Illustrations that Change the Way You Think

Originally published as a TinyLetter

I suppose it’s a hazard of getting older, but over the past few months a number of people in my life have been confronted with grief. They’ve lost a parent, a pregnancy, a beloved pet, or a partner. My heart just aches for them, and I try to help as much as one can in these times, offering a meal, a hug, a sympathetic ear, or a copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, which I highly recommend for anyone who’s struggling.

What’s seemed to give people the most solace, besides just knowing that someone’s looking out for them, is this excerpt from a BBC mini-documentary on the nature of grief.


Here’s the full 8-minute video, with the animation above at the 1:40 mark. In short, it shows that grief isn’t something that disappears over time; instead, the rest of your life grows around it. The grief swells during times like birthdays, holidays, or just flashes of missing your loved one, and then contracts again.

The friend who introduced me to the video said that she’s come to think about depression this way. It’s how I experience anxiety, too: it fades, it flares up; on good days, my joys and hopes dwarf my worries and self-defeating thoughts. When triggered, the anxiety overtakes me entirely, radiating from my brain to my heart and crackling through my whole body.

It’s astounding how a simple illustration can change the way you understand and cope with feelings that can otherwise cripple you. Another friend sent me a piece from the brilliant newsletter Brain Pickings that featured the book Thin Slices of Anxiety: Observations and Advice to Ease a Worried Mind. The illustration that struck me most powerfully is this:

This is exactly what being stuck in my own head is like. Conversations and activity may be happening around me, but I have trouble engaging with them because there’s an alternate world playing out in my own mind. When I find myself there, I remember this drawing and consciously shift my field of vision outward, like a lighthouse beam sweeping toward the sea.

Instagram has been another source of illustrations that are as amusing as they are illuminating:




For me, the power of these drawings comes from making the intangible tangible, in giving anxiety, depression, and self-loathing a name and a shape, and knowing that it’s not just you who feels this way. Learning how to laugh about it (a la “like I always say…”) is a next-level coping strategy.

An artist friend (I am fortunate to have so many friends who “get” me) is working on her own series of paintings about anxiety and depression. I haven’t tried to sketch out my own yet, but channeling those big, nebulous feelings into art is something that I’d like to try. Even if my “art” turns out to be a series of stick figures and elementary shapes, I’ll transfer all of that bottled-up energy from inside my own head to the page, where I can observe my worries and fears from a distance and see them more objectively.

This is what I try to do in words, and the most gratifying feedback I hear is a variation on, “I know exactly what you mean.” The silver lining of suffering is to be able to say authentically to those who are having a hard time, “I’ve been there,” or “I’m right there with you,” and to see the beauty and even humor in your shared experience as you forge a pathway through.

what’s fueling me

Since my last TinyLetter raving about the A Star Is Born soundtrack, I’ve seen the movie twice (and continued looping the soundtrack). I can’t stop thinking about the movie and immersing myself in interviews about it. It’s an extraordinary work of art, a marriage of inspiration, talent, hard work, and courage, the first turn as a musician and director for Bradley Cooper and first feature film for Lady Gaga. They shot the music live, often stealing a few minutes between sets at actual concerts, and performed so seamlessly under pressure that it blows my mind. This core message of the film, which Jack shares with Ally on the night they meet, resonates deeply with me:

Look, talent comes everywhere, but having something to say and a way to say it so that people listen to it, that’s a whole other bag. And unless you get out and you try to do it, you’ll never know. That’s just the truth. And there’s one reason we’re supposed to be here is to say something so people want to hear. So you got to grab it, and you don’t apologize, and you don’t worry about why they’re listening, or how long they’re going to be listening for, you just tell them what you want to say.

Thank you for listening to what I have to say. As always, I hope it adds something to your life!

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