Touched by Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament: A Book Review

The definitive work on the profound and surprising links between manic-depression and creativity, from the bestselling psychologist of bipolar disorders who wrote An Unquiet Mind.

One of the foremost psychologists in America, “Kay Jamison is plainly among the few who have a profound understanding of the relationship that exists between art and madness” (William Styron).

The anguished and volatile intensity associated with the artistic temperament was once thought to be a symptom of genius or eccentricity peculiar to artists, writers, and musicians. Her work, based on her study as a clinical psychologist and researcher in mood disorders, reveals that many artists subject to exalted highs and despairing lows were in fact engaged in a struggle with clinically identifiable manic-depressive illness.

-Goodreads

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I told people I’m bipolar on the first date:

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I told people I’m bipolar on the first date and I’d still be doing it if I was still dating.

Here’s the thing, I didn’t at first. I was terrified of what people would think of me, how it would effect my chances with someone. I wouldn’t tell a soul, I thought it was something that should be saved for a few months in, a “so I should probably tell you…” that comes when your ready to confess.

But why was I confessing? I wasn’t guilty of anything. I am bipolar, it’s part of me and it has been for a long time. I’m not ashamed of it, I’m annoyed by it a lot, but I’m not ashamed of it. It was out of my control and it made me stronger. It’s just there, a consistent part of me, and I share things about me when I’m trying to get to know someone, so why shouldn’t it be shared as well?

Sure, there is stigma, but there is stigma on all sorts of things, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be talking about it. Maybe by hiding our disorders we’re adding to the stigma. We’re acting ashamed, so they must be shameful! But it isn’t. Bipolar disorder is nothing to be ashamed of, so I started to act like it.

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Positive things my bipolar disorder has gifted me with:

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I wrote a post a long while ago about how it’s okay for people to call mental illness a gift. It’s one of my favorite posts. I can’t decide if it’s the bipolar jokes or the fact that it’s about Van Gogh, but regardless, it still stands. It’s is okay for people to call their mental illness a gift the same way it’s okay for them to call it a curse. Both can be true.

I spend a lot of time writing about ways to function with mental illness and to overcome some of it’s trickier parts, but I wanted to make a post about the good things my mental illness has given me. So here’s a list of positives that have come from my bipolar disorder:

  • Creativity: Bipolar and creativity have long been linked. For most the creative streaks come during the manic phases, for me it seems like my creativity hardly sleeps. I’ve been creative for as long as I can remember, which is fitting because I got diagnosed at age six. Over half of my hobbies are creative ones and I fully thrive in the environment they create. I love my hobbies and I love this skill set. There is nothing I would trade for it.
  • Healthy coping mechanisms: A lot of people have unhealthy coping mechanisms, in fact, I don’t feel like it would be a stretch to say that most people do. It’s hard to function with a mental illness without learning coping mechanisms, and unhealthy ones just don’t make the cut, they end up making us feel worse. So to function, I’ve learned healthy coping mechanisms, ones that work and can aid my medication to the point where I can handle most everything thrown at me. It took a lot of work to get them, but I’m so happy I have them and am able to fall back on them whenever I need them, whether those needs are triggered by bipolar disorder or just everyday life.

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Your mental illness is not the most interesting thing about you.

20181018_110356.jpgYour mental illness is not the most interesting thing about you, and it shouldn’t be. If you find yourself reaching for your disorders name when trying to define yourself you might want to take a hard look at why you’re doing that. I’ve talked about labels before, and one of my bullet points was about mental illness, but I don’t think that covered the topic fully enough.

You are a complete person, full of dreams, hopes, fears, interests, and memories. A lot of them may be tied into your mental illness. That’s fair, especially if you’re currently fighting it with everything you have. Your mental illness is a part of you, and at times it may be a really big part of you, but it’s still not the most interesting thing about you.

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Reflection: What makes a person’s personality consistent or spontaneous?

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If you know me now, you’ve known me since 11th grade. I wrote that I was thankful for our ability to edit and change ourselves in my thanksgiving post. I meant it, I know a lot of people who have changed for the better, I’ve changed for the better, but when I look at myself now compared to then, I realize that it wasn’t really change that happened, but more of a consistent polishing.

I’m a consistent person, a remarkable feat given that I’m bipolar, but I guess with enough time that becomes a constant as well. I remember talking to someone and telling them that I felt like I only knew one version of them, and that was all I could know, because they had changed so drastically over the years. Then I looked at myself and realized that there were only three versions of me. My outgoing crazy energetic and social childhood. My self loathing almost bullied to extinction middle years. And the adult version of myself, that surfaced a little early due to all that happened in the stage before. I say adult version lightly, because you can only be so much of an adult in high school, but if you knew me then you would see me now. There is a lot of similarities and though they’ve been edited, my dreams and wishes haven’t changed a ton.

Honestly, I wonder if it makes me a little boring. But I think I’m like this because I figured out some tough questions early on. It was easy for me to pin-point what mattered in my life, and I didn’t have to have violent revelations of self discovery. I fell into a pattern of picking up traits and interests that made sense, if you had been following along you’d see them and go “of course Anna liked and added that!”. Simple. Easy to define.

Again, maybe boring? But I don’t know if people would describe me as boring either, because I’ve got a lot going on, it’s just the type of things in my whirlwind of character are typical for me.

It makes me wonder what makes a person this consistent.

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Don’t feed your mental illness: Depression thrives on isolation

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If there is one thing mental illness feeds on it’s the feeling of being completely alone in the world. It thrives when you think that no one could possibly understand, it’s festers when you think that nobody would even care if you were gone.

There’s a lot of ways to help relieve mental illnesses, I’ve talked about some of them before, taking medication, taking care of yourself in basic ways, but the most important thing is not to let yourself grow isolated. Don’t let yourself or your loved ones get cut off from the world. That’s when mental illness is its most dangerous.

I would know, I’ve been there. I was bullied, which forced me to cut ties, after a while I stopped reaching out to the people who still loved me. I let myself sink deep into a toxic kind isolation. I thought that the world would be better without me, because it felt like I was already starting to disappear while I was still breathing. I thought it would be a good thing if I went a step further…

I was deeply wrong, and luckily one day I scared myself enough that I reached out. Telling someone I was suicidal saved my life. Not being alone in my depression was a game changer, and the thing is, it always changes the game.

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Mental health medications aren’t supposed to be a prescription for shame

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I want to talk about the shame that comes with being on medication for mental illness. It’s why so many people avoid talking to doctors and getting the help they need. It’s a common phenomenon, but that doesn’t make it less harmful and dangerous.

Before I start this post I need to say that I got diagnosed at six and I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t taking pills. You might wonder if I’m really the right person to talk about this subject, but I think that it adds another layer of understanding. I know it added another layer of protection. I got to learn my valuable lessons in safety while I was still being actively cared for.

I remember in grade school telling my mom that I wanted to be normal and that I wasn’t going to take my pills anymore. Since she was with me 24/7 she decided not to fight it and let me stop them. It only took two weeks for me to come to her with the bin of pill bottles and ask what I was supposed to take. I needed those pills not to be miserable, I understood that then.

It wasn’t a particularly long lesson, but since I was pretty dang bipolar it didn’t need to be. It kept me from questioning the need for medication again and it was a blessing that it happened as a small child, not when I was suicidal in middle school or swinging in and out of depression my senior year of college. I had a safety net, which isn’t something most people have as they sit in the doctors office unwilling to share their needs because they’re depressed, ashamed, and scared. So they go home, untreated, and things don’t get better.

That’s when it gets dangerous. That’s when it gets harmful.

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