Written by Tochi Onyebuchi
It has become a habit of mine to trawl Wikipedia for lists of celebrities or heroes of mine in fields I hope to enter or people of note throughout history who have suffered from bipolar disorder. Sherman Alexie. DMX. Russell Brand. Stephen Fry. Graham Greene. Jesse Jackson, Jr. Representative Patrick Joseph Kennedy II. Marilyn Monroe. Friedrich Nietzsche. Frank Sinatra. Pete Wentz. Delonte West. Catherine Zeta-Jones. Graham Greene’s bipolar is not Pete Wentz’s bipolar. Their bipolar is not the next guy’s bipolar. But I’ve found solace in the knowledge that their afflictions share a name.
When I discovered, during a high school term abroad that Alexandre Dumas, author of my all-time favorite novel The Count of Monte Cristo, was black, I rejoiced. A hero whose outsides matched mine. Looking at the above list, I rejoice. Heroes whose insides match mine.
You hear a song differently now that you can catch the references. The metaphors make sense. The story acquires an entirely new level of poignant despair or triumph. In viewing art made by mentally ill artists, the inclination is to believe one is watching a wild struggle taking place. Jacob is wrestling the angel in that canvas, in that wide shot, in that stream-of-consciousness monologue. It is there, and it isn’t. And perhaps the greatest frustration in diagnosis and treatment is that mental illness is singular in its affliction. No human brain is exactly like the other. Two alcoholics who find themselves in the rooms may come from opposite walks of life, but it is a similarly scaled colossus from which they flee and which batters the doors of that church basement with such terrifying power. Organized religion may offer a palliative for the one that is a poison for the other. Losing himself in work may correct the one’s posture while the same only slouches the other further towards the disease. They share names, the affliction, but to each sufferer, it is a personal thorn in a single side. And more often than not, what there is with regards to medical treatment or healing is left untouched. Because shame. Because self-loathing. Because hopelessness. Because fear. Of loss of work, of loss of romantic companion. Of loss of family. Just as the singular nature of mental malady is multitudinous, so are the reasons why it is allowed to roar off the cliff. In a sentence, the reasons are us. The tragedy of mental illness is not just the loss; it is the waste.
A large piece of the colossal barricade to true and meaningful dialogue on mental illness is this shopworn notion that mental illness and creativity are intrinsically linked; implicit in that idea is the privilege of the mentally healthy over those who suffer: “sure I’m not an incredible, generation-defining novelist or musician–I’m no David Foster Wallace or Kurt Cobain–but at least I’m not crazy; small price to pay, right?” There is the belief that creative genius must absolutely have some primordial ooze of neurological abnormality from which to rise, never mind that the terms ‘creativity’ and ‘genius’ are so hopelessly subjective that analytical consensus is impossible. Not only does this exercise caricature an incredibly diverse population, but it cheapens the very real alchemy that occurs when sufferers are able to mold their suffering into something that provides solace or meaning for themselves or someone else. Graham Greene had bipolar disorder, but what did John Banville suffer from (aside from the occasional bout of lit-giant arrogance)? Kurt Cobain ended his own life, but how did B.B. King turn out? Everybody knows about Sylvia Plath, but what about Natasha Trethewey? To pass a person’s misery beneath a microscope in order to gain scientific data and further build onto that aforementioned barricade is a very particular brand of callousness. The mentally ill are not intrinsically creative, and the creative don’t always struggle with issues of mental health. Each contain multitudes. Every single person does.
Depression, bipolar disorder, drug addiction. These aren’t fetishes. They shouldn’t be. They are personal struggles, afflictions. To romanticize them demeans those who suffer. Graham Greene wrote, regarding his own bipolar disorder, “unfortunately, the disease is also one’s material.” It was a part of him, but it did not define him. It was not his biggest puzzle piece. In other words, David Foster Wallace didn’t write Infinite Jest just for people in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. He wrote it for all of us.
So what is the link between madness and creativity? Between the mentally ill artist and their art? Only the same that exists between any other person and art. The piece of art is a reflection of the world and ourselves in it. If the art is meaningful, it is not because the mirror is broken. It is because you can stand before that painting or hold that novel out in front of you or listen to that song and say to yourself, “finally, someone whose insides match mine.”