By Joanne M. Doan
Scientist Kay Redfield Jamison once said before you can conquer “a beast,” you must make it beautiful first. This Chinese philosophy was something she tried to follow while managing her bipolar disorder.
In her book Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament Jamison popularizes the link between creative genius and mood disorders. She draws on the artistic temperaments and creative occupations of actors, artists, poets, writers and musicians. A main point in many of her speeches is what bipolar has to offer those who live with the condition. “To suffer is to have learned,” she has said, pointing to creative geniuses like Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allan Poe, Vincent van Gogh and Lord Byron.
Neurologist and creativity researcher Alice W. Flaherty, MD, PhD notes that heightened activity of the neurotransmitter dopamine—a factor in mania—stimulates creativity. She has used her manic phases, and her “racing mind” to steer her ideas into creative works.
This brings to mind Richard Dreyfuss, who has publicly credited the hypomania element of his bipolar disorder for many of his career achievements. Not one to shy away from talking about the creative benefits of the condition, Dreyfuss has said he wishes others could see the “diamond in the soil” of bipolar, referring to his manic state as an “incandescent ecstasy of creation.”
He’s far from alone in embracing the manic parts of productivity, confidence and creativity. Take, for example, Carrie Fisher. In her wry and witty style, she championed the beauty in bipolar over stigma, in both her life and in her passing.
While years of studies have shown a correlation between the creative mind and bipolar disorder, the subject remains controversial. Some experts question the variable definition of creativity: “Studies looking at links between creativity and mental illness or bipolar disorder don’t use consistent definitions that warrant reliable comparisons,” insists Candida Fink, MD, coauthor of Bipolar Disorder for Dummies.
Plus, the fear is that this connection romanticizes a serious disease that has taken the lives of so many. Indeed, it is important not to minimize the challenges that can come from the extremes of being either too low or too high.
One thing is certain, the subject of “bipolar fueling creativity” is a fascinating one. Regardless of science or controversy, being able to see the positive of one’s diagnosis is a gift.
Joanne M. Doan is the publisher of bp Magazine and esperanza Magazine, both groundbreaking publications dedicated to those living with bipolar, anxiety and depression. In 2016 she received the Folio: Top Women in Media Award in the Entrepreneurs category for meeting the challenges of growing a pioneering publication for this readership.
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