Artists’ Journal #5: Mental Mythbusters

Johnny-BeaverIt’s 5:42 a.m., the birds have been chirping for almost four hours (though I feel like those bastards never stop), and while some of you freaks are normally awake by now, this is usually when I fall asleep for the third or fourth time. Whether you’re familiar with them or not, I’ve written a series of art journals for The Advocate. I revisited them a short while ago, realizing some spring cleaning was in order. The following mess is the result.

What stood out to me more than anything else was the December 2012 “My Art, My Mental Illness” entry, which dealt with the relationship between mental illness and art. I don’t disagree with what I said, however I feel like I painted an incomplete picture. It’s no secret that many creative types experience a mental “disturbance” on some level, and even less of a secret that the popular way of looking at this is “mental illness = more creative.” Bada-bing, bada-boom, right? Whee. Look, I’m going to do some serious rambling here, so I’ll be honest with you from the start: if you think a mentally ill artist holes up, goes crazy, and creates masterpieces… in the immortal words of Skeletor, “You fool!” That’s the lesson here, so you can stop reading if you want.

If you want to continue, however… let me give you something a little more tangible to work with—a picture of my last 24 hours (so exciting!):

Yesterday was my first day off of Trazodone and Risperidone, which were supposed to help me sleep (I average three to four hours a night), but instead pretty much made me lose my mind. Full on bananas, I assure you. My memory is kind of destroyed due to decades of the aforementioned sleep deprivation, but these two buggers started causing me to say the wrong words, have trouble counting. I tried to get in my wife’s car with my keys a few times, swiped the wrong credit card multiple times at multiple different stores, failed to spot obvious things right in front of my face, et cetera. Medication is a revolving door, it is what it is, but I have a new job (something really hard for me to get and hang onto) and these frequent screw-ups have snowballed into paranoia. Paranoia that will likely create issues between myself and my new boss, who is also a new friend. The anxiety, exhaustion, and irritation that is resulting has me primed for making even more stupid mistakes.

Now, none of these things are a big deal, I’m aware. But I’m constantly on the lookout for my own diminished capacity. I’m not ashamed to say that I miss the hell out of my 22-year-old self, the self that had yet to completely manifest all of this nonsense. When you’ve come from working as a sound engineer, to running this newspaper as editor-in-chief (once upon a time), founding an art guild, traveling a few years in Europe studying music and painting, building a software synthesizer business, et cetera, it becomes incredibly frustrating to operate like you’ve taken a shovel to the head. To have to sit by while you get worse, unable to do anything about it. It’s embarrassing as hell and will remain that way until I find enlightenment and shed my pride.

Bringing this back to art: I’m working on my Master of Fine Arts and have to produce quality work, but not only am I getting nothing in the way of some kind of creative push, times like these are quite literally defined by a complete lack of energy. Not for art, not for cleaning, grocery shopping… sitting up, you name it. And therein lies the myth, stripped naked and ready to be washed and powdered in some concrete stall by the Linn County Sheriff’s department.

Being crazy, to use a crude term (that I happen to favor), is a lot like having a kid, I imagine. Good luck doing what you want to do with your time, ya know? I suppose at least my illness doesn’t poop everywhere, but there it is. The movies, the books, the self-important artists trying to craft an image for themselves… they’re all full of it. However, none of this is to say that one’s identity doesn’t spill over into every note and every stanza. Of course it does. It’d be like missing both of your legs and pretending you can’t still find ghostly footsteps in the snow of everything you do. What would be really crazy is to assume that everything we are doesn’t find itself into everything we think, feel, and do.

Ever heard the phrase “This is terrible, but I don’t want to lose my creative edge?” Me, too. The creative edge is a product of a person raging into the face of existence and all of the stimulus that comes with it—there’s no “You have to be out of your mind” prerequisite. I’d do almost anything to right this ship because I know what a positive effect it would have on my ability to simply wake up and live. Having a screwed-up brain that everyone thinks they understand, but don’t, is about as useful, mysterious, and sexy as a septic tank, I assure you. And I also assure you that while it may fuel the subject matter, the art coming from those artists that share my fight largely come from the untouched, good places.

I was just having a discussion with a bipolar artist friend about this the other day—the best thing that could happen to one’s creative drive is to ditch all of this horrible baggage weighing everything down. And obviously this isn’t just an artist thing… anybody with an incurable bother would be better off without the weight. No Winnie the Pooh jokes.

This brings me to an associated myth that can ride the coattails of this piece—that artists create selflessly. I have yet to meet one that doesn’t, despite protests. I guess some people just don’t like the word, for all of its negative ties. It doesn’t matter. Some work primarily because they love the feeling of doing so, or maybe they just love what producing work gets them socially or financially. There’s nothing wrong with it… it’s honesty and it’s love. It’s why art is compelling. I guess the resistance of this concept is born of the desire to feel good about one’s place in the community—another selfish act.

 As for me, I certainly didn’t mind this chance to feel useful.

By Johnny Beaver

Do you have a story for The Advocate? Email