Somebody asked a question the other day in the Scribophile forums about the correlation between mental illness and creativity. “Do you think this is true?”
Jesus wept, I thought. Here we go again.
Since I’ll be taking the scenic route to my point today, I’ll give you a teaser. My answer is: No, I don’t, for the most part.
To begin, I think it’s important to understand that the term mental illness covers a wide range of conditions, from feeling a little blue to losing arguments with lampposts to being unable to function in the world. This is the same for physical illness. The common cold, irritating and debilitating as it can be, is certainly not the same as leprosy, cancer, or Parkinson’s. Indeed, even those physical illnesses have their own subclasses.
I am not mentally ill, but I have been. That’s a fun story, but a little family background first.
My father’s mother has always been something of a legend for me, as she passed away before I was born. Dad didn’t talk about her a lot, but it was always with a mix of love, frustration, and regret. I wish I had a picture of that face he put on when he told me those stories.
She was fun, witty, intelligent, an artist.
In early elementary school, she drew a duck in class, and the teacher remarked that it was better than her own example. She was a writer, crafting stories longhand in a notebook that my other grandmother, Mom’s mom, later typed up for her.
She was creative and spontaneous.
Mama was in my father’s room one day, chatting with him and his buddies. She picked at a loose chip of paint on the wall with her fingernail. She picked again and again. When my father asked what she was doing, she told him, “Making a map of the United States.” After this, Dad’s walls became a canvas for his friends to write and draw on. Unfortunately, nobody took a picture of this.
She was energetic, and there were always things to be done.
When my parents were dating as teenagers, they would sit in Dad’s car and talk (and probably more; I’m not naïve), and one evening Mama (my grandmother) came out and filled the backseat with paper bags, instructing them to fold them for her.
“Why are we doing this?” my mother asked as she flattened a bag in her lap.
“Because Mama says so.”
She was strong-willed, sometimes explosive.
Mama and Papa (my grandfather) had their share of disagreements, which is common enough, but one night Mama was determined to win the argument. She broke every plate, cup, and saucer in the kitchen by throwing them on the floor or against the wall while Papa waited safely outside the door. She stomped across the kitchen, ceramic crunching under her feet, and informed Papa that she would not go back into the kitchen “until you’ve cleaned up every last bit of that mess.” Papa did, and told my parents with a chuckle as he filled the dustpan, “I guess it was time to buy new dishes anyway.”
I’ve been told all my life that I resemble her in many ways. That was a high compliment, especially coming from my father. At least it seemed that way when I was younger and only hearing about how creative she was. As I got older and my parents added stories about the pressing need for folded paper bags and shattered tableware, I worried a bit over this comparison.
Then I heard about the sixth floor.
In the hospital, resting. Fuck, they might as well have said, “She has the vapors.”
Long story short, as people are wont to say when it’s too late, she was in and out of the hospital for many years, she was up, she was down, she was fun, a terror. My father joined the Navy to get away from her. She took her medicine, she had her cocktails. One night, she passed away in her sleep from too much of both. There was always a silent divide in the family over the question of whether that was an accident or not. For the record, my parents and my grandfather believed it was.
Wow, this is a long story. Let’s take a dance break.
Ok, we’re back.
In 2004, I lost my other half to illness, on January 25th, the fifth anniversary of my father’s passing. In that span of time I also lost three other people dear to me: my maternal grandmother, with whom I had lived for several years; my ex, who was still my close friend; and my paternal grandfather.
I called my boss from the school. When she answered, the only thing I could get out was her name.
“Tere…” I lay on the floor, my lungs locked, my muscles frozen, my feet tingling, as if they had ants crawling on them.
She knew something was wrong. “I’ll be right there.”
By the time I got the hospital, I was not only breathing, I was panting, sobbing, choking on the air I was pulling into my lungs too quickly. I told the doctor that the tingling had reached to above my knees. It was all over my body when the sedative took effect.
When I woke later, I met with my psychiatrist, who asked me questions about my family history. Mom has anxiety attacks and is in treatment. One uncle is a recovering alcoholic, another ate himself into obesity and heart disease, killed himself. I went over everybody, and then told him the stories about my grandmother.
“Yeah, your grandmother was bipolar.”
Nobody had ever told me that. I knew there was something wrong there. I even told my uncle once, “Your mother was more than excitable. It sounds like she was mentally ill.” He didn’t seem interested in pursuing that conversation. I guess for him, she was just excitable, and needed to rest for a while on the sixth floor.
I asked the doctor, “Do you think I might…?”
He shook his finger at me. “You’re past the age. Bipolar disorder would have manifested years ago. No, you’re just having a really hard time of things right now.”
Wait, did he just tell me I have the vapors?
I was in the hospital for two weeks. I took medication, I had therapy, I participated in dynamics. I also met some nice people, had some fun, caused some trouble. Good times. I’m all better now.
So here’s my point: No, I do not believe that there is a correlation between mental illness in the sense that one causes the other. My grandmother was mentally ill for most of her adult life, probably. She was also creative. I have been mentally healthy for most of my adult life. I’m also creative. I certainly wasn’t during the year of therapy after my breakdown. I did not meet one single creative person in my stay at the hospital.
I think that what happens more often than not with people who answer this question with a “yes” is that they are romanticizing mental illness. I wish they would stop. There is nothing romantic about it. There is a reason doctors talk about “suffering” mental illness, and not “enjoying” it.
Of course, there are cases of people with mental illness being creative. Van Gogh, certainly. Hemingway, yes. However, there are many more artists who are/were happy, well-adjusted people. I know many.
A final note: I do understand that certain conditions can contribute to creativity, especially in highly intelligent people, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, but not in all cases, and even then, they are nothing to be romantic about. Both are hell on the sufferer and their loved ones if left untreated.
Of course, this is my experience. What do you think/what is your experience? (For the record, those who are following me on this blog so far seem to be some of the most creative and mentally healthy people I’ve ever met.)
(I haven’t read these books, but it’s interesting that there are studies showing the opposite of the long held belief of mental illness equaling creativity.)