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paint suppliesSince antiquity, people have observed the link between creative individuals and mental illness.  Plato referred to madness as “poetic”, Aristotle connected creative predispositions to dolefulness (likely depression).  Numerous studies have indicated that creative individuals are more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia, and alcoholism (Ludwig, 1992). A study examining those eminent in their creative fields, done by Arnold M. Ludwig, M.D., found that these individuals are far more likely to have many of the previously listed disorders in addition to drug abuse, anxiety, somatic problems, and adjustment disorders.  They are also more likely to enter treatment for their psychopathologies (Ludwig, 1992).  While the correlation is clear, what connects creativity and art in all its forms with mental illness?

Ludwig’s study found that when they divided creative individuals into their specific art fields, certain types of artists struggled more with specific mental illnesses and this discovery led to a new explanation for why artists are prone to mental illnesses.  For example, fiction writers and poets are more likely to suffer from drug and alcohol abuse and depression and are more likely to attempt suicide.  Similarly, musicians who perform live and actors are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.  Actors are also prone to manic episodes and anxiety disorders, but not depression.  Ludwig’s explanation is that certain fields lend themselves more to certain types of mental health disorders; in addition to potentially attracting individuals with predispositions to those specific mental illnesses, the specific professions may exert certain types of stresses that may lead to the associated mental illnesses.  Alternatively, the professions may have stereotypes of certain mental illnesses associated with them that may lead the individual to further explore the associated behaviors and emotions (i.e. rock stars and drugs or poets and affective disorders or suicide attempts) (Ludwig, 1992).

In another article, George Becker explored the relationship between the historical and cultural influences on the connection between mental instability and creativity.  Becker argues that while there was earlier dialogue connecting the two, the romantic literature movement is what ultimately led to a firm connection between art and extreme mental illness.  Furthermore, he echoes Ludwig’s theory that it is the cultural norms that promote mental illness in artists, “even contemporary writers and artists…may actually invite [madness] and inadvertently volunteer evidence of madness in diagnostic and psychological exams (Becker, 2000-2001).

In my using days, I was of the belief and often heard from others (including one of my art professors who is well known) that using drugs inspired art.   Whether it was my friend taking pictures of us dancing naked around a bonfire, drinking rotgut wine and smoking blunts (seriously I’m ashamed to say that there are so many naked photos of me floating around that were “for the sake of art”) or my stoner “friend” lecturing on the elitist perspective of “what art is” while using puffy paint to mar her laptop, the idea of art to many artists is inextricably linked to drugs and alcohol. The idea that drug use makes way for a more intense spiritual journey in respect to artistic undertakings does not just apply to visual art; another “friend” and I used to smoke a joint (or two) and write fiction and poetry for hours. There was a widely accepted perception throughout the art department that using drugs facilitated creative endeavors.  A study comparing marijuana users to ecstasy and nondrug users, found that those who smoked pot have more “creative” (defined as novel or rare) ideas than non-users and ecstasy users (Jones, Blagrove, & Parrott, 2009).

Furthermore, another study explores the notion that visual artists working under the influence of hallucinogens, often feel as though they are uncovering and experiencing feelings that have been in the unconscious and/or that they are channeling something from outside of themselves.  According to the author, both of these experiences can be seen within psychedelic art pieces (Berge, 2002).

My great-grandmother painted breathtaking landscapes and was considered “eccentric” by my family.  I’m under the impression that being labeled as an “eccentric” is a euphemism for rich and/or undiagnosed individuals with mental illness.  One of her paintings that I inherited after her death is of the top of a hill covered with bushes dotted with yellow flowers.  When I was in the depths of my addiction and depression, I felt like I was on the hill, looking at the crest and not knowing exactly what was on the other side.  I knew it held greater depths of creativity, but I also knew it might be more than I could bear.  I knew it was creative genius mixed with pure insanity.

Ultimately, my visual art and writing has transformed in sobriety.  I wish that I could say that I have as many creative intentions as I did when I was using, but I genuinely I do not.  I have done the famous 12-step program for artists and writers developed by Julia Cameron and attended Artists in Recovery meetings, however, I simply don’t have as rich of an imagination as I did on drugs.  That being said, even though I do not come up with as many novel ideas, I actually follow through on the ones that I do have!  I used to be able to perfectly describe a scene or a character in a detailed and realistic manner, but I could never keep track of objects in my scenes or carry a plot anywhere.  In sobriety, I have learned to write stories instead of just vignettes.  In reality, I may have the idea for the next great American novel, but if I am too drunk for my eyes to focus on the computer screen, there is no way that I’m ever going to win that Pulitzer Prize.

There are many opportunities to allow art into one’s recovery process.  Journaling on a regular basis lends itself to the formation of fresh ideas.  Similarly, Julia Cameron’s 12-step process is designed to tap into the brain’s plethora of creative ideas through various activities such as writing.  Alternatively, Artists Recovering Through the Twelve Steps has meetings across the country that stick closer to the traditional 12-step format.  I also had many transformative art therapy sessions that tapped into my process on a deeper level than I could verbalize at the time.

For artists, I believe that art does have something to do with the descent into madness.  The emotions depicted in my pieces and the culture surrounding the art scene allowed me to slip deeper into my own internal chaos.  In recovery, it was essential for me to reconnect with my art in a new way.  Not only did art lead me into insanity, it also led me into mental health.

By Emily

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