I’m taking a bit of a tangent in today’s post, discussing a topic that resonates with me: creativity and mental illness.
I’m not going to be offering up scientific proof, because a) this is more personal than that and b) I don’t think a solid, scientific link has been made. Certainly, we can look back at some of the world’s most well-known creative figures and see evidence that they dealt with mental illness. Take, for instance, Vincent Van Gogh, Emily Dickinson, or Sylvia Plath, some of my favorites. Van Gogh and Plath are well-documented as having issues with depression, and circumstances of their mental health issues are well known. Van Gogh famously cut off his own ear, and later died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. It is practically anecdotal that Plath fixed a snack for her children before killing herself by putting her head in the oven.
Dickinson, on the other hand, spent most of her life as a recluse, staying in her childhood home, prolifically producing poetry.
Of course, there are many, many examples of creatives who suffered some sort of mental illness, whether that led to suicide attempts — or successes — or not.
Which comes first?
Does creativity begat mental illness, or is it the other way around? Certainly, there is no guarantee that someone who is creative is dealing with mental illness, just as there is no apparent correlation between displaying signs of mental illness and being productively creative. And we are hearing more lately of creative celebrities coming forward with their tales of mental illness, be it depression, anxiety, or any of the myriad forms mental illness takes on.
My theory — and it is just a theory — is that creatives are more disposed to mental illness because we are already more in touch with our emotions. Our emotions are a little closer to the surface. We’re more sensitive to the emotions of those around us. It’s just the nature of the creative beast. And if that’s the case, it makes a lot of sense that creatives would also have a harder time handling those emotions. But, again, not guarantee that correlation is truly there.
My own story
I’ve always been creative. And I’ve always been sensitive. It wasn’t until after college, though, that I officially started receiving treatment for depression. I probably could easily have started early in my adolescence, because I definitely had the markers for depression during my teenage years. However, it wasn’t until college that my symptoms began manifesting in earnest — enough so that other people could see them.
When I was a teenager, I was quite the poet, and this continued through my college years. And they were angsty poems. One thing I remember clearly about that period of poetry is that I wrote with urgency. The sort of urgency marked by finding anything to write on and with in order to just get the words down on paper. I was urgent to write because that was the only way I understood to process my emotions. I felt literally filled with emotion — anger, sadness, joy, whatever. I was brimming with feeling to the point where it was simply spilling out of me.
I have a binder filled with hundreds of these poems. I was recently looking through them and, 15+ years later, some of them aren’t half bad. Not “half bad for a teenager” but just generally not half bad. Some of them I’m even kind of proud of. But I can feel the rawness of them, the absurd amount of pain surging through the words.
When I started to think getting treatment was something I was going to have to go forward with, I worried that doing so would take away my creative edge. What it actually did, however, was take the edge off of my creativity.
Then vs. now
I don’t know if my poetry writing would have tapered off anyway, but once I started treatment I no longer felt the same urgency. My emotions were no longer boiling over. Admittedly, it was a relief. It’s exhausting to feel everything that strongly all the time. For the first time in my whole life, I felt…at ease. Steady. Like I could handle being sad or angry without being SAD or ANGRY. I wasn’t experiencing life in all caps anymore.
Yes, my creativity changed. For a while, it may even have dulled as I figured out this new way of existing. But it came back, just as strongly. Just not as urgently.
Like I said, I don’t write poetry anymore. I don’t believe that’s connected one way or the other, just that poetry isn’t my medium of expression. I don’t create with a fervor anymore. Meaning I’m not simply trying to purge myself of whatever feeling is going on inside me. I’m creating with purpose and — most importantly — with pleasure.
That’s the thing, looking back, I’m realizing was missing the most. I got no real pleasure from those poetry writing binges, and no real release afterward. I wrote a poem (or two) but still felt whatever had prompted me to write in the first place. Now, I create because I want to, an important distinction from feeling like I had to.
Creativity is one way I process emotions. If you’re a creative person, you probably do, too. However, for a long time, I mistakenly thought that my skewed emotions were the source of my creativity. I was genuinely afraid that if I took care of my mental health, I would be giving up one of the most important aspects of my personality.
Essentially, I thought I had to feel this way. I thought I was supposed to feel this way. I realize now that even that thought was a product of my depression.
Frankly, I don’t have one. I don’t know if creativity and mental illness are linked, but I do know they’re connected. One can and does affect the other. Beautiful work can be created out of pain. Many astounding creations came about as a response to a painful situation or emotion. But there is a difference between experiencing pain and dwelling in it.
Don’t take the idea of “suffering for your art” too literally; it isn’t worth it. If you are passionate about creating, you should enjoy it, not feel compelled by it. For too long, I didn’t know my worth and didn’t realize that I didn’t deserve my suffering. It’s only with hindsight that I can say it now. For a long time, I wouldn’t even talk about my depression and the fact that I’m on medication because I was embarrassed by it; I saw it as a failure.
Why should I be embarrassed by something that makes me feel good? Why should I hide something that has shaped who I am? Why, because I’m an artist, did I feel like I had to suffer to create quality? Because I suffered. And I know too many people who have suffered as well and have done it silently. We have to disprove this idea of the “tortured artist”. You can be an artist and be happy. You can even create dark things and be happy! They are not mutually exclusive!
And we should stop acting as if they are.