Treating Mental Illness Doesn’t Ruin Creativity

I like my antidepressants. I prefer not screaming into the floor over imagined slights, or descending into a wobbling heap of self-reproach after an attempt at small talk. I am so fortunate to have found a treatment that makes it easier for me to believe that I matter. Even so, I sometimes question whether I’m doing the right thing — maybe because so many people are asking that question for me.

It begins with a screed here, an implication there, each hooking on like a burr. A diatribe against modern psychiatric drugs. A beauty pageant contestant saying on stage that parents are medicating their children to cover up the real problems. Blogs pronouncing that we are “drugging our prophets and healers” when we treat brain sickness, or that suicide is the natural consequence of greatness. There are many stigmas about mental illness and treatment, but for an artistic person, the most nagging may be the idea that mental illness is the heart of creativity.

This reasoning has held sway for centuries. Carl Jung described mental disorder as, “the overpowering of the spirit of this time through the spirit of the depths.” Personalities like Beethoven and Byron helped entangle in our imaginations the ideas of madness and artistic genius. Kurt Vonnegut said, “You cannot be a good writer of serious fiction if you are not depressed.” Researchers have crossed swords over whether mental illness is associated with creativity, and those who say it is not are often ignored over those who back up the ancient trope. And so people with brain illnesses — who make up a huge fraction of the population — have hesitated. They wonder whether meds will kill their ability to express themselves. They worry treatment will erase who they truly are.

There’s historical basis for this misapprehension, but not scientific support. James C. Kaufman, a psychologist at the University of Connecticut who has devoted much of his career to the subject of creativity, says:

“I think the most important thing is that mental illness does not make you more creative. The experiences and suffering may be a base from which to draw creative inspiration, and creativity may be an amazing way to express and process and understand personal suffering, but the ups and downs of the struggle can actually interfere with the ability to produce, and good, appropriate treatment should not rob someone of their creative voice or spirit.”

Even if artistic genius were a symptom, treatment does not make the experience of illness disappear. Changing the body takes initiative and effort, does not work much of the time, and is a constant accommodation even when it does work. And the damage of the past never goes away, shadowing our fundamental skills, our foundational relationships or lack of such relationships, and our formative memories.

But let’s assume for the moment that we’re talking about a clean tradeoff. Is being mentally well worth being mentally mundane? In my opinion, if Virginia Woolf and Vincent van Gogh had wanted treatment, and if we could grant them full lives at the cost of their work, then we should hand over our copies of To the Lighthouse and our prints of The Starry Night without hesitation. People matter more than what they can create for others.

Abstract debates and internet threads ask whether we should be treating mental illness if it comes at the cost of creativity. But who is “we”? The people with these life-altering conditions are capable of choosing how to manage their illness. Many do choose treatment, and that decision isn’t up for debate. We can weigh for ourselves the very individual effects of treatment on our abilities. We can speak up for ourselves about what works best for us.

So to find out how brain sickness interacts with creative output in ways that we don’t always hear about, I talked to three artists with these kinds of illnesses. Their responses are lightly edited for concision.

myralara

Myra Lara is an architect and activist who draws comics about, in her words, anxieties, tiny living, Mexican-American life, urban divisions, and the magic of the mundane. She is managing depression and anxiety.

Sarah: Does your illness hinder your ability to create? Does it contribute to your art?

Myra: Doubts are paralyzing. A great part of art is the community of creation — sharing ideas, criticizing work, and generally working together. With social anxiety, I couldn’t progress. With depression, I had no energy to do what I love.

Sarah: Does psychiatric treatment affect your creative ability? If so, how?

Myra: The psychiatric treatment keeps me focused. The amount of relief I felt that first month of antidepressants was massive. A total delight in being “normal.” No brain chemistry to stop me. I felt, wholly and truly, unstoppable.

Sarah: Has there been a direct connection between your treatment and your creative output?

Myra: Yes — definitely a direct connection.

A good wakeup call was before antidepressants, talking to a friend about how much I want to do art, but “don’t find the time.” He said, rather coldly, “You clearly don’t love it enough if you are not doing it.” Made me realize that there were a lot of things I loved I wasn’t doing. Something was blocking that love to flourish.

Sarah: Under what brain conditions would you feel the most like the artist — and person — you want to be? Sick, well, something in between?

Myra: Well. There’s always that saying in the back of one’s mind, that suffering births great art. I understand this intuitively as a storyteller — conflict brings tension, brings choice, brings plot. The greatest stories of our time contained great suffering.

However, in my own experience, being well meant being able to look outward: I didn’t have to worry about my body, my mind, or how I would feel sick when answering phones, or forget words mid-conversation, or fear my friends no matter how close. Without the inward distracting me, I could look outward: Art, activism, friends, and the city.

I definitely prefer being well.

courtneysvatek

Courtney Svatek makes a comic about adventure game villains and regularly performs in community theater. She is managing anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression.

Sarah: Does your illness contribute to your art?

Courtney: If not for mental illness, I might have had the resolve to, ironically, “put aside childish things” that made me who I was, as so many forces were urging me to do. But I did not. And to this very day, cartoons and mainly video games form the backbone of inspiration for my creative work.

I think depression heightened my sense of empathy. Depression and anxiety create within me a feedback loop where I am aware of the misfortune and injustices of the world around me, and I am unable to simply tune it all out.

Sarah: Does your illness hinder your ability to create?

Courtney: I hardly consider mental illness as a magic key to my artistic center. As much as my experiences have helped shape who I am, it would be ridiculous to say that I wanted to suffer them again in order to be a better artist.

Being more well has allowed my work to achieve more subtlety. Being ill can be a bit like being drunk; you feel uninhibited but it’s harder to reflect. It’s easier to indulge in the extremes of emotion, creating things that later seem embarrassingly maudlin, and hard to find balance. The more depressed I am, the more narrow-minded I become, and the more I tend to do things for me without considering if other people will like it. The more well I am, the more I consider other people’s experiences.

Anxiety is a major detractor of my creative work. I want to portray realistic people, even in cartoonish fantasy worlds, and the best way to do that is by observing and getting to know humans in real life. However, social anxiety can make me afraid of interaction.

Sarah: Is your “true self” the sick person, the well person, both, . . . ?

Courtney: I think a person’s “real self” is the person they are striving to be. There’s a theory I read that the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter reflects where you want to be, not where you truly “belong” according to your inborn traits. Pottermore placed me in Gryffindor, even though I feel like a coward most of the time. But I try to be brave, and when I’m feeling hopeless and lost, I think of the person that I have potential to be and try to re-orient myself in that direction. So my true self is sick sometimes and well most of the time, but most importantly, able to use that wellness for good, to take care of others.

harpygirl

Megan Rose Gedris is a writer, burlesque performer, and artist who draws lesbian pirates from outer space, among other things. She is managing anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sarah: Does your illness hinder your ability to create?

Megan: My illness destroys my ability to create. I’ve learned to cope with it by using my good times to pencil my illustrations and save the inking for my low times, since that’s about all I can do in that state. I can’t write, I can’t paint, I can’t create anything from scratch. I can only trace lines I already drew. I tried so many times to draw my feelings in the moment, but I can’t. I have to wait for the bad time to pass and then try to draw it.

Sarah: Does your illness contribute to your art?

Megan: I suppose if I didn’t have mental illness, I might not write mentally ill characters with the same depth, but there’s plenty of other stuff to write about, and honestly, people don’t like to read about truly mentally ill characters. Mental illness is pretty boring. It’s monotonous. I have to truncate and condense every scene about mental illness. Characters get over trauma within a few dozen pages, when the reality would have volume after volume of that character’s adventure on pause. It isn’t as interesting as a lot of stories make it out to be.

Sarah: Is your “true self” the sick person, the well person, both, . . . ?

Megan: My true self is the well person. The sickness is like a parasite to me. I am not my depression. I am not my anxiety. I am not my PTSD. These things make me do and say things that, even at the time, I think are absurd and harmful. It’s like watching myself from outside myself. I literally considered hiring an exorcist at one point because I had no control of my body or thoughts. My true self was conscious beneath all that, unable to break through to the outside. It was hell.

I recognize that not all mental illnesses are alike and that some people actually appreciate how their illness uniquely empowers them. But the story of the mentally ill person who draws magical artistic powers from their own brokenness simply does not represent all creatives who struggle. Much of the time, what helps people work is being well.

Yes, there can be compromises to changing your body with medicine. For me, managing my illness means becoming a little less susceptible to wild sensations like wonder. Yet I have gained the wherewithal to create and work more now than ever before. It has been a while since I last texted someone to make sure they didn’t miss a particularly electric sunset, but that part of me is mine to let go, and I’ve let it go. I choose molecular cyborg, daily, over the alternative.

Philosophical arguments aside, no one has the right to undermine the agency of those of us seeking healing. When we choose treatment, we are not erasing ourselves. We, and our art, are not beholden to a biological baseline or to an audience that would take our work and leave us hurting. We choose our own selves.

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