Creative Writers and Mental Illness

Anyone who is close to me, which are not many since I let very few get close, know I have a mental illness. Actually, more than one. So, I guess I’ll bare my soul to the world. Well, maybe not to the world, but the readers of this blog. All three of them. LOL. So, here goes. I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Better known as OCD. Which can be a boon to writers, or a deficit.

Although I’m not sure just how much of a boon it really is. My goal when I’m writing a novel is 1,000 words per day. That is, until OCD makes its presence known in my writing habits.

Not long ago I was working on a novel, and it literally possessed me. OCD took total control. Soon the thousand words were 1200, then 1500, all the way to 2500 words and up. In OCD fashion, I kept thinking something bad would happen to me or my loved ones if I didn’t get the words on the screen. It literally drove me crazy. Many writing days ended the next morning at 3 am. Or 4. Even at 5 am. Anxiety took over with a vengeance. I couldn’t stop. Finally, as a way to escape the insanity, I ended the novel early, at only some 50,000 words. Way too early. I could have easily went to 100,000 words or more. What started out as a reasonably good novel, ended up being mediocre because of the abrupt ending. But the too soon and lousy ending was the only way I could escape the OCD. A boon because of the large word counts? Many writers think they would love that problem. Until they had the problem.

OCD isn’t the only mental illness confronting us creative types. Anxiety disorders in general, as well as depression, plague many of us. Creative people seem to have more of an active imagination to run rampant over our psyche. It’s no secret the mental problems that torment creatives in the entertainment industry. At the too young age of 29, the great country singer and song writer Hank Williams died in the backseat of a Cadillac on the first day of 1953. He was mixing whiskey with chloral hydrate. Ernest Hemingway shot himself with his favorite shotgun. Karen Carpenter’s beautiful voice was stilled forever at the young age of 32. Janis Joplin ODed on heroin and lost her life at 27. Jimi Hendrix died at 27 with barbiturates in his system. Virginia Woolf filled her coat pockets with rocks and walked into a river. The list goes on.

There are those that would claim that these creatives died of substance abuse. Or suicide. I’m not denying that. But, mental illness is the real culprit. The substance abuse was their way of dealing with their illness. Whether it be anxiety, depression, or in the case of myself, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder punctuated with Generalized Anxiety disorder (GAD) and depression.

I have a friend who is songwriter and performer. As well as a quality writer of both fiction and nonfiction. She is one talented woman. Her creativity shines. She showed me a book of some eighty songs she had composed. “So, every song you’ve written is in this book?” I asked.

“All but my suicide song,” she answered. A hint of sadness tinted her voice. Another creative person that struggles with a mental affliction that hits close to home.

Of course, it goes without saying, many people with other talents, whether it be technical or mechanical types, also struggle with mental health issues. I’m not trying to belittle what other types are going through. My heart goes out to anyone with a mental illness. But, in sheer numbers, it seems to me, creatives hold a monopoly on the market of mental health afflictions.

Wanting to know if my observations were true, I consulted a psychologist I know on a professional level. He confirmed that while he couldn’t answer for other practitioners, in his practice over the years he had counseled more creatives than other types.

A few years ago a major magazine in America published an article that writers and artists are 20 times likely to suffer from bipolar disorder than the general population, and 10 times more likely to experience bouts of depression.

I wondered what it is about the creative that makes her/him more prone to mental illness. Is it genetics? Inherited from ancestors? Whatever gene(s) that make us be writers and artists also afflict us with mental illness? Or is it environmental? The creative mind that can conjure up intimate visions of life, whether it be a novel or song, can also conjure up a mind that can’t seem to be at peace?

The one thing I know for sure is, I don’t have the answers. I’ve been plagued with OCD and GAD all my life, although I didn’t know it in my younger days. Back then I thought I was defective. A weakness of character. That I didn’t have what it took to be a young man in 1970s America. Fifty years later, I have less answers than I did back then. Or thought I did. But I do know what afflicts me. At least I now have a name for the affliction. Three names actually. OCD, GAD, and depression. Though sometimes I think the depression is secondary, being a result of not dealing adequately with the first two.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this blog. Other than to acknowledge the mental illnesses us creatives often are afflicted with. I wish I could pass on some bits of information to all creatives that suffer from mental illness on how to deal with it. But, I can’t.

Although, I will point out, there is help out there. The aforementioned psychologist I consulted is my help. He specializes in OCD and other anxiety disorders. Which is important. Specializing in your disorder is a must. I speak from experience. Over the last 30 years I have a history of what I call “street corner” counselors that are a jack of all trades, a master of none. Through no fault of their own. If they are going to stay in business, they must have a general knowledge of the most prevalent mental maladies. It’s one thing to visit a therapist because your self-confidence isn’t up to par. Or you have some situational depression you don’t know how to deal with. But for an actual mental illness, a specialist in whatever disorder you may be plagued with is a must. If you had cancer, you would go to an oncologist that specializes in your type of cancer. Mental illness is no different. Seek out a psychologist that specializes in your disorder. Now days with the web and internet visits, it’s easier than ever. Notice I said psychologist, not psychiatrist. That’s another article in itself, so I’ll leave it there.

Keep in mind that what works for me, or a friend, might not necessarily work for you. With practitioners, there are many factors to deal with. Among them, are specialties, education, as well as personalities and methods. We’re all different.

My OCD requires me to say this. Us with OCD want everyone to think well of us. I’m no exception. So, I have to say this. What I wrote about “street corner” counselors, is in no way meant to disparage them. I have been a client over the years of many of them. Most of them I felt didn’t have the specialized expertise to deal with someone with my malady. But, literally every one of them tried. Each and every one has a heart that is in the right place, and truly cares.

It’s not a perfect world. We all have our problems. Us creatives seem to have a monopoly on the market of mental problems. For the purpose of this blog aimed at fellow writers and those that might partake of our skills, if you suffer from mental illness of any type, I wish you well.

Dennis Pence