Monday, December 10, 2007

Creativity, Mental Illness, and the Arts

I always start out with the intention of writing more frequently. What happens so often is that my own thoughts distract me. Even when I am not all that distracted I become indecisive. Having an anxiety disorder, this is one of the issues that I deal with constantly. I can become paralyzed from moving forward not because I am afraid but rather from constantly debating with myself which direction is the best. Or I may see too many options and cannot decide with to follow first. It amounts to hurry up and wait. My brain has now calmed down a bit and the dust has settled.

Let me first tell you an old joke. The terminology is a bit dated and politically incorrect but I don’t care. A salesman is driving down a country road on the way to his next appointment when he gets a flat tire. The only place with enough room to pull over is in front of the county mental hospital. As the salesman gets out of his car he notices a patient in an upper floor window watching him from behind the bars. “No harm,” he thinks. The salesman open the trunk, gets out the jack and the spare tire and goes to work. Carefully he places the lug nuts into the hubcap so he won’t loose them. As he rolls the flat off to the side a large truck goes speeding by causing a rush of air. The gust of wind picks up the hubcap throwing it into the air scattering all the lug nuts into the drainage ditch and field. Thinking to himself the salesman says, “What am I going to do? How can I put the spare on without the lug nuts?” He then hears a voice calling to him. It is the patient watching from the window. “What do you want?” the salesman says. The patient yells back, “Take one lug nut from the other three wheels and use them to hold the spare onto the wheel. There is a town just a few miles down the road. If you drive slowly and carefully you should make it there and can get everything repaired.” The salesman was stunned this was a great idea. He yells back to the patient, “Thanks, that’s a really good idea. But how, how…?” “How did I think of it?”, the patient responds. “Well I’ll tell you mister I may be crazy but I’m not stupid.”

I may be crazy but I’m not stupid has become one of my mantras. This story shows what society in general thinks about those of us who have a mental illness. Mentally ill people must be in some sense inferior to those who are not mentally ill. Society likes to think that it is not as prejudiced as it really is. One need only go into the work place and tell coworkers and managers that they have diabetes and need to take medication and there will be an outpouring of sympathy and understanding. Yet, let the same person go into work and say I have a mental illness and need to take medication and watch the difference in attitude. Interestingly enough these are both chemical imbalances in the body. Why does society view them differently? Even among people and institutions that can and should know better this same attitude is prevalent. This is something that I know for a fact because it contributed to my losing my last job.

For the past 16 years I have been treated for the mental illness known as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I used to refer to it as my “disability” but I think that this is a far too gentile word lacking impact. In the last 4 years of treatment and therapy I have come to find out that I also suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) stemming from my mother emotionally and psychologically abusing me as a child. Please save the violins. I am not looking for sympathy. I am only looking to explain and educate. In the past, especially when I was younger, I kept it secret because I knew that I would be stigmatized and rejected. I changed jobs frequently (every 18-24 months) when I suspected that I could no longer pass for normal. I didn’t necessarily want to be “normal” I just wanted to work and be accepted for who I was so that I could support myself, and later my family, and have money left over to make art.

I eventually got a job at a college in the greater Grand Rapids, MI area. I naively thought I might have found a place to call home because they said they wanted people who could think “outside the box” and that they reached out to people of diverse backgrounds. Being an artist I always thought outside the box and having a mental illness I was about as diverse as you could get. It sounded like a match. The problem was that I believed what they said and they didn’t say what they believed. I was eventually forced to admit my illness. To this educated community it didn’t matter; I didn’t do things their way so I was unwanted. I felt that in dealing with me they were educated enough to stay just within the law but well outside their stated philosophy. As they old saying goes, they weren’t willing to put their money where their mouth was.

That was perhaps one of the best things that happened to me. The US government has now certified me as being mentally ill and disabled. It’s like letting me free from a confining space and no longer having to pretend who or what I am as a person. I am still getting used to it. I am still stretching out and rediscovering long unused muscles. I no longer have to feel ashamed of myself. It is a great relief.

Over a year ago I was involved in an interview by a local newspaper. They came to a drop in center that has been set up specifically for those of us with mental illnesses. It was there that I told the reporter that if I had been given a choice early in life if I wanted to have these afflictions my answer would’ve been no. I did not choose them they chose me. Another person responded by saying if you could now magically remove them from us we would all probably say no. I agree with that statement. These illnesses have hammered, beat, and tempered me into the person that I am. I don’t ask for sympathy but only understanding and acceptance of who I am as a person. To help educate you let me give you a description of the disorder and how it affects me.

My OCD manifests itself in a variety of ways. Counting has always been one of the big things. How many steps with this foot versus how many with that foot; how many times did I touch this object with my left hand, how many with my right hand; stuff like that. I am also a hoarder. I keep useless scraps of paper or whatever because it JUST might be important and then I'll wish that I hadn't thrown it away. My studio is filled with clutter because it is difficult to throw anything away. But don't touch my piles because I know what is in them. I am also a security freak. In our last house I wore out 2 sets of door locks on the front door constantly checking them. I also have a phobia about fire. I have checked constantly to make sure that stoves, that are stone cold, really are turned off. I used to leave for work an hour and a half early to have enough time to go through my security issues just so I could be on time for work. I have never misplaced keys because I have always ritualistically put them in a specific place each day. I also suffer from religious scrupulosicity. For too many years I was convinced that I was condemned to hell for any minor infraction of...nothing...of being human. I also have very low-grade ticks and snorts. OCD is related to Tourette's Syndrome and that might be the connection. It might also be the reason that I am so outspoken. People with Tourette’s blurt out inappropriate words or phrases for no apparent reason. On my last job I would recheck information numerous times for fear of giving a wrong answer to a student and then suffering the wrath of my boss.

My mother's mother had OCD, which manifested itself as religious scrupulousity. My mother had OCD in the form of hoarding and obsessive cleaning of 1 item (her cooking pots) while the rest of her house was a complete disaster. One of her sisters had OCD, manifested as obsessive cleanliness and counting and a brother who suffered from panic attacks. Then there was me with the above symptoms. The next generation is both of my daughters. They both have panic attacks and counting symptoms. The oldest is also a hoarder.

Over the last 40 years I have never stayed at a job for more than 2 years. Beyond that I could no longer pass for normal. I lost my last job because of the difficulties in controlling my OCD. In my case it has given me a very intense, concrete, and direct personality, not the warm fuzzy one that employers embrace. It was not that I was rude or uncaring, as I would so frequently be accused, but I was just very specific and matter-of fact. I am now considered unemployable and on complete disability. My psychiatrist and therapist say that I have an extreme form of the disorder. Ever since I became disabled it has become a bit easier. I no longer have to try to be someone other than myself. I don't have to hide who I really am and at my age (58) I don't care what people might think, and I don't have to try to pass for normal. Talk about something that sucks all the energy out of you.

With the ADD I always had a hard time concentrating or focusing for long periods of time. My mind was always eager to go on to the next thought. In school it was very easy to get distracted and loose track of where I was or what I was supposed to be doing. The same held true in the workplace.

The PTSD gave me an overwhelming need to become strong, mentally, emotionally, and even physically. This may have been due to being beat up emotionally by my mother. If you have ever seen the TV show, “The Sopranos”, think of the mob boss’ (Tony Soprano) mother, the wonderfully pathological “Olivia”. That was my mother. Maybe that is why I use strong color, shape, form, and light. I have a need to overwhelm others in order to protect myself. It may be why I am very protective about my family. It may also be why I have intolerance for things, people, or situations that are unjust or unfair.

Since this is becoming so lengthy I will break this into parts. In the next part I will let you know how this has impacted my art and how I see art and mental illness, in general, working together. I hope to have this posted within 2 weeks. I will include things that I have found as I have been reading about creativity and mental illness. This is more than just about art but creativity in all aspects of life. How people with mental illness see things differently than others and this leads to creative problem solving. But for now let me list a few names of famous people who were mentally ill and had a positive impact on life and history because of their creative thinking.

Abraham Lincoln, the admired sixteenth President of the United States suffered from severe and incapacitating clinical depression which sometimes led to thoughts of suicide as well.

Lionel Aldridge, as a defensive end for the legendary Green Bay Packers of the 1960's, he played in two Super Bowls. During the 1970's, he suffered from schizophrenia and spent two and a half years homeless.

Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace, Tolstoy revealed the depth of his own mental illness in the memoir Confession. He suffered from clinical depression, hypochondriasis, alcoholism, and substance abuse.

Isaac Newton, the English mathematician and scientist who formulated the theory of gravitation is suspected of suffering from bipolar disorder.

Winston Churchill, the quote "Had he been a stable and equable man, he could never have inspired the nation. In 1940, when all the odds were against Britain, a leader of sober judgment might well have concluded that we were finished," was written by Anthony Storr about Churchill's bipolar disorder.

John Forbes Nash, mathematician, author of the game theory of economics, winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economics, he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. He was also the subject of the book and movie "A Beautiful Mind". His son, who is also a mathematician, suffers from schizophrenia.

Michelangelo in The Dynamics of Creation by Anthony Storr it discloses the mental illness of one of the world's greatest artistic geniuses.

The first painting is oil on hardwood panel and measures 24” X 36”. Once again I have been using Dorland’s cold wax medium. I was asked to show a progression of how I get to where I am going. I am afraid that I do not have a very efficient method of painting. There are many layers and one color covers over another. But it works for me and gives me the result that I am looking for. These are phases 2-5. Phase one is the panel primed with an earth tone acrylic and a very simple and loose brush drawing marking out the large masses. The difference between phase 4 and 5 is subtle, the adding of a few red embellishments.

The second piece is oil on prepared paper and measures roughly 30” X 22” and is a continuation of my practicing portrait skills. I promised Jafabrit that I would send her the portrait I did of her. I apologize to her because this ill mind of mine is so easily distracted. I plan on her having it by Christmas.