The Artist and Mental Illness

Hmm.

Where to begin this one. 

You might have to bear with me a bit as I fumble through this - but it's important. This isn't a new subject, which is evident especially if you follow psychology. But here are my thoughts. 

I've been considering this subject for quite some time, but the recent death of Chris Cornell, one of my most favourite rockstars (grew up listening to Soundgarden, and loved Audioslave - even his solo work, that departed from both of his hard-hitting bands still struck so many chords for me) evidently took his own life. Be it by accident or on purpose, things became out of balance and out of control, and now he has passed on. At only 52 years old.

I remember years ago, my ex making some crude comment about how everyone he knows who is truly creatively gifted has some kind of mental illness. Again, this was years ago, and I scoffed in his face. I thought, what an awful thing to assess. Surely it isn't true.

But since then, I have been privileged enough to ride my own creative wave into a moderate amount of success, and during that time come into intimate contact with many-an-artist who either privately or publicly suffers from their own mental and emotional imbalances. 

And then there was the other thing staring me right in the face: ever since I became fully able to ride my own creative wave and really let it all out, my own mental illnesses have become like a pillar of unwelcome eyes on my every move. A new dimension to what I already experience. Something unhinged, chattery, chaotic, wild, feral. 

I've had anxiety all my life, and OCD for a great part of it. I'm not trying to say that becoming a full time creative entrepreneur has unlocked some closet of demons - but what I do note with a certain shaky severity is how prevalent and consistent it has become. This is likely due, as well, to a variety of factors outside of the vista of my creative self (genetics, age, traumas etc.) but looking inward, and outward, and at the history of the creative mind - the proof is everywhere.

So I suppose the next question is: why would this correlation, this relationship, exist? What are the factors? What makes it so probable? 

Well, firstly, in order to be creative, one has to possess a very open mind, a deep passion for cultivating, and feeling deeply, all of the elements of life. An artist doesn't shy away from experiences, inner and outer, and the inner landscape is usually quite complex. Many of us are born with this, but by the time we are school-aged and beyond, it is often repressed to some degree, if not completely, to make way for more practical pursuits. But if we are stubborn, or had family and peers who encouraged us, this creative fire only grows and becomes more powerful. The fire and the openness of the mind manifest quite a combination that often leads the artist down an unbeaten path into the unknown. 

Even if an artist is sitting right in front of you at, say, a cafe, they do not completely share in your world. In order for an artist to see, possess, believe and execute the visions (or the music, the dance, the narrative etc) that percolate within, they have to live 'elsewhere' - at least somewhat. The more 'elsewhere' they are, the more creative they can be - not existing within societal confines. But this often equates with isolation - how could it not? Being mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically isolated from the norms of a functioning society, being always on the outside of it in almost every way imaginable - this can be very segregating. The artist simply doesn't 'function' in the same way. 

For example - by the time I get out of the house some days, most people are getting home from work and taking the recycling bins in off the street. When they go to bed, my creative brain really turns on. I sleep in well past most people's ability to understand, and the intensity of my mind during any waking hour is beyond comprehension even to myself. I thrive off of complexity, not simplicity. I don't have a routine. I deliberately seek out challenges that I think will aid in my creative pursuits. I am restless, ceaselessly. I don't know what it means to relax, because my mind is always seeking new places, new ways of making things. And often, my anxiety and my OCD take their turn at the helm during downtimes of creative flow.

Which leads me to my second point - being that the artist, who is permanently blown wide open mentally, spiritually and emotionally, is also inherently anxious about their creativity. There is a certain madness to the drive to make things. A vibration that goes beyond the ability to ignore. It can be deeply agitating. It can also be the most blissfully exciting thing you could ever conceive of. In all cases, it is like a possession - like being a soul-split receiver for cosmic manifestation. One must get it out, out, out to experience relief. But to spiral in (or out) is to become entwined with the energy forever - the creative spirit cannot be put to bed once it is aroused. 

So it is this relationship, this beautiful way of living, this way of being broken open and highly sensitive, that also opens the gate for mental illness.

Hmm. Now I feel too formal writing that. At this juncture, I don't believe it is illness. I don't know if I even believe it is 'illness,' period. I'm on the fence. If it gets in the way of your life in a negative way, I can certainly agree that it has illness connotations. But I am wary of labelling it as inherently negative (in a clinical sense, as society does) when I don't actually believe it is sometimes. When I feel that my anxiety and OCD are getting in the way, I am more proactive about taming them down. But as that quote goes, "It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society." - Jiddu Krishnamurti. We have very fixed ideas of what is normal, when they should be a lot more flexible. 

But I digress.

For the sake of this piece, I will continue to call it mental illness. Nikola Tesla had OCD, Beethoven was bipolar, Virginia Woolf had depression, Georgie O'Keefe, Beyonce, Leo Tolstoy, Vincent Van Gogh, Leonard Cohen, Janet Jackson...the list goes on and on. It is almost as though the price of creative brilliance is to be a little unhinged. Creativity becomes both the cause of, and solution to the deep ache within. Living on the fringes of one's mind and society at large, the flame burns bright and is not fully understood en masse, but is revered.

And this, finally, brings me to my last point. Artists are misunderstood and their craft is often shunned from society (funding for the arts is minimal, spaces to create are expensive, supplies are expensive, gaining an audience is laborious, and the notion of creativity as a 'profession' is often scoffed at - I can't tell you how many times people have degraded my choice of career) - yet, yet - artists are also revered and fetishized. The notable few I have mentioned above, we know their work, we may even consider ourselves fans of some of them. An artist's contributions to society are absolutely essential to its substance, intelligence, sophistication, progression - we simply adore our artists and celebrate them, place them on pedestals, but at the same time, they are outcast and their resources are scarce. This fetishization de-humanizes the creative person, placing pressure on them to be their most brilliant self while still on the outskirts of what is grounded and understood (the 'norms' of life). So before, when I mentioned uncharted territory - stepping into the unknown - in order for an artist of any kind to 'make it', they must make it all from scratch and carve a brand new path through the wilderness. There is no security here, only risks and unknown. Other professions hold at least temporary existential security, even if it is only an illusion anyhow. An artist must live out the reality of the deep uncertainty of life's sinews, often directly seeking them out with vigour and possession.

After all this, I say: no wonder. The gifts each creative has in their grasp are so beautiful, so incredible, and so healing for the world that it almost seems we must offer ourselves up as conduits for this universal presence. For a life so rich and vivid, I'll take it - even through the darkness.  

Devany Wolfe1 Comment