Tim Kreider recently made an excellent point in his always hilarious weekly comic strip, “The Pain–When Will It All End?” In the note below the illustration, Kreider writes:
“Let the record show that the hooch did William Faulkner’s prose, health, and complexion no favors, and he ended up cowering from invisible dive-bombing Jerries; that Miles Davis mostly sat around watching TV while on heroin and only returned to making music after successfully kicking it; and that as Chancellor of Germany Adolf Hitler made some very poor policy and strategic decisions, at least some of which might be attributed to the daily injections of amphetaimes his doctor had him on after ’42 or so, and that the bad end to which he ultimately came was a direct result of his own poor judgment. Among others, he committed the most famous of the classic blunders: Never Get Involved in the Land War in Asia. A textbook meth-head move. In a clichéd denoument straight out of so many drug education filmstrips, he ended up shooting his wife and himself in an underground bunker while the Russian army closed in around his crumbling empire and his body was doused in gasoline and set on fire, and now he is the most hated person in world history.”
I point this out because I often see people classified or formally diagnosed as bipolar lauded for their creativity. Often it’s the bipolar person himself or herself making the association. From there, it’s only a short misstep to proclaiming bipolar disorder a veritable sine qua non of good artistic works and hence as a de facto asset.
Noted 20th-century novelist Graham Greene made the following observation:
“[Greene] was, he later explained to Vivien, ‘a character profoundly antagonistic to ordinary domestic life”, his restlessness and moods being symptoms of a disease. ‘Unfortunately, the disease is also one’s material.'”
Greene’s life on the whole was, not only by others’ testimony but by his own admission, a predictable morass of womanizing, poor accountability, and generally unpredictable behavior.
It’s one thing to look for unifying traits among people with troubling mood disorders and seek silver linings in those disorders. But rationalization and plain self-deceit are first cousins, and to pretend that the bipolar writer, painter, or musician requires periods of mania in order to maintain properly affected output is a load of shit. This is not only because of the poor trade-off Kreider describes, but because of simple averaging.
If a marathon coach told you to transition from weekdays of no running and Saturdays and Sundays of 35 miles each to a simple 10-miles-a-day regimen, you probably wouldn’t accuse him of robbing you of motivation. A nutritionist who advises people who fast two days in every three and knock back 6,000 calories on eating days to take in about 2,000 calories daily would probably not be accused of ruining people’s appetites. Other, equally trivial but illustrative examples abound. Yet those in the sizable community of bipolar people are often led to believe, through their own analyses or through others’, that dealing with their symptoms through pharmacology or other means spells a virtual end to creativity.
I would argue that this is bullshit. For one thing, among writers, much of what’s produced during manic episodes is undirected or misdirected garbage, nothing more than glaring evidence of someone with a keyboard and an aversion to sitting or lying still. For another, and hearkening to the analogies above, the fact that such people usually experience lows as often as they do highs spells an overall output lower than that of someone able to churn out a certain amount of material daily or almost daily. A few nights a week or month of high-octane verbosity cannot, except for the most talented, compensate for to many strings of days spend in lassitude or outright paralysis, where the whole idea of sitting before a keyboard presents as a Sisyphean task. Perhaps this “theory” would have merit if the mania added a qualitative element that was otherwise lacking, but there’s no evidence that it adds anything but energy. Vim is important, but in bipolars it comes coupled to far too many destructive patterns to be properly labeled an asset.
Clearly, the association between bipolar disorder–like any mental-health diagnosis a subjective one and hence probably applied with undue enthusiasm to highly successful artistic sorts–and creativity is real. But for every Peter Gabriel or Sting or Graham Greene are thousands of people whose lives simply suck on account of the difficulty of managing the composite of symptoms formerly labeled “manic-depressive disorder.” It is as ludicrous to paint bipolar disorder as an asset in any functional way as it is to look at the average pre-winnings incomes of lottery winners and conclude that poverty is a strong indicator of great luck.