I had rarely felt so alive, so close to the spitting pulse of energy and awakened life. I moved from the Berkshires to New York City for graduate school, to pursue an MFA in writing. My first year was an exhilarating blur of freedom and power. Each morning when I stepped out of my apartment, I felt like I owned the world. I felt beautiful and talented and young. I knew famous people, I was creatively inspired, I was meeting regularly with editors and publishers who were interested in my writing. My only responsibilities were to read, study with some of my literary heroes, write, and teach part-time. But by the end of my third year in the city, an anxiety disorder that had plagued me since the beginning of my life, and would flare up and calm down on a strange circadian rhythm of misery, had gotten so bad it reduced me to a quivering non-functioning bundle of raw nerves. I barely squeaked by in my last semester of my program, writing, reading, and teaching between emergency room visits, therapy appointments, panic attacks, and crippling phobias.
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During this time, I was writing prolifically, and I feared that taking medication to ease my anxiety and panic might destroy my urge or ability to create. I had heard of many artists who had gone mad or suffered from horrible depression, and took the popular prescription of the day, never to write or create again. Their troubling symptoms had been muted, but so had everything else, their thoughts, perceptions, libidos, and ability to access deep feelings. They reported feeling emotionally void, deadened, seeing life as if through a veil. I also heard of artists who went mad and died, victims of suicide, drug overdose, or fatal manic episodes, and that scared me even more. David Foster Wallace, a writer I admired and sympathized with for his closeness to the raw fire of his own internal demons, committed suicide during my second year of graduate school, when my emotional world was crumbling, and it shook me to my core.
Creatives of all modalities have for centuries have suffered from mental illnesses like anxiety and depression, and they have resisted treatments that could improve their conditions for fear it would alter or cloud their minds, drug them into submission, or quash their creative impulse. Edvard Munch famously proclaimed, “I want to keep my sufferings. They are part of me and my art.” Van Gogh said, “Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence, whether much that is glorious, whether all that is profound, does not spring from disease of thought, from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect.”
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What if the touch of the madness had been medicated out of van Gogh, Hemingway,Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Sexton, Plath, and Wallace? They very likely would have lived longer, fuller, and more enjoyable lives, but would they have created their works of genius? It’s a strange calculation we make, now that we can tinker with the chemicals that seem to make us who we are, which aspects of our personality are worth enduring for the gifts they can bestow? What if those aspects end up costing us our lives? What if saving our lives with medication robs us of the very thing that gives our lives meaning and makes us who we deeply are — sensitive, scared, hyper-aware, but also exultant, perceptive, and insightful into the human condition?
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It has now been about five years since I left New York. I’m teaching writing full-time at one school and adjuncting one evening a week at another. For the most part, I have a handle on my anxiety and panic. I’ve worked hard in therapy on strategies for handling a near constant dizziness and hyper-awareness that are classic symptoms of anxiety, and the SSRIs and Benzodiazepines I take are a seatbelt around my panic. Since I’ve been on meds, my trips to the emergency room have steadily dwindled down to none. My relationships have improved because I no longer need to rely on my friends, family, and romantic partners for my safety and emotional stability. But between teaching more than full time, reading voluminous student work, and the lazy happiness the medicines have granted me, I’ve barely written a word. At first, I didn’t need to. I rode my bike, I took a job, I fell in love, I enjoyed eating and spending time with friends again. There was none of the urgency or desire to wrestle with my words in the midst of such a full life. I used to write to live, to push myself out of a dark hole and connect with a reader in the world outside my suffocating den. Now, though I don’t feel quite as alive when I’m not writing, it’s no longer imperative. It’s even at times unappealing — why would I seclude myself from a world I’ve missed out on for so long to sit alone and sift through the crumpled napkins and browned apple cores of my thoughts and experiences as I’d done for years when trying to unlock the mystery of my suffering?
For balance, Passive Guy knows several successful writers who take medication to control or minimize the effects of mental illness who are able to write much better and more prolifically as a result of their treatments.