Bipolar can be hell to those who suffer from it, but for outsiders it is one of the most fascinating of mental illnesses. The bipolar woman has even become a cultural stereotype. The writer Laurie Penny describes the archetype of the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ as the kind of geekish, sparky, scattered, impulsive woman dancing through Channel 4 sitcoms and arthouse film, created as a kind of safe romantic dream for ‘sad, bright, bookish young men’. (Er… I have a horrible feeling that I have been one of those men.) When the American cartoonist Ellen Forney, after months of hypomania, was diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder 296.4, she embraced her manic pixie dream girl status – more, she considered herself a member of ‘Club Van Gogh’. In her comic memoir she imagines a laminated members’ card with the legend ‘The only true artist is a crazy artist’. In the lower picture, she draws herself, pale and interesting and high on her own complexities, with enthusiastic scribblings in the background: ‘destroying paintings!’ ‘writing a brilliant novel in one sleepless week!’ ‘smack back of hand to forehead, + fall backwards onto shabby canopy bed, distraught!’
Forney’s diagnosis followed weeks of manic pixie adventures. She slept four hours a night, initiated sex with random strangers, threw outrageous quirky parties and never, ever, worried about money: this was in the late nineties, and Forney draws her younger self as a beautiful tornado, ideas, plans, thoughts and commitments sparking off her like static electricity, eyes triangled with wicked bipolar cunning. ‘Everything was MAGICAL + INTENSE,’ says Forney, catching a snowflake on her tongue, ‘+ BURSTING with UNIVERSAL TRUTH.’
I thought I understood bipolar. Reading Forney, I now know that I don’t. The highs, for example, can last for months. Imagine the rush you get when you walk into the pub on a Friday night on a summer’s evening – and imagine that going on, ramped up and up, day after day of accumulating energy. Forney exercised constantly, drank and drugged and loved, juggled dozens of creative projects. When she crashed, she crashed hard. During the hypomanic chapters Forney’s drawings are funny and vivid: when she slumps, her artwork becomes frightening. One line drawing shows a boggled-eyed Forney slipping from some unseen precipice, fingers tracing cracks along its edge, while her lower body tapers away to slaw. Another series of panels, done in stickman-style ovals and lines, shows Forney’s day as a depressive: getting out of bed, taking her duvet to the couch, lying on the couch all day, and then going back to bed again. It’s worth doing this thought experiment again – imagine the worst time of your life, the lowest you’ve ever felt, and then imagine that feeling continuing, the hours of it becoming days and then weeks, until it must seem that all possibility of happiness is gone. Small wonder the suicide rate for bipolars is so high.
Eventually, Forney’s depression lifts: looking at the bounce of jets on a shower wall, she imagines ‘a nighttime festival in the woods, with strings of lights in the trees… I’d forgotten how I used to see things in other things.’ But her diagnosis presents a new problem: when, eventually, you feel happy, can you trust that happiness? A striking panel shows Forney trapped on a rowboat, carried away from safe shores, dragged from reality and security by her own terrifying euphoria.
With regular therapy, and combinations of meds with their novella-length side effects (‘I’ll carry Band-Aids! I can deal with bruises!’ ‘Yes, but a brain haemorrhage would be bad’) Forney manages over years to reach stability and happiness. Describing her journey, she gives real insight into the creative temperament and the nature of mood. Those following mental health debate in the newspapers may have seen some silly and ill informed thinkpieces about psychiatric treatment. Dr Giles Fraser, writing in the Guardian, said that ‘Sometimes I am just sad. Sometimes pissed off. Sometimes smothered in darkness. But we often lump all these experiences together simply because pharmaceutical companies have developed a certain sort of treatment.’ The point he’s trying to make – I think – is that sadness is a part of the human condition and to treat it with antidepressants is to deny a part of the human spirit. Greater thinkers than the priest have been there. The artist Edvard Munch, who fashioned one of humanity’s greatest paintings from a panic attack (‘My friend walked on – I stood there trembling with anxiety… and I felt a vast, endless scream pass through nature’) also said that ‘My sufferings are a part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.’ Yet he still submitted to psychiatric treatment, including ECT. Damage and despair are a part of being alive, you don’t need the former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s to tell you this. But you still need to see a doctor when you get sick.
What of Club van Gogh? True, the sign-in book is impressive, the line within the velvet rope beautiful and interesting and modern: Forney fills two pages with writers and artists known or suspected to have suffered from manic depression or plain old unipolar depression, including Michelangelo, Georgia O’Keefe, Blake, Byron, Baudelaire, Dr Johnson, Keats, Plath, Anne Sexton, Walt Whitman, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams. Forney herself resisted medication for a long time, fearing it would kill her spark – the same reason Stephen King persisted in his lethal booze and coke habit all those years.
I think there may well be a link between creativity and mental illness. However I do not believe mental illness is necessary to be creative, and I agree with Forney that these artists did their best work in spite of, not because of, their hectic distress. You can’t write a great novel when you’re in the hole. Nor can the dead paint pictures, carve sculpture or compose verse. As Forney says, ultimately cessation of life is not good for productivity. To paraphrase a line from Elizabeth Wurtzel: people die from mental illness. The idea is not to be one of them.