On Creativity and “Mental Illness,” Madness and Gratitude

I’m not sure when it occurred to me that I wasn’t drawing alone, that some strange grace was moving my hand, making the lines exceptionally fine.

“Oh, so this is what it means to be an artist.”


Everything becomes close to everything else, and somehow closer to itself.


My hand is not only my hand. It is a tool, a communicative device. I talk with myself and am spoken to, without a word or sound.

This dialogue, this transmission, began to happen very early in my process of drawing a picture every day for a year. I remembered the feeling from times I had drawn in the past. I knew it was the reason I had decided to draw again.

I studied the way figures bloomed on blank sheets and tried to lay down the landscapes that grew in my mind.

The past couple of months I’ve been drawing again, after a long hiatus that was cluttered with scheme and text. Sometimes the forms come more easily than others.

Last night, I felt the familiar comfort of drawing with the universe.

There is a certain calm; There is a certain confidence.

My hands buzz from within. My belly feels full, there is a holding in my chest…not as if I am holding something, but as if I am being held.

If one questions the source, or tries to take control, the lines falter.

Yesterday, however, was a good day and I rendered an elephant free and with ease.


There is something about drawing that teaches me about listening, about seeing,
about trust and interpretation.
There has been recent publication of a study on the link between creativity and “mental illness“, which indicates that those in creative professions and those who identify as artists and other makers were more likely to have a “mental illness” such as bipolar disorder or major depression. Writers, most notably, are far more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia than are non-writerly sorts.

What gives anyone the right to parse communicative inspiration and faceted worldview into an element of pathology? Is it possible that what has been considered to be mental illness is really just the manifestation of brilliant, myriad minds and sensitive hearts struggling to make sense of the conflicted and wounding normative world?

I don’t like the idea that my creativity could be seen as a symptom or a by-product of some murky supposed brain disease. In fact, that’s insulting.

Yesterday, I was facilitating a class on the topic of gratitude. “Is gratitude an idea or a feeling?” We all agreed that it was a feeling, a feeling among the best feelings.

“You cannot have happiness if you do not have gratitude.”

I found myself thinking about how I had learned to recognize happiness, how I had learned to practice gratitude.

“There were times, you know, in the midst of a lot of really questioning despair, that everything was very clear and meaningful. I’d be inspired and at ease, amazed by how beautiful the world is and, you know…really engaged.”

I went on, “I always thought those times and those feelings were a symptom of mental illness.”

The realization stuck with me through the afternoon and I woke up with it this morning.

How was it that I had learned to not trust that which is most real? How was it that I had learned to second guess the source of my own joy, woefully attributing it to “imbalanced chemicals” and associating it with the fear of losing control. I’d feel happiness and I’d think, “Oh, no! It’s coming back.”

In my mind, that imposed second guess is one of the most grievous injustices put upon people in a pathologized view of self.

In class yesterday, a man said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about my schizo…affective disorder.” His voice stumbled through tardive dyskinesia. “I’ve been thinking about all the good things it has brought into my life. It’s almost like a…like a gift.”

I smiled, knowing exactly what he meant, “It wasn’t until I completely lost my mind that I learned just how truly amazing the world really is. I learned gratitude through madness. I’m happy to be alive.”

One of the things I am most grateful for is that the artist in me didn’t die, wouldn’t stay on the shelf I tried to put it on.  Apparently, I see and feel the world differently, and for that I am filled with a gratitude that knows no bounds. For me, grace lives in the space between my heart and my hand, my mind and the sky.

To ask me to turn from that is akin to asking me to deny God. It’s offensive to suggest  that my experience of grace and inspiration in the creative/expressive process is a symptom of an “illness.”

In fact, that’s sick.

Is there really anything to say?

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