Creativity and Mental Illness

This past week I rediscovered something that has the power to calm my mind and lift me out of a deep depression, even if only temporarily. I was struggling to find joy, purpose, connection, and stability. I felt lonely, but reaching out felt too hard. Depression changes the way I view myself and my life. When I am depressed, my problems seem huge and overwhelming. I obsess over things I can’t control–others’ behavior, past mistakes, fears about the future, or outside circumstances. I begin to feel powerless, frustrated, and discouraged. When others are unkind, or when I feel disrespected, judged, unloved, or ignored, I start to doubt my worth. I cry and feel sorry for myself, or I get angry and push people away. I forget to look within. When I do, I often find that the answers I am seeking are already inside of me–my intrinsic worth, my faith in God, my ability to love, my creativity, my gifts and talents, and my inner strength.

Last week, I rediscovered my inner artist. I remembered how much I love to draw, play with patterns, express my creativity, and brighten my world with color. When I give myself time and space to express my creativity, without judgment or expectation, I find joy! There is definitely an artist inside me, but it rarely comes out. I guess I am afraid. I’m a beginner–art is not something I have studied or practiced. I worry about being “good enough” and being able to create something beautiful. I compare myself to others who have practiced and developed their skills. I doubt my own abilities. But then I just start drawing and creating. It is fun! It starts to flow. I stop caring about impressing others and I just enjoy the process of creation. I give myself permission to experiment and try something new. I am practicing and learning and having fun! It doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s just for me.

Since being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I have wondered about the link between creativity and mental illness. Mania seems to spark in me an intense desire to write. This symptom, called hypergraphia, is sometimes experienced by people with bipolar 1 disorder during a manic episode. I also write at other times too, not just when I am manic. Mania just seems to speed up the process a bit! My mind is flooded with ideas and information, and it needs somewhere to go! I have noticed that many people with bipolar disorder also like to write. I wonder why?

Depression isn’t known to “spark” creativity, but I find that art has a way of soothing me when I am stressed, anxious, or feeling low. I’ve noticed that most mental hospitals use art therapy for their patients, too! It is interesting to me that the line through which I inherited mental illness is the same line through which I inherited my artistic, creative, and musical talents. My dad’s mom was a musical prodigy. She started playing the violin at age 4. As an adult, she played for many years in the Utah Symphony. She had perfect pitch and could tell you the name of any note just by hearing it. I remember how she would sit down at the piano and play familiar hymns from memory, without needing music. It was incredible!

I wonder if my grandma, who suffered for much of her adult life with depression, used “music therapy” in a similar way that I use “art therapy”. When I do art, my mind seems to switch gears. Instead of ruminating about past mistakes, over-thinking, or feeling stress or anxiety about the future, my mind goes quiet. I stop “thinking” and I just focus on doing. That is an unusual thing for me! I have an active mind that is constantly going. It is hard to turn it off at night and I have struggled for years with falling asleep. It is exhausting to have a brain that can’t shut off–it literally makes my head sore!

I haven’t felt much like writing lately, but I just wanted to share this insight! Art and creative expression are lifting my mood and helping me to feel better about myself. If you are going through a depression, feeling extra anxious, or just needing a distraction to calm your active mind, maybe art therapy could help you too!

What are your unique gifts and talents? How do you feel when you express them?