Anxiety & Me, part 6: About Mr Milligan

[this is the last in a series of six essays on creativity and mental illness, which will be serialised on Bootleg Noise in the coming weeks. Read part one here]

I was brought up worshipping comedians.

I knew that Tony Hancock, Paul Merton, Spike Milligan and a lot of the others were mentally ill, and always somehow assumed it made them funnier – that it fed the black humour that made them special. I assumed their illness gave them insight into a kind of dark wisdom that other people didn’t have.

But then I saw a picture of Spike Milligan in a depressive episode. He looked destroyed. A sad, broken old man. And I realised something then: wherever his art came from, it didn’t come from bipolar.

“I cannot stand being awake,” Spike wrote about his illness. “The pain is too much … Something has happened to me, this vital spark has stopped burning – I go to a dinner table now and I don’t say a word, just sit there like a dodo. Normally I am the centre of attention, keep the conversation going – so that is depressing in itself. It’s like another person taking over, very strange. The most important thing I say is ‘good evening’ and then I go quiet.”

What on earth can you learn from something so awful?

Some would say that there are a handful of qualities you can develop, if you live with mental illness. Compassion. Empathy. Gratitude. Experience. Mindfulness.
Well, yes. But these are all things you could learn anywhere, in any circumstances. None are linked directly with mental illness, or indeed, with any negative life experience. They are all qualities that we, thinking people that we are, develop ourselves as we grow – and it’s possible to develop them even without a mental illness.

In contrast, creating art usually requires a lot of very practical skills and attributes. Like concentration, energy, stamina, and a basic belief that what you’re doing is worth the time you put in.

All these qualities are contingent on being able to sit down and work.
Which is difficult, if you’re not at your best.

If you can do it at the moment, good. If not, don’t blame yourself. Most importantly, when you can create, it doesn’t matter what your brain is like – it’s what you do with it that counts.

There is no direct correlation between being “a little bit mentally ill” and being an artist. It’s absurd – like saying that you need to have imbetigo to be a traffic policeman, or that you can only be an accountant if your dog got run over. Again: having depression or anxiety is an illness, not some kind of creative superpower.
Yes, we can use mental illness – because that’s what we would do anyway, using every scrap of experience to build something new and beautiful. Yes, we can and probably should talk about it in our work, opening up a space for those who feel scarred by it.

But let’s destroy the assumption that someone must become more interesting and creative as soon as their brain starts to riot. Forget the idea that all artists are somehow damaged, that troubled artists should feel fired up by their experiences instead of thinking “well, that was a bit shit”. Dismiss the supposition that we must all be productive all day, every day, or else we are failing. Mental illness is a fact of life; and there is a deeply personal connection for every artist between work and life experience, which defies attempts to be universalised into a feel-good message about how illness makes us braver and more creative.
It is our own talents, experiences, voices and strength that make us into artists. Not our weaknesses.

Anxiety & Me, part 5: “Dad, I’m Scared About Aliens”

[this is the fifth in a series of six essays on creativity and mental illness, which will be serialised on Bootleg Noise in the coming weeks. Read part one here]

Over the course of my life, I’ve been told frequently that OCD and depression are a personal failure. Maybe I’m not reading enough, not writing enough, doing the wrong exercise, or eating unhealthy food. Maybe I’m just making a fuss – after all, everyone gets worried sometimes, yeah? Maybe I’m just a bit of a non-starter.
“People with mental health issues must be doing something wrong!” This message has seeped into every pore of our culture, and it’s often repeated by people who have no idea what they’re talking about.
No matter how much we explain that being unwell can actually prevent us from reading and writing – and drain the energy needed for exercise, cooking or work – it’s still assumed that the root cause of the problem is the ill person’s lifestyle and habits. We end up believing somehow that when we feel too ill to create art, it’s our own fault.
Anxiety in particular is often seen as a flaw, something you can get over if you try hard enough. As a child, I was told it wasn’t a real problem: “Twelve-year olds can’t be depressed! Just try and stop worrying!” I was vaguely aware one shouldn’t be constantly fretting, but assumed it was something I was doing wrong. Nobody around me talked about mental health, nobody I knew went to counselling; I was just “high strung”.
To me, mental illness meant being sectioned, like the vampy bipolar mother in Jacqueline Wilson’s The Illustrated Mum. There seemed to be no fictional characters who just happened to have brain issues.
And in general, I got the impression that mental illness was a sort of scary, glamorous, soul-destroying malady that only happened to grown-ups. It seemed you couldn’t really have it unless you were sick enough to be in a hospital, and all being well you should just crack on with your day and stop worrying. If you couldn’t get over it, you weren’t trying hard enough. This wasn’t some distant faraway past either. It was inner-city Birmingham in the noughties.
These misconceptions are held by people everywhere, and I have no doubt that other young artists from vastly different backgrounds are being faced with the same prejudices. Even after I educated myself and learned that anxiety disorders and depression were not flaws or weaknesses, but illnesses, I still found myself wondering why I couldn’t just get over it.
Then I wondered why my mental illness wasn’t making me more creative: instead, it often just made me restless, irritable and unable to produce anything.
Since then, I have sometimes wondered if my imaginative wordy skills are related neurologically to mental illness. I don’t know for sure – but you know what? I don’t care, either. Because ultimately, it doesn’t matter.
The important thing is to be well enough to work in the first place.
Poor mental health is not a personal failure, but neither is it some perverse superpower that drives people to create masterpieces. You make your work; your sickness doesn’t.

Anxiety & Me, part 4: Tragedy and Triumph

[this is the fourth in a series of six essays on creativity and mental illness, which will be serialised on Bootleg Noise in the coming weeks. Part one, part two, part three]

Mainstream media has made great leaps in de-stigmatising mental health, with many prominent celebrities like Stephen Fry opening discussion. But somehow it often seems to be mentally healthy people who feel so very, very inspired by these stories, while those of us who are chronic, or not fully recovered, sometimes get a bit frustrated with what’s not being said. Sometimes we feel unrepresented by the people who claim to speak for us.

Success stories sell – as do stories about plucky people recovering from their Big Bad Mental Health Problem. The journalist Caitlin Moran wrote a Times column about her anxiety, claiming that the problem was helped not by medication or counselling, but by telling the thoughts to be quiet; now her anxiety was “not totally over” but the “spell that kills [anxiety] is simply SHUT UP”. And her pal India Knight wrote a column, also in the Times, claiming that “everybody gets depressed…You long for someone to say: “I felt like crap for two years and then I got over it. Which is, by the way, what normal people do”.

One problem with these folksy presentations of mental illness is that they assume everyone’s problems will be helped by the same techniques. More importantly, the issue is always placed firmly in the past tense: “I was anxious, but then I…”

Our culture is full of these stories. The real problem is that young, talented people with mental health problems absorb them and suddenly feel immensely pressured to recover, to be normal, or to be a success story (“if only I could just turn my depression into art…”)

Media shows us who we can be. Women artists with mental health problems – Amy Winehouse, Plath, Woolf – are often presented by media in a way that both glamorises their illness and minimises their humanity. For an example of the kind of media we’re surrounded by, look at Vice’s tasteless 2013 photo-shoot with models re-enacting the suicides of famous women artists.

It matters.

Because young female artists with mental health problems look to culture for role models, for arcs to follow, for ways forward.

And the narratives they see about people like themselves are often tragic, glamorous, but glitteringly triumphant – like the stories about Plath. Mentally ill women artists are culturally associated with glamour, genius and death. Imagine growing up with that pressure. Imagine growing up believing that all successful, happy, creative people are secretly sad, and that being an artist means dying young and unhappy.

So, there’s work to be done. Young artists need mentally ill role models. Young people need media representation of people with ongoing mental health issues leading normal and successful lives. It’s not enough to sit back, look at media representation and think “That’s enough! People are talking about it, problem solved!”
As ever, imagination and vision are key to creating new narratives for our lives.

Anxiety & Me, part 3: The stories that make us

[this is the third in a series of six essays on creativity and mental illness, which will be serialised on Bootleg Noise in the coming weeks. Part one, part two, part four]

Browsing the web after the “little bit mentally ill” incident, I found several articles by Matthew Haig describing his writing journey and struggle with depression. In an excellent piece in the Telegraph, (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/wellbeing/10758065/Suffering-from-depression-It-was-touch-and-go-but-Ididnt-jump.html) he wrote that “words help give us the building blocks to build another mind, very often with a better view. My mess of a mind needed shape, and external narratives I found in… books, offered hope and became reasons to stay alive.”
I enjoyed the piece, and related strongly. During my last depressive phase, my concentration worsened: I couldn’t focus, couldn’t work much, couldn’t read much. I was unable to be interested in a book. But in April 2014, I found a copy of Margaret Attwood’s Alias Grace, read the first page, and was hooked.
My reading muscles were so weak that I ended up mouthing to myself as I read, painstakingly visualising the characters and highlighting as I went. But when I was done I hit the second-hand bookshops, left with an armful of novels, and became a reader again.
Yes, the stories we write and read can help us. Yes, we need them desperately.
But.
My concern is that recovery narratives like Haig’s are framed by media in a way that doesn’t reflect a common, unspoken experience of mental illness: most people have to be at a certain level of wellness to read and write in the first place.
By the time I read Alias Grace, I was already feeling better. Only a few months before, I would have been unable to read it all the way through. Going back to the books was a sign of partial recovery, not a miracle cure.
The idea that ‘art rescues people’ can spark enormous creative guilt.
I’ve talked to young artists who can’t work, study or produce because of their illness – and who worry that they’re somehow doing it wrong. But sapped creativity doesn’t make you innately uncreative; it just means your energy is being burned up elsewhere.
The idea that mental illness necessarily fuels art – that we somehow gain a deeper connection to books and writing through the experience – is one of the most pernicious misconceptions I’ve ever come across. Perhaps it’s true for some, but certainly not for all. To be honest, mental illness is so tiring and boring that it burns us out at times. And then many of us wonder if we should be fired up to create, instead of feeling totally fed up.