I recently watched a movie about the life of Jackson Pollock. (Sony Pictures, Ed Harris, 2000) It left me thinking about how a generation of young artists were taught the mythology of the Abstract Expressionist painters, not just the concepts of their work. What got passed down along with the art history was the Modern American version of the myth of the tormented artist. The same mythology has been used in mental health.
“At the mercy of her moods” was a very 19th century expression. That phrase along the the term “hysteric” was often used as justification for why a woman could not achieve or do certain things. Emotion and mood were used to keep women from equal status with men as they were portrayed as weaknesses instead of the strength that they actually are.
The expressions were also applied to 20th century artists. The implication in all cases remained that the person was somehow taken over; that mood was stronger than their ability to handle it. It was someone of a sensitive, delicate, and susceptible personality who was prone to these episodes, illnesses, or disorders. The literature about artists in the 19th and 20th century is replete with these concepts.
Kay Jamison makes the correlation between the descriptions above and manic – depressive illness, or what had come to be diagnosed as bipolar disorder, in her work “Touched by Fire” (1993). She adopted the descriptive framework for herself and imparted it to a generation of psychiatrists, psychologists and patients. I believe these descriptions are counter-productive and should be relegated to history, whether they apply to an artist or a bipolar person.
We are in an age where meditation, yoga practice, anger management, cognitive therapy, and stress reduction techniques are everywhere. The central idea of all of these practices is that mind, body, mood, exercise, diet, and relationships are all considered as part of the whole. The whole person is aware of the influence of one system upon another in striving for optimum well-being.
The mind/body relationship is expressed freely throughout the culture in advertising and colloquial speech. While we may not be well versed in the subtleties of truth presented to us by the wealth of ancient wisdom, we are pretty good with the buzz words and the basic concepts.
As a culture, we are learning to separate thought from action and stimulus from response. We are learning practices that encourage the acknowledgment of body, mind, emotion, and soul — yet encourage us to be guided by wisdom in all circumstances. This makes it less likely, less acceptable, and less necessary that any of us be at “the mercy of our moods.” We are evolving beyond that as a culture. We should not be held back by a 19th century view of ourselves.
Some say that bipolar or depression is too intense to be fully functional during episodes. My experience, and that of many others, is that intensity has much less to do with it than understanding and training. When we seek understanding instead of just trying to make it go away, we find that we can separate the experience of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual intensity from our reactions.
Those of us who can function fully during our most intense experiences all say it is because we have chosen to understand them. The more we experience such freedom, the less we are at the mercy of our moods.
Have you found that you can function in a state that once had you at its mercy? Please share it with us.