I have a real problem with the persistence of the idea that madness – in any of it forms but most often bipolar spectrum conditions – gifts sufferers with unique creative abilities. This idea is circulated by seemingly unending articles and books featuring the work of artists who ‘suffered’ from Van Gogh to Sylvia Plath, Amy Winehouse to Virginia Woolf.
In part, I (and I’m not alone in this) think it’s a case of uneven representation – the many bipolar and cyclothymia sufferers who produce nothing of artistic or literary value are never reported on, the tiny fraction who do are proportionally over represented. There are some convincing studies which suggest creative professions are disproportionately populated by people with mental health problems – again I feel cause and effect are getting muddled here. Madness does not make you creative but if you are mad, creative industries are one of the few which are flexible enough to allow mad people (whose ability to work varies wildly as their health fluctuates) to succeed. It’s something I wrote about briefly in the Great Big Cyclothymia Q&A in relation to work.
I can almost hear someone out there asking ‘why does it matter that people say creativity and madness go hand in hand? It’s only ever a compliment!’. Well, quite simple; with the suggestion that madness gifts creativity and originality comes the implication that in the misery of mental ill health we should be celebrating our unique, special and oh-so-valuable gift of creativity.
I’ve often tried to comfort myself with that pleasant lie; ‘I’ve got as far as I have because cyclothymia has given me this bolts of insight’ – both when I am hypomanic and when I am depressed. But the truth of it – or at least the thing that feels more true – is that I’ve got as far as I have with my academic studies in spite of my poor mental health and not because of it.
Despite this – or perhaps because of my own uncertainty about whether I am helped or hindered by mood fluctuations – I find depictions of madness in art and literature absolutely fascinating. I recently read Barbara Stok’s Vincent which manages to beautifully illustrate Vincent Van Gogh’s period living in the South of France. I was particularly struck by the way she illustrated Vincent’s deteriorating mental state. In the three panels below, taken from several pages apart, you can see the ‘specks’ closing in on Vincent (click to embiggen). The clear skies of the first panel become busy as Vincent begins to panic in the second, and finally almost obscure the colours around him as he becomes despairing in the third panel
Later still, in moments of agony and disassociation, the frames spill out from their previously precise squares into jagged explosions. What a remarkable skill Stok demonstrates, to so ably transfer a mental experience to a visual one. And that, I realised as I read Stok’s book, is what really appeals to me in depictions and descriptions of mental ill health.
From Allie Brosh’s now famous depiction of how depression feels and Ruby Etc’s comical piece on how listening to music can vary so wildly with bipolar, to monsters which illustrate different mental health diagnoses and the exploration of anorexia Manic Street Preachers offer; art can tell us something helpful about mental ill health. It can, in a way more immediate than dense prose or long blog posts (!), assure us our experiences are shared and give shape and substance to that thing inside ourselves which we struggle against. Perhaps that’s also why so many people with mental health struggles feel compelled to try and record something of them in their creative output; naming the beast, drawing the beast, finding the beast in the hope it can be slain.
As for creating art and literature when mad? It has before now been a way I monitor my own mood* and what I produce when hypomanic versus when I am unhappy, or even fairly stable, is one of the many signals I use to understand when I need to take a break, ask for help, or even schedule extra working time into my month. But does any of it happen because I’m mad? No, it’s always the things I would be doing anyway amplified, or muffled.
* I produced two self portraits some years ago, the first when I felt fairly stable, was in my typical style, the second when I was hypomanic came out of me without my really understanding how I painted so differently.