Recently there was some Facebook commentary on a Wikipedia article which trotted out the conventional notion that there is a correlation between creativity and mental illness. Here's the article:
My (unsolicited) contribution to that discussion forms the original basis of this blog post - with a few subsequent additions:
People with mental illness are often drawn to recreational drugs not just for self-medication, but also for a particular social piece. If you have strange associations and behaviours because of your mental illness, you may find it easier to fit in amongst people who are tripping balls. They won't spot your eccentricity as quickly if they, too are seeing dayglo pink gerbils hula-dancing on the bedside dresser.
So I've often wondered if the art scene has a lot of folks with addictive personalities and mental illness in & around it because these people are artistically creative, OR because the art scene has less strict norms of appropriate behaviour, belief, dress, substance use and abuse etc. than 'straight' society. Perhaps each is a factor. Perhaps the factors inform each other.
But I think that genius in various fields (math, too) is associated with mental illness and addictive personality because you have to be a full-blown genius if you're gonna succeed despite your mental illness or your addiction. You can succeed as a sane, pretty-good guitarist but it's unlikely people are gonna put up with unpredictable, unreliable bullshit in any discipline unless there is remarkable talent that goes along with it. That sort of talent is available to only a few.
We all know lots of people who are unremarkable talent-wise. It's less likely that we know lots of people who are seriously mentally ill or in the midst of active, chronic addiction and who are unremarkable talent-wise. As a society we tend to segregate such folks into day centers and care facilities and slums. I've had occasion to work with a lot of these people in my day jobs. They are as varied in their strengths and weaknesses as those who don't suffer from their particular diseases. But as a rule it's harder for them to succeed. So we only see the geniuses from these populations succeeding in their various disciplines. And we draw the false conclusion that the disease is the cause of their genius.
There's also the "Behind the Music" effect. Stories about fucked-up creative people are sexy. Stories about responsible, deadline-meeting, tax-paying creative people are sort of boring. But
creating art requires a whole raft of boring, unsexy talents like promptness, budgeting skills, tact etc. Look at Duke Ellington versus Thelonius Monk. Each one is undoubtedly a creative genius. But Ellington had the opportunity to write and arrange for larger, more varied groups in part because he had the organizational and interpersonal skills to keep a big band together. There were eccentrics and addicts in his band but he wasn't one of them.
Monk, on the other hand, was pretty out there. Many speculate that today he would be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. He was only able to hold small combos together. So he only got to write & arrange for small combos. The parameters of his creativity were limited, rather than enhanced by his eccentricity.
My own experience is like this: I have been both depressed and extremely anxious. This ran the gamut from general sarcastic-dick-to-be-around resentfulness to unable-to-get-out-of-bed-for several-days paralysis. I never sought treatment and never received a clinical diagnosis. In retrospect it looks like for-real mental illness. I have used substances - usually alcohol - addictively. When I stopped using alcohol and drugs, my depression and anxiety eventually abated.
I was working as a creative person throughout that period. I'm OK at being a creative person. I have some skills. I certainly don't have any sort of parameter-shifting, game-changing native ability. And I experienced a bit of success in those days. And I hit a big, scary wall. I had ideas of what I wanted to do but not the motivation, courage, or general shit-togetherness to realize these plans. What I had was an acute and rapidly growing pool of fear and resentment at an unfair world.
I got past that period by committing to abstaining from booze and drugs, and by committing to a personal spiritual practice. It was only when I was stopped suffering from mental illness and addiction that things started to roll for me artistically. I felt better in myself. More willing to try and fail. I managed to pull bigger, more complex projects together because I wasn't sleeping it off until 3pm on Sundays. But a much more profound shift occurred in the work I was doing:
The message I was putting out into the world became less self-referential and more generous. I stopped believing that happy endings were a pandering sop for suckers. I stopped believing that archness, hipness and urbanity were the ultimate aesthetic qualities. I started to want to celebrate things like hope and dreams in an unironic fashion. A new goal became to tell stories that could uplift without sacrificing grit. This was quite different from my previous goal - which was to show you how edgy and clever I was. Not that I have abandoned satire or darker themes. I've just added new ones. My parameters widened when I stopped being mentally unhealthy.
I'm moved to blog about this because when I started out in the music & art scenes I was most attracted to the craziness of bohemian life. The late nights shouting at the bar. The fights. The extreme personalities. The excitement. The sense that we were different and special. I thought all this was feeding my creative output.
The bohemian party lifestyle may well have been my main incentive to start down a difficult, worthwhile path in music and theater. But living this lifestyle was in fact hampering my creativity. And I think I tolerated my less-than-optimal mental condition for much longer than I would have were I living in the 'straight' world. I told myself it was an essential part of my artistic voice - the price of admission. But it wasn't. It was the bar on the door. The artist as crazy, hard-partying, opium-revelator genius is a rare, troubled model. Realizing your skill set, dedicating yourself to expanding it, trying and failing repeatedly with prosaic, valiant attempts until something magic happens... Most successful people in any field are following this model. And you don't have to be an addict or mentally ill to make it work. In fact, being healthy helps.