As I sit here with a brain full of concrete porridge I keep thinking of this quote from Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women
“Forget about the scant hours in her brief life when Sylvia Plath was able to produce the works in Ariel. Forget about that tiny bit of time and just remember the days that spanned into years when she could not move, couldn’t think straight, could only lie in wait in a hospital bed, hoping for the relief that electroconvulsive therapy would bring. Don’t think of the striking on-screen picture, the mental movie you create of the pretty young woman being wheeled on the gurney to get her shock treatments, and don’t think of the psychedelic, photonegative image of this sane woman at the moment she receives that bolt of electricity. Think, instead, of the girl herself, of the way she must have felt right then, of the way no amount of great poetry and fascination and fame could make the pain she felt at that moment worth suffering. Remember that when you’re at the point at which you’re doing something as desperate and violent as sticking your head in an oven, it is only because the life that preceded this act felt worse. Think about living in depression from moment to moment, and know it is not worth any of the great art that comes a its by-product.”
The romanticising of mental illness sometimes pisses me off. Most of us aren’t fucking geniuses (even though some of like to think we are) whose illness is a bitter sweet muse. Like most people, mentally ill or not, most of us are really just fucking boring and ordinary. Those people who become successful and whose creativity brings them fame and praise, it’s because they are in the small percentage of lucky buggers blessed with talent not because they are ill, and they’d probably still be talented despite of it all. Perhaps having a talent for writing allows you to explore your depression more thoroughly and can lead to some fantastic work, yet the same talent can also lead to deep insights and fantastic work about things that have nothing to do with depression.
Sometimes I do get insanely creative moods and seem to develop an enhanced vision of the world, but most of the time I’m too busy being depressed and wondering if I have the strength to read my email or wash my hair. I suppose it may be a bit of both but right now I feel Wurtzel is right, it is not because of depression that Plath created amazing work, it is in spite of it. There seems to be a lazy trend in the media for diagnosing people, often long dead with mental health problems or assigning them somewhere on the autistic spectrum or diagnosing them with whatever else is fashionable this week. Diagnoses I assume are carried out by the ‘here comes the science bit, concentrate!’ of scientific rigour and not the so and so has a book out about so and so on sale in all good retailers, order your copy now approach.
All very well but for 99% of us living with these conditions we’re struggling to live life in a world that does not want us, having lazy assumptions that our illness or condition is somehow a ‘gift’ and we should all be tortured geniuses worthy of one of those able bodied actor playing a disabled person to get an oscar oh how brave of them biopics, assumptions often foisted on us by people who do not have to live with this shit everyday, often those who are part of the system contributing to our misery.
The romantic idea that you waft about being a bit sad and writing poetry, playing beautiful music and painting pictures, maybe pausing for a love affair in nice fuzzy focus and impeccably lit, is nothing like the reality which is hour upon on hour upon day upon week of almost catatonic, mundane misery. Where the pain is too much, where your brain shuts down and you lose any hope of stringing together a coherent sentence let alone composing a nuanced stanza about the fragile beauty of the human condition. When the self hatred is so strong you shut down and just lie there willing sleep or some form of unconsciousness because if you are active you are active in your own destruction. When you come out of that you can explore it, but when you’re in it? You’re just lumpen, nothing, a shell.
It’s also rather insulting to assume that someone’s brilliance must be due to something pathological, a nice compensation for being disabled ‘oh hey your life sucks but hey you can paint really well! isn’t that nice?’. People have talent regardless of their illness or disability. My depression does not define me. I am a creative person but not because I am depressed, of course it influences me, if you live with a long term illness that affects your everyday life it’s quite likely it might affect your output, how you think, how you see the world and by god it gives you something to rant about.
Depression is not shorthand for depth of personality (or actually having one in the first place) or authenticity or anything. It is not a simulacra rendered in faux old typewriter fonts on crisp digital screens to be inked into shown off skin, It’s not the personality equivalent of a fucking instagram filter. So fuck off with your hideous Bell Jar tattoos (You aren’t, you aren’t, you aren’t) Morrisey Hair, and idolisation of Kurt Cobain’s pain, and don’t assume that latching onto another’s utter fucking misery, something which lest we forget often ends with a violent & premature death, somehow makes your life more ‘real’.
People who have not had their life fucked up repeatedly by depression rhapsodising about how wonderful it is for creativity, adopting the accessories of a romanticised ideal as a lifestyle choice and fashion accessory, they are near the top of the shit list.
To quote the Simulacra and Simulation
“The fourth stage is pure simulation, in which the simulacrum has no relationship to any reality whatsoever”
I feel exactly like that about romanticised depictions and adoptions of depression as some sort of deep and meaningful lifestyle choice.
Disclaimer: I genuinely love The Bell Jar, it’s a fabulous book. Bad bell jar tattoos do make me laugh though.