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December 15, 2013 by musehick

I just read a piece by someone about art and mental health. It is not an uncommon theme. I have read those talking head articles that bind up the mental illness with the art as if it is just a given that the two are inextricably linked; that handling one may destroy the other. I want to disagree.

There’s the sense as well that it gives an edge to the work – that someone who hasn’t felt this kind of pain is going to produce vanilla work that is of no real interest to anyone except someone else who is similarly lobotomised by a disconnected and unreal happiness; that the work is a dodge of some kind.

It’s definitely a hard issue to tackle. I have had my own experiences with depression, and some part of you does feel that some of the creativity springs from the same place that pushes you into those dark abyssal corners, and you are given to wonder, if you cure the depression, will the creativity really dry up?

I never wanted to celebrate and glory in my damage, and I don’t think anyone I know who suffers depression and is also creative feels that either, but there is a worry that your problems are a necessary part of your creative chemistry. Wear your victim status as a badge – recast yourself as a survivor; mental health sufferer turned courageous champion transforming pain to poetry.

I don’t always have to go dark to write dark though. But would I even be able to write dark if I didn’t know what it feels like to exist in that hopeless place? I am more a writer that suffers occasional depression than a depressed writer. Would I be a writer if I had never suffered depression? Would I have anything interesting to say? Well, I like to think so. I don’t write overwhelmingly life-affirming things though – there are no characters skipping through meadows with sunshine playing off their beautiful hair. Do the things I write about the dark places only have authenticity because I have travelled to my own heart of darkness? You could argue that – and I am not sure I would be able to refute it.

I never went the medication route. I drank some. I wrote some shit which was therapeutic in the sense of giving my characters my problems to run with and work out. I always believed art could be transformative. A lot of artists who suffer depression also produce great art, but to say that you have to suffer to make masterpieces feels like such a defeat. Do we have to dwell outside in a hairshirt being beaten on by life to paint our Sistine Chapels? Does art have to come from such an ugly place?

I see no solution in psychiatric drugs. I see only defeat in saying we are our brain chemistry, that our art derives or arises out of this swamp of misfiring electrical impulses and badly balanced chemicals. This is not my truth. I want to communicate, and I want to communicate about the light and shade of life; I believe that all lives have this contrast, but the artist doesn’t have to dwell there in the pit like a war-zone reporter in order to communicate about it. Can’t we be the Philosopher Kings who see through the illusion and raise up those trapped in the cage? Surely we can. I think to say art is this, and what it is is shackled to being in pain and being confused is a way to remain trapped in the cave yourself. We can offer up new answers; new dreams; and new ways to be creative. There are alternative and proven answers to the questions posed by the mental health establishment (or industry, whichever you prefer), and there have to be, and are, different ways to be an artist, and to create your art.

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