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Creativity and Madness: On Writing Through the Drugs

1 March 2014

From The Millions:

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.

. . . .

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.”

. . . .

What if the touch of the madness had been medicated out of van Gogh, Hemingway,FitzgeraldFaulknerSextonPlath, 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?

. . . .

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?

Link to the rest at The Millions

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.

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19 Comments to “Creativity and Madness: On Writing Through the Drugs”

  1. Unfortunately, drugs of all kinds – for sleep and for pain – have somewhat of the same effect.

    And some of us find that being properly medicated means we’re also in a state in which that last little creative bit that allows words of fiction to flow out of the ends of our fingertips is muted out of reach. It’s one of the daily hard choices we have to make.

  2. I can’t write if I’ve had so much as a glass of wine. I’ve no idea how those alcoholic writers did it.

    • This.

      But I am writing while doped up on ibuprofen today. And maybe soon some Allegra! I’m livin’ large!

      • Yeah, look at me, I’m on antibiotics and finishing up my novel. 🙂

        I’m not making light of people who do need to take meds to function, though. I know more than a couple. It’s tough.

        • In hindsight I realize my comment could be offensive, which was unintentional. I’ve been on an SSRI for anxiety myself and don’t want to make light of anyone’s medication needs.

          Weirdly enough, concerning antibiotics, they have been the worst for me! Last time on them I was barely able to eat, unable to write–even after the symptoms of the infection itself passed. Drugs and individual body chemistry can be so unpredictable.

  3. Everyone is different. While anti-depressants muted the creative side, going off was a risk. And then I realized I had anxieties and those attacks–as the writer mentions of dizziness–are far worse. They can be kept under control with meds.

    As for sleeping meds, when needed, I wake up so refreshed, the words flow like a dam has burst. It’s a wonderful day!

  4. …a near constant dizziness and hyper-awareness…

    These are also symptoms of sensory processing disorder, and many people are currently misdiagnosed with anxiety (or depression, for another set of symptoms common to both disorders).

    Anxiety and depression can be caused by sensory processing disorder. The drugs for anxiety of depression do mitigate those problems, but they don’t address the underlying cause, the sensory processing issue. Fortunately, SPD can be (indeed, must be) treated without drugs.

    • …SPD can be (indeed, must be) treated without drugs.

      This is interesting. Do you know how it’s treated?

      • An occupational therapist who is knowledgeable about SPD will develop sensory exercises specifically for the individual (there are different ways the sensory system can mis-process) that entrain the sensory system toward more normal processing. The exercises act on serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain to normalize them. SPD cannot be cured. You have to do the exercises every day. But the exercises make a huge difference in subjective experience and objective functioning.

  5. Perhaps it isn’t the drugs that have killed his creativity. Perhaps it is the sedentary life of the “safe,” academic career. I don’t take drugs, but I’ve read about the lives of people who could easily be considered the most creative people in the last century who were heavily into drug use (the Beatles, Nirvana, etc…). I think creativity comes from pushing ourselves and our art into new, sometimes scary, and certainly unsafe places.

  6. Ashe Elton Parker

    I have (not suffer from) Bipolar Disorder and Unspecified Anxiety, and I must say that I cannot MUNDANELY function without medications. If I don’t take them, I end up in bed all day. Get up to bathroom and maybe eat. Possibly shower once in a while.

    Writing does not happen when I’m in this condition.

    I’m definietely one of those for whom medications ENABLE writing. I can’t access ANYTHING when I’m not on medications.

    I currently take two medications for mood stabilization (Bipolar) and nothing for the anxiety – I just avoid the things which cause it to rise, do my best to remain calm and open to change, and try to remain mindful when I’m in situations which can cause it to rise when I can’t avoid them. While my anxiety has never been so severe I’ve been hospitalized because of it, I have come close to hospitalizing myself due to my Bipolar.

    And, while I haven’t met anyone for whom medications serve to block creativity, I can’t help but think perhaps people for whom medications do that are on the wrong regimen. From what I understand from my psych doc, medications should help one access ALL parts of their mental/emotional/creative processes, and, with the variety of medications available today, I wonder why people who are creative for whom their current regimen removes them from themselves like this aren’t discussing with their mental health care provider the possibility of trying a different regimen so they’d be able to connect to their mental processes.

    Of course, I’m not a mental health care professional, or even particularly experienced with medications outside of those I’ve been prescribed, so for all I know, there may be something about ALL psych meds which would produce this effect within certain people.

    Still, if it were me with this kind of reaction to whatever meds I was on, I’d be bugging my psych doc to find a medication or combination of them which would allow me to have my creativity. I identify as a writer too strongly to want to give it up so easily.

    • As someone with bipolar and treatment resistant depression, I know there are TONS of different meds one can try. I’ve been on many of them (without much success…yet). I have been on some that helped a little, but numbed my creativity. I’ve been on some that helped a little that allowed me to write.

      In any case, I think you’re right, Ashe. There are many options, and if a person isn’t happy with how their meds are hampering their creativity, they can and should as their doc to try something else.

  7. What a beautifully written, powerful piece of prose.

  8. I’m one of those ADHD / slight Aspergers /anxious types. My brain never shuts off, and I get fixated on weird things. I struggled for a long time, refusing to take medication because I worried it would kill my ability to be imaginative or creative. At the same time, I couldn’t be creative or imaginative because my brain would never shut off, and I either couldn’t focus on anything for more than a few seconds, or I focused on one thing (that wasn’t what I wanted to focus on) for twenty minutes at a time.

    It’s hard to write like that. It’s hard to even live like that, to be honest. As much as some might frown on it, I’ve found a good mix of medication (Wellbutrin, I tried the stimulants like Ritalin but they made my hands and feet sweat so much that my socks and shirt cuffs would literally be soaked every 20-30 minutes) and marijuana. Wellbutrin isn’t really meant for ADHD, but it helps a lot for me (and others).

    Anyway, under this regimen, I average about 100k words per month. Whether any of those 100k words is coherent is a different question, but at least I can relax and get my brain to focus on one important task at a time.

    I can also say that until I paid a doctor out of my own pocket and was able to actually sit down with him for more than seven minutes once every three months, I was always wandering from medication to medication, mostly no meds at all because I hated what they did to me (sweating hands/feet is just one side effect with some of the meds I’ve been prescribed, another side effect is basically drooling zombie, which I didn’t like much either lol).

  9. I think some people can write or do other creative things in spite of mental health issues, but I don’t think the idea that there is a fine line between madness and genius has much of an evidence base. I think it is a myth that many people latch onto for various reasons.

    There is some evidence that highly intelligent people are more novelty seeking than others. That may explain why some high profile creative people, like writers and actors, become addicted to drugs and engage in other risky behaviours. Myths like the 27 Club can also take on a life of their own, giving sociological impetus to destructive, seemingly mad behaviours.

  10. I’d like to weigh in too. Gently. It’s a hard call. As we see from the souls who posted here today, the way our bodies, brains, chemistry, circadian rhythms, autonomic nervous systems, basic inborn constitution as sensitives or thick skinned, energy level baselines, post trauma residues, profound losses, health issues of the body, relentless responsibilities, attacks from hate-filled-others, serious accidents, serious surgeries, twists of fate … we are all custom works of art… and sometimes also in a long learning to learn to cope with pain and lucha [struggle]. I’m referring here to chronic struggle, not momentary then never again.

    But we can learn. We can mediate. In many ways. And I think it’s important to note that each person has a certain capacity for suffering, some huge, some small. But that’s not what matters, capacity. What matters is when/if one is full and overflowing past one’
    s own capacity. There is no useful judging re whether a person is ‘suffering ‘enough.’ Only taht they are brimming and it is hard. A struggle to bring the waterline back down. But we can. And do.

    I agree entirely with Daleo re the thoughtless pop trope that insanity and creativity share a fine line. There is no science based evidence of such. What is true is that everyone on this planet that spins around the Sun, suffers. About something. About much. About everything. Depends on the day.

    And…First and foremost, mental illness is more properly named by it’s feature which is distress, NOT insanity. It is a suffering. And we all learn to cope with our sufferings in life, one way or the other, over time. We keep at it. Some of us have to work at it more consciously than others. But we all try to find the way through. And we do find effective helps in many directions.

    We know there are myriad ways to learn to release/lessen/mediate our momentary and chronic sufferings. One way is to understand there are numerous mediations that come with more conscious monitoring of food [some foods, especially in their current ‘altered state’ are poison for people with delicate chemical balances, meaning they have finely tuned engine tolerances as in a Farari vs a Ford workhorse that can practically run without gasoline], sleep [quality of, length of, bathroom in middle of night wakings, etc], time spent in sun for vit D3 [needed daily, esp if one lives, sleeps or works in small window or windowless places], how bed is oriented to waking the sleeper with light, [and as JM noted, SDP training], also exercise that changes body chemistry as do both cardio and weight lifting and others that I believe put people in a meditative zone that allows the mind and senses to rest while the body becomes stronger; assessment of elimination, cleansing from known toxins, staying way from da debbil aspartame and gluten, help many many, being careful about what kind of water one drinks [unfiltered tap water can have other people’s meds in it in addition to other schists that can interact with one’s own body chemistry; learning about what meats and fish are fed, particularly re unregulated antibiotics; one’s weight, condition of one’s heart, both physiologic and emotional and spiritual; having ‘practices’ to do when one feels an episode of ultra sense-itivity coming on.

    There are many more mediations that again, are a customized set for each person, and yes, medications are improved over the ‘loping bruin’ [as it was called by some] medications forced patients into against their wills, 45 years ago –too much Haldol. The meddies are more light now, more time release like Webutrin for instance, and sometimes combined, not as a ‘cocktail’ as some call it, a word as ‘off’ as some calling people by their illnesses instead of as a person who has x or y. As in ‘she’s a diabetic.’ Rather than just this: ‘she has diabetes’, which is far more accurate. And allows for dignity. Just my .02 Humans ought be not be defined by their suffering, but rather observantly outlined by their gifts and so much more.

    Some take meds, some not. Some for a while, some off and on, some for life. It is a custom job and up to each soul. The question is, what is the balance with or without meds,with what practices and mediations am I most able and least confined, and in decent enough relationship with myself and others and my children etc.

    The writer who wrote this post, hang in there, I wish the very best and encourage her to continue finding and trying all means to mediate. 5% here, 20% there, 2% better there, 12% here improvement, all add up. And not to scare oneself that someone else’s life path will be one’s own life path to detriment. We can grieve without falling into the grave.

    Just in general life, some days will be a lucha. some tolerable, and many many times of each day, many will see, or learn to see the beauty all around, and feel the response of gratitude. Those moments of happiness, drenched for a moment in beauty, is one of the mediation practices to interrupt/ lessen/ alleviate suffering. Chronic suffering.

    Kay Redfield and others have written about their ways through. One thing that Toby noted too, can be true, and that is that too much isolation and being in a too narrow frame with little freedom to go and to be elsewhere, sometimes can cause more suffering that can be mediated better, by taking more freedom for oneself in ways that matter to oneself.

    As per writing. I tell the people I work with who ‘feel blocked’ or have ‘no desire’ to write, whether they are suffering about something or not: to write about one’s block, write about one’s suffering in a way that will matter beyond self, but also for self. Write about the Spirit of that. That often is good medicine. And good writing. Whether fiction or non fiction.

    Again, just my .02 and my deepest wish for peaceful rest and good dreams and good parts of every day for everyone who is striving in the ways we are talking about. I’ll hold you in my prayers. That’s a promise.

    And sorry to have gone on and on. It takes me more time to write short than long.

    • Nicely written, USAF. I especially liked your remarks on “too much isolation”. Sometimes getting outside of one’s self, having an external frame of reference, can help to ground oneself. By the nature of the activity, writing can get in the way of that. You have to draw on your inner resources so much that there is a danger of overdoing it, being too inner focused.

      Conversely, I think career workaholics can go the other way, focusing so much on the external world of work and business that they lose touch with their inner self. Sometimes, that is deliberate, I think.

      Anyway, moderation in all things, I guess.

  11. Personally, I think writers are no more likely to end up alcoholics, drug addicts, or mentally ill than the rest of the population.

    I do think writers are more prone to think in plot, and more prone to write about what they experience.

    • Yes. I think the reason we think artists are more prone to mental illness than everyone else is that they express themselves and, therefore, their illness. A writer writes about it. A painter paints about it. An actor is followed around by the likes of TMZ 24/7.

      A banker, on the other hand, might tell her spouse and her doctor, but few else will know about it. A teacher will keep it bottled in all day while he puts on his public face to students and coworkers. I’m sure the everyday sufferers of mental illness far outnumbers the artists, but we’ll never hear about it.

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