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My family doctor first diagnosed me with clinical depression in 2002, when I was twenty-nine years old. Despite the fact that I had experienced stress and depression in high school and university, it was still a shock to admit that I was a person with mental health issues and that I needed to get treatment.

Coming to terms with creator’s depression

Reading Eric Maisel’s work on depression in creative people was a big help in reconciling me to my condition. Instead of seeing myself as sick, weak, or broken, I recognized that I was someone who had a high need for meaning and self-expression. That pull toward meaning felt like a strength, a positive quality. Yes, it made me prone to depression, but it also made me sensitive, motivated, and thoughtful, driven to live from a clear sense of purpose. I was able to embrace my experience of creator’s depression, to own it, and to be public about it, because I could see it as an occupational hazard of my vocation as a writer, not as a defect.

Creator’s depression is Eric Maisel’s term. He says, “the depression that creative people face is fundamentally caused by their upsetness with the facts of existence and their difficulties in making and maintaining meaning.” (The Van Gogh Blues, p. 223)

I was also attached to the idea of leaving depression behind, walking away from it. I worked really hard on healing—taking medication, seeing my doctor regularly, going to numerous therapists and counsellors, and changing my life to reduce stress and prioritize my own dreams and goals. I’m proud of the work I did. I faced some hard truths about my limiting beliefs, like “If I do the right thing all the time, nothing bad will happen to me,” and “I can’t be happy unless everyone else is happy.”

This story, of my first deep encounter with and recovery from depression, is the story I tell in my memoir, Pilgrimage of Desire. It’s a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end—a full walk of the labyrinth, the inward journey of Release, the still centre of Illumination, and the outward journey of Reunion. I believe it’s a good story—hopeful, honest, and helpful for its true audience.

And the larger story of my life carries on after Pilgrimage of Desire ends. In 2015, just after my memoir was published, I entered the labyrinth again. My depression returned.

It took about six months for me to admit that I was depressed again. Not because I didn’t recognize it, not because it was mild (it wasn’t), but because I was ashamed. How could I, as a coach and author and a smart person, let myself get depressed again? I felt like I had gotten over-confident, that I had failed to apply what I knew and take care of myself. (Of course, that was the depression talking.)

Now it’s three years later. I am stable on medication (Celexa and Dexedrine). I see my psychiatrist for group medical visits. I support my immune system with supplements. My naturopath monitors my hormone levels. I have weekly sessions with my therapist. I’m mentally healthy, and I can look at my relapse with the clarity of time and realistic thinking.

So what have I learned? Why did I relapse? What, if anything, could I have done to prevent it?

I have a feeling that it will take me several posts to answer these questions thoroughly, so I’m going to start with one topic that touches on many aspects of my identity: as a creator, as a people-pleaser, as a wife, daughter, and mother.

I know a lot of people who share these traits. I know many of us are looking for answers to why we struggle with feelings of overwhelm, resentment, hopelessness, and despair, even when our lives look pretty good from the outside. What I’ve learned has been hard-won, and sharing it with others feels like putting that pain and effort to good use. So here goes.

Emotional labour: the hidden tax

Emotional labor is simply the management of feelings (your own or someone else’s) to accomplish some goal—to leave a customer satisfied or to get someone to do something they might not otherwise want to, or to keep your household functioning.

Note that there are many other kinds of labor that can produce these outcomes too (simply providing information to someone, for instance), but emotional labor concerns the work of emotion management—say, delivering bad news about a flight cancellation in a comforting way, so that disgruntled passengers hardly notice the news is bad. At home, this might mean giving solace to a crying child with warm words and a calm demeanor or intervening between your mom and your sister when a fight about Trump threatens to ruin Thanksgiving.

Haley Swenson, Slate

Emotional labour is a concept that has caught mainstream attention in a powerful way recently. I first encountered it in 2015 on  MetaFilter, in this thread. … And wow, did I feel validated. An enormous part of my work as a human—work that I poured a lot of effort into, work at which I was quite skilled—had been largely invisible, even to me. And now it had a name and a public conversation around it.

Here’s the thing. At that time, I had become the hub of emotional support in our family. My kids’ emotions were getting more complex as they approached the middle grades, and I was having to dig deeper to help them process their fear, anger, and sadness and to solve the problems that were causing them turmoil. My husband’s job was becoming more demanding, which meant I was picking up slack at home and helping him cope with the extra stress from work. This emotional labour looked like: soothing my kids when they had meltdowns, comforting them through tears at bedtime, peacemaking between the siblings, prepping them for stressful situations and transitions, and talking to teachers and parents about what was happening in the classroom and on the playground.

And that’s just the emotional labour I performed at home. I also did this work with friends and extended family, at church, with my coaching clients, and on freelance jobs. Many people, especially women, do this emotional management all the time. That MetaFilter thread has hundreds of examples. I could give you six examples just from yesterday. I’m sure you’ve got your own.

How emotional labour triggers creator’s depression

Looking back, I can see how doing a lot more emotional labour contributed to my relapse.

Emotional labour takes a disproportionate amount of time and energy away from creative work.

In my experience, one hour of emotional labour does not equal one hour of purely physical or mental labour. I find emotional labour much more draining than cooking, cleaning, or even writing, and it takes me longer to recover.

Why? I would love to research a good solid scientific answer. Right now I have my anecdotal evidence, in which an emotional crisis at home requires every ounce of my empathy, ingenuity, faith, and patience, and can knock me down for a day or even a week. Where the low-level effort of acting normal and happy in public when I feel sad or upset sends me straight to bed for a nap.

With all that I was pouring into emotional management, I had even less to devote to the work of creativity: reading, writing, daydreaming, promoting my books, and keeping my mood up in order to do all of the above. And creators are vulnerable to depression when they’re not creating.

Emotional labour is often unrecognized, which makes it feel less meaningful.

So I’m doing all this demanding emotional work. But I’m not getting paid for it. I’m not getting a promotion to Vice President of Mothering. I’m not earning my degree in Advanced Parenting Techniques. When I get asked what I accomplished in a day, I’m not listing the hours I spent listening, validating, problem-solving, and limit-setting—basically acting as someone else’s prefrontal cortex.

When I can’t spend as much time creating, I try to find meaning in other activities that matter to me. Parenting and emotional labour are important to me. But because they don’t get the same recognition (let alone the same pay) as other types of work, their meaning can leak away, making me more susceptible to depression.

The burden of competence means we take take on more than our fair share.

What makes us creative often makes us good at emotional labour. Keen observation and self-reflection, a sense of justice and compassion, a desire for joy and beauty … the skills that attract us to art also make us good at managing emotions and give us the incentive to do so. And because we’re good at it, we end up doing more of it.

Don’t get me wrong. I love being good at emotional labour. I want to keep getting better at it. I love being of service. When I’ve turned a situation around, when a kid goes from screaming to smiling and saying, “I love you,” I feel on top of the world.

But the more emotional labour I do for those around me, the fewer resources I have left for myself and my creative work. And again, I’m left vulnerable to a deficit of meaning and depression that entails.

Our life design needs to take emotional labour into account

I’ve written a lot about making life changes so we can prioritize our creative work. Practical things like doing less volunteering and reducing our household chores. Now I’m beginning to understand that we need to consider how much emotional labour we’re doing and how it’s impacting our ability to create art and maintain meaning.

I hope to write more about how I’ve addressed the demands of emotional labour in my own life. For now, I’d love to know: How does this strike you? Do you see a personal connection between depression and emotional labour? What does it mean for you?

Please leave a comment or share your thoughts privately through email. This is an important conversation to have, I think.

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DIY Origami Butterfly Mobile

  

Over the holidays, my dad and I assembled this DIY origami butterfly mobile. I love it so much. This mobile is an object of ongoing beauty, gently twirling in my bedroom, and it is also a scale map of my creative process, which for me takes the shape of a labyrinth.

When I am depressed, and also when I am mentally stable but stressed and overwhelmed, I do not have the focus or energy for a long in-depth creative endeavour like a novel, or even an essay. But I need to practice my creativity to help me recover from stress and depression. It’s a Catch-22. How to do something artistic and fulfilling that I can manage?

That’s when I look for a mini-labyrinth: a highly structured small-scale creative project. This DIY origami butterfly mobile is a perfect example. In addition to being small and well-defined, I also prefer that a mini-labyrinth be cross-discipline (for me that means visual art, music, or dance, rather than writing), that it have some community element, and that it be meaningful and expressive of my values.

Let me illustrate by explaining the steps to make your own DIY origami butterfly mobile.

Supplies:

  • origami paper
  • nylon thread or monofilament
  • wooden embroidery hoop
  • crimp beads
  • large beads
  • wire

Step 1: Buy some paper

I made my mobile with a pack of 100 sheets of multi-coloured paper, 7.5 cm (3″) square. I found this paper in an enormous stationery shop in Hong Kong, across from the apartment where we were staying. This was during our three-week trip to China over March Break. My kids and I wandered the floors, enthralled, choosing our treasures carefully. I didn’t know yet what I would make from this paper but I knew it was special. So tiny! So many colours! So many possibilities!

You can buy your origami paper from Amazon, of course 🙂
Toyo Origami, Tant 7.5cm x 7.5cm, 100 Colors, 1 Each (007203)

Step 2: Sign up for #The100DayProject

#The100DayProject is a cool personal challenge with a big community component. The official website calls it “a free global art project that anyone can participate in.” You can sign up to get weekly prompts and announcements, or you can just post your photos with the hashtag.

Photo Source

The stars aligned for me on this. A week after arriving home from Hong Kong, I discovered that #The100DayProject was starting in just a few days. And I had exactly 100 pieces of origami paper. After a little research, I decided that I wanted to fold butterflies. (Cranes seemed too ubiquitous. Besides, spring and rebirth were on my mind.) I chose a custom hashtag, #100daysofbutterflies, to identify my project.

Step 3: Fold a butterfly

I followed the folding instructions from this origami butterfly tutorial, using scissors to round off the wings because I liked the way they looked.

Then I staged a photo and posted it on Instagram with the hashtags and a dedication to a special new friend.


This small act gave me a tremendous burst of joy and energy, which is a sign that this was a good mini-labyrinth for me.

Step 4: Get inspired

While I was looking for butterfly folds, I found this amazing origami maker in Australia, Peter Whitehouse, who was doing a fold every day in 2017! Some of them are incredibly intricate. I subscribed to his origami blog so I would get a steady supply of visual inspiration. (I was especially tickled when he went on a butterfly kick in June.)

Photo Source

I also discovered a woman on Instagram doing #100daysofpaperrabbits with found materials from her home. So imaginative and adorable.

A post shared by arrie (@rabbitpractice) on

And there were butterflies in my neighbourhood too, in the window display of a Japanese clothing store and in the advertising for HSBC.

All of these sightings made me feel befriended — serendipitous signs that I was not alone in the world, but that there were people out there like me, folding paper, making something that held a little piece of themselves.

Step 5: Fold more butterflies

If you fold one butterfly a day, it will take you a little more than three months. If you want to fold them all at once, you can probably finish in a day or two.

My natural length of attention for a daily project is two weeks. I know this about myself. Still, I hoped that the structure and community of #the100dayproject would keep me going longer than that. Alas, no. After about 14 days I started to get behind. Some days I just forgot. Some days I was unhappy with the quality of my folds, or the originality of my photo styling. Some days I was travelling. A few times I caught up, folding and posting multiple butterflies in a day. But then I got a month behind, and then six weeks. Unphotographed butterflies accumulated on my desk.

Finally, two months into the project, I asked myself, “What is my goal for this project? What is central? Is it the photos? The dedications? The daily consistency? Or the butterflies themselves? How do I want to complete this?”

At the time, I couldn’t let go of any of those things. I wanted to finish thoroughly, the way I had started. I did try. I arranged all the folded, unphotographed butterflies on a calendar. I worked away at them for a few days. But I posted my last butterfly on June 2. I stopped folding altogether. I felt sad and guilty and flummoxed every time I looked at the pile of butterflies I kept in a glass vase.

Step 6: Enlist a partner

In December, my mom and dad arrived for a three-week visit and I knew there was hope for my butterfly mobile after all. My father is a retired dentist, very skilled with his hands, having sculpted many teeth over the years, who has now turned his attention to wood carving and paper crafts. He made an exquisite bird mobile for my daughter Lia, and I knew he had the interest and abilities to help me finish this particular project.

I also knew that I love getting immersed in a project, spending an intensely focused period of time to get it done. And I am more likely to apply myself when I’m working with someone else. So I was confident that this was the way to completion. I let go of photographing and dedicating the butterflies, let go of creating a photo book from my Instagram stream, and concentrated on the finished product: a mobile hanging in my room.

I presented my dad with the goal early on in our visit, and we spent some time planning and researching. I had bought some metal rings and monofilament at the bead store, but Dad showed me that the monofilament would not hold knots well, nor would it stay stable on the metal rings.

Then we came across the idea of using bead crimps thanks to this how-to for an origami crane mobile. Bead crimps were easier to use than knots and would allow us to be more precise with butterfly placement. We visited the bead store again to buy crimps, and also picked up some sample beads to use as weights, and some nylon thread to test.

We debated how many strings to make, how many butterflies would go on each string, and how far apart they would be spaced. I tried several arrangements — did I want all butterflies of one colour on a single string? Did I want them arranged by tone, with pastels at the top and brights at the bottom?

Finally, I settled on a gradient, with yellows at the top, transitioning to greens, blues, purples, pinks, and reds. This also meant that each individual string was its own mini-gradient.

I played with the colours, re-arranging to get the most contrast. I also decided not to fold butterflies from the grey and black paper at the bottom of the stack. I let go of making 100 butterflies and just kept the colours that made me happy.

After a few test strings, where we compared fastenings and considered spacing, we were ready to go.

Step 7: Assemble the mobile

Lay out seven strings of butterflies, which will give your mobile some asymmetry when it’s hanging. I varied the number of butterflies in a string from 10 to 14 so that the strings would be of different lengths.

Glue the butterflies with hot glue to keep it from coming apart in the mobile. We unfolded each butterfly’s “antenna” and used a tiny dot of glue underneath to secure it.

Cut a 50″ length of white nylon string. I chose the nylon string because it hung more naturally. But if you prefer your thread to be invisible, use monofilament.

Attach a crimp bead 5″ from the bottom of the string. We used silver-coloured crimp tubes but you could possibly use smaller round crimp beads. My dad created a little paper template and attached it to the table, to make the measurements easier. We used both needle-nosed pliers and some larger locking pliers to flatten the crimps enough so that they didn’t slide off the string.

(My dad’s poor hands! He provided all the muscle while I just held things. It took me back to the days when I would assist him at the dental office, handing him tools and suctioning while he worked.)

With a needle on the thread, pierce the bottom butterfly from bottom to top, in about the middle of the central fold. Push it down until it sits against the crimp bead.

Attach another crimp bead 2″ above the first butterfly.

Continue to string butterflies and attach crimps until you have seven completed strings. If you cut the string when you’re squeezing a crimp, as we did a few times, thread both ends of the cut string into the crimp bead, one from below and one from above, and squeeze the crimp to hold them together.

Thread an anchor bead on the bottom of each string. Attach a crimp as close to the bottom of the string as possible to hold the bead on.

Cut grooves into your embroidery hoop. We used the inner hoop (without the screw mechanism) from a 9″ embroidery hoop. Cut 7 evenly spaced grooves on one edge of the hoop — these will be used to anchor the strings. Cut 4 evenly spaced grooved on the other edge of the hoop — these will be used to anchor the hanging wire. My dad used his pocket knife as a saw to make the grooves.

Mark each string 2″ above the top butterfly with a black marker.

Wrap each string around the hoop in one of the pre-cut grooves, positioning the black mark at the top of the hoop. Wrap several times and then secure with a dab of hot glue. Continue until you have attached all seven strings.

Cut lengths of wire and attach to the 4 grooves at the top of the hoop. Twist the lengths of wire together to form a hanger.

Hang and enjoy!

There you have it, my latest creative project. I was so happy when I saw it hanging that I clapped my hands, jumped up and down, and gave my dad a big hug. I loved the process of collaborating with him, sharing ideas, evaluating methods, and crafting in extended companionable silence. Those feelings and memories come back to me whenever I watch the mobile from my bed.

 

Now, tell me about your mini-labyrinths.

What small creative projects have seen you through droughts and difficulties? I have more of mine to share with you, but I love seeing what others are doing. And please link to your projects! It would be fun to feature others here too.

P.S. I wish I had a better name than “mini-labyrinths.” I will think on that. Let me know if you come up with something.

P.P.S. This is my first blog post since my paperback was released last summer! You can now get my memoir, Pilgrimage of Desire: An Explorer’s Journey Through the Labyrinths of Life, in a form you can hold in your hands, highlight, dog-ear, and fill with margin notes.

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I think I’ll stay under here where it’s safe.

In his podcast episode called Emergency, Benjamen Walker speaks into a secret recorder hidden in a pen while sitting in a hot tub:

I fled my studio for Spa Castle … I’m just finding it impossible to work these days. It’s the news, blaring out of the radio, blasting from the computer. It’s relentless, and it climbs over every wall I build and slides in under every door I close. There’s no escape.

And as far as I can tell, this is a new thing. Of course, the 24-hour news cycle has been around for decades now, we got that in the 1990s with the Iraq War and the O.J. Simpson case. But it was still a news cycle. That cycle has disintegrated. Today, now, it’s just news all the time. And once you check in, there’s no checking out. There’s no longer a calm after the storm, because it’s a storm that never ends.

And this non-stop hurricane of pain, it’s affecting my mental health, my physical well-being, and my podcast. This is why I’m here, talking to you, dear listener, from a hot tub at Spa Castle. …

The musician Neil Young once said that what is most precious to him is his creative space, a space he goes to great lengths to maintain and protect. Well, the past few months of breaking news has completely broken down the barriers protecting my creative space. It’s now been overrun by hot takes and longreads and memes, tweets, and I’m scared—terrified, actually—that I won’t be able to put everything back together again.

This captures how I feel about writing in the last three years, in general, and definitely here, online. The non-stop hurricane of pain has decimated my mental, physical, and digital creative spaces.

I don’t know how to write on this blog anymore. I know how I used to write, so when I’m in that headspace for the week or so it takes me to write a post, I can write here, but otherwise I feel like I have tape over my mouth. It’s the news and it’s Facebook and it’s parenting pre-teens and it’s Year 5 of living across the country from my family and it’s depression and it’s being in my 40s, facing the reality that things aren’t always going to keep getting better, sometimes things will regress and contract and get worse.

So while I flounder around, boarding up broken windows, sweeping up shards of glass, turning down the volume on the news, I thought I’d tell you where things stand right now.

Lia is eleven. I love her so much that I have to hug and kiss her every chance I get, and thank God she still likes it. She is reading books from the Grade 7 shelf and perfecting her round-off back handspring back tuck. Every day from December to April she wore an orange fox hat named Tiki. A few weeks ago she made a coconut cake from scratch all by herself. I like buying her presents—it’s easy, you just buy something with a fox on it, or something made from strawberries or mango or both.

Nico is nine. He just bought himself a fidget cube, and he has assigned noises to each button and gizmo. His life’s ambition is to get me to belly laugh, which he does often, but he needs to find another audience for his potty humour, because I’m not it. He wrote an excellent short story called “Death Battle,” about a boy named Thor who defends Canada from the monster Holy Fish. I get him to tutoring sessions by play-fighting with him at the bus stop and bribing him with jalapeno Cheetos.

My children are part of the hurricane, and part of the bunker against it.

Today is my wedding anniversary. My marriage to Shawn is now legally allowed to drink in the U.S. In honour of the occasion, I dug up this recording of a men’s quartet singing our wedding text. Shawn is the ground in which the bunker is buried; he is a solid constant.

A love-red butterfly for my one and only.

Reading is my equivalent of noise-cancelling headphones. I have put together a background reading list to inform my current fiction project, and it is both comforting and inspiring at the same time. These are books of utopian fiction, first- and second-wave feminism, middle-class domestic fiction, metafiction, feminist economics. This list would seem pretentious to me except that it’s all so damn inspiring and relevant to what I’m writing, I’m gobbling it up.

I started with the books I had already read, books I had close to hand. Old books bubbled up in my memory, new books surfaced in the Recommendations feed on Goodreads. I’m up to 75 books and I’m aiming for 100. I decided to read the books in order of publication, because I like to eat my vegetables before dessert, but I’m finding that it’s all dessert. I feel like a student again, reading short story cycles for my thesis project.

I’m making butterflies for #the100dayproject and posting them to Instagram. This is turning out to be an ode to my home decorating as well as an origami project.

It’s a real book! With pages!

I don’t watch as much TV since my children started staying up until 9 pm or later. I climb under the covers with one earbud in, listening to Audible, which is the best for reading long, dense books. I’m almost halfway through 27 hours of The Golden Notebook narrated by Juliet Stevenson. I tried to read The Golden Notebook fifteen years ago and couldn’t make it through five pages for boredom. Now I’m riveted. Fascism, socialism, communism, free women, repudiated novels and unfinished novels and diary excerpts—it’s all up-to-the-minute even though it’s the 1950s.

Michelle and I have been inching along with a print version of Pilgrimage of Desire. The designs are all done, we’re reviewing physical proofs, and you’ll be able to order it from Amazon and your local bookstore very soon.

Is it summer yet? I need a breather. I want to do more writing. I think I’ll spread a little sand and a beach towel on the floor of my bunker, hang some rainbow butterflies from the ceiling.

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