Western civilization hasn’t kicked the nasty old habit of stigmatizing mental health in different ways. Except in the arts and literature, maybe. Creatives are allowed to be odd, at least in retrospect.
A few words of warning: One needs to tread carefully around this subject to not enable a culture of self-fulfilling prophesies around eccentric charisma in the arts. And we should try to avoid the dark side of popularized medical terminology too. Diagnoses are useful for managing treatments and aspects everyday life, not as labels for entire persons.
But mentally ill artists and writers have indeed been discussed ad nauseum throughout western cultural history. Consider how 4th century Plato saw weird mental states as a divine gift. In his time, 19th century romantic Lord Byron went as far saying that “we of the craft are all crazy.” Is there anything to this speculation?
Neurologist Adrienne Sussman offers a quite readable walkthrough of the modern science on the subject in an article in a 2007 issue of the Stanford Journal of Neuroscience. In her paper, Sussman goes as far as stating that the link has been researched to some extent but that the results remain inconclusive. The ways certain people’s brains invoke creativity may, at least, have things in common with the mechanisms of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Below, we explore eight beloved but suffering writers who managed to channel their ideas into legendary work. Perhaps both despite and thanks to their ailments.
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) is believed to have suffered from a bipolar disorder. The alcoholism that ended up killing him may have been an attempt at self-medication gone wrong. Poe lived through highly varying swings between productivity and despair. Signs of manic cycles include periods when he made commitments such as joining the army only to regret it later, not to mention his marrying a thirteen-year-old. Debt from compulsive spending on luxuries he couldn’t afford and paranoid traits (the suspicion of other plagiarizing him) plagued him until the end of his life.
By middle-age Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was a successful writer, but as he plunged into a massive depression he only saw himself as a has-been with his greatest work behind him. In his own words, he the crisis dragged him deep enough to rob him of even the energy for suicide, a feeling not unusual among people with severe depression. Tolstoy worked hard to make sense of his fate, struggled on and lived a long life, possibly due to his religious awakening.
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) is well understood as a bipolar personality by many who have studied her life. According to the book “Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Manic Depression and the Life of Virginia Woolf” (Peter Dally, 1999), her writing tapped into a desperate need for an outlet for a chaotic inner life. Dally finds her work fitting into the cycles the bipolar illness. Woolf’s husband describes her as often being relatively balanced when she started working on new projects. She then often progressed towards rambling, talkative hypomania and delusional mania during the course of writing. Depression, it is claimed, usually hit her at the revision stage. Woolf committed suicide by drowning herself.
Ernest Hemingway’s (1889-1961) was a man of dark and violent writing known for orgiastic splurges into drinking, adventure and sportsmanship. Descending from a family tree crowded with mental illness, he displayed showed a colorful mix of bipolar traits. During his declining alcoholism-ridden years before his suicide, he suffered psychotic episodes. According to a 2006 article in American Psychiatry magazine, Hemingway’s family background was riddled with suicidal bipolar persons. But the article argues that Hemingway’s trauma of abusive parents may have contributed to abusive, controlling and desperately insecure behavior. This could fit the diagnostic criteria of borderline or narcissistic personality disorders.
F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) and his wife Zelda Fitzgerald (1900-1948) certainly weren’t able to support each other in their ailments through their famously tumultuous marriage. The couple had their heyday during the partying days of the early 1920s. Their combined public personas projected a youthful image that fit the themes of post-WWI growth explored in some of F. Scott’s work With F. Scott’s trajectory towards the final abyss of his alcoholism, which already kept his work schedule and finances erratic, Zelda got obsessive, unstable and diagnosed with a schizophrenia that may have been a misdiagnosed bipolar disorder. Both Fitzgeralds died in their forties, F. Scott through a heart attack due to alcoholism and Zelda in a fire awaiting electro shock therapy.
Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), also a likely bipolar sufferer, submerged into a massive, suicidal depression in college after some of her initial success as a fiction writer and poet. She got sufficient treatment to resurface and finish her studies and a thesis on Dostoevsky. She married British poet Ted Hughes, started a family in England and balanced family life with dark and heavy writing from the mid-fifties until 1963. After a separation and a winter with her children in a cold house with frozen pipes and no phone, her work had continued despite a doctor’s orders to use medication and seek psychotherapy. Friends said Plath seemed hopeful despite some disappointment with the critical reception of her book The Bell Jar. She did however gas herself to death with the stove in her kitchen.
Prolific sci-fi writer and post-humous Hollywood darling Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) built his work on elaborate musings on the nature of the human psyche, the sense of identity and existence in relation to technology, capitalist society and drugs. Working for years and years in cycles of multi-day runs of writing and crashing to sleep after stimulant binges probably took a tool on his body, as Dick died following a stroke. But there are some indications Dick experienced hallucinations and mystic visions long before a famously unhinged period during the seventies. In an essay from 1965, he discusses his own schizophrenic traits. By the mid 70’s Dick proclaimed to have dumped the stimulants as “unnecessary”, but not before a number of hallucinations made him believe in, among other things, interdimensional beings. Dick approached this and his recovery from drug use in his later work, such as the paranoid dystopia A Scanner Darkly.
Do you know of any writers or books that have impacted your understanding mental illness? Please let us know in the comment section below.