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When I Realized I Don't Have to Be Manic to Be Artistic

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Lately I’ve been pondering what a beautiful thing it is to be a creative person. To think that I’ve created literally thousands of original works between my poetry, blogging, essaying, music reviewing and drawing, and not one of them is exactly like anything anyone else has ever created is intriguing, to say the least. And that’s not tooting my own horn or bragging about how amazing a creator I am — there are too many who are better at their craft than I am to even begin to count — but it is a neat thought to me, nonetheless.

Many prominent researchers have made the connection between mental illness — bipolar disorder, in particular — and the creative bug. I’m an artist and a writer, and have been both of those for most of my life. And if I’m being perfectly honest, much of my earliest “good” art (i.e. that which doesn’t make me cringe when I take a look at it) was a product of mania. I was unmedicated and the elevated mood took unbridled hold on me the summer before my sophomore year of high school, causing me to toil away on charcoal drawings into the wee hours of the morning every single day for weeks on end.

It seemed muses were inexhaustible and that ubiquitous “creative spark” was an undying blaze.

As a result of this, I believed I wasn’t a good artist well after the sickness faded; I was convinced I just got lucky with my bipolar high. But as time went on, I was adjusted to the right cocktail of meds and found the right therapist, and reached my version of normalcy. When I began getting back in touch with my artsy side, I realized I still have it in me, always have, even in my healthy periods. Mania might provide a surge of ideas and the laser focus and drive to make those ideas a tangible reality. It does not, however, provide innate talent or a deep-seated passion. I have been drawing ever since I could clutch a crayon in my little kid fist and scribble on a page. It’s just something that’s in my soul, and no amount of medication can change that.

While mania admittedly makes creating pretty things on a page more of a breeze than sanity does, my best written work found its genesis when I was at my healthiest, sanest state of being. When I’m biochemically high, there’s no way I can concentrate on a piece long enough to make it coherent and well-written. I flit from project to project and my mind is spinning too fast to make sure the storm I’m typing up is actually solid and making sense. This is not to say, however, that my mental abnormalities haven’t contributed to the “wordsmithing” side of my creativity. The majority of my writings are inspired by my struggles, and they wouldn’t be there if I didn’t have a life riddled with mental health issues.

There’s a chance I wouldn’t be the highly creative individual I am without the madness that takes up a decent chunk of my headspace. Beyond the mental aspect of creativity, my work is essentially an expression of my innermost self and a product of my experiences and point of view. If I didn’t go through what I’ve gone through and continue to experience what I experience on a day-to-day basis, I wouldn’t be myself. My art, in turn, wouldn’t be itself, either.

Ultimately, I believe that creativity is such an integral part of who I am that mental illness or not, I would always be this way. But maybe I wouldn’t have the same things that beg to be expressed, maybe I wouldn’t have the same intensity about my creative process. And because of that risk, I’ll keep the mental illness.

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My Take on ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ as a Woman With Bipolar Disorder

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Three times the charm? Maybe.

I have been overly critical in the past of the film “Silver Linings Playbook.” I always knew it to be a good movie. However, the reasons for me thinking it was a good movie had nothing to do with the accuracy, which I felt the film lacked. When I watched the movie the first time, it played out as a good film with a good script, and that was all. All I gathered about the two main characters, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, were that they had bipolar disorder, but everything else about the movie seemed foggy not long after I watched it.

Granted, the movie was released the year I had my third breakdown. I can’t even be sure if I watched the film before or after my mental break. So depending on my mental status, my opinion of the film at the time might have been affected.

Two or three year later, I watched it again. I wanted to understand that which I did not upon my first viewing of the movie. My response? I thought the film underplayed the behavior, emotions and mentality of a person struggling with bipolar disorder. I felt Bradley Cooper’s character’s antics and excitability (ever present in almost every scene of the film) were more characteristic of a man with quirks and anger issues. I couldn’t possibly see how the audience could understand the severity of a person with manic depression if Cooper’s actions were merely written off as the actions of a quirky man who threw temper tantrums.

I felt Hollywood ripped us off and deprived the world of a great opportunity to present mental illness in such a way that people could, if not relate to, at least witness the travesties a person with mental illness has dealt with. I thought they did such a disservice to the mental health community by presenting bipolar disorder in such a comedic light.

Yes, there were scenes of drama, but much of Bradley Cooper’s antics were comical. You couldn’t help but crack a smile a little. I charged the writers and directors with abandonment of responsibility, with superficiality and an inability to give mental illness the proper platform it deserved. Here was their chance to present to the world what bipolar disorder looked like and felt like, and they blew it.

Then, I watched the movie a third time. It played on TNT last night. I wanted to watch it again, from beginning to end, to see if maybe I had missed something. Maybe I was being too critical and too overcharged with emotion to see with my own eyes what was really taking place on screen. Basically, I wanted to give “Silver Linings Playbook” another chance. A third chance, if you will.

I discovered something. Now while the average human might not understand all that is going on in the movie before them, if he or she could differentiate between someone naturally brimming with quirks and anger issues and a person who is quirky and temperamental as a result of their mental illness? Then, Hollywood will have succeeded.

Because in this movie, Bradley Cooper is a perfect example of a person with bipolar disorder (much more high-functioning than many I might add). He is not the most severe case of a person with bipolar disorder, which I think turned me off the second time I watched the film. Because I wanted the audience to see how brutal the disease can be. I wanted them to experience the trauma and the turmoil. I wanted the movie to shove it in our faces. At certain points in the film, they did.

For example, when Bradley Cooper’s character Pat starts freaking out because he cannot find his wedding video and he goes into this wild outburst, tugging at his hair, circling the room and shouting that he can’t find the wedding video. He is so loud he wakes up the neighbors. He accidentally strikes his mom in the face, and someone calls the cops on him. Lucky for Cooper, the cop only told him to quiet down. He didn’t drag him back to the mental clinic.

When Cooper’s wedding song (the song that played when he found his wife in the shower with another man) is playing when Cooper arrives at his therapy session, he asks the receptionist, “Is that really playing?” To which she responds, “We sometimes play music.” Bradley Cooper gets so infuriated, thinking for certain they are playing a cruel joke on him (oh, I’ve so been there), freaks out and rips the bookshelf off the wall.

I could relate to this particular part in this film because it illustrates the paranoia and delusion people with bipolar disorder can experience with they are in a manic or hypomanic state. Immediately, this scene reminded me of the years 2001 and 2002 when I thought the U.S. government was trying to brainwash everyone in America through the use of media, dubbing VHS tapes and changing the words in songs, movies and television scripts.

A particular song would come up and I’d think, “No! They’re trying to get to me. They’re messing with my head. Argh! I know they are.” I thought they were trying to trick me. A song like that would be called a “trigger.” It is an outside entity that causes something inside of you to connect to an old emotion or trauma and almost instantaneously bring back all previous emotions, fears and doubts you felt when that entity first caused the trauma.

Bradley Cooper is finally called into the doctor’s office and questions the therapist, “Why would you do that?” The doctor responds, “I am sorry. I had to see if (the song) was still a trigger.”

Stop. I do not think a therapist would not do that, which is one thing that really bothered me about this film. A therapist would not stealthily plan to have this song playing the moment you came into the office to see if it still “triggered” you. For one, it’s unfair to you. When you’re at the therapist’s office, your guard is up. Yet, you are still extremely vulnerable. Two, psychiatrists don’t try to trick their patients! Why? Why would they do that? So counterproductive. Cruel, even.

If Bradley Cooper came into the doctor’s office, and the doctor asks, “Can I play you this song, and you can tell me how it makes you feel or if it still has an effect on you?” Then, you give him the OK to do so? Then, yes. Play it, but to play the song when he first arrives to test him? No. I don’t think so. Sorry, Hollywood. Gotta ding you for that one.

However, I get the point you are trying to make. People with bipolar disorder can lose it if they hear a song that elicits a deep emotion or memory. I don’t physically lose it, but I find myself drowning with every word and every line redrawing incidents from my past. Bringing up feelings that left my mind reeling from anxiety.

There are a lot of little clues found in Cooper’s behavior and even in his own words that there is something off about him. Not the “off” that most people are familiar with, but rather “off” as he is mentally unstable. However, they are hard to notice if you don’t know what it means to be bipolar. These are clues I may not have even picked up on the first or second time I watched the film.

For example, when the cop comes to Cooper’s parents’ house after his loud outburst and Cooper and Robert De Niro (who plays his father) are fighting. The cop tells Cooper, “I’m going to have to write this up.” Bradley turns sadly, distraught and desperate. “No, don’t write this up!” he begs the policeman. “Nikki can’t see it!”

He repeats this several times. This is a clue to the clarity that Cooper lacks in this scene. The cop writing the incident up has nothing to do with Nikki (his wife). It’s highly improbable his wife would even see the report. One, the police wouldn’t hand it over to her. Two, there’s really no way she’d even know it would exist. Hence, there’s no reason for her to go down to the police station to ask for it.

Yet, Bradley Cooper is so much in his own world, his own reality, that he thinks everything is tied to Nikki. Someway, somehow, that police report is going to get into her hands. She is going to read it, and she is going to despise him for it. Bradley Cooper’s belief that he and his wife are still very much in love, that he only has to prove himself to her and they will be together again (despite the fact that his own wife has placed a restraining order against him and everyone in town is telling him to stay away from her) is a symbol of Cooper’s delusional reality, a reality perpetually goaded on by the presence of his illness.

His illness magnifies his obsession by 20 times. At times, he even manages to reel you, the audience, in. We are kept guessing if Jennifer Lawrence really gave Nikki the letter, and when Bradley Cooper was basically crying to the cop after the argument, “Don’t write this up! She’s going to see it!” for a moment, we empathize with him. That is, until we realize, wait. How the hell is she even going to see that police report?

For Jennifer Lawrence’s character, though she has bipolar disorder as well, it isn’t as obvious that she has a mental illness. Sure, she had a time after her husband’s death when she slept with a lot of men and wore black like a goth widow, but she is a high-functioning person with bipolar disorder, if I ever saw one. She is distinctly aware of her illness and how to manage it as well. When she shows Cooper her dance “studio,” she explains she is not that great of a dancer but it’s therapeutic and good for her. She seems of sound mind.

Both Cooper and Lawrence don’t take their meds (at least for Cooper, not until later on in the film). Lawrence can handle this. Cooper cannot, as demonstrated through his outbursts and erratic behavior. One thing I will say about Lawrence is she hardly expressed any emotion. Her face rarely wore a grin. It was either sulky, moody or expressionless. This could be attributed to the recent death of her husband, but no one really knows. It is an interesting contrast shown between the two main characters.

Now, that I’ve bored you to death, I guess I can return to my main point. “Silver Linings Playbook” is a movie that accurately depicts people with bipolar disorder. Through Cooper’s erratic, illogical and obsessive behavior, we are given a glimpse into how a person with bipolar disorder thinks.

One major hang up I still have with the movie is a lot of what happens in the film can be written off as quirky or angry charades. Yet, then again, life works in a similar fashion. One can mistake manic behavior for an odd guy with issues. He might act out at times, but that’s what he does. It can be hard to identify a person with bipolar disorder. This is mainly because most people have no idea what bipolar disorder is, and millions don’t get treated for it.

I think this film was a laudable attempt of Hollywood to step into the life of someone who has bipolar disorder. It wasn’t always clear cut. At times the audience was kept in the dark along with Bradley Cooper, but they really did to do justice to people with mental illness.

I still don’t like that it was a comedy. I feel like it took away from some of the gravity of the epidemic. However, someone once told me they made it that way so the film and the message were more accessible to people. I guess I can understand that.

I didn’t understand the intent of the writer of “Silver Linings Playbook” at first. Were they merely using mental illness as a vehicle to bring comedy onto the scene? Or did they really want people to see mental illness was no laughing matter, in spite of all the comedy? Well, I don’t know how serious the intentions of the writers and directors of the movie were, but I really do feel, in whatever magnitude, they did want people to recognize and learn what it means to live with bipolar disorder.

I do, however, feel they were asking a lot of the audience with this film. Many times, you really have to pay extra special attention to certain spots to find the meaning. You can’t help but laugh away a lot at Bradley Cooper’s antics and in the process risk losing the significance of what he is saying or doing. OK, so maybe Hollywood didn’t get all of it right, but they were headed in the right direction.

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Image via “Silver Linings Playbook” Facebook page.

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On the Days Just Getting Out of Bed Is an Accomplishment

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My alarm goes off for the fifth time. I’ve already missed an 8:30 lecture and will most likely be late for 9:30 Spanish. Instead of hitting snooze, I just give in and turn off the alarm altogether. Despite being in bed for 10 hours, I’ve slept only four. My body is pained and achy. This awful migraine plagues my brain. My thoughts are cloudy, intertwined, and muffled. I’m terrified of leaving my bed. No one wants to see this side of me. I don’t want to fake smiles and laughter. I don’t want to be asked if I am OK. I don’t want to autopilot my way through work or class.

I don’t want to risk having an anxiety attack in public. I don’t want to fail in
any regard. I just can’t handle it today. So, I lay there all the more. My fear just as deafening as the silence and stillness of my surroundings.

I am freezing cold with my desolate state of being and overwhelmed state of mind. I hardly feel safe – or comfortable, or motivated, or hopeful, or purposed, or capable. My only meager security is the blankets and sheets I hide within.

Moisture assaults my tear ducts begging for release. I do what I know how to do to manage symptoms – I shove my headphones in, crank up Twenty-One Pilots, roll over, pray (sometimes cussing and screaming into the pillow), and drift back into sleep. This is my attempt at pushing the restart button.

An hour or two will pass. I have slept more than half of my day. Guilt creeps in to overtake me. I can’t let it. I have to fight it. I use all of my mental faculties to retrieve scriptures, practical coping methods from my psychology courses, beautiful song lyrics – anything that can interrupt the cycle of angst trampling my thoughts. Redirect them. Think positive. Think influentially. Think of love. Think of power. Think of helping others.

I unleash the arsenal of light.

I get out of that bed. I put sweats on. I throw my hair in a bun or a ponytail. I text a few friends to let them know today is a battle. They respond with reminders of how loved I am. They text back offering me their presence after classes. I drink some coffee and read my bible. I pack my bags and get to class. I don’t remember the lectures I sit through – but, I was there. That’s a step.

darn good coffee I text my brother and sister. I eat a late lunch. I drive around singing my heart out until I lose my voice. I get home. I attempt homework. I am typically unsuccessful. I try again. I quit. I curl up in a ball. I watch Netflix. My friend joins me. I cry sometimes. I sketch. I read. I write. My friend leaves. I shower. I cry again. And then I go back to bed.

I did not necessarily thrive. But, I did survive… I survived. That is the only thing that matters. For right now, I am doing the absolute best that I can. The absolute best. There is no shame in that. Especially because bipolar lows are excruciating. The weight of this pervasive depression is agonizing and hardly bearable. It is all-consuming – but you cannot let it devour you. You must fight. Fight for your next breath and for the small victories that allow for your continual breathing. You see, in a low, every task – no matter how trivial – requires every ounce of effort you possess.

I understand that all too well. Just know it does not go unnoticed. My friend, you are still here. You are alive. With every breath, there is hope. With every victory, no matter the size, you have overcome your illness. It does not define you. Do you hear me? Nor will it ever define you. You struggle with bipolar disorder; you are not bipolar. You struggle with depression; you are not depressing. You are loved. You may feel weak, but you are not; you are incredibly strong. I don’t care that it took you five hours to get out of bed this morning. It took me six hours to do the same last Monday. Keep fighting. You are an inspiration. You still got out of bed.

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Photo by Katarzyna Bialasiewicz

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Before You Judge Someone With Bipolar Disorder Who's Unemployed

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I’ve changed so many jobs in a span of 10 years that I can’t keep count. At 32 years old, I have ended up with nothing. This is not because I’m lazy or I don’t want a job. This is because I have been incapable of holding a job for more than a month or two, based on how my brain reacted at the time.

I still remember how I used to wake up somehow in the morning, regretting I woke up at all, and then taking sleeping pills to get through the job and my day. I used to enter the office with shivering hands. I was used to being isolated even at work. I remember how I heard everyone talking and laughing behind me, and my paranoia told me, they’re laughing at you.

I used to run out of my workplace as soon as the day ended.

Some days I went to work with bandaged wrists where I’d self-harmed, and I told coworkers some lies about grazing my hand on some fence wires. I knew I wasn’t fooling anyone; the looks in their faces told me I wasn’t fooling anyone, that the moment I turned around they were going to be talking about me, how “crazy” I am.

All this happened when I was still in my 20s, and at the time I hadn’t received my diagnosis for bipolar disorder or anxiety. I hadn’t come to terms with any of my issues. I took sleeping pills to try to make the world around me feel a little more bearable. I didn’t have regular therapy or a doctor to treat me properly. I was always suicidal.

I still remember the panic attacks I used to get while I was at work, even though I didn’t know what panic attacks were. I didn’t know much of my illnesses for the greater part of my life.

My heart would give a jolt, and I would sweat profusely in the air-conditioned room every time my team head showed up. He was a man who shouted out orders even though shouting wasn’t really necessary. And every time he showed up, my hands would shake uncontrollably, and I’d feel like I couldn’t breath anymore.

Every person who gets panic attacks knows they can be the worst and scariest part of having a mental illness. And one point of time, I had them several times in a day at my job, leaving me vulnerable and exposed to everyone in sight.

I felt guilty and ashamed of myself. I left jobs because I’d wake up one day and realize I couldn’t go back to that place anymore.

I know plenty of successful people with jobs and mental illness. And I appreciate their strength. But I feel as though I’ve failed at this.

If I’d had a rightful diagnosis and treatment going on, things might have been different. But I didn’t at the time, and trust me it was not because I didn’t want to, but because I couldn’t. My brain wouldn’t let me.

To people who judge me because of my mental illness and being unemployed, I wonder what you would have done under the circumstances I have been through. Would you like being incapacitated by your brain in a room full of people every day of the week? Would you be OK with them talking behind your back, pointing at you while you have devastating panic attacks and take sleeping pills to take the edge off?

I apologize for not being like others or being “normal.” I apologize for not being able to hold a job. I apologize for being unemployed. But don’t judge me for all I couldn’t do.

Judge me for all I did achieve. Find me in my achievements. Today I know my disease better than anyone else. I have started a campaign to eradicate the stigma attached to mental illness in our society. I want to do good by others struggling the same as me. I write to help others know how to make their lives better.

I’m a human being with bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I’m putting up fights every day with my own brain that torments me, holds me hostage against my own will. And so are millions of others like me.

So before you evaluate me or others like me who are unemployed because of their mental illnesses, step back and give it a thought.

And to anyone who is going through what I went through, know that getting help makes it easier, and you’ll understand yourself better as years go by. You don’t have to feel guilty or be ashamed of yourself. Keep trying and don’t give up on yourself. You’re doing fine.

Editor’s note: Please see a doctor before starting or stopping any medication.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

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Why Knowing Wellness Makes Relapses All the More Painful

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So much has changed in my life the last three years. I’ve gone from honestly not wanting to live to fighting harder than ever to stay alive and live a good life. For years, all I knew was illness. Sometimes, I look back and see so many episodes of depression and hypomania I should have been hospitalized for but wasn’t. I can’t remember a time when I was completely well.

Yet, three years ago, I realized getting well was life or death, and I was on the edge. Three days in bed left me a choice to make between the bed and the bathroom where I would find a way to die. Instead, I reached out to a suicide hotline that gave me hope to hold on. From there, I found a support group in the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance and started to recover.

Recovery isn’t easy though. There’s a new dynamic of my illness I didn’t realize before I started to recover. I finally knew what wellness felt like, which made the relapses all the more painful. In some weird way, it was better to be ignorant. I didn’t know any better then, and the mood changes were just more of the same.

Today, I reach for stability and a wellness, and I lose my grip often. It’s just the nature of the disease. I tell myself I can deal with this gracefully and get through the hard times without the panic that comes from saying, “Here we go again.” Yet, most of the time I can’t seem to accomplish that. Each time is harder because I remember wellness is a possibility I am falling short of.

It’s a delicate time. A time where resilience is so important. There’s this image of me in my mind. One that looks prepared and skilled in the face of episodes. One that heads off depression and hypomania at the pass. Who knows just what to do. Someday, I hope to be that person.

In one way, I’m wishing I won’t feel the pain if I become this person. Yet, life will still be painful. Depression and hypomania will still disrupt my life. It’s so hard to accept, but somehow I have to find a way.

People with mental illness are the most resilient people I know. We face setback after setback in our lives and continue to strive for a better life. We accept our lives will never be perfect, but look for hope in making them a little easier. We are faced with a terrible disease, one that between the stigma and the symptoms, seems insurmountable sometimes. Yet, we find each other and help each other through.

The seemingly endless cycle is hard. Really hard. Yet, our resilience is endless too. One good thing that has come from my diagnosis and all the hardships I’ve had is that inside of me, if I look deep enough, there is someone who will hold on. There is someone with the strength to get through anything. Someone with a stubborn desire to be that person I imagine, living with this disease with grace and skill. I know I will never give up on her.

Sometimes, I wonder if I’m already her.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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4 Tips for Seeking Support With Bipolar Disorder

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I spent many years dealing with bipolar disorder alone. Partly because people didn’t know how to help me, and partly because I didn’t want to be helped. I didn’t want to share the truth with anyone. With what I felt were all my “ugly” symptoms, I believed it was better to stay hidden. So when I finally met new people and made new friendships, I had to learn how to be open with them. It has been hard.

I do a pretty good job on the surface of it. I try to reach out for help when I need it and express what I’m going through. But I worry constantly about “friend fatigue,” or whether I’m being a “burden.” My mind is constantly trying to convince me my disease will destroy all my relationships despite ample evidence to the contrary. When the fight is 24/7, I sometimes feel in constant need of support and worry it’s too much for my friends.

So I’ve given this some thought, and here are a few things I try to do when seeking support from friends:

1. I try to put myself out there, but I recognize and respect that my friends have their own lives and their own problems. Sometimes work gets in the way of them being able to fully be there for me, sometimes family problems, or they’re just not doing so well themselves. It’s important that I reach out when I need to, but I try to remember other people can’t always show up fully. Just like me, they’re doing their best.

2. I try to be open to suggestions. If I ask for help, I listen and give what they’re saying a chance. Sometimes it’s hard for me to imagine things will ever be different, and it can be hard to listen when someone tells me it will. Sometimes it’s hard for me to acknowledge I need to try something new or see something differently. But I try to give their kind words a chance.

3. I know they will be there for me when it counts and have faith that I am always supported. I may go through hard times day to day, and they may not always know what I’m going through or be able to help — but I keep in mind they care in the best way they can in every moment. That they would be there for me when things get really bad. This is such a comfort and can be enough to get me through.

4. And finally, I remember that support goes both ways. I try my best to be there for them, too, when they are in need. That’s the beauty of friendship.

People with mental illness can need a lot of support and should always reach for it when they need it. But there are things we can do to help our “helpers” help us.

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