Thursday, 9 June 2011

Creativity and Mental Illness

There's a thread on Folksy at the moment that has really pulled me up short and made me think, so I'll write a bit here about it. It poses the question of the correlation between creativity and mental health issues. I, like may others have my own story and I relise I haven't addressed this since the whole life changing thing that happened at Christmas. It does involve my creative journey and why I am where I am, doing what I do right now, so I reckon it's OK to include it here. It's not in the light hearted theme that I generally like to keep on my blog, but I expect enough people will be able relate to it.

In my experience it's pretty much guaranteed that in any creative forum there will be more than the fair share of people who suffer with some form of depressive disorder or mental health problems. There have been all sorts of studies performed in recent years, of which I have no direct reference right now, so I'll leave that bit for anyone to look into themselves. Suffice to say, it's being recognised.

Obviously, I can only speak here from my personal perspective. I am a long term sufferer, undiagnosed on the whole, though I have had various bouts of treatment with drugs. I suppose I am one of those who fell through a hole in the system, though this doesn't concern me overly and I'm certainly not going to turn this into a whinge about the NHS. What I will say is that during a particularly severe bout of illness some 9 or 10 years ago I received drug therapy and nothing else. I had been added to a list for counselling, therapy and whatnot, but it never happened. I imagine my application went off somewhere into the ether of the overstretched local resources, never to be seen again. As is the way with patients such as myself, you're seldom in a place during a flare up to stand your ground and have the powers that be look into why it is you didn't receive your proper treatment; you're too busy trying to get through each totured day to concern yourself with such technicalities.

With hindsight, I would definitely say I could have used some help as a child. I didn't have the happiest time back then, partly due to my own makeup and also regarding other influences, which though important, are not what I want to discuss right now. I have very vivid memories of things that now, as a parent myself, would have rung alarm bells and sent me off looking for answers. This was the 1970s though, and awareness wasn't anything like it is now. I shan't be a bore with minute details, but I certainly displayed obsessive and strange behaviours, albeit in a comparitively minor way when you consider the likes of severe autism and such.

Even as a very young child I was creative. I would lose myself in drawing, playing with clay and all those arty passtimes that children love. I remember doing this obsessively, it was my main source of pleasure, aside from reading. The family would comment that I was so quiet for hours when given a pencil and some paper. Of course back then a child (especially one like me) was at its best when quiet, so this was indeed a good thing.

I also recall bouts of irrational fury and frustration. The weirdest one still remains unexplained in my head; the abject terror at the thought of my bedcovers becoming untucked. How bizarre! I would have my mother tuck them in so tightly under the mattress that I could barely move in the bed, but that was OK because it meant the covers would stay. Where on earth does something as silly as that come from? Today this sort of thing would cause alarm.

It's no surprise that as I grew older I was to develop what we now call depresive illness. Not that I'm a slave to it these days or anything. It's tricky writing about this stuff without sounding like a long suffering martyr, which is far from what I really am.

One can buckle under the mountain that is the notion of mental illness, or simply choose to get on with it. I know I'm not "normal", crikey, enough people have told me that over the years. I'm also not stupid, I can objectively observe myself in relation to the rest of the world and come to that conclusion in oh, about 30 seconds. On the other hand, the whole human race is made up of a sliding scale of normals, with no single person being the poster child for averageness.

I'm in my 40s now so I've had a lot of years to meditate upon my own particular personality. I prefer to see it as that, as my own makeup, rather than a title or condition that hampers me.

There have been very dark times and wonderful times, so I guess if I were to average it all out it's not been so bad really. I suppose the point I want to make here is about how I've discovered my "cure", or as close as damn it. It's not 100% - I still have blips, but this past 6 months have possibly been the most balanced and happy of my life.

Last year I was misreable. A simple sentence, but please do consider and dwell on the "miserable" part. I mean that word in its entirety. Miserable in that my days in work were painful minute by minute. My evenings were spent in a state of numbness and dread of the next morning. My weekends were a slow torturous run up to Monday morning coming round again. I found it difficult to hold a conversation. I felt like I was hiding under a rock and didn't want to let myself out because the life out there was so, well, just horrible. The flipside of this was when I was actually in work I would be glib and cheerful, with a smile almost glued on and teeth gritted. I would walk around humming tunes constantly and being the joker, which felt like waterwings holding me just ever so slightly above the surface so I could get the occasional breath.

To impact all of the above, I should mention that during this time I simply could not do anything creative at all. I hadn't anything left for me once I'd got home each day. My usual means of escape into happiness was shut away from me as a result of my own unhappiness. What rotten luck to be the sort that freaks out in such a self destructive way!

All that sounds like drama, I know. I'm not a drama queen though, I'm a coper. Nobody aside from my husband had even the slightest idea how I was feeling. He knows me almost as well as I know myself, so he fully understood. He acknowledged what I was going through, and it was hurting him desperately. As he would say to me regularly, he just wanted his wife back. It must have been a very lonely time for him. I do feel so sorry for everything he went through. I should mention right here that he also suffers, though naturally in his own way and not exactly as I do. We help each other a lot. We both know (sometimes vaguely, sometimes definitely) how to deal with each other's episodes.

So, after a long time of what I describe here, we got to breaking point. There were just too many tears (every time I was alone - I won't cry in front of people, but it's obvious when you have been, isn't it?), too much anguish and too little life going on. My husband, ever the practical and (obsessive) planner, spent some time on the quiet with his workings out. On one particularly bad evening he busrt forth with his opinion that I must leave work and do what I need to do to be happy. We'd be more or less penniless, but what price do you put on getting your life back and escaping a prison? He'd been considering this for a long time, fighting his own demons regarding the changes and sacrifices that would have to be made. One of his "things" is financial stability, so we were really pushing it here with the old seesaw of emotional balance.

Giving me the option to leave that awful situation was most likely the kindest thing anyone has ever done for me. As a mother and person of many long standing responsibilities, there was no way on this earth I would ever have left that job and cut our income almost in half. No way. It was the only solution to my problems, but as far as I was concerned, unthinkable.

After much discussion I handed in my resignation. This was in August of last year, but it was ill received (I was actually, ironically, very good at the job) and with one thing and another I didn't leave until December 24th.

I didn't know if making myself into a full time artist type thing would be the answer (I still feel a fraud calling myself an artist. I don't know what the official requirements are, but I'm not sure I'd qualify). It was a massive gamble on more than a monetary level.

So far, fingers crossed, wood touching and no cats under my ladder, thank you - it's working.

On the whole I'm doing excellently. I have the occasional or sometimes drawn out but low laying anxiety. I have the rare day when I can't drag my brain into the world. Mostly though I'm happy, fulfilled and probably most importantly, proud of myself. I have drive, determination and enthusiasm. I work damned hard. I'm producing a lot of stuff and some of it's OK. I've even sold some of it.

On a more personal level I feel that life has changed immeasurably for the better. It's been a transitional period of course, but if I could put past me next to present me there'd be no comparison.

We're quite skint. We eat soup, beans and lots of home cooked, frozen and packagaed up for the month ahead sorts of things. We don't go out much (fortunately we're not very sociable), just a trip to the cinema now and again. We've cancelled the window cleaner, hub cycles 10 miles each way to work and we'll probably lose our ancient Fiesta at the next MOT. I do feel guilty because the changes in lifestyle are due to my flakiness and my beloved husband's genuine care of me. I also feel bad that he's still stuck in that awful job and can't be home doing his creative stuff like me. I have a dream now though, that one day I'll be successful and we'll both be able to do what it is that makes us happy and complete as people. I've never had a dream before. This is surely the yardstick by which I can measure my happiness in terms of the balance between depression and creativity.


  1. I can really empathise with the end of your story. I left a job of 12 years due to ill health (long story!)and amazingly, unexpectedly fell on my feet. My income was vastly reduced but although my health is still poor I'm so much happier. Now retired I'm still on a low income but wouldn't change anything. Try not to waste energy feeling guilty, but reward your husband's faith in you by relishing your freedom and continuing to love what you do. Your artwork is fab!

  2. amazing blog - totally understand what you wrote about being a child - I was so creative too, but one fierce temper on me. The work I do is not helpful and I get exhausted from the stress of it and I am only doing two hours a day for the moment. But creating something is like an injection of energy, good feelings and more or less contentment.

    Well done for gettinginto what you need to be doing and it sounds like the sacrifices are worth it. Your art work is flourishing and popular and clearly what you need to be doing. xxx lots of love Cherry Tree

  3. Great story. You are doing exactly the right thing. You will be successful, and money will come. As long as you are both healthy that is the main thing. It is wonderful that your husband supports you and I don't mean financially. I waited years to find someone supportive, and now I have, everything starts to fall into place. Imagine what would have happened if J K Rowling had given up and got a job in Tesco! She had the last laugh and so will you :-)

  4. Thanks for sharing that. I realise it must have been difficult. You have a good supportive relationship which is more than a lot of people have, so you are rich in that way if not financially. Keep on creating and finding places to sell your work, and stay happy ;-)

  5. I am finding it hard to put in words the relief I feel having read your blog. You put into words so many things that I have experienced and I cried when you said, I know I'm not "normal", ............ I'm also not stupid, as thats how I feel.

    I have a wonderfully supportive husband, who makes me feel safe and unlike most other people around me accepts me for who I am. I walked out of my job a week ago, even with all the trouble that has caused, in that time I suddenly feel more able to cope. I am painting everyday and for the first time ever I am contented. Financially I have no idea what will happen but your blog has made me feel a little less alone, Thankyou x

  6. I'm blown away by the responses here. I know a lot of people are in the same sort of boat as I am, but I had NO IDEA that many of those I meet daily online are among them.

    I too am feeling a sense of relief and comradeship on hearing people's stories. Some have responded on the thread that generated my drive to write this today and they are "us" too.

    Is it that the older we get the unhappier we are, until we can do that thing that we feel driven to be doing? I don't know, but it kind of looks that way. Everyone seems to reach some sort of breaking point and say sod it, this is what I'm about.

    I've said it before, but if only we could all gather round a great big table and have tea and a great big old chinwag.

    Many of us have managed to find supportive partners and we're so fortunate. I can't describe my ongoing gratefulness for this in my life. I always joke around and say I kissed a lot of frogs, looked under a lot of rocks, etc before I found the right one, but it's true really. Jay and I have been together for 8 years. I dread to contemplate where I'd be without his constant support, understanding and general all round good eggedness. You're right when you say we have wealth, Jon. I would choose this life, eating freezer surprise and skimping on the shower gel, over being a lonely millionaire any day.

    You guys have given me such a lift today, when secretly I wasn't feeling on top form. I'm a bit emotional and teary eyed now though (not in too bad a way, more with silly girly wobblies), but it's OK because nobody's in.

  7. What a fantastic post, and so brave of you to put it all down in words.

    I wish I had read that 20 years ago when that was me too. As one of the lucky ones that place is well behind me now.

    Wishing you all the very best for your creative future.
    Lynda x

  8. Wow! Thank you for pressing that publish button. It is so great to read your story and your honesty and eloquence makes it all the more moving.
    I don't have the words or energy to tell my story yet but your descriptions of work and your wonderful relationship with your husband echo my experiences so much. My husband has made similar sacrifices for the sake of my mental health and wellbeing. We are also struggling financially due to this and I share similar feelings of guilt and intense gratitude towards him. I also share your dream of one day being able to enable him in creative dreams. Best of luck and all good wishes to you both...
    I am sincerely encouraged by all I have read above.
    Thank you

  9. awesome post, jools - i can SO relate.

    it's only since i got back on my sewing machine a couple of years ago that i've been able to embrace my crazy (and use my obsession to make a bit of pocket money doing something i love!)

    x fiona

  10. Maybe we are the 'normal' ones! ;-)
    I can relate so much to your post and it does help to know that so many other people are 'living' with mental illness. As a long time Depression/Anxiety sufferer I really appreciate you taking the time to post this. Xxx

  11. wow thank you for being brave enough to post today and sharing.
    Something I am not and won't be for a long time.
    I am lucky that I, like yourself, have a very supportive husband.
    BIG round of applause to you Jools.


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