Since early adolescence, I’ve been fascinated by the fine line between creativity and madness, and the life stories of artists and writers who suffered from mental illness. At 13, when I took up painting and jazz piano, I was intrigued to learn the great bebop pianist Bud Powell was schizophrenic. I barely knew what the word meant, but it sounded romantic, and I thought his illness contributed to the brilliance of his intense, driven style in compositions like “Un Poco Loco.”
When it comes to artistic creativity, is being “a little crazy” an asset or a liability? The question has been the subject of endless speculation. Would Van Gogh have been as great if he’d been totally sane? What about Robert Schumann or Virginia Woolf? I’m not sure, but in my own case, being a bit over the top has probably helped. At any rate, my experiences with bipolar disorder inspired my first novel, Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders.
I came by the diagnosis atypically late, in my early 50’s. I was running ElderSource, Inc., a Licensed Home Care Services Agency, and the work was unbelievably stressful. A shrink prescribed Zoloft, and the effect was amazing. Within a couple of weeks, I felt better than I had in years, ready to take on the world. A few more weeks, and I totally flipped.
It began harmlessly enough. I spent more and more time in my office behind closed doors, writing on my computer. My mind was flooded with inspirations I simply had to get down on paper before they escaped. What’s wrong with that, you ask? Nothing, if you’re a writer – but I was supposed to be running an agency. My memos got longer and longer, then turned into voluminous essays, including one about my father’s brilliance as Managing Editor of the Milwaukee Journal during the McCarthy era. Staff in the office were worried, but I blew them off – I’d never felt better, and I knew what I was writing was of supreme importance.
In early December, I devised a plan to revitalize the economy of the Hudson Valley through a multimedia art show which I would carry out with the assistance of the President of Bard College, Robert Rauschenberg (my favorite artist), and various other luminaries. Soon I was on the phone to Bard, trying to schedule an appointment. I locked myself into my office long past midnight, called the New York Times, and tried to convince some lone reporter on the night shift that they should run a front-page story about my plans, my father and his achievements. A sympathetic listener, he diplomatically suggested that my story might be better suited to the Milwaukee Journal. When I called the police rather than let my husband into the office, things were way over the top.
I narrowly escaped hospitalization. Somehow my husband got me to the shrink, who prescribed heavy medications to tamp down what I came to understand was an acute manic episode. I spent a week at home, prone on the sofa catching up on sleep and watching endless videos, waiting for the lithium to kick in. (I remember especially loving a documentary on Sting, U-2’s “Rattle and Hum” concert, and Robert Downey Jr. as Charlie Chaplin.) Within two weeks, I was back running ElderSource, but on a new medication regimen and with a newly heightened awareness of just how fragile mental health can be.
Was I manic depressive all along? I don’t know, but I’ve now got an official diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder I, and I’ll probably be on medications for the rest of my life, although the dosage is minimal now. Fortunately, being bipolar seems to be trendy. When I talk about my mystery novel Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders at panels and signings, people from the audience invariably approach me to confide that they or close friends or family members are bipolar. But too often they tell me they’ve kept the information secret for fear of repercussions from the stigma that still surrounds mental illness.
So is being “un poco loco” good for creativity? Maybe, when it’s under control. These days, that control is possible through advances in psychopharmacology. Hypomania – the state of mind that falls just short of full-blown mania – can be a wonderfully productive state for writers. But if you find yourself locking out your husband and calling the police, it might be time to call a shrink instead, and see about getting onto some new meds.
**This beautiful photo of Bud Powell rehearsing at Birdland in 1958 was taken by Francis Wolff. I heard and met Bud on just one occasion, when we were introduced by Max Roach, around this same period. Sadly, his mind and his playing had deteriorated by this point. His only coherent statement was a plea to my mother – “Buy me a Ballantine’s.”