Suicide is, after all, the opposite of a poem.
–Anne Sexton

We’ve become accustomed to celebrities dying from self-destructive behavior. Media commentators often ascribe the tragic end of young, promising lives to the temptations of sudden fame and wealth. However, there may be a darker story behind such deaths. British researchers have documented a relationship between childhood adversity and the demise of music stars.

The romantic notion of the passionate, unstable artist captures popular imagination. For me as a young man drawn to poetry, Anne Sexton exemplified brilliant talent housed in an agonized soul. It’s easy to see why her lyric chronicles of mental torment spoke to me: Sexton suffered from depression and mood swings, attempted to assuage her pain through creativity, and ended her own life. She seemed a famous version of my mother, who lived and died along a similar trajectory.

Like Anne Sexton and my mother, I tried to ease despair through artistic outpouring. Although writing gave voice to my distress, it didn’t lighten my mood or prevent suicidal fantasies. Penning verse felt healing, but I required additional strategies to truly heal. Unfortunately, the mental health system of the twentieth century proved inadequate to my needs. Sexton, too, had found psychiatry impotent and poetry insufficient. Her work appealed to me not only through its expressive success, but also its salvational failure.

My despondency derived from a painful childhood. Growing up I endured my mother’s death, a preceding divorce, and subsequent abuse, all against the backdrop of frequent relocations and paternal alcoholism. Feeling unhappy seemed the inevitable consequence of a harrowing upbringing.

Beset by depression and reeling from such chaotic history, it felt natural to write introspective poetry, just like Anne Sexton. What never occurred to me was to inquire about the poet’s own childhood. Might she have endured trauma growing up? Might that have explained her mood instability and suicide?

It turns out Sexton came up in an alcoholic home amidst hostility and mental illness. There may have been abuse, though that remains controversial. It appears her psychiatric distress resulted, at least partly, from childhood adversity. Which means her powerful verse probably did as well, since in her case angst and poetry appear inseparable.

Recent studies have elucidated the long-term effects of early trauma. We now know that rates of depression and suicide attempts correlate strongly with degree of childhood adversity. Connections between creativity and mental illness have also been documented. Mozart and Van Gogh serve as potent examples of this association.

If childhood hardship leads to mental health problems, and if psychiatric disorders are common among artists, can we conclude that early trauma sometimes fuels creative drive? Possibly. The researchers who linked pop star deaths with adverse childhood experience speculate that in some cases artistic ambition gets sparked by painful upbringings.

Creativity benefits our culture but seldom rescues the artist from his or her despair. Fortunately, we have entered a period of burgeoning insight into trauma and its remedies. The knowledge arrived far too late to save Sexton and my mother, and too late for me to avoid critical losses. Still, I’m glad routes to recovery became available within my lifetime; like many others I’ve followed them to stable contentment.

We can now imagine the day when the wounded will excel in aesthetic innovation but also possess skills to dilute the corrosive effects of adverse experience. Artists will thus be freed to express painful legacies without succumbing to them. Using proven strategies, we can free artistry from tragedy.

© 2013, Will Meecham, MD


Note: The foregoing essay was initially written as part of a fourteen article series for the Center for Post Trauma Wellness (CPTW) website, where most of the pieces are already online. The CPTW site is new and has yet to build up much traffic. In the interest of both finding a larger audience for this project and also giving CPTW some exposure, I am gradually posting portions of the series here.