Medicating the muse

[Trigger warning for the assorted symptoms and complications of bipolar II, including but not limited to suicidal ideation and mention of an eating disorder]

I’m a writer. Marketing, Web content, magazines, self-indulgent blog posts, the written word in the English language — I do it at my super-fulfilling office job, and then I go home and I do more of it. It keeps the lights on.

I also write fiction. Whether I’m any good at it is an open question, and I have a number of gentle rejections that seem to have their own opinion, but I enjoy it, and I have since I was big enough to hold a pencil. It’s the escape, the creation, the voices, seeing a world banging around in my head fed out onto the page. It’s the thing that I identify as uniquely mine more than any other trait. I more than enjoy it — I need it. It keeps my lights on.

I also have bipolar II (affectionately, “the crazazy”). This is a fairly recent thing; up until about five years ago, I was just a freak. I was a huge freak all through grade school, and I managed to pass as “quirky” when I got to college (although not the kind that would have gotten me a TV show or anything). It was after graduation that “broken” became an issue; outside of the padded playground of school, it was easier to make screwups that had lasting impact and weren’t easy to rectify. Employers and professional contacts were more demanding and far less forgiving of a hypomanic woman in a professional setting, new friends were less tolerant, and romantic relationships were well-nigh disastrous when any guy interested in the crazazy chick usually turned out to be a bucket of trouble himself.

The highs were like a constant, actual tingle beneath my skin, and all I could do was try to scratch it. Food. Sex. I would go shopping, and when I came home I would have no idea what was in my bags. I’d go out running because I literally was unable to sit still. I talked loud and fast, because there were so many thoughts in my head that were racing around in my head and had to get out one way or another. I was frustrated all the time, because those thoughts actually followed a perfect, sequential logic if people were just un-stupid enough to look, God, and I would have been glad to draw out an actual flow chart if it would have made them stop looking at me like I was crazy. A guy once told me “You are a weird girl” by way of pillow talk. It didn’t earn him a repeat performance, but he wasn’t wrong.

Along with the chaos, though, came an unbelievable level of focus and creativity. My brain during the day was chaos incarnate; turn off the sun and hand me a laptop, and it resolved itself into characters and narratives and pages and pages and pages and pages of plot. At a stretch, I could write from eleven at night to six in the morning, shower, dress, and get to work on time with nothing but a cup of coffee to keep me going. It was exhilarating. I once woke up slumped over my keyboard to find that I’d written three pages while more or less passed out. It was crappy writing, but it had made it onto the page unassisted, and at the time it didn’t occur to me how messed up that was.

But as bad as the highs were, the lows were even worse. The lows were sitting at home on the couch, staring into the middle distance, bingeing and purging, sobbing uncontrollably, crying at the office, staring down a handle of Stoli and pondering the line between drinking myself unconscious and drinking myself dead. It was that last one — wondering if anyone at work would notice if I didn’t come back from lunch and if anyone would find me before I died — that led me to call for help. I’m lucky; my insurance paid for a really great shrink, and when she read down a list of my symptoms and told me that there was a name and a treatment for what I was going through, that I wasn’t just a horrible, weak, worthless person, I was so relieved I cried. There wasn’t much I wouldn’t be willing to do to make it better, and it only took a little bit of time, a few drug combinations, and a few dosage adjustments to get me stable. Normal. (“Normal.”) When I was happy, I was normal-happy, and when I was sad, I was normal-sad. No racing thoughts, no all-night energy, no laser focus, no shaking legs, no harmful behaviors, no crying, no staring.

But no racing thoughts. No all-night energy. No laser focus. At bedtime, I got tired, not inspired, and I went off to bed. Nothing was banging on the inside of my head trying to get out. Ideas lined up obediently in my head, and the more interesting ones got bored and went home. My works in progress stopped progressing, because I didn’t have anything to feed into them anymore. The insuppressible urge to create was just gone.

It isn’t a side effect. (“Feeling a little bit fuzzy? Let’s tweak your dosage.”) It’s the effect. The whole point is to calm my spinning thoughts and get me to sleep nights like any “normal,” healthy person who’s never pulled an all-weeker or had cause to call a suicide hotline — and it’s worked. But to a small extent, it’s also replaced the stress of unchecked mental illness with the knowledge that something I love has gone away, possibly for good. After years of misery, I broke up with my muse, and even though I know she was bad news and I was terribly unhappy when I was with her, I can’t not miss her and long for the good things we had — because when it was good, it was fantastic. Knowing that I did the right thing in locking her out doesn’t make that feel better.

Right now, my hard drive is home to three novels, two novellas, and a screenplay, all basically untouched in the past three years. I recently revived one and have made marginal progress with it; it feels good to be able to write at all, but the writing is pretty bland, and being able to close my laptop and go to bed at a reasonable hour is disheartening. I don’t know how to write sane. Maybe it’s a skill to develop. Maybe it’s a lost cause.

I’m not about to go off my meds for the sake of regaining my muse. It’s something I’ve had to reassure The Boy about on a several occasions — that the thrill of that level of creativity isn’t worth everything else that would come along with it. He came along shortly after I’d gotten my psychopharmacological shit together, so he never saw how bad it really could be for me and how I would give anything to keep from going back there. What I’m feeling now isn’t a nostalgia for a dramatic and tumultuous past; it’s more the heaviness of lost love. I’m not going to cheat on my mental health with the crazazy. But you can’t blame me if, just once in a while, I look back on the good times and wish we could have remained friends.

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63 comments for “Medicating the muse

  1. anonymous
    February 27, 2013 at 10:15 am

    Just wanted to thank you for writing this – just got a diagnosis of cyclothymia (or as I call it, “baby bipolar”), and the though of losing my “edge” and my energy has me really stressing out. It’s not the same experience as being truly bipolar, but I quite frankly really love my highs most of the time. I know what you mean about sometimes just wishing other people could keep up, but I’m trying to get it all balanced out so I don’t alienate folks around me.

    Anyhoo, I just wanted to say you’ve got my support as you go through this.

  2. A4
    February 27, 2013 at 10:39 am

    Thanks for posting this Caperton.

  3. Alara Rogers
    February 27, 2013 at 11:07 am

    What you say resonates with me painfully. I define myself as “a writer”, and yet, I never finish anything and I’ve published very, very little, because everything in my life is always more important than the only thing I love to do. The only times I can recall being happy for any extended period of time in the past several years were when I was on fire in a hypomanic creative fit that actually resulted in writing getting done; the rest of the time, I struggle with depression, anhedonia (in the sense of “inability to accept doing things I enjoy because of crippling guilt” more than the sense of “inability to feel pleasure at all”), and a sleep disorder that makes me feel half-asleep all the time. If I could put myself in the place you got away from, I would do it, because getting highs to go with the horrifying lows would be better than a range that runs from emptiness down to horrifyingly low… even if I had to suffer the lows more often, I feel like I would make that trade. And that scares me, because what I’m basically saying is that if I had the opportunity to sacrifice what little mental health I do have to be able to write, I’d do it, because writing is the only thing that actually makes me feel like my life is worth living.

    I can’t imagine how awful it must be for you to have to trade the creativity for a balanced life, and I don’t know if I’d have the strength to do what you’ve done if that were the choice in front of me. In my case I am always running *toward* the things that spin me up… which is killing me a different way, because the various stimulant and antidepressant medications I am taking are giving me hypertension, but if I have the choice between 40 years half asleep and 20 years awake and functional, I’ll take 20 awake. I just… I feel like I’m getting a bum deal anyway because even with all the meds I’m taking I *still* feel half asleep about a fourth of the time and I never feel “up” enough to be able to write.

    I’m sorry for you that you had to make that choice, and I’m glad for you that you can at least blog and that your life seems overall happier now. Maybe your mind will adapt and you’ll find a way to express your creative impulses even without the mania, eventually; it probably won’t be as effortless as it seemed then, but you might be able to retrain yourself to have more voluntary control over the writing state and be able to invoke it more or less at will. I hope so, because you are a good writer and because it will probably make you happier if you can have both a sane, balanced life *and* some writing.

  4. ruggers
    February 27, 2013 at 11:42 am

    this was beautiful, and wonderful to read. thanks for writing it out!

  5. Sam
    February 27, 2013 at 11:47 am

    That’s really touching, Caperton. I hope you rediscover your muse. I suspect she or he is merely hiding for now, and not gone for good.

    And Alara Rogers, your comment

    “everything in my life is always more important than the only thing I love to do”

    hits too close to home. I need to ponder that for a bit.

  6. Hannah
    February 27, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    I have to say, as someone with Bipolar I and a university, this really speaks to me. I also rode the creative wave that is mania to many an “A” paper but with my medication I found that I was beginning to lose that edge and it’s only be recently that I’ve been able to divorce “skilled-writer” Hannah from plain ol’ “stable but still quirky” Hannah and find the shadow of that edge again

    • Hannah
      February 27, 2013 at 12:26 pm

      *university STUDENT of course

  7. Aidan
    February 27, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    Oh, god. Thank you. This is exactly what I’ve been dealing with since I went on anti-psychotic meds a year and a half ago. I’m normal, but I have no muse. Thank you thank you thank you. I needed to read this, to know that someone else is going through this.

  8. samanthab
    February 27, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    I feel ya! I’m Bipolar I, so I don’t really have much choice r.e medication; I wouldn’t be close to functional without it. I’ve definitely lost some personality on it, however, and that does give me the sads.

    The cherry on top is that I’m also so intensely depressive that I’m not sure I’d survive without medication- eventually the suicidal thoughts could win very easily win over. But still: personality is a good thing! I miss it. It doesn’t do many good to miss it, but I do.

  9. Gorbachev
    February 27, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    A friend of mine suffered from terrible bipolar disorder. I know you don’t, but don’t take it lightly. She’s made and lost friends faster than people can blink, and is a general mess. The meds stabilize her and allow her to function.

    Not happy notes, but you should know that unstabilized, these fits get worse as you age. It’s possible to swing right out. My friend knew people who committed suicide without warning, who just disappeared, who went through stages of bizarre promiscuity, who were arrested, one who managed to see that the creativity she experienced wasn’t worth the cost.

    Be careful. It’s hard to know what balance is without close friends and family (who are hard to keep when you suffer from this) to keep you balanced.

    The meds are downers, but they can keep you alive.

    And this never goes away. Ever.

    I hope you can balance your conflicting needs.

    • samanthab.
      February 28, 2013 at 4:31 am

      Do you we really need judgment-laden adjectives like “terrible?” Or to be told that bipolar equals “mess?” Yeah, I get that bipolar disorder and larger American society don’t mesh too well. I don’t really need it rubbed in my face.

      • no
        February 28, 2013 at 5:30 pm

        How dare anyone admit that mental illness sucks. That’s ***ABLEIST.***

        /mentally ill and hate it

    • konkonsn
      February 28, 2013 at 2:06 pm

      I think Caperton knows all this and doesn’t need yet another person who hasn’t gone through these experiences to explain her life for her.

    • Joe from an alternate universe
      February 28, 2013 at 5:01 pm

      First, she never says that she’s thinking of going off her meds; she’s telling her story to people who will listen.

      Second, it can be therapudic to bend someone’s ear for a while if they’re wiling to listen and not judge. But most people just want someone to listen, not offer advice (especially based on assumptions) that wasn’t asked for.

  10. Psyche
    February 27, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    I usually lurk, but just wanted to jump in and say hang in there. My brother is a musician, and was diagnosed as bipolar and went on medication about five years ago. For the first year and a half, he wouldn’t touch his instruments. It was three years before he even tried to write music again. But over the past year or so, he seems to be starting to hit a creative groove again. From the way he talks about it, it seems like he had to completely re-learn how to be creative.

    Just an anecdote, but I really hope you don’t give up on the writing.

  11. jrockford
    February 27, 2013 at 12:51 pm

    I’ll chime in as also relating to this article. I’m not a bipolar sufferer, but I suffer from anxiety and depression, which over the years I’ve coped with by developing management strategies. The idea of medication has always made me uncomfortable for precisely the reasons stated here. I fancy myself a “creative type”, and when I really break it down, the places I go to when I’m having an episode of anxiety or depression are often at the root of many of my creative pursuits. The thought of cutting myself off from that is often terrifying to me, I don’t know what sort of person I’d be. I usually tell myelf, “well, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.”

    There have been times when my desire to continue “toughing it out” has eroded enough that I’ve gone on meds for short periods, but I never reacted well to them. The psychologists and psychiatrists I’ve seen are always very quick to go to the medication option. Whenever I’ve seen them, I always tell them my concerns regarding creativity and inspiration and they’re usually smugly dismissive. In my experience, if you imply that you’re the least bit uncomfortable with mental health medication, you get treated like the second coming of Tom Cruise.

    • samanthab
      February 27, 2013 at 2:13 pm

      I suffered from anxiety and depression for years, and then I became bipolar at 34. They aren’t in the same ballpark as far as experiences go, at least not how according to how I’ve lived both sides of things.

      I’m sorry, but this is really one of my pet peeves, because it’s painful to hear: to be told that I’d be better off without medication when I know as sure as fuck wouldn’t. It’s great that you can do that, but when something is much easier on you than someone else, the word for that is privilege. I don’t enjoy having privilege rubbed in my face. I don’t want to sound harsh, but, like I said, it’s really painful to hear comments like this. And it is insulting, to be told that

      • jrockford
        February 27, 2013 at 3:01 pm

        It wasn’t my intention to tell others that they should deal with their problems the same way I’ve dealt with mine. I should have been clearer. I was simply describing my condition and why this article resonated with me.

        I understand that bipolar is a severe and difficult condition to cope with, and that there is no one size fits all approach to dealing with these conditions. I wasn’t attempting to say that anyone would be better or worse off by taking medication, just describing my experiences and why, although the experiences aren’t identical, I sympathize with caperton’s article.

      • February 27, 2013 at 3:45 pm

        Well it’s great that you’re better off on medication; but did you ever think about what it’s like to be one of those people who just aren’t helped in the slightest by meds? Or who are made suicidal, or completely emotionless, or any of the other things that make them not a very good option for some people?

        You say jrockford has privilege because they have it easier than you (or at least, you seem to think so since they’re living without meds). Did you ever think that maybe using medication simply isn’t an option for them?

        It is insulting to hear you implying that people who don’t use medication somehow suffer less. Believe me, if meds could help us, most of us would use them. We’re not just suffering purposely, because we think we’re so tough or superior.

        No one said you would be better off without meds. Not one person.

        That doesn’t mean that we can’t consider that WE are better off without them.

      • Gretchen
        February 27, 2013 at 5:54 pm

        Thank you Barnacle Strumpet.

        I had nervous breakdown in my late teens and continued to suffer clinical depression and a list of other issues for years after (some of which I still struggle with). Throughout this period I was inundated with suicidal thoughts, I was put on a shit-tonne of drugs and it wasn’t until after I was put on meds – a number of types and dosage tweaks – that I started attempting suicide, had more severe dissociative episodes, oh and my self-harming got a lot worse.

        Just because medication is the best treatment for one person doesn’t mean that it is the best option for everyone, or that if they are coping without it they aren’t suffering as much. Being actually safer adopting coping strategies and treatment plans that don’t involve medication is NOT a privilege, it can be a choice or a necessity.

      • jrockford
        February 27, 2013 at 6:16 pm


        My experience is somewhat similar. The last time I tried medication was about five years ago. 2008 was a very rough year, and I was having such a hard time managing my anxiety attacks that I went to see a doctor despite having no insurance. The doctor told me, “well, I’d prescribe Effexor, but you probably can’t afford it” (exact words), and gave me a scrip for Celexa. Five days into the regimen I had a suicidal episode so bad that I had to be driven home from work and spent the next couple of days at my mom’s house just trying to get my head on straight. It was terrifying. One of the scarier episodes of my life.

        I stopped taking the Celexa immediately of course. I’ve got insurance now, but ever since that experience I’ve been scared to death of anxiety/depression medication. The episode also got me to start working hard on ways to manage my condition.

        I have friends who use medication to treat their conditions, and I couldn’t be happier for them that it’s working and their lives are improved! Different strokes for different folks.

      • (BFing) Sarah
        February 28, 2013 at 4:11 pm

        I just want to say, samanthab, that I understand what you are saying. I feel like you just got jumped on when what you were saying was valid–some people really NEED to take those meds and wouldn’t survive without them and that is a very fair point.

      • AthenaH2SO4
        February 28, 2013 at 8:43 pm

        I can actually feel both sides of this one…I am Bipolar (2-ish – I have had some psychotic features that made the line a little blurry), and I needed to be on meds for years. After Lamictal stopped working, I was on Abilify monotherapy for some time, but decided to get off of it after I developed such severe tremors that I was having trouble using a cell phone. I’m actually in remission now, and hopefully will be for a long time. Due to the combo of most drugs not working/those that do cause serious side effects, I basically just monitor my mental state (with help from friends and family), and reserve medications for severe episodes. It’s such a tricky condition, and hopefully we all have doctors who are willing to work hard for each individual solution.

      • Clark
        March 12, 2013 at 4:03 am

        I have bipolar, diagnosed at age 26. After being diagnosed I was prescribed Symbiax. It was great at first: my mood stabilized, I was able to sit through class, I didn’t have to walk most of the day. But I also slept constantly. Fourteen hours a day, and every time I was in a remotely prone position I would instantly fall asleep. Then the dreams started, and they were so lucid that within a couple of weeks I could no longer tell when I was awake and when I was asleep. So I had to quit the meds and for the past 5 years I have “taken” CBT exercises as my meds.

        Recently I applied to be admitted to the bar in South Dakota. I am already a member of the Iowa bar (they didn’t give two shakes about my diagnosis) and I passed the SD bar exam with flying colors. However, the Board was concerned about me having Bipolar, and requested all my medical records. They then denied my application because I had stopped taking medication to treat it. Even though CBT has been shown to be just as effective, the Board saw a lack of meds and assumed a lack of treatment.

        The point is, mental health has enough stigma from outside. Sometimes having to rely on meds is a determent, sometimes being able to take them is a privilege. Either way, society is going to look down on us all for our brain chemistry. Lets not bicker and accuse each other, but try to help each other find what works for ourselves as individuals and help society accept that.

  12. miga
    February 27, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    I hear you. I have BP as does my mom, and as scary as the highs were I miss how connected I felt to the universe and to my craft. My mother once said she used to feel as if God were hugging her during her manic periods, and she missed the extreme happiness.

    My writing used to be borne on the strong mood swings, whether manic or depressive. Medicine has dampened the extreme confidence that came with the mania and the extreme IDGAF-ness that came with depression.

    I’ve gotten over the rebellion against my medicine and I’m working my way back to healthy writing, but it’s a difficult journey.

  13. Allison
    February 27, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    Thank you so much for this post, I have been in the same position. When I first started medication for bipolar disorder I felt like I couldn’t create. It took a few years, but I now am more creative and productive than I was before. Because I am stable and generally healthier my mind is clear in a way that it never was when I was either high or low. Though I don’t feel as creative as I was when I was manic, I am actually finishing more pieces.

    It took me a long time to accept that I need medication to functional, but now I am able to pursue and reach my goals- creative or otherwise.

  14. ColoradoSal
    February 27, 2013 at 1:29 pm

    Thank you for this post. I’ve had my ups and downs with depression for over 25 years now, reaching my lowest point in fall of 2011. After I finally went on meds, I experienced this same loss of creativity. I used to write a lot and I just have no stories to tell. On the flip side, I’ve become a crazy knitter because I’m able to focus in a different way now. At first I was only following patterns, but I’m starting to modify and create my own patterns and it’s been an interesting replacement for writing in my life. I do miss the writing, but the change in my knitting gives me hope that my writing muse just might make her way back to me.

    Hang in there. And kudos for taking care of yourself — it can be a hard decision to make.

  15. Athenia
    February 27, 2013 at 2:32 pm

    I don’t have bipolar disorder, but I can definitely sympathize with this article. Like writing was so much easier in high school and college, but now that I’m in the 9 to 5 work world? Not so much. I feel like the most boring person ever!

    However, I think sometimes we writers think writing is always going to be easy, but really, writing is hard work! I remember once I didn’t have any fun writing this one piece, didn’t think it was any good–years later I read and I was all, ‘This isn’t that bad!”

  16. Kessa
    February 27, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    Why exactly is “general mental illness” worthy of a trigger warning? That’s like warning that mentally ill people exist, or that the article is talking about mental illness. That’s not useful and it kind of implies that the mere existence of mentally ill people in general is dangerous to others.

    This article does in fact discuss some things that could be worth trigger warnings–suicidal ideation is a good example. “General mental illness” does not protect readers from knowing that content is present. Suicidal ideation is not present in every mental illness and would not necessarily be brought up in an article about mental health.

    So you’ve got a trigger warning that has some awkward implications and isn’t actually helpful… I hope I’m not being too much of an asshole if I suggest you consider an alternative.

    • February 27, 2013 at 2:54 pm

      You’re not being an asshole. I was kind of vague with it because there’s so much here that could potentially be triggering that I didn’t know where to start listing, but you’re right that it should be more specific. I’ll make the change. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  17. pheenobarbidoll
    February 27, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    I’m not bi-polar and generally have the emotional variation of sand (ie “normal” things make me happy, “normal” things make me mad and it takes a great deal to make me sad) so what’s being described to me does not sound like creativity, it just sounds exhausting, confusing and makes me slightly anxious, the way I feel when I’m around people in manic phases. A friend of mine feels the exact same way about her meds and her ability to be creative, but from the outside, her work IMO “normal” is leaps and bounds better than her work in her “creative manic mode”. She doesn’t see it that way, but her stuff in “creative manic mode” to me just looks like a hot mess and her writing is like watching a David Lynch movie on acid. When she writes in her manic mode, it reads like she just vomited words onto paper (though she thinks it all makes sense) and when she writes medicated it reads as crafted, skilled writing. That people not in a manic mode would want to read.

    I have no idea how, or even if I should, explain to her that what she mourns when she’s medicated never actually existed outside her own mind.

    • miga
      February 27, 2013 at 3:11 pm

      0.o Pheeno, I never thought of it that way before….

      • pheenobarbidoll
        February 27, 2013 at 3:43 pm

        Well, it could just be her but if you have a friend who’s a good soundboard and will be honest with you, ask em. She’s never asked me and I never felt it was my place to say ” you know all the things you write/paint/sculpt when your off meds? Yeah, they make no sense and sorta suck but the things you write/paint/sculpt when you’re on meds are fucking brilliant”. But if she ever does ask, I will be truthful (though I’ll probably leave out words like suck) and the only thing I’ve said generally speaking is ” please take your meds”, but not because I care about the quality of her art but because I love her and want her to live a long time.

      • pheenobarbidoll
        February 27, 2013 at 3:48 pm

        ugh. You’re*

        Forgive any type o’s or rambly ass sentences. I had an MRI this morning that triggered a migraine and lortab is currently making me loopy.

    • Bagelsan
      February 28, 2013 at 2:44 pm

      I was going to say something similar; Caperton touched on this, but really the evidence seems to suggest that manic writing isn’t very good writing, and obviously isn’t coming from a healthy creative place. It’s destructive, not creative, and generally not even very good (as in the “you have to be there to get it” means you have to be in a crappy headspace to get it. That’s shitty art.)

  18. DAS
    February 27, 2013 at 3:32 pm

    I am moody and prone to anxiety/panic attacks and both panic attacks and bipolar run in my family. I also find that my highs help me with my creativity, and I am afraid that anything that would dampen those highs might interfere with my ability to create and write about what I do (both necessary in my job as a professor in the sciences). I figure that since whatever amount of “mishugas” I have is actually working out for me (I’m able to maintain a stable home life; presuming the board of trustees approves it, when the next academic year begins, I’ll be tenured and promoted), I’ll keep things the way they are — I don’t want to mess with what seems to be working. But if I should get any worse (i.e. to the point where the highs/lows interfere with my work — rather than enabling bursts of creativity / motivating me to work myself out of a funk — or to the point where my “issues” present a danger to myself or others), I’ll be sure to seek psychiatric care (and possibly meds, although it may be that I just need better coping strategies).

    I also figure that when I’m promoted as I can be, and it isn’t so critical that I remain “on the cutting edge”, I might just start with meds to be calmer. But then again, when I am in that position, I won’t have as much stress, so I might be calmer anyway.

    Of course, the other problem with mental health care, as has already been alluded to, is insurance. In particular, by its very nature, mental health care involves a high level of rapport between patient and caregiver that requires you to have a care-giver with whom you can be very comfortable. And it may be hard to find such a person. Even if you have very good insurance (which I am lucky to have), when you do find someone well recommended who has lots of experience in treating people with your particular constellation of symptoms, it may be that this person doesn’t take your insurance. And the last thing you need when you are having problems handling stress and are anxious is to have to deal with yet another stressor in terms of finding an appropriate mental health professional who actually takes your insurance. I guess the TL;DR for this paragraph is that single payer (if not “socialized medicine”) would go a long way to improving mental health outcomes!

  19. Lauren
    February 27, 2013 at 5:06 pm

    My husband is bipolar, and the way he described it to me is that with the mania he gets to have the best meal he’s ever had, with the best people, and he feels the best, and it’s all the best, and this is an amazing, wonderful, extraordinary experience. And then the depression is the bill for that amazing meal, a big, fat, unaffordable bill that he’s unsure he’ll ever be able to pay off. By his calculations, and mine FWIW, the amazing meal isn’t worth paying the bill later. An extraordinary meal means an extraordinary bill to pay.

    Regarding the muse, my experiences with anxiety and depression make me feel like the muse’s allure is that the experience is so natural — and it literally is, it’s biological — so that when the “natural” experience isn’t happening I can’t practice the discipline of writing. I’m not saying that people who struggle with this are “undisciplined,” but that the feeling of flow — the magical part you get so used to — isn’t present and it makes the work more like work than pleasure. YMMV.

  20. umami
    February 27, 2013 at 5:08 pm

    Thank you for sharing this.

    I’m in a weird place right now where three days ago I experienced a dramatic increase in my executive function, which has always been a huge problem for me.

    It’s been accompanied by a warm, calm, fuzzy feeling of being wrapped in a blanket, like life can be quite easy and sweet, and by a deeply painful awareness of how overdramatic and jarring my typical emotional experience of life was before: I get images of bones grinding together, an engine trying to run without oil, jagged edges everywhere.

    And also by creativity. Not that I feel amazingly, powerfully creative. But I can sit down and say “I’m going to write 700 words now.” And write 700 words. Not necessarily 700 good words, but I don’t mind. I haven’t been able to just sit down and write when I decided to, for years and years and years.

    And I have no idea what did this.

    Or rather, that’s wrong. I have a lot of ideas. I just don’t know if any of them are true. What it feels like, what I hope, is that all my work on myself has clicked into place, and all the things that suddenly seem easier will simply stay easier. I’ve never been responsive to psychiatric meds, but I’ve been using hallucinogens to do deep emotional/spiritual work, and the last time I took them a few months ago, it was so strongly, amazingly positive that I knew it had to create something wonderful when that experience finally landed in my daily life.

    But I worry it’s temporary, some kind of freakish chemical blip within my body. Perhaps it’ll change and I’ll have to go back to that horrifying feeling where I’m all made of nerve laid bare without any insulation, and everything stretches me thin and exhausts me till I have to hide in bed, and trying to achieve basic adult functioning feels like some kind of Sisyphean punishment, if Sisyphus had been surrounded by people strolling casually up the same hill pushing their rocks along with an outstretched pinky finger. And if I regress to that again, this time I’ll actually know what I’m missing.

    I’m also slightly worried I’ll get fat. For some reason I can’t stop eating since this strange mental shift occurred. But while it would be hard to give up skinny privilege, I’ll definitely swap it for this if I have to.

    Anyway. Good luck to you and anyone else who’s on a journey of dealing with mental health issues. I hope you’ll come a place of balance, of good health and also creativity for yourself.

  21. mk
    February 27, 2013 at 7:03 pm

    Another reader with bipolar who can relate. The thought that I’ll never write fiction again now that I’m medicated scares me, but my symptoms scare me more. I feel so, so lucky that hospitalization was such a positive experience for me (really fucking hard and scary, but positive), that medication has been working for me for over two years now, that I can afford the mental health care that I’m convinced is keeping me alive…

    And yet the only voice that ever tells me not to take my meds–that tiny, deadly, oh-so-quiet voice–is the one that wants me up in the middle of the night again, writing.

  22. Computer Soldier Porygon
    February 27, 2013 at 7:12 pm

    I have never really struggled with staying on medication the way other bipolar folks seem to. I think that’s partially to do with the fact that I tend heavily towards depressive and ‘mixed’ episodes that are just unpleasant or balls to the wall awflu and the pure highs are rare for me, but I always read things like this and wonder if it’s also to do with the fact that I’m not a Creative. I mean, I will occasionally get really hyped about a one-off DIY project that I will inevitably abandon halfway through, but other than that…

    • Computer Soldier Porygon
      February 27, 2013 at 7:13 pm

      Haha, ‘awflu.’ Oops. Well, I DID just have the stomach flu. It was awful/awflu.

  23. February 27, 2013 at 9:52 pm

    I prefer the term “manic-depressive” because “bipolar” makes me feel like a battery, or another planet (although a lot of people would argue that I pretty much am another planet…)

    The worst for me is losing my sense of significance, along with my inspiration and motivation. I still force myself to write and send things off, and my best work is usually under pressure and done within a few days (at least I feel it is, though editors don’t always agree). However, I no longer have the sense of mission I had as a younger woman. I’ve lost my place.

  24. Katherine
    February 28, 2013 at 6:19 am

    It’s possible that this is a wildly inappropriate thing to say, but as someone with depression I’ve always been just a bit jealous of bipolar. I just get the depression and none of the fun stuff. Now of course, having known someone with bipolar, the “manic” phase was actually not a good thing and he ended up damaging himself. But there’s a small, shameful part of myself that wishes for the spark as well as the dark.

    • February 28, 2013 at 10:38 am

      I’ve often felt the same way, Katherine. My depression is also the unipolar ( I believe that’s the clinical term) kind and I only get the sadness. Although more often than not, what I most often have experienced is anxiety and panic attacks. Effexor has brought me considerable relief though.

      I also have ADD, which can mimic symptoms of bipolar disorder in many ways, though the highs and lows associated with this aren’t as pronounced as those associated with bipolar disorder.

  25. Combray
    February 28, 2013 at 7:53 am

    Thank you for this piece. I was diagnosed with bipolar II a few years ago as well. My experience isn’t exactly like yours, obviously, but a lot of what you write sounds very familiar.

  26. February 28, 2013 at 9:23 am

    While I’ve never had to struggle with the kind of mental imbalance you have been through, I know that I have worried and worried about how creativity and crazazy seem to go hand in hand. I suffer from depression, and I am the stable version of what you lived through–I have incredible highs and devastating lows, which really sometimes concern those around me, although neither of them are extreme enough to require treatment, other than being on anti-depressants.

    In any case, I remember talking to a friend once about how it seems like you can either have a happy life or you can be an incredible writer, but you can’t have both. This friend told me that her grandfather, celebrated author John Crowe Ransom, was apparently a very stable and happy man. I have been re-acquainting myself with Douglas Adams, who, although he died young, seemed to have been truly a peaceful and happy person. Basically, I look for examples of those who are able to find their muse without chaos and without instability. They do exist, which gives me hope that writing does not require crazaziness. It may take longer and feel more stilted, but the creativity will come.

    Thanks for writing this. I look forward to reading more of your work.

    • EG
      February 28, 2013 at 11:36 am

      While I am no famous writer, for a more down-to-earth example, I can report that I only began writing and publishing again (post-puberty) after I went on anti-depressants, and that I am only productive when not depressed. Depression kills all my creative ability deader than doornails.

    • March 1, 2013 at 12:10 pm

      Neil Gaiman is also terrific example of a wildly successful, stable-to-all-appearances author. One thing I’ve noticed is that successful, stable authors all tend to have the same advice: writing/creativity is something you DO, no something that happens to you. I think reframing the cultural discussion of creation as something the artist is in control of, rather than something that controls the artist, would be enormously beneficial. I know a number of wonderful artists who make themselves miserable because they’ve convinced themselves they can’t create otherwise.

      • March 1, 2013 at 12:12 pm

        I should probably change that to “wonderful artists who don’t suffer from mental illnesses but seem to make themselves miserable” etc.

    • EG
      March 1, 2013 at 12:24 pm

      Terry Pratchett was also, as far as I know, a very happy man with a stable life to all appearances. William Wordsworth was a happy family man as well.

      • March 1, 2013 at 12:43 pm

        Erm, Pratchett’s still alive. -_- I just checked, because I about had a heart attack when I saw you past-tensing him…

      • EG
        March 1, 2013 at 1:06 pm

        I’m sorry! I used past tense because I was thinking of before the present badness…

  27. Tony
    February 28, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    I still have an aversion to medication to this day– sometimes, I think I’d rather deal with Depression for the rest of my life than medicate myself, even though I know that’s stupid.

    • miga
      February 28, 2013 at 1:51 pm

      I feel the same way regarding meds. I just hate hate hate feeling dependent on these expensive little pills to live. It’s taken me many years to get used to the idea that I’ll probably have to take them for my entire life.
      My family has a history of mental illness, and we have a history of bootstrappyness when it comes to our personal issues. But when someone else is feeling ill or struggling? We’re so insistent that the other person gets all the necessary help to feel well.

    • ColoradoSal
      March 1, 2013 at 12:02 pm

      I don’t think it’s stupid at all. It took me more than 25 years to decide to take meds and I don’t know if this will be long-term for me or not. Right now I can’t imagine not taking them, but for many years I managed through the ups and downs by choice and am glad I did. You have to do what’s right for you at the time.

      I have depression that’s worse seasonally. I talked to my doctor about this in December and she said she could increase my dose for the winter if I wanted, but I decided not to. Instead I just worked on making myself get up and exercise, get out in the sun, etc. to help offset the seasonal problem. I wanted to stick to my very low dose because even as I see the need for the meds, I don’t really want to be on them.

      My SO has been on and off meds since age 9 and is currently not on meds by choice. They’d be a help, but SO doesn’t want them and I support that. It’s a personal choice.

    • Joe from an alternate universe
      March 1, 2013 at 2:27 pm

      If they work for you, you might want to try them. I’d love to take the antidepressants and the other meds that were prescribed for me, but I can’t. I’ve been on almost every antidepressant with the same result: the side effects had me climbing the walls. I became extremely nervous, sometimes to the point of developing tics. I suffer from anxiety and panic attacks and I feel for me they were the wrong answer. I was not depressed at the time (I don’t feel anxiety and depression are almost always linked like most shrinks seem to think), so turbo boosting my brain activity multiplied the panic correspondingly. Beta blockers and other such drugs made me lethargic and depressed. So I just deal with it every minute of the day. But if you don’t have to, maybe you shouldn’t.

  28. February 28, 2013 at 8:07 pm


    I’ve read, and reread, your post. I still don’t know what to say. Many hugs if you want ’em. And for what it’s worth from a nameless internet commenter, I’ve always thought your writing for this site is fucking fantastic.

  29. March 1, 2013 at 6:53 am

    The muse is fickle in the best of times. Remembering that has given me much comfort over the years.

    I think that once you get used to how things are now, your creative output will return to normal. For so many people I’ve come across, and for myself as well when dealing with depression, it’s a matter of adjustment, not a matter of their creativity being stunted or shut down.

    Sometimes, it takes a few years, but overall, I think you’ll find that you will actually do so much better once you are not experiencing incredible highs and lows. You will gain more clarity, more discipline, more serious perspective – and your writing will only improve.

    Think of Thomas Mann, setting out to write every morning with some coffee – and always finishing up around lunch. Thomas Mann was a cool dude – no stranger to sadness, to repressed longings, etc. – but also someone who was able to hone his craft over the years with the attitude of someone who says, “I’m just going to take this idea and write the shit out of it, and it’s going to be great.” His work ethic was tied to relative calmness (never stupefaction or boredom), and it worked. There is an artistic confidence that comes with a certain degree of emotional stability, I think. It may waver – but it also sees you through the many dead ends that one has to negotiate when writing.

    I really appreciated the fruits of relative emotional stability when working with my first really tough editors (for personal articles, the novel is still, um, on the backburner). Those dudes grilled me hard, they pushed me to my limits, and they had me jumping through hoops like a goddamn circus animal. While I was on deadline, no less. That’s when I truly realized how hilarious, sweet, and misguided my “tortured genius” shtick (and I definitely had that shtick for many years, being able to connect to my creativity only while I was really, really sad and thinking that this was the only way it could be). At the end of the day, when the hard part was over and I was sitting back and reading the various compliments, I realized that hey, I still like the girl I used to be, I still think she was cool – but for the first time, I didn’t miss her. I had let her go.

    So I truly wish you luck, and I am here to tell you that it ain’t over. And it does get better.

  30. SunlessNick
    March 1, 2013 at 10:40 am

    Thanks for this Caperton. I have the same dilemma.

  31. Angie unduplicated
    March 1, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    Caperton, your medicated writing is fine. When I see your byline, I smile in anticipation of your deft balance of style, substance, and verbal weaponry.
    I’m not bipolar, but my aunt suffered from the disorder during the heyday of electroshock, and was hospitalized multiple times. Late in life, a physician decided to run a three hour glucose tolerance test on her, and discovered that she had severe reactive hypoglycemia. Adjustments to her diet controlled her bipolar disorder well until her death of CA. Don’t know if this might be worth a try for you.

  32. Marian Dalton
    March 4, 2013 at 12:08 am

    The amount of courage it took to write this … wow.

    This is where I’m at, too … I look sideways at my meds every morning and night and think, why do you come between me and my poetry, my writing, my ability to fly? I try to tell myself that I would crash too hard without them, and then nothing would be created. It succeeds sometimes.

    But then I remember that glorious, soaring feeling of turning from a political essay to an honours level research project, to poetry, to play scripts … and how now I struggle to concentrate.

    … and I think that if anything does put me over that line where I just said fuck it, and took myself out, it would be getting irrefutable proof that the muse would never take me again.

  33. March 4, 2013 at 6:21 am

    Thank you for writing this, mental health is simply not discussed enough, it is still stigmatised. The last taboo?

  34. March 5, 2013 at 3:16 am

    I don’t know whether this is helpful or just rubbing it in, but I got more writing done with the most ease this evening after reading this than I have in years. I am not medicated, but having been in good therapy for the last three years and finally properly diagnosed, I have also not been as “productive”. I used to have mad sessions of writing when my insomnia was at it’s worst. However, as several people have pointed out, looking back at some archived stuff that I’ve written, most of it stunk. Hence the quotes around “productive”. Now I sleep.

    I have hope for all of us that we’ll just find new muses, once we adjust to our new “normal”.

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