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Do Depressives Make the Best Artists?

Minds, bodies, and creativity

I’ve been writing recently about anxiety and creativity. In my family, we have both, in rich abundance. Depression, too, and other unquiet-mind types of stuff. Preparing for publication a little essay about the proclivities for angst and art passed along each generation of my family (I’ll share the link when it comes out online) has got me thinking about the human brain.

Lots of research has been done on the frequent coincidence of mental illnesses—depression in particular—with creativity in people. Just this month, The Atlantic published a piece by psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and literary scholar (all rolled into one!) Nancy C. Andreason, on the “Secrets of the Creative Brain,” which argues that many of history’s greatest artists struggled with emotional dysregulation—sometimes to the death—and takes a new shot at explaining why.

In general, it’s not news that creative types also tend to be tormented types (Hemingway, Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Schumann come instantly to my mind).

But Andreason’s research offers a richly reflective and scholarly take on this situation. However you slice it, there's ample evidence that fretful minds and roiling psyches are sufficient conditions for the creation of compelling art.

I believe that art and anguish travel so often as a twosome because both grow out of a surplus of feeling, of acute sensitivity to the business of living. Sometimes the business of living is a pretty dirty one. It can inspire anxiety and sadness, but can also be an impetus for artistic creation.

In my family, brains go so right and so wrong (usually in the same person). We seem to experience these minor intracranial misfires that make us stray, from time to time, into regions of the bizarre, the dysfunctional, and the electrified. (No, I am not a neuroscientist, nor a psychologist, nor a scientist or medical doctor of any sort. I didn’t even take college biology. I’m a writer using my poetic license, which, unlike my driver’s license or your cousin’s friend’s medical license, can never, ever be revoked.) If most of my family have this emotional lability in common, we are also, on and off, engaged in creative work.

The human brain is astonishing, elegant, complex, and liable to slippage. My son Benjy’s brain is intensely active—a maker of unlikely and beautiful connections, a cabinet of curiosities, a cache of information so arcane, and ideas so surprising, it could make a mother cry with pleasure (and also a tiny bit of consternation). But when Ben’s brain is enslaved by depression and anxiety, it tilts—and suddenly, the world is crooked, the cabinet of curiosities locked up until further notice, to prevent permanent damage.

Mental illnesses can do that to a person. Who knew? I do, now, because when Benjy’s depression and anxiety reached their peak a few years ago he began to exhibit symptoms that looked like the symptoms that accompany a brain lesion. Loss of basic knowledge. (I refer here to the things you just know if you are over the age of 3 or 4. Which day comes after Tuesday, what the large wooden thing with drawers that hold your underwear and shirts is called. Stuff like that.) Lack of bladder control. Short-term memory loss. And intermittent space-outs that looked a lot like absence (petit-mal) seizures.

So yeah, depression and creativity are often linked in a person, but not necessarily ascendent at the same time.

And where does the body fit in to this "illness and art" equation? There's no question that minds and bodies connect at the most basic level. This fis a fact I can prove. Apart from having watched my child’s body lose some of its functions in direct proportion to his increased psychiatric dysregulation, and my own body grow ill in response to years of unmitigated stress (that story’s to come in a later post), I’ve watched THIS.

And here's where I pull it all together: Art can be an antidode to stress and its physical ravages, as well as to depression. I've seen this firsthand. Benjy is finding his way back to his "Curious Cabinet" as he de-stresses and grows healthier—physically and mentally. He's adding new stuff to it every day: ideas, images, plans. Whether his creative impulses returned first, or his relative equanimity, seems immaterial. But the fact of his loing-standiung depressive disorder does not.

I, too, am returning to my art—although my progress is slower, commensurate with my advanced age and the notion that teaching an old dog new (or unpracticed) tricks is not easy. I hope, and tentatively believe, that we are both poised to emerge for good from the dark heart of the forest into its dappled margins. But I know from experience that brains can slip without notice, and bodily health can follow. When they do, all bets are off. The world can turn dangerous and unreliable and sad--that old forest at midnight.

It’s always worse when your kid is the one suffering. We adults have experience enough to know that sadness almost always lifts—although even that awareness sometimes does not save us. But a child? An adolescent? The baby you brought into this world, replete with its wordly darknesses and delights? We cannot rescue our children solely with the benefit of our own experience. I wish we could! I might have saved my boy an ocean of sinking despair.

Sometimes all you can do for a depressed, anxious, suicidal child, is resort to the tight, bright walls of the locked psychiatric unit, where he can be safe and get a little better while his parents gather strength for round two.

I can tell you this: Those tight, bright walls become kinder and much more attractive after you ship Denial off to do his dirty work elsewhere. And locked safe within them, a kind of healing becomes possible, that is itself a form of art.

Readers, what are your thoughts about mental health and creativity? Do you have questions to ask or stories to share ? Have at it!