The artistic drive in many historical figures has been characterized as an inner madness driving them to create.
It was the type of madness that haunted Edgar Allen Poe, the way the heartbeat emerged through the floorboards in The Telltale Heart. Ernest Hemingway, the man who wrote standing up, said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
That type of passion and raw desire to slather a page in emotion can be seen as a crazy devotion. It could also be seen as a type of mania. Both of these men suffered from what is known as bipolar disorder.
People with bipolar disorder can appear to be disorganized, unpredictable, or unsteady as they shift between depression and mania.
Dr. Michael Brodsky, medical director of Bridges to Recovery, a residential treatment center with locations in southern California, deals with bipolar disorder on a regular basis and said people with the disorder often possess numerous enigmatic personal qualities that make them capable of many great things, including being a fantastic significant other.
“If these get channeled in the right way, there’s great benefit in dating a charismatic, energetic, and inspirational person,” Dr. Brodsky said. “It’s a pleasant thing to be around such creative people.”
In fact, the creativity of various bipolar minds has and continues to alter the landscape of modern art, literature, and science. They create the lasting characters, play them in films, and decorate the halls of museums with canvases of vivid imagery.
They not only create art, but they challenge the institutions of their medium while exploring the depths of expression. Some of the more notable known bipolar artists, writers, and thinkers include:
- Stephen Fry: This beloved British author, actor, and funnyman openly speaks about his bipolar disorder and documented others’ cases as well.
- Daniel Johnston: This musician’s struggle with bipolar disorder was well documented in the film The Devil and Daniel Johnson.
- Jack London: Author of White Fang, Call of the Wild, and more, experts speculate this American author suffered from bipolar disorder due to his heavy drinking and often-unpredictable behavior.
- Edvard Munch: The painter who painted the famous The Scream also suffered from a condition “verging on madness” that included heavy drinking and brawling, which is cause for some to believe his inner torment was caused by bipolar disorder.
- Florence Nightingale: Experts believe the mother of modern nursing suffered from bipolar disorder, which contributed to her tireless devotion to her cause.
- Edgar Allan Poe: Some speculate the demons that haunted this influential (and dark) poet could have been bipolar disorder.
- Jackson Pollock: This famous abstract painter would retreat during times of depression, while other times working furiously for 24 hours a day when inspiration hit, two key signs of bipolar disorder.
- Vincent Van Gogh: The troubles and turmoil of Van Gogh’s life—including infamously cutting off his own ear and sending it to his love—also provided inspiration for beautiful art that continues to inspire many. There is debate about what specifically he suffered from, one of those educated guesses being bipolar disorder.
- Virginia Woolf: Like other authors, Woolf suffered from a “madness” that caused mood swings, but also allowed for her to create many famous works.
- Ernest Hemingway: Diagnosed in his later years, Hemingway’s bipolar disorder was only made worse by his alcoholism, but none of it could take away from his contributions to literature. He won both the Nobel Prize in Literature and a Pulitzer,
Mental disorders, such as bipolar disorder and depression, have even been theorized to be able to affect change in society because their disorders altered the way they looked at life and they obsessed to positively change it. Examples include Nightingale’s changes in medicine, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, or Abraham Lincoln’s abolition of slavery.
While these endeavors might not be viewed as “artistic,” they involve creativity to change the status quo, and make changes to society and impart knowledge and equality on generations to come.
It has yet to be explained whether people with bipolar disorder are drawn toward art, or art is drawn to bipolar people, but there is one undisputed fact with bipolar disorder: “The link to creativity is strong,” Dr. Brodsky said.
A study in the American Journal of Psychiatry from 1987 found that in 30 creative writers, there was a higher rate of mental illness, predominantly towards bipolar disorder. They also had superior IQs, which is another flattering thing.
Another study found that there was enhanced creativity in bipolar patients than those without a diagnosed mental disorder. The study, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2007, acknowledged its size and scope were limited, and that further study was needed to “determine the mechanisms of enhanced creativity and how it relates to clinical and preclinical parameters.”
Creative expression is often a type of therapy used for people with depression.
For some, it’s a way to make sense of the chaos of the disorder.
Natasha Tracy took her bipolar disorder and began Bipolar Burble, a blog about mental health and living as a “professional crazy person.” Tracy says she was drawn to writing to express her “internal crazy.”
“I didn’t start to write until that crazy appeared and starting yelling loudly. And once I did start, I found I could express things clearly through written words that I, and others, had difficulty expressing in any other way.” Tracy continued, “In my brain, thoughts are jumbled and move at the speed of light. In my head I have created an article in minutes, but when I sit down to write it, I’m forced to consider angles and nuance and, ‘is this really what I want to say?’ Like writing longhand forces you to focus on the curves and strokes of the letters, writing forces me to think of the reasons behind the thoughts, the connections and the true meaning therein.”
Her writing, which she has done since 2003, but only recently disclosed her identity, allowed her to put her feelings and emotions into writing. In turn, it helped others who could not put their own experience into words.
“This expression then helps them to better understand what they’re feeling and teaches them how to communicate it with others. Often people find my writing insightful and illuminating of part of their own disease,” she said. “And loved ones of those with a mental illness say they understand more about what their loved one goes through by reading my work.”
Like other creative bipolar people, Tracy’s expression differs from her depressed and manic states. In depression, she’s more moody and artistic, while mania allows her to produce many pieces, although she admits some of them can be incomprehensible.
No matter what or how much she writes, Tracy recommends writing as therapy for other people with bipolar disorder, especially to combat feelings of loneliness or being misunderstood.
“People with bipolar disorder often feel alone and like they are the only person in the world that feels a certain way and writing out loud, to the world, allows other people to come by and tell you how similar they feel,” Tracy said. “It builds a community around feelings and experiences shared by many. Writing things out is also very cathartic as it’s possible to write things no one feels comfortable talking about.”
As bipolar disorder often brings delusions of grandeur during mania, it also brings suicidal feelings during depression. Tracy says that writing can help release some of these feelings to play out in a safe way, while allowing a person to go back later and gain insight into those emotions.
“We all need to understand ourselves, our feelings and our thought processes better and nowhere is this more true than in bipolar disorder,” she said. “By writing things down patterns and cause and effect become more clear and we gain more insight into how our minds work.”