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Writers with severe mental health problems

We all know of famous writers with severe mental health problems. Any creative type is usually hit with some neurosis or worse, the myth would have it. That is a myth, of course. Most creative people are sane. And most people with severe mental problems are sane too.

However. Writers like me are people first. People with a diagnosis are people first. I’m an elderly person. I have a diagnosis of moderate to severe and incurable bipolar disorder. And I’m a writer and a man and a football fan. I’m an old male writer with bipolar who likes football and wears a big watch with a skull on the face.

Right now I am down. Tired all the time, flat, weary. The list of things to do after getting up from 12 hours of sleep is terrifying. Coffee, Shave. Clean teeth, If I have cereal I have to wash a dish. The big one: I have to walk the five minutes to the shops to buy bread. Then the giant I’ve hidden from for weeks: I need to print out a returns label, pack a faulty item and walk all the way to the post office to post the parcel. Many of you will recognise this state. Add to it a visceral anxiety in my solar plexus. In my head a buzzing I cannot hear, a flickering I cannot see. It’s little, a minor annoyance. There are genuine agonies by the millions out there.

Humour and Irony

Don’t worry. This is normal for me, has been all my life. I have no desire to add to the literature of depression – or the memoirs about alcohol, a substance which until about fifteen years ago was destroying me.

I’m not a miserable person. Shy and introverted, I’ll never be the life and soul of a gathering but I enjoy company. I like to laugh and talk. That’s because the human urge to socialise is healthy in me.

The thing is, having accepted my depression and its not infrequent twin, high octane mania, I think I’ve learned to adapt. And it’s the basis of my creativity. While I am ‘in reality’ a pleasant, unassertive guy, my writing seems to pour from something like deep anger. Something ‘like’ I stress; I’m not aware of being angry about anything. Something like a furnace. My writing seems to have a life of its own. It’s often cynical but dancing with dark humour and irony.

Sometimes, I can’t write but just twitter and flutter and potter about. Most times though I do write. I enjoy the gravity of it, occasionally an epiphany that this writing stuff is a miracle, language is miraculous, being rather than not being is enough to head off any danger of wanderings to search for more than what is here. As Wallace Stevens wrote, ‘Let be be finale of seem’. That poet had his own finale and knew that ‘Death is the mother of beauty’.

You may have guessed rightly that I find solace in those beautiful voices over the centuries that resonate with the wonderful resonance of Death. I mean, I don’t expect Shakespeare anticipated people rolling in the aisles with laughter while watching Hamlet. My favourite reading is dark, dark, dark, much deeper and truer than the bright illusions which in the ‘real world’ sustain us.

Acting Normal

The great psychologist, William James, observed, correctly I think, that ‘the sick soul’ sees reality more truly than the healthy. I think the ‘depressive realism’ of ‘sick souls’ makes it impossible for them to fully join in with what passes for ‘normality’, though they certainly have enough acting skills to pursue the various roles we all must play to be accepted as ‘normal’, to hide in the light. The writers who gift us a vision of our psychic foundations help us grow, become more solidly human. Yet such writers and artists by and large cannot be spotted in ‘real life’. Contrary to the idea of creators being weird people, they largely live like any of us – with families, mortgages, suits from Marks and Spencer. But their real ‘real life’ that they gift us through the page lies often too deep for them to see or know with perspicuity.

Having queried the myth of creativity and ‘madness’, it shouldn’t be ignored that writers, in particular, do have among them more than their share of hard drinkers, alcoholics, drug addicts, depressives, suicides. But, to repeat, I think most writers are, like me, boringly ‘normal’ (I greatly hope nobody is puzzled about how somebody with a serious mental health problem can be boringly normal).

Anyway, let’s end with a little poem from a man who, very sadly, was not able to adapt to this Vale of Tears. From Edgar Allan Poe found feverish, probably drunken and in despair just before his death:


From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were—I have not seen
As others saw—I could not bring
My passions from a common spring—
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow—I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone—
And all I lov’d—I lov’d alone—
Then—in my childhood—in the dawn
Of a most stormy life—was drawn
From ev’ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still—
From the torrent, or the fountain—
From the red cliff of the mountain—
From the sun that ’round me roll’d
In its autumn tint of gold—
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass’d me flying by—
From the thunder, and the storm—
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view—



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