s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California, with a journalistic focus on social issues, particularly gender, prison reform, disability rights, environmental justice, queerness, class, and the intersections thereof, with a special interest in rural subjects. International publication credits include work for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, and AlterNet, among many other news outlets and magazines. smith’s writing on representations of disability in science fiction and fantasy was recently featured in The WisCon Chronicles, Volume 7. Assisted by cats Loki and Leila, smith lives in Fort Bragg, California. You can follow s.e. on Twitter, ou personal site, Goodreads, and lots of other exciting places online.
Mental illness as inspiration is one of the oldest tropes in the book. According to pop culture, mentally ill people are magically more creative than everyone else, filled with a manic drive to create art that pushes them to the brink until they finally explode—but what fantastic art they produce in the process. And what tragic heroes they become as a result of sacrificing everything for their art.
The myth of the ‘crazy artist’ is one that looms large in the popular mind, and it’s reinforced by books, film, and television where we see mentally ill characters who are also deeply creative, intelligent, and driven. According to this common disability trope, mental illness begets creativity—or perhaps vice versa. Either you start out with mental illness that makes you creative because it forces your brain to see differently, or you’re creative and it drives you into mental illness because you become consumed by your work. The two traits become inextricably linked in this metric, impossible to separate out.
I get this a lot as a mentally ill writer, perhaps most especially when I am manic and writing a lot. People attribute my writing to my mental illness rather than to who I am or any innate part of my nature, and along with that attribution comes an uncomfortable implication that my creativity must be the result of poorly controlled mental illness, because everyone knows that medications slow people down, blunt thinking, destroy creativity. Even my own medications manager seems to push at that idea when we meet to discuss how I’m feeling.
To be viewed as a creative success because I’m crazy, and to be told that I can only be creative if I don’t manage my mental illness effectively, is troubling. It’s especially troubling to see it reinforced in the pop culture around me.
One reason I loved Hilary T. Smith’s WILD AWAKE was because she captured, perfectly, the problems with the crazy creative trope. Kiri is a very talented and amazing musician who also has mental illness—and when she experiences a Thing, she doesn’t get more creative. Her work doesn’t flower into an explosion of amazing, inspiring, wonderful creation. It gets violent and ugly and all-consuming.
When I’m manic, I write upwards of 20,000 words a day. That is not healthy. When my mental illness was untreated, I didn’t sleep, I rarely ate, I just worked endlessly, sharklike; I felt like if I stopped for a single minute, I would die. Everything was so ferociously bright and glittering around me that it was like being on a concert stage and I felt like I had to perform at every minute—but that wasn’t healthy.
When I found a treatment regimen that worked for me, and when I started managing my mental illness effectively, I didn’t become less creative. Did I change on medication? Yes, I did. I had fewer mood swings. I was a lot more comfortable. I didn’t fly off into the stratosphere at the drop of a hat. I wrote, a lot, but not in that out of control, desperate, fevered kind of way that left me feeling dizzy and slightly sick. That writing was good—some of my best, actually.
Did I also tend to sleep more because of the sedating effect of my medications? Well, yeah. And that was a good thing, given my lack of sleep before. Did I sometimes feel foggy in the brain? Certainly. Was that my new permanent state of being? No. And I worked with my medications manager to find the dosage that worked most effectively for me, allowing me to be myself—my true self, not the snarled, manic, jittery self that I had been before—without disappearing.
And yet, I, like many mentally ill people involved in creative fields, had felt hesitant about seeking treatment, fearing that treatment would destroy my creativity. I had bought into the myth that the two were linked, and that with treatment my creativity would wither away and die, leaving me just another drooling overmedicated mannequin. I envisioned the abusive use of psychiatric medications and didn’t understand that there was actually a middle ground; I didn’t have to have uncontrolled mental illness, and I didn’t need to be a zombie, either.
Yet, this reality is so rarely depicted in pop culture, or in young adult fiction. All too often, people are presented with the choice of unchecked mental illness devouring someone and remaining creative, or turning into a passive ghost of who you were before. It stigmatises the use of medication and other treatments, and it creates a difficult bind for people who actually are mentally ill and creative (including, I note, a lot of young adult writers!).
Talking openly about mental illness in young adult fiction is so important; not just because I want to see more positive and accurate portrayals of mental illness in general, but because the age of onset for many severe mental illnesses is often in the teens. If your framework for mental illness is built on incorrect tropes, that’s a recipe for disaster. If it’s built instead on depictions that capture the diversity of mental illness and mentally ill people, that’s going to radically change the way you relate to the onset of your own mental illness. It also radically changes the way people including parents, peers, and loved ones interact with mentally ill teens.
Instead of being something you should feel ashamed of, or something you should resist treatment for, mental illness becomes simply a part of you. Not your sole defining characteristic, and certainly not the thing that makes you creative. Just something about you that makes up a part of your life.
And creativity is part of you too, not something caused by (or likely to cause) mental illness.