15 February 2010

The Creative Life and Mental Health

by Carrie Bailey

Whether you embrace that fine line between genius and insanity and sling it over your shoulder to wear as proudly as a sash or flee in terror at the slightest hint of social stigma, duck under the nearest chair, and chant, “It’s all in your head, [your name here]” you can’t avoid a certain truth:
Many great authors needed therapy. 
We may disagree on which peevish penman in specific or what sort of assistance might have brought them into the exclusive club of “normal” creative types, but just a few minutes lecture by any dreary professor on Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, or J.R.R. Tolkien’s personal background reveals the raging internal struggle of what is often termed the "artistic temperament."
Did I say Tolkien?  Yes.  Carroll’s obvious drug references and Wilde’s preference for catamites-great vocabulary word by the way-make their mental plights obvious, but Tolkien, the professor, doesn’t seem pegged for psychotherapy.  If you think along this vein, I would tend to agree, but Tolkien, the former solider who was moderately obsessed with death and evil and war might have suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Truthfully, I have no facts on the matter and this is one rare occasion I don’t plan on doing the research, because I’m just using it to illustrate a point.

My firm belief is that mental health must be valued over creativity.  During college, I had a professor whose bipolar girlfriend refused to take her medication because she was incredibly productive during her mania phases.  Personally, I was horrified.  Great writing may change the world, but that can’t happen if the writer engages in reckless behavior and winds up brilliantly splattered on the street or living out a suicide scene instead of writing one.  So, I’ve adopted this belief:
 Many people may need treatment to become great authors.
No matter where you may be in your creative life, mental health needs to be a priority.  So, how do you know when your particular style of genius has crossed the line?  The truth is that you don’t.  In fact, if you knew, it wouldn’t be happening, but there are some indicators. 

Drug Abuse/Addiction
Your inspiration has started to come from a bottle, a powder, or comes and goes in a puff of smoke.  As a long-term caffeine junkie-thank goodness my poison is legal-I can promise you that you are the author of your work, not any substance you take.  It’s true that you might find yourself writing for a different audience if you were using heroin everyday and suddenly stopped.  Wait! Let me preface that, if you were using heroin everyday, you sought help from a drug treatment clinic and stopped with the assistance of the proper medical health professionals who could ensure your withdrawal symptoms weren’t fatal...  Yes, your audience will change.  It’s no mystery why William S. Burroughs attracts the needle crowd, but I promise you that you’ll find some clean people to be your worthy readers, too.          
Unhealthy/Toxic Relationships
Another indicator could be the drama of abusive relationships.  I’m not talking about isolated incidents, but rather a pattern, which prevents a creative person from being able to maintain the professional relationships necessary to make a career from their labor.  Take into consideration that everyone ought to have a healthy balance of give and take.  I like the word reciprocity for this.  An aspiring author cannot write if their relationships prevent them either by consuming too much of their time or sending them cascading from one emotional explosion into the another pool of despair and fear.

If your loved one tells you that you cannot write rather than offer constructive criticism, that might just be the tip of the iceberg.  Heed this warning and steer clear.  You may not be able to change anyone around you, but I urge you to consider that although Tolkien may have began his work on the battlefield, it wouldn’t have reached us, if he hadn’t made it off.

Too Messy/Too Sterile  
Also don't forget to consider that your plethora of unfinished projects, disorganized attempts at managing a career from a mountain of-well you don't even know what is under the first layer-might just be a raging case of adult ADHD/ADD.  That disorganized trash heap you've been referring to as your "work station" reflects what goes on inside.  It might be what stands between you and your readers, not just between you and the first draft of that novel you can't finish.

internet, stacks of newspaper on more than 30% of your floor space only creates a fire hazard.

On the flip side, if you chased a friend out of your kitchen for touching your magazine photo shoot ready kitchen counter and she never accepted an invitation to another dinner party, you've got to face facts...  You probably can't even start preparing a story, because it is never good enough.  There's no gold star for the type of perfectionism, which saddles you with chronic writer's block.

If you're in doubt, ask the opinion of others.  Get a first, second, up to fifteenth opinions and trust them.  If you get fifteen terrified friends avoiding a yes, no, or maybe answer, that would be a big yes whereas if you don't have the courage to ask, it's possibly worth fifteen yeses, too. 
You Fought the Law and the Law Won
Another more obvious indicator that you may be in need of help is legal trouble.  Maybe you didn’t want to wear orange pajamas and take an extended stay in a steel bar hotel, but you weren’t able to avoid it either, were you?  I do agree that many laws are in fact the product of a corrupt fascist imperialistic impersonal oppressive system that stripes the wealth off the backs of its rightful owners and concentrates it in the hands of greedy tyrants, but…  you don’t have to lose your liberty for it.  Now, if you choose to engage in non-violent civil disobedience that has been organized as part of a social movement, a jail sentence might be an unfortunate sacrifice made along the way.  This differs greatly from loss of freedom as a result of a one to twenty-something man operation to acquire something not currently considered by the law to be in your possession or to make someone do something that they’ve been pretty clear they won’t do without a court order.  We've all got to play by the same rules for this human community to be fair, so if you don't like them, get involved in making a real change and respect those around you until that time comes.

You Live in a Van Down by the River
A final and clear indicator that help may be needed is that you live in poverty.  I don’t mean the poverty described by a bank account or federal standards for income.  I mean the deeper poverty that comes from deteriorating physical health and social support.  A lack of money pales in comparison to the true horror that exists when our physical health has been neglected, our loved ones are distanced from being able to give aid, and our suffering has no name.  No one can cope with chronic illness alone.  Enlist the aid of those around you and arm yourself with a diagnosis.  You need health care for your body as well as your mind (they're attached).

Make no excuses for any situation that you may find yourself in.  If you are afraid to talk about it, then it's a problem, which is a barrier to your creative work and not the source of genius.  Many truly creative individuals have survived and recovered from great difficulties and hardships while others haven’t.   It is my opinion that you don’t have to lower your standards of mental health to be one of these amazing creative geniuses.  Likewise, anyone can be a writer with the right training and the right support.  So, if you need it, get the help you deserve.

Don't let mental health issues stand between you and your writing career.   



  1. Writers have many characters running through our minds that it seems reasonable that so many writers go to alternative substances to keep their minds silent.

    I think the best way to keep that from happening is to just write and get those characters and stories out onto the page.

  2. I agree. Some of the most promising writers I've met use writing as a form of therapy.

  3. An excellent article about creativity and mental health, C.E. Yes, putting it down on paper is a cathartic experience and an alternative to numbing through drugs. Still, if Tolkien or, for that matter, Hemingway had not experienced the terror of war, would they have been able to depict it so well in their works?

    While mental health is a must for a writer to acquire and maintain the ability to write, so many of us have not been able to find a cure to our particular ailments, and in this struggle, great work can still be accomplished.

    Can it be that the writer requires that he/she be both the experimenter and the experiment to find the universal inspiration from within? Consider the tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and what the good Doctor sought and how it was attained? But then, at what cost?

    Something of a "chicken or the egg" debate but, not withstanding, without a degree of sanity, there can be no creative process manifested.

  4. .....and sometimes writers create a persona to represent themselves - especially online. I've found this quite useful as a marketing technique as have several others writer types I know.

    I love Hunter Thompson but despise the habits he had that took him from this world too soon. There are many others I admire that had very similar problems and though I love their writings it hurts to know that maybe they might have been hurting.

    Contrary to my "persona" I do no drinking nor do I indulge in any other "activities", it's just not MY style. As a writer trying to get my works off the ground the last thing I need to do is fall in a hole and never accomplish my dreams.

    That said, I'll add my disclaimer - Whatever works for you....works for YOU....I'd never be the one to point a finger. Creativity comes in many many forms.

  5. I tried a bit of a persona online, too, but it's a challenge to live up to it. I'm just not peevish very often (hope that wasn't a secret).