Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Original Mind May Be A Troubled One

Elizabeth Black lives on the Massachusetts coast with her husband, son, and four cats. You may find her on Facebook and on her web site.

It came as no surprise to me that writing is one of the top 10 professions in which people are mostly likely to suffer from depression. According to a new Swedish study, "writers have a higher risk than the general population of anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse. They were also about twice as likely to commit suicide."

A second recent study from Austria found a tie between creativity and mental disorders. According to this study, "creative professionals are a bit more likely than others to suffer from bipolar disorder. The healthy relatives of schizophrenics tend to enter creative fields. A genetic variant of some psychoses may be related to creative achievement. Some dimensions of schizotypy--personality traits that may make a person more vulnerable to schizophrenia--predict a person's creativity."

I've suffered from bi-polar disorder since I was a child, but I wasn't diagnosed until my mid-20s. I'm currently on medication that keeps the mood swings in check but I know the moment I go off them I'll dive into the pit of Hell and soar to uncomfortable heights again, and neither is a pleasant experience. During these highs and lows, I wrote and continue to write. I've also painted, drawn, and composed music, but mostly, I put fingers to keyboard.

The tie between art and mental illness is not something to be taken lightly. It's not merely a matter of having "the blues" and needing to pick yourself up by the bootstraps and get on with your life. Depression and other forms of mental illness can very devastating —and deadly.

Creativity and madness go hand-in-hand. Hemingway committed suicide with a bullet to the head. He's not the first writer to suffer from mental illness. Virginia Woolf drowned herself. Sylvia Plath stuck her head in her oven, but only after giving the kids milk and cookies as a snack. Her colleague and friend Anne Sexton also committed suicide. Zelda Fitzgerald was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and she spent the last years of her life in an asylum. F. Scott Fitzgerald suffered from depression and alcoholism. Hunter S. Thompson shot himself. Susanna Kaysen stayed in a mental hospital and later wrote "Girl, Interrupted". Hermanne Hesse, who may have been bi-polar, attempted suicide and spent time in several mental institutions. Another possible manic-depressive and definite violent alcoholic, Malcolm Lowry, spent time in a mental institution and died a "death of misadventure" combining booze and an overdose of sleeping pills. Whether his death was suicide, accident, or murder remains unanswered. Spalding Grey long suffered from depression and he committed suicide after leaping from the Staten Island ferry. Mental illness isn't confined to writers. Actors Patty Duke, Vivien Leigh, Catherine Zeta Jones, and Jeremy Brett were diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. One of my favorite British actors committed suicide. George Sanders checked into a small in a hotel in Barcelona, wrote a short suicide note and took an overdose of barbiturates. He wrote, "Dear World, I am leaving you because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck."

There seems to be a history of suicide in the Hemingway family. Another notable Hemingway to kill herself was his granddaughter, Margaux. Despite the common belief that Hemingway committed suicide, his wife insists he accidentally set of his gun while cleaning it.

I've already mentioned Sylvia Plath's suicide. Some believed based on her note that she didn't intend to kill herself and that her actions were a cry for help. She wrote the brief note, "Please call Dr. Horder."

Hunter S. Thompson left a suicide note before putting a gun to his head. Thompson left the "Football Season Is Over" note for his wife, Anita. He shot himself four days later at home. He wrote: "No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax This won't hurt.""

O. Henry was plagued by alcoholism and cirrhosis of the liver. His final words were: "Turn up the lights, I don't want to go home in the dark."

Sergei Esinen wrote his suicide note in his own blood, and he gave it to a friend the day before he hanged himself. He wrote:

"Goodbye, my friend, goodbye
My love, you are in my heart.
It was preordained we should part
And be reunited by and by.
Goodbye: no handshake to endure.
Let's have no sadness -- furrowed brow.
There's nothing new in dying now
Though living is no newer."

Virginia Woolf had had a mental breakdown years earlier, which she feared was about to recur. She committed suicide by stuffing her coat pockets with rocks so she wouldn't float, and then she drowned herself. She left the suicide note on the mantelpiece of her home, for her husband. "Dearest, I feel certain that I'm going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems to be the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier until this terrible disease came. I can't fight it any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness in my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling you life any longer. I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been. V."

With talent often comes pain and sorrow. Creative people may be tapped into humanity's foibles a bit more than the average person, hence the acute sensitivity to what goes on around them. I often wonder if I'm attracted to the Dark Side because I'm a writer, or am I a writer because I'm attracted to the Dark Side? Writing is a wonderful way for me to relieve stress and solve problems. When I create a character going through similar ordeals as myself, I can detach and come up with a good solution. I wonder how many other writers have done something similar? I know writing is one way to gaze into our darker selves, although it's not necessarily a safe thing to do. As Nietzsche said, battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. I prefer to dive right in rather than play it safe and hang around the comfortable edges. And I know many other writers do the same thing. It makes them human.


  1. Yes indeed. I suffer from depression often.

  2. I was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder at the age of 24. The irony is that the drugs that made me better also made it impossible to write.

    There are, of course, a lot of people who suffer from mental illness who do not go into the creative fields, and many creatives who haven't suffered from mental illness. So I'm not sure there is any rule that holds.

    But, having read a great deal about Kafka (who suffered from multiple mental problems, including OCD, depression, and anxiety so acute that he felt being in a room with more than a few people could result in his psyche evaporating), I think that, often, creative people are creative because they see the world slightly differently, and spend their lives trying to reconcile the difference.

  3. Thanks for the great comments, Rachel and RG. I agree that although creativity and mental illness often go together, I don't think they cause each other. And yes, creative people often see the world differently. That's for sure.

  4. My family doesn't want me to tell too many other folks that I "hear voices" in my head all of the time. Those are my characters, telling and showing me their lives..entire conversations, scenes, etc. And once I finish a book, usually those people quiet down, only for my attention to be drawn to the next set of loudly yelling people insisting that it's their turn now! Writing their stories lets them live in other people's heads, so they like that. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
    So, I hear voices in my head, but it's okay. They let me live my regular life without interference, as long as I provide them a conduit to other minds. Weird, huh? Only one of my sons really understands, and he's the one I had to talk out of getting an English major. I asked him, "Do we really need 2 under-employed people in the family?" He's going to be a geologist instead. But he still reads voraciously and he'll continue to write then the inspiration ("voices") gets to him.

  5. Thanks for a great post, Elizabeth.

    Although I've done time in a psychiatric hospital (as an anorexic teen), for the most part I'm pretty psychologically stable. And I wonder whether that means I'll never be a really great writer - because when I write I (usually) don't bleed.

  6. Interesting post, Elizabeth. I wish the great writers you name had had more support. Who knows what they might have written if they had lived longer?


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