Bipolar and The Unmedicated Artist: Views from the Patient and Therapist

Carrie McGath

Living the Life in the Air First, Carrie McGath

After being unmedicated for almost a year now, I recently took a trip to Kalamazoo, Michigan to attend a couple of poetry readings and to visit my psychotherapist. At first, not taking medications seemed to be working for me, but after hearing many people close to me tell me they noticed a difference in me, namely a sadness, I have had to take a long, hard look into myself, something I have not done since I ceased taking my medications and ceased psychotherapy sessions last July.

Up until now, my articles about Bipolar and the artist have addressed my own personal experiences as a sufferer who is also an artist. I have also written about some of the books written by various authorities in the field of mental illness, all tackling the subject from varying perspectives. In this piece, I will write about what has been occurring with me since I sopped taking my medication and how doing so has come to adversely affect my creative process as well as my daily life. Here, I will also relay my psychotherapist in Kalamazoo’s thoughts about mental illness and its relation to the creation of art.

It was a bittersweet visit to Kalamazoo since my original reason for going was to read a poem by my late professor and poetry mentor, Herbert Scott, at a tribute reading. I was also nervous to see my psychotherapist, to show him how I had regressed, something that I was certain of after hearing from so many people close to me tell me that I seemed to be almost back to being a full-on Bipolar sufferer.

My Bipolar is Type 2, meaning I do not have manias in an extreme sense and instead have hypomanias. The difference between the two is simply that bipolar type 2 is less severe in the manic episodes than bipolar type 1. In the last several months I have had hypomanias, through which I can function but not in a particularly successful fashion. Since I do not sleep or eat when these episodes occur, I make simple mistakes, experience a sense of a loss of balance in that I feel I am tripping over myself constantly, punctuated with bizarre and violent thoughts that come to me randomly, eventually getting the best of me, sending me into a depression that makes it very difficult to function. My constant ebb from hypomanias to depressive episodes makes me a “rapid cycler” resulting in extreme variances of moods that change very quickly. Everyone’s reaction to the illness is a bit different, but these are fairly common symptoms for someone suffering from bipolar, particularly bipolar II.

The Struggle, Carrie McGath

After meeting with my psychotherapist, I am being put back onto my medications: a mood stabilizer and an anti-depressant. In my original piece, I expressed a fear that many creative people have about medication: that it could stifle a creative process. But after speaking again to my psychotherapist, I now understand that in order for a sufferer to have any success, including creative success, a variety of elements must come into play. “The main aspect to someone with a mental illness who is also an artist is their ability to feel closer to a medium. This closeness assists a person with a mental illness since the product of their creation such as a painting, a piece of music, or poetry facilitates relationships with the world, thereby giving them a support for themselves and the art they create,” he told me during our session. Now that I am unmedicated, I am creating in an on/off bipolar sense as varying as my cycling moods, leading me to isolate myself from people, not facilitating supportive relationships outside of those who do not know me very well.

My psychotherapist went on to tell me that people who suffer from mental illness but do not have a drive or gift to create often fall into a void. Instead of participating in a community facilitated by the creation of art, they tend to isolate themselves and often end up hospitalized. My psychotherapist was adamant that the creative process is a help to those with mental illness, and that even those without a natural spark may do well working in some creative way through their illness. He said that the health of a sufferer comes down to a community of friends, family, and people appreciative and receptive to their work that is fostered by their creativity. The sufferer must also seek psychotherapy and take the medications needed to keep the illness regulated. He contends that this is where success happens for a person, a success at living, as well as a success with creation.

This would all very much explain my lack of creation since foregoing my medications. I have written an occasional poem, created artworks in spurts, but mostly I have been living like a recluse, swallowed again and again by a strange variety of neurotic fears. These feelings often become an overactive paranoia that is hypomanic, invariably cycling into a long-lasting depressive state. R.H. Belmaker, M.D. writes, “There is considerable evidence that people with bipolar disorder are more creative when effectively treated than when they are not treated.” I am living proof of this, my creative process being dependent upon my attaining and retaining treatment for my illness.

The last thing my psychotherapist told me was to “do something courageous.” My first act of courage was to create two photo-collages that expressed my fears, making them not frightening, stifling, and isolating but something beautiful. I felt close to my medium: a cocktail of paper, old found photographs, and my fears. This is what will help me along with medication and therapy. The creation of art has a natural support with the medium, facilitating an outside support as a result of the healthy, courageous, and realized artwork. We must always remember that true realizations are in themselves courageous, and part of this is possessing the drive to help yourself as well as your artwork with the incorporation of medication and regular psychotherapy sessions. When these elements are truly realized, our daily suffering is reduced and we begin to make the art that we were meant to create.