Creativity and Depression: Signe Baumane’s Balancing Act

Is it possible to have a tolerable relationship with chronic depression? How does a Latvian artist and animator, working in New York with no funding, realize a unique, noncommercial stop-motion, hand-drawn “funny movie about madness and depression” (in both English and Latvian) and have that movie receive enough worldwide enthusiasm to end up as Latvia’s entry in the best foreign-language category for the Oscars? And how does this artist/animator, who was once diagnosed with schizophrenia—modified to bipolar disorder after her parents paid Latvian psychiatrists a bribe—function and create at such a high level without medication?

These are my burning questions as I sit down with 50-year-old Signe Baumane in her airy, sun-filled Brooklyn studio in an industrial building overlooking New York Bay. Looking on is a small tribe of lushly colored, humorously grotesque papier-mâché people that populate her 88-minute autobiographical feature, Rocks in My Pockets. (The rocks are the symptoms of depression that have weighed down many members of her family, resulting in three suicides and several attempted ones—including Signe’s when she was 18.)

For me, the impact of the film comes from the alchemy of vibrant idiosyncratic art, Signe’s musical Latvian-accented narration, and off-the-wall humor (there’s an opening segment on how best to commit suicide without inconveniencing the people who find you). Briefly, the plot begins in Latvia in the late 1920s when Signe’s grandmother, Anna, whose mind is “like a badly wired building,” falls in love with an adventurous entrepreneur with “an idea-generating brain” and a drive to serve a higher purpose and pass on his superior genes through rabid procreation. Anna marries the entrepreneur and is ultimately imprisoned by his jealousy. After sending her children away to school, she dies mysteriously at the age of 50.

As a young artist in her 20s, Signe asks her father, aunts, and uncles, “How did my grandmother die?” and is confused by their evasive responses. Suspecting that Anna committed suicide, Signe, who suffers from a depression that gets her locked up in a Soviet mental hospital, investigates her family history of mental illness and suicides. Defying the stigma that silences so many, Signe takes us on a journey deep into her own depression where she confronts the family demons and makes a decision to live.

“The film raises a lot of questions,” explains Signe, “but one of the questions is, What is mental illness?” She long ago accepted that her symptoms fit bipolar disorder (formerly called manic depression), but she still questions the whole notion of symptoms as illness. “You’re diagnosing a human condition. Some people have it deeper, some don’t. People break up with other people and they have heartbreak for two years. Is that a mental illness?” Signe is forthright about not knowing any answers; she isn’t a medical professional, and only wants to share her personal quest for sanity through her art: “I don’t have any diagnosis for anyone else. I’m trying to be honest with myself and I’m trying to be honest with other people—I think honesty is shedding the light in the dark corners. If I hide something from myself, these monsters [the rocks of her film’s title] will come out of the room and kill me.

“I have these highs and I have the lows. When I’m high, I can’t even imagine what it means to be depressed. And then when I’m low, I can’t remember what it was when I was high. Sometimes it swings between the two in one day. But mostly there’s one for weeks and then the other one. It’s like summer and winter, and sometimes it’s spring and fall, when the temperature is okay.”

How does she manage these highs and lows and admitted constant thoughts of self-destruction?

“I don’t have any political agenda,” says Signe. “It’s a political question about pills. And I don’t represent any of the schools because I’m an artist; I just know what’s true for me.” Following the birth of her son, Signe started to have obsessive thoughts about hanging herself, and, as shown in the film, she went to a local psychiatrist. “I wanted someone to take me by the hand and guide me. I asked the question: What’s the meaning of life? And I was locked in a mental hospital. I was under observation in a room where the light was never turned off and the nurses were constantly supervising. There were about 20 patients in a special room. The pills that they gave me dulled my senses. So everything that was a sharp poking in me now was dull and removed from my existence. It was a very even and dull feeling. In the beginning there was a cloud over me; I could function, but I couldn’t really understand. But I also saw that the women in this particular hospital were like vegetables. Eventually the pills did them in, because the drugs were so imprecise and so strong that they kind of damaged them permanently and I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be damaged by the drugs.”

After being released from the hospital, she withdrew from drugs under the supervision of a psychiatrist, and three months later, after her last pill, again she was faced with her questions: What’s the meaning of life? What’s the reason I live?

Realizing she would get no answers from pills, she dedicated herself to finding her own truth. Still in her early twenties, she was an accomplished student. “I knew how to study things that interested me. So I said, I’ve studied philosophy; now I’m going to study psychology. And so I read a lot of books. I didn’t understand half of them, but I didn’t want to go back to the mental hospital—that’s the line I don’t want to cross again. But the positive was I wanted to go forward, to be happy, a functioning member of society. So I let myself discover what makes me happy in the long run.”

In the short run, very simple things made Signe happy: going out with friends, reading a book all day in bed, taking a walk. But she needed something more sustainable.

“You know when you throw a wooden stick in a river and it sinks because the weight goes down?” she asks. “But the wood is porous, it’s full of air, and it pushes it up. And I said, Let me just not do anything. Let me just discover what takes me up. So slowly I discovered that who I am and what I want to be is very different from what society expects me to be. I am an artist. I didn’t know that. I was in denial. I was like, Oh I want to be a good mother, I want to be a good wife, I want to be this good person that society expects me to be, and I really tried very hard and I almost destroyed myself.”

Rocks in My PocketsRealizing that long-term happiness depended on a lifestyle that did not fit into her Soviet society, she gave up trying to be married, she began her work as an artist, and eventually she moved to the U.S.: “It’s work that makes me happy, that strings these separate days together. Each day is like a pearl. In one day I can go out with friends, in the other day I can bike, the third day I can watch a movie, fourth day I can eat a lot, right? But my work strings them together on a continuum of my existence. That’s what I have discovered.”

Although Signe grew up in a Communist society “without the luxury of believing in God” because she didn’t grow up with the concept, many of her discoveries are the essence of spiritual practice and what Jungians (who would love Rocks in My Pockets for its dreamlike “shadow” images and rich metaphors) call the process of “individuation.”

In the documentary A Sense of the Sacred, a portrait of Jungian Helen Luke, the revered analyst and author talks about the difficulty of individuating via a path that has never been taken: “If you go a way that is not a conventional way, you have no right to think that on that account you are absolved from the duty of sharing your truth that you have experienced, no matter if it is totally rejected. There may be one person here or there that may be affected—that’s what we base our lives on.”

Signe is consciously walking the individuation path: She found “a higher meaning, a higher purpose” through dedication (meditation, or one-pointed attention) to her art: “I make the films I want to make. I stand up against the commercial Hollywood—this mass consumption. I’ve done that kind of work; I enjoy it and I would like to be part of it, but I can’t. So I am here, an individual expressing my personal views, my personal take on the world. I have done 15 short films. They enter your brain, they shake you up, and they exit your brain and, with your brain shaken, you do whatever you want to do. But there is some kind of daring.”

Rocks in My Pockets dares audiences to think for themselves—about mental illness, motherhood, family, dysfunction, what is inherited and what is choice, and what is the best way to live.

Rocks in My PocketsFor Signe, it’s dealing with symptoms without medication: “I wake up in the morning, I make my tea, have breakfast, and maybe that’s all the energy I have for the day.” But she knows that giving in to lethargy will only lead to deeper depression. So instead, no matter how she feels, she goes to work. “Even if I cannot sit straight at the table, I sit at the table from 9:30 to 6:00. I force myself to sit, even if nothing comes—especially if nothing good comes. Very often when I do work under depression, it’s like everything is crap. But I don’t throw it out. I put it away. And then on a better day, a week later, I’ll look at it and it’s not so bad.” (Another spiritual practice—self-awareness or mindfulness: Even in the throes of depression, Signe is aware that she isn’t fully aware and can’t see accurately. So she decides to evaluate what she’s doing later, and she keeps moving.)

But critical to staying this course is Signe’s belief in another spiritual concept: service. “If you don’t have the feeling that your work is important and that yours has a higher purpose, then there is no reason for you to get out of bed,” she explains. “I have three syndromes: the syndrome of Jeanne d’Arc; she had a calling. She had voices that told her to go and free France from the British. That’s what I have, too, right? I have this self-importance. Not my importance, but the work I do. That importance.” Her second syndrome is Cinderella syndrome: “I have to be in bed at least by midnight so I can get up at six and work.” But most important is her Scheherazade syndrome: In One Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade had to keep telling her king husband a story or she would be killed. After she told stories for 1,001 nights, she was spared. “That’s what I feel,” says Signe. “If I don’t tell a story, I die.”

And raising money (through a passionate Kickstarter campaign, as well as grants) and doing the promotion for the film brought Signe into more experience with yet another spiritual concept, oneness: “I like connecting with people. That’s another pillar that holds me up. My worldview is that I don’t regard myself as a separate entity, as a lone ship in the sea. When I was young, I was an isolated entity and it almost killed me. So over the years, I imposed on my brain this other way of looking at me and humanhood: that I am the other people. We are all connected vessels. I am you; you are me. So we are all the same, except one is thinner, one is fatter, one can hold more water, one less water, but we are all connected because we are built from the same chemicals. Yes, we see the world differently, but that’s what makes it so much fun. You know what they say about the ants? Each ant doesn’t possess intelligence, but the whole anthill does. As one part of humanity, I don’t possess much intelligence. There is so little I can do as one little particle. But all together, when you look at humanity, we can do amazing things. All our lives are necessary for the anthill to be diverse and be as smart as it is. When you look at the world like that, then you understand that you cannot kill yourself because there would be an empty space. And that’s why I’m still holding up.”

After portraying a lot of hellish experiences with her family in the film, Signe dedicates the work to them—with gratitude to them for being so irritating. How can she do this? The answer—another spiritual practice: “Forgiveness is part of healing or of not carrying these rocks around. I’m very easy to anger. I say, Okay, I’m angry, and I have to work through it and then forgive.” She does this by accepting people as they are—as she wants to be accepted and forgiven: “It takes time, it takes work. When I showed the film to my family, I was nervous what my mom was going to say, because Mom doesn’t come off really well. But she loves it. She understands that it’s how I perceive her. It’s my truth, not her truth. If I carry that anger or upset with me, then I can’t move forward. It would be angering me into the past.”

When Rocks in My Pockets premiered last July at the 49th Karlovy Vary International Film in the Czech Republic, it was awarded two prizes. One was the prestigious film critics’ prize, but it was the other prize that blew Signe’s mind: “It was the Ecumenical Jury Commendation—several denominations of Christian churches select members to come to the film festival and they give an award. In the beginning I didn’t understand the nature of this jury. I couldn’t grasp it. I said thank you and it was as if I was swimming under water. And then I kind of had a quiet moment by myself in the hotel, and all of a sudden I looked at the prize, and I was like, Wait, is this what I think it is? And I was amazed at this prize because they recognized the spirituality of the film. The film does not say anything about God, anything about religion, but it does say about this higher purpose and about figuring it out and about taking my own individual pain, folding it up, and going out with it for other people. That makes me feel really good about organized religion. This community in Europe watched with open-mindedness and they recognized the call.”

Rocks in My Pockets will play in theaters around the world throughout November.

After the theatrical run is over, the film will be available on Video on Demand. To receive a notification (as well as free artwork), subscribe to Signe’s newsletter. You can also use this link to set up a showing, along with Signe’s personal performance—throwing hilarious papier-mâché rocks at you and answering questions—by inviting your local movie theater and mental health organization to host a screening.

Click here to see Rose’s tips for healthy and happy relationships

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2 Comments

  • Ilze Berzins
    Posted November 7, 2014 1:54 pm 0Likes

    ☺️

  • JM
    Posted January 9, 2015 6:30 am 0Likes

    Excellent Film! I just saw it twice with 2 different friends in Seattle. Such amazing honesty and humor you have. Animation is a great way to express this topic in a way that expresses the emotional reality of the individual AND generational pain of mental illness The razor wheel spinning in the head is an image that sticks with me. More people need to be courageous discussing schizophrenia and depression and working out a balance to really balance what treatments are helpful or not and to take action by staying active with other humans even when one would really rather read the complete works of Victor Hugo. 🙂

    The animation was perfectly effective for conveying this topic with humorous perspective and compassion.

    Thank you Signe and family for bravely sharing your story and inspiring the rest of us to question whatever the experts say while still taking action to maintain sanity and good humor.

    Warm wishes from some 2nd generation half-Latvian fans in Seattle!

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