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Don’t Mess With My Brain [Mental Health and Creative People]

Posted Mar 23 2014 2:12pm

In the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975, based on the novel by Ken Kesey), criminal Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is transferred to a mental institution due to his apparently deranged behavior, which turns out to be a deliberate gambit by him to serve out his sentence in an easier place than prison.

Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestHe is passionately antiauthoritarian and constantly disruptive in response to the stifling hospital routine, especially the iron rule of Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher).

He is even given electro-shock therapy to subdue his defiance. (It doesn’t work.)

Later on, reacting to her insensitive tyranny about other patients, McMurphy explodes into a violent rage, viciously throttling the nurse, and is punished with a lobotomy.

That horror taps into a primal fear: having our mind – particularly any exceptional talents and creative abilities – compromised or taken away because of some medical intervention.

Even if – unlike in “Cuckoo’s Nest” – it is supposed to help us.

[Writer Daniel Goleman commented in a New York Times article: "For Big Nurse in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, it was a tool of terror, and, in the public mind, shock therapy has retained the tarnished image given it by Ken Kesey's novel: dangerous, inhumane and overused". From Wikipedia / Electroconvulsive therapy .]

Commenting about the article Elizabeth Swados on bipolar and burning rubber [on my Depression and Creativity site], designer Susan Kirkland said: “I wonder how much art product will be lost when we have cured all the mental angst suffered by gifted and creative people. I don’t think we know enough about it to differentiate between mental disharmony and a spiritual response to repressed creative expression. As an artist, I fear anything that might mess with my brain chemistry.”

In her article Creativity, the Arts, and Madness , Maureen Neihart, Psy.D. asks, “What do creativity and madness have in common? Observations from psychiatric studies suggest that there are three characteristics common to both high creative production and madness. These are disturbance of mood, certain types of thinking processes, and tolerance for irrationality.”

Virginia WoolfBut, as the article Are Creativity and Mental Illness Linked? (from Today’s Science On File) notes, “Most artists are not mentally ill, and most mentally ill people are not artists. However, several studies have suggested that artists are more likely than others to suffer from a class of mental illnesses called mood disorders, including major depression and manic-depressive illness.”

[Photo of Virginia Woolf from article: A writers inner life: Virginia Woolf – complex and accomplished .]

Psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, a person with bipolar disorder, notes in her book “Touched with Fire” that the majority of people suffering from mood disorder “do not possess extraordinary imagination, and most accomplished artists do not suffer from recurring mood swings.”

[From my article Creativity and Depression .]

In her article The Benefits of Restlessness and Jagged Edges , Dr. Jamison affirms that living with intensity and extremes are – or can be – positive traits.

She writes, “I believe that curiosity, wonder and passion are defining qualities of imaginative minds and great teachers; that restlessness and discontent are vital things; and that intense experience and suffering instruct us in ways that less intense emotions can never do.”

She adds, “It is important to value intellect and discipline, of course, but it is also important to recognize the power of irrationality, enthusiasm and vast energy. Intensity has its costs, of course — in pain, in hastily and poorly reckoned plans, in impetuousness — but it has its advantages as well.”

Dr. Jamison says she was “dealt a hand of intense emotions and volatile moods” and has had manic-depressive illness, or bipolar disorder, from age 18.

“Exuberance and delight, tempered by deep depressions, have been lasting teachers. But normal or manic I have run faster, thought faster, and loved faster than most I know.”

But she has used medication such as lithium to modulate her bipolar extremes.

There seems to be an enduring mythology about creative inspiration and performing as an actor, for example, that it benefits from an “edge” of nervous tension or even anxiety.

But creativity coach and writer Eric Maisel, PhD comments in our interview Ten Zen Seconds (about his book) that this really is a false and distorting idea: “It isn’t at all clear that tension or anxiety is what’s needed for peak performance and lifelong creativity.”

Anne SextonAnd many artists do make use – to varying degrees of success – of their creative work to deal with mental health challenges.

For example, Anne Sexton, who was institutionalized for psychosis, said “Poetry led me by the hand out of madness.”

[The photo is from article: Creativity to fend off madness .]

[One of her titles: Anne Sexton Reads (audiobook).]

In the book “Franny and Zooey” (1961) by J.D. Salinger, there is a scene which includes a view of psychotherapy as destructively “normalizing”:

“You go right ahead and call in some ignorant psychoanalyst. You just do that. You just call in some analyst who’s experienced in adjusting people to the joys of television, and Life magazine every Wednesday, and European travel, and the H-bomb, and the Presidential elections, and the front page of the Times, and the responsibilities of the Westport and Oyster Bay Parent-Teacher Association, and God knows what else that’s gloriously normal – you just do that, and I swear to you, in not more than a year Franny’ll either be in a nut ward or she’ll be wandering off into some goddamn desert with a burning cross in her hands…”

But many talented people acknowledge there can be real benefit to appropriate and “good” psychotherapy – for example:

Tony Kushner: “We forget that the unexpected has great entertainment value – that’s why psychoanalysis is so much fun.”

Jennifer Aniston: “I believe in therapy; I think it’s an incredible tool in educating the self on the self.”

Woody Allen: “People used to say, You’re using psychoanalysis as a crutch. And I would say, Yes. You’re hitting it exactly on the nose. I’m using it as a crutch.”

[Quotes from the page Counseling .]

Heather Graham and Ava Telek in Flowers in the Attic (2014)Heather Graham: “I have this amazing lady who’s my therapist, and I just find her brilliant, and she has been so incredibly helpful. Lots of people go [to therapy]. In some ways it helps more than acting class. You realize why you operate in certain ways.” – From our interview .

Psychologist Cheryl Arutt, Psy.D. notes “If you are an artist, you are your instrument. The greater access you maintain to yourself, the richer and broader your array of creative tools. Learning how to regulate stress and danger, especially how to recognize when we are safe allows us to maintain access to those higher order functions and flexibility of thinking.

“The ability to self-regulate provides an all-access pass for traveling the internal world, allowing the artist to mine for the gems that can be found there  . . . without losing touch with the light of day.”

From her article Affect Regulation and the Creative Artist .

~ ~

Many of us have also chosen at times to use various substances to alter our brain chemistry – often as a self-medication strategy.

But using alcohol and many other drugs can be very risky – see my articles Gifted, Talented, Addicted , and Artists and Addiction .

Also, there are non-drug alternatives to help manage anxiety and depression. For example, I have used St. John’s Wort for several years for mild depression. That and other herbal products are available from HBC Protocols and Native Remedies .

Also see my Anxiety Relief Solutions site.

We need to figure out for ourselves what level of feelings and emotional discomfort – agitation, pain, angst, depression, whatever – is tolerable, or what is too much, too distracting, too corrosive for our sensitive, creative spirit and mind.

~ ~ ~

A few related articles :

Giftedness, sensitivity and psychiatric drugs: why do we take them and why do we quit? By Cat Robson – “What are some of the considerations that lead sensitive and gifted adults to take psychiatric medications? What are some of the reasons people stop taking medications? What are the alternatives?”

Tim Burton Woman interrupted: misdiagnosis and medication of sensitivity and giftedness By Cat Robson – “What makes creative and highly sensitive people accept, and even welcome, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder or other mental illness? Are psychiatrists equipped to recognize and support creativity, high sensitivity and giftedness?”

Madness and creativity: do we need to be crazy? – The mythology of the mad artist continues in various forms, supported to some extent by research. But how valid is the research, and do these notions imply we are more likely to be creative if we have mental health challenges, if we’re unusually neurotic or a bit crazy?

Mis-Diagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children By James T. Webb, Ph.D.

“If You’re So Smart, Why Do You Need Counseling?” by Deborah L. Ruf, Ph.D.


Also see list of Counselors – Therapists – Coaches specializing in gifted, high ability, creative people.


Originally posted 2007-10-31 23:17:35.

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