When prompted, most everyone can summon the stereotype of the tortured artist: unshaven, disheveled, rambling, brooding, psychotic.
The shame of this image is not only that it is exaggerated, and at times wholly incorrect, but that it is continually perpetuated by the ignorant and the media. What’s more, it is glorified.
This is how young artists grow up thinking they should look and live. If madness has already touched their lives, they go poking at it, provoking it, thinking that the more they can tap into their own darkness, the better their art (no matter the medium) will be, the more chance they have at a career, catapulted by a desire to be mad.
Creative individuals without the cold hand of depression, mania, or psychosis on them, often go looking for it, under the belief that they, by some sad and misinformed definition, cannot be an artist without it.
A study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that bipolar people often rated higher on the Barron Walsh Art Scale, which is a test used to rate creativity levels and senses of aesthetics. But the study showed these results only when the subject was stabilized – either be it with medicine or in a ‘normal’ phase – not in either a manic or depressive phase.1
When manic or depressed, or at an otherwise time of low or non-functioning, the subjects rating on the Barron Walsh Art Scale declined.
It is easy to understand why there is such a mythology relating madness to artists, and artists to bipolar people.
Through mania, bipolar people are superhuman – or at least this is believed by the person at the time. Melatonin production is dramatically thrown off; enter not sleeping or sleeping schedules being spun round so that one lurks in the night and sleeps in the day as a vampire.
Sylvia Plath has said that in order to write a book, one needs acres of time, and when one is not sleeping, you are able to roam that land in large portions. Even though one’s mind may not have the desire to sleep, a body does, and a body feels the effects of lack of sleep without permission; enter disoriented speech and an unkempt or startling appearance.
And then the racing thoughts. They are fast and free and often confusing; they are delusional. An artist may align their sense of identity with these stereotypes in manic phases, but what real work can come of it? What besides inconsequential ramblings, scribble? Is it art if it has no meaning or intent?
These stereotypes are being laid to rest one healthy bipolar artist at a time.
With the bright combination of psychotherapy and psychotropic medicine, a mind can be pulled out the silence and blackness of depression or the spinning whirl of confusion and erratic behavior of mania. But these experiences are not to be discounted or disregarded. Yes, they are painful and haunting; and it is often difficult to reconcile yourself and your physical body with the memories of a doppelganger who has behaved recklessly on your behalf or hasn’t behaved at all, sitting in the stillness of a depressed oblivion. But these experiences are worth having, nonetheless. When clarity has eked its way in to an artistic mind again, destruction can only serve as a form of creation.
Write what you know; paint what you see – like most clichés, these exist for a reason. What bipolar people know and see is a life from a wild and fascinating and heart – wrenching and, at times, grim perspective.
Bipolar people, and all people suffering from mental illness, have the fortunate gift of living lives with art built into their infrastructures. But this art can only be truly communicated by the undoing of the double – helix myth of madness and art.
As bipolar disorder research continues to highlight new treatment methods and explain the disorder from a brain-based perspective, the idea of eradicating the disease has surfaced. If the part or parts of the brain that cause the disorder can be specifically isolated, could we remove it from the next generations? If managed, the disorder is such an advantage: the self-confidence and out-of-the-box thinking, and energy of mania can propel bipolar people – and bipolar artists – who hold the reins on their disorder.