The deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain were especially hard on aspiring entrepreneurs and artists like us. Then the act "Nanette" on Netflix also prickled my skin and had me pondering: Is anyone okay? Do we always have to sacrifice our sanity for creative greatness?
When I was in my first week of college at Miami University, I had a fierce debate with my Drawing 101 professor. He claimed that if an artist wanted to be truly great, he or she had to dedicate his or her entire life to it; to sacrifice everything for the sake of creating that art. I was 18 years old and quite unsure of myself in general and definitely in art and around adults, but I remember being laser focused on this argument. My point was that those "truly great" artists (like Van Gogh, Munch, Hemingway and countless others) were essentially tortured by mental illness and quite unhinged. Being that hyper-focused or obsessed with one goal was NOT ideal. Calling them "great" wasn't the whole picture; they were suffering and miserable. And I didn't want to be miserable. I wanted to do my art and be happy. Even in my teenage insecure angst, I was 100% sure of that.
Kate Spade is one of my entrepreneurial heroes,. She reinvented the industry of handbags and women's accessories, made millions of dollars and then committed suicide. A few days after her death, Anthony Bourdain, the unabashed cantankerous wanderer into "Parts Unknown" had also committed suicide. Despite all their organizational strength and bold creativity; despite their ability to actually turn an idea into a "thing" that the whole world could see; they weren't happy. They were in such un-ending darkness that they killed themselves to relieve it.
Why would someone so talented and competent do such a thing?
They have money. They have influence. They have family. They turned their dreams into multi-million dollar companies. What happened?
I am around more creative people than the average person, so I know that this anecdotal evidence is biased, but this study concurs my inclination that creative people seem to suffer from depression and anxiety more than non-creatives. I see a hell of a lot of depression and anxiety in creative fields, and we see it at the Creative Juice table.
I experienced depression for the first (and only) time in my life when my retail store was failing. I got out of bed every day and did my job, but I couldn't wait to get back into to bed at night, curl up behind my husband's back and wish it all away. I escaped into a fantasy life where I was successful, influential and financially stable. I fought terribly with my mother. I was convinced I was a failure to my children because I was gone all the time, trying to breathe life into a dying business. It was awful and it was new for me. I'd never been down for that long before. The depression snuck in so slowly that I didn't even recognize it. I didn't go to therapy but I reached out. I had the support of my husband. I have a long history of good coping skills, so going back to normal was something I was able to do with years of caring and patience with myself.
On the long road back to "Margot", I faced my demons of insecurity, ego, pride and false representation. As I got stronger, I began to tackle the fears I had about money management and failure. I will admit that there was one time I actually thought about killing myself. It was when I realized that I'd added $30,000 to my already indebted and precarious financial household. I was so ashamed of myself and what I'd done. I couldn't stand to face my family and for a dark moment, killing myself was a quick and easy way out of that shame. It was one dark day, but one that I reach back to when I hear of someone killing themselves. What if every day were like that? How long would I last?
Having a community is powerful anti-depressant medicine
Creative Juice is a community of creative people in business. We don't always discuss our mental health and that's not the focus of our gathering, but it comes up from time to time. I would never claim that Creative Juice saves lives and or takes the pain away, but damn, it's much better to get out with people who care than it is to suffer alone. Of the friends I know in our group who suffer from depression and anxiety, a regular mix of psychotherapy and meds is critical to their survival. But I also think having a reason to get up on a Monday morning and show up with people who "get you" is powerful too. It keeps us from going too far down the dark spiral. It gives us perspectives that might get through the dark thoughts for a short time. It also allows us to release the emotional steam that can build up; sudden bursts of tears are not uncommon at a Creative Juice meeting. Creative Juice is not group therapy and we are not qualified therapists, but in my personal experience, the practice of getting out of our heads definitely helps to keep the chemistry of our brains (along with therapy and the right meds) stay closer to healthy.
So is it possible to be extraordinary AND mentally healthy?
By the way, thanks for reading this far. I know this was a long one. I'm honestly struggling with this question: Can someone do extraordinary things and also be mentally healthy? I truly believe that we all have extraordinary talents, whether it's an ability to create an abstract painting, write a novel or make a killer cocktail. I believe that it's only our fears that hold us back from that greatness. I also believe that when we find and embrace our purpose, we must do it full on. But what is the sacrifice?
So many of the "greats" are suffering
At the Midwest Craft Con 2018, there were several well-known and successful artists on discussion panels. I couldn't help but notice a similarity: So many of the artists we all admired (and envied, if I'm honest) for being wildly successful were also suffering from social anxieties and crippling depressions. The pithy cartoons of Gemma Correll are expressions of her anxiety. She fills every inch of her notebooks with writing and cartoons to help manage her debilitating mental hamster wheel. And Jesi Rodgers, who has OVER 78 THOUSAND followers on Instagram works obsessively all night to paint her happy rainbows and cute sun-shining cactuses. These people with extraordinary talents are not always doing their art for the joy if it. They're doing it because they are holding fears at bay. And on one hand, I think it's great that they DO have art as their weapon. But it leaves me thinking:
Is it okay to be "just okay"?
I do know some who appear to be thriving both financially, artistically and emotionally. But after the shocking death of Kate Spade, I'm afraid to claim that anyone in the upper tier of fame and success is "doing okay". It scares me, because I do want to be truly great, and I also want to be truly balanced. I'm balanced now and I'm just average. I'm just okay. I have a small house and healthy kids and a lovely husband. If I go "all out" on my dreams, I'm worried that I will have to sacrifice them or my sanity for it. I know I'm not willing to do that.
But what about the gifts that I want to give? Isn't a life fully lived mean I am sharing those will all my being? Does letting go and allowing myself to be average diminish my potential or my contributions to the world? Are these all excuses to keep me from the success I want so much?
Or is being "just okay" is actually extraordinary in itself?