Are Creativity and Mental Illness Intertwined?

My eyes. My reality.
My eyes. My reality.

“My afflictions belong to me and my art- they have become one with me. Without illness and anxiety I would have been a rudderless ship.” Edvard Munch.

I clearly remember the first time I saw ‘The Scream’ (painted 1895) by Edvard Munch. Why did that particular painting affect me so personally? Because I saw myself in the distortion, the craziness, the eeriness, the chaos. I sympathized with a human figure that was obviously suffering tremendously, but had no physically obvious illness.

Therefore, I reasoned, the character portrayed in ‘The Scream’ was screaming in mute agony, trapped by his own irrational fear, panic eating him alive. And at that stage in my life I knew only too well how it felt to be trapped in a body you couldn’t control.

I too, felt pain, fear, and panic. And the world kept going on around me- no one noticed the intensity of my fear, of my illness, the depths to which my soul had sunk.

I was a physically healthy specimen of a typical teenager at that stage, although my first panic attack hit me hard at the age of 10. My nightmares were not confined to nighttime. Rather every moment of my living, breathing self was consumed by confusion, desperation and dread. Just like the image in ‘The Scream.’

I felt an immediate solidarity with the artist, for here was a man who truly understood me, even though we were born decades apart and never met. The legacy Munch left me was the realization that I was not alone. In some realm, at some stage, this man had suffered similar struggles to me. During my research I later discovered that Munch was diagnosed with both Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia, a diagnosis I was also delivered at the unusually young age of 14. He was diagnosed as a young adult.

I was full of so many emotions, which I didn’t know how to express. So I gradually began drawing- basic sketches of what I imagined my emotions would look like if you could give them a face, give them a voice. This became a frequent habit and a natural outlet for a mind that was so full it threatened to drown itself.

Whenever I was asked to explain, “what does panic disorder feel like?” I would automatically pull out a black and white photocopy of ‘The Scream’ that had been folded and refolded and was always kept on my person, because Munch’s imagery verbalized my sickness. I realized at this age the amount of power a singular image could contain.

Munch was institutionalized against his will for psychiatric assistance. Treatment for the conditions Munch suffered from have changed since the time he was ill. In his day, patients were subjected to shock therapy, which is totally different from EST used in patients today. In Munch’s time, no anesthesia was used and the process was extremely painful.

Munch didn’t want his conditions treated. He felt they would stifle his creativity. Would his ability to create have been affected had he been heavily medicated? In my opinion, yes. In my personal experience, antidepressants, anti-anxiety agents, sedatives and tranquilizers have left me numb and quite incapable of making deep, well thought out decisions. In the initial stages of being medicated I was, for lack of a better word, a zombie. What was worse was that I knew it.

After 17 years of daily medication I have adjusted well and am able to express myself freely. However during my teen years my decision-making and most certainly aspects of my creativity were impaired. And 17 years ago antidepressants were less helpful- yes, they helped with my panic disorder and agoraphobia but the side effects were horrendous.

I am lucky to live in a society where people with mental illness and mood disorders can now receive ethical treatment. Had Edvard Munch been alive today, he would have been offered genuine relief from his symptoms, respite from his pain, all without compromising his skill and talent.

It is obvious that Munch’s emotional and mental battles gave his work a distinctive flavor and a depth that would have been lacking had he not been afflicted in such a manner. The fact that his own physician recommended ongoing treatment (medication and electric shock therapy, both of which he had previously submitted to) and Munch refused it, citing that he would lose his depthful creativity without his mania proves just how much he relied on the trauma of his past to draw inspiration for his artworks.

On the surface of things it would seem strange to assume there is a connection between myself and a Norwegian painter who was most prevalent in the early 1900’s. Munch loved vermouth, questionable literature, annoying the establishment and moments of self-pity. I loved rock and roll; writing poetry, my faith and also challenging authority figures who told me I would amount to very little.

But we both tried to make the best of our situations, reason with life in our own ways.

Many of the best artists have succumbed to their demons, leaving an incredible, but desperately sad legacy- from Van Gogh to Kurt Cobain.

Munch was quoted as saying “Without fear and illness, I could never have accomplished all that I have”.

Through adversity Munch managed to produce some of the most timeless art works ever. He left the world with a beautiful legacy, born through personal traumatic experience. I conclude that there IS beauty in the breakdown.

Does your pain inspire you? Do you believe there’s a link between creativity and mental illness?

This post was first published in 2012 and has been republished for Mental Health Month

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You can get more information about the NSW Mental Health Association’s Mental Health Month here.