Brilliance in Bedlam?

I'm not crazy

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.)

The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius

Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation

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11 Responses to Brilliance in Bedlam?

  1. I do think there is such a thing as mad genius; look at art brut, for example. And it always struck me reading the forums at Scrib how many people had some sort of mental illness issue that they had struggled with, or were suffering from (your words). One probably influences the other, and creativity might make the illness harder to bear. Van Gogh’s work, Hemingway’s (two examples you mentioned) changed as they got deeper into their illnesses. Just as obviously people can be mentally healthy and creative. What makes people creative might be mental. Just not necessarily mental illness.

    • Thank you, Katherine.

      In the case of Art Brut, I think that we have to consider that those artists are in a way a captive audience for their teachers. I think that a larger percentage of the world is creative than we are seeing, since creativity doesn’t get enough attention in our schools. Suddenly, they are in a setting where they are free to explore something in a way that they never were before. (My opinion. I don’t know the stats on this, but I’ll come back to it in a future post.)

      Of course, any correlation, if it exists, might also depend on the condition and the degree. Schizophrenics see a lot of interesting things and can translate that into art if they can control it. Depression, on the other hand, usually causes a marked decrease in the ability to produce creative works, as it’s more difficult to connect ideas, focus, get out of bed, etc.

      As for those who tell us that they have a condition and are creative, well, that’s self-reporting, and more likely among those who are afflicted. It seems to me that the mentally healthy creative person is less prone to tell people.

  2. Anne says:

    I have no answers, but I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading this.
    As an ex-nurse I’ve worked with people who show all kinds of behaviours, from both clients/service users (to use the politically correct terms these days!) and staff, and I’m still none the wiser.
    It’s interesting that you say you were not actively ‘creative’ during your year of therapy, yet you are clearly a creative person.
    Perhaps it’s those peaks and troughs which ‘hotwire’ us somehow into wanting to articulate something, or get it ‘out there’, and unless we experience those extremes, we won’t feel the urge to do that. But the ‘romanticising’ aspect which you highlight is definitely a grey area – a cultural catch-all explanation (which says more about our culture than mental illness) and an easy cliché for some to fall back on.
    An objective recognition of the symptoms, and effective treatment, will enable a person over the longer term, allowing them to be as creative, or not, as they can be.

    On the other side of the coin, I’m interested too in knowing how many so-called ‘normal-functioning’ people would respond to more encouragement to allow their ‘creative’ sides out. Studies show that most people are creative in some area or other, but few have the opportunity to reveal it in the normal course of life – jobs, bringing up children, paying the mortgage, making ends meet, etc. A serious bout of mental illness can remove all those other commitments temporarily and give the impression of a flowering of creativity, perhaps. But maybe the illness is just revealing what was there all along, yet smothered? Maybe our society needs to recognise this side of our natures more openly, and instead of labelling it as part of a ‘romantic sensitive nature’, accept that it is part of being human?

    As I say, I don’t know and I have no real answers. Your excellent writing prompted me into replying, along with a strong sense that the ‘creative genius’ tag isn’t always helpful to those involved, as you point out above. Thanks for posting!

    • Thank you, Anne. I’m glad you enjoyed it. (But damn, it needs a little rewriting.)

      I think what you say is a distinct possibility, and I touched on that in my response to Katherin above. I believe that everybody is creative in some way, but it seems that we treat it as a secondary characteristic. Unless a child shows remarkable skill in that area, it’s only given cursory attention in school. That’s my school experience, though. I don’t know if that has changed at all. Please tell me it has.

      The romanticizing of it is also something that confuses me. As a society, we love the idea of the mad artist, but we don’t want to sit next to him on the bus.

  3. CJ Jessop says:

    I tend to agree with you, George. The romanticism is harmful. Without seeing an actual scientific study, I find it hard to believe that there’s a correlation. I’ve seen mental illness close up. My maternal uncle was shizophrenic and ultimately committed suicide. My maternal aunt suffers from bouts of severe, debilitating depression. My mother’s cousin gassed himself in his car because he just could not face the thought of continuing one more day with his depression. None of them were/are creative. They just suffered/suffer from an illness.

    My mother is creative. She likes to make things with her hands and to paint. She’s never struggled with mental health issues. I like to write, and don’t seem to have any issues. I’ve had my ups and downs, lived through some challenging times, but only what everyone else in this world goes through at some point. Nothing I would describe as illness.

    I’ve often wondered if my mother’s family had some kind of pre-disposition towards mental illness (the way genetics predispose people towards alcoholism, or diabetes), and if perhaps one day I would succumb. Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps my having a creative outlet helps me to avoid that? I have no idea.

    But that’s all anecdotal. For as many ‘troubled geniuses’ there are, there are probably as many who are chugging along without a problem in sight.

    Wow, sorry for rambling on, George. You got me thinking!

  4. As I understand it, the vast majority of mental illnesses manifest earlier, especially in Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia. Depression can, and often does, occur in older people, either due to their situation, medication, or deterioration. Somebody can correct me on this, but I think you’re fine, Cheryl. There is a genetic predisposition for many disorders. Depression, of course, can be a brain problem or a life problem (or a combo.)

    As I mentioned, my doctor dismissed the idea of Bipolar Disorder because of my age. (I was 33 at the time.) However, after hearing about the depression in my family history, he did say that I might have more of a tendency, although my mental health outside of that particular situation at that time in my life suggested that I am healthy overall.

    Depression for most people is a consequence of life, I think, and being blue – or even having a nervous breakdown – should not be confused with clinical depression. More importantly, we shouldn’t aspire to it. Emos, I’m looking at you!

  5. Nan Shartel says:

    i don’t think certain mental disorders are a garden for writing brilliance, but others are. Poetry is often enhanced by Melancholia (Poe, Plath,etc).Bipolar drive is both a blessing and curse for writers with generous energy at times, stand still non-movement at others, Whether or not the illness is organized plays a in OCD. Schizophrenia is rarely organized so i don’t see any artistic brilliance in it other than painting (Van Gogh)

    Any depression is lasting more than 90 days is considered Clinical whether it’s caused by a life experience or not.Life long depression as with Poe is more Melancholia.

    wonderful blog subject Jorge…it deserves much consideration and thought

  6. Thanks, Nan.

    Since Melancholia is “characterized by low levels of both enthusiasm and eagerness for activity,” I would argue that Poe, Plath, et al, were unusually able to use their conditions to their advantage, and were secondary to their creativity. Severely depressed people often can’t even get up the energy to care for themselves.

    My greatest concern in this discussion (referring to the world at large, not just this blog post) is that we’re putting the cart before the horse. I maintain that they were able to create despite mental illness, and not so much because of it.

    I see that they were influenced by their particular view of the world, but I wonder: would they have still created without the illness? Surely it would have been a different product, but something would still have been produced.

  7. Nan Shartel says:

    Inexplicable joy and sadness fuel my better poems. Love the dance interlude clever guy!!

  8. ED Martin says:

    There’s a concept in psychology called the Yerkes–Dodson law, which basically says that having a trait will make you better at a task until you reach a critical point, and then you get worse. As an undergrad I did research on police officers and found this was true with obsessive-compulsive behavior – mild-medium levels of the disorder made them better focused, but too much and their performance declined (so yes, the TV show Monk is a big huge lie).

    I think this applies to mental illness and the arts too. You need to find a balance – enough of the crazy (schizophrenia, depression, bipolar, etc) to see everything in a different perspective, but not so much of the crazy so that you can’t function and express yourself in whatever medium you choose.

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