Creativity and Madness: On Writing Through the Drugs

February 27, 2014 | 26 8 min read

I had rarely felt so alive, so close to the spitting pulse of energy and awakened life. I moved from the Berkshires to New York City for graduate school, to pursue an MFA in writing. My first year was an exhilarating blur of freedom and power. Each morning when I stepped out of my apartment, I felt like I owned the world. I felt beautiful and talented and young. I knew famous people, I was creatively inspired, I was meeting regularly with editors and publishers who were interested in my writing. My only responsibilities were to read, study with some of my literary heroes, write, and teach part-time. But by the end of my third year in the city, an anxiety disorder that had plagued me since the beginning of my life, and would flare up and calm down on a strange circadian rhythm of misery, had gotten so bad it reduced me to a quivering non-functioning bundle of raw nerves. I barely squeaked by in my last semester of my program, writing, reading, and teaching between emergency room visits, therapy appointments, panic attacks, and crippling phobias.

There were so many low points during my last year in New York, but a few stand out in sharp relief. I remember the terror of leaving my bed, and how humiliated and desperate I felt calling a friend in the middle of the night to ask her if she would come over to bring me a glass of water from my kitchen. I remember being too afraid to leave my bed for therapy, and calling my therapist on the phone sobbing as she tried to coax me out the door to the subway to meet her. I remember how difficult it was to communicate through the oxygen mask strapped over my mouth as the EMTs alongside my bed in an ambulance asked me questions — I’d just collapsed in a shaking heap at the gym from a particularly fast-acting and surprising episode of panic. I remember arriving at the emergency room, unable to talk because my jaw was clenched shut from adrenaline. I remember the drawer in my desk where blue hospital wrist bands accumulated in piles; I saved them like a soldier might save shells from the bullets that nearly killed her.

During this time, I was writing prolifically, and I feared that taking medication to ease my anxiety and panic might destroy my urge or ability to create. I had heard of many artists who had gone mad or suffered from horrible depression, and took the popular prescription of the day, never to write or create again. Their troubling symptoms had been muted, but so had everything else, their thoughts, perceptions, libidos, and ability to access deep feelings. They reported feeling emotionally void, deadened, seeing life as if through a veil. I also heard of artists who went mad and died, victims of suicide, drug overdose, or fatal manic episodes, and that scared me even more. David Foster Wallace, a writer I admired and sympathized with for his closeness to the raw fire of his own internal demons, committed suicide during my second year of graduate school, when my emotional world was crumbling, and it shook me to my core.

Creatives of all modalities have for centuries have suffered from mental illnesses like anxiety and depression, and they have resisted treatments that could improve their conditions for fear it would alter or cloud their minds, drug them into submission, or quash their creative impulse. Edvard Munch famously proclaimed, “I want to keep my sufferings. They are part of me and my art.” Van Gogh said, “Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence, whether much that is glorious, whether all that is profound, does not spring from disease of thought, from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect.”

Psychologist Maureen Neihart, in a paper called “Creativity, the Arts, and Madness,” cites several studies that illuminate shared characteristics between creative production and mental illness, such as mood disturbance, a tolerance for irrationality, greater openness to sensory stimuli, restlessness, speed of thinking, and obsessiveness of thought. Similarly, Freud posited that artistic creativity is a product of neurosis; Marcel Proust claimed that, “everything great in the world is created by neurotics;” and Seneca quoted Aristotle as having said, “No great genius was without a mixture of insanity.” Many psychologists believe that artists use their work to heal and soothe their minds. But if drugs heal artist’s minds for them, is their work still needed, or would it even be produced?

What if the touch of the madness had been medicated out of van Gogh, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Sexton, Plath, and Wallace? They very likely would have lived longer, fuller, and more enjoyable lives, but would they have created their works of genius? It’s a strange calculation we make, now that we can tinker with the chemicals that seem to make us who we are, which aspects of our personality are worth enduring for the gifts they can bestow? What if those aspects end up costing us our lives? What if saving our lives with medication robs us of the very thing that gives our lives meaning and makes us who we deeply are — sensitive, scared, hyper-aware, but also exultant, perceptive, and insightful into the human condition?

Though therapists, friends, and family had tried for years to convince me to give medicine a try, one bright afternoon in my third year in Manhattan, a friend said something to me in such a way and at such a time that I was finally able to hear. She said, “I used to feel that if I just peeled away one more layer, one more layer, I’d get to the center of my anxiety, the core issue, and solve the problem. But I realized, the onion had no center. I could keep peeling forever. Now that I’m taking medicine, I just love the world.” I wanted to love the world too. I started asking friends for psychiatric referrals the next day.

The idea of medicine scared me so much that I felt that while I tried it I needed around-the-clock care, and I either had to check myself into a hospital, or move back to my parents’ house in Boston. I chose my parents’ home, leaving an apartment I loved and phenomenal friends and community and all the titillating freedoms I’d found in the city to live in my childhood room on a tree-lined street in the suburbs of Boston. With the help of a new therapist, some SSRIs, a regular dose of benzodiazepines, and the care of my parents, I slowly crawled out of the cave of shadows I’d been living in. At first there were months of weeping, possibly due to the acclimation to new medicines, or to the relief from the constant stresses about my own survival, or to being surrounded by nature and quiet and my parents’ constant love and attention. Within a few months, I slowly added back in the activities that I had eliminated from my life over the past years: showering alone, cutting fruit, eating dinner at restaurants, driving, staying home alone. I soon had a full-time job teaching writing, something I’d been avoiding because the thought of teaching more than a few hours at a time made me extremely anxious and phobic of fainting.

It has now been about five years since I left New York. I’m teaching writing full-time at one school and adjuncting one evening a week at another. For the most part, I have a handle on my anxiety and panic. I’ve worked hard in therapy on strategies for handling a near constant dizziness and hyper-awareness that are classic symptoms of anxiety, and the SSRIs and Benzodiazepines I take are a seatbelt around my panic. Since I’ve been on meds, my trips to the emergency room have steadily dwindled down to none. My relationships have improved because I no longer need to rely on my friends, family, and romantic partners for my safety and emotional stability. But between teaching more than full time, reading voluminous student work, and the lazy happiness the medicines have granted me, I’ve barely written a word. At first, I didn’t need to. I rode my bike, I took a job, I fell in love, I enjoyed eating and spending time with friends again. There was none of the urgency or desire to wrestle with my words in the midst of such a full life. I used to write to live, to push myself out of a dark hole and connect with a reader in the world outside my suffocating den. Now, though I don’t feel quite as alive when I’m not writing, it’s no longer imperative. It’s even at times unappealing — why would I seclude myself from a world I’ve missed out on for so long to sit alone and sift through the crumpled napkins and browned apple cores of my thoughts and experiences as I’d done for years when trying to unlock the mystery of my suffering?

I used to find beauty in certain aspects of my over-stimulated, over-sensitive brain — trees shimmered, and dreams would wake me up with stupefying gorgeous intricate detail. And when the anxiety and panic break through my meds, as they sometimes do, I get a glimpse of the magical, maniacal way of being in the world, and I feel the pull to create return. When the drugs prevent a shaky episode of flooding adrenaline from spiraling into a panic attack, I can feel their presence. I can also feel their presence in my brain when I search for a word or try to complete a line of reasoning in my head. It feels like a transparent block sitting behind my eyes, keeping my brain from spinning off down the rabbit hole of terror, but also from accessing the passion and the language that was once the best place I knew.

I sit staring at a blank screen much more than I ever did without medicine, my associative language center is now sluggish and compromised, and word retrieval is a physical effort. My short-term memory has also suffered. For the first time in my life, I find myself forgetting what I was about to say with my mouth opened during a conversation, or why I walked to the other side of the room. Memory for detail and an ability to translate those memories and impressions into words is a large piece of what has defined me as a writer and as a person. Now, though I can still sit at my laptop and hammer out some thoughts, it takes much longer, and many more drafts, to make sentences that do what I intend for them to do. Often lying in bed, ideas or lines float into my mind unbidden, like they always have, and before I took any medicine I’d wake up and write them down in the morning. Often they were gifts from the subconscious — a perfectly formed sentence or phrase to finish a piece I was working on. But on medicine, those lines have faded by morning. I open a blank word document for that flash of idea, that white heat of image where all stories start, and staring at the cursor blinking on the screen, my mind has lost it.

I wouldn’t trade the happiness, the sense of balance, the self-reliance, or the improved relationships I’ve gained from medicine for writing. And perhaps I don’t have to decide between mental health and creativity. It seems that, whether mad or not, people are driven to create in order to understand something about themselves, the world, or their experiences and perceptions. Perhaps Freud was as wrong about art necessarily stemming from neurosis as he was about penis envy. I agree that powerful art is created out of a deep need, and bears the imprint of the essential raw self or soul. But if my anxiety really is a biological disorder, as doctors and psychologists have repeatedly insisted, then my essential self isn’t the anxious thoughts and existential dread I used to constantly feel. My essential self would lie underneath the layers of catastrophic images and anguished mental chatter. It’s possible that the medicines I take could help me travel a clearer and more direct path to that place, avoiding the potholes and back alleys of phobias, anxiety, and panic. Though it takes more discipline to sit down and write now, since I am not doing so to save my life, I am practicing writing from a place of curiosity rather than pain, fascination rather than desperation, forging my way more safely into a different dark.

Image Credit: Unsplash/Christina Victoria Craft.

' work has appeared in Salon, The Morning News, Tablet, The Forward, The NY Press, The Faster Times, The Berkshire Review, and other publications. Links to her work can be found at