Drawing away depression


Matthew Johnstone’s illustrated books tackle depression with humour. His new book shows how to meditate, writes SYLVIA THOMPSON

AUTHOR AND illustrator Matthew Johnstone is one of a small but significant number of people who have successfully turned a health crisis into a career.

The New Zealand-born award-winning advertising executive suffered from depression for years before finally admitting his problem, leaving the industry and creating his illustrated Black Dog series of books which examine depression and its effects on close family.

He was in Dublin recently to promote his new book, Quiet the Mind – An Illustrated Guide on How to Meditate (Constable Robinson).

“I think most people are too stressed, too busy to meditate. They don’t know how to do it. They think it’s too hard and it’s something other people do,” he says.

Yet Johnstone, like many others, has discovered that the practice of meditation is the key to living life in a more fulfilling way.

“I was a typical creative, an insecure perfectionist. Advertising is like the never-ending sand dune – you scramble to the top, only to tumble down the other side. You live in fear that you will never be as good as your last ad,” he says.

Johnstone’s career as a creative director in advertising took him from Sydney to San Francisco to New York. He appeared to have it all, yet for many years he was suffering from depression.

“Advertising is about being shiny and up. You are a showman, and I was very outgoing – a people pleaser, someone who makes life beautiful. But I was stumbling along, hiding my depression. I put a lot of energy into my show-face. We can be very good at projecting what people want us to be,” he says.

He now acknowledges that his depression probably first surfaced when he was in his late 20s. “I was diagnosed with different forms of depression but didn’t want to admit there was a problem.”

The youngest of three sons of a farmer from Christchurch, New Zealand, Johnstone had experienced his mother’s severe depression as a child; his brother (a psychiatrist who now teaches mindfulness meditation to his patients) also suffered from depression.

However, his personal turning point came when he witnessed the planes crashing into the Twin Towers in New York on September 11th, 2001.

“Lots of people who witnessed 9/11 reacted in strong ways, either negatively or positively; they had babies, split up from their partners or left their jobs. For me, it was slow osmosis that life is short and that all those people who died had plans, families and [wanted] a life of meaning and purpose.”

He says he realised then that his job and lifestyle were central to his problems. “One of the biggest things that was doing my head in was my job. I was spent. I had nothing more to give,” he says.

And so, over the course of a day in the New York advertising agency where he was then working, he created I Had A Black Dog. “It was the most profound creativity I’d ever done – a merging of what I did for a living with what I was experiencing in my life.”

He “sat on it” for four years and then showed the book to seven publishers, most of whom responded by saying, “Whoever heard of an illustrated book on depression?”

Pan MacMillan thought otherwise, however, and published I Had A Black Dog in 2005. It went on to become a best-seller and is now published in 20 countries.

Three years later, with his wife, Ainsley, he published the sequel, Living with A Black Dog, a guide to those who care for those living with depression. This book too became a best-seller.

“Ainsley was great. It is not easy loving and caring for a depressed person. But she is a pragmatist, very grounded and solid. I’m lucky that she was prepared to stay the course,” he says.

Alphabet of the Human Heart: The A to Zen of Life, co-written with his long-time friend James Kerr, followed, and now comes Quiet the Mind.

In each instance, the illustrations are central to the book. In fact, they are the books. “I truly believe a picture is worth a thousand words. You can absorb it into your soul. It’s visceral,” says Johnstone.

But the change from slick advertising executive to author/illustrator of niche-market books hasn’t been without its difficulties. “I went from a healthy, sizeable salary to a taxable income back in Sydney of $30,000 . It was really hard. I’ve made a lot of sacrifices to do what I’m doing now but it’s the best investment I’ve made.

“I find life so interesting now. I get to travel, hear people’s stories about overcoming adversity and most of the time life is not stressful,” he says.

Apart from writing and illustrating books, Johnstone also gives illustrated talks about mental health, work/life balance, mindfulness and building resilience. He is the creative director of the Black Dog Institute, a mental health clinic in Sydney founded by psychiatrist Prof Gordon Parker. And, together with his wife, he looks after his two young daughters.

And does he meditate every day? “Well, I meditate often. Not every day. Meditation is simply a way to give our conscious brains a well-deserved break. It brings order to the chaos.

“The most important thing for me now is to be authentic as a human being and that’s a lot more difficult than it sounds.

“We judge each other so quickly and put up all kinds of barriers, but being genuine really is freedom,” he says.

See also matthewjohnstone.com.au