MORE OR LESS TOUCHED: THE TORTURED ARTIST AND THEIR SUFFERINGS

I’ve returned!

May was Mental Health Month, and I spent the majority of it just recovering from April. Last month was a wreck in a lot of ways, and my blog post for the month reflected that. The highlight of April for me—despite the flaming garbage-pile that made up the majority of it– was that it was National Poetry Writing Month, so I spent a lot of time putting words on the page (and sharing it on my social media accounts). Writing has always been my passion, and poetry has been a real focal point of my life for the past couple of years because it has a healing power that I have yet to discover in any other medium.

I’ve noticed that there is a certain kinship in the writing and art communities that can be excellent fuel for incredible inspiration as well as severe inferiority complexes. That alone could constitute its own post, particularly as someone who has the self-esteem of a sardine, if not less, but being a creator is the only path that I can even imagine taking—and as I writer I like to think that I’m somewhat skilled in the field of imagination.

As someone who wants to create things for a living, I’ve spent a lot of time studying other creators—writers, poets, visual artists, musicians, etc.—because the idea of how to form and wield an artistic “voice” or style and how these individuals’ personal histories lend themselves to this process fascinates me. While studying almost any selection of well-known creators it is difficult not to notice an obvious trend: mental illness.

The “tortured artist” and “mad genius” are archetypes that have been around for almost as long as mankind has been creating any form of art. In Plato’s work, The Phaedrus, he wrote: “Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings…Madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.

From this statement alone we can see that even in the fourth century B.C there was an idealized concept of madness, in this case, loaned from divinity. And what is as close to divinity as the desire to create?

Lord Byron, one of the most grandiose and infamous poets of all time, surely observed this pattern among his creative friends and colleagues. He is often quoted by creative types and those eager to pick their brains:

“We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.”

When one takes a look through the history of the arts it is difficult not to agree. The majority of my favorite writers, poets, and artists have suffered from mental illness—though I cannot say with certainty if this is a “coincidence” or if I am in fact drawn to them because of the secret, sometimes shameful kinship that many sufferers of mental illness feel with others who know their pain.

Some of my favorite writers and artists who are “more or less touched” include Sylvia Plath, Ann Sexton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Vincent van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Georgia O’Keefe, Edvard Munch, and J.K Rowling. This only touches the surface of highly celebrated creators who have been candid about their battles with mental illness.

The observations made by Plato, Lord Byron, and many others have been repeated and expanded upon by modern scientists and psychologists with one main question in mind: Is there a direct correlation between mental illness and creativity? When looking at the statistics it is difficult to believe otherwise.

Dr. Arnold Ludwig at the University of Kentucky preformed a study in which 1,004 “eminent”—in this case, culturally influential– figures were analyzed by profession. It was noticed that those in creative fields– such as writing, poetry, visual arts, music, and theater—had a significantly higher rate of mental illness than those in other professions (such as accounting, law, etc.). The mental illnesses most commonly noted were depression, anxiety, and mania. Suicide was also noticeably more common among creative types, one study claiming that writers in particular were two times more likely to commit suicide than others. (To put this in perspective, four out of the nine writers that I listed above committed suicide.)

I am clearly biased, but I find it very easy to believe that mental illness and the call to creativity could be so interlinked. Since childhood I have had eyes only for the arts. I have never had the slightest interest in anything at all besides creating and partaking in the creative pursuits of others. I have of course also always battled with depression, suicidal ideation, and the other boogeymen that my brain has sent forth over the years. I’ve long wondered… if I wasn’t depressed would I feel the same unwavering call to the arts?

Do I love to create because of my mental anguish and a need for release, or does the inspiration stem from something deeper?

Does my creativity come from the same malfunctions in my brain that my illnesses come from, and if so, can one be separated from the other?

Some of this can actually be observed and studied thanks to modern science. It is known that hyperactivity in the frontal lobe of the human brain is characteristic of both manic depression and schizophrenia. High levels of dopamine specifically in the prefrontal cortex are known to be linked with hallucinations. (Hallucinations in and of themselves are a fascinating area of study, and can be linked to more than one artist’s inspiration, as Oliver Sacks discusses in his work.) Studies show that heightened activity in this part of the brain can cause unusual connections to be made between ideas, and if that is not a hallmark of the creative process, what is?

Similar observations have been made by Dr. Alice Flaherty at Harvard Medical School. Her studies also show that creative thinking does in fact involve “unusual” frontal lobe activity, with physical and chemical evidence suggesting that some mental illnesses and creativity are very similar states of mind.

So, what to do with this information? I, like many other creative types, find this connection to be rather inconvenient when it comes to seeking aid, such as medication. I admit that a large part of me has feared starting medication due to the effect that it may have on my creative abilities. Edvard Munch made a statement to be echoed in the hearts of creatives for many generations to come, claiming that his illness was indistinguishable from him, and making the choice that so many creative types have in saying, “I want to keep those sufferings.”

Of course there are many that believe the connection between mental illness and creativity is incidental and certainly not enough to stand between someone and the treatment that they may so very need. But taking a creator’s imagination and pain is not unlike taking their pen or paintbrush, and the whole arm with it. Then there is of course the double edged sword of productivity as a creator, particularly for those of us with depression. I can’t be the only one who has set aside an entire day for creative endeavors, only to find myself ten hours later re-watching that go-to comfort show, mired deeply in the brain-numbing world of social media, or (usually) awakening from a five hour depression nap.

Living life with a mental illness is a series of compromises and sacrifices of varying degrees. When you are a creator and depend on those fluctuating moods and states of mind for inspiration or motivation, it can be difficult to see where your internal muse ends and where the mental illness begins. I of course can only speak for myself and present the information that I have found. It seems that I will always have so many more questions and ponderings than answers, and not everyone may agree with my musings and conclusions. I believe that everyone must be true to themselves, or they can be true to nothing at all. So I leave you to ponder these things until next time with a clip from a poem by Michael Drayton,

“For that fine madness still he did retain, which rightly should possess a poet’s brain.”

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Recommended reading:

Mental Illness and Creativity: A Neurological View of the ‘Tortured Artist’” by Adrienne Sussman

Touched With Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison

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