Fantastic Mistakes

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In May 2012, bestselling author Neil Gaiman delivered the commencement address to Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. Why does this matter to you or me? Well maybe it matters less to you and more to me because I found a hard copy of this speech also referred to as “The Make Good Art Speech” at the local library and it has inspired me to finally take on what I think I was meant to do in this world – write a book about my experiences with manic depression a.k.a. bipolar disorder.

The picture that I have included in the beginning of this blog post is a snapshot of a page out of the text as envisioned by Graphic designer Chip Kidd. It is a snapshot of the words that have sent me on this new quest and with a new vision for my life. They are as follows: “If you have an idea of what you want to make, what you were put here to do, then just go and do that.” I have had a strong sense that I was blessed with the skill of writing and bipolar disorder so I may write about it and make people struggling with their mental health feel less alone. Since I was a child, I always envisioned writing a book and becoming a novelist so much so I wrote a letter of my intent to my favourite author at the time and she wrote back! encouraging me. Ideas for my novel have come and gone and have evolved into entirely different ideas over the years. However, ever since my psychosis I have held onto the idea of writing about my experiences with it. This is the one idea that has stayed in my mind the longest and is still prevalent.

Seeing these words, “then just go and do that.” It never occurred to me to just start writing and see where I and my idea end up. I feel as though it was by divine intervention that I came across this speech just as I have been faltering and procrastinating my idea. I struggle with the questions of how to write this book and in which way it will be organized but I believe these answers will come when the time is right and for now I just need to start working on content, no matter how disorganized it may come out. I have always wanted to help somebody with my writing and I do believe I was put on this earth with some intent. My life has some kind of bigger meaning than I think I realize and this may be it…not to get too carried away or spiritual here. But I do believe everyone has a purpose and I think it’s due time I began creating mine.

In the beginning of his speech writer Neil Gaiman says “I got out into the world, I wrote, and I became a better writer the more I wrote, and I wrote some more, and nobody ever seemed to mind that I was making it up as I went along…” Even just reading those words at the very entry point to his speech, something dawned on me. I have been avoiding writing my story because I am afraid I will write it poorly or that it will be poorly received. However, I am missing the point of writing and its very nature which is that the only way to become a better writer is to write, write and then write some more. Nobody ever just wrote one draft of something and was content. You have to edit, edit, then edit some more. Revise, revise, revise. I need to simply put pen to paper and begin somewhere and stop dwelling on what it will end up being. The process is just as important as the end product. I just had to remind myself or rather be reminded by Gaiman that writing is my passion and that I DO enjoy the process, hell, I even enjoy revising.

As for what it will become? Nobody not even me can be sure. Maybe someone will publish it or maybe they won’t. Maybe I’ll self-publish or release it in a series of blog posts. Again, time will tell and I do not have to have all the answers right at this moment. But I do owe it to myself to try for fear of failure cannot have the last word…not anymore.

Gaiman also mentions in his speech that he tried never to do anything purely for the money but because he wanted to create something into existence and to be proud of his work and time spent: “The things I did because I was excited, and wanted to see them exist in reality, have never let me down, and I’ve never regretted the time I spent on any of them.” The reality is I love writing and I love writing what I know and I definitely know my intimate experience and struggle with bipolar disorder. I think I am scared to start writing my memoirs because I am afraid nothing will come of it but after reading these words I realized the experience of writing in itself is worth it to me. So as of today I will be setting some time apart to write about my life and more specifically my cycles of bipolar – from mania, to depression, to psychosis, to mania, and back again because I know deep down that I am worth it. And I owe it to myself to try.

Stay Tuned for more posts and updates from BiPolarMania.

The Link Between Disorder and Genius

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“The subject of genius and mental illness has been discussed and debated on a scientific level for decades. Our cultural awareness of the link between mental disorder and genius is as old as philosophy. Plato wrote of what he called “divine madness,” and Aristotle recognized that creative people tended toward melancholia. It is no coincidence that such a high percentage of American Nobel and Pulitzer Prize – winning writers are also alcoholics” (Saltz, 9).

It was these lines in M.D. Gail Saltz’ book The Power of Different that led me to read this psychiatrist and bestselling author’s take on mental illness as a driving force for creativity. Saltz relies on scientific research, stories from historical geniuses and from everyday individuals who have not only made the most of their conditions but have also flourished because of them.

Being a blogger on mental health, specifically bipolar disorder, the idea of disorder being linked to genius extremely interested me. Saltz found in multiple studies, bipolar disorder has been scientifically, clinically proven to correlate with creativity and the artistic temperament (Saltz 136). Being both an artist and a person suffering with bipolar disorder this peaked my interest even more.

Clinical psychologist and writer Kay Redfield Jamison writes in her book Touched with Fire that Saltz references,  “Many of the changes in mood, thinking and perception that characterize the mildly manic states – restlessness, ebullience, expansiveness, irritability, grandiosity, quickened and more finely tuned senses, intensity of emotional experiences, diversity of thought, and rapidity of associational processes – are highly characteristic of creative thought as well” (Saltz 145). Bipolar is a disorder that has links to creativity which can be traced back to writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Anne Saxton who unfortunately took their lives as a result of their cycling moods.

The most creative individuals however are not the “most well” or the “most ill” but rather are often “mildly ill.” Saltz references the research of Robert Bilder and Kendra Knudsen at the University of California, Los Angeles who observe this phenomena: “These are the individuals who can be diagnosed with all sorts of brain differences – like depression or bipolar disorder – who are simultaneously well treated and flexible enough to move back and forth between convergent and divergent thinking” (Saltz 206).

Examples of this kind of flexibility can be found in a forty-year longitudinal study conducted by Swedish researchers and published in the “Journal of Psychiatric Research:” “These researchers found that being an author “was specifically associated with increased likelihood of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and suicide. Clearly the authors who suffered from these brain differences were functioning at a level high enough to enable them to produce publishable work. Moreover, these same researchers found much higher representation in scientific and artistic fields among those whose first-degree relatives had diagnosed mental illness” (Saltz 206).

In the words of Bilder and Knudsen, the creative brain needs to balance at “the edge of chaos: “the kind of creativity that produces novels, musical scores,entrepreneurial ideas, and scientific theories requires the ability to flip back and forth between organized and messy thinking” (Saltz 206).

Often times people with bipolar disorder who enjoy the creative frenzy that accompanies mania or hypomania neglect to take their medication in order to ride the high out a little longer, so to speak. The flurry of ideas that come during these manic episodes can seem intoxicating and I can speak from experience of a rush of ideas that came over me that all seemed pressing and yet I was too disorganized in thought to be able to hold any one idea down.

Nassir Ghaemi, Who treats many bright students in their teens and twenties, says, ” is that people with bipolar disorder can benefit from taking a broad view of their own creativity. When patients resist medication, the real issue they’re having is that they think about creativity is just one thing, as this kind of flash of inspiration that happens when you’re manic. And that is part of creativity, but there’s another kind of  creativity.”(Saltz 150). 

Ghaemi cites the work of psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques, who wrote about what he called “sculpted creativity”. “This is not a flash of inspiration, but it’s insights that overtime you put together, like a Sculptor. And it’s not something that happens all of a sudden. This durable sort of creativity depends on maintaining equilibrium over the long haul –  that is, not burning out like a light bulb or losing time to severe manic and depressive episodes” (Saltz 150).

Ghaemi tells his patients the following: “instead of having a lot of creativity really briefly and then being depressed and fallow for a long time, you’re better off having less creativity more regularly, more consistently. it actually adds up more that way.”  (Saltz 150).  

In multiple studies, bipolar disorder has been scientifically, clinically proven to correlate with creativity and the artistic temperament (Saltz 136). I can speak from experience as a visual artist and writer with bipolar disorder that the shift between moods elevates my work in ways if I was quote on quote normal would not be as interesting. When I am hypomanic (not manic because that is too much of an extreme) I have creative ideas and am more able to execute them such as writing this blog on the link between creativity and bipolar disorder. When I swing into more of a depression, I am more prone to edit my work and create visual art because I ruminate more and am able to take on longer projects such as a big painting or technically precise artwork that takes several bouts of time.

However, I have been medicated for years and now notice a more sculpted creativity Nassir Ghaemi speaks of in that I have more creativity that is productive instead of bursts of disorganized manic ideas that I would have a harder time following through on. I am also prone to experience mania as psychosis and so my ideas turn psychotic in nature and no longer productive at all, like thinking I can buy eight mustangs with money I do not have.

I do notice an artistic temperament to bipolar disorder, in that us bipolar people tend to be more melancholic in nature and so reflect on the world in a more drawn out manner and have the gifts of mania/hypomania to illuminate ideas/ ways in which we can translate these thoughts to the general public, typically through writing and art. However, there is a pendulum effect to being productive with creativity in that you must ,as discussed above, be slightly insane but sane enough, or rather medicated enough, to be able to translate that insanity into something coherent. Me raving mad in the psych ward about the millions of dollars I have and trying to order things I cannot afford are not well executed ideas or a productive use of my illness. However, writing about it later while medicated provides others with bipolar disorder a sense of hope, that they can create normalcy out of insanity and even discuss it openly without shame or stigma. I couldn’t string more than two sentences coherently together while manic let alone write a full blog post. It is through medication that creativity can truly foster and grow. It is through balance that the bipolar mind can be as creative as it was meant to be.

The link between disorder and genius is evident through research and influential creators who are linked to this disorder. Virginia Woolf may have committed suicide but she is still arguably one of the best English writers of her time and for that matter even all time. Bipolar disorder has its pitfalls like in the case of Woolf a higher risk for suicide but it also creates a powerhouse of potential, the potential to create something meaningful from the chaos of the mind.

 

INKTOBER – Empirical Evidence of An Improvement In My Mental Health

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My Inktober sketch for Day Four’s Prompt “Build”

Inktober is a month long art challenge created by artist Jake Parker that is focused on improving skill and developing positive drawing habits. Every day for the month of October anyone participating in the Inktober challenge creates an ink drawing and posts it online. There is a new “prompt” list each year for the challenge which is a one word prompt such as in the above picture where “build” was the prompt. I decided to draw the Brooklyn Bridge because many lives were lost to build it and it still stands today.

Inktober this year when compared to last year’s efforts has already revealed an improvement in my mental health. For example, I lacked the motivation and esteem to follow through and complete a drawing for each of the thirty-one days of October last year. This year, however, I am six days in and have completed a drawing each day and within the allotted day instead of spilling over days’ drawings.

I have noticed this improvement in my mental health since I got sober roughly five months ago. I am starting to challenge myself to set goals and follow through with them with things as simple as Inktober to things such as quitting smoking cigarettes which I am in the process of doing (haven’t had a smoke the entire day! and until a month ago I was a five year straight smoking a pack a day kind of gal). These may seem like simple things but they are building blocks to setting the tone for my next goals. If I can accomplish getting sober, quitting a pack a day habit and well, hey, Inktober then I feel like I can do pretty much anything I set my mind to. It’s about showing up for yourself and practicing self-care. I have also adopted a new habit of running each morning which until recently seemed like an impossible endeavor due to lack of motivation.

The change I’ve noticed the most in my mental health since last year compared to this year is my motivation. I have significantly higher energy levels since quitting dope and have decided to turn this energy into positive things like completing blog posts , finishing a book, running, exercising in general and the greatest thing I have put my energy behind is setting goals. Now last year I could not have even dreamed up a goal much less set one, I was too busy smoking up and wallowing in a pool of self-pity. I had zero self esteem and assumed I was not capable of accomplishing any goals I could think of setting – so I just didn’t set any. This year I have several goals, all kinds of goals, to starting writing those pesky memoirs on my experience with bipolar disorder to trying my hand at going to school again. I know I may not succeed but I know I am in a good enough place that I can handle failure and I think that’s what was stopping me before – a fear of failure.

Inktober has shown me that I am more than capable and yes some days my drawings suck but I still finish them and other days I make a freaking masterpiece and am so glad I put my mind to it. The important thing is to show up and the rest will fall into place.

Below is my latest creation and yes, I am quite proud of it. It’s for the prompt “husky.”

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Art Oracles – An Art Historian’s Wet Dream

If you know anything about me you’ll know that I spend several hours a week perusing the well-being section at local bookstores. I do not know if it was by divine intervention that yesterday I happened to find one of the coolest things I have ever come across before. I am not even sure it was meant to be in the well-being section but I happened across it there regardless and proceeded to jump up in glee when I realized what it was.

The object I am referring to is a box full of 50 cards with illustrations of artists on them providing advice on life, work and inspiration drawn from the individual artist’s life and work. They look like new age art history tarot cards. A booklet comes with the box to consult when looking for more information about the particular artist found on a card. It is not only a tool for inspiration for each card will offer some form of advice or sentiment about life, but also a great teaching tool for educating on the great canon of art history. I am a Art History major at Carleton University and I can tell you that these artsy tarot cards literally turned me on.

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The Art Oracle cards are simple to use in that you just choose one and read it, whether you shuffle the deck and pick a card at random or go through all the cards and stumble upon one that catches your eye. The point is to consult a card and draw what inspiration you can from it or if you’re a nerd like me see this card as a jumping off point for further research on the artist. I have decided to do a “reading” and consult the Art Oracles once a week and write a blog post on the inspiration I drew from this card and provide a short summary about the artist who provided the inspiration.

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Today, I drew the “Yayoi Kusama” artist card which is very fitting if you’ve been keeping up with my blog at all. Kusama has struggled with her mental health since a child when she first had hallucinations imagining a pumpkin was speaking to her. She dealt with her hallucinations by drawing repetitive patterns to “obliterate” the thoughts in her head.  Art became a form of therapy, what she would later call ­“art-medicine.” She voluntarily lives in a mental institution in Japan where she draws on her visions and hallucinations for inspiration.

Polka-dots are a reoccurring element in Kusama’s work which she describes as the shape that makes us humans (composed of particles), and unites us with the Earth and Sun. Kusama, however, is most recognized for her Infinity Rooms which are mirrored artistic chambers that multiply bodies and alter perceptions. Kusama’s kaleidoscopic environments offers the chance to step into an illusion of infinite space. The rooms also provide an opportunity to examine the artist’s central themes, such as the celebration of life and its aftermath.

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Installation view of Infinity Mirrored Room — Love Forever (1966/1994) at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017.

Yayoi Kusama is one of the artists represented in the Art Oracles. The image of her in a polka-dot dress against a similar polka-dot background is indicative of her art which heavily features this shape. The card offers three pieces of advice drawn from three key elements of the artist’s life. The advice is the following: 1. Your soul is composed of the same dots as the universe, 2. Distinguish yourself from your mirror image, and 3. Show them your hallucinations. I have provided an image of the specific artist card below:

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I found it interesting that the first card I drew from the pile of 50 artist cards was this one. The fact that the advice offered was to “Show them your hallucinations” blew my mind. I have been considering writing a chapter on my visual and auditory hallucinations for my autobiography. This card has inspired me to definitely write and include a chapter on my hallucinations. But what were the odds of me drawing first a card on an artist who struggles with mental health like I do!? I know what you’re thinking, 1 in 50, but I mean isn’t this a sign? I am not overly spiritual but I do believe we are meant to encounter certain people and things in our lives at just the moment we need them most. I think I needed to find the Art Oracles to remind me of the joy I experience when studying Art History and also to give me a little push to start writing that chapter on hallucinations sooner than later.

The Art Oracles are great if you want a bite-size Art History lesson and great for drawing inspiration if you are artistically blocked or need a push in the right direction. The cards themselves are also very beautiful pieces of art in themselves, illustrated by Mikkel Sommer. Sommer did an amazing job providing illustrations that really embody the life and work of the specific artist illustrated. If you have an infinity for art or for simply really cool things, I highly recommend purchasing the Art Oracles at your local bookstore.