Few things are more frightening than wanting to escape your own mind. How do you get out? In the following letter, Crywolf, otherwise known as Justin Taylor Phillips, opens up about his battles with depression, its connection to creativity, and the cross country motorcycle trip that changed his life:
At least once a day, I get a message or a comment asking about the relationship between my art and mental health.
Anyone who has listened to my music can tell that it has had a big effect, but few know just to what extent.
Art has been, by far, the most influential aspect of helping me work through my battle with depression and bipolar disorder. I’ve noticed, however, that this doesn’t hold true for everyone.
Some people continually fail to find success with art as therapy, and to me, that is a tragedy. I am a firm believer that self-expression and art can work for any person, regardless of “natural talent.”
When a person suffers from major depressive or bipolar disorder, the world can seem like an impossible place to navigate. When you don’t have any sense of inner consistency, it can be extremely challenging to find any sense of stability in the world around you.
How can someone make plans if they are worried that they might be a completely different person when those plans come about?
During my teenage years, I suffered off and on from Major Depressive and Bi-Polar Type 2 Disorder. Growing up in a religious community that didn't legitimize mental illness, I grew up believing that crippling numbness was a natural part of being a teenager, that the answer was “turning that frown upside-down.” This was impossible for me, as anyone with depression understands.
Depression is markedly different from sadness.
Sadness is an emotion that is felt and moves naturally through the body’s somatic and mental processing centers. It is something that comes, passes and, if dealt with properly, strengthens mental connections and the desire for change.
Depression, by contrast, is a physiological chemical state which renders the person suffering from it more or less incapable of action. Sadness is an active, present emotion in the body, whereas depression is an absence of any desire to do anything at all.
When a person is extremely depressed, it is not just difficult to get out of bed, it is seemingly impossible.
To tell someone going through a depressive episode to get out of bed and go about their day is equivalent to telling them to run into a concrete wall until they break through it.
Because I grew up without any knowledge of mental disorders, I thought my depression was something that everyone around me experienced. I figured that they were just stronger than me in some way. I thought that I had a weak constitution because I lacked the ability to power through the crippling mental and physical states that would strike multiple times per week.
When I was 18, I had to escape the southeast, and I moved to New York City with no money and no plan.
I got a job as a bartender by convincing the manager that I was 21, but my continuing depressive episodes started to negatively affect my work life.
That’s when I decided to seek professional help.
I visited a psychiatrist and discovered that what I had been experiencing was Bipolar Type 2 Disorder; mania and depression. Many people still speak out against medication, but for me, deciding to start medication was a turning point in my life.
I was finally was able to take control and felt like I could choose my actions.
It freed me to exercise self-control and responsibility in the same way that people around seemed to have been doing all along. I was able to work and live happily, without feeling like a slave to inaction.
Throughout my life, I have dabbled in various forms of art. When I was 5, I would sing random, made-up songs into a tape recorder. I had even been in a few bands. What I had never done, however, was channel my raw emotions into that art.
I wrote music, drew things, but they were always derivative of some song I liked, or someone else’s image. I never looked at my creations and thought, “That truly represents a part of me.” I thought the opposite - that it represented a part of someone else - and it frustrated me to no end.
I felt like I was trying too hard, like I was synthesizing someone else’s emotion, never expressing an original thought. It never had that magical quality that was present in the music I liked.
It never felt real.
Flashback to my 19-year old self, living in New York. Medication had helped me to get to a place where I could at least get out of bed, but I was still often overcome with emotion. At the end of my 19th year, I wrote in my journal, “I feel like there is an ever-present, tumultuous storm inside of my chest. Its pressure has built and built over the years, and it has no outlet. Why can’t I drain myself?”
Like an answer to a prayer, one month later, while on a cross-country motorcycle trip aimed at “finding myself,” I discovered street art. I met some kids in Reno that seemed much more self-actualized than I was, and they were all street artists.
I started creating random tags, but to my dismay, I started falling into the same creative traps. I wanted to make something intense, heavy, something that would affect people when they saw it… but instead, the things I made were over-serious, unoriginal, and frankly, a little cheesy.
I was constantly thinking about what other people might think of my art, which made it a stressful experience. One night, after being disappointed with myself for a piece I had thrown up, at the end of my wits, I decided to go for a Hail Mary: I was going to make literally whatever came out of my brain, no filter, no rationale. I promised myself I wouldn’t censor anything… for being too random, inappropriate… it would all just flow. I also decided that I would never tell other people.
It would be 100% anonymous.
That outpouring ended up being one of the most pivotal moments of my life. It was the birth of my current creative process, one that has helped change me from an emotionally turbulent and unpredictable person to one that feels in control; a sense of consistency and stability.
It pulled the cork out of the bottom of that ever-present storm inside.
Through refusing to censor and criticize my right brain - my abstract and feelings-centric self - I was able to express things with true originality.
I achieved purity in my creation.
Why try to make things that impressed people or accomplished a particular goal outside of self-expression, if nobody was going to know about it anyway?
I moved from small pieces to giant installations.
As I fervently worked, I felt the pressure inside rapidly draining. For the first time, I felt like I was in the flow of life. I stopped taking medication - I simply didn’t need it anymore. When I felt emotionally turbulent, I expressed it in my art and achieved catharsis.
Some of you have probably tried creating as a means of emotional release, and haven’t had success. If so, I would look inside and really ask yourself: Am I creating from a place of radical honesty and vulnerability, or am I creating for someone else? Am I letting the art flow out of me unadulterated, or am I using my left brain to edit and censor the raw material that emerges?
Emotion doesn’t follow the mathematical approach of the rational mind. Like water, it flows and has no hard edges. If you attempt to apply the sharp angles of rationale to creativity, it will cease to flow. This isn’t easy to learn, but once you tap into raw expression, you can find it time and time again.
One of the most beautiful experiences in human existence is to “see the shape of your own soul within the clay,” to discover parts of yourself that were previously unknown and to experience the vindication and release that comes from knowing you have translated your heart from internal to external, conceptual to real.
You can do it, if you allow yourself to create from a place of purity, of unrestricted expression.