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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Careful what you wish for

12 years ago today, October 20th 2002, I woke up, went to the kitchen in my pajamas, Sunday morning, made breakfast, went to the living room while eating it, flipped the pages of a magazine, got up again, put the mug and plate in the kitchen sink – and then everything went black. I have a very faint recollection of feeling dizzy and nauseous but I don’t remember any more. I know I walked three or four steps because I was found on the floor by the kitchen door. On the wall there was a mark my fingers made possibly when I was trying to hold on to it not to fall. But I don’t remember. No one knows how much time I was out. My left knee and arm were bruised, and so was my head.

The story they told me was that my grandfather, who was living with us at the time, heard me crying and found me on the floor. He called my mother who was in the bathroom taking a shower and she realized I was in a disoriented, confusional state. My short term memory was gone. The last weeks of my life were gone. She called her therapist who told her to take me immediately to a hospital. She asked me my best friend’s number, which I gave her by heart, and called her to know if anything might have happened in my life that could have caused such a shock, such confusion, such dissociation. My best friend and her mother then joined us at the hospital.

At the hospital they gave me something to drink that I suppose was a sedative. It must have been strong because I remember drinking it and my tongue tingling. I was seen by a neurologist although I don’t remember talking to him. I remember getting up from the CT scan, putting my glasses on and seeing a really tall and really black doctor in the corridor looking in with concerned eyes. I didn’t know who he was but that image stuck with me. He made me feel safe somehow. Later on I asked my mother if she knew who he was and she told he was the neurologist who’d seen me and that he’d spent a long time talking to me. I don’t remember any of this, I just remember seeing him in the corridor and the look in his eyes.

While we were waiting for the results, I remember asking myself, completely puzzled, why I was wearing glasses if I never leave the house without my contacts, and why I wasn’t wearing a bra, another thing I just don’t go out without. I didn’t remember that just hours before my mother had dressed me to take me to the hospital and she wasn’t going to be bothered with bras and contacts. Similarly, I asked everyone what time it was. People told me it was 3. And I asked them “am or pm?” Then I wanted to know what day it was. They told me Sunday, October 20th. Bewildered, I remarked, “October 20th? Then my birthday was three days ago…” I saw everyone’s faces lit up. They thought I was going to remember. “Yes, sweetie, your birthday was on Thursday.” I searched inside my head but had to give up. I didn’t remember.

Finally the results showed no abnormalities so they shipped me to psychiatry. While I was waiting to be seen by a psychiatrist I saw my ex-boyfriend’s number written on my friend’s hand. She had asked me for the number and I had given it to her but again I didn’t remember. It was easy to think this could all be psychological. My ex-boyfriend and I had broke up two weeks before, I was hurt because he hadn’t even texted me on my birthday, and we had been together the day before so he could give me back some things I’d left at his place. This is why my friend wanted to call him so she could know if anything had happened the day before that could have led to something so drastic. But no. We had quite a peaceful meeting.

However that wasn’t the only reason I was sad. My mother and I weren’t speaking to each other then, and our family was going through a rough time with my grandfather being ill and living with us. Plus, my third year in college had just begun that week and I was feeling lost. I knew I didn’t want to be taking that degree but I didn’t know what I wanted to take. If I were to change, that was the occasion to do it because it was right in the middle of the four-year degree. But I didn’t know what to do, so I kept going. My English teacher had given me an assignment for Monday, which consisted in an analysis of a science fiction short story. In the story, the main character’s memories were stolen or lost, I don’t remember anymore, but I remember thinking, as I was working on it before meeting with my ex-boyfriend, something like “How nice it would be if I could just forget some of the things that happened in my life lately.” To this day, I’m really careful about what I wish for.

Then came Sunday. Despite not being in a good place in my life, I woke up feeling happy because I had plans to be with my best friend. I wasn’t going to be stuck at home feeling bored, lonely and sad. And then it all happened. At the hospital the psychiatrist gave me some sedatives for emergencies and told my mother I should seek therapy. I went home, ate dinner, went to bed, slept for twelve hours, and when I woke up I started putting together the memories that were slowly coming back. The next days I managed to remember everything except for much that happened on Sunday.

I still don’t know what happened. No one ever gave me a clear explanation. My family doctor afterward ordered a lot of tests to rule out possible physical causes. I repeated the CT scan, had and EEG, an echocardiogram, a Holter test and blood tests. Everything came back normal. The only test that was missing here was an MRI. I wonder what an MRI would have told had any doctor remembered to order one. Judging by the fatigue, it’s likely I already had MS. How many lesions, if any?

To this day, what happened 12 years ago is still the scariest moment of my life, scarier even that hearing a multiple sclerosis diagnosis. When you lose your memory you lose parts of your identity, you lose a sense of self, you lose reference points, you lose anchors to hold you, you lose cause/effect sequences that help you make sense of the world. Was it purely psychological? Was it plain dissociation? Was it a defense mechanism in a very stressful moment in my life? Is this what happens when I can’t handle the pressure even though I think I can?

The reason I’m remembering this is because I have been worried about me lately. I have been dissociating more and more. The other day I was driving, I got lost in my own thoughts, and suddenly I realized I didn’t know where I was going and I didn’t remember how I got there. I recognized where I was, but it wasn’t the place I wanted to drive to. It’s like I fell asleep but kept driving. Should I worry or this too shall pass?

Naming things

Yesterday I met my new therapist. My old one is moving to another country, so she trusted my files with someone whose work she’s known for a long time.

We started talking, and for the first time I heard the story of my life being given specific and scary names. She said I had a lot of symptoms of post-traumatic stress, and that a lot of events in my life could be considered traumatic. I always thought post-traumatic stress was something only people who had survived war, natural disasters, physical or sexual abuse would experience. Turns out the definition of trauma is anything that threatens one’s survival, and that can include for instance the loss of a close relative in the early years of a young child, especially if the child doesn’t have a secure attachment to the parents and doesn’t have the emotional language to cope with it. That being said, my life has a series of minor traumas and at least three events that, if not considered major, are at least traumas written in bold. The fact that I’m a hypervigilant and have had trouble sleeping since my teenage years is nothing but a consequence.

Then I learned that I had at least two dissociative episodes in my life. One when I was 5 and had to be hospitalized because my legs went numb and I couldn’t feel them or move them, and the other after I turned 20 and suffered an episode of transient global amnesia and failed to remember stressful events in my then recent past. Even my recent state of daydreaming (see previous post) is a form, though mild, of dissociation. To me, “dissociation” and “dissociative” are scary words, so I felt apprehensive when I heard her saying that.

I also felt that returning to therapy after a little hiatus brought back all the resentment, anger, and fear I carry with me and that have been anesthetized through daydreaming and being on a break from therapy.

Overall, I feel like a car when you step on the accelerator with the hand brake pulled up. The engine roars and the rotations in the rev counter go up — and that’s my survival instinct, all ready to go and fight and scream… But the car isn’t really going anywhere, is it?