Keep Joy Alive: Pursuing My Passion for My Mental Health

Maisha Z. Johnson - Pyragraph

Maisha’s doing what she does, and smiling while she’s at it. Photo by Nicole Perroni.

In terms of my professional life, I’ve got a pretty sweet deal. Ask me what my passions are, and I’ll include writing and creating positive change in the world. Ask me what I do for a living, and I’ll say the same. Lucky me!

More than luck has gotten me here, though. I’ve taken this path on purpose, navigating through anxiety and depression and supporting my mental wellness by doing what I love.

To say “yes” to what I love, I have to say “no” to everything else.

I’m lucky to be able to say that, because doing what I love is like having a daily dose of medicine for my mental health. It’s not always possible, and some of my work falls short of filling me with euphoria. Hell, entire spreadsheets represent the parts of my work I don’t love, the nuts and bolts of being a creative professional and making sure I can pay the bills. It hasn’t been easy to craft a joyful creative life, but here’s how I’ve managed so far.

To say “yes” to what I love, I have to say “no” to everything else. Saying no is a challenge for me, especially if it means turning down elusive income, but if I didn’t say no, I’d only be doing what other people want me to do, not what I want to do. And setting boundaries to put myself first sets me up to take care of my mental health. For example, when I’m leading arts and healing workshops with survivors of violence, I’m supporting other people’s needs. But if I don’t care for my own needs first, I won’t have the capacity to be there for them. And if my work is too emotionally draining or unfulfilling, I also won’t have anything left for myself at the end of the day. Feeling trapped without the time or energy to create my own art is a sure way to trigger my depression, so I say no to that trap.

And I say yes to work that’s aligned with my values. When I can both celebrate the value of art and nurture the impact I want to have on the world, I see the bigger picture, instead of just peering through the tunnel vision of being alone at my desk. I remember it’s all worth it to create space for creativity and artistic self-expression, because that’s what I believe makes the world a better place.

Still, even when I’m seeing the bigger picture, I’m not an endless well of motivation. Sometimes I don’t feel like doing work because, well, it feels like work. Doing what I love for a living also means taking the risk of sucking all the fun out of it, as it starts to feel like something I’m doing more out of obligation than pure passion.

So I make sure I get a regular dose of inspiration to remind me of why I do what I do. My inspiration includes the invigoration of being a teaching artist, because teaching the crafts close to my heart brings me back to my own sparks of passion. It sounds so cheesy, my students would groan to hear me say it, but it’s true. Being continually inspired also helps me get unstuck when I’m creating my own art, and defeating writer’s block really makes me wanna dance.

If nothing else, I can move to some music while I work, putting the feeling of having fun in my body. This is also one of my tools for coping with depression—getting my body moving to remember I’m alive, essentially faking it ’til I make it to conjure up some energy. And that’s no coincidence. That soothing space where my creative life and my mental wellness groove is where I want to be.

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About Maisha Z. Johnson

Maisha Z. Johnson is a Bay Area-based writer, blogger and creative facilitator. As a teaching artist and the founder of Inkblot Arts, a writing and editing support and group facilitation project, Maisha promotes literacy, healing, and positive change through artistic self-expression. She has an MFA in Poetry from Pacific University, where she got to work with some of her literary heroes including Kwame Dawes and Ellen Bass, and a BA in English with a Creative Writing emphasis from San Francisco State University. She also works as a creative facilitator with ArtCorps, providing training, coaching, and consulting to provide leaders and organizations with creative methods and skills to harness art and culture as tools for community development.

Maisha frequently performs and publishes her poetry, and through her writing, she shares her secrets for wrangling the obstacles of self-doubt and the impact of trauma. She also writes too many poems about her cat, and blogs regularly about the relationship between writing and social change.

1 Comment

  1. eclecticalli on October 10, 2014 at 2:51 pm

    So much of what you said rings so true for me. Thank you for sharing it — you’re spot on for so much of the reflection I’ve been doing about my own life and work lately!

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