Trigger warning: Mental illness, depression, anxiety, and mentions of suicide
Disclaimer: This article pertains to my specific experiences as someone who has a mental illness and identifies as a creative. I do not pretend to speak for everyone in this situation, but I hope that we can start a conversation about how we can reach our full creative potential while also managing our mental health.
The notion of the “tortured artist” is a tale as old as time. It was Aristotle after all who said that “no great genius has ever existed without a strain of madness.” Immediately, my mind flicks to Van Gogh, one of my favourite artists, who is well known for both his masterpieces and the breakdown that led to him removing his own ear. Other artists that come to mind include Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allan Poe, and Ernest Hemingway—but the list goes on and on. This highly romanticized view of artists being able to make great art in spite of mental illness, or even because of their experiences (here I think of Munch’s “The Scream”), may have an element of reality for some, but certainly not all, creatives.
I know that this idea of the “tortured artist” doesn’t work for everyone because it never worked for me. As a writer, being diagnosed and living with mental illness led to a major creative block that I am still working to overcome nearly ten years later. Up until the age of 14, I was an avid writer. I filled notebooks with poem after poem, and I can still recall my first attempt at a novel when I was eight, which was essentially just a rewrite of Lord of the Rings with a female protagonist. I carried my black notebook with me everywhere, and everyone knew that writing was my “thing.” This past summer, I went to visit my parents and was sorting through boxes of things from my childhood, where I found a multitude of publications and old notebooks that featured my writing. Much of my life centered around being able to express myself through written words.
Of course, that all ended when I was 14 and experienced my first mental break. That summer, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and was left with a new medication, a therapy regime, and no creative drive. I could write when I absolutely had to for class, but I was no longer the girl with the black notebook of poems under her arm. I found any kind of creative writing to be impossible—which is not what I expected or wanted to happen. I was full of emotion, pain, and experiences that I needed to get out of my head, but physically I could not translate them onto the page. I thought that if I was going to suffer that much, I should at least be able to make something out of it, like Van Gogh or Plath or Poe. How was I supposed to become a writer if I couldn’t write? How was I supposed to create anything worthwhile if I couldn’t even articulate the feeling of thoughts on a rolling boil inside my head? Or the feeling that my life was being spent preparing for a future I didn’t think I would ever live to see?
Nearly ten years later, my mental health is the best it has ever been, and I could not be happier with where my life is at. Yet I still find it difficult to write about my experience/illness, and any other form of creative expression still feels like a chore—something that I will be glad I did after the fact, but feels impossible to start. Where I used to be swept away by the creative process, I am now choking on words and am easily distracted by even the most mundane of happenings. Yet, I keep writing. I have reached a point where I am ready and willing to do the work, because I am a writer and this is what I love. Even if it is hard. Even if I feel like I was sapped of my creativity for a decade. Even if I’m not ready to write openly about my experiences just yet.
I am not a “tortured artist.” My mental illness did not lead to the creation of masterpieces, and that is okay. To the people who can manage to still create art while fighting with their own mind, I applaud you. I can only imagine the strength that takes. For those of us who cannot, that is also a valid experience. Being a creative is hard, but mental illness is harder. I am writing this piece for two reasons: to put into words what I have been struggling with for years, and to dispel this romanticized idea of the tortured artist. You are not required to make great work, or any work at all, until you are ready.
If you find yourself where I am, or was, or somewhere in between, I offer this advice to you, if I am qualified at all to offer any: take your time, focus on your health first, and the art will come eventually.
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