Tag Archives: mental illness

Anxiety vs. Creativity

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Over the holidays, I read I Am Brian Wilson, the erstwhile Beach Boy’s second memoir (after the first, written under the heavy influence of his therapist/Svengali Dr. Eugene Landy, Wilson eventually disowned).  I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for anyone looking for a deep insight into his process or a comprehensive behind the scenes chronicle of the Beach Boys’ history; it is very much the fragmented, personal recollections of a man looking back through a peripatetic lens from a lifetime’s distance.  To my generation, Wilson is known largely as the subject of a Barenaked Ladies song, and as the Beach Boys’ records fade from airplay on all but the stubborn classic rock stations, he is remembered at a glance more for his struggles with mental illness than his musical contributions.  To his credit Wilson does not shy away from describing the impact of his illness in his book and what has allowed him to manage it.  It is sad that even in 2017 mental illness remains dogged by stigma; one can only imagine with horror what it was like to endure it under the celebrity spotlight in the era where it was still acceptable to call such individuals crazy and fling them into asylums tended by Nurse Ratched types.

In one passage, Wilson talks rather nonchalantly about seeing a report on television about a link between anxiety and creativity, identifying that the very same part of the brain which can cause us to worry incessantly about things that may never happen is what also allows us to conceive of worlds that never were.  Maybe I’d always instinctively known that, given how many creative types throughout history have experienced some form of mental illness (or have even been described as merely having extremely difficult personalities), but I’d never read it put so simply and directly.  It led me to reflect on my own experiences with anxiety over the years, and to think about how the two forces are linked far beyond the daily battles that may be waged in one particular individual’s brain.

My anxiety would not be termed crippling by any means, as it has never been so debilitating that it has kept me from getting out of bed or functioning as a capable adult, not once.  But there was a time when it kept me fairly isolated from the world, where family and existing friends were ignored and the thought of initiating new relationships was as appealing as the proverbial root canal.  On many consecutive nights alone with West Wing DVD’s playing on a loop in the background, disappearing into the fictional worlds I was creating was the only way I could calm a turbulent stomach and silence the mantra repeating in my head about how I was bound to fail at everything lying out there in wait beyond the door of my one-bedroom apartment.  When fingers touched keyboard, those stresses vanished, and while I was in the process of creating, they were kept far at bay, locked in an impenetrable adamantium cage.

As soon as I hit save and close and stepped away, however, the anxiety roared back – questions of what now, assurances that no one would ever like this, that I’d never find a way to support myself with it, and that it was all a colossal waste of time.  I could never talk about what I was working on either, as my fear of the hated “oh, that’s nice” response or that people would think I was weird or simply wouldn’t get it made it easier to gloss that part of me over or pretend it didn’t exist.  So writing became more and more of a narcotic, as I shunned the outside in favor of the blinking cursor, but a significant part of me still wanted that outside, even as much as I feared entering it or didn’t seem to be able to function very well while navigating it.  I wanted to be as confident in interacting with real human beings as I seemed to be proficient in writing fictional dialogue, and I could never quite understand why the two did not complement one another.  Whatever the case, it was not a recipe for happiness.

Even years removed from those lonely nights, when I am now married, a parent, a homeowner and gainfully, stably employed, the anxiety lingers, reminding me how much of a failure I am each day – even though an objective observer would confidently argue the reverse.  With dogged determination, anxiety has crept into the previously impenetrable sanctuary of the creative process as well, leaching away what used to be the most reliable source of my confidence.  If I were somehow able to plug into my thoughts as I write this post, here is what they would be saying:  who are you kidding, this is pure shit.  This makes no sense, this is self-indulgent and pretentious, the writing is godawful, high school caliber, and hell, even high schoolers can write better than you.  It takes you hours what some of your peers can toss off effortlessly in fifteen minutes, and you might as well just delete this post because nobody’s going to read it, let alone like it anyway.  You should give up and get on with your life and leave this field to people who know what they’re doing and actually have people listening to them.  No one cares.  NO ONE CARES.  (Repeat to fade.)

I thought that eventually this would go away as I wrote more and published wider, but it’s gotten worse, to the point where literally dozens of posts have been strangled in the cradle, never seeing the light of day, because the voice of negativity has been too strong to overcome – expanding from mere inadequacy about one’s capabilities to sheer terror that some pissed off Trump-worshiping Internet troll is going to go to town on them.  But if anxiety and creativity are the same part of the brain, then it stands to reason that an increase in one would be directly proportional to an increase in the other.  As ideas spring and percolate and yearn to take shape, so too does the counterforce in equal measure, belittling and slapping those ideas down; apathy rears its slouching head to nip persistently at the heels of effort.  This doesn’t do any favors to goals of becoming more productive and prolific, but it would seem that you have to accept this rather Faustian trade in order to get on with things, and the less time spent bemoaning it, the better.

Towards the end of his documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, Stephen Fry ruminates about the possibility of trading away his manic phases to the benefit of owning a more stable emotional state of being, and he offers bluntly, “I need my mania.”  It is a rather potent question to be asked even of those of us who don’t veer to those sorts of extremes:  would we give up our creativity to live without our anxiety and much more confidently, in order to be that guy who can walk into the room and charm the pants off everyone he meets, who always knows exactly what to say in every single situation, who never has the slightest doubt about who he is or what to do next, who never worries about what tomorrow might bring?  If you’re a writer, a painter, a musician or anyone who finds their passion in any creative works – whether it’s a casual hobby or how you put food on the table, could you answer with a yes?  I suspect that for many, there are days that you might, when it all seems to be folding in on you, when the abrupt ring of the telephone is a blade filleting every last nerve into shreds of spaghetti and you can’t fathom how you’re going to make it till tomorrow.  Yet in the calmer moments, you can look back at the impressive body of work that you’ve amassed and shake your head and say of course not, are you kidding me?  It is a lingering question with as many layers of duality as the integration of the two states themselves.

Even after reading his memoir I don’t know if Brian Wilson could definitively say one way or another, if he would have preferred a quiet, certain life over the chance to gift the world with “God Only Knows.”  But there might be a serenity to be found in learning (eventually) to accept that, in the words of Frank Sinatra, you can’t have one without the other – that the pitiless snarls of the beast salivating for your failure are mere fuel for the imagination that will ensure your success.

When you figure out how, let me know.

Au revoir, Robin Williams

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Blessed are the mirthmakers.  Watching my Twitter feed yesterday and today run over with warm anecdotes about Robin Williams, shared by both his celebrity friends and everyday people whose circle he might have wandered into one happenstance moment, was a testament to the inimitable imprint he will leave upon a troubled planet hungering for the levity that lets it aspire to a brighter day.  He was a treasure we didn’t often stop to realize we had; star power having waned somewhat in recent years, movies no longer top box office draws, forays back into television cancelled after a solitary season.  Now that he is gone, we recall only the highlights, the best of a legacy burned into collective memory and visceral lines of brilliant, often improvised dialogue we’ll appropriate for our own.  Williams’ unique rapid-fire, free-associating comedic patter was like a brain overloaded with all the world’s data, obsessed with identifying the connections in pursuit of a grand design just one perfectly-timed quip out of reach.  “Genius” was not hyperbole for describing his talent.

The outpouring of good feeling seen across all forms of media is reassurance, one hopes, that Williams will be remembered for the man he was and not only by how he died.  Hundreds of articles and blog posts have already appeared attempting to reconcile the contradiction of a man who could quite legitimately be labeled the funniest person on the planet being consumed by depression.  It seems that so many of our jesters are.  They understand on an analytical level why the joke is funny, they can see other people expressing the expected reaction, but they can’t join in the feeling, because an illness bars the way like the world’s cruelest bouncer behind a spiked red velvet rope – this far and no farther shall ye come.  The clown who does not know laughter himself is one of our greatest tragedies; so too it seems would Robin Williams become perhaps the most literal example of this archetype, struggling with the dual demons of mental illness and substance abuse throughout the decades of a career dedicated to lifting the spirits of millions.

When my family bought our first Betamax VCR, for what seemed like a good year, we had a mere two movies, on the same cassette:  Caddyshack and Popeye.  The former I could take or leave, but I loved Popeye, as silly and as ill-conceived as a grownup’s eyes can see that it is.  The opening scene where the titular squinty-eyed sailor rows into the seaside town of Sweethaven, inquires at the Oyl residence about a “room fer rink” and tucks himself into bed while looking fondly at a picture of his father (which is an empty frame with the words “ME POPPA” scrawled on it) was by turns funny, weird, and ultimately endearing, somewhat emblematic of Robin Williams’ work.  Rolling on the floor at the zaniness and the audacity and moved to gut-wrenching sobs in the next.  Ironically, for someone who made his name in comedic mugging, Williams always knew when to pull back and let someone else have the spotlight.  In Awakenings, he dialed back his charisma to let Robert De Niro drive the movie with a touching portrayal of a recovered catatonia patient experiencing a new world.  He let Matt Damon become a movie star in Good Will Hunting and won an Oscar in the process, crafting a gripping performance with subtlety and rigid control of that inexhaustible manic energy.  Williams himself might have admitted that some of his movies over the last few years have been less than stellar, but you’ve never gotten the sense that it was because of a lack of trying on his part.  In his acting roles, no matter the genre, he left it all out on the field.  Perhaps it was this incredible commitment to put out so much energy for everyone else’s benefit that there wasn’t enough left for himself.

His passing brings into light as well our ongoing inability to equate the frequently invisible illnesses of the mind with the obvious illnesses of the body, in how we treat them and even how we think of them.  As Alistair Campbell illuminates so well in his HuffPost piece, we regularly laud cancer patients for their courage while in the same breath telling people with depression to suck it up – or express incredulity that someone who appears to “have it all” could ever find anything to be depressed about.  I’m beginning to wonder if it’s simply a question of etymology, where depression the illness is negatively impacted by the non-medical concept of feeling depressed.  Maybe if it were assigned some elaborate sciency-sounding moniker like “Fleckstein-Johner reductive cerebral neural syndrome,” individuals suffering from it might receive more empathy from those who don’t have it.  And yet so many do – one in five, according to recent statistics.  (According to WordPress, as of my writing this there are 3,357 people following this blog, so 672 of you likely suffer from some kind of mental illness.  That is enormous, and saddening at the same time, and evidence that there is so much work to do to alleviate the stigma.)

The lexicon around the ending of one’s own life is similarly tinged with judgments.  “Committing” suicide draws the implied comparison to perpetrating a crime; as does referring to someone as a “victim” of suicide.  Thinking of suicide as “giving up,” or that the person “just couldn’t fight anymore,” and that they made a conscious choice to die.  In no other example of an illness do you hear offensive phraseology that assigns blame to someone who has suffered.  When Amy Winehouse died a few years ago there was no shortage of people claiming with clucking tongues that “well, she was clearly headed that way.”  Try saying that about someone who dies of leukemia (and then duck).  Yes, depression can be a fatal disease, and as much as we might enjoy comforting ourselves with fantasies of last-minute interventions (insisting over and over again that “it’s not your fault,” as in a famous example from Williams’ own work) the plain ugly truth is that those triumphant hug-filled finales are for the movies.  Just as some cancers can’t be cured, many cases of depression aren’t either.  Robin Williams tried his best, working through treatment throughout his life, but in the end, he died from an illness, just as if he’d had a particularly virulent physical tumor.  Nothing more and nothing less.  Those who knew him and the millions more of us who merely admired him from afar and relied on him to make us smile when we were down should simply celebrate who he was, and be grateful that we were able to share in his gifts for a short time.

Apparently there are three Robin Williams movies in post-production awaiting release, but it’s strange to think that after they have come and gone, we will not see any more.  His is a legacy of goodwill, of being a force for hope, kindness, and charity; of giving to his fellow human beings far, far more than he ever took.  As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences put it yesterday, the Genie is free now.  We will miss him, but we’ll always have the laughs.  So instead of black armbands, let’s don red clown noses, jump up on our desks and recite a few lines of “O Captain!  My Captain!”  That’s probably just how he’d want it.

Us and them

My better half and I were in a long line yesterday afternoon, waiting to purchase some chairs.  As we waited with our fellow consumers to plunk down our hard-earned pesos at the altar of the mighty Corporate Retailer, I chanced to overhear conversation from the front of the line – specifically, a mother telling her daughter, somewhat snippily, that daughter would have to get her eyebrows and nails done in advance of some event taking place a week hence.  Mother was what you might call rather well put together – styled blond hair, flawless makeup and manicure, fashionable ensemble.  Daughter was in sweats and looking rather unenthused.  I perhaps could have understood Mother’s point had the daughter’s eyebrows been a touch on the bushy side, if mayhap traces of the dreaded unibrow were evident.  But there was quite simply nothing wrong with said brows.  (Did not get a chance to perform similar scrutiny of subject’s hands.)

Anyway, as is my wont on occasion, I uttered a few sarcastic remarks beneath my breath, expounding further to my better half as we left the store and the earshot of the woman in question, positing a preponderance of vanity on this stranger’s part, and essentially, summing up her life in a Holmesian leap of deduction after no more than a minute in her presence.  My better half, naturally, advised me to go stuff it.  (Not really, but it makes for a better story that way.)  What she did tell me was that I have a bad tendency to be very judgmental.  I didn’t know, she pointed out, if maybe daughter had been riding mother’s nerves all day long, if they had a long and complicated history, if myriads of nuanced emotional moments had crescendoed to and climaxed in that checkout line admonishment.  I was guilty of taking one look, or listen rather, and thinking I had them all figured out.  But I’m not Sherlock Holmes – indeed, his belief in his ability to read people is a deep flaw.  It is sheer folly to think we can ever know the heart of another.  We can come to love them deeply and intimately, to share each moment of our lives with them, but we can never truly understand what goes on in the space between the heartbeats.  Rather we tend to make these assumptions based on patterns, and we fill in what we can’t read with our own personality, our own morality and values, leading us, inevitably, to a conclusion that is totally wrong.

When Whitney Houston died last week, predictable comparisons were made to Amy Winehouse, another deeply troubled singer who succumbed to her demons last year.  For much of her career, Whitney Houston was tabloid fodder, with endless judgments passed on her lifestyle, her choice of partner, her struggles with drugs that seemed endless.  The large-scale reaction at the end is not shock, not sadness, but a shrug. “It was only a matter of time,” say the cynical, the insensitive.  Why not just accept that none of us could have known what was going on inside her mind?  The struggle with illness, whether mental or physical, is the most solitary of fights, the lack of our ability to understand one another the barrier that keeps us alone on that terrible battlefield.  And yet the capacity of human beings for compassion – when they choose it – at least lets us stand against the storm knowing that our friends are at our back, cheering us on.  It’s too easy to let the beast schadenfreude take over, especially when celebrities are involved, this peculiar mix of envy and loathing that we assign to those who have achieved great success.  What’s important to remember, whether it’s Whitney Houston or a random woman in the line at the store castigating her daughter’s eyebrow issues, is that it is not a cipher we are looking at, a character from a soap opera defined by a consistent and cardboard trait, but that most beautifully complicated creature of contradictions, a human being.  Defining each other by single characteristics is what leads to the identification of the stranger as an other, an enemy.  It is what has divided us into camps and tribes for our entire history, and what divides us still.  You are not me.  Us and them.

Yet we can overcome that.  It’s not necessary to form an opinion on the actions of every person we pass on the street, to compare their attitudes to our own.  We can leave them be.  We can replace judgment with respect, with empathy.  And our ability to do that, to recognize and to make the choice, is part of what makes us human.

The tragedy of Amy Winehouse

I didn’t know Amy Winehouse.  I wasn’t really a fan of Amy Winehouse.  I had only a tangential interest in Amy Winehouse, inasmuch as I knew that she sang “Rehab,” had a strange hairdo and made news for drinking, drugs and getting into a lot of trouble.  That would probably be a common answer if you asked any dozen people on the street to describe her.  So the news of her sudden death at the age of 27 this past Saturday would not come as a great surprise either.  She joins the pantheon of musicians unravelled by their demons – Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley.  What stands Amy Winehouse apart from this crowd is how her downward spiral became the focus of her fame.  Despite her talent, entire forests were whacked to instead provide embarrassing photos and salacious accounts of somebody who was clearly suffering a great deal – so much so that the sanctimonious among us can now say smugly, “it was only a matter of time.”

The first time I ever received morphine was during a brief hospitalization for a collapsed lung.  I remember thinking as the sensation of euphoria washed over me and cleansed away the pain, “ah, this is why people do drugs.”  (Clearly a world-changing revelation from a naïve 21-year-old who barely drank and never even tried a cigarette.)  Despite the morphine experience, I don’t have an addictive personality.  Most of us don’t, which is why we love jumping all over the latest celebrity drug abuse scandal.  It is incomprehensible to a non-addict where this need to smoke, drink or inject chemicals into one’s body for a temporary “high” comes from.  Things just can’t possibly be that bad, we say.  Just don’t take the stuff.  A lot of misguided drug policy has been formulated from this morally superior perch, because our brains aren’t wired the way an addict’s brain is.  And with a lack of understanding comes a lack of empathy.

Addiction, like any mental illness, is still a stigma.  If people don’t look like anything is wrong with them, then it’s assumed that they are perfectly fine.  People missing limbs, people wasting away from AIDS, people who have suffered disfiguring injuries are regularly celebrated as heroes, resolute in the face of their challenges.  But most mental illnesses are still equated with weakness, or worse, turned into punchlines.  Someone with bipolar disorder who needs to have regular electroshock therapy is viewed as “crazy,” much less courageous than the stalwart woman fighting breast cancer.  And raising money to fight addiction and mental illness isn’t as politically sexy as other diseases because many of the people who suffer from them are often viewed as the undesirables of society – far too often winding up in prison instead of treatment.

The tabloids loved to kick Amy Winehouse when she was down, which seemed to be regularly.  Plenty of stories ran earlier this year about her cancelling concerts, appearing incoherent and slurring her words on stage.  “Winehouse Behaving Badly” was no longer news – it was just expected.  Not having known her personally, I can’t attest to what was going on in her life, what kind of person she was, how she treated those around her.  All I know is that she didn’t get the help she needed in time, and her parents have now lost a daughter.  And I can’t help wondering if she had suffered a more visible illness, might she have garnered more sympathy?  If she’d died of leukemia or ALS, would people be saying, as was overheard in my office today, “well, she was clearly headed that way”?

Suffering doesn’t always come with a limp or a scar.  We need to stop assuming everyone with an addiction or a mental illness is crazy, or that it is something to be scorned.  It’s difficult to watch someone self-destruct, as it must have been for those closest to Amy Winehouse.  It’s harder still to continue to be there for them, to not let them go, to fight against the stigma and the public perception and the belief that it’s their weakness.  But we can’t let ourselves do any less.  Love is, after all, the most important part of Rehab.