Not a Tortured Genius

CC image, “Artist”, courtesy Blue Diamond Gallery

Vincent Van Gogh.

Kurt Cobain.

Ernest Hemingway.

The list goes on and on.

There is a romanticized connection between creative people, artistic “geniuses”, and bipolar. I am an artist, a musician, and a writer. I am a creative person. I have made my living being a creative person for the bulk of my adult life. I am also bipolar.

There is a very prevalent cultural view of the relationship between mental illness, particularly bipolar, and creativity. It is a romanticized view. It is a fetishistic notion. It is no less stigmatizing than the cultural ignorance and demonization of mental illness that we often refer to as stigma. Apart from being identified as being bipolar, each of the above “geniuses” took their own lives, which is incredibly common amongst persons with bipolar.

The flip side of the idea of bipolar artist as tortured genius is that medication, while good for the person, is bad for the creative work. I have bought into this idea. My senior year in college, while making work for my thesis show, I stopped taking my meds in order to try to tap into the kind of creativity and energy I (mistakenly?) remembered having before my diagnosis and treatment. I believed that the meds were preventing me from being the best artist I could be, or at least the most productive one. I referred to that manic creative energy as my “superpower”.

The good news is that I was able to make my thesis show. Not needing sleep and being able to work 14 plus hours a day will do that. The bad news is that the work got progressively more disjointed, to the point where the last few pieces that I made were sloppy, scattered, uneven, inaccessible, and, if I’m completely honest, terrible.

Not only did the work suffer for my mental deterioration, but my health and personal life did as well. I slept about an hour and a half per night. I experienced crippling anxiety, panic, and paranoia. I experienced auditory and visual hallucinations. I experienced uncontrollable fits of rage. I experienced excruciating existential despair. I experienced intense, active suicidal ideation. I refused care. I refused hospitalization, and I very nearly lost my life to it.

This is what the fetishistic stigma surrounding the arts and bipolar does. Not only does it, in my experience, destroy the art, but also the life of the artist. Maybe other people experience it differently, but I have never found uncontrollable racing thoughts to be conducive to making coherent art, be it visual, musical, or anything else. Sure, the creative rush and manic energy feels great at first, but it comes at a great cost.

I have found that my best work comes not from my suffering, at least not during the suffering, but when I am most stable. In that state I am not so depressed that I can’t be bothered to work, nor am I so manic that the work is incomprehensible and often uncompleted, as I jump frantically from project to project.

Medications like mood stabilizers and antipsychotics do not destroy the creative process. If anything they enable the creative process by slowing down the chaotic racing thoughts, making “inspiration” more manageable. The idea that art comes out of the “free”, unmedicated mind ignores the realities of mania, at least in my experience.

The lack of medication, quite simply, destroys the life of the artist. And that is not good for the art, either.


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