November 18, 2006

A poem, and a letter to A (and to all)


In a book I’m reading about the Inuit
before wood and canned food and cooking,
before firewater, drugs and the pipeline took their toll,
an old woman, too frail to travel,
padded off alone to wait for frostbite
and the hunger of the white bear.
My old cat, going blind, already lame in one foot,
stopped eating one day
and disappeared under the porch,
where she went to sleep and never woke up.
Did she know she was dying, too?
And what about the birds?
They must go somewhere when it is time to die.
There are so many birds, yet you rarely see a dead one.
I wonder if I will know how to die when my time comes.
I would like to go in the morning,
after writing through the night,
the full moon bright on a page of sky,
watching as the clouds thicken,
just as a light snow begins to fall.

Dear A,

You asked me why so many creative people have been touched by mental illness, and I have to say, I don't know why. There is a book called (I believe) Touched by Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison, which I have not read but that I believe deals with this subject. She is a psychologist who is very open about the fact that she has bipolar illness, so you might be particularly interested in reading her books, also An Unquiet Mind, about her battle with the illness, and Night Falls Fast, about suicide. I reviewed An Unquiet Mind for the LA Weekly and found it very well written and a good read as well as informative and even witty at times. But to get back to the subject I started with, it seems to me that at least in bipolar illness, which you tell me you have, the emotions are indeed subject to extremes, and you do feel things more deeply than others might, by virtue of the bipolarity of your emotions. So creativity might spring from your feeling things more, but I think extremes of emotion do lay you open for mental disturbance, if they are not disturbance in and of themselves. You see what I mean? In bipolar illness, the problem IS the feelings, so the deep feelings that lead to creativity are also THE mental illness. So in that sense you almost can't have one without the other. Or at least if you are bipolar, there is a good chance that you will be creative, NOT that if you are creative you will be bipolar!

For us schizophrenics (I don't usually use that word, but it is helpful as a shorthand for persons with schizophrenia - PWSz) it is harder to say that creativity goes hand in hand with the illness. I have known some pretty uncreative PWSz! On the other hand, the Sz might have dulled them and their creativity that they once had, such that it no longer shines through. I don't know. Sometimes it seems that Sz can enhance creativity, but does so to the point of making one incoherent; at other times it can destroy it, dulling a person until their creativity is deadened beyond recognition. In both cases, though, medication can help, I believe. I don't believe that unmedicated schizophrenia is a more naturally creative state than "normality," And if it is, it is a useless creativity for the most part, because largely incoherent, perhaps even in the visual arts (see Louis Wain's cats for an example above and also third comment for further discussion of incoherence). Oh, I still wrote and wrote, poem after poem, when not on medication, but the poems were useless nonsense, nothing I would or could publish, nothing I can make sense of now, not even I! My psychotic poems embarrass me now, in fact. And my drawings even more so. They are really only diagrams, but I thought they were art. All they did was explain my psychosis!

So this is a dicey question to be asking. Because I believe that ALL PEOPLE ARE CREATIVE, and that means PWSz and PWBP too. I don't think that PWSz have a corner on creativity, though I think that we have a special subject that informs out creativity and can use our creativity, and should, to teach others about the illness and what we have been through...Especially since it has been so much a part of our lives that it is hard to avoid writing or drawing or painting about it! To the bipolars among us, you may indeed be an elite company, as history has shown a connection between bipolarity and extreme creativity. An awful lot of famous writers and artists have been bipolar, too many to discount this. But creativity is one thing, using it and training yourself is another, and that takes plain old hard work, which helps even those without natural talent to develop originality and creativity. So a word to the wise in everyone: DON"T think you are not creative just because you are not bipolar! You have a wellspring of creativity in you simply because you are human. It may not be as close to the surface as it is in A or other bipolars, but it is there, and only needs nurturing and tutoring to come out in full force. Use it or lose it is as good a notion as any when thinking about the creative urge in a person. But it is never lost entirely, just buried under a lot of junk, and the deeper it is buried, the more digging you have to do to get to it, that's all.

Sorry, A, I got off track and started talking to everyone here, but your question is an important one that I believe everyone wants answered, and which I of course, cannot sufficiently do! Creativity and mental illness (M.I.) have long been associated, I think because of the bipolar connection. I don't think that depression as often aids creative functioning as mania does though, nor OCD, nor PTSD for example...So one has to be careful what one is speaking about when you say M.I. And in Sz, I think the experiences are such that one wants to communicate them artistically, and tries to, but is often so impaired that it is impossible, until one is adequately medicated. Do you think that in order to be an artist one must suffer? In general -- whether from M.I. or from hunger or poverty or something? I wonder...How many artists of great quality came from healthy wealthy and comfortable circumstances (that they didn't repudiate)? It's worth finding out. But here, one needn't worry as mostly everyone on this site has suffered, either as a person with MI or another illness or a person who cares for a person with MI or some other illness! Also,
let's face it, you can't compare suffering, you can't compare pain. Pain is pain, and to each individual, his or her own is the pain and suffering that matters. So, each of us has suffered deeply and suffered enough to be creative, if that is what it takes...

I think you are suffering right now, A, with your side effects and drowsiness, and that's why you are wondering about creativity and MI and such. But I know you are creative and will create again, once you have found the right dose and have gotten used to the medications. Be patient and don't push yourself too hard right now. Take your time and do other things until you really feel like you can get back to writing. If you go back too soon, you will disappoint and frustrate yourself, so be sure to give yourself enough time. When the time is right, you will find yourself back in the saddle and writing up a storm, I am certain of it.

Posted by pamwagg at November 18, 2006 05:50 PM


I don't think creativity causes mental illness or mental illness causes creativity. But I do think that creativity is a good treatment for mental illness. I was creative before I became schizophrenic but for a while lost the ability to be creative. I was too overwhelmed by the intensity of the illnes. I was encouraged by a young friend to start making jewelry and figurines and she also inspired me to start crocheting (she was an excellent crocheter). It gave me so much simple pleasure to create simple things and it kept the voices at bay. So, first I couldn't be creative, then I gradually began being more creative and have felt much better for it (of course, the medicine helps too!).

I think Pam is right, slow and steady creativity is better and more healing than manic creativity. Manic energy is like fire that consumes itself, creative patterns don't have time to take root and grow. So, I guess for the most part I think creativity is far from instigating mental illness, just the opposite I believe it is part of the eventual cure. Biochemical treatments can go only so far, the rest is up to us and self-expression is a good place for anyone to start.

Posted by: Kate K. at November 24, 2006 12:52 AM

Hi Pam,

I enjoyed reading your view on mental illness and creativity. I have tried to help my daughter Cassie search for her creative spirit. I know she has it, but other things interfere with her creativity. Cassie is only 23 years old and is desperately trying to find herself. Like many young people she still doesn’t know where she belongs, so the search for herself it more important than anything else. Giving my daughter distance to discover who she and to make mistakes without me looking over her shoulder is something that Cassie needs to do for herself.

My instincts tell me that Cassie's search for self she will find new meaning, and from that the possibility of a new creative energy will be born.


Posted by: Yaya at November 18, 2006 11:22 PM

Dear Pam,
Your new poem touched me deeply.I believe that you know of my longstanding admiration of the work of the late Sylvia Plath. I could not help but think that the time you chose coincided with Plath's, yet your separate visions were so disparate.Slyvia's "cauldron of the morning" which so exemplified her passionate, desperate need to escape the slings and arrows that finally broke her spirit, becomes beautifully softened in your poem, where heat is replaced by the cool beauty of an early morning snowfall.
Does MI enhance creativity? Plath suffered from a dark depression, the final result of which was her last and heartrendingly successful suicide attempt. Yet in her darkest hour, she penned what are considered to be her most briliant poems. You too have looked suicide in the face many times, but you triumped over the urge each time, only to come back as a stronger person and a better poet. I certainly have no answer for Alexis. Surely there are many artists in the myriad field of art who are probably as "normal" as anyone can hope to be. My intuition tells me that creativity is unique to the individual and is influenced by both heredity and environment. MI or at least not clinically diagnosed as such, an artist who delights the intellect and the senses is a gift to mankind. The workings or misfirings of his nueorolgical or psychiatric makeup have no bearing on a product which produces a symphony for the eyes and ears of those fortunate people who participate in what only can be called his genius.(That mess was as stiff as a board, I'll admit, but it's the best I can muster at present.)
Lovingly as always,a rather feverish Paula

Posted by: Paula Kirkpatrick at November 18, 2006 08:44 PM

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