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.

Are you gonna kill me in my sleep?

Mental illness runs in the family. My grandmother had schizophrenia and so did one of my uncles. I have another uncle who is an alcoholic and has also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. My older uncle has suffered from depression and my mother is chronically depressed, one of the reasons being she was the one who took care of all the people mentioned, while no one really took care of her. She remembers quite nasty stuff from her early years, including being kicked out of the house by my grandmother, who failed to recognize her and called her all kinds of names for everyone to hear, and picking up my bipolar uncle from jail whenever alcohol and mania got him into trouble. As for my schizophrenic uncle, he died young and he’s kind of the taboo in the family. When he was called to go to war in Africa in the 1960s, everyone begged my grandfather, who held a relatively high position in the military, to manipulate things in order to have him doing some clerk work instead of going to the battle front, because they knew he was mentally ill. But no, my grandfather’s sons had to be real men and fight the war. That obviously didn’t turn out very well. My uncle came back in a catatonic state and died shortly after. My grandfather passed away at 88 and all those years he lived he was never forgiven by my mother and surviving uncles.

As for the new generation… well, let’s say I take after the neurotic side of the family, and my sister takes after the psychotic one. We’ve been estranged for more than a decade now, ever since she snapped/lost it/whatever and held a knife against my chest when I was 20 (she was 24). My parents pretended nothing happened because… well, just because, and I decided I didn’t want someone like her near me. Two years later, on an occasion we were both with my mother, my mother said something about me, and my sister yelled she wanted to see me dead (words that my brain was kind enough to remind me of when my neurologist uttered the words “multiple sclerosis” – and before I knew no one dies of multiple sclerosis, but still).

I understand, I’m the bad guy. I was born and a couple of months later my grandmother passed away and two years later my parents got divorced. For my sister’s 5-year-old brain, not only did I take from her all the protagonism, but I also drove daddy away. So I was bad news and someone to hate for as long as she lives. You can imagine therefore how I’ve been feeling about her wanting to take me on summer holidays with her.

Now, don’t be fooled. She isn’t trying to make things up. She has been dumped by her boyfriend (you can imagine she is a difficult person to live with), so she’s feeling lonely and doesn’t know what to do with her free time. She has been calling and e-mailing me, asking me if I know where I want to stay, and my anxiety levels have been soaring. Not only I’m the kind of person who finds it hard to say no to people, but she can also be very persuasive and manipulative (which she got from my father’s side of the family).

But really, the only thing I can think of is whether she’s actually planning to kill me in my sleep.

I’m self-destructive therefore autoimmune

545119_3656268165275_2141072253_nWhen I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, my neurologist explained to me in broad terms what happened in the brain of people with this condition. I realized it was an autoimmune disease, to which she said yes, it could be considered an autoimmune disease. I sobbed a little more (I sobbed the whole time) and asked her “So this is another way I found to hurt myself?” She told me not to think about it that way but looking back it makes perfect sense that I have an autoimmune disease (two, if you count with endometriosis). I never tolerated myself much, always brought myself down, and due to specific circumstances in my upbringing I never had much emotional independence, sense of self, or psychological boundaries. So no wonder my body was confused and shooting whatever seemed like a nice thing to shoot.

Autoimmunity fascinates me from every perspective. From a biological point of view, it’s not very smart, is it? It’s just pure self-destruction. From a psychological point of view, can our body really reflect a poor sense of self? Or is there more to it that we don’t even dream of? It remains a mystery, one that scientists are still trying to find answers to. And the list of autoimmune diseases keeps growing, as evidence suggests well-known diseases such as schizophrenia may have an autoimmune pathogenesis. Wikipedia lists many of these with links to scientific articles. It’s worth taking a look.

It is also worth taking a look at how other authors see autoimmunity. In Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert M. Sapolsky notes that both physical and psychological stressors seem to cause an early stage of immune activation. However, long-term/chronic stress begins to have the opposite effect, namely, suppressing immunity. But why can’t we not just let our system remain at the enhanced, improved level achieved with temporary stressors and “get the benefits of an activated immune system all the time? Metaphorically, why not have your military that defends you always on maximal alert? For one thing, it costs too much,” he explains. “And, even more important, a system that’s always on maximal, hair-trigger alert is more likely to get carried away at some point and shoot one of your own guys in a friendly fire accident. And that’s what can happen with immune systems that are chronically activated – they begin to mistake part of you for being something invasive, and you’ve got yourself an autoimmune disease.”

Doctor Gabor Maté also links autoimmunity with chronic stress, but he goes further along the way explaining that chronic stress most of the times originates from relationship patterns established during childhood. In When The Body Says No he writes that “The blurring of psychological boundaries during childhood becomes a significant source of future physiological stress in the adult.” He notes that “Within the individual organism, physical mutiny results from an immunologic confusion that perfectly mirrors the unconscious psychological confusion of self and non-self” and adds that “Cancer and ALS and MS and rheumatoid arthritis and all these other conditions, it seems to me, happen to people who have a poor sense of themselves as independent persons. On the emotional level, that is – they can be highly accomplished in the arts or intellectually – but on an emotional level they have a poorly differentiated sense of self. They live in reaction to others without ever really sensing who they themselves are.”

This unfortunately makes perfect sense to me considering my personal history. I’m not sure how it applies to the millions of people diagnosed with these diseases but I think it adds a valuable ingredient to the genetic and environmental factors we know about. You see, I always wondered why my sister had mono when I was 8 and I didn’t catch it then, even though I would steal her lipsticks and drink from the same cups. I caught it when I was 18. And why when exposed to the same flu virus some people are bed-ridden and other just have mild symptoms? The virus is the same, right? So there’s got to be something in our immune systems, which in turn are highly influenced by our emotions, that determines whether we’re going to get sick or not.

There is a famous story about Louis Pasteur that illustrates this view. Claude Bernard, his contemporary, thought that germs would only cause harm to the body if it presented the right conditions for them to thrive. He emphasized that it was more important to keep the organism “clean” and in balance than to attack the germs. Pasteur didn’t agree. He thought germs and microbes were the only reason people got sick. However, later in his life he came to change his mind. He’s quoted as saying on his deathbed, “Bernard avait raison. Le germe n’est rien, c’est le terrain qui est tout.” (“Bernard was right. The microbe is nothing, the soil is everything.”)

I wish I was (more) dysfunctional

From very early in my life I had many different problems. I started having asthma when I was 2 and a half and I never spent more than a week in daycare with other children. Every year my mother would enroll me but, even though I have no memories of those times, I suspect we both suffered from separation anxiety. I was shy and had a little social phobia. My mother overprotected me and didn’t equip me with the tools to go out into the world, so being away from home without anyone familiar brought me so much anxiety I would soon fall ill with something. When I turned 5 and it happened again, my mother started panicking. The next year I would have to start school no matter what (homeschooling is not really an option in my country). So after talking to my pediatrician, he gave her the number of a child therapist.

From the age of 5 to the age of 10 I went every week to see this therapist. I have very few memories of these sessions (which is weird considering they span for a period of 5 years) but when I try to look back the feeling is that I was generally happy there. And I did make some progress. I had no trouble at all when I started school at the age of 6, I made friends on my own, asthma went away around 7 or 8.

However, all these years later when I look at myself and my “collection” of illnesses I wonder what was it that therapy did to me. I think that all that it did was make me functional, while it did nothing about the underlying problems that had resulted in me being a very troubled child. For instance, I don’t let anxiety and fear stop me from doing things that I find challenging, but I still get anxious, and those anxiety symptoms have been taking a toll, eroding my entire system. Still, I’m the epitome of functional. No one knows I’m sick if I don’t tell them, I work full-time as a copy editor, I study at night, I exercise, I see my friends and family, I have a lot of interests, I keep my apartment as clean and tidy as possible, I manage insomnia, depression, endometriosis and multiple sclerosis as best as I can… I am so functional and apparently so normal that when I do complain about something no one really believes me. Sometimes not even doctors, which is probably the reason why I went for so many years without a proper diagnosis, proper medication and proper support.

But I’m also the epitome of troubled. My functionality has been disguising a lot of issues that date as far back as my early years and go on up until now. And the clues were all there. Coming from a family with a history of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, addiction, and depression should have raised a few eyebrows. But no. They looked at me and saw this gentle harmless young woman who wouldn’t want to be any trouble. And me, I was too puzzled to even be able to make sense of things, too scared to trust people.

So today I wish I was a little more dysfunctional. Maybe people would have taken me seriously. Maybe this wouldn’t have been hurting for so long.