why wouldn’t someone with clinical depression also have differing mood states according to their moment by moment experience of living? We all are faced with conditions–biological, psychological, social, and spiritual that we are in relationship with, whether we are aware of it or not. How we relate to these conditions is necessary to examine for our overall wellness and richness of being human.

  17. As I read your article, I have to admit I felt confused. It is an excellent idea, it really is. I have suffered from depression so long. At times it has gotten better, at times even more terrible. The one thing I didn’t read about is the pain of it. The hopelessness, the loneliness, the confusion it all causes in my life. The restlessness, but still being unable to accomplish anything or if I do accomplish something I find no real joy in it.

  18. I’m practically in tears having read this. thank you. thank you for showing me that there is honor and sense in this miasma that has been my life since reaching biological womanhood. thank you for reaffirming I am not broken, I don’t need fixing, I am becoming, indeed I already am, what I’m supposed to be.

  19. Today I’ve been smitten by depression, my old pal. I think feeling guilty because of feeling depressed is just as bad (in my case). Thank you for this text Toko-pa.


    • I read through my tears this article at such wonderful work being done there is such a deep sadness in depression feelings of not being part of the world when in fact we all are in our own unique way and reading this made my heart happy and reminded me of the 70’s when we were not afraid to have our voices heard and society could not alter our views because they were so so strong then over time we lose that but it is time to reach those depths again and be our own light no matter what form that takes be an individual not hide from it thanks Toko – Pa ..

  20. excellent on all counts. watched an interview with joni a long time ago and she was asked what would she change about our world and she said the way we condemn and medicate depression. some of her work came out of depression. one point that could also be made is our electromagnetic uses…phones, computers, tablets, kindles, this and that…all when we should be holding daffodils :). thank you. jenny

  21. Toko-pa, I have loved your writing for a long time, but on this particular topic, I am disturbed by your views on medication for depression. I am a person who has lived with depression all my life. So has my sister, my grandfather, and my nephew. I am a yoga teacher, meditator, a poet, and a student of psychology and life. I love Jung and Buddhism. I have taken anti-depressants for 10 years. What I see going on in my subculture of yoga and meditation is a great deal of shame about depression and about taking anti-depressants. I see students and friends struggle for years because they are unwilling to consider taking medication. And they try EVERYTHING: psychotherapy, yoga, meditation, art, poetry, diving into the suffering. These are intelligent, creative, highly-functioning people whose depression is beyond “sadness.” It is a debilitating illness, one that can ruin lives. I describe it like just telling someone with a broken leg to get up and walk. People who are clinically and profoundly depressed don’t have the life force to even engage in a creative exploration of their pain; for most, it is a victory simply to get up in the morning and get through the day. Can you imagine living like that for years on end?
    Anti-depressants brought me back to life. I still get sad. I don’t go around in bliss. No one would want to take anti-depressants, if they didn’t actually have to, believe me. There are side effects. They are expensive. Yet now I have the life spark to write poetry, teach yoga, and engage in life. I would hate to see views such as yours add more shame and resistance to those who already feel judged and marginalized.
    And the argument that depressed people are more creative is specious at best. Albert Rothenberg at Harvard University says the “suffering artist” stereotype is simply a myth. He agrees however with the idea that creative people who are mentally ill can use these “rational processes” in times when they are well. His position is that the relative percentage of creative people with mental health conditions has been overstated and does not include people who have committed suicide.
    Please consider the effect of your words and views on a vulnerable population who are already mired in lack of self-worth, despair, and utter darkness. Would you deny a diabetic their insulin? Would you deny a person with low blood pressure their medication? Depression is an illness, not a choice.

    • Dear Deniji – thank you for your comments. I appreciate this is a loaded subject, and triggers a number of personal hotspots for people. it sounds like you know me well enough to know that I never approach things with a black/white, either/or philosophy. There is nothing in here intended to shame anyone suffering from such a debilitating illness – rather the opposite. Perhaps you missed the part of my essay which says, “pharmaceuticals mean legitimate salvation for many.” This is not written for those for whom this is true.

      I should add that I don’t have to ‘imagine living like that’ because I lived with acute depression for years until I (slowly) found my way out, with Dreamwork and Creativity as my lifelines.

    • Depression is life or death. It is the illness of un-love. It is the burden of choice. It is the effort to breathe, to beat, to suffer deafening cacophony without an echo of one’s own. The void is not a journey, there is no light at the end of it. The void is not productive.

  22. […] Bleed Joyfully – A Fresh View of Depression […]

  23. You might enjoy viewing the Lars Von Trier 2012 (Not sure of the year) film called Melancholia. The film, and its title, are metaphors for contemporary human culture, I think. I won’t comment more on the film so, in case you decide to watch it on Netflix, if you have access to Netflix, I won’t spoil it. It’s beautiful. Melancholic, of course, but beautiful.

  24. I forgot to add this: if you are not familiar with Kay Jamison’s book, Touched With Fire, it might also interest you. Dr. Jamison was an early pioneer of contemporary mental health care (I know nothing about historical mental health care) who saw direct ties between mental illness and creativity. Years after Fire came out, she published a memoir revealing she is manic depressive. So was the poet Byron. Not shabby company.

    Depression is my game, not manic depression.

    I was first diagnosed as having a mental health disability (the diagnosis has changed over the years) in 1993 and I have been very open with everyone in my world about having a mental health disability. Mental illness has much powerful stigma, rooted in fear and ignorance as bigotry always is. I decided, in 1993, that much of my suffering was rooted in the pressure I felt to hide who I was and pretend I wasn’t depressed when I was depressed. I decided that such secrecy caused needless suffering and I would do my tiny, homeopathic-like healing of the world by being open.

    I have learned a lot being open as someone with a mental health disability. I finally got accurately, I believe, diagnosed as having borderline personality disorder. I also have an in-and-out lifelong relationship with depression. Which comes first, chicken or egg?!

    Being out as someone with a mental health disability separates the wheat from the chaff, in my opinion. Every once in while, someone slips by my stigma/bigot radar but not too often. Some folks pretend, or maybe a part of them genuinely believes, they give the depressed person the same power and autonomy they give others (who may or may not have a disability they choose to hide) but I find out that they were posing. Pretending to be accepting while actually fearing my disability and, thus, me.

    I don’t like being depressed. I don’t like all the work I have to do to manage my personality disorder. But, gosh golly, I have gotten so many valuable lessons being who I am. Just being who I am.

    Just being who I am is perfectly okay. Anyone with a problem with who I am can move on.

  25. Drugs are useful to get someone over a hump. They are effective for a couple of months, no more. The body adjusts anyway and most of the effectiveness, is placebo. And then there are the side-effects. No-one should ever be ashamed of taking drugs unless they believe the drugs are the answer and there is no work to be done. Depression and anxiety are signs that there is inner work to be done. I have been there, done the work for decades, no longer get seriously depressed or have panic attacks but now honour depression and anxiety and continue to do the work.

    One thing depression is not is a personality disorder. That is ‘drug-speak’ from mechanical modern medicine which wants to make the problem ‘go away’ with drugs. Here are some further thoughts. The person experiencing depression has a perfectly good personality – it is not disordered. In fact it is in better order than most because the psyche is evolved and intelligent enough to demand that work be done. Those who never experience such things are not called to a challenging spiritual path which is the destiny of some of us. I am not suggesting inferiority or superiority, merely saying that depression and anxiety are signs you have work you need to do and you have been prepared at a Soul level and a physical level for that work.

  26. Thank you so much for you wisdom. This post truly helped me feel more at peace with my current situation. I loved the part where you stated,

    “Instead of seeing depression as a dysfunction, we might begin to welcome the slowness depression brings. We might recognize the accompanying inwardness as an intelligent response to the manic culture we live in. And, if we can withstand it, we may even find that it opens the door to beauty.”

    I know that depression is already a cause to feeling misplaced or hurt in life and as I was struggling with it recently I found myself to only feel more hopeless because I was dealing with depression itself. That not only was I upset with myself for the things that were hurting me but I was upset with myself because I could not feel happy.

    I was told the other day in a healing session that, at times, people will have migraines repeatedly occur not because they truly do have some type of genetic problem with migraines but because the body creates it for its want and need to relax, to have the self take time and sit and not feel as if they have to be required to handle their days work. I find it beautiful that you were also able to connect this sensation, this need to take time to yourself in a world that has become so hectic, to depression as well.

    I have taken medication myself for brain function but I have been able to find more natural solutions to becoming a healed soul. One of the best manners I have found is with essential oils which use natural plants that have been used throughout history to assist the body in healing. The ones I find best for happiness and feeling calm are lavender, geranium, and roman chamomile. The flowery scents are calming, uplifting, and allow me to feel more settled, in a blissful and peaceful sense. You should look into them, they work wonders and are easy to apply on a daily basis or any time you feel you are in need.

    I also love art as a healing modality and find your work so incredibly inspirational. Thank you for your beauty and I hope that you are able to continue to see the light within your life.

    • Art is wonderful therapy and more important for some than others. I believe the most sensitive are likely to express through depression and anxiety and art therapy is very important for them.

      Something else to consider is Homeopathy which works at all levels of the body – physiological, emotional, psychological and spiritual.

      If you are interested and don’t know anything about it there are two good books one written by a psychiatrist and homeopath, Stephen Goldsmith, The Healing Paradox, and Amy Lansky’s Impossible Cure. She is a nuclear physicist (or some such) and now a homeopath and Larry Malerba’s Green Medicine, he is a doctor and homeopath as well are also good.

      There is a lot of ignorance and error about homeopathy and more so these days because there is a group, small, but loud, which sees science as the arbiter for all things and which decries Homeopathy because science cannot show how it works. Well, science can’t show how love works either but we don’t decry it. Anyway, best of luck.

      As to the migraines, it is more complex than just a need to relax although that may be a part of it, but as many healers have written, our dis-eases offer us ‘gifts’ as well as ‘curses.’ They are also the language the body uses to express itself and speak to us.

      Best of luck.

      • Yes, we are so wondrously complex. I discovered I could “manage” my depression by not eating sugar, and my migraines by not eating wheat, corn, dairy or red wine. But food sensitivities weren’t the whole picture; the deeper factors were anger, resentment and not living my truth. It has been a rocky journey, but ultimately a profoundly healing one.

  27. Western culture rips out our soul replacing it with needs and desires. The “system” wishes only for us to be enslaved and treats “depression” as a mental condition which needs to be “cured”. There is no cure “out there” Whilst I have sought to “understand” my depression of many years it was only when my life’s aspirations were totally crushed last year that I had to realize the only answer was to dig deep within myself and to face the emotional wounds of the past and heal them. Great Spirit enabled me to meet someone who has helped me enormously, helping me see that we all have an amazing inner strength which truly comes to life when tragedy strikes.

  28. […] anybody and everybody. Depression? there is no […]

  29. I don’t even finished to read your article and I had to stop and: what amazing and insightful words about depression!
    I loved it. My friend post on Facebook I saw it and shared with myself.

    I feel so blessed by your article!

    I will share with friends.

    Thanks a lot and Happy new year!!!!

  30. For clarity…I have never been to a psychiatrist or any medical practitioner for help, never diagnosed as depressed..I have no personal experience with life-long clinical depression. My comments are not intended for anyone who does deal with real, long-lasting depression. I just wanted to speak from my experience, and let others know that depression can be shorter term, possibly based on life changes both internal and external.

    I once heard a comedic Englishman on the radio, he had some amusing one-liners. Two of which stuck with me.. One about depression that it was misdirected or deeply buried anger,(that is a paraphrase) and in my own experience that made some sense. I had a several-month long period, of what I call “depression”, and when my friend/acupuncturist and I discussed my state of mind, she recommended a book titled “The Dance of Anger”. I read it, and it hit many nails on the head for me. It helped, along with the homeopathic remedy Chamomilla. To be honest, I think the that the emotional experiences I went through then were based in normal hormonal changes that might have been hitting me all at once. Six months later, I was much better, feeling balanced, and did not need chamomilla any more.

    Oh, and the other line I remember…”Don’t wish for everything—unless you have a really, really big cupboard.”. Also sound advice.

  31. I’m so glad you wrote this tokopa, I was just reading on a forum a woman struggling to manage her child and was put on anti depressants,the father too is having a hard time with being a father etc what was everyone’s advice get him on anti depressants too.I was given 36 down votes for saying this is not the answer.Even a few weeks ago I read on a forum a couple going through an affair and having difficulties both were put on anti depressants,it’s the utter medicalisation of misery.No growth,no wisdom,no nothing.
    I go on so many forums and every second person is depressed or anxious, and the only advice ever optioned is go on meds immediately.Thank god for your lone voice in the wilderness.

    There are some people who do have profound despair and in my tribe(hardly ever happens) they would be considered to have old spirits haunting them etc, that have to be sweeped,and certainly others it might be a genetic thing, but my god to hand drugs out to anyone and everyone,to market them all day on to in the us to anyone going through a period of growth,sorrow,death and transformation to suppress all that with these drugs I have no words.

  32. And these drugs don’t heal,there is no feminine healing aspect they are built on masculine logic only,they are a nightmare to even attempt to come off,and change the brain so much as to cause total and utter dependancy and lessen the brain from producing natural serotonin too.

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