Madness Ain’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be: A Corrective

The notebook in which Virginia Woolf wrote "Mrs. Dalloway".

My post two days ago on the links between depression and creativity sparked some smart comments. Perhaps the best was sent to me privately by the excellent blogger The NeuroCritic, and I am highlighting it in its own post here, with The Neurocritic’s permission, because it makes a an important point that I failed to note in the original piece: These links between madness and creativity don’t make the more severe manifestations of depression or bipolar disorder any less destructive or painful. As The NeuroCritic put it:

Sometimes I think those who talk about bipolar and creativity haven’t been around many severely manic individuals. There’s overspending, lying, cheating, alienating friends, paranoia, psychosis, taking off and abandoning family, etc. I don’t think there’s anything especially creative about that.

Here’s another idea about bipolar and creativity: the percentage of manic people who engage in creative pursuits exceeds that in the general population. However, much of the output is incoherent. Some small percentage might be brilliant (either during or in between episodes), but then how many people are Kay Redfield Jamison or Stephen Fry (collapsing across bipolar subtypes)?

At any rate, bipolar can be a very destructive illness, and I hope those that romanticize it (or are viewed as romanticizing it) truly understand that. End of rant.

A point well-made and well-taken. (NB: A few days after I wrote this post, The Neurocritic elaborated on his point in a graceful and gracious post here.)

I can see how a reader of my post, which looked at a passage on madness and creativity from Jonah Lehrer’s new book on creativity as well as a film by Stephen Fry about his own bipolar plunge, might see it as romanticizing these maladies. I think NeuroCritic recognizes I don’t set out to do romanticize madness; yet s/he is right that the post might be interpreted that way. My bad: In my focus on what these links between madness and creativity reveal about the essential nature of the creative process, I neglected to remind readers that the essential nature of severe, untreated forms of depression or bipolar disorder is a plunge — perhaps many plunges — into hopeless, dark, annihilating misery. Jonah Lehrer also understands this. And in a book that is all about creativity, a reader can be expected to understand that the main focus is on that process, and that the madness is being examined for what it says about creativity. In a one-off blog post, however, I think it makes sense to lodge at least briefly the reminder that NeuroCritic lodged with me afterwards. and I should have done so.

These ailments are horrible to suffer. Yet they fascinate us, and they do so partly because they present, in extreme forms, cycles or dips that most of us goes through in milder form. Thus the bipolar dynamics that Jonah describes illustrate starkly the complementary creative roles played by unexpected associations and new insights, on one hand, and ruminative, grind-it-out refinement of those insights on the other. We see these swings most readily in some of the artists and writers who suffered the most. The long walks during which Virginia Woolf half-consciously wrought her characters and stories — walks in which insights were often found  more than created — fed her art as essentially as did the long mornings in which she sat in her armchair penning them into coherent form. Yet when Woolf fell deeply sick she could not work at all. She would descend into the blackest despair. Even sitting up in her armchair, much less writing in it, became more than she could manage. It was as she felt one of those long drops looming before her that she took a walk that ended not back home in her chair, but at the bottom of the River Ouse.

I don’t consider such extremes necessary to art. As I’ve explained before, I think they’re the destructive extremes of a broader sensitivity that can help someone see and respond to the world in original ways. They may sometimes make it easier to create, particularly during the manic phase, when the energy and confidence or high. But they can destroy the artist, eliminating from the world who knows how much great work, and they’re rarely essential. I suspect even bipolar artists do most of their best work not at the very peaks of these cycles, and certainly not at the bottoms, but during the less extreme oscillations that create both the leaps of imagination and the long days at desk, keyboard, or easel, but do not rise to uncontrolled mania or or fall to catatonic numbness. Stephen Fry remains with us, still doing great work, because in grappling with his affliction he was able to quiet such oscillations without flattening them; with any good luck at all, he will put in a full lifetime of work, to the world’s and his benefit. I wish it had been so for Ms. Woolf.

2010 09 16_River Bank From York Bypass_0037

The River Ouse

Photo of River Ouse: Keith Laverack, via Creative Commons. Some rights reserved. 

See also: 

My post Jonah Lehrer Meets Stephen Fry – The Paradoxes of Bipolar and Creativity, 9 April 2012, which started this latest permutation of this discusssion.

The Neurocritic’s Suffering for art is still suffering, 13 April 2012, which was a response to the post above. As usual for The NC, it’s smart, graceful, and has some great art accompanying — in this case, some Edward Munch I hadn’t seen before.


10 responses

  1. The downside of insanity is inarguable and should not require repitition by anyone, expert or amateur.  I wonder what a lame, bland, less intelligent and entertaining world this would be without the contributions of uncommon people.  Arts, science, politics, and most human enterprise of significance are enhanced by the madness of many.  Characterized as hyperthymic personality, bipolar disorder, or whatever description is attached, the creative aspects of the afflicted do not cancel out the desperation of a life unchosen, but neither should they be minimized.

  2. A well-balanced article. I am bipolar, have been institutionalized twice, and have written two (D&D-related) books. I perform stand up comedy, and am a halfway decent artist who has done hired work. I’ve had a half-finished video game demo for a few years. 

    It’s a tough road. When the balancing act works, it seems like nothing is impossible, but when I come down to earth it seems like everything is. When I fly off towards the moon nothing I do works out in the end, and I waste effort. It’s an illusion, as you say in the article; incoherent. I beat myself up because I haven’t achieved more and made use of my debatable “talent”, and because I never went to school in the years before the worst onset of my disorder. I can’t get, let alone hold a job outside of the service industry despite being capable of the work on average, and more when I’m at my best. I don’t know why I’m blathering but I did want to say thank you for these articles. 

    • Almost by definition, my bipolar disorder has been both a blessing and a curse. While there are certainly benefits in the unique perspective, the toll it takes on a human being is extraordinary. I find myself hyper-sensitive at times to even the most minute details of the world around me, and the emotions of the people close to me as well. Yet for all the good that level of awareness has brought me, the capacity for destruction that hyper-sensitivity can have is exhausting. I have to echo the sentiment of your post and the article itself in that the most productive times are the lesser oscillations, spending time at either extreme is incredibly damaging to the mind and spirit.  

      The dishonesty is the worst aspect of it that I have had to deal with, having alienated many of those that cared for me, not intentionally, but because particularly in a manic state you’re willing to promise the world because you feel that you can deliver. Often people don’t understand that, and bipolar people can very quickly develop a negative reputation amongst their friends and family. I’m certainly not making excuses for my behavior, as some tend to think when I try to explain myself.

      As a writer and an artist I feel as though the disorder is more of a hindrance than anything, as both of you mentioned, the times when I reach those manic extremes the end result is often completely incoherent and a wasted effort. I can only hope as the years progress I am aided in my fight against the disorder by the advances of medicine and science in understanding the human mind and how to treat the cause versus the symptoms. Medication, though I am on it, has been a mixed bag due to the catatonic state it generally tends to leave me in. It is a daily struggle, especially during a manic episode, to convince myself to take my medication.

      To sum it up, I agree wholeheartedly with both the article exploring the link between bipolar disorder and creativity, and the rebuttal reminding us to stay aware of the negative aspects that such disorders have on those who suffer from them.   

      • In my own experience, I think that a lot of creativity comes from being willing (or forced to) follow a different path than one drawn up by more conventional minds

        It starts early, when a person is disinclined to follow their parents instructions and grows into a drifting tendency to re-invent an approach even if yo have done the same thing (or your would-be teacher has) a hundred times before

        What we fail to recognize (at least until our crop fails and we almost starve in the winter) is that the path less traveled is a bitch and that it can leave you in a mental dead end that can be impossible to find your way out of

        So, back to the ‘why’, I do not know why I have been this way, or whether it really has been helpful, but I can tell you that I have spent years learning how to behave like the ‘rest’, or to at least understand why they behave that way, and it has given me a lot more peace, or at least a means to find my way home after hitting yet another dead-end on my less traveled roads

  3. Thank you for this follow up and correction. 

    I take issue, however, with your assertion that “the essential nature of severe, untreated forms of . . .bipolar disorder is a plunge”  

    As anyone with a bipolar diagnosis can attest, one does not get “better” because the person is taking medication. Bipolar affects those afflicted in very different ways.  There is no magic normal pill. Rather, it can be a long and often fruitless struggle to start messing with brain chemistry in an attempt to find the right medication cocktail to hopefully give the individual the ability to function in daily life.

    With all of these medications come side effects that range from making you fat to absolutely terrifying anxiety, to a deadly rash, to facial tics and tremors, to catatonic and drooling.  Taking pills every day so you can try to pass as normal is exhausting and depressing in its own right, for one because the bipolar patient is left to wonder where self ends and medication and/or madness begins.  Moreover, the efficacy of any given treatment is often temporary or fleeting and the chemistry experiment starts anew. 

    Treatment is not a cure, and bipolar is something that those afflicted work exceedingly hard to try and manage every single day.

    • Just A:

      Thanks for writing. But I fear you may have misunderstood me. Nowhere did I mention medications or say or even suggest that medications are the only way to treat bipolar disorder or depression. I’ve written extensively about the mixed record, shaky evidentiary database, and oft-misguided use of antidepressants and antipsychotics, and about the side-effects you mention. 

      So I hope that when I said “untreated” it did not seem that I meant “unmedicated.” I meant ‘untreated’ as in not acknowledged or addressed. There are many ways to address and manage depression or bipolar. 

    • Well said. I particularly relate to I ‘wonder where self ends and medication and/or madness begins’ which is why I believe so many bipolar sufferers stop their medications  when they start feeling better and or crave the highs. I certainly miss the highs and sometimes feel as if I’m merely existing rather than living………. Not sure which is the lesser of the two evils….. bipolar is not for sissies., however one can learn to live with it and learn to “embrace” it.

  4. As a trauma therapist, I’ve worked with many performers and artists who are afraid that by healing their emotional wounds, they will lose their creativity.  In fact it is usually the opposite.  Emotional trauma perpetuates a kind of fragility and ungroundedness that is the antithesis of where you really need to go in order to be fully creative.  When trauma is healed, it is your strength, resilience, groundedness–and most importantly, the trust in yourself that you gain from learning to take good care of yourself–that paradoxically allows you to push further into your experience.  Suffering usually makes us deeper and what we learn from it never goes away.  But recovering from it gives us the option to CHOOSE to go there.  And, once healed, if we decide to go there in the name of art, we have the confidence to crack it wide open without destroying ourselves.  

  5. I am a writer who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder about 25 years ago. I have been on three different medications for it – lithium, valproic acid and lamotrigine, in that order. In my own experience, medication can be blessedly stabilizing, but when it is calming to the point of being sedating, from a poor match with the individual or from too high dosing, it can in fact inhibit creativity. I went off of medication for a year to two in my early 30s but I don’t believe I ever will again. The stabilizing effect is far more important for me and my family than my writing impulse and output.

    I have experienced a disorganizing degree of mania that does not allow for formation or completion of meaningful work, but I cannot deny the enhancement of creativity that’s possible within the milder ecstatic thoughts and feelings of an elevated mood and even a mild state of melancholy. It is convenient for psychiatrists and others to believe otherwise.

    I can testify to the great benefits of medication from my own experience – and grow impatient with people who have no experience with it saying it should be avoided at all costs – but I advocate a sensitivity to the trade-off it can be for artists, even if at times only a small one. Diminished creativity or desire to pursue art which was once central to one’s life can be a source of despair in itself. Psychiatrists might improve medication compliance from their patients with bipolar disorder if they avoid overmedication and consider along with the patient their medication options.

    Thankfully I have found lamotrigine to have an antidepressant effect and to be less inhibiting and sedating than valproic acid, but of course there is enough variation in the sources and manifestations of mood disorders that this will not necessarily be the case for others.

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