A new movie, “Touched by Fire,” explores the connection between mental illness (specifically bipolar disorder) and creativity. I haven’t seen it, and can’t comment on the movie specifically, but it has sparked some discussion around social media based on a statement of one of the characters.
Marco, a slam poet who goes off of his medication in the movie, tells a psychiatrist that if Vincent Van Gogh had been medicated, he would never have painted “Starry Night.”
This has gone a little bit viral over the past few days, retweeted and reblogged uncritically by the mentally healthy who like to romanticize mental illness, and with commentary both supporting and arguing against medication by those who have experience with mental illness, either personally or through a loved one.
I’ve talked about it before, but for anyone stumbling across this entry, I have OCD and a mood disorder on the bipolar spectrum, and I treat them with both medication and therapy. I tried to treat them without any medication at first, and it simply didn’t work. My OCD was too severe and my mood issues simply fueled it. My life was a miserable mess.
That’s the position I’m coming from. I understand wanting to avoid medication very, very well, but my personal experience with medication has been positive.
So from that perspective, I have to agree with writer Ursula Vernon, who said:
If ONE MORE PERSON says “What if they’d medicated Van Gogh!?” I think I’m permitted to set things on fire. If they’d medicated Van Gogh, he’d either have painted twice as much, or he’d have been happy and unproductive. And you know what? Starry Night wasn’t worth a terrible price in human misery. It’s neat. It wasn’t worth it.
Van Gogh himself may have felt the same way about his mental illness. According to his Wikipedia page:
Despite a widespread tendency to romanticise his ill health, art historians see an artist deeply frustrated by the inactivity and incoherence caused by his illness.
And even if he didn’t, he likely would have continued painting for many more years if he had not committed suicide at 37 years old.
Personally, I feel like I was more creative when I wasn’t medicated — when I was hypomanic, and my OCD symptoms weren’t out of control, which was not a very long or frequent window. And it often led to other problems; I have the credit card bills to prove it.
But my quality of life was terrible. A good 80 percent of the time I was either depressed, anxious, battling severe OCD, or all three at once. I was not creative or productive during those times. I was barely getting by.
That said, some people can handle their mental illness without medication, and they feel more creative without it. If they choose to go without medication, that’s a personal choice, and one often made with a level of planning and involvement with a therapist, family or friends, and others.
Mental illness is something you can treat or live with. It can help boost your career or your creativity, or it can put a damper on them. Some of us make the choice to use medication to create a better quality of life and give up some of our motivation and creativity in the process. Others choose to save their creative powers even at the risk of dealing with the symptoms of their mental illness.
But most of us don’t do it for anyone but ourselves (and maybe our loved ones).
And unlike Vincent Van Gogh, we have the choice.
Photo by uhuru1701