My Art, My Mental Illness: Crawling Out from Underneath My Own Head

"Magnetics," acrylic, oil and ink

There is no shortage of material out there linking art and mental illness, most of it jovial and cliché, and the rest a mixture of sad, over-the-top, informative, and just plain blah. And then you have the perhaps grossly undervalued movement toward redefining many of these diseases, including removing the word disease altogether. Ideas such as neuroatypicality are very important for human thought in general because they represent paradigm shifts in our attitudes towards many neurological conditions—and that will undoubtedly lead to a better understanding of those who live with these conditions. Not to be confused with attempts to obfuscate the facts, I am convinced that these new modes of thought are essential to our growth because of their far reach, not only in number, but in their ability to be applied to many different aspects of life.

I’ve suffered from bipolar disorder for many years, a problem exacerbated by chronic insomnia as well as the daily stress and anxiety that most of us experience simply as a reward for living in a busy world. It isn’t a big deal for me to talk about, but I write now as an advocate to those for whom it is. To put this as bluntly as possible: every single day is a harrowing challenge, even when I am able to ease the situation with health insurance (raise your hand if you currently can’t afford it). However, I walk the side of the line where, although I feel defined by my illness to a large extent, that definition is symbiotic with other parts of my “self,” and it doesn’t necessarily always take on a negative connotation. To paraphrase a seriously disturbing individual, “I Yam Who I Yam.” And I’m not alone (nobody is).

"Duster," acrylic, oil and ink

My compulsion to create is based on a genetic predisposition and some other gobbledygook, I’m sure, but it runs heatedly on the ambition spawned by the need to fill the voids left in my waking life by the issues associated with being bipolar. Today, I live the life of someone thankful for this compulsion—without it I’d feel like nothing and no one, literally with no institution, movement, or idea to truly belong to. People need to belong to something, even if it is just belonging to themselves. One of the unfortunate side-effects of bipolar disorder is the inability to really connect to anything when you’re struggling to crawl out from underneath your own head.

But I find that my experiences dealing with my quirks in relation to the act of creating, by and large, rarely reference any of that stuff in a direct sense. Like the vast majority of other artists out there, my creations reflect nature and the human experience. I blow tons of cash and polymer trying to rectify the inner world with the outer—and we all pretty much just go about that in our own ways. Some of us choose to make our “shortcomings” the focus of our work—I am not one of them. Point being, this sort of thing is rarely a solid determination of, well, anything. For those who do narrow their focus to their illness, their approach is often varied and their motivation drawn from a vast pool of different reasonings. I believe that the cliché, in this case, is a minority—and that there are no actual or strongly defended polar positions to take on the matter. Both art and humanity are just way too damn complex.

"Anatomical," ASCII text art

Although my experience with this fabulous mood disorder is not a central focus, it is still very much there. When you create, escaping yourself is impossible—and in the end this has absolutely nothing to do with mental acuity and everything to do with our common bonds. The beauty of art, and the reason it has remained important to humanity for as long as we’ve had it, is diversity in its delivery. So I see little difference between the relevance of a madman’s art and that of another person who might embody the picture of clinical sanity. Attempting a comparison or judgment seems like trying to pound out the true metaphysical value of beach balls as compared to barbed wire as compared to tax returns, biscuits, staple guns, and crystal healing. Everything has its place… as does every idea, as does every person. And artists, though we often expect so much from them and are so disappointed when—from our own egocentric perspectives—they “fail” us, are still just people, some of whom struggle with mental disorders.

So what is the moral to this story? There isn’t one. Just a droning personal account of an oft-misunderstood topic. A disjointed, cock-eyed truth. And the truth only needs a moral when it comes time to wield it, anyway.

"Untitled Drawing," ink, charcoal, conte and pastel

Psychiatric Meds: Stiflers of Creativity?

I’ll come right out and say it: maybe. Some theorize that creativity is owed to mental illness, or that medications “zombify” their patients or otherwise alter the parts of the brain responsible for holding the creative bar high. But to reiterate: everyone is different and there is just no real answer here. The brain is such a tricky, complex place that even predicting the effects of psychiatric medication on creativity for anybody is a crap shoot at best. It could easily go either way, but it also depends a lot on what afflicts the person in question.

Just as it is with Sarah Sullivan of the Bi[polar] Curious blog, I find that my bipolar disorder is actually the main culprit in stifling my ability to create. During manic phases I may be hyper-productive (just ask my poor, unfortunate guild mates), but I don’t feel like it really makes up for the long periods of depression in which I have to fight tooth and nail just to remember why I ever cared about creating in the first place. There’s really nothing romantic or brilliant about the psychological weight of a tube of cadmium red morphing into a mountain. Basically, the cliché of the starving, mad artist is both sick and sadly inaccurate.

For a much more eloquent and in-depth take on the subject of mood disorders, psychiatric medications, and art, please visit

by Johnny Beaver