Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/
I saw a post on here a while ago quoting a woman who was complaining that people would say things like, “If we had antidepressants back in the day, maybe the painting Starry Night would’ve never been produced”. Such naysayers propagate the idea that medicine has a negative impact on the artists’ creativity, something I’ve heard before from both clinically depressed and depression-free people alike. I haven’t really done enough research to know if there’s real truth to that rumor, so I can only speak from personal experience.
Rather than simply attacking the idea that antidepressants and other medications limit creativity, this woman attacked the idea of valuing someone’s creative output over their mental health. She pointed out that these people were basically saying, “Oh, you’re miserable and depressed and you might actually kill yourself? That’s great, but just keep churning out beautiful art for us.” This is harmful thinking.
I really wish that I had reblogged the post (it’s buried somewhere in my long list of “likes”) because I don’t think it really clicked at first, but I was just sitting around in a medicine withdrawal (my doctor neglected to prescribe a full month’s worth of pills, or something, so I’m getting them tomorrow) and I suddenly got it.
I have my antidepressant and my sleeping medication (though I had to half that for some of the nights) too but I’ve been at about a half-level of my mood stabilizer for about four days. Withdrawal from my antidepressants usually causes more physical symptoms at first, like digestive problems and headaches, but being without the lithium is kind of a different feel. I am tired as hell, and I do wonder if that’s more from shortened sleep cycles and general overwork, but I’ve also been experiencing some mood swings.
For one thing, I was extremely happy yesterday.
I know you’re thinking, “What’s wrong with being happy?” and really there’s nothing. I will admit that being on mood stabilizers has caused me to have a more limited range of emotions, but I am aware that if I must take the meteoric highs then I’ll have to take the catastrophic lows, and that’s definitely not what I want to experience.
I remember one time, around 2010, when I was first coming off my mood stabilizers. Everything seemed sharper, brighter, more exciting and more intense. I love music, and I had thought I had been experiencing it fully, but it just sounded so good when I wasn’t on my meds. Also, I will admit to feeling more artistic- at least as far as things like drawing and painting went- when I was in a hypomanic state.
Elevated mood is just one of the “symptoms” of a budding manic state. Increased irritability, hypersexuality, and grandiosity are others. But one of the warning signs is actually feeling happier, more energetic, and more positive than normal. This is not a bad thing in and of itself, but for a bipolar person, it can be bad when unnatural optimism clouds their judgments. We can only see the good sides of our actions and tend to ignore the more negative consequences to things we might be doing. We might drain bank accounts irresponsibly shopping for supplies for our projects, and those projects may be magnificent but we aren’t any less financially endangered by them.
Also, as someone on that other post pointed out, they were actually better able to harness their creativity when they could actually focus on one thing at once. When you are in a manic state, you may have “sensory overload” and be flooded with many sensations and ideas, but in my experience actually getting those ideas to be made into something coherent was actually a lot tougher when I was manic. I would be so impressed and satisfied with my work at the time, but when I would look back at it a lot of it was just not very solid or cohesive. Also, some of my best work was not actually made when I was particularly “overwhelmed” with emotion. I work best when I’m in an emotional location where I can objectively process my feelings and ideas.
Now that we’ve talked about mania and art, let’s talk about depression. I’ve been reading (but haven’t finished) a book entitled “Touched by Fire” by Kay Redfield Jamison. She studied the link between poets and mental illness. She found that the rates of depression and suicide were much higher among poets than among the general population, and that some of the poets’ most arresting works were created out of an emotion of depression. Does this link suggest that one state is actually the cause of another- that you can’t have great poetry without great emotional upheaval- or is it more for us to observe that many artistic people are deeply wounded and need our help and support?
I’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices for my mental health. Yes, medicine can be pretty awful sometimes, but from observing other people around me and myself, I can say that medicine compliance, or the lack of it, is a huge determining factor in the success or failure of a mentally ill individual.
This is not to insist that medicine is for everyone. Some people have have been able to achieve a healthier state of mind through diet changes and exercise alone, or have found that they didn’t require their medicine anymore as they grew into middle age. For many people however, taking their medicine improperly, stopping or starting it suddenly, or mixing the medicine with alcohol and drugs has been extremely detrimental to their overall physical and mental health.
For me, taking my medicine is something that I can do each and everyday to improve my mental health outcome. Yes, I should eat better, practice good sleep hygiene, and exercise, but for me, those things alone weren’t enough. I needed a little extra help and being med-compliant was a huge piece of the puzzle for me.
Also, even though I’ve been a without my proper dosage of lithium for a while, I didn’t “suddenly” become sick. I’ve noticed minor mood fluctuations- including the positive ones- and some changes in energy and attentiveness, but I’m still okay. That being said, it’s extremely tempting to think, “Wow, I’m OK, so maybe I don’t need the medicine anymore” and for me I know that’s wrong. I can talk to my doctor about dosages maybe, but I know it isn’t safe for me to stop because I know what’s happened to me before. I know what the consequences are for me.
How is this affecting my creativity? That much is a little uncertain. I know I still like writing and drawing even though I don’t “feel all the feelings.” Another thing I have to realize, though, is that feelings are very subjective. A lot of times what us bipolar folk think of as “blah” is really just “standard” for everyone else because we are so used to being on this never-ending emotional rollercoaster. It can take a while to adjust to “normal”. I use quotations with that because the idea of what is “normal” is highly subjective, but I think it can be thought of as just as well-adjusted state of being where we’re able to make sound decisions, take care of our own needs, and cultivate meaningful relationships with others. None of these things were possible when I wasn’t being med-compliant.