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Giving Sorrow Words : Writing and Depression
by Karen Adler, Dip Transpersonal Art Therapy
ATH Asst. Editor of Arts & Art Therapy



Editor's Note from
Karen Adler: After my mother died, and after much struggle, I was finally diagnosed with clinical depression. Courtesy of art therapy processes and incorportaing art into my life on a regular basis, I now strive to work with emotional intelligence rather than battling with my emotions.

Pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago in Spain place stones on roadside cairns to symbolise sadnesses in their lives. This photograph, taken at Seal Rocks in Australia, is a beautiful depiction of the same idea.

‘Give sorrow words/The grief that does not speak/Whispers the o’er fraught heart, and bids it break.‘  William Shakespeare

Depression effects one in five people. For some, depression is short-term; for others, it is a recurring motif throughout their lives. Depression often causes people to withdraw and become lost in their feelings, whereas art activities [*see footnote] offer a means to release negative emotions, reconnect with yourself and with others.

My own experience of depression and anxiety has lead me to spend a lot of time trying to understand these emotional states and by so doing, to ensure they have no further place in my life. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to write that I’ve learned to assign them to their correct place in my life - not banished from the Kingdom entirely but certainly not the rulers of the Kingdom either, as they were at one stage of my life.  Writing and art therapy are the means I’ve found to be most beneficial for both these aims.

After the death of my mother, and after much struggle, I was finally diagnosed with clinical depression. I now believe that battling with emotions rather than listening to them, suppressing them rather than allowing them their natural place in our lives, is the cause of much unnecessary angst. The ancient Roman playwright, Terence, stated that, ‘Nothing human is alien to me,’ a far kinder approach to life’s sorrows than viewing grief as anything other than a perfectly natural response to the loss of love.

Much of the wisdom we gain in life is the wisdom of hindsight which, these days, strikes me as being a perfectly natural thing - the gaining of wisdom as an organic process rather than wanting to know everything now as was once my wont. It is difficult - if not impossible - to understand some things without first having gone through them yourself. Chronic depression and anxiety fall into this category of things difficult-if-not-impossible-to-understand-if-not-experienced.

My grief at my mother’s death lead me to write. I believe now that the creative impulse is a natural healing response, an innate part of our humanity which is neglected and relegated to the unconscious by a cultural bias which divides the world into artists and non-artists, those who are born-that-way and those who just-aren’t. Most of us place ourselves in the I-could-never-do-that category, conveniently forgetting that we once drew and painted and told stories with happy abandon. The world of the imagination is a place of great wealth and wisdom and yet many people view it with suspicion and dismiss fantasies and daydreams as a waste of time. In a world ruled by ‘time is money’ and ‘productivity at all costs’, a retreat into depression is sometimes the only way to give oneself the necessary time and space to heal from a great loss. An ethos which views so-called ‘negative’ emotions as representing a lack of moral fibre or a weakness of character, is far removed from cultures which grieve communally and create rituals of connectedness, where grief is honoured and respected as an expression of love for the person who has died.

I have long held writers in great esteem for their ability to delve into and explain the deep complexity of our inner worlds. Good writing has the capacity to make clear and visible the nebulous and intangible nature of emotions, the workings of the soul. For someone to read a book or a poem and to say, ‘Ah yes, that is how it is for me. I am not alone in this world,’  is a great gift, a glimmer of light and connectedness in a world gone dark.

This example from my novel, The Dreampainter, illustrates my own attempt to concretise my feelings of loss after my mother died. 

              “She remembered the near despair. She remembered thinking how difficult it had been to tell what the day would bring when she looked out the window at a day devoid of colour with the sky giving no hint of its intentions and there being no way of telling the clouds from the sky or even if there were clouds in the sky. More solid objects such as trees, buildings and cars could be distinguished by thin, grey, shadowy lines which lifted them from their surrounds. Some people also were more solid than others and thus they, too, could be distinguished by their thin, grey, shadowy lines. Those who were less solid suffered the same fate as the clouds.’

Rediscovering this piece of writing after many years brought back to me the main manifestation of my own depression - the loss of colour from my world, the blending of everything into the same flat greyness. In Jungian terms, this is the albedo stage of alchemy, of transformation. It is the ashen state of despair, when your world and all you love has been burned to the ground and all that is left is ashes.

Jung stated that, ‘Hands know how to solve the riddle that the mind has struggled in vain to solve.’ For a year after my mother died, I tried to intellectualise and rationalise my way out of my emotions. My view was that I was an intelligent person who accepted the natural place of death in life and there was no reason why I should continue to be so endlessly, endlessly sad about my Mum’s death. When I was diagnosed with depression, my initial feeling was one of shame, that I was weak, not strong, that without my mother’s protection, I had finally succumbed to the family history of mental illness.

I view art therapy and writing as part of a continuum, one feeding into the other. I view the incorporation of both into the lives of ordinary individuals, of non-artists and non-writers, as preventative medicine. To discover the healing capacities we are all naturally endowed with is, I believe, both an evolutionary step and a return to our natural state of mind/body/soul connectedness, a return to wholeness.


Part 2 will deal with the visual art component.
Copyright: Karen Adler, 2012



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About the Author

Karen Adler, ATH Asst. Editor of Arts & Art Therapy, is a Transpersonal Art Therapist, an artist, writer and researcher. She is a firm believer in the inherent healing qualities of the Arts. She has run art therapy workshops for the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction, self-harming behaviour, eating disorders, for post-flood and cyclone trauma and for people seeking to bring about positive change in their lives. Karen also uses Art Therapy to help in the resolution of her own life difficulties and is continually surprised by the insight it brings. 
Contact Karen at karenadler222@gmail.com or karenadler@allthingshealing.com.






This is Part 1 of a two-part article on using art therapy/the arts in relation to depression. I am including writing and poetry under the umbrella term of art therapy.


Adler, Karen. The Dreampainter, unpublished novel, 2000.

Shaffer PA, Vogel DL, Wei M. The mediating roles of anticipated risks, anticipated benefits, and attitudes on the decision to seek professional help: An attachment perspective. Journal of Counseling Psychology 2006; 53: 442-452.

Molly S. Castelloe, Ph.D. How Trauma Is Carried Across Generations : Holding the secret history of our ancestors, May 28, 2012 in The Me in We, Psychology Today.



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