Saturday, September 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.
Friday, September 17, 2010
“There cannot be a crisis today; my schedule is already full.” –Henry Kissinger
I just got off the phone with a colleague who is terribly upset. Her son, who’s only in his mid-40s, is having emergency quadruple bypass surgery tomorrow. A couple of days ago, one of my coworkers became a grandmother to a baby born two months premature.
Last week, another coworker was in her second car accident in as many months; neither was her fault. And yet another coworker is losing the home she and her family lived in for 20 years because their mortgage payment became unaffordable. She and her husband, their five children, a grandchild and three dogs need to find a place to live, pronto.
There will be crises in our lives; of that we can be sure. We won’t know what or when, but they will occur. But for people who suffer from a mental illness, any crisis is like a double-whammy. We already feel anxious and depressed, sometimes even when things are going well. That’s our “default.”
So where are our energy reserves to deal with the big things? If our emotions are already in a bad way, what will we do when the other shoe falls?
I love the advice of so many books and websites that tell people with depressive and anxiety disorders to “reduce stress.” I can’t wrap my mind around that one. Who has an extra share of stress they can just freeze off like an ugly wart and flush down the john?
Who can tell their boss to make their work environment a little more peaceful? Or prevent their kids from being kids, or their mothers-in-law from being mothers-in-law?
And let’s say I can do those things. What’s to prevent the unforeseeable? My biggest concerns are around my job and finances. But what happens if my husband has a heart attack? If my mother’s cancer comes back?
I feel so brittle. I never handled crisis particularly well, but nowadays, I feel like I will shatter into a thousand pieces if something goes wrong. I feel like the top layers of my skin have been peeled off, leaving the raw nerves exposed.
It’s a scary feeling, being so vulnerable. I wish I could surround myself with a magical bubble-wrap that would prevent any disaster from hitting me or my family. Because when spilling a glass of fruit juice on the kitchen floor makes you sob for an hour, you get really fearful about how you’ll handle the big stuff.
Thursday, September 16, 2010
"Manic depression distorts moods and thoughts, incites dreadful behaviors, destroys the basis of rational thought, and too often erodes the desire and will to live." –Kay Redfield Jamison, author of “An Unquiet Mind”
Yesterday I sat in my doctor’s office and sobbed. I had been feeling better – not good, but better – but then I had started crashing again. I was dealing with side effects from the meds. Some changes I’d made that I’d been hopeful about hadn’t helped at all. And my life stressors were still the same. “I just want to feel normal, just for a day,” I told her, the tears running down my cheeks. “I’m so tired of feeling this way all the time.”
Three years ago I had lunch with a friend, Don, whose wife Sarah is severely bipolar. Sarah was in and out of the psych ward a couple of times a month. She alternated between being suicidal and being violent toward her husband and daughter.
My symptoms had never manifested in that way, but listening to him, I was so thankful. I’d been on the same medication combination for several years, and in general, life was smooth. I had recently requested that my doctor remove “bipolar” from my diagnosis. I was certain I had been misdiagnosed years before.
After all, I was only 16 when a doctor who barely knew me labeled me “manic-depressive.” I had felt pretty darn good for a long time, so obviously, the label was wrong, and I wanted it out of my records.
But later, all hell would break loose.
Today I finished writing a story for my publication about a group of women who have survived breast cancer. Every one of them fought for life, through disfiguring surgery and sickening chemotherapy. Each one of them looked forward to a day beyond their illness. They operated on hope that one day, they would feel better. And every one of them was grateful to be alive. They are proud to be labeled “survivors.”
Depression is a different kind of illness. Depression feels like “always.” Depression hides hope. Depression tells the victim that the only way to relief is death. Whereas people with potentially terminal illnesses do everything they can to survive, people with clinical depression feel too tired and discouraged to fight.
I’ve had times in my life when I felt better. I’ve hit bottom, but I know there is a “better” out there, because I’ve experienced it. I want to be able to look back and say, “There was a time when I didn’t think I’d make it, but I did. And I’m glad.”
I want to wear the label of “survivor.”
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
“I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all.” –“Bohemian Rhapsody,” Queen
“I never asked to be born!” I yelled at my mother.
Maybe I was 12. I don’t remember what the hullabaloo was about. It could have been an argument about my homework or about keeping my room clean. Whatever it was about, I’m sure that almost every kid has pointed out this fact to his parents at least once.
Because it’s true. None of us ask to be here. Well, some people believe that our souls lay in waiting, choosing what body to be born in. But that doesn’t make much sense to me. I think we come into this world without anyone asking our preference or opinion about it. And when we become too old to be angry at our parents for bringing us here, and we’re in distress, we become angry at God for creating us in the first place.
I’d be lying if I said I never wish that I’d never been born. If I had never been born, I wouldn’t be dealing with bipolar, depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. If I had never been born, I wouldn’t have needed to be hospitalized twice. If I had never been born, I wouldn’t have a job or finances to worry about. If I had never been born, I wouldn’t be a burden to my family. It all sounds so ideal. So what the hell am I doing here, anyway?
To answer the question, I have to step out of myself for a moment. I have to shut off the critical voice inside my head and the angry woman in the mirror that tells me that I’m a worthless waste of space, and try to be objective.
Let’s see. If I had never been born…
…My mother, who’d had several miscarriages before I was born and longed for a baby for many years, might have always sadly wondered what might have been.
…My father probably would have been divorced much earlier, and would have lived more of his life alone.
…Gigi may have been injured or died in a drunk-driving accident, because I wouldn’t have been at the party to talk her out of driving.
… Laurel may have married a boy she did not love, because I wouldn’t have been there to help boost her confidence.
…Dedree may have died in her dorm room, because I wouldn’t have been there to contact emergency services when she went into shock because of bulimia.
…A little boy whose name I do not know may have suffered more abuse, because I would not have been there to call the police.
…Several publications would not have won a number of awards.
…My husband might never have met his soul mate; our church might not exist; and our son would be someone else.
So I guess it’s good that I’m here, although it really doesn’t feel that way much of the time. The next time I wish I had never been born, I really need to remember the consequences of my not being here.
And the same goes for you. Most of the situations above were the results of something as simple as a conversation or a phone call. Whose life has benefitted by your birth?
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
“Life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.” ~William Goldman
Some years back, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” Kushner, whose young son had died of a devastating illness, asked the question we all ask when we suffer, especially when we did nothing to deserve it: Why me?
I’m waiting for a different book: “When Good Things Happen to Bad People.” Because I see an awful lot of that going around. Why them?
There are people out there who do bad things. They tell lies about others. They are greedy. They are selfish. Some of them even break the law and get away with it.
We can wait for the scales of justice to tip, but the truth is, it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, despite it all, these people wind up with good jobs in lovely homes and with nice families.
One person tried for years to ruin my life and the lives of the people I cared most about. She told lies about me and my family, and her behavior affected every aspect of my life: my relationships, my job, and my finances.
It may seem petty, but I had always comforted myself with the thought that one day, she would get her comeuppance. One day, I thought, she would get what was coming to her. One fine day, she would suffer, and I would revel in it.
I recently heard how she’s doing, and my fantasy bubble has popped. She’s become quite successful. Her spouse didn’t leave her. Her career is going well. God didn’t even smite her! Where’s the justice?
To be fair, I don’t know what she’s like on the inside. She could be miserably depressed. She could detest her outwardly perfect life. I don’t know. I just know that she’s not wearing a sackcloth, living deserted and alone, like I’d pictured in my mind. And I’m ashamed to admit that I feel angry and depressed about this.
The Bible tells me to bless my enemies. The truth is I’ve had very, very few enemies in my life, and not a lot of opportunities to practice that commandment. I guess I have one now.