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Blog // Artistry
September 17, 2017

Creative Health Part 2 – Your Mind And Your Path

Being diagnosed with anxiety forced me to face a lot of issues, habits and hard truths about my creative health.

The device was almost charming in a retro way, like some kind of audio field recorder, with faux wood panelled sides, burnished metal controls and a cute little green LCD screen. It sat off my hip, hanging from a leather strap, with a thick rubber hose connecting the device to a cuff on my arm that automatically inflated, with a mechanised whirr, every 30 minutes.

I was wearing this device because a few days earlier I’d had a serious panic attack, and when I went to see the doctor it seemed that my vitals were all over the place. The device was monitoring my blood pressure for 24 hours, as I worked, ate, slept, and went about my day. It was just one of a series of tests as I was poked, prodded, scanned and assessed, to try and figure out what was wrong.

I wore the device while taking photos, while shopping for groceries, even to a parent-teacher meeting. Not a typical parent-teacher conference, but the kind of impromptu, checking-in-just-in-case kind of meeting that was never a part of my school experience but seems to happen so often in schools today.

At the meeting I remember one teacher saying something that – well, it didn’t make me angry, but it certainly annoyed me a little, and as I started to reply the device whirred into action. I assumed the number would be high, a burst of discontent fuelling a spike in the readings, but when I looked it was actually well within the normal range.

How little we understand our bodies at times.

Facing Up To Anxiety

When I suffered the panic attack I decided to write openly about it. Although the physical discomfort was worse than anything I’d felt before, the diagnosis was almost a relief, giving a name to something I’d felt had been wrong for some time. Anxiety is the condition of our age and if being honest about it could help anyone, then writing would be worth it.

After all, the world of creative freelance work seems to be in thrall to a kind of masochistic heroism; work long hours, get little sleep, cope by over-caffeinating yourself. It’s not just the high-waisted jeans and reverb-laden drum sounds that have been resurrected from the 80s; it’s also the shitty materialistic attitudes!

The scariest thing about the panic attack (it was a wave of attacks really, over the course of a few days) was losing the ability to regulate, to calm down, to find my centre. I’ve always had anxieties; fear of heights, a strong dislike for meeting new people and talking on the phone. I’ve normally been able to cope by calming down, breathing deeply, telling myself it will be OK, or taking a break and meditating. But suddenly, nothing worked. Meditation almost made things worse. My usually metronomic heart rate was all over the place. I couldn’t calm down. I couldn’t switch off.

Honest Talk About Art And Mental Health

This opens the door to a question I’ve always been hesitant to discuss; the connection between creativity and mental health.

There are so many cliches about creativity and mental heath that it’s hard to push past them, hard to argue against the assumption that artistry and insanity must somehow be connected, that creative genius puts every artist somewhere on a spectrum from Sylvia Plath to Vincent Van Gogh.

But to what extent are these myths true? Yes, some artists struggled this way, but not all. I believe, at least in part, that these myths persist because society needs them.

It’s more comfortable to believe that creativity, extraordinary talent, innovation and imagination are connected to some kind of deviance and dysfunction than to accept they can stem from otherwise “normal” people. Because if we believe that “normal people” are capable of extraordinary creativity, then we have to ask a lot of searching questions about what holds most folks back from being more creative, about the factors in society, like fear, repression, the pressure to fit in and conform.

The Social Cost Of Following Our Own Path

Whenever governments go to extremes, one of the first things they do is to repress the arts. Any human movement that feeds off fear and demands uncritical acceptance by its subjects will not want public personas who do their utmost to shake off fear and be fully themselves.

In order to make art, we have to overcome so much of what society puts upon us. We have to open ourselves up when society makes it easier and safer to close down. Authenticity and vulnerability go together. I love this quote by sculptor Anne Truitt,

“The most demanding part of living a lifetime as an artist is the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadfastly along the nerve of one’s own most intimate sensitivity.”

Knowing Ourselves And Opening Up

I don’t think it was a coincidence that the swarm of panic attacks hit me at the end of a year-long season of deep introspection. The more we learn about ourselves, scraping away the layers that build up over a life of living in tension with what society asks of us, the more we bring ourselves to a place where we can make our best and most honest work, because we are connected with the uniqueness of our experience and the core of what we believe.

In a way, we have to cut ourselves to let the art out. The more clearly our creative vision comes into focus, the more the pain, the hurt, the issues where we need help also come to the surface.

This is the tension we embrace. While society wants to label us as mad so they can feel better about themselves, we also play a dangerous game, embracing a kind of madness, or at least a unique type of bravery, in order to be as vulnerable in our nature, as open to experience, and as sensitive as the work requires.

I still love the old phrase “keeping body and soul together,” which suggests a kind of relationship, the horizontal and vertical in our lives, being connected, feeding the body and the soul, having a thriving mind and thriving human connections as well.

In the first post in this series I tried to suggest that we need to take care of our bodies in order to make the most of our creativity. Of course, we also need to take care of our minds, our souls, or whatever you like to call our inner self-awareness. The two exist in an essential relationship, like the cords of a rope, like a tree and its leaves, like the ocean and the waves.

This is the second in a three part series. The first is Taking Care Of Your Animal and the third is Going Slow In A High Performance Machine. There also other blogposts on the theme of creative health which you can check out here.

Dane Cobain 6 years ago

Have you read Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running? There’s some great stuff in there about the link between creativity and health. This article actually put me in mind of a specific quote:

There’s a widely held view that by living an unhealthy lifestyle a writer can remove himself from the profane world and attain a kind of purity that has artistic value. This idea has taken shape over a long period of time. Movies and TV dramas perpetuate this stereotypical—or, to put a positive spin on it, legendary—figure of the artist. Basically I agree with the view that writing novels is an unhealthy type of work. When we set off to write a novel, when we use writing to create a story, like it or not a kind of toxin that lies deep down in all humanity rises to the surface. All writers have to come face-to-face with this toxin and, aware of the danger involved, discover a way to deal with it, because otherwise no creative activity in the real sense can take place. (Please excuse the strange analogy: with a fugu fish, the tastiest part is the portion near the poison—this might be something similar to what I’m getting at.) No matter how you spin it, this isn’t a healthy activity. So from the start, artistic activity contains elements that are unhealthy and antisocial. I’ll admit this. This is why among writers and other artists there are quite a few whose real lives are decadent or who pretend to be antisocial. I can understand this. Or, rather, I don’t necessarily deny this phenomenon. But those of us hoping to have long careers as professional writers have to develop an autoimmune system of our own that can resist the dangerous (in some cases lethal) toxin that resides within.

I’d definitely recommend reading the book if you haven’t already, it’s not very long and it has some great stuff in it about both creativity and just philosophy and self-care in general. Even if at times you disagree with what Murakami says, I think it gets you to think about the right things!

fernando 6 years ago

Dane – I’ve seen, but not read the book, and will do so soon. The image of the Fugu is fascinating. I’ve always rejected the idea of artist as damaged human, but Murakami’s notion of the toxin is fascinating, because was are taking some kind of emotional risk. Creative and artistic work demands we be radically open and vulnerable in ways society typically cautions people not to be. There has to be some compensating moves in order for us to survive in the long run. I will read the book with interest.

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