Saturday, September 18, 2010
Pleasure & pain. Saturday, Sept. 18, 2010.
“I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time.” – Virginia Woolf’s suicide note
You’ve seen the list. Vincent Van Gogh. Kurt Cobain. J.K. Rowling. Billy Joel. Ernest and Margaux Hemmingway. Sylvia Plath. Hunter S. Thompson. Virginia Woolf.
As long ago as the time of Aristotle, there was a noted link between mental illness and creativity. Major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder seem to be common amongst writers, musicians, artists, and actors.
No one really knows if, objectively, this is the case. The advent of certain ways to label emotional disturbance is a relative newcomer in human history. When we say that someone suffered from mental illness 300 years ago, we are guessing – applying our definitions on to reported behavior.
And certainly the alleys and homeless shelters are full of people with mental disorders who have not been able to function well enough to work or to create anything.
But when I consider the apparent link between mental illnesses and creative types – and especially the link between suicide and creative types – I do believe there IS a link, and I believe the link is causal. As a writer and a suicide attempt survivor, I was taken aback by this list of more than 400 writers who took their own lives. But I’m not surprised.
Writers (and other creative people) are in the habit of observing the world around them and reflecting on it. My husband recently made this very point. People who are intelligent, who notice things in their outer environment, and who spend time meditating on it may think too much for their own good, especially if they are noticing unpleasant things. These are people who see beauty and feel pleasure very keenly, but they also perceive pain just as keenly.
It’s also been my experience that creative people are very critical of themselves and their work. They’re rarely pleased or satisfied with what they have achieved. They constantly aim higher and higher, and they may reach a point where they can’t improve anymore – and they become depressed.
It’s also said that people with bipolar, in particular, are very creative because one of the effects of hypomania is a racing of ideas and a loss of inhibition. It’s not hard to see why this state would lead some people to be able to create fantastic things, and later suffer a crash and become dysfunctional.
After my diagnosis but before my attempt, I felt a certain romantic camaraderie with these depressed and suicidal creative people. I was bipolar, but as a writer, I was in good company. Now, I don’t feel so proud of the connection – in fact, it terrifies me. This is a trait I don’t want to share.