Bipolar Disorder, Creativity, and Surviving Mental Illness Through Humor

Thursday, April 09, 2015 by Meg   •   Filed under General

“Bipolar disorder isn't a death sentence, but it is a life sentence. How I do the time has changed.” ~Lance Burson, Surviving Mental Illness Through Humor

In the last post (here), I discussed bipolar disorder as an evolutionary system bent on survival, with periods of productivity interspersed between periods of depressed function as a way to reserve resources. With all these evolutionary links, and twisty interconnected brain wiring, it is no surprise that those who suffer from bipolar or related conditions tend to experience periods of creativity, either due to the wiring itself of due to a need to use creative process as an outlet. 

To drive this point home, I’ve invited one of the editors of Surviving Mental Illness Through Humor to share her experiences with creative release and Bipolar Disorder. Then I am going to tell you more about this book because it’s a rarity that you find something that normalizes so many conditions in one place and everyone should read it.

My Bipolar: Creativity and Compulsion

By: Jessica

For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt a compulsion to write. From a young age in school, I saw snippets of stories in my head and relished in the complexity of words. But it was more than fun for me: I needed this outlet, even during the times when I was filled with energy and thirst for life. When I stifled my impulses, my mental state suffered. 

For me, depression has always been, and still is, an agony of devastating magnitude. During these periods, I cry at night because I know that I will have to get up the next day to “do everything all over again.” I feel like my body is made of lead. Luckily, I’ve always remained rational enough to know that I don’t REALLY want to die, and that it’s only chemical imbalances making me feel the soul-freezing despair.  I’ve learned that when I write consistently, my moods are more even, or at least they don’t typically swerve into the ditch of severe depression.

But I never knew why I was so depressed, why apathy and overwhelming sadness sometimes enveloped me like a dense, suffocating fog. Until I did. Bipolar II with mania low-key enough to not be overtly obvious.  

As a young stay-at-home-mother to two infant sons, the diagnosis made me feel even more isolated than my semi-solitary daily life already did. Unready to tell anyone else about it, I furtively scoured the Internet for virtual support groups and websites that could help me navigate the journey that lay before me. In doing so, I discovered multiple lists of famous people that had endured what I was facing. The veritable Who’s Who of Bipolar Disorder ran the gamut from politicians to musicians to actors, but the overwhelming trait they shared was brilliant creativity. 

If you’ve ever admired the complex beauty of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings, or marveled at the brilliance of Beethoven’s symphonies, you have appreciated the blessings of Bipolar Disorder. These artistic revolutionaries, like so many of their creative peers throughout history, battled mental illness while creating masterpieces. This silver lining is a well-documented phenomenon.

As a writer I took comfort in the auspicious company in which my Bipolar Disorder diagnosis placed me. In seeing the amazing accomplishments of these individuals, I realized that there was hope for me. The oppressive curses of this disorder do not have to limit the positive impact that I can have on the world. In truth, it actually appears that my brain chemistry gives me an edge in the creative department if I willingly tap into it.

The creative force inside me is an enigmatic beast. Some days the thoughts in my head are like a bunch of tennis balls ricocheting around an enclosed room. One inspiration catches my attention and excites me, but before I can act on it, another great idea zigs past my mind’s eye and pulls me in another direction. This is my reality; daily life can be elating and frustrating all at once. 

Writing serves as a conduit to organize my chaotic ideas into a coherent communication of what lives between my ears. Writing gives me a chance to examine my feelings and share them with others. Writing allows me to hold on to one idea long enough to channel it coherently into words before it’s lost among the chaos of other balls of inspiration bouncing around in my head. 

The words of Ernest Hemingway, fellow Bipolar sufferer and Pulitzer Prize winning author, come to mind: “There is nothing to writing. All you must do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” His sentiment resonates with me, deeply, as I also know the admittedly-manic, euphoric feeling of releasing words onto a page. The rush of creating something new leaves me both fulfilled and mentally relaxed. And consolidating the heavy emotions swirling around in my head enables me to wiggle out from under the crippling boulder of depression. Creative release is my lifeline.

My advice to those processing their diagnosis or muddling through the quagmire of miserable symptoms is this: Look to those who have walked in your shoes and draw strength from them. Let their accomplishments inspire you, and their struggles validate yours. We may not be able to choose our brain chemistry, but we can choose how we handle it.

Creativity and Surviving Mental Illness Through Humor

“Do your best to find the funny in your crazy, because it lets the sorrow out as sure as it lets the sanity in.”

~Nicole Leigh Shaw, Surviving Mental Illness Through Humor

This “writing release” Jessica describes is not isolated to bipolar conditions: those with everything from depression to trauma benefit from storytelling and journaling tools to process their emotions (more here) and tend to benefit from creative endeavors. This phenomenon may explain Marcia Kester Doyle’s experience, noted in Surviving Mental Illness Through Humor: “It wasn't until I enrolled in a fine arts school that I discovered there were others like me— people who expressed their raw emotions through art. I worked out my demons through writing while they painted, danced, created music, and immersed themselves in dramatic roles on stage to combat the depression that haunted them.”

In Surviving Mental Illness Through Humor, witty humor authors take to the page to discuss these issues and more, sharing stories from their darkest times as well as a few anecdotes from times their conditions led them to something better, something more creative, or, in Kathryn Leehan’s case, into a bathroom already occupied by a neighbor’s husband.

While seemingly unconnected, humor is an amazing equalizer, a help with self regulation, a coping skill. I have written about this more extensively in posts like, Using Humor to Combat Stress and Reduce Phobias and Dark Humor: It’s Good to Be Bad

It is also true that the most hilarious among us often suffer the most. Look at Robin Williams (more here). Still we hide, we ignore, we pretend. But inside, many are asking, as Andrea Keeney does in Surviving Mental Illness Through Humor: “How is it possible to not hate yourself, when such a large part of who you are is an illness you detest?”

I love books like this because they drive home the idea that whatever you’re thinking, whatever you’re feeling, there are others dealing with similar experiences. Feeling more normal can make a world of difference in combatting emotional upheaval, particularly if you see yourself as a world apart from those around you. But you’re not a world apart. As Kathleen Gordon says in Surviving Mental Illness Through Humor, “You are enough. You are worthwhile. You do not need to suffer alone.”

Topic-Relevant Resources

Surviving Mental Illness Through Humor
Witty humor authors take to the page to discuss their highs and lows in a brutally honest book that normalizes many conditions from depression to anxiety to bipolar disorder.