Give Me My Meds
One of thefirst things we read in this course was a poem on the brain by Emily Dickinson.Having always liked her works, I was pleased that she could be used not only indiscussions on literature and poetry, but also in relation toneuroscience. However, afterhearing the content of her poem, my first thought was not on her stanzas, buton herself as a writer. In mymind, I remember thinking, “But Emily Dickinson was crazy!” Yet, it was herethat I began to wonder if, maybe, her words maintained value (or were even more valuable!) because she was a littleloopy.
Yet, as thecourse came to an end, I realized I had not taken these initial thoughts as faras I would like. Today, I found mychance. While looking through theHealth section of the New York Times, I came across an article about the linkbetween mental illness and creativity. It mentioned classic writers like Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath and acontemporary author, Marya Hornbacher, who, during their lives, suffered mentalillnesses and yet produced inspired pieces of literature. Like the words of Dickinson’s poem, thewords of the article challenged my thoughts at the start of the class.
The article,titled, “Quieting the Demons and Giving Art a Voice,” by Abagail Zuger,specifically tackles my claim that “craziness” actually creates more real, morevaluable, and more creative insights in one’s life and the world surroundingthem. This contention is actuallycommon, and Zuger notes that scientists have not been overly successful instudying the link between mental illness and artistic creativity. She states, “With all our scans andneurotransmitters, we are not much closer to figuring out that relationshipthan was Lord Byron, who announced that poets are ‘all crazy’ and left it atthat” (1).
This question is made more complicatedby the prominence of drugs to treat mental illness. Zuger cites Woolf as an example, and wonders if she couldhave written her final masterpiece while taking meds or if instead, Woolf wouldhave spent her remaining years “happily shopping?”
Hence, usingHornbacher as the primarily example, the article explores her writing and hersimultaneous struggles with anorexia, depression, and bipolar disease. According to Hornbacher, usingmedication to her illness (es) does not impair her creativity. In fact, when she does not take anymedication, but allows the illness to take hold of her, she is not able towrite. States Zuger, “Depression silences her; mania may flood her mind withglittering words, but they scatter before she can get them down. Only the prosaic morning meds (21pills, at last count) will let her trap the words on the page” (1).
Thus, turningback to my original thoughts, the next question to answer is this: if the drugsdo not change one’s thoughts, what do they do? Paxil, which is mentioned in thearticle, is an antidepressant that ‘fixes’ the serotonin deficiency in aperson’s brain (2). For Hornbacher,and many other writers and creative agents, these drugs help correct the overwhelming feelingsof depression, anxiety, etc. and allow them to channel their energy in aproductive and efficient way, especially in comparison to being off the medication.Writes Liza Porter, “Depression steals the voice. Silence breedsdepression. Depression breedssilence” (1). Hence, a cycle formsfor those, diagnosed with mental illness, who do not take the appropriatemedication. This cycle canultimately hinder one’s ability to create. Even more, this raises new questionsabout the brain and reality, especially in comparison with people who havemental illnesses and those who don’t. Personally, moments when I feel depressed allow me to express mythoughts most clearly and imaginatively. I do not suffer from any mental illness, but theemotions seem to clear up my ideas and give me motive to record them. Examining what these differences say about the human brain may further clear up the modes to creative expression.
Thus, itappears that being “crazy,” does not make one person’s feelings or words moreor less valuable. Instead, andpossibly contrary to popular thought, mental illnesses can create formidablebarriers to creative expression. Medications, then, can work to alleviate not only one’s suffering, butalso can open and reopen expressive outlets.
1- New York Times Article- “Quieting the Demons and Giving Art aVoice” http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/29/health/29book.html?_r=1&oref=slogin