We are all familiar with the story of the “tortured artist” but is there a unique creative force in the mood swings of bipolar disorder?
Photo: MatiasEnElMundo/Getty Images
By Carin Meyer
By the time I was sixteen years old, I had convinced myself that I was a creative genius. I knew nothing yet of bipolar disorder, but the budding manias of my teenage years had flowered into an obsessive pursuit of literary greatness. Inspired by poets like William Blake and Emily Dickinson, I wrote constantly, often into the early morning hours. After writing page after page in my journals, I shoved the pieces of paper into my very own secret box.
When I think about those years, and then the eventual tumultuous years of my early twenties, I often ask myself: Was such intense creativity the result of madness? Or was madness the result of creativity? I ask the same question when I consider the lives and creative contributions made by the many great poets, writers, musicians, and artists who may have had bipolar disorder.
On March 30, when we bring awareness to the brain-based disorder with World Bipolar Day, we also honor the memory of Vincent Van Gogh, whose birthday falls on the same date. As the epitome of the “mad artist” and creative genius, many scholars believe that Van Gogh most likely suffered throughout his life from bipolar disorder. For him, and for many other artists, madness and creativity has been inextricably linked.
Creative writing has often saved me, but the sheer force of one of my surges of creative energy has also knocked me sideways. For several years after my teenaged obsession with becoming the greatest writer who ever lived, I simply would not write. Again, creativity led to madness, or madness led to creativity, but either way I knew what might follow the great expansiveness of my thoughts while writing. When I wrote, I probed unexplored corners of my mind where madness and creativity hid together, and I had quickly learned that this kind of exploration ultimately led to the confusion and pain of mania or depression.
For me, normal functioning leaves me in a known, common area of my mind, where I experience the more predictable emotions and thoughts of everyday life. When I am highly creative, or at certain times when I am cycling, I often explore areas of my mind that are usually inaccessible—whether I want to or not. Somehow, during these times, I can move beyond the cognitive firewalls that we have installed in our minds for our own safety.
The act of creating is the act of accessing what we usually call the imagination, to find ideas beyond what we can simply discover with our own senses. Great artists and writers throughout history who may have had bipolar disorder, like Van Gogh and Blake, made their contributions to art by accessing these farther reaches of the mind, but their periods of creative productivity were also shaded by periods of extreme suffering.
In my life, my poetry and my work in literary non-fiction got me into graduate school for creative writing—twice. Although I could create the poems and the memoir that resulted in my admission, I could not maintain my ability to function at that level, because my bipolar disorder was unmanaged. In one case, I did not enroll, and in the other, ten years after that first admission to graduate school, I resigned.
I believe there is a place of enchantment somewhere along the arc of a bipolar mood swing. For me, it can be a place of creative magic, when I am elevated and exploring my imagination, but have not yet gone too far. I have learned that I cannot create when I am simply trying to survive, when my mood swings are out of control. I have also learned, after many years, that creativity does not have to lead to madness, and madness does not always lead to creativity.
Carin Meyer is a lifelong Alaskan who works in public relations. Her academic writing has won numerous awards and her science writing and other articles have been published in university magazines, newspapers, and other media outlets. She has a blog at www.carinrmeyer.com. She enjoys writing essays about bipolar disorder and mental illness. Carin has drafted a book about bipolar disorder, The Smartest Girl in the World, for which she is currently seeking publication.
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