Mental illness is apparently sexy right now. No really, Vice recently ran a contemporary ‘fashion’ spread called Last Words, using models posing as female writers at the moment of their suicides*. If you want to buy stockings similar to those that Taiwanese author Sanmao used to hang herself, they’re listed in the fashion credits. That’s how sexy it is. I, for one, am relieved. I’m sure many depressed female creatives have worried whether Vice magazine thinks they still look shaggable enough to flog a vintage dress.
Researchers at the Karolinska Institute claimed last year that writers are at far greater risk of anxiety and bipolar disorder (a mind-boggling 121% percent greater risk when it comes to bipolar), schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse. Furthermore, they are almost twice as likely as the general population to kill themselves.
As an author diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I have a natural interest in both writing and mental illness. But is it useful to connect them? More to the point, is it at least partially accurate? Is creativity a fortunate byproduct or the cause? I can’t help but think that if I suffered from bipolar but wasn’t a writer or musician, I’d feel pretty shortchanged right now. ‘Where the hell is all this creative genius I was promised?’ I’d wonder, as I sat at my desk hyperventilating into a brown paper bag after my second debilitating panic attack of the day.
But let’s look at a couple of the arguments for the correlation of crazy** with creativity, or more specifically writing.
I’m assuming that everyone who writes has a deep curiosity about the world and about people. Even the most banal of stories, even the writers you detest, write to either inform or to explore. Researching and exploring the minds of the criminally insane, sadistic and evil are what gets me out of bed each day. What’s more, unlike the reader you can’t put it down. You carry it with you, unable and unwilling to fetter the questioning of your own mind, no matter how depressing it becomes. It’s almost the ultimate practice in masochism, right up there with reading The Daily Mail or watching Next Top Model.
Secondly, there are no shortage of examples of truly great writers who have drawn-upon inner turmoil and personal trauma to produce fist-bitingly brilliant work. Like every other sane person (ha!) I’m a big fan of Hemingway, because, in my opinion, no one writes about war like Hemingway. I remember telling friends, in a state of excited fan-girl awe, that I was going to try writing standing up like Hemingway, because it sounded like a good idea. One of them dryly replied, ‘Yes, but he was also an alcoholic*** who shot himself so don’t take the imitation too far.’ I could also fill a page with names such as Kurt Cobain, Graham Greene, Sylvia Plath, Hunter S Thompson, Franz Kafka, Patricia Cornwell, and Leo Tolstoy. There are three suicides in that short list and at least one attempt.
Looking back at my first novel Something You Are, I can see the confusion and alienation of my first major depressive episode mirrored in its protagonist, contract-killer Nic Caruana. While writing my second novel Girl Seven, I could see the disconnectedness, contempt and apathy that came after the bipolar diagnosis. Yes, mental illness can inform content. I don’t find it hard to believe that bipolar sufferer Graham Greene had a point when he said to his wife, ‘unfortunately, the disease is also one’s material’, but when it comes to actually working it’s a whole other ballgame.
Virginia Woolf wrote in her suicide note to her husband, ‘Dear, I feel certain that I am going mad again. (...) I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. (...) You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read.’
You can’t concentrate. You can’t read. You can’t work. I know this personally because I tried to do all three while being ill and it worked about as well as downing a bottle of Sambuca and trying to complete a tax return. To finish a decent and coherent piece of work such as a novel you need focus, drive and discipline. Mental illness often strips you of all three and instead compensates you with nothing but panic and paranoid levels of self-criticism. You still get things done, but at the agonizingly slow pace of someone trying to create a sculpture from a deck of cards while a Drill Sergeant screams abuse as well as recounting your every failure and humiliation.
At my worst, I didn’t write for an entire year, because I physically and mentally couldn’t. During manic episodes I was awash with ideas, twitching about the room in a state of frustrated grandeur and sleeping for two hours a night. While depressed, I spent 40% of the day crying, 40% percent of the day asleep and 20% of the day simply wishing I wasn’t alive anymore. Between these two extremes there was very little opportunity to sit down and do anything constructive.
Two days ago, roughly eight months after shuffling into a doctor’s office and saying, ‘I’m not sure my behaviour is entirely normal’, I finished my second novel. While my experience has, at times, during healthy retrospectives, given me an insight into how broken and flawed and lost a human being can feel, personally I’m not under any illusions about the connection between my mental illness and my work.
I wish that mental illness looked like the photos published in Vice, but the truth is that mental illness doesn’t look like the luminescent and thoroughly awesome badass Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook. It’s ugly and it’s cruel and not many people want to write films about it. Yes, a creative personality might contain some of the logical ingredients needed to make a great buttery biscuit base for mood disorders. Yes, having a disease of the mind can also provide you with a wealth of firsthand material to analyze while writing about people and why they do great and messed-up things. But the clue is also in the title. Mental illness is first and foremost an illness; it is a hindrance and a shackle and a cage.
It hasn’t made me a genius, so anything I have achieved I think I have achieved despite being ill, not because of it. That’s ok, because I like to imagine that as I get better so will my work, and that’s something to look forward to.
I’m writing this standing up, by the way.
*The piece has since been deleted from their website with an apology, but that’s nowhere near as interesting as the fact it existed in the first place.
**I’ve seen people, namely on Twitter, objecting to the flippant use of words like ‘crazy’ when referring to mental illness. Personally, I wouldn’t make use of any synonym for ‘mentally ill’ if I weren’t perfectly happy to have it used to describe myself, so I don’t find it offensive. I also rarely turn down the chance of alliteration. If you do find this word offensive, I apologize.
***Interestingly, it’s contentious whether Hemingway ever did say, “Write drunk, edit sober”. I’ve seen it also convincingly attributed to Peter De Vries and his novel Rueben, Rueben, though it has been paraphrased.
Hanna Jameson's debut novel, Something You Are, is currently featured in the iBookstore's hand-picked promotion Great Crime Novels set in London at just £2.99. Hanna's second novel Girl Seven will be published in April 2014.