It’s a common theme in American culture that people with mental illness have an advantage creatively. In someways – yes, in other ways – no. I’ll look at this from a writing perspective.
The root of this, I believe, is that being mentally ill means being outside of the creative bubble and societal bubble that constrains “normal” people. I’ve even heard people say that they wished they had a mental illness so that they could get this perspective. There is also a glorification in our culture of bipolar disorder especially as it is seen as the creative disease. I’ve even been told that in those words specifically by a health care practitioner. So on top of that is the idea that there is something intrinsic in mental illness that makes someone more creative than normal.
This is true. This is very very very true. People with severe mental illness are far outside the normal bubble of society. For the basis of this I’ll share a bit about myself. I have the disease of the amygdala known as type 1 bipolar disorder – manic predominance – with psychosis. That means I am manic in one way or another from about mid-April through September and depressed from about November to February (though this doesn’t seem to be this case this year). It also means that I hallucinate (for me it’s auditory and visual). This happens every year. And quite honestly, because I am in a mood state for all of 10 months, sometimes more, I have no earthly clue what it is like to be a normally functioning human beyond imagining myself as a tamer version. Part of me doesn’t want to know though. And it’s been going on long enough that I don’t remember what it’s like to not be this way. So I’m far outside of it. From what people have told me, I know that it is very true that people with mental illness are not only outside the bubble but perceive the world differently. This can be useful in all creative endeavors, a lateral mindset.
Being manic is wonderful too. I usually describe it as doing two lines of coke followed by an IV of Fentanyl. Best. Drug. Ever. I’ve organized my medication around still having it. For two reasons. One – it feels great (that’s too weak a word as it’s watered down to describing Denny’s bacon to a waitress). Two – it is in fact creative.
Each summer I find that I do new things. It’s how I became a sound engineer. Then an owner of a music venue and art gallery. Then a mastering and recording engineer. Those are alongside a host of other things I do on a whim. I have so many experiences in my life that most people don’t have the impulsivity to try. Then writing. I created characters without a second thought and knew their backstories in an instant. Words flowed, once 30k in a day. I got up at 5am without coffee, sat down, and wrote until about 3am barely moving from the desk. While I can be scattered and everywhere at once, I can also be so narrow minded that I forget to eat and have the limitless energy to work through starvation. There is nothing stopping a mania. It will create, it has to create, and having them I know that I’ll never not have a new book in me. I’m not sure what else constitutes an advantage than always knowing that the next idea is never more than just a few months away. And it’s more like dozens of ideas.
Mental illness gives a writer experiences that are not available to the normal populous. I think that a good writer needs life experiences and mental illness is like a treasure trove of novel experiences, extreme experiences, and experiences that are far outside the normal bubble. It also reveals emotions and situations in new ways and often in brutal detail.
But it’s also terrible for writing.
I’ve been abandoned by all but five friends, and I’ve also been evicted by my best friends all because of my illness.
I’ve never gotten over that.
It’s terrible in how to get to a lot of those experiences that tug at the heartstrings when writing. In addition to the drug like high I have lows that have nearly killed me and another class of experiences that cannot be described that will one day kill me. Since the onset of my disorder, I’ve had a sliding hell at times of things that would never have happened if I was normal. More often than not, it’ll break the mind, take friends, isolate, and steal what remains of your money so that you can get proper treatment.
To glorify mental illness as an advantage is to ignore the reality that it is always still hell that in time numbs the mind to really feeling anything outside of the extremes.
And it’s not just me.
One of my favorite writers, David Foster Wallace, was the writer he is because of depression. It’s there in his writing, plain to see if you’ve ever had it. But it killed him. Same with Hemingway. Mental illness, even something as common as depression, is deadly. I’ve had people glorify what I have, but it kills roughly a third of those who have it. I’ve survived twice, not sure how many more I will.
So in short. It can be an advantage and in all likely, it is an advantage in terms of creativity. But it is never something to want. It is not an advantage that’s worth it. And most of all, it is not something to glorify in any way.