Mental Health and Creativity

I’m not sure how to categorize this post. It’s certainly not a review, and its not exactly writing advice either. I suppose, in a way, its my own personal PSA.

Starry Night

I just read yet another book where the author went on a rant about what would happen if we had medicated Van Gogh. Psychiatric drugs are turning us all into zombies and the negative feelings in life fuel our art and many great geniuses would have been diagnosed with mental health problems today. Therefore meds are bad! Sigh.

I do think we often rush to medicate when other options might be better, and there are people out there with good, educated opinions on this issue. But when your example of someone who should not have been medicated is a man who mutilated himself and took his life at 37, my bullshit alarm starts clanging. These arguments make me angry for many reasons, but one of the biggest is that they, at one point, prevented me from even exploring the option of medication. I have an anxiety disorder, and as it turned out, a low dose of an SSRI was extremely effective in treating it. Medication isn’t the answer for everyone, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I want to talk a bit about our ideas about the relationship between mental health and creativity.

The idea that creativity and mental illness are linked is an old one, but studying it is problematic. Search the internet for mental illness and creativity studies, and you’ll find a tenuous statistical connection that raises more questions than it answers. People who spout the Van Gogh argument tend to assume that when mental illness comes along with creativity, the former is essential to the latter. This is only one explanation. Here are some others;

  1. Artists tend to live unstable, stressful lives. This means that those who are predisposed to mental health problems are more likely to develop them.
  2. People who happen to be both mentally ill and creative often turn to art as a kind of self-therapy. If they hadn’t been mentally ill, they still would have been creative, but would have channeled their abilities into other arenas.
  3. Mental illness and creativity share a genetic cause, a bit like those genes that cause both blue eyes and deafness. Just because a person wears a hearing aid, that doesn’t mean their eye color will change.

It’s funny how those who wail the loss of a hypothetically medicated Van Gogh never mention Monet, Manet, Renoir, Pissarro, Cezanne, Morisot or Degas. All of them, like Van Gogh, produced moving Impressionist art that is beloved today. They used the good and the bad in their lives to inspire them. See Morisot’s portrait of her husband on holiday…

 

eugene-manet-on-the-isle-of-wight

… and Monet’s portrait of his dying wife.

Monet's Wife

For most of them, there is no historical evidence that they suffered any kind of mental illness. Others, like Cezanne or Degas, did have some moodiness and isolationism that might have been signs of a disorder, but then again, maybe they were just shy eccentrics. It’s almost as though great creativity appears across a spectrum of functioning, rather than being dependent on extreme mental anguish.

Now, I should say, there have been people who have tried medication and then gone off it, because the side effects were awful, or because the meds didn’t help, or because they felt they could manage it better with therapy alone. Some people who use the Van Gogh argument just mean we shouldn’t force medications on people who don’t find them a net positive. I do agree with that point. Unfortunately, it is just as often used as fear mongering by people who don’t really know anything about either psychiatry or what its like to be mentally ill.

The stigma around mental illness made my parents inclined to ignore it, and the image of the tortured artist was a convenient way for them to explain away the warning signs in young me. I wasn’t really miserable. I was just “moody, like all the great writers were.” Growing up with this as the way to understand myself made me feel guilty even considering that I might have a medical problem. When I considered getting help, my brain filled with some Orwellian nightmare of personality erasure. Even when I broke away from them, these images fed my anxiety disorder and added one more boulder to the massive wall of issues stopping me from seeking help.

For years, I managed my anxiety by educating myself on calming techniques, recognizing my own personal triggers and picking my battles. At some points in my life, that worked fairly well. I would face my fears in order to maintain friendships or keep my job, and then I would go home, cry and crash, not because anything had gone wrong but because I was exhausted from fighting through my fear every time I was around people. Other times, I had to miss out on things I really wanted to do, because I did the math, and I knew I didn’t have enough spoons to both see my friends and face the crowds of strangers at the grocery store. I thought I was doing pretty well. The tears and shaking became almost invisible to me, because they were so normal. Then, I moved in with my boyfriend, and those breakdowns weren’t private anymore. He was loving and supportive, but simply having another pair of eyes on me made me realize how unusual my mental state was.

Then, last fall, my long estranged older brother started reaching out to me. I had to take advantage of this, because I loved and missed him, and our visit went very well. Unfortunately, the trip was so hard that the anxiety crash didn’t take an afternoon of crying. It took weeks, and I couldn’t limit my outbursts to home. I started having breakdowns at work, over nothing. My boss took a moment to talk to me privately about what was going on, and shared her story about how she had gotten on medication. Obviously that story was private, but it debunked a lot of my worries and got me to set up an appointment with a general practitioner (I had tried to get an appointment with a therapist, but invariably my first few calls would go to people who weren’t accepting new patients, and of course one of my major anxiety triggers was making phone calls).

Now I’m on meds. I still feel fear, sadness, and all the other normal negative emotions that we all need to function. What changed is that after I feel them, I calm down normally, without exhaustion, tears and shaking over something that I know, rationally, was no big deal. It hasn’t harmed my creativity. If anything, I have more time and energy to write. Once again, I need to say that everyone reacts a little differently, and what worked for me might not work for someone else. My point is not “go on medication, you will definitely be fine.” Instead, my point is twofold.

To those of you who struggle with mental health problems but have been spooked by those who say you’ll lose your ability to feel, let me tell you, they don’t know what they are talking about. Psychiatric medication might not be the best option for you, but then again it might improve your life more than you ever thought was possible. And here’s the great thing; if you try a medication and you hate how it affects you, you can stop taking it. Do talk to your doctor first, because sometimes you need to wean yourself off gradually, but any decent doctor won’t make you stay on something that is hurting your quality of life. If they aren’t willing to listen to you, change doctors. There are plenty of good ones out there. Your brain is a wonderful, powerful instrument, and your life is a precious thing. Take good care of them both.

To those of you who spew the cliche about Van Gogh, I understand that you probably didn’t mean anything by it. You probably hadn’t thought of this perspective. I hope I’ve given you something to think about. I leave you with this. Perhaps Van Gogh would not have responded well to medication, but given how much pain he was in, he should have been given the choice, and that choice should be respected by us all. If that would have resulted in a world without Starry Night, I dare say we’d have consolation enough from Monet’s Sunrise.

Impression, Sunrise

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3 thoughts on “Mental Health and Creativity

  1. Thank you for this post. It’s very brave of you to share your perspective for those who might not know how to handle their fears or options the way you did. Cheers to you:)

    By the way, have you ever read “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath? I would be very interested to see what you would have to say about it. The author (who graduated from my alma mater) went through a history of depression, medication, and breakdowns that were chronicled in this book shortly before her death.

    Like

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