On Mental Illness and The Impulse to Write
July 11, 2018 § 5 Comments
By Leslie Schwartz
In 2014, after 14 years clean and sober, I relapsed into drug and alcohol addiction, and nearly destroyed my life. The genetic intensity of addiction is no joke. For many of us, stopping is all but impossible once we start. At six months into new sobriety, I was sentenced to 90 days in Los Angeles County Jail for three misdemeanors related to offenses I committed while loaded. Jail was the end run to a relapse that not only damaged my friends and family, but nearly took my writing career with it.
As a person who was born feeling different and always expressed and calmed myself through my writing, it was comforting to know that many writers have suffered from addiction and mental illness: Virginia Woolf, Raymond Carver, Leo Tolstoy and Sylvia Plath to name a few.
The link between mental illness and creativity has been well established. Researchers like Nancy Andreasen and Kay Redfield Jamison have definitively established the connection between writing and mood disorders, many of these associated with addiction, depression and social anxiety disorders. Some theorized that Emily Brontë may have had Asperger’s Syndrome. Reclusive and at times violent – she nearly blinded the family dog after punching it – Emily was famously known to have been antisocial.
The idea that literary genius is more likely to stem from distress and struggle than from complacency and contentment seems true when we look at some writers well-known for their mental illnesses. Sylvia Plath, Taylor Coleridge and Virginia Woolf all lost a parent in childhood, and all suffered from addiction or some form of mental illness later. The impetus to connect to their loss and find release from their sadness was surely expressed in the stories they wrote.
This is not to say that mental illness is a requirement for literary prowess. There are plenty of stable writers out there who produce works of genius without keeping a bottle at their elbows or like Coleridge, opium. (As his addiction progressed he expressed the view that his illness was moral or spiritual in nature and often spoke about the boils behind his ears.) But for some writers the yoke between mental illness and writing is a strong one. It seems like those who are mentally ill yet also exhibit intelligence, sensitivity and resilience are often hardwired for creativity.
In my case, addiction and the mental illness that follows has been one source of my creativity for a long time. I was able to use my experience of relapse and its devastating outcomes – I nearly lost my life – as fodder for my memoir The Lost Chapters: Finding Recovery and Renewal One Book at a Time. Even though I was unable to write while in active addiction, it was precisely the fallout from it that gave me the courage and impetus to explore themes like the holiness of suffering and the redemptive nature of literature. (Spoiler alert: The good news about jail is that there’s an excessive amount of reading time available.)
Only through the suffering and loneliness of my addiction did I gain particular insight into the human condition. While not all people suffer from mental illness or addiction, all people suffer. Falling into the depths of my disease allowed me to experience first-hand both the nature of human pain in all its varieties, and also the brilliance of renewal and transformation. The loss of so much, and the reckoning with shame and the hurt I brought on others was like an empathy expander. And it is empathy that writers require to create meaningful stories.
Andreasen in her study on mental illness and literary creativity determined that many writers who experience the loneliness and emotional upheaval of their disorders encounter grave frustration with their attempts to relate to people in socially acceptable ways. But writing freed them from their sense of isolation. Writing for many like Milton and Emily Bronte, was an outlet for communication and even perhaps a sense of grounding sanity. When I write, I feel sane. When I don’t write, I am lost.
I wouldn’t wish my addiction on anyone. I’m sure that Virginia Woolf would rather have not stuffed her pockets with stones and walked into the water. But I am grateful for the abundance addiction and the mental illness that stems from it while it is active has brought me back to my life, and my writing career.
Leslie Schwartz is the author of two novels, Jumping the Green and Angels Crest. Her memoir, The Lost Chapters: Finding Recovery and Renewal One Book at a Time is out this month from Penguin/Random House.