I’m pleased to say I am nowadays more open about my bipolar disorder (manic depression) than I used to be. Part of the reason for this is just being in a better state in life now than I was before (I have a wonderful, supportive and loving partner for one thing) and thus the idea that I am, in all statistical likelihood, going to “be depressed” all my life doesn’t bother me so much. I can’t really change it, so why hide it? Whether my depression was caused by a chemical imbalance in my brain, childhood trauma, adult trauma, or the depressing-as-fuck reality of capitalism, I guess just I am who I am.
In the common imagination, bipolar disorder and creativity go hand in hand. If you type “bipolar disorder and creativity” into Google, you end up with over a million results, a blend of scholarly articles, Q&A websites, newspaper articles, magazine features, and, if you search for images, a number of pictures of people holding cats. It is the Internet, so that’s hardly a surprise.
I don’t know enough about the nitty-gritty of bipolar disorder as a mental health condition to critique articles which link it to creativity. I’ve never studied it. I just have it. If you’re interested in scholarly accounts to read in your own time, you can find some reasonably good ones here and here.
I should pause for a second here – I’m not trying to say that bipolar disorder doesn’t have a link to creativity. What I’m saying is that as someone who has bipolar disorder, I think that the link is a normative model which is often imposed on all those with bipolar. Mental health conditions affect different people in different ways. My problem with this model is that it falls into a romanticised narrative about mental health which I think is damaging. It suggests that if you have bipolar, and you’re not a Wildean wit or a great poet, then you’re doing it wrong . This, I feel, returns to a stigmatisation of the condition which we as a society have worked so hard to move away from.
When I am in a deep depressive phase, I cannot create anything. I, frankly, hate the world, and everything in it, and am consumed by a sense of utter numbness. Physically, this manifests as a kind of catatonia. I will sleep for most of the day, be unable to do anything more energetic than flick through articles on my phone, if that. It’s like a great leaden weight on my bones, petrifying my muscles, and leaving me capable of only holding a foetal position. My chest is consumed by a horrible, gnawing feeling, as if something is trying to eat me from the inside out. It is, for want of a better word, terrifying. Mentally, I am consumed by a feeling of terror, which seems to tie into my sense of myself. What if, instead of living by the moral principles I hold dear, and the high standards I try to live by, I am actually a terrible human being, manipulative, cynical, bitter and aggressive, untruthful and spiteful. My depressive phases are, to put it bluntly, an existential crisis. I have no idea who I am, often for hours, if not days, at a time. I find myself trying desperately to reassert myself; I try to give myself examples of times when I did good things for others, or achieved something for myself (varying from getting a place at Cambridge to uploading a blog post when I was burnt out). Instead of giving comfort, I find myself deconstructing these moments – I got into Cambridge because I was too up myself to care about my friends at Sixth Form, or deal with the problems in my family. I led a major welfare campaign against unfair treatment of severely ill students at Cambridge not out of altruism but because I wanted political credit. And so on. Essentially, I find myself trying to rend my sense of myself into little bits in a desperate attempt to figure out who the fuck I am.
That’s the deep depression. Depending on what’s going on in my life, that happens between once a week to once every few months. Even outside of that horrible state of mind, when depressed, I find myself consumed by a horrible feeling of self doubt. For example; I am currently preparing to do my first ever solo stand-up show in a few weeks time (minor plug to readers of this blog). I’ve never done a solo show before and I want to, if possible, have an hour of new material to perform. I was in the University Library last week, plugging away at my coursework essays, when an idea for a new bit came into my mind. I wrote, solidly, for about an hour, and came up with fifteen minutes of really good comedy material. Fantastic. That’s a fair chunk of the show sorted. Except, not long after I wrote it, whilst I was reading back through it and envisioning myself delivering the material to a friendly crowd and receiving huge waves of laughter, the depression hit me hard. No particular reason. Maybe I just had my defences down for a moment. But there it was, a dizzy feeling of self-loathing and despair. I hit Ctrl+A on my Google doc, and deleted everything, all of that work, and then the entire document, because the very thought of showing off my creation to a crowd was so sickening I could barely think straight. That is not the first time something like that has happened. Time and time again, I try to create something and then “depressed me” comes along and gets rid of it. I can’t, for the life of me, remember what I wrote. I can’t piece it back together again afterwards, when I have pulled myself up a bit. A good half of what I create is swallowed by my depression before I can even think of a punch line.
My manic periods don’t do much for my creativity, either. Bipolar disorder is defined as when an individual has around four manic episodes a year, at least, according to the Psychiatrist who diagnosed me. Mania is a diverse and little understood aspect of bipolar. It can take many different forms, and affect people in a variety of ways. There’s a good explanation of how mania affects people here, and another one here. Now, in my case, I probably have fewer than four manic episodes a year. I probably have two or so bad ones, and minor periods where I feel on the verge of mania. I feel mania largely as a horrible panic attack. It robs me of the ability to control my actions, speech, or feelings. I generally lose connection with the world. I cannot create; I can barely even tell where I am.
In other words, what I’m saying in this long and meandering post is that we can’t necessarily fit individuals into normative models of mental health. To link bipolar irrevocably to creativity is to romanticise it, and furthermore to suggest that if your bipolar disorder does not make you a creative whizzkid, you’re not doing it properly. I think it puts the expectations on those of us with bipolar disorder to churn out art and music and comedy. But what if you aren’t a creative person? Why must we add to the pressure on vulnerable people? I don’t deny their might be a link – but if you know someone with bipolar, please don’t expect them to be a great artist. Expect them to be the person they are.