Artists feel pain differently. We’re not like other people. Sometimes when I’m out with friends, the slightest insult might wound me deeply. Inside I know it’s ridiculous, there’s nothing wrong, but at the emotional level I’m suffering. And I can’t get over it. Of course, I hide it incredibly well. Much of life is just learning how to mask our emotions to others. I’m an adult after all and I can’t just go crazy on someone for some perceived insult that’s only in my mind but what I feel inside is a windstorm. And when it’s not raining, the pain is a like a white noise, the constant background to my life. Why this is I don’t know. I only know that emotions hit me at strange times, unexpectedly, and they come in a wave or a sudden squall. A sadness may take me, right in the middle of joke, while everyone is hoisting beers or I might feel a euphoria just when everything has gone wrong and I’m broke with few options. And as artists the best thing we can do is lean into the pain because it’s the source of everything that matters in art.
Let’s roll back for a second to when I was younger. I made a pact with myself at an early age to always see things as they really are, no matter what and that’s had a price. I don’t think the average person thinks this way. In fact, the average person takes what they feel and see as fact, even though its incredibly distorted by their own mind, a mind that filters the world into something other than what it is. That can’t see the reality beneath reality, but for artists the world comes at us raw and intense, surging with color and sound and emotion. The pain of the world is always there for me, vibrating, a constant rip-tide under my feet, the whole of the Earth’s cruelty and sadness. It’s a private pain and one I can’t usually share, certainly not in casual conversation.
Maybe you’re wondering what you can do about this if you feel it too? I can tell you that all this pain is meant to drive one thing: creativity. Pain is the birth of art and the only relief I’ve ever found is writing. I feel NOT writing as a kind of physical and spiritual pain of its own and, believe it or not, that pain is worse than what I’ve already described. When I’m not writing, life starts to fragment for me. I begin to feel listless, irritable, angry. It suddenly feels like everything is meaningless and I’m a tiny fragment in a massive, uncaring universe. Only writing relieves that pain. It’s there that I’m washed clean, there that I’m saved. Writing is my church and my first communion and my final rights. When I set out to work, I drown out all sounds. I zone in completely, using the power of sensory deprivation to shut out the universe. I use noise canceling headphones and ambient music with no words on low. It works so well that at my artist’s co-working facility the other day someone barged in and said dammit I’ve been ringing the door for ten minutes, didn’t you hear me? Nope. And when I can’t satisfy this writing craving, I feel a spiritual pain that manifests as intense sadness and a complete loss of energy and interest in everything good or bad.
I can tell you that there’s nothing else that will work, nothing else that will save you but your art. You cannot sleep it off, fuck it away, drown it with drink or drugs or rock climbing or sky diving. I’ve faced death several times in my life, usually from my own poor choices. I almost overdosed once, when I’d gone off to write, filling myself with the substances I thought I needed to make my art. I took too much and the day was burning hot. I got to my writing space and knew I was in serious trouble. I couldn’t move, much less write, my head was on fire and swimming, my heart hammering so hard it was ready to rip out of my chest. I prayed to God. I kept myself awake, spraying myself with water, drinking as much water as I could, ready to stumble out and ask someone to call 911. But I held on, meditating to slow my heart rate, forcing myself to sit up and face the swirling dizziness. I willed myself to stay alive. I wasn’t done. I had stuff to do. And what did I do when I had a little window of clarity, after an hour that felt like a day? I picked up my laptop and started writing, thinking only, if I’m going to go, I am going to go out doing what I love. A calm swept through me, an intense joy and relief and I knew if I had to die, they would find me slumped over this damn laptop doing what I was meant to do and I could accept that. I have this theory that God doesn’t kill you off if you’re doing what you’re really supposed to be doing. It’s magical thinking I know but somehow it feels true. I sometimes wonder if I’d just lain down and tried to wait it out if I’d lived? I believe the answer is no.
I used to think I was alone and crazy, that the best I could do was hide away and suffer silently but now I know that’s not true. I saw a Richard Pryor documentary the other day that showed me I wasn’t alone once more. The man was hilarious but he was also a terrible drug addict prone to bouts of intense abuse. I’m not nearly the genius he is, but I believe I recognized that same pain reflected in his life. Many artists become addicts because they feel this brutal storm of emotion that drowns out everything else. Sometimes the only thing to do is kill it with drugs and alcohol. And sometimes we manage to dull our pain with our work but not always. There are always those dangerous hours after work or dealing with the real world, family, friends, our day job, things that eat into us, make us want to numb out because it comes on so strong and raw. All that makes artists erratic, unpredictable, but that inner current of sadness also fuels our creativity and our passion. It’s what makes us filled with vibrancy and strong will.
I don’t think this profile fits every artist ever but I know I’m in good company. Marilyn Monroe committed suicide with sleeping pills. Hemingway, Virgina Wolfe, suicides. That list is endless. O Henry, Tennessee Williams, Raymond Chandler, Stephen King, Jack Kerouac, James Joyce, alcoholics and addicts, every one. Take a look at the death of major stars like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and Jim Morison and Heath Ledger or rather take a look at the contents of their stomachs and you’ll find pain killers, alcohol, weed, some prescriptions drugs, some coke and you’ll wonder how they survived taking that much for years, much less a single day. People don’t just do these things. Something was hurting them. Badly.
If this all sounds a bit like depression to you, well you’re probably right. Depression and art are seemingly interwoven and inextricable but that’s not the whole story. The suffering artist doesn’t always manifest in the same ways. It may not be financial. It can be emotional and spiritual as well, even when everything else in the artist’s life seems wonderful to outside eyes. There were recently a bunch of articles on how men suffer depression as much as women but the signs manifest differently, as rage, irritation, substance abuse and risk taking. But it’s more than that, it’s a ethereal pain that drives artists, an inexhaustible hurt that’s woven into every cell in our bodies. By being more tuned in we experience the joy and the pain of life fully. We don’t feel happy, we feel euphoria. We don’t feel down, we feel depressed. In order to really write about the stuff that compels people, we have to let the whole world in and the whole world is suffused with an unbearable sadness that never dies.
I am in a hotel this week finishing this article. I opened the drawer in the hotel room and next to the usual Bible I was excited to find the teachings of Buddha. Studying Buddha can be a challenge because he has no definitive text like the Bible for Christians. What we do have are highly styled stories that the Buddha probably told, collected in a lot of different texts. So I started reading and one particular passage stood out to me:“People in this world are prone to be selfish and unsympathetic; they do not know how to love and respect each other; they argue and quarrel over trifling affairs only to their own harm and suffering, and life becomes but a deary round of unhappiness.”
I can tell you that as a writer, I feel that pain the Buddha speaks of all the time, at best like an undercurrent in the back of my life and at worst as a vicious and violent storm. I feel the insanity of humans, the weight of history, the sadness of our stupidity. I feel it all the time. It’s not a chemical reaction or a twisted wire in my brain, it’s because as artists we look too deep and what we see is terrifying.
You know what though, it’s all right.
The best cure for depression is self-awareness. Understand when it’s coming in and choose to transcend it. We can fight every day. We can get up every time we fall. And we can do the thing we were meant to do, whether that is write or paint or play Xylophone. That is the best cure. Be an artist. Be the other part of the pain and embrace it. Art is the other side of the artist’s angst. Don’t run from it, run right into it and you’ll find it transmutes into something different, something wonderful.
If you’re an artist you can do something with this inner turmoil, you can pick up a guitar or draw a sketch. It’s only when you’re not doing those things that you’re in trouble, so find a way to do what you love more often, before it’s too late. And don’t be afraid to reach out for a little help when you lose your way now and again. Nobody gets it right all the time. We break down. We fail, abuse ourselves and others. It’s how we get up that matters though. Start over. Start again. Every day is a new day and what you did yesterday is gone, good or bad. Today is the day to eat your pain and love it. Gorge on the whole dinosaur, tear into it and roar out into the rains and when the storm passes find yourself transformed and free. And for God’s sakes, make something. Don’t let it be for nothing. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.