Creativity and mental illness – or me and my demons

I saw this article, Secrets of the Creative Brain, on the blog Side by Side in Mental Health. It took me some time to read it, because it’s a bit long, but I found it curious. Although it didn’t answer some of the questions – the study is ongoing – it does shed some light on the type of research and techniques that are being used to find out more about creativity and mental illness.

For me the link between creativity and mental illness has always been there. I grew up in a family whose members were all intelligent and creative but also suffered from different mental illnesses. Me, I’m no exception. I always saw myself as very creative and smart. I taught myself to read and write and at 4 I wrote my first poems. Yes, they were full of spelling mistakes, but they rhymed. In elementary school I started writing a collection of books much like the Nancy Drew mysteries. As I reached puberty, I created a magazine for teenage girls and started writing “serious” novels. At 15 I convinced my mother to buy me a guitar and find me guitar lessons. So until I finished college I wrote dozens of songs and hundreds of song lyrics. College was very prolific. I wrote poems in Portuguese, English and French. I decided I had a very short breath when it came to writing and went on to write dozens of short stories. I’m still proud of some of them after all these years. After college I started working full time and realized I missed being a sweet child who did ballet, so I went back to dance classes. Sometimes I still fall asleep making up dance routines in my head (that I obviously don’t remember anymore when I wake up the next morning).

I took my bachelor’s in Literature, but I could have taken anything else as long as it wasn’t anything related to design and graphic arts (I couldn’t draw a decent picture even if I had a gun pointed at me). But I was good in Math and Sciences. I used to solve equations much like I solve Sudoku puzzles now – just for entertainment. I’m fascinated by Physics, Biology, Neurosciences, Psychology, History, Philosophy, Cinema, Photography, you name it. I could be talking about the Higgs Boson one minute and the other minute I’m talking about Freud.

But of course there’s this whole other side. Anxiety consumes me. In the 9th grade I remember spending most of the mornings crying. It was the first time ever that most of my classes were in the afternoon and I realized that unless I’d wake up early in the morning and turned on the autopilot, this inexplicable darkness would fall over me. I think this was the first time I experienced being depressed. Shortly after that I started suffering from insomnia. Some years later when I was 20 I got so depressed I thought about killing myself. This thought would haunt me again at least twice in the following years. During my 20’s I also worried about my needing alcohol to relax. It ended up being just a phase but it was scary. I wasn’t drinking a glass of wine or two because I liked it, I was drinking because I needed it. And of course, there was that weird memory loss I wrote about earlier.

I live with many ghosts. My grandmother had paranoid schizophrenia and so did one of my uncles. My other uncle is an alcoholic who also lives with bipolar disorder. My mother and her older brother both suffer from severe depression. My sister lives with social anxiety, and falls in the borderline category. Today I found out my neuro described me as bipolar to another neuro. My first reaction was, “Why has everyone kept this a secret from me all these years?” Then I realized she probably just mistook my anxiety for mild mania. I’m anything but bipolar because I just don’t have the energy for euphoria. I don’t steal money from my relatives to spend on god knows what and I don’t disappear for days and end up calling people to tell them I’m in some city many miles from home. My uncle does this and more. But my first reaction was to doubt myself. My first reaction was to think my psychiatrist, my therapists, my mother suspected I was bipolar but didn’t tell me. And then I realized there’s maybe a little paranoia in this thought. Just a tiny word written on paper, and suddenly all the demons I’ve been living with waved at me.

But you know what? Maybe I have a little bit of all these conditions living in me. And maybe they’re adaptive, as in one of the characteristics is more prominent during a specific time in my life, only to fade away and make room for another characteristic as I go through something different. Lately it’s like daydreaming and dissociating are helping me cope with stress, but I remember when I bought my apartment and moved in by myself compulsive behavior helped me deal with the fear of whatever might go wrong before I got used to being on my own. As the author of the article recalls, “Heston and I discussed whether some particularly creative people owe their gifts to a subclinical variant of schizophrenia that loosens their associative links sufficiently to enhance their creativity but not enough to make them mentally ill.” Maybe this will prove to be true in many areas, and my demons will finally be able to rest.

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6 thoughts on “Creativity and mental illness – or me and my demons

  1. So interesting. These labels for illness can be so frustrating. I guess bipolar has different severity levels and just like other illnesses can be different in different people? Can you have a “touch of bipolar”? Or show some symptoms sometimes and others never? Bipolar cycles so maybe it can seem to come and go if the mania is not a huge high? In that case, a lot more of us may all have it to varying degrees. I have thought this for a while.

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    1. The thing that is so frustrating about mental illness is that diagnoses are so subjective. Psychiatrists are the only doctors who diagnose without looking at the organ affected. They rely on what the patient – whose perception may be impaired – tells them and on what they learned in medical school. A Portuguese psychiatrist wrote an entire book on how we all are a little mentally ill depending on the context. The thing that should worry us is when those traits become the only and exclusive way we deal with life and reality.

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  2. I know what you mean…
    From what I’ve noticed, all different types of creativity have characteristics that can fall into one type or another of mental illness, if you’re so inclined to make the connection.
    In my case, they’re all part of the autism spectrum, so there you go 🙂

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  3. I definitely believe mental health and mental illness are on a long, wide continuum, rather than the all-or- nothing diagnostic criteria required by entities like insurance companies. Both of my kids have a double dose of sensitivity and introversion along with creativity genes from me and their biological father. Their father has some depression and maybe some other issues I won’t diagnose. Both my kids have mental health issues and are creative “outside the box” people. We all have varying levels of ADD, the dreamy kind, not the hyperactive kind. I’ve worked hard to “overcome” my anxiety and mild depression and introversion. Maybe that’s why I got a degree in psychology and became a counselor, so I wouldn’t be depressed like my mother. But my heart has longed to return to the more creative lifestyle of my youth which I’m finally getting back to with painting and writing. Returning to creativity is like coming home to my true self. Thank you for sharing your truth. I think I’ll share it with my daughter.

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    1. Thank you for sharing a bit of your story. Yes, creativity is like a safe place where we don’t get hurt and maybe have a chance to heal. It’s the place where it’s ok to be who we are. I’m hoping I can write more next year. I have two books in my mind, I just need to find more stability and peace. I’m going through a rougher time now.

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