The Artist’s Drug of Choice

What’s your poison? Chocolate? Video-games? LSD?


Artists have become notorious for substance use, addiction, and a good measure of crazy, which is probably intertwined with our ability and our need to make art. Not that all of us are crazy (yeah, right) and not that we’re all addicted to chemical head changes.

Or… are we?

As artists, our way of processing things, everything, is a bit different than people who don’t have the inclination to make art. We feel everything strongly, we see color differently, we look past reality into a world that doesn’t exist without our imagination. That in itself is a bit trippy, and we wouldn’t have the wherewithal to make grand, fantastical statements out of paint, thread, or music without a tendency to latch onto the emotional vibration of life. It’s not that everyone doesn’t do this to a degree, but artists take emotion to a whole new level. We breathe emotion into life. Often in beautiful, awe-inspiring ways. There’s an ebb and flow to be sure, with much of our time spent in frenzied creativity, overflowing with inspiration and ideas, high on nothing more than our need to create.

But there’s a flip side. Sometimes, if not properly nurtured, our emotional processing skills get broken. Sometimes everything gets black and dull and scary.

We can be addicted to all sorts of emotions, good and bad. Sometimes a simple bad habit (like laziness) can move so far down the rabbit hole that it becomes its own beast. We can’t see the obvious trajectory of chaos we’re in, even if we’re not enjoying it. We are addicted to the problem because we’ve been doing it for too long. We lose control.

My own greatest addiction is anxiety. Not very glamorous, I know. But it has plagued me since I was a child and it’s not something I ever seem to be free of. I truly just can’t stop. I can muster anxiety about anything. I can even take good situations and find all sorts of things to worry about. So it begins and ends. Anxiety leads to insomnia which leads to exhaustion which leads to having no motivation for anything which leads to not making art which leads to extreme self-doubt which leads to incredible anxiety which keeps the whole process firmly in place.


Over the last couple of months, I fell into a pretty severe case of depression. I didn’t see it coming, but I can see it clearly in retrospect. It started with a bad cold, followed up a month later by another bad cold. It zapped my energy. From that, my fitness schedule waned. And then there were the holidays, and that vacation, the indulgence of both wrecking havoc on my mostly-vegan, mostly raw dietary preferences. (Not to mention the increase in holiday booze.) Plus, holiday schedules, and birthdays and… who has time for art anyway?

Add to this a hefty dose of ongoing personal grief mixed with a few very life-altering decisions that needed to be made and you’ve got a cocktail of utter despondency and sheer panic.

At some point within this, I lost sight. It was hard to feel like doing anything. All around me life seemed dreary and heavy. My lack of time for art evolved into a lack of interest. And my depression worsened. I was sad. A lot.

Then suddenly, probably out of boredom, I had this incredible urge to make art. I thought maybe I would just head downstairs and do one little thing. That one thing turned into six hours of focused work on five different paintings. I even started more paintings. The following day, I did it again. And then again. And the weird part was, I was actually feeling pretty darn happy about life. The sun came out, I was back in my beloved fight classes, I was even eating salads and smoothies all day. Fortuitous!

I started to wonder which came first, my renewed interest in creating or my improved mood? Were they related? It was the creating that I had been missing. The lack of art, as an artist, was directly affecting my ability to do anything else. I lacked the very core of who I was as a human being.

I wasn’t meeting the emotional requirement to create, which is part of what being an artist is all about. Sure, sometimes it’s hard to push through, and as my last few months demonstrate, we can’t be on top of ourselves at all times. But waiting to feel like creating was missing the point. Of course getting myself a second (or third) glass of wine on a Tuesday was easier than picking up a paint brush. I’d totally reversed my priorities in life.

My epiphany lately is that I want to be more addicted to other “drugs” I take, things that make me high without all the downward spiraling and sadness. More fight class. More sleep. More art. Lots of art.

Art is a curative. Art is strengthening. Art is what taught me that I am an artist. Art is what keeps me healthy. If I’m not getting my fix, everything else will suffer. I need it.

I don’t know why it never occurs to me that Art is a drug. A good one.

I want to be a user and a dealer.

Written by Shayla Maddox for Art & Musings

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4 thoughts on “The Artist’s Drug of Choice”

  1. Anxiety and depression must be bed partners… because many people I know, including myself, have been diagnosed with both at some point.  And like you, when I’m in a dark mood… it zaps all of my energies, including my creative drive.   I just don’t feel like doing *anything*.

    Although it takes a super-strong test of willpower to force myself to create when I’m in a black mood… it’s one of the only activites that can beat depression back into remission.

    Creating art is a healthy and productive coping-mechanism, giving us a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment at seeing our own imaginations fully-formed and breathing on a once-blank canvas. :)

  2. Yes! I think just the acting of doing it gives us something to focus on that’s outside our own heads, which gives us a break from feeling depressed. 

    I’m usually wound up and tense, so often I don’t notice the signs of depression right away. And generally speaking, I can maintain an incredible amount of tension and anxiety while simultaneously being too depressed to function properly. It’s awesome. 😛

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