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Creativity and Madness: On Writing Through the Drugs

By posted at 12:00 pm on February 27, 2014 23

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I had rarely felt so alive, so close to the spitting pulse of energy and awakened life. I moved from the Berkshires to New York City for graduate school, to pursue an MFA in writing. My first year was an exhilarating blur of freedom and power. Each morning when I stepped out of my apartment, I felt like I owned the world. I felt beautiful and talented and young. I knew famous people, I was creatively inspired, I was meeting regularly with editors and publishers who were interested in my writing. My only responsibilities were to read, study with some of my literary heroes, write, and teach part-time. But by the end of my third year in the city, an anxiety disorder that had plagued me since the beginning of my life, and would flare up and calm down on a strange circadian rhythm of misery, had gotten so bad it reduced me to a quivering non-functioning bundle of raw nerves. I barely squeaked by in my last semester of my program, writing, reading, and teaching between emergency room visits, therapy appointments, panic attacks, and crippling phobias.

There were so many low points during my last year in New York, but a few stand out in sharp relief. I remember the terror of leaving my bed, and how humiliated and desperate I felt calling a friend in the middle of the night to ask her if she would come over to bring me a glass of water from my kitchen. I remember being too afraid to leave my bed for therapy, and calling my therapist on the phone sobbing as she tried to coax me out the door to the subway to meet her. I remember how difficult it was to communicate through the oxygen mask strapped over my mouth as the EMTs alongside my bed in an ambulance asked me questions — I’d just collapsed in a shaking heap at the gym from a particularly fast-acting and surprising episode of panic. I remember arriving at the emergency room, unable to talk because my jaw was clenched shut from adrenaline. I remember the drawer in my desk where blue hospital wrist bands accumulated in piles; I saved them like a soldier might save shells from the bullets that nearly killed her.

During this time, I was writing prolifically, and I feared that taking medication to ease my anxiety and panic might destroy my urge or ability to create. I had heard of many artists who had gone mad or suffered from horrible depression, and took the popular prescription of the day, never to write or create again. Their troubling symptoms had been muted, but so had everything else, their thoughts, perceptions, libidos, and ability to access deep feelings. They reported feeling emotionally void, deadened, seeing life as if through a veil. I also heard of artists who went mad and died, victims of suicide, drug overdose, or fatal manic episodes, and that scared me even more. David Foster Wallace, a writer I admired and sympathized with for his closeness to the raw fire of his own internal demons, committed suicide during my second year of graduate school, when my emotional world was crumbling, and it shook me to my core.

Creatives of all modalities have for centuries have suffered from mental illnesses like anxiety and depression, and they have resisted treatments that could improve their conditions for fear it would alter or cloud their minds, drug them into submission, or quash their creative impulse. Edvard Munch famously proclaimed, “I want to keep my sufferings. They are part of me and my art.” Van Gogh said, “Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence, whether much that is glorious, whether all that is profound, does not spring from disease of thought, from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect.”

Psychologist Maureen Neihart, in a paper called “Creativity, the Arts, and Madness,” cites several studies that illuminate shared characteristics between creative production and mental illness, such as mood disturbance, a tolerance for irrationality, greater openness to sensory stimuli, restlessness, speed of thinking, and obsessiveness of thought. Similarly, Freud posited that artistic creativity is a product of neurosis; Marcel Proust claimed that, “everything great in the world is created by neurotics;” and Seneca quoted Aristotle as having said, “No great genius was without a mixture of insanity.” Many psychologists believe that artists use their work to heal and soothe their minds. But if drugs heal artist’s minds for them, is their work still needed, or would it even be produced?

What if the touch of the madness had been medicated out of van Gogh, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Sexton, Plath, and Wallace? They very likely would have lived longer, fuller, and more enjoyable lives, but would they have created their works of genius? It’s a strange calculation we make, now that we can tinker with the chemicals that seem to make us who we are, which aspects of our personality are worth enduring for the gifts they can bestow? What if those aspects end up costing us our lives? What if saving our lives with medication robs us of the very thing that gives our lives meaning and makes us who we deeply are — sensitive, scared, hyper-aware, but also exultant, perceptive, and insightful into the human condition?

Though therapists, friends, and family had tried for years to convince me to give medicine a try, one bright afternoon in my third year in Manhattan, a friend said something to me in such a way and at such a time that I was finally able to hear. She said, “I used to feel that if I just peeled away one more layer, one more layer, I’d get to the center of my anxiety, the core issue, and solve the problem. But I realized, the onion had no center. I could keep peeling forever. Now that I’m taking medicine, I just love the world.” I wanted to love the world too. I started asking friends for psychiatric referrals the next day.

The idea of medicine scared me so much that I felt that while I tried it I needed around-the-clock care, and I either had to check myself into a hospital, or move back to my parents’ house in Boston. I chose my parents’ home, leaving an apartment I loved and phenomenal friends and community and all the titillating freedoms I’d found in the city to live in my childhood room on a tree-lined street in the suburbs of Boston. With the help of a new therapist, some SSRIs, a regular dose of benzodiazepines, and the care of my parents, I slowly crawled out of the cave of shadows I’d been living in. At first there were months of weeping, possibly due to the acclimation to new medicines, or to the relief from the constant stresses about my own survival, or to being surrounded by nature and quiet and my parents’ constant love and attention. Within a few months, I slowly added back in the activities that I had eliminated from my life over the past years: showering alone, cutting fruit, eating dinner at restaurants, driving, staying home alone. I soon had a full-time job teaching writing, something I’d been avoiding because the thought of teaching more than a few hours at a time made me extremely anxious and phobic of fainting.

It has now been about five years since I left New York. I’m teaching writing full-time at one school and adjuncting one evening a week at another. For the most part, I have a handle on my anxiety and panic. I’ve worked hard in therapy on strategies for handling a near constant dizziness and hyper-awareness that are classic symptoms of anxiety, and the SSRIs and Benzodiazepines I take are a seatbelt around my panic. Since I’ve been on meds, my trips to the emergency room have steadily dwindled down to none. My relationships have improved because I no longer need to rely on my friends, family, and romantic partners for my safety and emotional stability. But between teaching more than full time, reading voluminous student work, and the lazy happiness the medicines have granted me, I’ve barely written a word. At first, I didn’t need to. I rode my bike, I took a job, I fell in love, I enjoyed eating and spending time with friends again. There was none of the urgency or desire to wrestle with my words in the midst of such a full life. I used to write to live, to push myself out of a dark hole and connect with a reader in the world outside my suffocating den. Now, though I don’t feel quite as alive when I’m not writing, it’s no longer imperative. It’s even at times unappealing — why would I seclude myself from a world I’ve missed out on for so long to sit alone and sift through the crumpled napkins and browned apple cores of my thoughts and experiences as I’d done for years when trying to unlock the mystery of my suffering?

I used to find beauty in certain aspects of my over-stimulated, over-sensitive brain — trees shimmered, and dreams would wake me up with stupefying gorgeous intricate detail. And when the anxiety and panic break through my meds, as they sometimes do, I get a glimpse of the magical, maniacal way of being in the world, and I feel the pull to create return. When the drugs prevent a shaky episode of flooding adrenaline from spiraling into a panic attack, I can feel their presence. I can also feel their presence in my brain when I search for a word or try to complete a line of reasoning in my head. It feels like a transparent block sitting behind my eyes, keeping my brain from spinning off down the rabbit hole of terror, but also from accessing the passion and the language that was once the best place I knew.

I sit staring at a blank screen much more than I ever did without medicine, my associative language center is now sluggish and compromised, and word retrieval is a physical effort. My short-term memory has also suffered. For the first time in my life, I find myself forgetting what I was about to say with my mouth opened during a conversation, or why I walked to the other side of the room. Memory for detail and an ability to translate those memories and impressions into words is a large piece of what has defined me as a writer and as a person. Now, though I can still sit at my laptop and hammer out some thoughts, it takes much longer, and many more drafts, to make sentences that do what I intend for them to do. Often lying in bed, ideas or lines float into my mind unbidden, like they always have, and before I took any medicine I’d wake up and write them down in the morning. Often they were gifts from the subconscious — a perfectly formed sentence or phrase to finish a piece I was working on. But on medicine, those lines have faded by morning. I open a blank word document for that flash of idea, that white heat of image where all stories start, and staring at the cursor blinking on the screen, my mind has lost it.

I wouldn’t trade the happiness, the sense of balance, the self-reliance, or the improved relationships I’ve gained from medicine for writing. And perhaps I don’t have to decide between mental health and creativity. It seems that, whether mad or not, people are driven to create in order to understand something about themselves, the world, or their experiences and perceptions. Perhaps Freud was as wrong about art necessarily stemming from neurosis as he was about penis envy. I agree that powerful art is created out of a deep need, and bears the imprint of the essential raw self or soul. But if my anxiety really is a biological disorder, as doctors and psychologists have repeatedly insisted, then my essential self isn’t the anxious thoughts and existential dread I used to constantly feel. My essential self would lie underneath the layers of catastrophic images and anguished mental chatter. It’s possible that the medicines I take could help me travel a clearer and more direct path to that place, avoiding the potholes and back alleys of phobias, anxiety, and panic. Though it takes more discipline to sit down and write now, since I am not doing so to save my life, I am practicing writing from a place of curiosity rather than pain, fascination rather than desperation, forging my way more safely into a different dark.

Image Credit: Flickr/Dean812





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23 Responses to “Creativity and Madness: On Writing Through the Drugs”

  1. Tee
    at 5:16 pm on February 27, 2014

    This was a really interesting, beautifully written piece. Thanks for sharing.

  2. JLW
    at 5:58 pm on February 27, 2014

    I can relate to what you have said here. I’ve had similar experiences myself, especially the emergency room visits. I’ve also wondered about my anxiety medication and its effect on my creativity. Like you, it does take more effort for me to sit down and write, but I’ve found that the process becomes easier as I make it a habit, even if I still am taking the meds. Thanks.

  3. Steve
    at 6:38 pm on February 27, 2014

    That is exactly how it is. And I have to say, the problems that plague while sitting down to write while on medication DO continue after tapering off the daily dose. Like everything in life, it is a trade off. It may be harder to create, as the author says, but not impossible.

  4. Moe Murph (AKA "The Toast" Fan No. 1)
    at 9:07 am on February 28, 2014

    Wonderful essay, Ms. Lyons. Thank you for so bravely sharing your story. it was beautifully written.

    This is not quite on point (dealing with recreational drug-taking) but Anais Nin wrote an amazing essay about creativity and LSD that I thought you might be interested in. I think what brought it to mind was your writing style, so sensitive and perceptive. It reminded me very much of her.

    http://thewitcontinuum.wordpress.com/anais-nins-doors-of-perception

  5. St. Paul ATEOTW
    at 9:58 am on February 28, 2014

    My anxiety and depression were so bad for so many years that my creativity ended up becoming completely hamstrung. It wasn’t until I got on meds that a safe place opened up. I have achieved more creatively in the last few years while on meds than I did throughout the decades that I spent un-medicated. I finally accepted that therapy alone wasn’t working, and it’s made all the difference in my life. Not saying it’s the right choice for everyone, but I really wouldn’t worry about losing one’s uniqueness or edge when considering medication. It might have the opposite effect. Allowing that uniqueness to finally manifest without self-imposed barriers. Great article.

  6. Pearl
    at 10:12 am on February 28, 2014

    Wow, so beautiful and comforting . Thank you for your words .-

  7. Rebecca D. Martin
    at 4:15 pm on February 28, 2014

    This is wonderful, wonderful. Thank you for your honesty here; your experiences are close to mine and resonate really helpfully. Thank you for this.

  8. David Soole
    at 2:06 pm on March 1, 2014

    “Creative impulse”

    “Drug them into submission”

    “Shook me to my core”

    Etc., etc.

    Sorry, but no “artist” of calibre would use such cliches.

  9. Richard Grayson
    at 10:59 pm on March 1, 2014

    Thanks for writing this wonderful essay. I am sorry for the suffering you have gone through and I am pretty sure you will be doing the writing you want to do. My own experience with severe anxiety disorders is different because I was treated with medications when I was young, before I did very much writing, and so I never made any connections between my medication and my writing output, though I will say that when I’ve had severe flareups — my problems started manifesting themselves fifty years ago — I would be unable to write until my medication was either changed or the dose was changed. Without meds, I don’t think I ever could have published the stories and books I did.

  10. Virginia Llorca
    at 12:15 am on March 3, 2014

    Well, the medicine is part of it. A generic substitute for a med I took for years triggered four novels. Back on a better brand, I struggle to sit down and write. I do not have an answer, but I can read the fire now gone. And I love it. But I cannot take the racing thoughts. Maybe they are good thoughts but there are too many of them. And too much other stuff in life, like people. It makes me sad, but I love my brain. What are ya gonna do?

  11. Jo
    at 5:59 pm on March 3, 2014

    That was an incredible article! I’m glad you decided to put yourself first even when risking your creativity. I’ve recognised many of the things you went through and your described them perfectly. I’ve been medicated and non-medicated and I can say that there are great chunks of my life on meds that I don’t recall these days but I know I was feeling happy and peaceful then so it doesn’t matter. I think that taking it all into consideration we are lucky to live in a time where these drugs can help us.

  12. eddie whittaker
    at 12:16 pm on March 5, 2014

    my best creative writing comes whilst under the influence of cannabis and alcohol, when I refrain, my writing suffers. This is such a vicious circle.

  13. Meredith
    at 3:23 pm on March 5, 2014

    Well said. I wish I could hug you for what you went through. I’m very impressed that you managed to look at yourself unflinchingly enough to get the help you needed. Unfortunately, not everyone can or is willing to do that.

    I’ve been on anti-depressants for the better part of 5 years now, and like the pp St. Paul ATEOTW, I find myself *more* creative and *more* prolific while on the meds. Maybe it’s a difference between anxiety and depression, but while off meds I was too stuck in my downward spiral, in my deep, dark hole of misery, to get out of my own way long enough to write. I was too busy feeling sorry for myself, feeling guilty for not being a good enough wife/mother/sister/daughter/friend/human being, feeling angry at my husband/kids/brother/parents/friends/everyone for making me (in my own mind) feel guilty, and I’d end up in this cycle of guilt-anger-despair that always left me in hours-long crying jags and too paralyzed with thoughts of harming myself to write well. The meds, I find, stop that cycle before it has a chance to start. Sure, my highs aren’t as high as they used to be, and like you I struggle for words and recall more often than I’m comfortable with, but at least my lows aren’t life-threatening anymore. The meds allow me to live my life to its fullest, which allows me *more* time for writing.

    P.S. A good workout routine helps, too. Nothing like the centering power of yoga, or a good adrenaline rush from some hard cardio, to get the endorphines going and charge up the creativity. My best writing comes when I’m on a regular workout routine.

  14. Kirsty
    at 6:25 pm on March 5, 2014

    Thank you Gila, for writing so eloquently, what I have internally struggled with for many years. My diagnosis is bipolar, so a little different to your journey.

    As a youngster the angst, the highs and lows and the constant bombardment of thoughts and ideas seemed somewhat romantic and appealing. I was a creative. To some extent my mental health issues defined me. It was very difficult to come to terms with the fact that I needed medication and I found it even harder to rediscover who I am without the anxiety, mixed states, extreme highs and lows and creative brilliance.

    In fact, when I first went on medication I would complain that I was boring and flat lined. My creativity had run dry. However, as I have learnt to accept my new emotional state and learnt more about myself, I have learnt how to tap into my creativity. It never left me. Instead I now have to make the time to tap into it, it doesn’t just bowl me over with its force.

    But I now have quality relationships, an amazing job, peace of mind and an inner confidence. None of this would be possible without medication.

  15. Gila
    at 11:13 pm on March 5, 2014

    Thank you everyone for reading! It’s wonderful to read your comments.

  16. Dave
    at 9:03 am on March 6, 2014

    I found the drugs to be an on/off switch, not a means of attenuation. I spent 2 years trying to find the combo of drug and dose that would “turn down the volume” without switching off everything I cared about.

    I finally made the decision to go without the meds. My anxiety, mania and depression never caused the level of dysfunction I’ve seen described here and in other articles, so it’s easier to manage.

  17. Fabian
    at 11:27 am on March 6, 2014

    I never wrote comments, but I thought this was awesome. Great article!

  18. Jed
    at 9:03 am on March 9, 2014

    Really great article. Especially about how the anxiety still manages to break through the meds. That’s always on the back of my mind. You know it’s still there. You can feel it behind the barrier created by the meds. It’s a long road but hopefully it leads people to a better place.

    Thanks

  19. Creativity: Neither Magic Nor Madness | Ploughshares
    at 8:04 am on March 11, 2014

    […] my history, it’s no surprise that Gila Lyons’ recent article in The Millions—in which she describes her battle with severe anxiety disorder—resonates. Her illness turned […]

  20. Eric
    at 9:39 am on March 13, 2014

    Gila….What a great article. I have experienced pretty much everything you have described here. A girl in my son’s school killed herself the other day. She isn’t creating anything, except for pain in her loved ones. For every Van Gogh there are thousands of ruined lives.

    There are no easy answers to this question. But like most things in life there is some good and some bad in it. We could have the same discussion of creativity and parenting, creativity and taking drugs, creativity and alcohol.

  21. Noellia
    at 8:57 pm on March 18, 2014

    This story hit me, as I am currently going through a similar situation myself. I understand the doctor’s explanation of why taking meds is necessary in order for neurons to connect easier and this give us an easier way of being. His explanation of messages sometimes being interrupted because of a slight chemical imbalance makes sense. However the truth is that all of those magical experiences you describe as appearing sporadically to you (in your dreams, the way you see the world, that extra sensory perception) now that you have been on medication for several years is quite disheartening. I suffer a deep anxiety disorder that does unfortunately cripple me at times from functioning the way the general population functions, and causes me to overthink situations and delve deeper into thought than the general masses. It also fills most of my nights with vivid dreams and beautiful colours and insights. I have a strong intuition. Having tried a few medications which have taken all of those things away from me but allowed me to focus on one thing at any one time, and thus function like the general public has sent me into a depression like no other.
    I am a creative and rely on my creativity for an income. It is true that the meds limit your ability to think outside the square and truly analyse, or critically think about situations. It is a trade off and is also a very hard thig to adjust to. I find myself constantly asking the question “who am I?” Am I the person who has always had their mind flooded with thoughts, ideas, possibilities and the like? Or am I this dull person who is happy to watch tv, find no emotional connection with music as I used to, no longer have the ability to draw or come up with new design concepts but can have semi-decent conversations about standard boring topics like the general masses?

    The answer I am yet to find. I praise you for your insight and have taken your point of view into consideration.

  22. David
    at 12:23 pm on April 1, 2014

    Strange it seems, nobody has mentioned the most widely used and abused antidepressant, alcohol. Alcohol is a drug and has been historically linked to both creativity and madness. Read Edgar Allen Poe’s biography; found dead at the age of forty, dressed in rags and laying in a muddy street. Read some Bukowski
    or tackle “Under the Volcano” by Raymond Lowey. The connection is there but a satisfactory explanation is still forthcoming.

  23. Jack Mulcahy
    at 5:46 pm on August 21, 2014

    I am a 62-year-old writer with stories in my head that won’t come out. I find that I’m kind of like the earlier respondent, turning into a “dull person who is happy to watch tv, find no emotional connection with music as I used to, no longer have the ability to draw [read “write] … but can have semi-decent conversations about standard boring topics like the general masses.” I have been suicidal without the medications, but I also did a great deal of good work unmedicated. I don’t really know if it’s the antidepressants or the depression at work when I now find myself unable to summon the discipline or the ideas to get something done.

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