You probably have heard that many of the world’s most creative people often had some sort of mental illness.
While I can see some truth in this viewpoint, I offer a different opinion: In nearly every case, a person with mental illness experiences some form of extreme thinking, a black-and-white viewpoint. Let’s profile bipolar disorder and depression right now to see what I’m talking about.
Bipolar disorder is characterized by mood swings, sleep disruption, and extreme behaviors. These mood swings can include irritability, energetic happiness, impulsive and erratic behavior, deep depression, anger, or even agitated confusion. None of these states is healthy over the long term, yet this is the world of a person with bipolar disorder.
Bipolar I is the most extreme and dangerous form. A person with Bipolar I behaves in life-threatening waysdriving dangerously, abusing illegal drugs, and performing other acts of self-harmspends recklessly, shows dramatic behavior changes, has disrupted sleep, and has strong mood swings. Bipolar II is similar except the level of danger and risk to self and others is generally lower. Cyclothymia is even one step milder with little risk of anything truly dangerous, but is still disruptive to the person’s life.
Many people with bipolar say that they really like their unmedicated manic state. They feel so alive, energetic, and creative. They have endless ideas and the motivation to keep them flowing. They feel there’s nothing they can’t do. While a person in a manic state may feel full of life, this is absolutely unsustainable. Nobody truly can have endless energy with little sleep and random eating habits.
In a manic state, a person may forgo or limit most other necessities aside from their passion of the moment. This could include family time, work, exercise, relaxation, hobbies, housekeeping, grocery shopping or shopping for other necessities, cooking, etc. The ideas may be flowing strongly, but what good are they if the person becomes too exhausted to act on them?
Major depressive disorder has hallmark symptoms including strong feelings of sadness, despair, emptiness, and sometimes anger. This burden is so heavy, a depressed person’s pain shows in his or her behavior and thinking patterns. Nothing ever seems to go right; they don’t feel happy enough to be social; they sleep too much so they miss out on exercise. While they may have periods or moments of happiness, the bulk of their emotion is marked by depression.
Several famous painters, authors, and actors have done their most memorable work while living through depressive episodes. But their bodies and minds were burdened with a smothering blanket of despair and loneliness. The depressed mind is often so scrambled that thoughts and feelings don’t come out clearly. How can true creativity flourish in this environment?
Many of these talented people have died younger than necessary or developed addictions. Their greater creativity was effectively strangled because it shortened or greatly impaired their lives. The imbalanced nature of their lives knocked them down many times, and some did not survive their fall.
- Musician Kurt Cobain of the rock group Nirvana reportedly was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He was also addicted to heroin and survived at least one drug overdose. Cobain died in 1994 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
- Wolfgang Mozart was a prolific composer, but also was prone to drinking, depression, hyperactivity, and working excessively with little rest. He died of an unknown illness at age 35.
- Actor Heath Ledger suffered from depression and drug addiction. In 2008, he died of an accidental overdose of prescription medication. Six months before his death, he began to go through dramatic mood swings with deep depression.
- Ernest Hemingway wrote several novels that went on to become world literature classics. He struggled with depression and excessive drinking throughout his adult life. He shot himself to death in 1961.
Depression and bipolar often play a cruel joke. Both disorders both produce an excess of thoughts and overflowing emotions. They can prompt the flow of ideas, but they also create mental confusion and overload. Thoughts and ideas can be easily lost before they are expressed. Creativity is both stimulated and stunted by the same force.
The artists, actors, poets, and authors who have managed to express themselves in spite of their mental illness deserve our respect and appreciation. They have managed to push their ideas out in to the world, past the jagged edges and barbed wire inside their souls. They have given us a glimpse into the mind and heart of someone with significant emotional imbalance and pain. Most are not so lucky.