On Making Art

I remember, in the early days of my diagnosis, sitting in my psychiatrist’s office and telling him I didn’t want to be medicated so much I couldn’t paint. “Just enough to take the edge off,” I remember telling him. I valued my illness as a source of my creativity and so didn’t want to completely block it out of my life. I thought I wouldn’t be an artist if it weren’t for the hallucinations and delusions and all of the other suffering I went through because of schizoaffective disorder, I thought if I weren’t hallucinating or hearing voices or dealing with persistent delusions I wouldn’t be an artist anymore. I was making the assumption that I make art because of my illness and not despite it.

This very idea is incredibly pervasive in our culture: crazy people are artists because they’re crazy and not because they were born with an innate desire to make art. We see mental illness and creativity as interconnected and don’t stop to think if that’s really the case or not. We assume their mental illness is intrinsic to their ability to make art, almost as if their identity as an artist would disappear if you took away their mental illness. This very fear was what I was trying to prevent when I told my psychiatrist I didn’t want to be medicated “too much”.

I think one of the biggest reasons this idea remains so pervasive is because it allows society a way to accept people with mental illness. We’re in awe of Vincent Van Gogh, despite the fact we have convincing evidence he suffered from bipolar disorder, because he made some truly extraordinary paintings. We tell ourselves his genius is a direct result of his illness because that allows us the space to safely interact with mental illness. We see Van Gogh’s madness and his genius as intrinsically connected in an almost romantic way…because it makes his mental illness, his suffering, worth it to us. He may have suffered, he may have been other, but he gave us some truly beautiful art to look at.

I think this speaks to society’s almost complete lack of knowledge regarding mental illness: what it is, what it’s like to live with it, etc. The misconception that mental illness and creativity/genius are intrinsically connected propitiates because it’s a comfortable way for people to accept mental illness. A person may have a highly stigmatized illness, but maybe they’re an artist or a genius – something which would forgive their great sin of being mentally ill.

I was diagnosed while attending the painting program at a small Lutheran college in Minnesota. While I was there, I refused medication. Instead, I coped with my illness by writing. Night after night, I’d come home from my studio – my mind a hum of electricity, about to burst from having held myself together all day long, and I’d write down whatever came to mind.

The writings are an interesting look into how my brain functions when it’s at its unhealthiest. But as far as being useful for published works – they’d need a lot of work to even start making them digestible to the reader. They’re often nonsensical, they jump around from topic to topic, they’re incoherent. I wouldn’t be able to make a living publishing work like that because it wouldn’t make sense to anyone.

I’ve always written. Well before my illness first expressed itself, I was making notes for my first novel in my crude, 4th grader hand writing. I’ve learned over the years that I need to be healthy, I need to be present, I need to be well-put-together in order to write. It doesn’t do to embrace the insanity I’m so easily prone to, if I want to write, and write well, I need to be as healthy as possible. I don’t write because I have a mental illness, I write despite having a mental illness.

It took me years since first sitting in my psychiatrist’s office, telling him I didn’t want to be medicated too much, to realize that fact. It took years of not being able to make art, of barely writing, of barely painting, to realize that I needed to first focus on getting healthy before I could actually make art. I think I was driven my the machination of the artist as mad in my early attitude toward medication and how much I was going to take. But I woke up one morning and realized that I hadn’t finished a single painting in over a year, that I hadn’t written anything of worth in even longer than that – clearly I was screwing up somehow.

So I told my psychiatrist that the old rule was out – let’s just medicate me to get me healthy. It took a long time to get there, a matter of a couple-three years. But when I finally arrived at the proper medication level I found myself starting this blog and I found myself completing six rather nice (though small) drawings in the course of eight weeks – more completed works than I’d done in the past five years combined, I found myself starting in on my novel. The trick worked, but the trick wasn’t what society said it was going to be. It was the exact opposite.

Mental illness robs you of motivation. It robs you of energy. It sucks the will right out of you. While it’s not exactly impossible to make art in the middle of your illness expressing itself, that line of thinking isn’t a good recipe for making a living as an artist, for doing it consistently. Art, like mental illness, requires discipline, tenacity, and stubbornness – it requires that you work at it every day. Mental illness leads us to do the opposite, it robs us of motivation, encourages us to give up, and discourages us from getting back up when it’s pushed us down. While all of my work is certainly informed by my illness (just as all art is informed by the experiences of the artist), it doesn’t come about because I’m mentally ill, it comes about despite the fact I have a mental illness.

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