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Artists, Bipolar and the Role of Medication

by Carrie McGath

With Bangs, Carrie McGath

I am embarking on a loose but very significant journey studying the role of  psychoanalysis in art through several different, little prisms. In this ongoing feature, I will review books on the subject of creativity and its connection with mental illness. Of course this is not always the case for every artist, but it is a subject near and dear to me as a Bipolar poet. Reading these books and studying this connection brought a lot of comfort to my often uncomfortable existence as a Bipolar sufferer.

For this first article, I want to talk broadly and personally, telling of my own experiences, how my mental illness has effected life as a poet, as well as my life as a visual artist who dapples in photomontage and collage work. The majority of my poems, especially those in my poetry collections came from my illness, out of it. My poems, to me, are files of my existence with Bipolar, my case study of moments with my illness. My visual art is an extension of these poems, when words began to feel like they needed an even deeper visual life.

During a very serious bout with Bipolar Depression when I was experiencing heightened thoughts of suicide and self-punishment, I read Julia Kristeva’s book, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. This book gave me a safe place to go to explore what I was feeling. This book and others like it will be explored in this continuous feature — from Kay Redfield Jamison’s Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and Artistic Temperament and Arnold M. Ludwig’s The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy, along with other books on the subject.

Bipolar, Carrie McGath

I have had Bipolar since I was about sixteen, though I was not diagnosed until 2007. At sixteen, my treasured aunt, Shirley Ann McCurdy, passed away after a battle with cancer. The cancer came after her lifelong battle as a Bipolar sufferer who went undiagnosed as a result of the stigma of her illness. This stigma existed in my lifetime as well, taking over fifteen years to be diagnosed. My paternal family avoided talk of illness even though the family is plagued with Depression and Bipolar illness, as if ignoring it would make it all go away. But denial only exacerbates illnesses. My aunt, a talented and untrained painter herself, was plagued with an illness that seems to plague many artists — Bipolar and Depression.

In the Introduction to Kay Redfield Jamison’s book, Touched with Fire, she writes: “That impassioned moods, shattered reason, and the artistic temperament can be welded into a ‘fine madness’ remains a fiercely controversial belief. Most people find the thought that a destructive, often psychotic, and frequently lethal disease such as manic-depressive illness might convey certain advantages … counterintuitive” (3). As a suffering artist myself, I can attest that my most creative and highly productive moments have been during a hypomanic state. I have always wondered if I had not experienced these states, would I have created what I created? Is it necessary to experience these destructive states in order to produce work that makes me not only proud, but almost more manic in my accomplishments? The hypomania itself is like a drug and the depressive state that invariably follows the hypomania (maybe even as late as months later) is like a tragedy, even a death. These are more questions I desire to discuss in this column.

Even before my formal and very overdue diagnosis of my Bipolar in 2007, I was dealing with it in my own way. I dealt with it as a sixteen-year-old, in my Twenties, and so on even though there was no name for it since I did not know what that thing was that took me over so often. I dealt with it through isolation and creating. I sought diagnosis after a bad bout of hypomania that involved massive spending and racking up of debts, as well as self-medicating that only made it far worse. It was teased out to complete madness while I was emerged in a difficult relationship that came on the heels of my ending a sever-year relationship. While I was in this difficult relationship, I began this obsessive habit of writing a poem about my extreme emotions at least every night (sometimes it manifested to several a day). These poems filled five journals. The pages were strewn with words and emotions, often not leaving a single part of the page blank because I wanted the only order to this project to be two pages for each day. So if I wrote three poems in one day, I would have to fit them onto the two pages I allotted myself.

Journals, Carrie McGath

Looking back, this was my own way of creating an order out of the chaos that was within me. Much of this was written when I was not yet formally diagnosed with Bipolar, spanning the Summer of 2005 till about summer of 2008. About twenty of these poems came to be featured in my chapbook, The Chase. These notebooks were kept always out of sight in my apartment even though I lived alone. They were always wrapped in a vintage tablecloth under my mattress. They were my secret pain and my own secret way of dealing with it. I suddenly realized I had to free myself from the dysfunctional relationship, as well as from my destructive self. Even though Bipolar is as much a part of me as relationships of the past and present, it could no longer be permitted to wholly engulf me.

My Ohio Lonely series of poems and photomontages were my artistic way of getting to know my family so secretly plagued with the complex emotional life I was leading. The resemblance my Aunt Shirley and I shared was a constant comment within my family, so my montage piece, Bipolar, shows both our illness visually and our striking physical resemblance, a resemblance that went into our cores as Bipolar suffers. Another piece in the series, Self-Portrait with Shirley and Bangs, is a piece that tells the story of my aunt being the only person I trusted throughout my entire life to cut my bangs. The self-portrait aspect of this piece is a photo I took of myself after cutting my bangs in a mania at four in the morning one night.

Here is the accompanying poem to the Bipolar piece:
I am 16 and you die.
You leave me your mind.
My bangs grow with my age.
You were the entrusted one with scissors.
Sharp metal will only get my white hallways
with the occasional pair of stilettos
percussive on yellow tile.
So much is similar with us.
Eyes, lips, habits, and minds firing constantly
like massacres in the morning.
So I cut my bangs instead of my wrists at age 30,
dreaming of cowering into the cold cabin
of a man who drags me through life
by my weakening heart and long brown hair.
Our minds like modular houses awaiting us.

The poem, “Lovely Lunatics” that accompanies, Self-Portrait with Shirley and Bangs will now follow:
Raised with ladylike manners
to accompany our European curves,
we had to be not just lunatics,
but lovely ones, loving easily,
especially if rain, good beer, and better lighting
were involved.
I cried in a park called Ramona.
Tiny narratives came out from under my tongue.
So I cut my bangs to change myself,
as you guide my four-in-the-morning hands
from a sight-unseen place.

These poems are not a part of a chapbook, but go with the artwork exclusively. These are gentle, realization poems whereas my poems in The Chase were written while manic or depressed, ending on a couple that came with new love and a healthier way of life that I found with a supportive lover, a great psychologist, and Buddhism. One of the poems from The Chase that I think truly illustrates the vulnerability I was feeling before I was diagnosed, when my mind and body knew something was wrong but was still not conscious of it, is the poem, “Paper.” It is also a poem I wrote while embroiled in my difficult relationship:
His heart, black heart
was as healthy and hard
as a horse’s thigh, mid-run.
My heart, a chicken heart
under the gun dying to do backflips
till it was maddening to everyone.
I was the black heart’s constant controversy,
paper fettered to me.
My little heart loving him
as if he were the quiet, antique bullet
from the head of Hemingway.
My heart like paper, cut into circles
struggling to be a celebration,
to be kissed by the enemy black heart,
bad men everywhere laughing like senators.

During this time and still now, I try to find a creative order in what is chaos to me, and erasures were another way for me to do this. I learned about erasures from my friend and former professor, poet Mary Ruefle with her book of erasures, A Little White Shadow. The idea is to take a found text and black out or white out parts of the text to create a new narrative, image, or meaning. I would often use medical texts and also used one from Jean Paul Sartre’s pulp, Intimacy pictured in this post.

Erasure Sartre, Carrie McGath

Another issue I will address in this series is how many times medication is often avoided out of a fear of losing one’s creative mode and space. This is an issue that is rarely discussed, but one that needs to be discussed because it is a very real consideration for any creative person suffering from illness that require medication — mental or physical. I will be addressing this issue from the perspective I know, that of mental illness and Bipolar. I do not recall creating poems or art while medicated, but instead I recall creating during times of hypomania and times of depression. I will confess that I have stopped taking medication for the last six months and have had instances of my illness but very little creativity. The only good news has been not having the terrible side effects my psychotropic drugs have on me including dizziness, nausea, migraines, and short-term memory loss. Now I am in the process of seeking psychotherapy again and possibly trying new medications that will not result in side effects that keep me from functioning well in my daily life, let alone in my creative one. I will keep this issue wide open for discussion and will also update my case with this issue as I am able after taking medication again for at least a month.

Stability and order (even if that order is chaotic to others) is a very important part of being well as a Bipolar sufferer, and I would speculate this is the case with most if not all mental illness. Art, then, becomes a life force, an escape, even a very pure and rich medication. This relationship between mental illness and art will be my focus in this column. My future posts will be more steeped in scholarship and “proof” to these deductions made in this very personal first post. And as American poet and Bipolar sufferer Robert Lowell attested, “I feel the jagged gash with which my contemporaries died” (Crawford 193), I will end this first of many posts about mental illness and the artist. I will end in the hopes we may all deal with our “jagged gash” in our own unique ways toward a health and and its resulting beauty.

Crawford, Robert. Contemporary Poetry and Contemporary Science. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006.

Jamison, Kay Redfield. Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and Artistic Temperament. New York: Free Press, 1993.

Kristeva, Julia. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. New York: Columbia UP, 1989.

Ludwig, Arnold M. The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy. New York: Guilford Press, 1995.