Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Mental Illness and the Creative Mind

Monday afternoon, as I was preparing for a quick nap before dinner, I read that Robin Williams, one of the greatest comedians and actors of our time, has passed away. I didn't want to post anything until official confirmation of the cause of death had been reported, but news outlets have now confirmed that he died by his own hand.  He had apparently been suffering from severe depression for some time.  In one unfortunate decision taken by a desperate man, the world lost a brilliant, creative mind.

Although Williams was adored by many, the conversation has already begun shifting away from fawning memorials to questions about his life, his intentions, the dark things from his past.  I heard evidence of it on the radio on the way to work both yesterday and this morning.  My coworkers are all discussing how their Facebook feeds have essentially exploded with both memorials and criticisms of the man.  His struggles with addiction, his three marriages, his somewhat criticized relationships with his kids--all these things and more are slowly but predictably coming under the microscope.  Already in many of the more popular (even if I don't understand why) blogs, he has been criticized for being selfish, or for being cowardly, or for being responsible for his own choice.  I will not give them traffic by linking them here, but all you have to do is perform a google search and you'll find them, I promise you.

Mental illness is a deadly disease, for which suicide often seduces a sufferer with promise of an ultimate cure.  Williams is only the latest in a long dark history, paved with the lives of countless artists, writers, musicians, and comedians, some of the most creatively gifted of their times. Kurt Cobain. Ernest Hemingway. Sylvia Plath. Vincent van Gogh.  Virginia Woolf.  At least anecdotally, the rate of mental illness amongst those in the creative professions seems higher than among the general population.  Some more recent studies have confirmed there is a correlation between those in creative professions and mental illness.

In one 2013 study, researchers noted that writers specifically were at greater risk for any number of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, substance abuse, and yes, even suicide. The brilliance and tragedy of the creative mind is its gift for seeing things in new ways, not all of which are bright and sunny and joyous.  Sometimes the darkness draws us in without our knowledge.  Sometimes we dive into it willingly, choosing to hide within the shadows of human consciousness.  Unfortunately, danger lurks in those shadows.  We swim through the darkest of humanity, and we are not left unscarred.

I once thought that suicide was a "permanent solution to a temporary problem."  The very good intentions of the statement--intended to inspire sufferers to look for hope in a better tomorrow--ignore the fact that sometimes mental illness is not temporary.  For many people, these diseases are manageable but chronic.  To suggest otherwise, that somehow a miracle cure is the only desirable outcome of such a battle, is ill-advised at best and horribly callous at worst.

I myself struggle with persistent depressive disorder and have since I was very young.  I have fought off the urge to take drastic self-harming measures more times than I care to admit.  Is it true that the condition sometimes goes into remission?  Absolutely.  Is it true that some people have eventually found themselves free of the disease?  Of course it is.  But to tell me that my only goal should be to overcome it entirely detracts from all of the efforts I have taken to live with it, each and every day of my life, no matter how hard a task that seems.

Suicide is permanent.  It isn't selfish, it isn't cowardly, and it isn't its victims' fault.  But it is permanent.  The very beauty of life is that, from moment to moment, it contains infinite potentialities for change.  To be fair, not all of those possibilities are positive.   In five minutes, I might get a phone call announcing that everyone I love is dead and gone.  Tomorrow morning, I could discover I'm suffering from an incurable cancer. A week from now, I might be evicted from my apartment.  These are all very real worries, some more realistic than others, but real.  To imply that everyone's tomorrow will be bright and beautiful is not only shallow--it's demonstrably wrong

But then, there are other possibilities.   Some are perhaps pipe dreams.  My novel in-production might sell 7,000,000 copies and make me rich, eliminating all my financial worries.  My mother might call me to tell me she won a million dollars and is giving me a cut of it.  I might wake up with no health issues at all, with my knees and joints in better shape than they have been since high school.

But then there are other perfectly possible scenarios.  I might get offered a promotion at work.  My partner and sister-in-law might have a delicious fajita dinner ready for me when I get home.  I might get a publication acceptance letter.  I might get to spend an excellent day out by the pool.  Just because my life tomorrow might actually get worse doesn't negate its ability to get better.

To me, it's the positive possibilities that make the negative ones, if I can't ignore them entirely, bearable.  Every day I fight to embrace those possibilities, to keep pushing forward in the hope that tomorrow, even if not perfect, will be better than today.

Robin Williams, at least in this life, has run out of possibilities for change.  It's tragic and heart-wrenching and I pray that he's found rest from the demons that were plaguing him.  It wasn't selfish.  It wasn't cowardly.  It wasn't his fault.  But he'll never sign another movie deal.  He'll never get another comedy special.  He'll never get to help a friend in a time of need.  Those possibilities are now over for him.

Don't ignore the infinite potential of your life, no matter what shape it may be in now.  It could be taken from you in a moment.  Don't let it go without a fight.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

If you are interested in learning more about mental illness, about how to cope with it yourself or to cope with helping loved ones who suffer, I highly encourage taking a look at some of these links by some of the professionals out in the field.  They have much better things to say than I would.

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