Confessions of a mentally-ill writer

By Cooper Barron, Staff Writer

Trigger warning: Discussions of suicide

I remember how I sat in that sterile, dimly lit, cramped psychiatrist’s office. I remember it well, how numb I felt. Hearing “You have bipolar disorder,” was something I never expected to hear. I always believed that something was off, maybe depression or serious anxiety, but bipolar disorder? I refused to believe it.

Even after a second and third opinion, every doctor I went to said the same thing. If I were even mildly more paranoid I would’ve believed it was a planned effort to gaslight me. But, I eventually noticed my trends, the catastrophic lows and manic highs—and the lack of any stable emotional middle-ground. It was a slow, uncomfortable realization. My mind was fighting a constant losing battle of neurochemistry.

I was given Abilify, an atypical antipsychotic. It helped cull the permanent confusion that bipolar disorder brings about, the constant conflicted feeling I got whenever I got happy. “Is it actual happiness, or am I just hypomanic?” was an idea that dominated my mind. Abilify stabilized my mood and kept me from wanting to harm myself. It made me get up in the morning, and it helped me fall asleep too. It had its downsides though. I gained maybe fifty pounds, but emotional stability for the first time since childhood was something pretty amazing.

Around the same time as my diagnosis, I began to creatively write again for the first time in years. I suppose that in hindsight I used it to cope. I wrote about my feelings, my pent-up anger, my trauma, and just about anything that came to mind. I was high off of creativity, and it made me feel more alive than anything. Speaking a poem or a short story or part of a novel into life made me feel like a transcendent Überman. This manic state lasted for a little less than two months. I continued to write, but I felt like I had plateaued creatively. I wanted to go to the next level.

I continued to research my medication. People online often complained that they felt awful with it, that getting off of it was the best thing they ever did. In hindsight, that was likely written by an unstable manic person who believed that they are self-sufficient and that their will can overpower deterministic brain chemistry. When I read those testimonies, I thought of The Matrix. Neo was given two choices, a blue pill and a red pill, and something inside of me romanticized the idea that my medication, my blue pill, held me back creatively or erased some part of myself. The testimonies that I read harkened me to quit my medication and dedicate myself to my creative pursuits. It took time to consider it, but eventually, I stopped taking my medication cold turkey after about six months of being on it. 

Without even realizing it, I fell for the myth of the tortured artist.  It’s easy to fall for. It’s romantic, sexy even, and there’s an overarching sense of noble sacrifice, of giving yourself up for something more important or greater than you. Thinking that Hemmingway and Kurt Cobain were more brilliant than, say, Faulkner or Pynchon because instead of continuing to live or dying in an accident, they blew their brains out, is a driving force behind this stereotype and archetype that creatives often fall for. To think that David Foster Wallace was a misunderstood, unfortunate, tortured genius, whose absolute eventuality would be for him to hang himself is an example of the mindset neurotypicals have regarding the mentally ill. Both of these examples lead to the same philosophy. The idea that beautiful minds collapse in on themselves, or fall for sinful worldly vices, is a dangerous worldview for people with diagnosed or undiagnosed mental conditions.

Neurodivergent people are not exotic. We are not especially talented or creative. We are regular people with chemical imbalances, a developmental disorder, deep-rooted self-hatred, or any of the plethora of ways people end up neurodivergent. The fact that eccentricity is often conflated with mood or personality disorders is reasonable enough proof that the world has set up unrealistic expectations for the mentally ill. We are not your spectacle—we are just trying to survive. The myth of the tortured artist can, and often does, scoop up would-be talented creatives into a mindset that will lead them to self-annihilation, booze, hard drugs, and impulsive or insane stunts.

Do you want to know what happened when I stopped taking my medication— when I too fell for the myth of the tortured artist? Like Neo, I stopped taking the blue pill and traded it for the non-existent red pill. I fell out of the world and into a temporary psychosis.

It was probably one of the worst choices I made in my entire life. I quit my job. I traded it for lying in bed all day. I didn’t even have the energy or want to write anymore, I just wanted to not exist. After a week, at least ten times a day I would think about suicide. It got to a point where I either had to talk to a doctor that day about getting back on meds or going to the hospital and admit myself into a psychiatric ward. I was afraid of myself.

There was no mythical manic episode that came and swept me off my feet that drove me to write my magnum opus in a few weeks, and no, that won’t happen to other neurodivergent people either. Why? Because that is not how that works. You will not write, or sing, or paint, or even origami better if you stop taking your meds. People who are outrageously depressed do not create art better than happy people. Hell, I would even argue that I write best when I am on my meds and content.

So, this October, I want you to think about your own conceptions of how you see and believe the mentally ill to be. Whenever you see a great artist, do not think that they are fighting demons or that they have to do so to be a good artist. I want you to challenge those common conceptions, and if you don’t know any neurodivergent people, I would implore you to go out and meet some or to read some testimonies online. We are everywhere, and our issues are finally getting the spotlight we deserve. I would argue that Generation Z has been the most open about their mental issues than any other in the past, while Boomers and even Generation X’ers tend to shy away from even going to the doctors or talk about getting therapy. 

And to the neurodivergent people reading this—I beg of you, do not ever stop taking your medication without your doctor’s guidance. Talk to someone about it before you take the plunge. I personally am still recovering from the three-week period of not taking my medication cold turkey. It’s hard, and I know you want to feel normal again, but there is more nobility in being or trying to be a functioning member of society. It is better to be numb than to try being some creative pariah who ends up angry, sad, alone, and suicidal. You can be a legendary creative pariah and still be medicated. That is a false dichotomy.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, please call the 24/7 Canadian Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-833-456-4566.

Don’t be afraid to save a life, especially if it is your own.

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