Our culture has produced some pretty unlikely theories about mental illness: that the mentally disabled are always violent and dangerous; that depressed people would be fine if they’d just “get over it”; that schizophrenics either argue with themselves like Gollum and Smeagol or believe that they are Santa Claus (they’re delusional, of course… or are they?).   I know I’ve struggled with a number of misconceptions about my Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.  But I think the myth that’s disturbed me the most is the old adage that artists must suffer [particularly from mental illness] if they want to create great art.

It doesn’t help that so many in the entertainment industry seem to regard psychiatry with such suspicion. I remember in high school humming blithely along with the Rolling Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper,” internalizing its message, somehow not recognizing that Mick Jagger isn’t someone who should be accusing others of recreational abuse of pharmaceuticals. 

No, what really got to me – what really convinced me that my illness and my creativity were intertwined – were the stories I heard about famous authors killing themselves.  In my eleventh-grade English class, we were assigned to report on great authors, and members of my class covered a who’s who of literary suicides: Hemmingway, Woolf, Plath.  And in the years since then we’ve seen the sad deaths of several more, some of whom I greatly admired growing up; I’m thinking of Hunter S. Thompson and David Foster Wallace.

When you are a teenager, convinced of the existential significance of your personal suffering, it’s easy to draw a pretty problematic conclusion from all of this: suffering is what makes you Unique and Perceptive and Special.  Without suffering you will never achieve greatness.  You need to hurt in order to write. It’s either that, or you can be like Mick’s sedated 50s housewife, stumbling through life in a chemical dream but never creating anything of real or lasting value.

It’s a seductive narrative, a classic tragedy, and easy to map onto the biographies of many great artists.  But perhaps we should not take it for granted.  Maybe creativity isn’t a gift and curse all in one, maybe the pain didn’t inspire these writers but actually held them back.  Maybe they could have produced even greater work – and, more importantly, lived longer, happier lives - if they’d received effective treatment for their suffering. 

I can’t speak to anyone else’s experiences with art and mental illness, but I can tell you about my own.  During the years I suffered from undiagnosed and untreated OCD, struggling with bouts of depression and suicidal thoughts, my ability to express myself was painfully limited.  Who knows how many hours I lost in self-loathing or obsession that I could have spent practicing my craft. 

When I did write, my OCD complicated the process immensely.  OCD can’t be satisfied by anything less than perfection – and when you’re writing and editing, that kind of attitude is a major handicap.  I remember long hours of writer’s block, staring at a computer screen, baffled and infuriated that I couldn’t think of something “perfect” to write and inevitably blaming myself.

I’ve found that attitude – constricted, hypercritical, self-punishing – to be anathema to creativity.  Perhaps its most dangerous trait is that it doesn’t offer the young artist a route out.  The self-loathing steals credit for any work you’re proud of: “You couldn’t have done that if you weren’t so hard on yourself.”  And it doesn’t allow experimentation with other, healthier ways of writing: “I’m telling you the truth,” it says, “and if you try to pretend things aren’t as dark as I tell you they are, you’re just making up a pleasant fantasy.  And your art will suffer for it.”  But pessimism and maturity aren’t the same thing.  I spent a long time writing from my pain, but it was never as productive or rewarding as my work has been since therapy and medication.  My inspiration hasn’t been suffering, but healing. 

If you are a young person reading this, who wants to make art and who is struggling with a mental disability, please consider this - maybe genius and madness don’t have to be intertwined.  Maybe misery doesn’t have to be the engine for your art.  Please think about new ways to address your problems instead of taking them for granted.  See a therapist.  If your therapist isn’t helping you, see a different one.  Recognize that psychiatry has helped a lot of people, and that medication doesn’t necessarily inhibit creativity.  

Maybe the old myth about the tragic genius, wrestling with inner demons, doesn’t have to be true.  You’re an artist, right?  Perhaps you can write yourself a different story.

Copyright, Fletcher Wortmann, 2012. 

Author of Triggered: A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (St. Martin’s Press), named one of Booklist’s “Top 10 Science & Health Books of 2012”

Visit my website:  http://www.fletcherwortmann.com/ 

Read my Psychology Today blog: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/triggered

Image:  ©iStockphoto.com/BrianSM

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