Yesterday someone in one of my writing groups presented a question about creativity and its connection to mental illness. I read through some of the comments and was a little taken aback by the idea that being a brilliant artist while suffering mental illness equates to a certain level of beauty.
I’ll say before I write anything more that I am one person. I am a writer. I suffer from chronic migraines and mental illness. I’m not a psychologist and the following is just my opinion and personal observation:
Mental illness is a shit show, a mess hotter than asphalt in mid-July. There is nothing “beautiful” about pulling into a grocery store parking lot and nearly vomiting while experiencing the simultaneous sensation of being smothered by plastic wrap.
No one in the world says, “Wow! Look at the girl standing in the corner counting to steady her breathing before she has a complete breakdown because she feels as if the walls are going to close in on her and her vision is beginning to tunnel. Give me some of that with a side of the guy fidgeting in the long line because there’s too many people around him and he feels like they’re all staring at him, judging him because that’s what the voices in his head are whispering to him, so it must be true. That sounds mysterious and beautiful and I want to be a part of it!”
Nobody says that! Ever!!
This mindset that artists need to suffer in order to create “brilliant” or “beautiful” art as though it’s a first class yacht club that one can only be a part of if they find themselves in near-constant mental, emotional, or physical turmoil needs to stop. Mental illness is not a trend; it’s not an itinerary. It is a result of real situations that a person has experienced.
Those of us who have endured trauma and survived it or have these illnesses for other reasons are not exhibits for show on society’s gallery. We’re human beings who have turned to artistic expression and use our abilities and talents to heal, cope, process what we are going through, or to reach others and communicate our truths about how we suffer and how we process, heal, and move forward from those circumstances.
I can’t and will not speak for everyone, but I will say that if I could trade artistic talent for great mental health, I would do so without batting an eye. I don’t believe that artistic talent and trauma/mental illness are mutually inclusive. In other words, I believe that many artists such as myself are born with talents. For example, I play various instruments by ear, vocally I have perfect pitch, and I compose by ear. I can’t read music. The child/adulthood trauma I endured has nothing to do with those abilities other than I was able to turn to them when I needed to.
Throughout childhood, I looked to music, theatre arts, and reading as a mechanism for survival. I learned to appreciate art because it is healing. Even my group When She Walked Away, advocates healing from domestic violence through artistic expression.
I’ve never considered the process of healing to be “beautiful”. Even as a physical wound is healing it itches, burns, throbs, sometimes there’s puss or even blood. It scabs over and sometimes even the scab is irritating. This is the same for emotional and mental wounds; they’re worse because no one can see them. Healing requires tremendous bravery and willpower.
I won’t argue that many great works of literature, art, and music have not stemmed from talented artists who have suffered greatly from physical/mental illness and trauma. But, I believe that we can recognize that perhaps there is some connection (and perhaps not) without romanticizing what they’ve been through.
We can appreciate the works without believing that hardship or distress is required to produce them or that the end product warranted the trauma that the artist experienced. We can look to these paintings, illustrations, poems, books, and compositions for insight into mental health and we can certainly stop referring to the very real and daily battle that others struggle through as “beautiful”.