You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘mental illness’ tag.

I haven’t heard the term  “existential crisis” used lately. I don’t think that is because they don’t occur any more. I suspect they occur more today than they did in earlier times.

An existential crisis is defined as a moment that an individual questions the meaning of life.

Despite having no proof to point to, I believe this questioning is as old as mankind.

Existentialism was a term that come into being in the late 19th- and 20th-century via a group of diverse European philosophers. It may seem odd that this “crisis” is attached to philosophical thinking whose predominant value is commonly acknowledged to be freedom.

Søren Kierkegaard is generally considered to have been the first existentialist philosopher, though he did not use the term existentialism. He proposed that each individual—not society or religion—is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it “authentically.”

I came to know the term in my teen years through literature. Reading books by Jean-Paul Sartre (such as Nausea) and works by Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, T.S. Eliot and Herman Hesse, and then reading about them, existentialism kept being referenced.

I started to see it in many things I was reading. That “crazy cliff” that Holden Caulfield wanted to save people from falling off by being a “catcher in the rye” seemed existential to me. I started to see my own life that way. I can’t imagine getting through your teen years without an existential crisis.

Existentialism came into popular use after World War II in philosophy but also in theology, drama, art, literature, and psychology.

I’m sure that when I learned about an existential crisis I thought I was going through one. Mental health hypochondria is pretty common.

An existential crisis is a moment at which an individual questions the very foundations of their life. Does life have any meaning, purpose, or value? It is commonly wrapped up in anxiety and depression.

I have a vivid memory of seeing the film The Graduate for the first time and then again in college and when Ben was floating in his parents’ pool and feeling of a lack of purpose in life, I was floating right there with him.

But a true existential crisis is big. Questioning Life means questioning relationships, decisions, and your motivations. It is an illness. A serious one.

Currently I hear the term being used on more temporary states of mind. I did some searching online and found it in an article about spending too much time on social media. It was referenced in an article about suddenly not wanting to spend time with people and wanting to be alone. I found in searching this blog that I have used “existential” in several posts.

If an existential crisis is really a moment that an individual questions the meaning of life, it doesn’t seem like ending a relationship qualifies. Or does it?

An article that I read but won’t link to suggested that some warning signs of the crisis include drinking lots of coffee and using alcohol and cigarettes as a crutch and solution instead of coffee.

Very few of us have not felt a lack of motivation, unable to be productive to the point of depression. Mental fatigue can transform into physical fatigue, which drags you down further.

Is that an existential crisis?

Or is when it when you start to think about death, talk about death and live in the shadow of death?

When I went through a bad depression (which I and my therapist never called an existential crisis) one of the signs was that I began to cry easily for not very “valid” reasons. Movies, abandoned dogs on the drive to work, leaves falling from trees, a sad-looking woman drinking coffee at a nearby table, seeing homeless people or just sitting in the car at a red light would start me off.

Obviously, someone in a real crisis needs professional help and the support of those around them. I found that one treatment known as existential-humanistic focuses on your personalized concerns for your future. It is an approach that asks about the meaning of life.

I have probably written more about solitude than loneliness and I now view solitude – that choice to be alone – as a gift.

We all have our “dark nights of the soul” but when the night carries in the daylight and for more days and nights, I think it is a crisis.

I titled this piece “Just Another Existential Crisis” not because I trivialize the term, but ironically because I think we too often toss off depressions of other people and ourselves too lightly.

When I taught Romeo and Juliet to middle school students I became very sensitive to teen suicide. Of course, I didn’t want the play to be seen as saying that suicide was a solution, but in my research I found that it is very dangerous to not take seriously teen crises. As an adult, it is easy to dismiss the end of a seventh grader’s romantic relationship that lasted only two weeks as not being anything serious. That is a mistake. It is the same mistake that the Capulets and Montagues made. Call it existential or not, a crisis is real.

Holden Caulfield may have remembered the Robert Burns poem incorrectly, but his wish to save others in the midst of his own crisis was correct.

“I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,'” I said. “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”
– from J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye

Advertisements

hemingway gin
When I was an undergraduate at Rutgers, I had a little drinking problem. I also fell into several deep depressions.  I blame both, at least partially, on being an English major.

It seemed like every writer I read and admired had a problem with alcohol and went a bit crazy. A few drank themselves to death or ended up fully crazy and suicidal. It seemed like these were things you had to do to be a writer. You had to suffer. It was Romantic with the capital R fully in place.

Thankfully, I got past all that, but I still find articles all the time like “Nine Famous Authors Who Did Stints in Mental Institutions”  and  5 Writers Who Suffered from Mental Illnesses & the Impact It Had on Their Art and Great American Writers and Their Cocktails.

What a club – Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf,  Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, Richard Brautigan.

Some early research in 1987 connected creativity with mental illness when researchers noticed a higher occurrence of bipolar disorder in study participants from the Iowa Writers Workshop than in a control group. Did they get crazy by trying to be writers, or did they become writers because they were crazy?

In the mid-1990s, Dr. Arnold Ludwig found that those is the arts are more likely to have mental illnesses than those in non-creative professions.

I read the book A Confederacy of Dunces and loved it before I ever knew anything about the author John Kennedy Toole. He couldn’t get the novel published. He got depressed. He drank more and more. He acted crazy. He killed himself. The novel was published posthumously. I had never read a novel like Dunces but I had read that bio plenty of times.

Ernest Hemingway is my favorite of all these writers and he is a classic example – depression, alcoholism, narcissistic personality, bipolar disorder and finally psychosis and suicide. Before the doctors and clinics, he “self-medicated” with booze. He liked risk-taking activities. He wrote as therapy, and when he couldn’t write anymore (largely because of the alcohol), he got electroshock treatments. For someone whose life was writing, not being able to write meant he had no reason to live.

Plus, for Hemingway, it was in his genes. There is some science to it. In 2009, an article published by the Association for Psychological Science showed a definitive link between creativity and the neuregulin 1 gene, a gene that is also associated with psychosis.

Some writers even have drinks that we associate with them. Hemingway is associated with lots of booze, including the Mojito, a drink invented at La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana, Cuba, where Papa drank them. When I was in Key West, Florida last summer, the bartenders at Sloppy Joe’s and Captain Tony’s said that he didn’t drink Mojitos in Key West.

From Hemingway’s “The Three-Day Blow”:

 “I’m a little drunk now,” Nick said.
“You aren’t drunk,” Bill said… Bill poured the glass half full of whiskey.
“Put in your own water,” he said. “There’s just one more shot.”
“Got any more?” Nick asked.
“There’s plenty more, but Dad only likes me to drink what’s open.”
“Sure,” said Nick.
“He says opening bottles is what makes drunkards,” Bill explained.
“That’s right,” said Nick. He was impressed. He had never thought of that before. He always thought it was solitary drinking that made drunkards.

Hemingway said “Write drunk. Edit sober” but also claimed he didn’t drink until after his morning writing sessions.

William Faulkner drank while he wrote. He claimed, “I usually write at night. I always keep my whiskey within reach.”

Another Southerner, Carson McCullers liked to write and drink and her drink of choice was a mixture of hot tea and sherry that she kept in a thermos. She called it “sonnie boy.” It is said that while at the writer’s colony, Yaddo, she started the day with a beer after breakfast, wrote, moved on to “sonnie boy” and finished the day with cocktails.

In those sometimes Roaring Twenties, F.Scott Fitzgerald was almost as famous for his drinking as his writing. “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you,” wrote this gin drinker. He didn’t hold his liquor very well, something his sometimes friend, Hemingway mocked him for. A “cheap drunk” he got very drunk very fast. He liked a Gin Rickey: 2 oz. gin, 3/4 oz. lime juice, topped with club soda and a lime wheel.

Detective-fiction master Raymond Chandler liked a Gimlet – basically a Rickey minus the soda. Chandler’s Philip Marlowe character introduced the Gimlet in The Long Goodbye and popularized the cocktail.

Chandler wrote, “A real Gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s Lime Juice and nothing else. It beats martinis hollow.” The modern version is 2:1 gin and Rose’s Lime Juice with a lime wedge.

Keep in mind that alcohol is a depressant.

A number of recent studies have looked at the neurological similarities of mental illness and the creative mind. Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia appear to be focused within the frontal lobe of the brain and they typically manifest with rather peculiar connections that are similar to some types of connections that would be admired in poetry and other creative writing.

Is there a relationship between poetry and psychosis?

A 2002 study of 1,629 writers found that poets – and specifically female poets – were more likely than even non-fiction writers, playwrights and fiction writers to have some type of mental illness. This became known as “The Sylvia Plath Effect.”

Poet Sylvia Plath’s mental illness has been written about quite a bit. She wrote about it herself in her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. She was clinically depressed for much of her life. She had electroshock therapy, attempted suicide, was admitted to a mental institution for six months, got more electric and insulin shock treatments and still the depression ended her life in suicide.

In the film Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s character, Alvy,  warns Annie that Sylvia Plath was an “interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality.”

Another tragic female poet, Anne Sexton was in and out of mental institutions  for much of her life. Bipolar and suicidal. She started with poetry as therapy at the suggestion of her therapist. Her poetry is full of madness and pain and, like Plath, Sexton took her own life.

It seems like researchers have gotten caught up in those same stories that intrigued me in college and they are looking to connect genius and madness.

Since I spend a lot of time with poets and poetry these days, I was attracted to a new British study that included 294 poets (almost all “published” poets) in an anonymous online survey. The poets scored above average on the “Unusual Experiences”, “Cognitive Disorganization” and “Impulsive Nonconformity” traits. If the poets self-identified their work as “avant-garde,” they scored even higher on “Unusual Experiences.”  2 poets reported schizophrenia, 15 reported bipolar disorder, 152 reported depression and 80 reported anxiety disorder.

Does that sounds about right for poets? Well, actually those percentages are not much higher than the general population.

Since these poets were all self-reporting, it’s possible that they had bought into the madness and writers archetype. Or did their “abnormal” psychology lead them to be writers?

Visitors to Paradelle

  • 361,171

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,895 other followers

Follow Weekends in Paradelle on WordPress.com

On Instagram

Every end is also a beginning. First snow of the season.  Not enough to start the snowblower, but enough to start a fire. If you have to make shavings to start the fire, you may as well whittle something useful, then have a sip and do some #readingbravely in the snow. I’m the first human here.  Today. Sunset before a snowstorm.

Archives

I Recently Tweeted…

Tweets from Poets Online

Recent Photos on Flickr

%d bloggers like this: