Tag Archives: depression

The Inner Critic

[Warning for possibly triggering content regarding mental health, specifically depression.]

I’ve been reading a fair number of how-to creativity books (yeah, I know, creativity is not something you can “learn” from a book) recently in preparation for a long-term project, and one thing I have noticed about some of these books–and a lot of the “advice” floating around out there about creativity–is the notion of the “inner critic.” The inner critic, according to some Professional Creative Types, is the voice that tells you that you are not creative, that you can’t write, or draw, or paint, or accomplish whatever creative project you want to. The inner critic is supposed to stand in for everyone who’s told you that you are a crappy artist, that your creative pursuits aren’t good enough, and all of that fun stuff that apparently wasn’t there when you were a kid. And, in the course of becoming truly creative, you are supposed to silence your inner critic.

This got me thinking, however: What if that critic was there when you were a kid? What if the inner critic is, well, part of you, and you cannot “just silence” that part?

One thing that I really don’t talk about publicly (on the internet or off) is my history of major depression. There are many reasons as to why, and I think that those might best be saved for another post. However, there is something that really bugs me about the “inner critic” model of creativity: it does not take depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions into account. What if that voice in your head has been there for a while, and is an active part of your mental health issue? It’s not so easy to turn off that voice that tells you that you suck, or that your art or writing is a bunch of crap, or that you will never amount to anything when that voice is there because of a mental health condition.

There’s another assumption in writings about the importance of “turning off” the inner critic, which is that all children have a magical reserve of resilience and that is why they are so creative. These children simply don’t care what anyone else thinks, and the Creative Adult must recapture that sense of adventure by silencing the inner critic! It sounds so easy! But what of the depressed child, or the child with mental health issues? As someone who had depression issues as a kid — and still does — I question the supposedly “universal” applicability of this whole inner critic business, the assumption that it can be turned off like a damn light switch, after which we will all Recover Our Childlike Capacity For Creativity, or something.

I remember having my own Inner Critic as a kid, and it was not fun. Certainly, I did have years where I had that sense of Childlike Creativity and Wonder, but those were also interlaced by a voice in the back of my mind that would tell me awful things. And it never left, after a while. It would hiss: You do not belong. You are weak. Your bum leg is punishment for something, and you sure as hell aren’t going to “make up for it” with your stupid cartoons, give me a break! You think you’re going to be popular because of your cartoons? Because of your writing? Please. You are worthless, and also none of the other kids like you. Your art is just a hobby, nothing more.

Then, once the depression came on the scene, those little hissings became, well, much bigger. They’d been there when I was a kid, no doubt, but with major depression, they stuck in my brain like a particularly awful tape loop that just couldn’t be turned off. Things with my depression are much better now — as they have been for a few years — but I am always, always on the alert in case it comes back full-force. My depression not totally gone (nor do I expect it to be), but I manage it with care. And the “inner critic” that artsy self-help types slam? She’s still there, and I think she will be there permanently. The trick, for me, is learning to live with her instead of assuming that silencing her is an easy step.

Coming Out In a Dangerous World

Irish novelist Marian Keyes recently came out about her depression and just published an update for her fans. The decision to openly discuss her depression is being widely covered in a lot of circles, as any disclosure of mental illness by a prominent figure tends to attract attention. Stephen Fry is also a public figure who has written about depression and discussed it publicly. Carrie Fisher is another example.

Something that often gets said about disability and mental illness in particular is that if people just came out, the stigma would go away. That people have an obligation to come out, to talk about their conditions with others, to educate, to dispel myths. This insistence that people, especially public figures, somehow owe it to the world to talk about their personal lives is really frustrating and it illustrates a profound lack of understanding.

It’s true that coming out may, over time, erode stigma, but at a great cost to the people who come out. It places the burden squarely on people who are experiencing oppression, not on the society that creates that oppression. It is not up to individuals to fight stigma and ableism, using their own bodies as a battleground. It is up to society to hold the mirror to itself and to examine its own complicity in the development and perpetuation of stigma.

The case of Marian Keyes is of particular interest to me because, as Meg at fiction_theory points out, there is a great deal of ableism in the publishing industry. There’s a pervasive myth that writers in particular are often mentally ill, that mental illness and creativity are linked, yet, at the same time, being openly mentally ill and working in publishing is a highly stigmatised position to be in. Editors and publishing professionals routinely belittle mental illness, making it no small wonder that writers would be reluctant to openly discuss mental illness. Aside from the obvious desire to not openly attract abuse, disclosures can kill a publishing career.

There’s also a lot of internalised ableism that expresses itself in how people deal with public disclosure of mental illness. Keyes wrote:

I know I’ll be criticised for saying all this, I know it sounds horribly selfish, when life is such a precious gift and many people desperately want to be alive and are denied it, but honestly, I’ve had no control over it.

I have no doubt that her fears of being criticised for being open about mental illness were well grounded, but there’s also a certain amount of self defeat between the lines. It almost seems like she feels like she needs to be guilty about her depression. This thread is consistent throughout her update; she constantly reminds us that she feels bad about not appreciating her life more, as though she bears some personal responsibility for her depression and should just try harder. Even as she’s telling us that these attitudes are not productive, she’s reinforcing them.

I’m well aware that I have an enviable life and there are bound to be people who think, “What the hell has she got to be depressed about?” But whatever has been wrong with me isn’t fixable by an attitude shift. Believe me I’ve tried (Mindfulness, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, gratitude lists…)

This speaks to a lot of social attitudes. Ideas about who is ‘allowed’ to experience depression, about how people should just snap out of it. At the end of her piece, she says:

I hope you’re all well and if you’re not – and some of you may not be, one of the things I’ve learnt is that this sort of headspace is far more widespread than is openly acknowledged, so many of us are hanging on, almost overwhelmed with desperation and feeling like it’s our fault, that what’s wrong with us is just self-pity or negative thinking or innate defectiveness…

Yet, she concludes with a note of feeling guilty. Surely, someone with such a privileged life can’t be allowed to be depressed!

There are layers within layers here. If there wasn’t such a stigma, coming out wouldn’t be such a loaded act. If society wasn’t so ableist, Keyes might not have internalised so many attitudes. If the publishing industry wasn’t so judgmental, perhaps Keyes might be able to neutrally state that she has depression, to thank her readers for their support, and not have to feel like she needs to justify it, or apologise for it.

And if society wasn’t so determined to place the burden of fighting oppression on the oppressed, Keyes’ admission wouldn’t have been a political act.

Recommended reading for May 4, 2010

RMJ: Disability and birth control, part 1

Widespread (rather than individual) centralization of birth control in feminism alienates and marginalizes their already problematized bodies: trans women, intersex women, older women, women with disabilities that affect their reproductive system, asexual women, women who want to get pregnant. Not to mention the loaded history of otherwise non-privileged bodies with birth control in light of the eugenics movement.

Eugenia: Siempre eqivocada

The fact is that, with regards to medical care, the old customer service adage is reversed: if the customer is always right, in Bolivia, the patient is always wrong. In Bolivia, where higher education is less of a universal right than a luxury for the few, poorer, uneducated Bolivians are taught to treat doctors and other professionals as their superiors.

meowser: BADD 2010: The Total Erasure of Partial Disability

In order to “make it” at anything I thought was worth doing, you had to be willing to do some serious OT, put in the extra time, go the extra mile, get that extra degree while still working full-time, put your nose to the grindstone. In other words, prove you weren’t just some lazy slacker who didn’t want to work. And I knew I…just couldn’t. And I felt terrible about that, especially when I got into my 30s and realized that all those overworked, underpaid copy editors (and other people who had done the nose-to-the-grindstone thing) now had real careers making real money, and I was still stuck at the McJob level.

Jha: My Invisible Disability

My depression is a setback. It means I cannot be continuously gung-ho about things like I would like to be. It means that sometimes I have to withdraw from the world or be overcome with exhaustion. I am easily fatigued. Some days, I want to sleep in the entire day and not have to face the world. Other times, I imagine being in a situation where I wouldn’t have a tomorrow to deal with. This doesn’t make me a failure, and it doesn’t make me, or anybody else like me, any less of a person deserving basic respect and consideration.

Latoya: Open Thread: Science, Conclusions, and Assumptions

[O]ne of the most common requests for content on Racialicious tends to come from people who work in public health. One issue in particular they have asked me to spotlight is the issue of clinical trials. For many years, the assumption was that the effects of medical conditions and medicine side effects would be similar on everyone, even though the only people involved in clinical trials were white males.

Valerie Ulene (Los Angeles Times): When prescribing a drug, doctors have many choices — too many, in some cases

Nobody wants to be told that he or she has a medical problem that can’t be treated, that there’s no medication that will help. For most common ailments, that’s rarely a problem; the trouble comes instead when it’s time to choose a drug. Sometimes there are just too many choices.

And, of course, there are numerous posts from BADD 2010, organized and collected by Goldfish at Diary of a Goldfish!