Creativity and Mental Illness

Writing my journal this morning, I struggled with scattered thoughts, lots of odd, confused ideas.  Then the universe connected me with an interesting piece of information.  It was on Brainpickings, by Maria Popova.

She quotes Nancy Andreasen’s book The Creating Brain.

Many personality characteristics of creative people … make them more vulnerable, including openness to new experiences, a tolerance for ambiguity, and an approach to life and the world that is relatively free of preconceptions. This flexibility permits them to perceive things in a fresh and novel way, which is an important basis for creativity. But it also means that their inner world is complex, ambiguous, and filled with shades of gray rather than black and white. It is a world filled with many questions and few easy answers. While less creative people can quickly respond to situations based on what they have been told by people in authority — parents, teachers, pastors, rabbis, or priests — the creative person lives in a more fluid and nebulous world. He or she may have to confront criticism or rejection for being too questioning, or too unconventional. Such traits can lead to feelings of depression or social alienation. A highly original person may seem odd or strange to others. Too much openness means living on the edge. Sometimes the person may drop over the edge… into depression, mania, or perhaps schizophrenia.

Creative ideas probably occur as part of a potentially dangerous mental process, when associations in the brain are flying freely during unconscious mental states — how thoughts must become momentarily disorganized prior to organizing. Such a process is very similar to that which occurs during psychotic states of mania, depression, or schizophrenia. In fact, the great Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, who gave schizophrenia its name, described a “loosening of associations” as its most characteristic feature: “Of the thousands of associative threads that guide our thinking, this disease seems to interrupt, quite haphazardly, sometimes single threads, sometimes a whole group, and sometimes whole segments of them.”

Sounds just like me.  I’m reminded that it’s amazing I didn’t end up in a mental hospital, partly because I was lucky enough to have family money, and partly because I was intelligent enough to know that I needed help.  I spent a large amount of that money on therapists of many kinds, and workshops on personal growth.  Also, I was lucky that my brother Jack started me on a Buddhist path.

On the other hand, because I am distracted and overwhelmed so easily, I am probably more easily traumatized than most people.  Right now, I am feeling total despair about ever reaching a point where I can “enjoy life” or even be “grateful for the gift of life.”

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