Depression Didn’t Make Me a Poet. Zoloft Did.
The myth of the tortured artist is killing creatives.
On a wintry day that’s trying and failing to be cold, I’m awaiting a delicious meal. And the beginning of a Christmas poetry workshop. There are many astonishing things about this. The first is that I’m in Europe. I grew up in abject poverty in grand zero of the opioid epidemic: rural West Virginia. Another is the fact that I didn’t have to think about whether or not I could afford to be here. And perhaps most surprising, I’m about to willingly attend a poetry workshop.
For most of my life, I was one of those people who didn’t ‘get’ poetry. I wrote an acrostic poem when I was nine years old, one of very few school assignments I actually completed. I didn’t write another poem until I was in my late twenties.
These days, I host workshops on the basics of poetry, as well as a literary craft crossover workshop on found poetry. That in addition to teaching a five week evening course on writing poetry for a local college, and publishing collections of poetry. All of this in the space of about a year or so.
No, I didn’t go off them, liberating my mind to experience all the melancholy and chemical imbalance my genetics can throw at me. I got on them, liberating my mind from the insurmountable apathy and inertia that more accurately describes my depression.
After about two months of acclimatization, I started writing poetry, unbidden and prolific. It became a catharsis, a way of processing what’s been simmering under the surface for so long. Day after day I wrote countless short poems, a surprising and wondrous side effect of my medication. It felt amazing, after spending months and months staring at the mental equivalent of a thirty foot concrete wall.
We’ve all heard about the tortured artist. True creatives are touched by madness, so the story goes, and pop culture has solidified it into ‘fact’. Depression and alcoholism and drugs, fueling boundless creative output. Bipolars in a manic fever, producing reams of work effortlessly, forgetting to eat in the pursuit of their art. And so on.
This gives birth to a narrative that asks: if Van Gogh had taken antidepressants, how would he have painted such beautiful pictures? We have a narrative that holds aloft absinthe as this magical creative elixir with otherworldly powers. Hemingway was often drunk, and where would we be were he a teetotaler? We have tone-deaf cultures of romanticizing mental illness and the creativity often linked to it.
The result is a two pronged attack on people with mental illness.
First, society learns to value the creative output of a person over that person’s health and happiness. After all, what if you’re stifling the next Warhol, Pollock, Plath, or Winehouse? It’s yet another facet of a culture that demands we justify an existence we never asked for with socially-approved labor, and then ties our value to that labor. A happy person isn’t as valuable as a miserable one.
And it gives society a reason not to help people with mental illness. In a western culture utterly obsessed with bootstrap rhetoric and the concept of being ‘self-made’, ruled by an elite that loves austerity for all but themselves, seeking help is seen as weakness. The tortured artist narrative allows people to dismiss cries for help. They won’t be the one to stop the next Da Vinci from tapping into the wellspring of creativity.
But I’m here to tell you that without treatment for my depression, I’d never be sat in a charming cafe waiting to join a poetry workshop. I wouldn’t be writing for Medium. I wouldn’t be painting, drawing, taking photographs, or writing a novel. I’d be mired in endless doldrums, plagued by guilt and watching paint dry on the walls of my mind.
Being tortured, mad, or depressed isn’t a prerequisite for being an artist. So let’s stop telling people they need to come off their medication for the sake of their output.