Bright Lights and Dark Corners

I have seen an explosion in writing, support, and awareness regarding mental health issues in the past few years. Back in 1996, a friend and I wrote a computer program to track moods and medication for people with bipolar disorder, and it was the only program like it on the Internet. For years, people downloaded the program and sent me twenty dollars by mail. It was a time when people with a psychiatric diagnosis were isolated and alone. I was frequently warned by well-meaning doctors not to reveal my diagnosis to other people.

I know people who are much younger than me that can be, and often are, discouraged by the amount of stigma and stereotypes that still exist around a psychiatric diagnosis. But as someone who has lived with a severe mental illness for over twenty years, I can attest to progress in these areas.

There is so much happening in the community of people who support someone or who have a diagnosis of mental illness. And part of what is happening is the changing labels, and the way that people choose to identify. Some people would prefer to be called neurodivergent instead of mentally ill. Others identify with being dis/abled while some do not. I identify as a woman living with schizophrenia who is dis/abled by a mental illness. If those words don’t define you, or you would choose different words for the same experience, that is okay; I respect that. These discussions about language and how we use it are so exciting. They are such an improvement from ten or even five years ago. I welcome the discourse, and I welcome the changing atmosphere. I only hope that the way I chose to write about this community doesn’t deter anyone from exploring the amazing artwork and history I intend to share.

In this column, I want to explore some of the photographs, sketches, books, movies, songs and music videos that populate the Internet, libraries, museums and theaters that were created by or influenced by someone with a mental illness.

The body of work, I intend to cover is fascinating, at times tragic, and at times full of genius and beauty. Part of the tragedy includes the history of treatment of the mentally ill from eugenics (which led to the sterilization of thousands of dis/abled people) to ice baths, insulin shock therapy, and lobotomies.

The beauty these works contain can be anywhere from the story of a triumphant life to brilliant colors on a canvas. The genius is recognized by household names like Sylvia Plath and Ann Sexton, two women poets who knew each other and ended their lives.

Some stories are not without controversies like the few books and a movie about Francis Farmer, an actress in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, who spent time in a mental hospital. The controversy around Farmer is the possibility that the actress underwent a lobotomy while at Western State Hospital. The band Nirvana wrote a song about her titled, “Francis Farmer will have her Revenge on Seattle.” The truth about Farmer’s experience will never be known, but interest in her legend lives on.

In recent popular culture, we have the book and movie A Beautiful Mind about John Nash, who suffered from schizophrenia. There is also the New York Times Best Seller The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, in which the author explores her experience of growing up in a family with a mentally ill mother. These references are a small sample of the stories, legends, and artwork that make up a growing body of work about, or by people who have a mental illness.

The majority of movies, videos, books, etc. about mental illness are created by people who have never experienced living with a psychiatric condition first hand. For instance, we have many books written by adult children that had, or have, a parent living with a mental illness. There are also many biographies written about famous people who suffered most commonly with depression or bipolar disorder.

What are less common are paintings, books, songs and other artwork that includes the voices of the people who have or had the experience of being depressed, manic, delusional, paranoid, or psychotic.

That is what I intend to focus on here: the voices, experiences, or expressions of people, past or present, who lived their life while trying to manage, or not manage, a disease that can be debilitating to some or contribute to genius in a small number of others.

Every two weeks, I intend to post a new essay in this series “Bright Lights and Dark Corners.” When it is possible, I will introduce you to the actual voice or work of the person who lived, or is living with a mental illness and who is trying, or tried, to express what it is like in their mind — a world that may be frightening or beautiful, tragic or triumphant. Whatever the work is, it is important in our overall look into the world of art and all that it encompasses.