Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Genius or Madness? The Connection between Psychosis and Creativity


For some people, psychosis or mania isn’t actually an unpleasant experience at all, and many people feel that it is a positive source of inspiration for creativity. I first came across this thought when I was emailed by an administrator for the 1 in 4 Forum about the website Intervoice. On the website reads the statement: “Many voices can be unthreatening and even positive” and Professor Marius Romme is quoted as saying “It’s wrong to turn this into a shameful problem that people either feel they have to deny or to take medication to suppress.”

The connection between psychosis and creativity is something I have been meaning to write about for quite some time. Here follows a series of three articles, covering topics relating to psychosis and creativity, such as the loss one feels when recovering from psychosis, identifying the true source of creativity, and covering questions such as: is treatment really necessary? And why do people experience psychosis in different ways?

Part One – When the Madness has Gone

Even for one whom psychosis has been a bad experience, the fact is that the process of recovery is a difficult one with many losses. The recovering person may experience feelings similar to those of grieving, and it can leave them feeling confused about their identity and their role in society. This is an important point to acknowledge when helping someone through this recovery process. For a creative person, the process of recovery can strip them of their confidence and leave them feeling insecure about their abilities.

Consider for example this interesting article written by Seaneen on “Pole to Polar – The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive”

As a creative individual recovering from mental health problems, Seaneen asks some very poignant questions: “Who am I now?” and “How much of my creativity is me, and how much is the illness?”

For Mr Man, the question “Who am I?” has also been a poignant one during his recovery.

Like Seaneen, Mr Man was more intelligent than his peers at school. His mother was told that he was “university material” when he was about 5 years old. Also, like Seaneen, he is a very creative individual; over the years he has composed hundreds of pieces of music. Amazingly though, he suffers from low self esteem.

“I love writing, but I have no idea if I am talented or if I am only any good when I’ve got that manic energy” - Seaneen

Just as manic episodes gave Seaneen the confidence to believe in her own abilities, psychosis gave Mr Man the confidence to believe in his abilities also. Through the whole of his adult life Mr Man has believed that he was specially selected to work for a “company” because of his level of intellect, and yet he believed that much of his knowledge and creativity actually came from this same company through the voices. He believed that he and they were working in partnership with each other, composing music and writing computer programs. He believed that there were others like him, and that his identification number was 4064. This belief has given him a sense of belonging, given him a purpose, and made him feel valued and appreciated. He has felt supported, almost nurtured, and felt that the “company” recognised his potential without him having to sell himself, which isn’t in his nature. It gave him confidence in his abilities, as he received confirmation that he was doing things the right way.

It’s been difficult for him to accept that there is no “company” after all. In accepting that the company isn’t real, he has also had to accept that what he believed to be the very reason for his existence isn’t real either. If there is no company, no special selection, then who is he? What is his worth? Does this mean that his creative work has no value?

This realisation has left him feeling confused and alone; how could he achieve all those things that he once did without the “company” to help him? Just as a creative person with Bipolar Disorder may wonder if they can be creative without mania, Mr Man was left wondering if he had the intellect and creativity to continue with his music and programming without the voices. Just how much was due to his own abilities, and how much was due to the “illness”?

Mr Man has suffered many losses during his recovery, but was it really necessary for him to be treated for psychosis and to suffer those losses? Just how much of his creativity could be attributed to his voices? These are questions that will be discussed in the following articles.

Next: Part Two


anonymous mom said...

that's really sad, mmw. my son feels as though he has lost "himself" and really wants it back, even though his old "self" was violent and destructive.

i think i can understand how mr man must feel, wondering if he ever even had a "self", or if his "self" was only his psychosis.

Mr Mans Wife said...

Hi Anonymous Mom, thanks for your comment.

Yes, it is sad. I think it's important for mental health workers to be aware of these issues. It's not just a case of handing out medication to "save" patients from their "insanity" - they need a lot of help to come to terms with their feelings of loss and lack of identity.

I hope Rob can find a way to redefine his own identity in time, in a less destructive way.

Seaneen said...


The whole business with the company is such concrete psychosis, I can't even imagine the depth of thought and attachment. Remarkable.

Mr Mans Wife said...

Hi Seaneen, thanks for commenting, and thank you for allowing me to use your article on this issue as well (I know it was ages ago when I emailed you - I finally got round to finishing it!)

Suicidal No More said...

I am a strong believer in evolution and, as such, I have always wondered why some of the deadlier mental illnesses have survived the weeding out process. I read one article that proposed a possible answer that also incorporates the link between creativity and madness (documented in very good studies, by the way).

I wish I could find the original article because I'm going to give a 2nd grader version of the original thoughts. Oh well, better to get the idea out anyway. Just think of this as the trailer for an article you'll want to find yourself.

Since mentally ill people are generally less concerned with staying in the box, at least when they are most ill, they are more likely to see solutions to problems that others think are unsolvable. I'm thinking here of mania and hallucinations -- I have no idea what benefits depression brings; maybe better designs for mattresses. What seems possible, even obvious, is way out of bounds for normal people.
Regular Joe: "No, silly. You can't get across this gorge. It's impossible."
Sick Joe: "Yeah, but what if there were two massive columns holding up enormously thick ropes that held other ropes, which held up long planks of wood ... You're right; that is stupid. I'm stupid. I have nothing to live for..."

Therefore, even though a very high percentage of these people end up killing themselves, their usefulness to society could have already been substantial. Maybe that's also why chicks dig even the ugliest artists -- to keep their creative qualities in the gene pool.

I find it interesting that sick people generally kill themselves after reaching sexual maturity, giving them just enough time to make some sort of contribution to society. A moment's thought will yield the obvious biological explanation for this. I just think it is interesting how elegant evolution solves the problem of species optimization.

Mr Mans Wife said...

Suicidal No More, thank you for your interesting comments.

I wasn't quite sure how to take them at first, but as you are a sufferer of severe depression yourself I realise that your comments were not meant to be insulting.

Personally I don't agree that evolution is weeding out any kind of illness at all, because as fast as mankind can find a cure for one illness, another illness has developed.

That aside, you make a very interesting point about people with mental illness "thinking outside the box". Apart from finding solutions to "unsolvable" problems, some of the most creative individuals have mental illness. The question is: are they creative because of their mental illness, or creative despite their mental illness?

Thanks again for your comments.

Mo said...

Thanks for this Mrs M, you’ve described this so well and I can totally relate to Seaneen’s questions.

I remember the day I was diagnosed bipolar. Most of my life I had been an outgoing, confident, loud mouthed clown. At times I felt I really dazzled, I was incredibly creative, enthusiastic and inspired others. To be told that day by a shrink that all this was apparently not my personality but hypomania just left me confused. So who the hell am I? Has my entire been a lie? Thanks to therapy, drugs and ECT, I am now a vacuous, miserable slob who moans about everything in his boring life (just as I am doing now.. sorry).

Mr Mans Wife said...

Thanks for leaving a comment Mo, and no need to apologise.

There's nothing wrong with being creative, enthusiastic, and inspiring though, so surely the truth has to lie somewhere in the middle?