As I become more comfortable in calling myself a writer and situating myself as one, I also aim to surround myself with creative people. We’re considered to be a mix of the five people we interact with most, and I wanted to ensure that my ingredients contained enough creativity. I loved discussing creative pursuits with these friends, whether it was writing, singing or visual arts, and I found that we would also slip easily into the topic of mental health and mental illness. I began to realise that almost all of my creatively minded friends also carried a diagnosis, or openly struggled with their mental health. In fact, I knew three others who also had Borderline Personality Disorder like me.
This realisation unnerved me. Was I consciously surrounding myself with people who have a mental illness? Or are individuals with a mental illness overrepresented in creative fields? I felt determined to get to the bottom of this. I am passionate about discussing my mental illness in my writing, I want to bring mental illness into the conversation and thus normalise it. But what if my writing is what led to my depression and personality disorder? Or worse, what if my depression is the only reason that I’ve become a writer?
A lot of research has been conducted on the complex relationship between mental illness and creativity. Some believe that mental health issues allow people to think more creatively than others. But despite this, the level of creativity has been found to drop back down to average levels during severe episodes of illness. And so, their mental illness may fuel them until it grows too severe, a bell curve of creativity if you will.
It’s quite remarkable that so many writers and creatives have depression, for depression is known to reduce motivation and productivity. And as we all know, it takes a lot of motivation to complete a book.
The danger lies in believing that your writing, and success at it, stems from your mental illness. This may deter people from seeking help and taking their medication. They may begin to rely on their illness. While your mental illness can assist your writing, particularly in themes to address, it should never rely on it. As your mental health and happiness are more important than your writing.
There is also still debate regarding this supposed link. A 40 year study consisting of approximately 1.2 million Swedish people found that with the exception of Bipolar Disorder, those in scientific and artistic occupations were not more likely to suffer from a psychiatric disorder. So a mental illness did not increase the likelihood of entering a creative profession, except for Bipolar Disorder which had a small effect of 8%. But more interestingly, was that the siblings and first degree relatives of mental illness patients were significantly overrepresented in creative professions. Researchers were unable to explain this, but perhaps the watered-down effects of the mental illness that relatives received, are actually conducive to creativity whilst avoiding the debilitating limiting factors?
1. Ernest Hemingway. The renowned American novelist, who wrote bestsellers such as The Sun Also Rises and For Whom The Bell Tolls, struggled with alcoholism and manic depression throughout his life. His family had a history of suicide and mental illness (his father, brother and sister all took their own lives).
2. Virginia Woolf. An English writer, Virginia is considered to be one of the most brilliant writers of the 20th century and an advocate for female empowerment. Her novels, including Mrs. Dalloway, had a huge impact on literature. Her manic depression began at the age of 13 following the death of her mother, and continued until her death in 1941.
3. Charles Bukowski. A poet and a writer, Charles channeled the emotional pain of his manic depression into his writing and is best known for his expression of internal conflict.
4. Sylvia Plath. It is quite commonly known that Sylvia struggled with manic depression, with her first suicide attempt at the age of 19. She is known for Confessional Poetry, her style of writing based on personal experiences and feelings regarding trauma, death and the psyche.
5. Leo Tolstoy. Even while writing huge novels such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Leo struggled with depression and alcohol abuse, and had suicidal thoughts.
6. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Both he and his wife struggled with mental illness, for he suffered from severe depression and alcohol misuse, and she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
7. Anne Rice. An example of how depression led to her success as a writer, following the death of her daughter Anne found her only relief in writing. Today she has bestselling novels and a huge cult following.
In case you haven’t heard of it, the chicken or the egg dilemma is commonly posed to question the causation of a phenomena. It is usually stated as the question of “which came first: the chicken or the egg?”. It stems from the observation that chickens all hatch from eggs, yet all chicken eggs are laid by chickens. So how did the first chicken arise then, was it hatched from an egg or from elsewhere and then laid the first egg?
When considered in terms of writing and mental illness, it questions whether individuals become writers because they are depressed, or become depressed because they are writers. Which preceded the other, which led to the other. Let’s examine both possibilities.
In our first possibility, individuals wish to be a writer. They work to fulfill their passion and on the way they develop depression or another mental illness. This is more of a causation theory, as we are confirming the outcome (mental illness) to result from the behaviour (writing). It suggests the flaw to lie with the profession, or the practices that accompany being a writer. This is why it could work.
Writers spend a great deal of their time alone. No matter their family size, relationship status, living situation or other contributing factors, writers will be often alone. They will spend countless hours of their existence behind a screen or typewriter, focused only on their work. They will allow the rest of the world to leave them, and only require the company of their work. If you can’t do this, then it is recommended that you consider writing as a hobby or side-job rather than your main hustle.
But while this time alone can produce wonderful works, it can also take a toll on your mental health. Humans are social creatures, and even the biggest introverts among us will struggle being only alone. We require other humans to talk to, vent to, listen to, empathise with. Being alone allows all our thoughts, fears and anger to brew within us. Loneliness can be extremely damaging, and without another to reflect our dark thoughts to, we sit alone in them and relinquish control to them. The time spent alone as a writer can certainly contribute to poor mental health.
As a writer, we need to empathise with others. We need to empathise with our characters, even the worst in them, as if we don’t, why would a reader? We need to watch people and try to understand them. So we end up feeling for almost everyone around us. This exaggerated empathy causes us to take the pain and struggle of others onto our shoulders. This can lead to weltschmerz, to feel the pain of the world (more mental health terms missing from the English language). We allow depression to seep into our pores, we allow everyone’s struggle to be our own. We hurt too much, and so depression creeps in naturally.
There are few professions without a drop of uncertainty, but writing certainly does have buckets of it. We don’t know if we’re good enough. We don’t know if others will like our work, our latest project or book. There is no predictable income, it can always fluctuate. We live with doubt, and then all we can do is try to use it as we type away in fear. This uncertainty is the perfect temperature for mental illness to brew. Anxiety in our fears of survival, in our needs for social approval. Depression in our doubt, in the dark voice telling us that we will never be good enough. The instability of writing feeds to the brewing mental illness within.
Jealousy is an ugly emotion, but it can be found within all of us. We struggle to find solace in fellow writers as it’s too easy to consider them as competition. This not only heightens the loneliness of life as a writer, but also the ugly emotions accompanying it. The fear and doubt will push us past our limits, and will keep us paranoid. Social comparison leads to heightened emotions and defences, taking us further down the road of poor mental health.
Spending hours behind a desk alone is not the ideal lifestyle for a healthy body and mind. We could suffer from more illnesses and physical ailments than others, as we aren’t moving enough unless we actively try to. We spend more time inside, without vitamin D to fuel our mood. A lack of vitamin D has been linked to depressed symptoms, such as with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Many writers adopt unusual hours, because of their productivity moments or simply because of they can. This can disrupt their circadian rhythm, which also has links to depression, and can isolate them further.
Now we consider the alternative, that a link between depression and writing stems from an existing mental illness. That our poor mental health causes us to choose the role of a writer, or creative, and plough down this more difficult path.
It’s rare for someone in the grips of their mental illness to yearn for the company of others, and if they do it may be in a tug and release way, wanting it until you have it. You want solitude, you want hours to yourself. Writing is a great way to achieve this, like other creative forms. You get to rely only on yourself and relish in your company.
Just like time alone, exaggerated empathy can explain both the chicken and the egg possibility. People with a mental illness can have an exaggerated sense of empathy. When you know the depths of the darkness, then you sympathise with others when they struggle, you want to lift others so they don't join you there. This could be through your writing. Furthermore, you empathise with individuals and situations so much that you can craft them into words, that it becomes a skill to be used to your advantage.
When suffering from a mental illness, you need a release. That release can take any form, but creative pursuits are ideal for this. You need to let out the pain, fear, anger or whatever else is brewing within you, it’s how you survive. It doesn’t have to be writing, but writing is a great way to bring those emotions out and cut their tie to you. When my mental illness has me in its clutch, I find writing my thoughts or feelings down to be so cathartic. They no longer seem so large and overwhelming.
By writing characters in pain, you release some of that pain, you give it a productive form.
Some studies show a link between mental illness and introversion - perhaps another chicken or egg conundrum to explore in a new article. Even with my BPD, I easily come across extroverted, despite having strong introverted tendencies and preferences. When you take a step back from the crowds, you see a lot of things that other people miss. When you walk around on high alert, or hypersensitive, you pick up on things and note them down. I don’t know what normal feelings or reactions to situations are, so I watch for them in others to learn.
The best way to write a character that resonates with readers is to make them feel real. And you make a character real by basing them on real things that you know or have seen or heard of. You sprinkle those traits and moments throughout, and you create someone so authentic to the reader that they will cry for them. They will curse or praise them long after the pages are done.
I think a writer will always find something to discuss. There is no shortage of topics in this mad world. But if you are suffering from a mental illness, then you have this topic lined up. You have something within you that could be of interest, or could resonate with others. Perhaps people with depression become writers just to show everyone a peek inside their brain. To find others like them and make it that step easier.
I know that’s why I started my blog. I consider myself more of a fiction writer, but I had a moment where I realised how rarely I find blogs about mental illness, and how much they mean to me when I do. I realised how much a blog post or Medium article like that could have meant to young Fleurine, when she felt so alone and confused in her depression. A post about self-harm to show her that she isn't crazy. A post about overcoming an eating disorder, so she had more to grasp onto than the awful pro-eating disorder websites littering the internet.
They always recommend to write what you know, and moreover they say to write what you want to read. Maybe that’s why people with a mental illness become writers, as they want to read about what's happening to them, and so they’re ready to contribute to the discussion.
I don’t believe that just being a writer will give you a mental illness, as there are so many biological and social factors to consider in the equation. There’s a genetic predisposition, there’s a lack of particular neurotransmitters and more. I also don’t believe that a mental illness pushes you to become a writer, as it isn’t a passion you can ignite, it’s a fire present within that you nurture and grow. So my conclusion? I think that our mental illness stirs something within us, and that we then make the choice to use writing to deal with it and bring it out. I think we need more writers with a mental illness in this world, so that we can acknowledge mental illness correctly and never let it fall from the conversation.
Everyone has a story to tell, and you are the only one stopping yourself from sharing it.
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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