(Bipolar Disorder as a Catalyst for Creativity)
She sits adjacent on the couch. Beside me, yet somehow facing me. She’s patient. Beautiful, but not in an obvious way. She’s subtle. Crafty. And infuriatingly elusive. She inches closer, but I pretend not to notice; I don’t want to scare her away again. She smells good, and I swear I can feel her fingers on my arm. Goosebumps. Anticipation. Euphoria. Release.
I spend my life waiting for her. I’m the best version of myself when she’s here. But when she leaves, I am bleak, desolate. An entire world turned to stone. I don’t own her. She exists without me, beyond me.
She is my Muse. My inspiration. The very blood in my veins. Or perhaps the very synapses in my brain.
Because my muse is the upswing of my bipolar disorder.
I was first diagnosed with Manic Depression at age 14. I didn’t know much about it then, only that I was a kid full of energy, and anything was possible. I was funny, brilliant, a natural star. And then I’d crash. Little more than a catatonic girl on the couch, I’d slip into deep sadness, convinced everyone hated me. My friends were surely conspiring behind my back. Looking in the mirror was a true test of willpower. Shadows would bloom across my chin, my nose would swell, my lips were mangled and misshapen. I was the ugliest girl ever born, deformed, practically a monster. And then it would start all over again. I was once again funny, brilliant, a natural star.
This cycle began when I was very young, when it was still cute. A crazy little thing bouncing from wall to wall. “You’re gonna crash tomorrow,” my mother would say with a laugh. I imagine people thought I was simply a child who hadn’t yet learned to harness her youthful energy. But it was more than that, wasn’t it? Hindsight and all…
I have a life philosophy about trauma. Like most people, I’m not free of pain, distress, heartache. From childhood onward, I’ve seen things I shouldn’t, done things I shouldn’t, and carry memories of things that cripple many women (and men) for the rest of their lives. But here’s where I think differently. I’m grateful for every bad experience. They created me. If I were to go back in time and right a single wrong, it would trickle down to change the very essence of who I am today. And I happen to like myself, so I wouldn’t dare change a thing.
My bipolar disorder is no different. At times, it’s trauma of the highest order. But everything I’ve created in my life—which happens to be the very things that define me as a human being—were created, in part, with the assistance of my mental illness. The upswing (my “Muse”) floods me with ideas, confidence and energy, a constant flow of language, a superhero level of multitask ability. It even gives me extra time in the day to create (thanks to savage bouts of insomnia). The downswing (what I refer to as “The Bad Place”) is not nearly as fun, though regrettably unavoidable.
Let’s go back to age 14 for a moment. Due to a particularly rough time in The Bad Place, I was taken to see the psychiatrist who first diagnosed and medicated me. I was in treatment for a few months before my family decided the negative side effects outweighed the potential benefits. Many members of my family questioned the diagnosis altogether. (For the record, as adverse as I am to modern labels, I’ve never once doubted this diagnosis.) I returned to medication a few times in my twenties after being re-categorized as Bipolar. Multiple prescriptions over the course of a decade, with a period of 6 non-medicated years in between. The first medication made me uncontrollably angry. The second caused intense bouts of paranoia, prompting me to create negative stories in my head about the people in my life, convinced my delusions were reality. In retrospect, I believe it was a mild psychosis, triggered by the pills.
My final foray into the world of medication was a completely new experience. I wasn’t angry anymore. And I wasn’t paranoid. Because every response in my emotional reserve had been swiftly and completely eradicated. I was the walking dead. No longer depressed, but neither alive. On one nondescript morning, on a day that was meaningless, preparing to do something of no particular significance, I looked at my boyfriend and felt nothing. No love, no devotion. Just pure and honest nothing. Then I thought about my family and felt more nothing. And then I thought about my child, only 5 years old at the time, and truly the most incredible human being to ever walk this earth. Love of my life. My reason for everything. And I felt…nothing.
I immediately flushed the pills. Cold turkey. That was 10 years ago, and I’ve never looked back.
But how does one with crippling phases of mania and depression cope with life, unmedicated? For this solution, I turned to my theory on trauma: every single thing I’ve experienced in life—good, bad, or horrific—created who I am today. My Bipolar Disorder is just one more thread of my psychic fabric, and I could no longer ignore it, numb it. Because it wasn’t going anywhere. I had to find another way to cope.
I won’t bore you with a list of famous authors, and other creatives, who struggled with mental illness throughout their career. Or how many of those lights were eventually snuffed by suicide (though feel free to Google the “Sylvia Plath Effect”). Nor will I bore you with the specificities of Bipolar 1 vs 2 vs Cyclothymic/Spectrum Disorders, or their scientifically-proven correlation to creative pursuits. You’d probably lose interest, as these things have already been studied and reported on a million times over. Attention Deficit Disorder often affects those with bipolar disorder, so I’d likely lose interest too. (Oh look! A new project! Peace out!) I will merely bore you with my own experience, and perhaps offer some insight into how one creative attempts to turn her lifelong affliction into something redeemable and fortuitous.
Perhaps there’s a little luck involved. Most people know the mania of Bipolar Disorder is linked to spontaneous, often dangerous, decision-making. Movies portray this as gluttonous drug use or food binging, all-night partying, risky sexual behavior, or catastrophic shopping sprees. Thank God I’m an artist. Why lose myself in drugs and alcohol when I can lose myself in the studio? Why stay up all night at parties when I can stay up all night dominating the rough draft of my next novel?
When the Muse is with me, I feel that same spontaneity, the binging, the irrational pursuit of exhilaration. And everything that satisfies these urges can be found in my studio, or upon the keyboard beneath my fingers.
My debut novel, Thieves Beasts & Men was written in mad bursts with the help of my Muse. With only a general idea of what the story would be, I began page 1 during a particularly proficient visit with my Muse. She stayed with me a long time—goosebumps, anticipation, euphoria, release—and together, we wrote the first third of the book in just over a month.
And then she left me hanging, staring at a blinking cursor.
Over the next year, she’d pop in occasionally. When she saw my pitiful attempt to continue without her, she’d have mercy, staying a few days more while I tried to keep up, words spilling from our collective fingertips, awake all hours of the night. We were doing so well, her and I. True partners. The story was unfolding naturally, language like liquid, bleeding across the screen. It was glorious. And then one day, at the worst possible time (just before the ending!), and with no forewarning, she took off again.
It was her longest absence yet, lasting months. I was devastated, convinced she’d moved on forever. But then it happened. I felt that familiar weight on the couch beside me. I could smell her. My Muse was back.
I’m happy to report that when she returned, it was with an intensity akin to violence, and together we finally nailed that ending!
It’d be impossible to write about my Muse without also addressing The Bad Place. One cannot exist without the other. The universe requires balance. What does bliss and hopelessness have in common? Absolutely nothing, with the exception of balance. My Muse is a treasure. The Bad Place is her finders fee.
I haven’t yet learned to harness my time spent in The Bad Place with eloquence. It’s pure survival, and it’s still a work in progress. Sometimes The Bad Place is merely a timeout. I may simply have a small existential crisis while waiting for my Muse to return. But sometimes The Bad Place swallows me completely.
In The Bad Place, optimism vanishes. Nothing matters because we all die, anyway. Everything I’m working toward is meaningless. Why stick around when everything is so insignificant? Did someone say, suicidal ideations? No doubt. Thoughts, plans, letters. I’ve done all of it with a little help from The Bad Place, except, thank goodness, actually reach out and grab it. But it’s always there, wrapped around my neck, a slow asphyxiation.
Thieves Beasts & Men, opens with Adelaide, an older woman who has lived a quiet life of solitude in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She leaves her cabin one morning with a pocketful of pills, intent on ending her life by the river. Her attempt is unsuccessful, and then life hands Adelaide an unexpected and unusual reason to continue living.
Writing Adelaide was my attempt to shine a light on the darkness that lives inside me, smothering it with artistry and imagination. Though still a working theory, perhaps by giving those thoughts a name, a persona, I can use them for good. Or at least show them who’s in charge.
Let me scream from the rooftop for a moment: I’m no expert on mental illness! I’m just a Bipolar Girl wrestling her own demons with creativity and a little out-of-the-box thinking. I have a plethora of both, and we must harness every tool in our arsenal to better our lives, and ideally, evolve into something truly great.
It’s been said that having a divergent mind is the very basis for creativity. As artists, we think differently. We see the world differently. We use our resources differently. We, ourselves, are just a little bit, well…different. So then I ask, how might one define a psychological disorder? Divergent mind? I couldn’t have said it better myself. But Bipolar Disorder, like any other mental illness, is a tricky beast. You must respect it, look it in the eye, and learn to control it. Before it controls you.
As I’m composing my final thoughts on this important issue, I feel someone on the couch beside me. She’s patient. Beautiful, but not in an obvious way. She smells good. It seems my Muse has returned, and I must heed her call.
Author’s Note: I am in no way romanticizing metal illness, nor am I anti-medication. My way of doing things is rarely the right choice for most people. If you or someone you know is in The Bad Place, don’t reach out for the paintbrush. Reach out for help. It’s not weakness because we are stronger with allies by our side. And just like Adelaide, life has some unexpected and unusual things in store for you, too. I promise.