An award-winning novelist with bipolar wants young artists to know that untreated mania has a worse effect on his creativity than any meds.
By Francisco X. Stork
It almost never fails to happen. When I talk about my experiences with bipolar disorder at one of my book events, someone, usually the mother of a budding artist, will come up afterward, wait until no one is in sight, and proceed to tell me that her son is refusing to take his medication for fear that it will dull his creativity.
What I would like to say to that mother is that if her son truly has bipolar, then whatever he thinks he is doing while in its grip is not art.
That’s what I would like to say. But usually I tell people that since I began treatment for bipolar 10 years ago, I’ve written and published four well-received novels. There were times when I was stuck, unable to write, and times when what I wrote was worthy only of the trash can—but my medication was not responsible for either my lack of creativity or the bad results of my efforts.
As someone who has experienced full-blown mania, it is impossible for me to conceive of creating anything other than gibberish during this state. Mania is a chaotic torrent of disconnected thoughts accompanied by an inflated arrogance of self. To others, the expression of this inner whirlwind is seen as unrestrained, egocentric babble.
I suppose that a young person with a milder form of mania could confuse its electric, undirected energy with the unselfconscious flow of words, ideas and images that we call inspiration. But even this hypomania, in my experience, will not lead to the kind of artistic work that others will recognize as lasting art.
What I want tell young artists who have bipolar disorder is that medication does not prevent that wonderful, sometimes rare, absorption that seems to take us out of the grips of time. Medication does not prevent the reception of those gift-like intuitions, images, insights that we all depend upon as artists or creative persons.
Does medication affect my work? Yes. But not nearly as much as the unfettered symptoms of bipolar disorder. I am fortunate enough to have found the right person to help me find the right dosage—a dosage that is monitored constantly and adjusted periodically so that I can function with a minimum of disruption.
It saddens me to hear young people talk about their bipolar disorder as if it were a burden they must bear for the sake of their art. Sometimes it seems we carry our mental illness like a badge of specialness that thankfully separates us from all those ordinary accountants, lawyers, IT people and other common folk too insensitive to be unhappy.
Your creativity comes from a place deep in you that is not affected by medication but which is affected by the illness.
I am grateful for the lessons of self and life that bipolar has brought me. But bipolar disorder is still an illness that hurts me and the people I love. I need to control it so that I can create with intelligence, which includes all my mental faculties, including imagination and intuition.
If you have bipolar and use your creativity, the power to generate something new with your mind in any form, here’s what you need to know: Your creativity comes from a place deep in you that is not affected by medication but which is affected by the illness. The place it comes from is deep in your soul, the same place where you find meaning and purpose in your life.
You will continue to be special and gifted when your illness is controlled. You will be special and gifted and unique like every other human being. You won’t be better than them, it is true. You will have to settle for being useful to them.
Francisco X. Stork, an author and retired lawyer, lives outside Boston. His young-adult novels Marcelo in the Real World and The Last Summer of the Death Warriors won awards from the American Library Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, and Latino Literacy Now. His latest YA novel, The Memory of Light, draws on his experiences with bipolar depression.
Printed as “On My Mind: Medication and Inspiration”, Winter 2017
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