Bipolar Disorder and Creativity

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Van Gogh is suspected to have been bipolar.

During the Second World War Adolf Hitler and the NAZIs instituted a programme of mass extermination using eugenics as a starting point, although I think most people would agree that the end game became antisemitism and the genocide of the entire Jewish race and culture. Whilst the Jews undoubtedly suffered the greatest loss as a result of Shoah (the Jewish word for the Holocaust), many people are unaware of the fact that the work of creating a master race through the use of eugenics began by targeting people who were found to be physically and/or medically inferior, often described as ‘feeble minded’, or other similar epithets, and those exhibiting mental illness were in the NAZI’s crosshairs from day one, along with certain other minorities such as homosexuals. Eugenics is a process of forced evolution where those deemed to possess undesirable traits are removed from the gene pool by either forced sterilisation or, more commonly, execution. With the advance of science and so-called ‘designer babies’ and genetic engineering the eugenics movement may once again rear its ugly head under the guise of wishing to produce ‘healthy’ offspring. Incidentally, if anyone reading this wonders why the mentally ill are so scared of revealing themselves and why we often lie about our conditions then do please read up on the history of how we have been treated by politicians and governments. If you begin to comfort yourself with the notion that it was just the NAZIs and it couldn’t happen here then you might also want to read about how the USA, not Germany pioneered the forced, illegal sterilisation and extermination of people with mental illness and also Winston Churchill’s views on eugenics and the segregation and forced sterilisation of the ‘feeble minded’. Mental illness used to be called demon possession and sufferers were often subjected to clerical torture under the euphemistic title of ‘exorcism’. If you care to read the links above then I would ask that you consider for yourself whether or not you think that governments and countries have behaved any better or differently to the religious in regard to the mentally ill. I think not and I also think that for as long as people have exhibited symptoms of mental illness, society has declared open season on us. We have endured state-mandated violence, isolation, public derision and humiliation, torture, medical experimentation and death. It should not surprise anyone to see that the mentally ill are often too terrified to reveal what they are.

Concerning eugenics, I speak to many people today who will, often unaware that they are talking to a person with a mental illness, advocate that the mentally ill be shut away from society, quietly disposed of or be bred out of the gene pool through selective reproduction techniques. Often with the best of intentions they claim that the world will be a better place without mental illness. I am sure they mean well and I don’t necessarily get too upset about the suggestion that I, along with others like me ought to be exterminated. It highlights the truth of the Confucian aphorism: ‘He who speaks does not know, he who knows does not speak’. Often a far too simplistic maxim but in this case it holds true that ignorance shouts the loudest. What is most upsetting about this attitude is not the threat it poses to I and others like me, rather that it is the implicit wish to remove some of the finest accomplishments yet to be achieved by humanity from our collective future. What I am referring to is creativity, and in particular the clear link, at least anecdotally, between mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder, and creativity. Anyone who doubts this in the first instance would do well to remember that some of the greatest literature, art and music that humanity has ever produced was conceived when its originators were three sheets to the wind, usually with the aid of alcohol or drugs. Many of our greatest thinkers often had to use such artificial methods to achieve the altered brain states and higher levels of consciousness that we nutters get for free.

The recent fuss kicked up at the suggestion that Robert Burns, arguably Scotland’s favourite son, was afflicted with bipolar disorder is very telling in this respect, with disquiet at the suggestion in some quarters revealing that many people feel that the inference is an insult and thus certain organisations have been accused of covering up Burns’ illness to protect his reputation. Why? Because in the UK as well as much of the rest of the world it is still acceptable to lose one’s soul but not one’s mind. I personally would be surprised if he and many of his contemporaries were not ‘Touched With Fire‘, for Aristotle observed that ‘no great genius has ever existed without a strain of madness’. This brings to mind the late Spike Milligan, a man who walked a tightrope between genius and complete mental breakdown. I cannot also pass this concept by without the suggestion that the biting footballer, Luis Suarez, is showing symptoms of this illness too.

On Creativity

Creativity is one of the most beautiful, inspirational and yet frustrating, draining and infuriating gifts to have. Believe me, I know. When the creative juices are flowing the feeling is simply electrifying, with ideas flowing out of a person like a freshwater fountain. When the ideas dry up then the crash comes and life can be vey difficult indeed. However, can you imagine a world without Burns and his work? What about history missing the art of Edvard Munch, painter of The Scream? Or, for those in the UK, where would we be without Stephen Fry?

I recently completed the final draft of my first book. I didn’t write the whole book, only a section. Aside from minor corrections it was done in one day and needed no editing. I cannot tell you how proud I was to have finally been published and also how joyful it was to write like that. Contrast that with my efforts to complete a second book, which has taken several years because of the mood difficulties I have. It was agony, yet I still had to do it. I do not write because I have to or want to. I write because I cannot do anything else. I am a decent photographer and I can make music too, but what I am in my essence is a writer. I always have been, even when I did not do it. That goes a long way towards explaining why I have proved to be so utterly useless at any other profession, and I assure you that I have tried many. The curse of creativity is that it cannot be turned on or off, it simply comes and goes as it pleases, and this frustrates both me and those who rely on me. I can promise you that many people have tried and failed to mould me into a normal human being who goes to work from nine to five and who has a regular, normal, everyday life. I worked as hard as I could at it but in the end they got angry, frustrated and often abusive and/or violent. Eventually I gave up, but not before having been written off as disruptive, awkward, stupid or worse. Nine to five is not for me and I have long since stopped forcing myself to endure the misery of trying. I can already hear some of the readers of this post proclaiming that I am using my illness as an excuse to be bone idle, or that I am not ill at all in fact, rather I am just lazy. Let me assure that for a long time I did little else other than wish I could be an everyday businessperson. I would be very well paid, reasonably well thought of and respected and life would be relatively easy. I certainly have the necessary intelligence and qualifications. All that said, however, I am afraid that I simply cannot do that sort of thing and any charge of laziness or excuse making is easily deflected with the fact that I have chosen a far more difficult career instead. Should any of my readers doubt me in this respect then I would challenge you to go away, write a book and try to get it published. It took me nigh on ten years to accomplish that and I am still a considerable way away from being able to live off book royalties. If you think I gave up on middle class comfort for that then I would have a rethink of your attitude towards me if I were you.

In the Media

Portrayals of characters with mental illness are becoming popular in film and television, no doubt because Hollywood is where those with bipolar disorder can to go succeed, provided it is not severe and they can manage it and work in a stressful environment which is not easy at all. Claire Danes portrays a bipolar US law enforcement and anti-terrorism officer in the drama Homeland and the superb and yet criminally underrated Perception stars Eric McCormack (of Will & Grace fame) as an academic with schizophrenia. McCormack’s performance I admire in particular because he has now played a gay man despite being straight and a schizophrenic man despite, as far as I know, not being mentally ill. Danes’ performance came to a magnificent zenith in a scene where her character, as a result of not taking medication experienced a manic episode. It was as though she had read my mail, although I will say that I do not think it went crazy enough. True mania can be bewildering and terrifying to watch. Danes was on the right track with how she acted but in my experience mania becomes far more intense than the degree to which she displayed it. Whether or not this is because a ‘normal’ person cannot understand it from the inside out or that she and the producers were concerned that they may be accused of overdoing it I do not know. I can easily imagine a scenario where a real manic episode can look completely absurd to the point where one might suspect it was being staged. It can be that bad.

The point here is that mental illness is slowly trickling into our discourse. I dream of a day when it is no longer a subject that is spoken about in hushed tones and something feared rather than treated, and the reason I do is that we have contributed to some of the great achievements of humanity. The suggestion that we ought to be bred out of the gene pool is outrageous not just for the bloody minded perfectionism it implies, but more because in doing so we will rob ourselves of our brightest and best as well as impoverishing our way of life and culture. We will take away from our descendants the opportunity to experience great art.

One fascinating study showed that children either with or at a high risk of having bipolar disorder shows that they tend to dislike shapes that are simple and/or highly symmetrical. That in a nutshell sums up why people like me are so important. We are frustrating, annoying and often subject people to experiences ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, but to advocate getting rid of us is the wish for order, simplicity and symmetry. Not an equal society, rather a hegemonic one. A society where discrimination is impossible because there is no difference. Who really wants that? Coffee without the cream, drinks served with no cocktails or spirits. In a grey world it is the splash of colour that is often the most noticeable, most offensive and most challenging to deal with, however if you think that world with the mentally ill is hard to live in, try for a moment to conceive of a world without us. I think that would be a terrible place.

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One thought on “Bipolar Disorder and Creativity

  1. Pingback: Unthinking the Rain, Unweaving the Rainbow | I Decided to Fight

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