There have been a lot of people coming out lately about their own problems with mental health. On October 10th, World Mental Health Day was recognized worldwide. The day was initially celebrated in 1992, by the World Federation of Mental Health, to educate, and to advocate against social stigma. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and Prince Harry gave a speech on the subject and spoke at several other public events. Night/Weekend editor of Esquire magazine Sammie Nickalls is also a mental health advocate, that recently created the #TalkingAboutIt hashtag. So, because of all of this, I though I'd muster up the bravery to talk about my own struggles with mental health.
When I was seventeen, I was diagnosed with a chronic illness known as Schizoaffective Disorder, which is characterized by symptoms of Schizophrenia, like hallucinations and delusions, and symptoms of a mood disorder, like mania or depression. This has been a great challenge for me in my life, but I didn't want to make this blog post only about my condition as an illness, but also about how it has affected me as a creative person. There have been many studies, such as in this article on Art and Mental Illness from the Stanford Journal of Neuroscience, that show a greater prevalence of mental illness among artists, writers, musicians and actors.
I would say that even though I wasn't diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder until age seventeen, due to a major episode, I know that this is the way my brain has worked all along.
I have always been a person who enjoys quietude. I am an introvert. In fact, I only score one point for extroversion on the Meyers Briggs. But this tendency goes beyond having a reserved personality. Throughout my life, I have felt isolated, alone, misunderstood. I've always been a very detached person. In high school, when I discovered black and white photography, I used it as an escape. Through the lens of my camera, the world stood still. It felt like I was truly able to see, for the very first time. But this feeling of isolation is sometimes connected to depression. Even when I am with friends, I have often felt alone somehow, and unable to express myself in a way that makes sense to most people.
I have long felt an affinity with Vincent van Gogh. I am not sure that it is known as to what kind of mental illness he had, but I think that without the treatments that they have today, I would be very much in the same situation he was in. Without my medication, I also suffered from horrible episodes, hallucinations, and lack of self-worth. With treatment, I am much better—but my life has still been wrought with depression, periods of severe poverty, homelessness, and other related problems.
The first symptom people often associate with Schizophrenia is hearing voices. But there is more to the auditory aspect of my illness than this. It's true, that sometimes it feels as if people are talking who aren't there, or almost as if my thought process separates into other people and becomes auditory. Sometimes the things people are saying in another room seems distorted, or I become really over-sensitized to noise—so much sometimes that I need to leave a party or a public event with a noisy crowd.
But there is a creative flip-side to these symptoms. I have sat in a completely quiet room and listened to an entire violin concerto that, as far as I know, has never been played. I listen very carefully to music. Sometimes, when I've gone to a symphony or chamber music concert, I feel as if I can absorb every note. But when I leave, hearing a honking car in the street, or any other loud noise feels upsetting to my senses. I have been encouraged by friends who are composers to someday write music. Now that we will soon be getting a piano, I plan to do this. Robert Schumann and Dmitri Shostakovich also had experiences of musical hallucinations.
For me, the depression part of my illness is exhausting. Coffee helps, it's true, and melancholia is not necessarily always bad—but sometimes the weight of depression is unbearable. It feels like a heavy burden on my soul. It feels sometimes like a struggle to keep going. In my work as an artist, I have found ways of fighting against this, of feeling stronger.
Since last year, I've begun painting large figures. I had painted the figure in the past, but now they have more weight, solidity and mass than before. I always paint standing up, but more recently, and I think because of the depression, I feel as if standing strong, and painting the figure in a way that is strong, is a way of holding up my own weight, and even lifting the weight of the figures in the painting.
My experiences with mania also have a lot to do with creativity. When I've been on a manic swing, I stop sleeping, and will work restlessly for hours, days and weeks on creative projects. The problem with this is twofold. First, even though I'm being super productive, I stop sleeping. Second, even though at first it seems as if my mind becomes more advanced, that I can do things that before were not possible, and that I can unravel complex philosophical mysteries in my academic writings, it slowly becomes apparent that I am starting to come apart at the seams. What was at first a brilliant vision plummets into a frightening and empty delusion.
Although I have struggled with my mental health throughout my life, I have learned to see it as a gift. A blessing and not a curse. It is important for people to know that struggling with depression, for me anyway, is a completely different thing than unhappiness. I'm a happy person, with an abundant life, a beautiful wife and family, a budding art career, and so many things that I love to do and live for. But depression and Schizophrenia is an illness. When I battle with it, I feel sick, just like people get sick in other ways. I may not have a temperature, or feel nauseous, but when I suffer I feel ill, and I need to give myself time to rest, and to heal.