As a writer, I’ve encountered a lot of myths about what it means to have a mental illness and be an artist. They are gross and icky myths, ultimately because they hurt people rather than helping them. I want to tackle four of the most prevalent myths regarding mental illness and creativity, with the hopes of creating a useful, productive, informative dialogue. I’d also encourage you to read another blog entry of mine discussing this topic at length.
I speak as someone with bipolar disorder, who has been in remission for quite some time. I speak as someone who is currently taking a variety of medications with great success. I also speak as a writer, who has been doing creative work while their illness was both in and out of remission — and I can assure you, undoubtedly, that the creative juices didn’t stop flowing the second I put that pill in my mouth. I promise.
Of course, a disclaimer is necessary. This is my personal experience. I am not here to speak on behalf of anyone else, and I certainly don’t know the intricacies of your illness, nor your creative process. But as always, I will encourage everyone that has access to the resources to pursue whatever treatment they feel will help them. Because it is my belief that a healthy body and mind are absolutely vital for doing our best creative work.
1. Mental illness makes you more creative.
Crediting all of your work to an abstract illness is a shitty thing to do to yourself. You’re robbing yourself of credit. Because actually, you are the one that created it. Depression didn’t jump out of your body and paint that piece, nor did it slide out of your ear and type that novel.
Creativity is complicated, to be sure, but claiming that it is the result of an illness — an accident, really — rather than the product of your perspective, life experiences, attentiveness and presence in each moment, and just damn hard work is giving credit where credit isn’t due.
I used to think the same thing, that my creativity was a direct result of being mentally ill. But when my bipolar was in remission, guess what? I became more creative. I had better concentration and memory, more energy to commit to writing, a deeper presence in each moment (which allowed me to absorb more material from my everyday life). I had the self-esteem to finish pieces, a quieter mind for focus, and a lighter heart to enjoy the process rather than forcing myself through the motions. I think it made me more open, and more able to engage with every part of my mind, because my mind was no longer a scary place.
I found that my old writing reflected a pessimism that did not produce useful or creative content. The ultimate conclusion of my depressed writing was “I suck” or “everything sucks” or “I suck and everything sucks.” That didn’t leave me open or available for fresh ideas or new perspectives — rather, I was stuck in my own perspective, a tired and sad one, that didn’t offer me anything I could really use. When I was manic, my writing often lacked structure and it was always left unfinished.
Ultimately, being healthy gave me more focus, the ability to explore diverse perspectives, and more discipline. All of this is needed for great art, especially for writing. If anything, my mental illness was holding me back. It may be holding you back, too.
2. Every medication on Earth will steal every ounce of creativity and turn you into a zombie.
The wrong medication will sap you of energy, and creativity requires a sustained level of energy. The wrong medication will make you feel empty and unmotivated, flat and unfocused. In other words, some medications can mess with your mojo.
But guess what else can make you feel empty and unmotivated, flat and unfocused? Depression. And on top of that, it can make you feel hopeless and suicidal. You don’t need me to tell you that depression can kill you. And you won’t be creating a whole lot of art if you’re dead or too dysfunctional to get out of bed.
Finding the right medication takes a great deal of time and patience, but assuming that every single drug will have the same result is underestimating the power and sophistication of modern medicine. The truth is, everyone reacts differently to different meds, so it takes trial and error to get you to a good place. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should give up.
If anything, that means you should document these experiences through art. Consider this journey toward healing an artistic endeavor in itself. Create visual or written representations of the journey. If everything has the potential for creative material, use your experiences as a psychiatric guinea pig to create art.
And when you’re finally healthy, the portrait you create will be beautiful and human. You will feel that you’ve finally filled your shoes.
I know it can take a long time, but from where I’m standing, it’s worth it. I’m not here to undermine how difficult this part of the process is. But I am here to validate that every bit of the struggle, at least for me, was worth it.
The right medication shouldn’t make you feel uncreative and zombie-like — it should make you feel healthy, nothing more and nothing less. If you’re able to wait it out, being healthy can lead to the most productive and creative time of your life. The key is patience and a competent psychiatrist to lead the way.
3. Mental illness makes great material, so being unhealthy is worth it.
Mental illness can impede your creativity by sapping your focus, draining your energy, drowning you in hopelessness and a lack of self-esteem. A great deal of art involves discipline — regularly engaging with your craft — which mental illness can also interfere with. As I mentioned before, it can also kill you, which is not so great for your artistic endeavors.
Yet I’ve still heard folks say that, at the end of the day, mental illness is great material for art.
Assuming you are even functional enough to get that material down on paper, or whatever your medium might be, creating art that is based exclusively on the pain that you feel will be wildly inconclusive. In writing at least, we certainly need something bad to happen to our main character, we need to have something at stake. You, too, have something at stake.
But we also always have a climax, a realization, where something is changed. And if your illness remains unchanged, or you simply drown in it indefinitely, that is not great material. That is drowning in a bathtub. That is static on the radio.
You know what has been, by far, the best material I’ve come up with? Reflections on my life as a survivor. Surviving something — having overcome something, or at the very least, endeavoring to overcome something — has far and away been the best writing I’ve done. I went through intense changes and meditation, and I came through on the other side of something.
If you’re sitting inside your illness because you think it’s feeding you inspiration, consider how changing your life might inspire you, too.
Surviving this illness and being healthy opened up a channel for me. I was ready to receive so much more. I could examine my life in radically different ways. That, my friend, is great material.
Yes, mental illness is material, but recovery is material. Survival is material. Transformation is material. All of that is stellar material. Yes, express what you are going through — but never remain stagnant. As an artist, you owe it to yourself to get to a healthy place, so you can do your best work. An athlete can’t do their best running with bronchitis, though it might be interesting to see them try. And I’d venture to say that you can’t do your best artwork with a stagnant mental illness, either.
4. You must suffer for your art.
I believed this. For a long time, I didn’t seek help for bipolar because I thought that suffering was synonymous with art and creativity. All of the great artists, I reasoned, suffered for their art. But I can tell you from personal experience, this is simply untrue. Brilliant art is born out of all life experiences. As artists, we have a moral obligation to express our truth, whatever that truth may be. I want you to ask yourself this: Is mental illness really my truth?
As an artist, I think I have an obligation to seek out my truth. And there came a point when I realized that my illness was not who I was, and it was not my truth. The voice in my head ravaged me for too long, and the depression tore me open and gnawed on every bit of goodness I possessed. How could something so vicious be my truth? So I sought out treatment. I looked for an alternative. And I realized along the way that my suffering was not my ultimate, objective truth. It certainly masqueraded as such, and for a very long time.
And yes, suffering to some extent is a universal human truth. But it is not the only truth. And when we only experience suffering, and are incapable of experiencing the full spectrum of this human experience, we deprive ourselves of so many of the other beautiful, captivating, splendid truths that we are capable of feeling — if only we gave ourselves the chance.
We owe ourselves that chance. We owe ourselves the chance to reach that place of ultimate receptiveness, where our bodies and our minds are able to experience, see, and feel all that life has to offer. Mental illness leaves no room for that. It gives us a monochromatic existence, where we can only receive what it deems painful enough, chaotic enough. It filters every moment and allows us to see only what it wants us to see.
If we get to a healthier place, we are suddenly open and available for everything. Not just happy moments, but terrible ones. Because believe me, I still experience sadness — but rather than dissociate from my pain, I feel it with everything I have, see it for everything it is. And I’m no stranger to joy now, to shock, to delight, to heartbreak. I feel all these things with completeness and I feel it readily. I feel everything directly and distinctly, because there is nothing in my way of feeling these things.
And I believe that the ability to feel with every part of ourselves, and to experience life without the smog, the shackles, and the gag that mental illness places around us, brings us that much closer to our personal truth.
And as artists, it’s our job to passionately pursue that truth.