Monthly Archives: January 2015

Creativity and Mood Swings

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

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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.

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New Year, New You?

I’ve been weighing up a New Year post in my mind for a couple of weeks now.  In all honesty there are two big things that have stopped me.  Firstly, I’ve been feeling pretty good for some of the last month or so and, as I’ve written about before, when I feel good I’m always sure I’m not going to be unwell again and I certainly don’t want to think about the possibility I could be.  Secondly, I’m more inclined to reflect on the last 12 months, and look ahead to the next, on my birthday.  There are lots of positives to this: it means you begin every ‘year’ by having a party about how awesome you are for being alive; it means (as my birthday is in September) it happens during my favourite time of year – lovely lovely autumn and even if my annual review makes me sad I get to revel in the crisp fresh air of autumn; and it means I’m not influenced by the resolutions and triumphs of those around me.

A lot of people talk about how Christmas is a really difficult time for many people, and I’m not going to argue with that.  I personally find Christmas quite easy – your proverbial man-on-the-street tends to be more polite and charitable around Christmas, most things on tv are about the strength and qualities of the human spirit, and there’s lots of good food.  New Year on the other hand? Everything on tv is telling me I need to Be Better, Lose Weight, Shape Up.  The proverbial man-on-the-street is angry, hungover, skint, and filled with rage at the dying of the light (aka Winter Nights).  There’s very little good food, and often a lingering sense of indigestion.  And everyone else seems motivated and resolved to make themselves over, no matter how fleeting their resolve might be.

New Year, and January in general, are a hard, long, self-hating slog.

Naturally, I’m not one to abstain from the spirit of the season so I’ve committed to a schedule of self hatred, despair, and introversion.

I jest.  Well…I exaggerate slightly in an attempt to wrench comedy from my current low mood.

So I’ve decided to make January into my own personal mental health review month.  What went well last year? How I am going to make this year better?

Last year was punctuated by one of my 3-5 yearly major lows.  In 2014 this took the form of an almighty argument with a friend which turned into an almighty argument with my family which turned into an almighty throwing-stuff-in-a-bag-and-running-away-and-not-telling-anyone-where-I-was.  Not one of my finer moments.  It did, despite it’s car-crash execution, achieve what I needed at that time which was a release of the tension, anxiety and sense of being trapped which had been building for months.

When you are on a tight budget – which I permanently am – it can be hard to give yourself what you need.  Especially if the thing you need (and it always seems to be) is a break from your everyday life and a brief period of self-care and self-indulgence.  Self care.  That’s a phrase that sticks with me – sounds too much like ‘woo’, too new age, too indulgent.  And, as perhaps I will one day write about – the working class chip on my shoulder doesn’t stand for any of that woolly, wussy shit.

But this is what my 2015 needs; more time, more acknowledgement I can’t keep pushing and pushing myself and hope that the crushing anxiety and exploding stress in my chest will simply dissipate of its own volition.  It won’t.  In 2015 I need to take more time to refresh myself, give my brain some breathing space, and allow myself to break a little so that I don’t break absolutely.

Will I be able to do that? Well that’s another reason my 2015 is currently driven by sadness and a shunning of human company (haven’t spoken with anyone since Tuesday, oops?).  2015 is provisionally the year I intend to submit my thesis and to achieve that I do need to drive myself.  I’m not, and never have been, tolerant of anything other than perfection in myself and this will be a year that instinct is tested to breaking point.  Working out how to balance the need to push myself to my limit to produce the very best thesis I can at the very highest level I have ever worked and the very real need to hold my sanity together is going to be my biggest challenge this year.  I think it begins with taking time off and being kinder to myself.  I’ll have to see if I can learn how to do that.

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