So you're an artist? Help is on the way!

October 11, 2016 by Jowita Bydlowska

I have never subscribed to the notion that I drank because I’m a writer or that my writing would only be possible if I were in an altered mental state. I never thought there was anything remotely charming about letting yourself go because you’re an artist. But there seems to be a popular assumption that most writers drink, and that drinking is par for the course if you’re a writer.

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Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with rocks and hit the bottom of a river. Sylvia Plath gave up her life with her head in the oven. Hunter S. Thompson and Ernest Hemingway left the world in a blast of bullets. Diane Arbus fell asleep forever in a bathtub filled with blood. Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz filled with poison, slit his wrists, and slumped into an endless sleep, against a tree. Mark Rothko passed in the kitchen in front of red-splattered sink.

These tragic deaths are tied in with those artists' legacies, as one part of a dramatic story of creation. They are a spectacular ending to spectacular lives: in death, as in life, those artists shook the world with their actions. The idea that the artist is an unpredictable, troubled being has always prevailed in our collective consciousness — creativity and madness exist in a twisted marriage, or they are parasites of one another. 

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I have some mental-health issues. But I never wrote while "crazy" or drunk (well, I tried to write while drunk but ...). Both of my books, Drunk Mom and Guy, a memoir and a novel respectively, were written while sober. As a person with alcoholism (and bipolar II), I have had a few prolonged periods of almost constant oblivion and have suffered terrible consequences of that, as have my loved ones.

Yet I have never subscribed to the notion that I drank because I’m a writer or that my writing would only be possible if I were in an altered mental state. I never thought there was anything remotely charming about letting yourself go because you’re an artist. But there seems to be a popular assumption that most writers drink, and that drinking is par for the course if you’re a writer.

For example, in “Why do writers drink?” in the Guardian, Blake Morrison writes, “(...) altering one's mindset is vital to creativity, and booze can help with that, Bukowski claimed — ‘it yanks or joggles you out of routine thought and everydayism. Hemingway thought so too: ‘What else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whiskey?’”

It is romantic, this idea that writers are special and need to, for example, drink or go mad in order to create and that all artists do that, or rather, have a God-given right to do that because of the nature of their job. But let's face it — writing, painting, composing ... those are all just jobs, not some divine calling (Plato would disagree — later on that), the same as driving a bus or working in a lab.

I suppose sitting in your head all day — where all those artistic ideas start — and having to deal with excruciating rejections on regular basis and feeling paralyzed with insecurity or, alternatively, shooting all the way to the top when success happens, can do a number on you; even the sanest of us would be shaken up by those kinds of emotional highs and lows. I suspect more art is inspired by chaos rather than calm so that kind of going on is often needed to create but it’s — mostly — in our power to be able to control it instead of giving into it; even cherish it because of the romantic notion of the “tortured artist.”

At the same time, perhaps it is madness itself that spurs on artistic temperament, the drive that is absolutely Don Quixotean — the kind of drive that comes from blind faith and sometimes rejection of evidence — because maybe you probably have to be a tad crazy to believe in yourself so much as to put the most naked parts of your soul out to the world. I write ‘soul’ because it has to be the very essence of you; you have to be authentic to make the audience feel whatever it is that you want them to feel. And then, if the applause doesn’t come, if all you get is silence … well, circumstantial (and not) depression is many artists’ close companion but it is not exclusive to artists.

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In my final year of undergrad psychology I became convinced that there was a correlation between mental illness and being an artist. I wrote a paper on schizophrenia and creativity, relying heavily on Vincent Van Gogh’s missing ear in my introduction. I remember almost shaking with the sense of personal validation right there in front of the blackboard with the image of Van Gogh’s bandaged head in a white square of light in the darkness, the projector humming with indifference as I presented my research. Unlike most of my classmates I considered myself an artist and a mad person, and here I was proving it! Nobody knew about me being an artist and a drunk-in-the-making, and I don’t think anyone caught on that this presentation was so personal for me. Anyway, I got an A.

In my research for my thesis, I discovered that there have been many studies that proved there was a link between creativity and mental illness, bipolar disorder (which I once saw described as this: “I hate being bipolar, it’s awesome”) leading the pack. The idea that artists’ peculiar mental states were intertwined with creativity has been around for centuries — artists were considered to have been inspired by the divine forces; their madness and their talents were both products of their connection to otherworldly forces. Plato in the dialogue the Phaedrus has said, “Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings. Madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.”

Who wouldn’t want to proudly wear the madness badge, having that sort of credential, a personal reference from God herself? I met a writer once who said to me, “I drink because I’m a writer. I just haven’t really written anything yet.” He was joking but he said that indeed knowing about all those Hemigways and Bukowskis and Cheevers gave him a permission to call his drinking part of his what? … Writing?

We artists don’t have a monopoly on drinking, on mental illness, or rather we cannot give into it because we're artists! It is not cute to be crazy; it is not romantic. It is tragic. Those famous suicides are tragic. But what's not tragic is that in the current climate anybody can and should get help if they feel the madness creeping in — cultivating it to amp your creativity or claiming it as part of your artistic makeup is dangerous.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, "One in five adult Canadians (21.3 percent) will suffer a mental disorder in their lives. This figure translates into 4.5 million people. Anxiety disorders and depression are the most common. Approximately 2.5 million Canadian adults or over 10 percent of the population 18 and older will have a depressive disorder."

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I don't have the stats on how many of those people are artists but it doesn't matter — what matters is that it's a large number and that we're all affected, either directly or indirectly as the loved ones of someone who has mental illness.

The good news is that there is a solution and that is doing something about your mental illness — don't treat it as a thing you must accept because you've artistic preoccupations. You wouldn't leave cancer untreated, so treat your mental illness.

It's true that resources are scarce and waiting lists to see therapists are impossibly long but mental illness kills and it should be seen just as any other illness. Drinking or giving into mania or depression might end in death. I use my creative drive — my drive, really — as part of getting myself sober as an alcoholic and more balanced as a person with bipolar disorder: I produce more art when I’m sane; spending a day staring at the wall, at best, produces eye strain.

I am as diligent about trying to stay mentally well as I am about my artistic practice. I know that it's not easy to take care of yourself when you're depressed, manic, drunk ... or in the middle of edits. But if you get that moment of clarity somewhere, seek help. I promise you writing sober is much better than drunk. I tried writing drunk once and all I got was abcdefghijk....

Links to resources:

Canadian Mental Health Association

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

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Jowita Bydlowska was born in Warsaw, Poland, and moved to Canada as a teen. She is the author of the bestselling memoir Drunk Mom. A journalist and fiction writer, she lives in Toronto, Canada.


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