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When Medication Isn’t Enough: Rethinking Depression with Eric Maisel

This is Part 3 in a series on depression in creatives.

Part 1: 10 Signs of Walking Depression
Part 2: 10 Ways to Walk Away from Depression

When you are deeply unhappy, antidepressants can be a godsend.

The boost to your serotonin levels may give you more emotional energy, help you sleep better, quiet your frantic thoughts, and allow you to face your life with renewed strength and creativity.

You could liken it to getting an epidural during childbirth. There’s no shame in using anesthetic to help you deliver. That’s a personal choice you make given your needs in the moment.

But using only medication to deal with depression is like getting an epidural but never birthing the baby ~ masking the existential pain without moving through and beyond it to the new life that wants to emerge.

If you want to deal with the root causes of your unhappiness, then taking medication isn’t enough.

I started taking an antidepressant the same week I realized that I had the symptoms of clinical depression. I wanted to give myself the best chance I could to move beyond the grey, grinding existence that I had tolerated for too long. I also began therapy and cut back my responsibilities. And slowly, tentatively, I started to pray again.

Three years later, as I was weaning myself off my meds, I came across Eric Maisel‘s book The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person’s Path through DepressionSuddenly I had evidence for what I believed intuitively ~ that I was unhappy (and couldn’t enjoy anything, and didn’t want to get out of bed, and had obsessive thoughts) not because I had a family history of depression or because there was some deficiency in my brain functioning, but because my life was far from what I wanted it to be, and I needed to make changes if I ever stood a chance of being happy and healthy in the long-term.

I’ve since read and appreciated many of Eric’s books, including Fearless Creating, Coaching the Artist Within, and Creativity for LifeI chose to train with the Creativity Coaching Association specifically because I wanted to learn from Eric how to work with the creativity and life issues that writers and artists face. I even had the opportunity to be coached by him, and I loved his compassionate and pragmatic approach.

We differ in some of our beliefs ~ Eric is an atheist and I am a Christian. He believes that the universe is indifferent to humanity and I believe that the universe conspires to help us.

But our values match up nicely: we both see great importance in creativity, self-responsibility, growth, human connection, and making meaning. If you don’t know Eric’s work, I’m happy to make the introduction, and if you do, this is a chance to catch up on his latest offering, the book Rethinking Depression: How to Shed Mental Health Labels and Create Personal Meaning.

Does depression really exist?

Eric spends the first part of Rethinking Depression explaining why he doesn’t believe that depression is a mental disorder at all, but rather a normal emotional response to the challenges of life that happens to have physical manifestations.

And he doesn’t like the way that depression has been medicalized and pathologized, and people have been channelled into using drugs and therapy alone to deal with natural but pervasive sadness.

He is concerned that the construction of depression as illness rather than emotion is preventing people from dealing with it effectively.

I had the chance to ask Eric his thoughts on the idea of walking depression ~ chronic unhappiness in strong, driven creatives.

Alison: What obstacles seem to stand in the way of people recognizing and dealing with this level of unhappiness?

Eric: We have lost our ability to use words like sad and unhappy and in a culture-wide way we instead speak of ourselves as depressed. Once you start using the language of depression it is a very hard to recognize that you must deal with life and not with an illness or a mental disorder.

A second huge issue is that people have evaluated life negatively, have decided that life is a cheat, and don’t know that they have made that evaluation. Their days are colored by that pessimistic evaluation and yet they don’t know that that unfortunate transaction has occurred.

To begin to use normal words like sad and unhappy and to check in with yourself about whether you have evaluated life a cheat are two important tasks facing every contemporary person.

This feels true for me. I had a hard time recognizing that my unhappiness was negatively affecting me until I connected my symptoms to those of clinical depression. And at the time I thought that I was stuck with my circumstances, that I had no right asking for more joy or fulfillment from life.

If meds aren’t enough, what else do we need to address our unhappiness?

Whether or not you accept Eric’s premise that depression is a fiction, there’s no denying that misery is real. We have all kinds of really good reasons to be sad. I asked Eric what he sees in the creatives he works with.

Alison: What is your experience with this kind of ongoing unhappiness showing up in your coaching clients?

Eric: Most of my clients are blue a considerable amount of the time. This chronic, low-grade sadness arises for many, many reasons, among them that creating is hard, that dealing with the marketplace is hard, that getting to your creating when you must also earn a living is hard — but perhaps the single most poignant and pressing reason that this blueness persists is that it is hard for a contemporary smart, sensitive person to keep meaning afloat. It is hard to believe that we really matter or that our efforts really matter.

The program in Rethinking Depression addresses all of this and especially the latter issue, because the idea of value-based meaning-making that I promote in the book is the very best way to keep meaning afloat and to help reduce at least that percentage of a creative person’s sadness.

A big yes from me on all counts here. Much of my despair over the years has come from not having the time and energy to write, not being able to finish a new book, and doing paid work that seemed unimportant. Recasting my life according to my values has been pivotal to finding more joy and creative flow.

Do-it-yourself meaning: the answer to existential unhappiness

The remainder of Rethinking Depression describes the program that Eric mentioned for deliberately supplying the meaning that is lacking in our lives.

One way to deal with the inevitability of unhappiness is to lead a life based on existential ideals. You take as much control as possible of your thoughts, your attitudes, your moods, your behaviors, and your very orientation toward life and you turn your innate freedom into a virtue and a blessing.

This existential program emphasizes the existential, the cognitive, and the behavioral. Living authentically means organizing your life around your answers to three fundamental questions. The first is, “What matters to you?” The second is, “Are your thoughts aligned with what matters to you?” The third is, “Are your behaviors aligned with what matters to you?”

It should come as no surprise that this is the very type of work that creativity coaches do. It’s what I do with clients through my Enter the Labyrinth coaching service. And it works. I asked Eric:

Alison: Why and how is your meaning program so effective for this kind of sadness?

Eric: The program I describe in Rethinking Depression does a better job than most self-help programs in taking reality into account.

I make it clear that meaning is a subjective psychology experience that we can create and influence, that our evaluation of life as positive or negative is in our hands, that we can form a strong idea of meaning that supports our daily efforts at making meaning investments and seizing meaning opportunities, and in other ways deal with human sadness, even of the most profound kinds, by looking life in the eye rather than looking away.

The very idea of making meaning versus seeking meaning can have its own curative effect!

To me, this is the new life that wants to be born out of our existential labour. The process is harrowing, but it’s the only conclusive way to address our meaning crises.

I hope that Eric’s message will help more unhappy creatives undertake this important work. The world needs more writers and artists who can face the void and still make true and beautiful art that matters to them.

This post is part of Eric Maisel’s blog tour for Rethinking Depression. To read more posts about the book, check out his tour schedule. Thanks so much to Eric for sharing his thoughts with me today.

What do you think about the role we assign to medication versus personal meaning-making, when dealing with debilitating unhappiness?

Image credit:  Nomadic Lass

{ 14 comments… add one }

  • Leilani Squire April 2, 2012, 4:06 pm

    Maybe if we paid more attention to meaning making as Eric suggests and truly address the question, What matters to me? and strive to find the answers- we might be better prepared to face, accept or transform a debilitating unhappiness when it strikes. I can’t avoid unhappiness in life. It’s part of life. But I can avoid the pitfalls and the paralysis that can accompany unhappiness when I’m able to align my thoughts and actions with what matters to me. I know what it means to self-medicate because of unbearable loss and debilitating unhappiness. It was when I began to take responsibility for my life and try to answer the question of what matters to me that I stopped numbing the pain and began to live with awareness and fulfillment. Everyday I work to answer the question, to seek what matters to me and to manifest that meaning in my daily life. It’s a challenge, that’s for sure, but for me, there’s nothing more important. It would seem the more we find what matters to us, the less we would need to medicate ourselves. But this is my answer. Another person has another answer and I look forward to hearing what they have to say because what they have to say matters. Thank you, Alison, for posting such an important topic about depression and meaning making Dr. Maisel is presenting. We need this conversation. Because it matters.

    • Zooprof July 1, 2016, 5:40 pm

      Arguing that depression is not a condition that requires medical treatment – often with both medication and legitimate psychotherapy – is irresponsible and misleading. It’s just a new version of the old “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” – the ide that depression is the result of a lack of moral or existential courage. Of course we all have challenges with meaning and spirit, and of course we need to fight depression on all fronts: medical, emotional, social, occupational, and existential. But chronically depressed people need a psychiatrist in the mix somewhere, and arguing as you two do here will likely condemn some of your readers to further suffering – or even damage to the brain. I highly recommend Peter Kramer’s book, Against Depression, and especially his most recent one, Ordinarily Well. In his latest, he discusses the hazards of failing to great the mildly and moderately depresses, as well as the limitations of strict adherence to evidence-based medicine. The authors of this column should read some of this more nuanced stuff before closing the door on getting medications right. The treatment of depression is a complex art itself. No one deserves to live a life in shades of gray, and it’s amazing how the existential piece can resolve itself when people receive good treatment and start to really feel better medically.

      • Alison July 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

        Thanks for your comment. I think you may have misread my intent here – I fully support medication and psychotherapy for treating depression of any severity. Indeed, both my psychiatrists and therapists have been essential in my treatment and recovery.

        My hope is that people will consider ADDING treatment for creative and existential concerns to their medication and psychotherapy, so that they get the most holistic approach possible. Not everyone’s meaning crises resolve on their own once depression is treated medically.

        I certainly share your belief that “no one deserves to live in shades of gray,” and I thank you for the book recommendations, I’ll check them out.

  • kim astrand April 2, 2012, 4:46 pm

    I appreciate what you say Leilani; it is very important not to constantly numb the pain, instead determine “what happens”. Truly taking responsibility for one’s life is key, allows the person to live with awareness and be “happier”.

  • Alison April 3, 2012, 10:14 am

    Leilani and Kim, thanks for adding your voices. We’re not alone in wanting to take our lives in hand and find more satisfaction, instead of tuning out to what our emotions are telling us.

  • Noch Noch | be me. be natural. April 3, 2012, 4:20 pm

    i completely agree – medication is not enough. we have to find ways to understand ourselves, find out the cause of depression and what it is in life we are not happy about and change that. my psychologist helped me a lot on this
    and also my habits changed etc
    medication brought me to a level when i had some energy to take care of myself. the rest was up to me
    Noch Noch

    • Amie November 29, 2016, 4:17 pm

      What is the name of the type of therapy that you did? I’d like to learn more about it and maybe use it for myself and others.

  • Amber White March 14, 2014, 10:08 am

    Thank you. So much. This just completely flipped my mind and transformed my thought process for everything. The entire article was beautifully written and is absolutely right on key! I’m young, only 19, but I’ve felt stuck in this for as long as I can remember, honestly. I feel I’ve aged 20 years in the past six months alone. Anyways, I really appreciate you for sharing!

  • Jonathan Redar April 6, 2014, 9:46 pm

    I’ve been dealing with depression for awhile now and I do take meds. citalpram, remron, and nuerantin at this time to be honest I feel like all is lost I’m really down not happy with alot in my life just hope it will get better I know I have made some bad chocies with drugs and alcohol but some things just aren’t changing I have read some good info on here I’ll try putting it to use.

  • Patricia McDaniel October 18, 2014, 2:41 pm

    When you feel down and paralyzed and know the reasons why- that is the dilemma. It is hard to change your life that you don’t like- falling out of love with a spouse- not wanting to be married anymore- but can’t afford to leave. That is a problem- you can’t fake it- when you are really unhappy. And there are irreconcilable differences-

  • Marc Morgenstern June 21, 2015, 7:54 pm

    The worst thing about depression is that, not only is it hard for the depressed person to deal with, in our extraverted, be happy no matter what, bright sided society, it makes you a pariah. No one wants to be with you, no one wants to talk to you, and even if they did, you’re so consumed with your depression, what would you talk about? That’s why I like the Winnie the Pooh character, Eyeore. He’s basically clinically depressed, and even so, no one shuts him out, ignores him, or asks him to change.

  • Joe July 18, 2015, 9:22 pm

    I came across this series of articles because I was doing some research on depression vs unhappiness. I’ve been seeing an excellent therapist the past two months and have come to realize that I am not, in fact, depressed – simply very unhappy. I agree wholeheartedly that perhaps the medical professional is a little too quick to jump to the depression diagnosis and a little too prescribe drugs – this is the natural outgrowth of our results-based society. Two points I would disagree with. First, I believe there are cases of true depression – a chemical imbalance in the brain not related to emotions. Second, a cognitive approach is not always the answer. I am an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person). Everything I think, do, and say is directly wired to my feelings. The cognitive approach is not effective for me. I need a deeper exploration of the feelings behind my unhappiness. Overall, however, I truly enjoyed the articles, and found them to be very insightful. Thank you for sharing.

  • Carol April 6, 2016, 12:30 am

    The herb or its extracts could also be taken in a
    number of varieties – capsules, tablets, and decoction as well as tea.

    • April September 4, 2019, 10:28 am

      The herb…the latest greatest effort to deliver us from evil. I’ve been down that dark and unpredictable road with the herb…those who truly suffer from chronic depression would be wise to stay far away. Be wise with your advice, the herb is just as misleading and far more mistakingly abuses than most prescribed meds.

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