More on Suffering and Creativity

January 22, 2011

I’m reading a fabulous book right now called THE MAGICIANS, which is about a young man who’s recruited to attend a college for magicians. Not magicians as we know them—sleight of hand, illusionists, and all that—but real, honest-to-God, spellcasting magicians.

When our young hero graduates from the magic school, the dean addresses the class and explains why he thinks people become magicians.

As I was reading it, it struck me that it’s very similar to why a lot of people become writers or painters or singers. Changing the word “magician” to “artist,” here’s the dean’s monologue:

I have a little theory I’d like to air here, if I may. What is it that makes you artists? Is it because you are intelligent? Is it because you are brave and good? Is it because you’re special?

Maybe. Who know. But I’ll tell you something: I think you’re artists because you’re unhappy. An artist is strong because he feels pain. He feels the difference between what the world is and what he would make of it. Or what did you think that stuff in chest was? An artist is strong because he hurts more than others. His wound is his strength.

Most people carry that pain around inside them their whole lives, until they kill the pain by other means, or until it kills them. But you, my friends, you found another way: a way to use the pain. To burn it as fuel, for light and warmth. You have learned to break the world that has tried to break you.

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Suffering’s Role in Creativity

January 17, 2011

I’ve always fancied myself to be a creative person. A reader from a young age, I wrote my first “novel” in the fifth grade. I won prizes for my short stories in high school. I went to graduate school for creative writing, and I write for a living today.

For a long time, though, writing was something I had to do—as Maya Angelou once said, “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.”—but it wasn’t necessarily something I enjoyed.

You see, I bought into the myth of the suffering artist. I thought great art could only come from a place of pain. I identified heavily with Hemingway when he said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

I conveniently forgot that Hemingway killed himself, which is the most destructive act anyone can ever achieve.

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The “Glamour” of Mental Illness

December 29, 2010

New research conducted by mentaline.com reveals that approximately 11% of teenagers think mental illness is “fashionable.” Three percent of them have even faked having a mental illness, believing that this would make them “unique,” more like celebrity sufferers, or “just cool.”

Of those teens who’ve faked illness, the most popular choices are:

  • Eating disorders – 22%
  • Self-harming – 17%
  • Addiction – 13%
  • Depression – 12%
  • Bipolar Disorder– 9%

As someone who’s suffered from both an eating disorder and depression, whose husband has bipolar disorder, and whose sister has overcome self-harming, I’m fascinated by this data. In a way, I can even relate to these kids.

But the funny thing about mental illness is that, while it may look cool or glamorous from the outside, when you’re trapped inside it, it’s the least glamorous thing you could ever imagine.

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Authenticity vs. Anonymity

December 13, 2010

When I was a teenager, all I wanted to do was blend in with the crowd. I never raised my hand in class, I never raised my voice.

When I went away to college, I’d wander off the small, safe campus of my liberal arts college and walk aimlessly around the mall to avoid seeing people I knew.

I sat in dark movie theaters by myself for hours at a time bingeing, because eating while watching other people’s lives unfold onscreen was safe. It required nothing from me.

Bingeing in anonymity meant I didn’t have to know who I was, and I didn’t have to explain myself to anyone.

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Why Community Can Be More Healing Than Therapy

December 2, 2010

I love therapy. Truly, I do.

My husband and I have been seeing a therapist since he came out of the hospital two years ago. She’s great, and going to see her has improved our communication by leaps and bounds.

John also sees a therapist on an individual basis, and honestly, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable with him coming home from the hospital if he hadn’t been willing to go. Seeing his therapist has helped John come to terms with his diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and it’s given him the tools he needs to cope with it.

That said, though, I haven’t always derived great benefits from therapy, and there have been times when having the support of a community of my peers has been way more transformative than participating in therapy ever could be.

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Stupid Things People Say about Mental Illness

November 21, 2010

My father has never been big on expressing emotion, particularly uncomfortable emotion. He’s also the kind of guy who, when playing cards, “knows what’s in everybody’s hand.”

His reaction to the news of my bulimia, then, was really no surprise.

I’d lost a lot of weight by crash dieting the summer before my senior year of high school, and when I went back to school and found that I could no longer stick to my starvation schedule, I tried to keep the weight from piling back on by being a lot less careful about when and where I threw up. My mother figured out what I was doing and told me she was taking me to a doctor. Later that day, while exercising in the home gym in our basement, my father made the only acknowledgment he ever made about my eating disorder when he said, “You’ve got to learn some balance.”

Umm, really, Dad? You think?

Today, with 11 years of Twelve Step recovery under my belt, I know that he was trying to be helpful. At the time, though, it was demoralizing, to say the least. I knew I needed more balance. Intellectually, I knew exactly what I needed to do to maintain a healthy weight. But that didn’t mean I could do it.

The way I thought and acted and felt around food was different from my father. We could order the exact same meal at a restaurant and he’d push his plate away before he was done saying, “I’m stuffed like a dirty pig.” I, meanwhile, would stare at him uncomprehendingly. How could he be 6’ tall and stuffed when I could eat three more plates? I had no mechanism that signaled fullness. I ate like I was bottomless pit.

His assumption, though, that I was just like him and could learn to “push myself away from the table” if I just tried harder, is where a lot of the stigma that’s associated with all types of mental illness comes from. It’s a failure of the imagination, really. An inability to imagine that someone else’s brain patterns could really be all that different from your own.

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Love, Mental Illness, and Vulnerability

November 8, 2010

As a teenager, I told myself that I didn’t want marriage, I didn’t want kids, I didn’t want a family. In reality, I was afraid I’d never get them, so I tried to deny the desire, cut it off at the root before it blossomed into something I couldn’t control.

Fat, bulimic, and depressed, I didn’t think I was attractive enough to find a man. I didn’t think I was good enough to have a family. If people really knew me, I reasoned, they wouldn’t like me. Why should they? I sure as hell didn’t.

When I met John, I’d been in recovery for four years. I’d stopped doing things that made me hate myself, and I’d gone back and cleared up the wreckage from my past. I knew that I deserved good things, and I wasn’t afraid to admit I wanted them.

It sounds cheesy, but I was ready to fall in love.

When John and I married three years later, I spent the day in a blaze of happiness. I felt blessed, and I prayed only that, whether John and I experienced times of joy or heartache, our love and commitment to each other would remain strong and be used as a foundation to help others.

I never imagined that bipolar disorder would be God’s answer to my prayer.

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