Here is something every artist with mental illness needs to hear: “You are not your disease.”
Here are some things every artist with mental illness actually hears:
“ Your disease is a value-multiplier and a central part of your personal brand.” – The Industry
“Your disease is what makes you relatable and what makes your art beautiful/inspiring/authentic.” – The Marketplace
Four years ago, while in the midst of a rather savage run of drug and alcohol abuse, I was witness to a “car vs. person” hit and run that involved a twenty-something kid being dragged several hundred yards by a car full of drunks and left for dead on a dark street. I followed the blood-trail/drag-marks to him. I called the ambo, I cleared his airway and I waited with him until help came. He made it to the hospital but did not ultimately survive. I can still see his crushed skull in my head like it had happened this morning.
I had suffered PTSD twice before this incident but this turn on the merry-go-round was going to be the one that finally spun me out. It took less than two weeks for me to catapult myself into being fully strung out on coke, pills and booze. There are really no chemicals I would not have tried in order to stop feeling like I was coming out of my skin- in order to numb out emotion and erase visual memory of what had happened. There is no behavior I would not have indulged, and no option, however dark, I would not have mulled over.
Fast forward a year and I’m outing myself to my family, friends and the world as a drug addict and taking the first steps towards getting clean. I’m struggling to get my arms fully around all three of my PTSD bouts (there’s no way I could stay clean without reconciling this) which means saying the words “sexual abuse” out loud self-referentially for the first time ever. I’m essentially shattered. Sense of self is reduced to ghost-letters, not quite erased from my psychic whiteboard. Sexual identity mangled like Lego sculptures through a wood chipper. Relationships, even the ones that survived are laced with poisonous slag from the toxicity of who I had become and what I was going through.
Fast-forward another year and I’m separating from my wife, divorce pending.
My experience of a typical day is fraught with irrationality. Anxiety is projecting worst-case scenarios of what the next month or the next hour will bring. Depression is insisting that the entire endeavor of living is itself a vain delusion and that only suffering can be relied upon. Paranoia suggests that everyone who has ever met me knows that I am an imposter and they are all just toying with me until I am finally and inevitably exposed as such. Addiction tugs at my shirttails like, “Fuck ‘em, man. Let’s feel good again. ”
All of this – ALL OF IT – is par for the course mental illness. It’s not romantic in the least and it’s exactly as glamorous as “Shooting coke into my arm in the parking lot of Walgreens” sounds. The kicker? Ask a psychologist who works with PTSD patients which of the things I described above were not absolutely typical for PTSD. Ask someone in addiction medicine. The answer: none. The anxiety, the spasms of rage, the depression, the drug problem, the deception, the self-harm – all as predictable as the weekend weather. It’s not a wild state of feral freedom. It’s not liberation from the constraints of conformity. It’s a symptom cluster, a progression and pathology.
And if that seems controversial, buckle up. Mental illness is not part of good art. Mental illness kills artists. Mental illness keeps an illustrator too depressed to get out of bed and finish a comic book. Mental illness tells writers that it’s better to write nothing than to risk writing something imperfect. Mental illness drives the musician further and further into the bottom of a bottle of pills – away from her band, her instrument, her gift and the life she wanted. People with deep feelings write great songs. Mental illness burns the tapes.
And if your rejoinder hereupon is anything like, “Hendrix would never have cut the amazing solo on blah blah blah without drugs…” then please take your pop-culture-fed fetish with the exoticism of addiction and fuck yourself to death with it. Hendrix was a brilliant guitarist the likes of which had never been seen and will likely never be seen again and you’re willing to reduce his genius and mastery of his instrument to mere side-effects of whatever drugs he was taking? If you’re actually comfortable with that, you might just be a total piece of shit as a human.
Creativity flourishes when an artist is in touch with their emotions, not when they are being strangled by them. I remember with great clarity, the exact moment in my recovery when I realized how many people around me were going to define me forever from what I had done in my worst moments. I knew that arguing against them would seem like I was trying to shirk accountability (I wasn’t) and that if I simply acquiesced to the role, I ‘d be an object in their stories rather than the subject of my own.
From the passings on of Jimi and Janis thousands of neurotypical marketing professionals learned that there was traction to gain in spinning the anguish of Cobains and Winehouses into a relatable narrative of youth and tragedy. Like, Icarus – they say – Amy and Kurt and Janis and Jimi and Philip Seymour Hoffman just soared too high, their waxen wings melted and they crashed back to earth….<here comes the sales pitch>…BUT AT LEAST THEY GAVE US SUCH BEAUTIFUL ART.
They focus tested it and added a tie-in to a charitable foundation for the sake of seeming sincere and boom – that was the narrative. How deeply is the narrative sewn into our collective idea of mental illness? Well, I only injected cocaine twice ever. Most of my career as an addict was spent snorting it off toilets and coffee tables. But I knew that the needle has mystique so I made sure to include it. Finance Bros snort, Artists use the needle, right?
Of course it’s bullshit. Most of what pop-culture says about artists is irredeemable, fetid, liquid bullshit.
Artists, you are not your disease and your heroes weren’t theirs. Bill Evans was an absolute poet at the piano IN SPITE of his heroin and coke problems, not because of them. Suicidal depression did not write The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath did. Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder, Gender Dysphoria, Asperger’s, Autism, Borderline Personality Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress – none of those things ever wrote an album or a novel or painted a chapel ceiling, choreographed the Black Swan or composed a symphony. The most you can say for them is that they were part of the maestro’s entourage and thus mistaken for important by their proximity to greatness.
For audiences and consumers of art: Stop buying into it. Please. Stop. The only way these jackals will ever stop turning the pain of mentally ill artists into torture-porn is if you stop clicking on it and stop buying tickets and stop pre-ordering the commemorative Blu Ray. Don’t write letters to the industry. They won’t read them. Don’t organize a protest. They’ll just find a way to spin it into a PR victory about engagement with fans and “generating awareness” and since neither of those things can be measured, there will be no way to hold them accountable when fuck all comes of it. Just stop buying into it. That is the only message they will read.
Stop objectifying mental illness. My eyes are up here.
OTHER AMERICANS, an electro-alternative band comprised of members of The Architects, Latenight Callers, Radar State and Brandon Phillips and The Condition released their debut EP on June 29, 2018 via AWAL.
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