There’s a painting at the Tate Gallery in London that has always mystified me. A red-haired boy, dressed in 17th century garb of white shirt and cobalt blue knickers lies dead in a tattered bed in an attic garret. A small vial slipped from his fingers on the wooden floor next to the bed. The boy is Thomas Chatterton, the London poet.
The mystery surrounds why great writers, painters, poets, actors, comedians’ mercurial temperaments cause them to take their own lives. Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and now Robin Williams are all a part of this club: the melancholic genius. Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychologist at John Hopkins and manic depression sufferer, writes about this connection between madness and genius in her book Touched with Fire.
“Who would not want an illness that has among its symptoms elevated and expansive mood, inflated self-esteem, abundance of energy, less need for sleep, intensified sexuality, and- most germane to our argument here-“sharpened and unusually creative thinking” and “increased productivity”?” Jamison says in her book.
Eight years ago, I lost a friend to suicide. Cat was a gifted painter of whimsical creations, a poet, and a Kurt Cobain lookalike with her long stringy blond hair and angular jaw bone. She wore homespun skirts and beaded sandals. Cat had bipolar disorder and epilepsy. She decided to take a rest from her meds. She couldn’t seem to break free from the nursing home where she lived into independent living again. She jumped from an overpass in Chicago’s south side. She was 37.
Cat came to me with a quirky joke and an incredible, indescribable laugh which suggested her joie de vivre. Whether in cooking, art, books, fashion or words, she devoted her full self to it.
I met Cat when I worked at the now defunct Borders Books and Music on Michigan Avenue. During a lunch break, we sat on the couch in the break room perusing her artists’ book and her poems. I could tell that by her Van Gogh like brushstrokes and her creative language usage that she might be a member of the Depressed Artist’s Club I learned about in high school English. She spoke her truth several days later when we were cooking pumpkin pie in her tiny studio apartment in Lincoln Park for a party and I spotted a book on her shelf titled The Depression Workbook.
“I own that one too,” I blurted out. Then, she poured open her story of hospitalizations, medication trials, and hopeless feelings mental illness brings. I shared that I had been to AA, had bouts of depression and this strange energy psychiatrists deem hypomania.
Depression, Bipolar 1, Bipolar 2, with its depressions and hypomanias, a low grade energy that keeps one overly productive on goals, Schizophrenia, Anxiety, ADHD, Autism infuse themselves in great art, theater, and works of literature, yet are misunderstood and stigmatized by society.
I remember the time during college when thinking I was alone and couldn’t write anymore I scratched on my wrists with razors and promptly drank a carafe of red wine after seeing Hamlet at the Brattle Theater. It didn’t matter that my journalism for the student paper received great complements and helped many. It did’t matter that my poetry amazed my professors. It didn’t matter. Nothing did.
It was a haze of medications and therapy that supported me through two graduate degree programs. And finally, it was lithium and Abilify, that woke me up, helping me live in and appreciate the present moment.
For me, Cat’s death brought out my own inner fears and demons. Dee Carstensen’s song “Hemingway’s shotgun” says it all when she sings “someday you’ll find it staring at yourself.” Chilling. Everyone will somehow one day find themselves relating to depression and suicide.
This subject has been caressed upon beautifully in prose by Andrew Solomon and Elizabeth Wurtzel and others. Yet still, people struggle. Yet still, stigma exists. Yet still, the mystery surrounding mental illness is both baffling and terrifying. Those of us who suffer search ardently for an answer, one that comes with unanswerable questions of the artistic temperament.
And those watchers of sufferers struggle twice-fold, once by sharing the pain as witness, and again by the great madness befalling themselves.
I know a blogger, whose lapses in posts can be traced to her phases of her bipolar disorder. She wants to write books someday but her illness keeps her scattered and disorganized, paralyzed with fear at how to start. She is a tragic figure always moving from depression to depression, making Youtube video status updates on her writing progress eking through life never seeming to write anything concrete. She writes her blog in spurts of energy for a few days and then nothing for months.
Virginia Woolf went through fits of manic writing for months. And then came the paralyzing psychosis and depression, from which the last time she never recovered and ended her life. But she wrote some of the most chilling accounts of our “cottonwool” society. She wrote about how we live in moments of being and nonbeing. Mostly nonbeing. Gradual shocks wake us up to the moments making us realize we are alive. Maybe, some of us, the more sensitive temperaments have trouble sitting in and dealing with these shocks. Maybe, these shocks help some of us find artistic moments of excellence.