I think we've all seen or heard the "tortured" artist trope at one time or another. It's no secret a high percentage of notable artists, be they writers, poets, musicians, painters, sculptors, or any other kind of artist, have or do suffer from a range of mental health problems. Because of this correlation between mental health problems and creative success, popular notions of creativity have come to romanticize them as part and parcel to creative genius.
I hate this notion so much! Even if there's some truth to it, it's a dangerous and irresponsible idea in so many ways.
I'm not going to go into talking about anyone's issues but my own, but I've seen a connection between struggles and creativity. A lot were struggles with mental health, true, but almost as many were fights with physical health or learning differences or any other difficulty one can face.
We all have ways in which we wish the world was different. Imagining that ideal world can bring up all sorts of ideas. Experiencing pain and difficulty makes the bright spots in life all the more beautiful, and seeing this can spark a flurry of creativity too. These are universal truths, but that doesn't mean living tortured lives is necessary or helpful to creative expression.
I freely admit my brain isn't quite "normal." Dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia have influenced my life in a multitude of ways. I quite literally wouldn't be the same woman if I didn't have them, and if they were somehow to create a cure, I wouldn't take it. For all the difficulties and embarrassment it can and has caused, it is also responsible for a few of the gifts I've come to treasure and rely upon.
The same goes for sensory processing issues. It's caused some problems dealing with spaces outside my home without becoming overwhelmed, but it's also the reason I've been able to become a self-taught perfumer and recipe writer. The same overly sensitive response to stimuli that can make a sunny day feel like it's burning my retinas with a red hot poker allows me to pick out subtle differences in smells or tastes. A lifetime of experience with them and how they interact allows me to know which ones to add or deduct to adjust the overall blend to be more pleasant.
I can't say the same for my experiences with depression, or what may - may - more correctly be termed type two bipolar. I don't have mental health coverage, so I can't afford an assessment let alone proper treatment, so a best guess based on past behavioral patterns is all I'm likely to ever get.
Depression isn't always, or even usually, like they portray it in popular media. It isn't just feeling really sad, crying and shoveling down cartons of ice cream as you binge romantic comedies. It's numbness. It's an overwhelming sense of uselessness where you can't find the point in anything because nothing ever changes, at least not for the better. It's fits of rage or weeping when you have no idea why. It's being trapped in the back of your own mind screaming, begging, trying to claw your way free, anything to try and stop yourself from going down a path of self-destruction you don't want to walk but can't seem to stop traveling. It's being completely certain everyone you love either wouldn't notice or would be relieved and/or better off if you were to die.
Do you know what you get when you create while in the throws of depression?
Well, I can't speak for others, but what I got was page upon page of lifeless, wooden characters. No matter what was going on, they didn't seem to react at all. And you know the hilarious thing, at the time of writing, I felt their responses were way over the top!
And that was the best case. Other times, you might produce something halfway decent, but you won't see it that way at the time. You see, depression has a way of magnifying anything less than perfect and twisting it to its worst possible angle. Depression will make you give up. It looks for any reason, any excuse, to make throwing in the towel seem like the most logical thing in the world.
I've given up writing "forever" and announced the closing of a business I'd spent years building and growing in fits of depression and then fallen into a deeper one as a result. I wouldn't recommend it.
Well, if depression is so bad, mania ought to be terrific though, right? Seems logical doesn't it?
Carrie Fisher is noted for having described mania as everything going really, really fast, and she was right.
Mania is feeling like you have to do all the things right now or you'll vibrate apart. Mania is a million and one thoughts buzzing like bees from a fallen hive, tumbling over one another as they try to escape. Mania is washing walls at 2 a.m. even though you have school or work at 8 because sleep is for the weak. It's thinking organizing the entire house in one day is not only possible but the best idea you've ever had.
Mania is writing an entire book in two weeks and only realizing how much of an incomprehensible tangle of mangled ideas it is when you try to read it again a month later. Mania is starting three manuscripts in a day because you have a dozen ideas all at once, and you can't pick just one. Mania is deciding to sink a few hundred into starting a business focused on a hobby you picked up a week before because you're awesome, and you'll figure it all out as you go.
You can't look at mania as being "super happy." That's not what it is at all just like depression isn't being as sad as humanly possible. It's a skewed way of thinking, but where depression makes you think you're the worse being in the universe, mania makes you feel superhuman, like you can do anything. But we're still human, and we can't do everything. We have limits, and there's a price to pay for trying to push past them too fast and too hard. You end up with a mess it'll take days to clean up and a bit of exhaustion at best, or damage you'll never manage to fix, in trouble you'll never hear the end of, or dead at worst.
Popular media and culture romanticize so many things we'd be better off looking at realistically. Physical diseases, disabilities, mental illness, and even abuse have all taken a turn being romanticized at one point or another, and it does no one any favors. It invalidates the very real struggles for those who live with them, and it can and does keep many from seeking help when they need it.
How many artists would we still have with us today if suicide, overdose, or self-medicating hadn't taken them from us too soon? How many were fighting alone because they were afraid seeking help would "kill their creativity?" How many more masterpieces might there be in existence if creatives suffering from any number of things didn't loose valuable time and effort fighting their demons alone instead of getting help? What about those someone never attempted because they sincerely believe having a mental illness was a prerequisite to creativity?
I really didn't mean for today's post to become a rant, but it's something I see so often. It's something I've lived, and because of that experience, it's something I wouldn't want to see my worst enemy dealing with, ever. Can we please end the romanticized notion of tortured creatives and the stigma against seeking help for mental health issues?
A. B. England is a novelist, all around geek, avid crafter, and the home-schooling mother of two.
She is an autistic creator with a love of mythology, fantasy, and all flavors of science fiction.
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