The Romance of Mental Illness

We, as a society, romanticize mental illness to a truly ridiculous degree. We focus on the “mad artist” stereotype– or the “mad genius”. That in and of itself is evidence of something else at work, because when you just look at the creative fields as a whole, you do run across a few more crazy people than in other fields, but the plethora of people who succeed creatively without being crazy suggests it’s not a requirement. If you actually look at the people who are currently top writers, many have had hardships of one sort or another, or drug addictions, but they’re not mentally ill, and the ones like Stephen King who’ve had drug addictions have said that it’s not a way of blotting out their oversensitivity the way we assume. (I defy anyone to read “On Writing” and still call King “sensitive”.)

If you look at the mad genius stereotype by looking at the top people across several fields, you get even fewer crazy people. There are some outliers who are difficult to work with (Steve Jobs, anyone?), but it’s realistically caused those people difficulty in their fields to be that way, and usually they’re still in some form of creative field, or a field like computers where you can again get by while being a little bit separate from the norm. This also offers an explanation for why there are a few more people with mental illness in the creative fields than in others. You can succeed in the arts while being a bit out there. Not to a truly extreme degree, even in the arts, but the people who are still halfway functional can succeed in the arts where they’re not functional enough to succeed in a 9-5 job. It’s entirely possible that there are some people who would be brilliant at corporate takeovers or setting up a plastics factory, but they’re never managed to raise themselves high enough in those fields because we don’t fetishize craziness in those fields. You’re expected to be normal if you work there.

There are several problems with looking at things this way. The most obvious is that this particular stereotype tends to be kind of a prettified version of things. People looking at this see the incredible works of art produced this way– and I don’t deny that there are some incredible works of art produced by troubled or mentally ill people– but they don’t see the burdens that one lives with when one has a mental illness. Being an artist doesn’t get you a pass when you’re in the grocery store trying to deal with how utterly overwhelmed you are by the lights and the people, or when you want to slice your skin open, or any of a host of other ways the problems interact with daily life. And art is already a difficult way to make a living; it’s even harder when you can’t cope with normal life and thus have even less safety net than people who could theoretically survive in an office job.

Would I trade mine? No, not if it meant losing the way I see the world. But mine is mild enough that despite being largely untreated (I eventually got diagnosed, and I’ve had straight-up therapy, but never any form of specialized treatment), I’m in graduate school now. Getting through school, or even just daily life, is a monumental effort for me, and even my relatively mild form causes me problems in the workplace. If it were worse than it is right now? If I were even less in touch with the plane everyone else lives on? I might change that answer.


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