Ask me: if I had to be burdened with a mental illness...

>> Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"Ask Shoulders Of Giant Midgets continues! We're nearing the end of the mailbag, and we have another question fromMichelle's:

If you had to be burdened with a mental illness, which would it be?

And we finally have the first question I can't really answer. I realize that's probably not in the spirit of the game, and I have to apologize. But I also have to say that this just isn't a question I can answer because the idea of being burdened with a mental illness (assuming I'm not already, I mean, is this blog not an exercise in neurosis and narcissism?) just terrifies me.

I am, after all, a brain. I don't mean I'm smart, although I guess I am. I mean that I'm not a particularly physical guy, never have been, and even if I lost weight and became all studly and strong, I'd still be somebody whose primary activity all takes place above the neck. I write, or I try to, I'm a lawyer by profession, my hobbies are things like reading and photography and playing a little guitar (though I've all but stopped doing that) or listening to music. I'm not a professional athlete or bricklayer, I don't garden or free-climb mountainsides or jump out of airplanes. I can't honestly say I ever found H.P. Lovecraft's "The Whisperer In Darkness" all that scary only because I can't see the big deal in fungi from Pluto shucking my body and sticking my best bits in a Mi-Go brain cannister.

So the idea of mental illness is one that's personally distressing to some degree. I don't mean in terms of dealing with it in others, which is frankly a huge part of my day job. I mean the idea that this thing that I depend upon for my paychecks and my livelihood and my fun might start malfunctioning is just awful to me, especially when you start talking about major malfunctions like hallucinations and severe memory loss. I'd rather lose a limb. Or two. Maybe more.

I suspect, Michelle, that your question may have been inspired at least in part by an item you recently linked to your at your blog about Alzheimer's patients compensating for mental losses with creativity in other areas. I find--not your blogging about it or your curiosity, but the thought that maybe a profound loss of self might be "compensated" for--a little horrific. I'm not me but I'm a better painter? Or sculptor? The thing is, if I'm losing my self what have I got even if I'm now an awesome painter? This avenue isn't that different from the whole issue of whether paranoid schizophrenics make better musicians or poets--maybe, but I'd still prefer not to be a paranoid schizophrenic.

You know what Syd Barrett's paranoid schizophrenia (if that's even what was wrong with him--that's debated) got him? He wrote about two dozen really brilliant and innovative songs, and along the way he was fired from the band he named, had almost all of his friends basically disown him, was used and abused by a bunch of hangers-on before he retreated to his mother's house and became mostly a shell of a human being and odd target for photographers. Would have died poor if his former bandmates didn't feel so guilty about mishandling his situation when they were basically kids themselves that they went to some extra effort to make sure he was getting royalties for various things (including things like making sure there were some arguably gratuitous reissues and remakes to generate some extra now and then).

I'd rather be sane-ish and unimpressive.

When we were talking about horror the other day, I didn't actually mention one of the scariest stories I ever read as a kid. Maybe the scariest, because it haunts me still almost thirty years later in a way I don't think any other story I read as a kid did, and I can't bring myself to read it again because it is so, so, so depressing and frightening. And it's standard-issue, too, an American classic and shows up in anthologies all the time, used to appear in English textbooks and probably still does: I'm talking about Daniel Keyes' 1959 Hugo winner "Flowers For Algernon". The original novella; Keyes lengthened it a few years later into a novel that isn't nearly effective, the novel feels stilted and padded.

It is, you probably remember, the story of a young, mentally retarded man who gets turned into a supergenius during a medical experiment--and then starts to lose it all. Told in the form of journal entries, from the guy, Charlie's, point of view. With a final line that sticks a knife in your throat and twists it around until you vomit blood. What's unbearable is that second half, or maybe the last third: the idea of being smart, even if you're not Charlie Gordon at his acme smart, and having it slip away from you in chunks like the bank of a creek in flood, sometimes in thin clay streamers mixing with the muddy water and sometimes whole chunks breaking off, falling in, gone, gone, gone.


So, no. This is a game I can't play. Of course, there's the irony that maybe I'm already pathological, neurotic, non-neurotypical. I have my odd phobias and anxieties, hang-ups or fetishes, my irrationalities. Maybe. In which case the answer is if I had to burdened, I'd want to be no worse off than I am now, thanks. But beyond that?

No deal.


Random Michelle K Tuesday, October 19, 2010 at 8:29:00 AM EDT  

Actually, the question lead to the post, since in formulating the question I was reminded of the article I'd read years ago on dementia.

And I'm not sure compensating is the correct word to use there--it's more that some types of dementia cause physical changes to the brain that lead to increased creativity. One hand gives while the other takes away.

Additionally, there has been a long history of association between great artists and mental illness. Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Poe, Vonnegut, Plath, Picasso, Pollack, Munch, Monet, Van Gogh...

There somehow seems to be a link between mental illness and creativity.

And to be honest, what brought the question on is that I am starting to reduce the dosage of my meds, and my hope is that in doing so I'll be able to start writing again, a process that has been all but shut down as I maxed out medication after medication.

Coming at it from another direction, it's sometimes hard to accept the stifling of creativity that comes with mental stability through medication.

It really is an interesting conundrum--would you give up who you are for intangible and unknowable benefits? I think both our answers are no, except in opposite directions.

Eric Tuesday, October 19, 2010 at 9:30:00 AM EDT  

"Compensation" is the right word: those physical changes that lead to "good" results are the product of a brain that is trying to re-route communications around nonfunctional, dysfunctional or malfunctioning areas. The fact that somebody is now more productive visually or creatively because that part of the brain is called upon more now that a part of the brain that handles memory or verbal cues is returning the neurological version of a 404 Error can only be looked at as a "good" thing if you're trying to buck up someone who is suffering from a disease (or their family and friends).

As for the association between art and mental illness, (1) it's actually increasingly challenged and may be an artifact of romanticizing illness and/or art (much as we romanticize, for instance, the artist who lives in poverty) and (2) even assuming for the sake of argument that the link is bona fide, is creative genius really any kind of tradeoff for a happy life? (That second point was the reason I brought up Syd Barrett. But hell, look at your own list: Poe and Fitzgerald died painful, alcoholic deaths; Hemingway and Van Gogh were suicides; several of the people on your list, including Schumann, spent chunks of their life in asylums. Is that any way to live? Or die?)

I hope that you're able to find a balance between a happy self and a creative self, and you're the only person who can decide what balance works for you and your loved ones. But work towards that balance in terms of what works for you and not in terms of a dubious rationalization like "there seems to be a link between mental illness and creativity." I mean, hell, there's a much stronger correlation between mental illness and criminal activity--would it be worth a slight boost in your writing to risk causing harm to yourself or others? I'm inclined to think not, but maybe that's just me....

Random Michelle K Tuesday, October 19, 2010 at 12:09:00 PM EDT  

But note it is a correlation and not a causation. I'm not saying one causes the other, only that there is a correlation. And I although some people see a causal correlation alcoholism with creativity, I think that the link is not so clear--after all, notoriety and fame could be just as strongly associated with alcoholism (or drug use). (Which is why I tried to avoid modern superstar artists.)

But if you look at Plath or Poe or artists who were not the toast of the town when they were alive, I think you can better separate fame from the equation. Maybe the same for those artists who preferred to be recluses.

Yes, we could easily be talking about a skewed sample, after all, there are plenty of mentally ill individuals who are not creative geniuses, but I think you have to look at it in the other direction--what is the proportion of creative geniuses who show signs of mental illness as opposed to artists who fall within the normal range of mental health.

(The other problem with considering modern artists is the use of psychoactive drugs, which can cause permanent changes to the brain.)

And I still take umbrage with compensation. It's possible that the brain is compensating, but it's also just as possible that the chemical changes that occur in dementia cause a cascade that leads to other changes or that the inhibitions placed upon the self are associated with the brain structures that are hit earliest by dementia.

In usage, yes there is a compensation, as the parts of the brain that are being (for lack of a better term) destroyed lead to the brain trying to find other ways to get things done. But as far as creativity, it's not necessarily compensating for losses in other areas of the brain, I think, as much as those parts of the brain are suddenly freed up (perhaps chemically, perhaps otherwise) by the changes in other parts of the brain.

Eric Tuesday, October 19, 2010 at 12:40:00 PM EDT  

Actually, Michelle, I think Poe is an especially bad example for your thesis because it's pretty clear from contemporary accounts that Poe's erratic behavior, unreliability, alcoholism, and other self-destructive behaviors were pretty much the direct causes of his failure through life. He made enemies, alienated friends, offended patrons and lost some prime editorial positions that would have alleviated his frequent financial problems (before he was thirty, Poe had cost himself careers at at least three prominent American literary magazines--jobs he was given as a literary prodigy and fired or forced to resign from for drunkenness or misbehavior).

All of which was ultimately a loss to the world: Poe might have been a Bierce or Twain, might have exerted an influence similar to what the long-lived Charles Dickens exerted upon English letters as an editor and publisher, but instead we have the short stories and poems he managed to get done before Poe was forty, when he basically died in a gutter.

Speaking of Bierce, Twain and Dickens: one might also consider the number of brilliant or even genius artists who aren't particularly mentally ill, who led long, mostly well-adjusted lives in which they may have displayed eccentricities or occasional lapses of judgment, but managed to avoid cutting off an ear, becoming an addict, etc.

Ultimately, the deaths of Poe and Plath are wastes of talent. Ten percent less talent and ten percent less dysfunction and they still would have been brilliant--and maybe we'd have ten percent more work from them, to boot.

I think that what we have in play is a dangerous tendency to romanticize disability and misbehavior in people who "made up for it" by leaving some kind of legacy behind. It's not okay that Poe was a drunk who couldn't hold a job, it's a goddamn shame, is what it is. It's not amazing that whatever distance Van Gogh had from subjective reality might have allowed him to see the world in a profound way, it's just fucking awful that he died in his brother's arms with a self-inflicted hole in the middle of his chest. I'm sure Sylvia Plath's kids are happier with a highly-regarded poetess than a moth--oh, wait, I mean kid, now that Nicholas Hughes has hanged himself, too.

And you might say, "Well, maybe these people wouldn't have been as brilliant if they'd been well," and I say you don't know that, and even if you were right, even if (and I'm not going to concede you are), how much brilliance balances out a lifetime suffered in pain that was shared with every damaged person they smashed through on their way down?

When I was young and stupid, I might have agreed with you, Michelle. Now? Now I'm old enough to think I'd rather be a happy-ish mediocrity.

Random Michelle K Tuesday, October 19, 2010 at 1:43:00 PM EDT  

But with Poe, I think we're back to arguing first causes. Isn't is possible that his "erratic behavior, unreliability, alcoholism, and other self-destructive behaviors" were a direct result of mental illness, as opposed to his failures causing mental illness type symptoms?

Which is why I think, especially for those who are dead, we have to look simply at correlation. The fame versus failure comes in only because one then doesn't have the excuse of being invited to all the best parties with all the best liquor and drugs.

And to clarify, I am completely and totally NOT advocating untreated mental illness. Oh hell no. I like being alive, which I wouldn't be without modern medicine and mental health treatments.

What I'm trying to get at (and hence the dementia) is that the brain is a really fucking complex organ, and I think that there can be a correlation between mental illness and creativity--that the bits of the brain that are related to impulse control and mood lability and all those other fun bits are also linked to the bits that allow us to see, hear, or imagine things that do not currently exist (be that a symphony or a painting or characters).

That doesn't mean creativity is limited only to mental illness any more than mental illness is limited only to the creative. I'm just saying there is a pretty strong correlation.

And, I have to admit, that in some art, I see reflections of my own demons. But that's an argument from anecdote rather than evidence. :)

Eric Tuesday, October 19, 2010 at 2:15:00 PM EDT  

Michelle, my point with Poe was exactly that his behavior was almost certainly the result of mental illness, and not vice-versa. The point I was going for is that these symptoms or results of his mental illness shortened his life, harmed his career, and, yes (although I didn't quite come out and say this or say it clearly), impeded his creativity and resulted in the world losing a lot of things he might have written if he hadn't been dealing with the consequences of the consequences of his illness (i.e. he could, for instance, have been writing instead of drinking, if he hadn't probably been doing what we'd now call self-medicating).

It's hard to believe an intelligent, well-read, cultured gentleman of Poe's background wouldn't have been some kind of creative guy if he'd been well, though his career might have taken a different trajectory to be sure (if he'd been well, maybe he wouldn't have gotten himself expelled from West Point and disowned by his family, so there is that extent to which his illness may have fostered his art--it forced him to write to feed himself, and not just because he wanted to write in the first place). Maybe some things wouldn't have been as vibrant or whatever, we don't know, but it is safe to say he wasn't writing when he was passed out or being paid for his writing when he was fighting with magazine editors or doing the other awful things as a result of his illness.

My point, in short, was that his mental illness destroyed him. Ate him alive, and he wasn't much older than I am now when it consumed what was left of him. But there's a tendency to romanticize it instead of curse it, to act as if his madness should get credit for "inspiring" him instead of being rued for finally snuffing him out before he had a chance to write a great novel or embark on a second career as America's greatest essayist or foster a generation of American men (and maybe even women, though it was 19th Century America) of letters, or any of the things he might have done if he'd lived into his 60s like his contemporary, Hawthorne, f'r'instance, or his 70s like his successor Bierce.

And I'm still not convinced of the correlation: I suspect the pop culture "correlation" is a sort of apologetic for great people who have (mostly short) awful lives, a romantic notion that ties artistry to illness or poverty. The mad artist dying young in a dirty garret, fully appreciated only when it's too late, makes a better story than the rich, mostly happy, mostly successful creator who dies fat, happy and old. The former is somehow seen as more authentic and the latter is usually regarded as a "sellout." The problem is, I think it's a really destructive mythology that sends the wrong messages not just about mental illness, but also about success and creativity itself (e.g. the "mad, starving, inspired genius" mythology obscures the fact that creative processes, when examined, are far more commonly derivative, collaborative, and the result of much hard work as opposed to some rare bolt-from-the-blue epiphany triggered by drugs or schizophrenia or both, the "bolt-from-the-blue" being a rare occurrence if it ever even really happens outside of biopics and their print equivalents).

Random Michelle K Tuesday, October 19, 2010 at 2:48:00 PM EDT  

Ah. Got it.

Like I said, I'm NOT arguing that mental illness not be treated.

As far as the starving artist bit... I spent a lot of time in punk culture when I was younger, and there is a nasty tendency among punks and hipsters to assume that popular != good (i.e. "I loved that bad until the sold out" where sold out simply means that other people suddenly recognize how good the band is.)

I don't accept that any more than I accept the starving artist bit. That's not to say that popularity doesn't change people. After all, if you're not being given honest critiques then that is going to change you.

All of which is to say, that's why I started my list with long-dead composers. We recognize the greatness of Tchaikovsky without considering his life. I'd even go as far as to say your average person knows nothing about his life. Yet the wonder and genius of the 1812 Overture are plain to most listeners.

Would these men and women have written their masterpieces if there were changes in their brains, if they were not "suffering" (for their art or otherwise)? It's impossible to say.

Should men and women with mental illness and creative genius today be treated? Of course they should. But that doesn't mean we should ignore the fact that the changes in brain chemistry cause by these treatments can act to stifle creativity.

It also leads to ethical debate about the treatment of mental illness, but that is something else entirely and not what I was considering in either this question, or my post of dementia.

Leanright,  Tuesday, October 19, 2010 at 3:08:00 PM EDT  

The question regarding which mental illness you would choose.

Wow, with you being a liberal, I am so tempted to give a smart-ass response.

But I won't.
(maybe I just did)

It's all in jest. Cheers.

timb111 Tuesday, October 19, 2010 at 4:17:00 PM EDT  

Michelle: "Should men and women with mental illness and creative genius today be treated? Of course they should."

I disagree. Not all mental illnesses are completely debilitating (most aren't) and often the side effects of treatment are considered worse by the patient than the illness. If you get a chance see the Stephen Fry documentary (sorry I forget the name) where he examines his own bi-polar problem and that of others. Many prefer the illness to the treatment.

Of course if someone is in danger of hurting themselves or others it is a different story.

Random Michelle K Tuesday, October 19, 2010 at 4:30:00 PM EDT  

timb111, I know very well the side effects of psychiatric medicines, and am currently trying to find a dosage of my own medications that allows me to be fully and completely functional.

As long as an individual is not a danger to themselves or others, medication is a choice. However, the difficulty comes in determining what qualifies as a danger to self or others. (ie the ethical debate surrounding treatment.)

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