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Give Me My Meds

MarieSager's picture

One of thefirst things we read in this course was a poem on the brain by Emily Dickinson.Having always liked her works, I was pleased that she could be used not only indiscussions on literature and poetry, but also in relation toneuroscience.   However, afterhearing the content of her poem, my first thought was not on her stanzas, buton herself as a writer.  In mymind, I remember thinking, “But Emily Dickinson was crazy!” Yet, it was herethat I began to wonder if, maybe, her words maintained value (or were even more valuable!) because she was a littleloopy. 

Yet, as thecourse came to an end, I realized I had not taken these initial thoughts as faras I would like.  Today, I found mychance.  While looking through theHealth section of the New York Times, I came across an article about the linkbetween mental illness and creativity. It mentioned classic writers like Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath and acontemporary author, Marya Hornbacher, who, during their lives, suffered mentalillnesses and yet produced inspired pieces of literature.  Like the words of Dickinson’s poem, thewords of the article challenged my thoughts at the start of the class. 

The article,titled, “Quieting the Demons and Giving Art a Voice,” by Abagail Zuger,specifically tackles my claim that “craziness” actually creates more real, morevaluable, and more creative insights in one’s life and the world surroundingthem.  This contention is actuallycommon, and Zuger notes that scientists have not been overly successful instudying the link between mental illness and artistic creativity.  She states, “With all our scans andneurotransmitters, we are not much closer to figuring out that relationshipthan was Lord Byron, who announced that poets are ‘all crazy’ and left it atthat” (1). 

 This question is made more complicatedby the prominence of drugs to treat mental illness.  Zuger cites Woolf as an example, and wonders if she couldhave written her final masterpiece while taking meds or if instead, Woolf wouldhave spent her remaining years “happily shopping?”

Hence, usingHornbacher as the primarily example, the article explores her writing and hersimultaneous struggles with anorexia, depression, and bipolar disease.   According to Hornbacher, usingmedication to her illness (es) does not impair her creativity.  In fact, when she does not take anymedication, but allows the illness to take hold of her, she is not able towrite. States Zuger, “Depression silences her; mania may flood her mind withglittering words, but they scatter before she can get them down.  Only the prosaic morning meds (21pills, at last count) will let her trap the words on the page” (1). 

Thus, turningback to my original thoughts, the next question to answer is this: if the drugsdo not change one’s thoughts, what do they do? Paxil, which is mentioned in thearticle, is an antidepressant that ‘fixes’ the serotonin deficiency in aperson’s brain (2).  For Hornbacher,and many other writers and creative agents, these drugs  help correct the overwhelming feelingsof depression, anxiety, etc. and allow them to channel their energy in aproductive and efficient way, especially in comparison to being off the medication.Writes Liza Porter, “Depression steals the voice. Silence breedsdepression.  Depression breedssilence” (1).  Hence, a cycle formsfor those, diagnosed with mental illness, who do not take the appropriatemedication.  This cycle canultimately hinder one’s ability to create. Even more, this raises new questionsabout the brain and reality, especially in comparison with people who havemental illnesses and those who don’t. Personally, moments when I feel depressed allow me to express mythoughts most clearly and imaginatively.   I do not suffer from any mental illness, but theemotions seem to clear up my ideas and give me motive to record them.  Examining what these differences say about the human brain may further clear up the modes to creative expression.

Thus, itappears that being “crazy,” does not make one person’s feelings or words moreor less valuable.  Instead, andpossibly contrary to popular thought, mental illnesses can create formidablebarriers to creative expression. Medications, then, can work to alleviate not only one’s suffering, butalso can open and reopen expressive outlets.



1-   New York Times Article- “Quieting the Demons and Giving Art aVoice”



Paul Grobstein's picture

mental "illness" and creativity

Kaye Redfield Jamieson says in her An Unquiet Mind

"I have often asked myself whether, given the choice, I would choose to have manic-depressive illness. If lithium were not available to me, or didn't work for me, the answer would be a simple no... and it would be an answer laced with terror. But lithium does work for me, and therefore I can afford to pose the question. Strangely enough, I think I would choose to have it. It's complicated... I honestly believe that as a result of it I have felt more things, more deeply; had more experiences, more intensely; loved more, and have been more loved; laughed more often for having cried more often; appreciated more the springs, for all the winters... Depressed, I have crawled on my hands and knees in order to get across a room and have done it for month after month. But normal or manic I have run faster, thought faster, and loved faster than most I know."

Sounds like there is some consensus that some degree of craziness is valuable. So what is "illness"? And can one have the one without the other?
One Student's picture

I suffer from mental

I suffer from mental illness (depression and anxiety), and I'm a writer. This is my perspective on the connection between mental illness and creativity. The *experience* of being mentally ill informs a person's worldview in profound ways. For one thing, how I see the world and myself changes depending on my mood - this unsettles any sense of absolute reality, of definite truth; it has given me greater mental flexibility and makes me more inclined to really try to see someone else's point of view; I am more sympathetic to the suffering of others, and am more likely to understand others' suffering, or at least understand that I *cannot* understand. Mental illness has required me to examine myself intensely; I am self-centered, but self-aware. I experience *intense* emotions, pathologically intense emotions - things matter so much to me, and sometimes that causes me trouble (aside from the emotional pain of it), but on the other hand I am *never* indifferent. And so on.

However, as the NYTimes article you quote explains, mental illness interferes with actually getting things done. Mental illness makes it difficult to think clearly, and to write, and to share my writing - part of my attention is taken up by a rush of negative thoughts that I have to fight through; feeling overwhelmed, and apathy, make it difficult for me to actually achieve the act of writing; and social anxiety sometimes makes me intensely self-conscious when I share my work; criticism can make me feel horribly exposed, emotionally flayed, sometimes.

I can't say I'm glad to have experienced mental illness, though I do make use of it, but I'm very much looking forward to finding a medication that works.

Sometimes I ask myself what I would choose, if given the choice between having both insanity and creativity but without treatment, or having healthy emotions and a boring mind. My answer changes a lot, but I know I'd be a different person entirely if I weren't and had never been crazy.