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Mental Illness and Creativity

September 12, 2012

I usually don’t get too personal on this blog. I like my privacy, regardless of how much I put myself out there. But, as I sat in bed over Labor Day weekend, this blog post rolled through my brain. I would like to talk about mental illness and creativity.

I’ve struggled with depression since I was very young. Maybe… eleven or twelve was when the symptoms really hit. There were suicidal thoughts, lots of tears, a lot of self-hatred. I was told to just cheer up, to stop being difficult. Children, after all, don’t get depressed, right? After a brief stint in a psych ward, followed by both individual and group therapy, the psychiatrist told my parents I was depressed and put me on Prozac. Prozac! It was, of course, the miracle drug at the time. It didn’t help. In fact, I believe it made everything I felt a lot worse.

Hand in hand with the bouts of depression came huge bouts of creativity. I’ve painted, drawn, wrote, danced, sung… If there was something to do with art, I was drawn to it. I loved the creative process, and I had an intense and vivid imagination. (I got in trouble quite a lot in grade and junior high for my ‘daydreaming’.) I also had this very strange quirk. The times when I wasn’t hell bent on some creative project, I was a maniac with cleaning. I hated things dirty when I was in those moments. I’d clean my room, my home, my friend’s home. I slept a lot or I didn’t sleep at all.

It only became worse the older I got. After I got married, and I was in charge of my own mental health, I went to my regular doctor. I didn’t think there was anything beyond the down days, and so my doctor prescribed two drugs: Welbutrin and Lexapro. I was on both for about two years, but in those two years, I produced nothing artistic. I had been writing before going on the drugs, but once I went on them… not a word. I couldn’t do it. The words were gone. My imagination felt stifled. I was as miserable on the drugs as I had been on them. Creativity, to me, was like breathing. Not being able to create was a nightmare. I, voluntarily, chose to stop taking the two medications.

Within two months, I was writing again. This time, though, the bouts of depression became so much worse. After speaking with a psychologist my nutritionist had recommended, I went to see a psychiatrist the psychologist recommended. XD Yeah, I have a lot of doctors/medical professionals in my life, and that’s a story for another day. The psychiatrist spoke at length with me, and when the session concluded, he said that I was a classic case of rapid cycling Bipolar I disorder. The insomnia I’d struggled with for most of my life was a symptom of the mania. My increased creativity once a month, my bouts of intensive cleaning, the elevated sexual desires, the intense depression following those few days… they were all part of the disorder.

He prescribed only one drug when I left: Lamictal. I expressed my concern about losing my ability to continue writing, and he looked at me and simply said, ‘Do you want to write, or do you want to be normal?’ It was a biting comment to me, as if I wasn’t a good person if I wasn’t medicated. I went home and began the course of Lamictal to build up to my final dose. Within two weeks, I couldn’t write. I was miserable all over again.

So, I had to come to a decision. I sat down with my husband and we talked. Now that we knew what I had, would we be able to better manage it without the medication? How important was my creativity? How important was normalcy? In the end, the choice for me was to cease medication. Instead, speaking with my regular doctor, we chose to treat symptoms. I take a medication to combat the insomnia, which was the most damaging symptom of the Bipolar.

Within weeks, I was writing again. We were able to chart the ups and downs. We knew stress made the symptoms worse. We researched and thought and talked through everything. When I start to feel down, I let my husband know, and we work through it. We’ve learned to manage it all without medication. Now, I know I’m lucky as hell because there are those who suffer with this and cannot live without the medication. When it came down to choosing the path, though, my creativity won over perceived normalcy (because I wasn’t ‘normal’, and medication wasn’t going to make me ‘normal’, as on medications, I wound up walking about in a haze, not really feeling anything).

There is a trade off, though. When a depressive episode hits me, my creativity dwindles. It’s hard to go from amazing output to struggling to get two words down on the screen. During a depressive episode, I don’t want to do anything. Fatigue, irritability, anger, and crying becomes a constant issue for me. The last couple of weeks, I’ve been in that sort of low, and it’s frustrating. I have stories in my head, but no inspiration to write them. The frustration is deep, and though I try to tell myself to just push through it, I know that won’t happen. This will fade when it’s ready to fade, and I have to work with it instead of against it. 🙂

The overriding complication of my life is a mental illness. It’s an illness no one can see. It’s an illness many don’t understand. It’s also an illness very much linked with the creativity that has governed my life since I was a child. I’ve learned to live with it. Those who love me have learned to live with it. But it’s still difficult. When I can’t write, it feels like the depressive slump only gets worse. I know it isn’t true, but it feels like it. I’d rather have these slumps, though, instead of no creativity at all. The worlds in my head are too vivid not to share with readers. 😀 The Bipolar is a part of me that I’ve come to accept. I get the good of the mania, the creativity, the euphoria, but I take the bad of the depression, the irritation, and the writer’s block.

In the end, for me, mental illness is linked directly with my creativity. I can’t have one without the other. It’s difficult, and it’s not fun sometimes. It’s an illness people can’t see. An illness people know either little about or know only half-truths. It’s an illness I don’t tend to put out there for people to see, to judge. But, over Labor Day weekend, as I was poking at a serial project I hope to get going in January, I thought about mental illness and creativity, how—for many—they are two sides of the same coin. I also thought I’ve no reason to be ashamed. I may not be what that psychiatrist deemed ‘normal’, but I am—more or less—happy with my life and my choices.

Now… if only I could get back to writing!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 12, 2012 3:25 pm

    I had a poetry teacher in college who told me that, of the poets she knew, all the men drank and all the women were in therapy. Creativity and mental illness seem to link for so many of us.

    I’m one of the lucky ones–the depression was only ever borderline, I never took anything stronger than St. John’s Wort for it, and I “grew out of it’ at about 25, when your brain does that more or less final adult reorganization. But that long ago teacher was right: without the depression, I don’t write poetry.

    I decided I could live with that.

    I still write fiction. Before my health tanked, I painted, sculpted, crafted, and did so many other creative things, and the impulse to create is still there, even if I can’t always take advantage of it. If I’d lost everything…yeah, I don’t know if that’s a choice I could have made.

  2. September 12, 2012 3:45 pm

    April — I had considered St. John’s Wort in the early years, but there was a severe warning for people with Bipolar not to take it. So, I didn’t. I had a girlfriend who did. She took something called ‘Happy Campers’ every day. She was, admittedly, an outwardly happy woman. XD

    It’s a hard choice. For me, I was miserable on the medication, erratic off it. Over the years, things have gotten much, much better, but there are still those moments where I think I’d rather be ‘like everyone else’. Though, really, my age has shown me that ‘everyone else’ is just as screwed up as me, just in different ways. 😉

  3. Azalea Moone permalink
    September 12, 2012 5:36 pm

    “Though, really, my age has shown me that ‘everyone else’ is just as screwed up as me, just in different ways. ;)” <- this made me laugh. 🙂

    I love your post. I think mental illness and creativity goes hand in hand for some people. I suffer anxiety disorder and depression. With medication, I feel dead. No creativity. Barely even alive. So I've learned to deal with my anxiety, which is the major culprit, without loosing my creativeness.
    After seeing a therapist for a bout of OCD two years ago, she also agreed that I do much better without medication. When it flares up, leaving me unable to write, I take the time to pamper and play with other creative routes like photoshop.

  4. September 12, 2012 5:44 pm

    Azalea — I suffer from a host of issues. I have Bipolar, borderline personality disorder, OCD, sociophobia (though that’s just now ‘anxiety disorder’, but mine is specifically tied to strangers, talking on the telephone, and large crowds), scopophobia, while I am still struggle with body dysmorphic disorder and anorexia. 🙂 It can sometimes be so difficult, but the creativity helps. It’s a wonderful outlet, and without it… oi. I don’t even want to think about it! When things go down for me, I tend to indulge in other things I enjoy, like RPing in an IM or watching a movie or playing game. I just usually put a lot of pressure on myself to create, and when I can’t meet my own demands… Bah! XD

  5. September 13, 2012 1:06 pm

    I’m the first practicing psychopath in my family for five generations. Every one of the women is mentally ill, and we can chart it (my youngest is our first schizophrenic). The primary difference between myself and my great-great-great grandmother Melvina is that I don’t plan to die in the state asylum. I mutilate fictional people, not door-to-door salesmen.

    I use zoloft sometimes. I have times when my life stressor scale creeps up over 200 and I need something to smooth the rough parts. But I don’t write much while on it. I do write while the stress is high. Myoutput is enormous in the periods when I’m sliding into or coming out of depression. (i’m on a coming out of cycle)

  6. September 22, 2012 7:38 pm

    I’m Bipolar II and appreciate the difficult decisions we face. I have mostly had trouble with Depression, so I never had the issue of it effecting my creativity. To me the frustration was that I could never get myself to do my art (I’m a pianist), because I was so depressed. I hate people associate medication with normalcy or you have to deal with a doctor who has the gaul to think his or her word is God. I’ve had a lot of nasty side effects from various medication. I almost look at new medication as being a game of Russian Roulette. I appreciate that you wrote this. We bipolars do not speak enough about problems.

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