Blessed or distressed? Bipolar and creativity

Bipolar people can get fed up with the whole creativity thing. There’s such an expectation that we’re all going to be “tortured geniuses” that if you don’t feel creativity is a part of your make up, you can almost feel that you are doing bipolar wrong – or at the very least that you been grievously short changed. There’s even a theory put forward (which I’ve previously mentioned here) that bipolar is some kind of genetic advantage because our creativity is needed within the gene pool.

I’m deeply suspicious of the whole “touched by fire” thing in general. Does it do us any good to analyse the diaries and works of long dead writers, artists and composers and attempt a kind of retrospective diagnosis in order to “prove” that mental health problems, particularly those like bipolar and schizophrenia, are linked to creativity?

It’s true that I write more a hell of a lot more now and have done during these past five years I’ve been so unwell. But when I was in remission I had a full time job, a social life, hobbies. My children were younger and needed more of me. I didn’t really have the time or the mental space to think about writing, and the urge just wasn’t there the way it had been earlier in my life.

Now the urge is here – and then some. Even before I left hospital I started writing about my experiences without telling anyone. I couldn’t not do it. It didn’t feel like a choice. @DawnStorey68 sent me this notebook and I bought a purple fountain pen (probably contraband for being too pointy, but meh) and starting scribbling notes into the night, unable to sleep for the shouting and religious chanting around me, feeling that I almost couldn’t be bothered to lie down and close my eyes because someone would just come along and shine a light in them anyway.


Since discharge from hospital, there has been an… outpouring. I can’t stop writing about the ward. The whole thing was so bizarre, boring, exhilarating, funny, scary, comforting, horrible… I never intended to carry on documenting my experiences, but it just keeps coming. I’ve produced 30,000 words since discharge, and that is with days off and strictly limiting myself. For me, that’s a lot.

Why limit myself? Because it’s taking me over. When I say I can’t stop, I mean it literally. I have to set time aside for writing and stick to it or I just write and write and write. When I’m not writing, ideas or thoughts about the project (and it has become a project, even thought I never intended that) pop into my head constantly. Washing up. In the bath. During yoga. On the tube or bus I’m always pulling my phone out, capturing a little section in Pages, worried I’ll forget and miss something important if I leave it until later.

My brain can’t shake the need to work on my writing. It is, quite literally, the very first thing I think of when I wake up in the morning. It pops into my head as soon as I get up to go to the loo in the night. I am on the alert even without meaning to be; things around me constantly remind me of nuggets I want to include. It’s disturbingly similar to the way my brain was preoccupied with suicide just before I went into hospital – my brain is working on the project even when I’m doing something else.

Last night I ended up going back up 50mg on the quetiapine, something I’d hoped not to do since I am trying to come off it completely. I’ve done very well in terms of symptoms so far considering I’ve dropped from 700mg to 300mg, but I just had to take some action, which I agreed with Home Treatment, because the night before had been horrendous.

I’d taken diazepam a couple of hours before bed as I was aware of being rigid with muscle tension and that I’d felt quite high in the day. I thought sleep could possibly be difficult. Difficult wasn’t the word.

As I lay in bed I felt utterly and totally overwhelmed by my own thoughts – and they were all about the writing. It was no good trying to focus on my breathing or do progressive relaxation or count back from 100 or think of my forthcoming holiday. Those measures were about as useful as putting a paper bag over my head in a monsoon. Because that’s how it felt, I felt deluged, the ideas fell and fell, rushing over me so that they roared in my ears, plastering my clothes to my skin, weighing me down. It was relentless. I was powerless. I was acutely aware of my thoughts but you just can’t let go of hard, hard rain falling on your head, running into your ears, into your eyes, into your mouth.

You can’t detach when you fear you are drowning.

More PRN meds, a candlelit bath, half an hour’s relaxation music, a mug of hot chocolate, aromatherapy, half an hour’s binaural beats… eventually something kicked in and I fell asleep in the early hours of the morning.

I thought of the writing the minute I awoke.

I have no idea how to tackle this. The extra Q helped me sleep more, and more heavily, but I think there will be more nights where my writer’s brain will not let go. I genuinely have no idea what the best course of action is. I’ve tried getting up and briefly jotting down the key notes, but when I lie back down my brain just produces more ideas. The alternative to frustrating attempts at sleep is to get up and just bloody write. But that’s more likely to build my hypomania, and it’s generally the high that comes first, then the low, then maybe mixed mood – and that’s what landed me in hospital in the first place.

Why should I carry on anyway? Is the project important? I think it is. None of what I have to say will be a surprise to anyone who’s been an inpatient, but for those of us who spend a lot of time with other service users it’s easy to forget that we are a small minority. Different studies come up with slightly different answers but the number of people admitted to a psychiatric ward is something like 3.5% per thousand or at the very most 6 per thousand. So for every 6 people who’ve share my (our) experience, there are at least another 994 who haven’t. Obviously I’m not the first to write about life on the psych ward and I know I won’t be the last but I think I can bring some kind of original voice to the table. At least I hope so, and so I feel I should carry on with it anyway.

But I don’t feel like I get any choice. And that’s the scary part.


About purplepersuasion

40 something service user, activist, writer and mother living with bipolar disorder. Proud winner of the Mark Hanson Prize for Digital Media at the Mind Media Awards #VMGMindAwards
This entry was posted in Bipolar, Crisis care, Hospital, Hypomania, Inpatient care, Mania, Memoir, Mental health, Mental health services, Mindfulness, Mood disorder, NHS services, Psychiatry, Self-management, Social media, Suicidal thought, Suicide, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Blessed or distressed? Bipolar and creativity

  1. The Millers Tale says:

    This sounds utterly exhausting. I’m not surprised you have such a strong instinct and impulse to pour it out on paper for all kinds of therapeutic, expulsive and creative reasons either but clearly there does need to be found a way of timetabling this so it doesn’t become an addictive habit. However the experience of being an in-patient can be so trippy that it seems to require both purging and interpretation post-discharge. And maybe you have an increased sense of time-pressure because of your [previous rapid-cycling and the way it interrupts the things you want and need to do?

    I am hoping that this urge to write will eventually find its place. Until this happens, all you can do is ask for help in imposing external limits and ensuring you get what sleep you can.

  2. jennydevildoll says:

    The truth is artists don’t get a choice, I’m sorry. That urge, when your hands or paper or instrument or whatever can’t go fast enough to get out everything in your head…it’s not going to drown you, don’t worry, just follow it.

    • That’s… you’ve missed the entire point of the post. I would be suicidal and in hospital again, probably within a week. I am not an artist. I am an artist with a condition that may make me more creative but is also *life threatening condition*. Following your advice could result in me dying.

      • jennydevildoll says:

        Sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you. It just sounded how I’ve been all my life and if I don’t do it I get worse and more self destructive. What I have is different from bipolar though I’m sorry if this isn’t good for that.

      • I had hoped the entire post explained why it’s dangerous for bipolar…

      • jennydevildoll says:

        Again, I apologize. I am schizoaffective, not bipolar. And an artist. My experience had always been it was more painful to me not to follow my compulsion to make something, like if I was in a situation where I couldn’t at the moment, so I thought it might be the same, it might be better to get it out. I’m sorry if I misunderstood.

    • Claire says:

      No, I’m sorry but I don’t agree with this notion. Charlotte is essentially describing manic behaviour, and that is harmful for her as it’s part of being bipolar. It’s obsessive and exhausting. Writing when you can, that’s one thing. Not sleeping, resting or doing anything else other than obsessing over what you could be writing? No. Not good at all.

  3. Ken Clare says:

    Your strong, I always admire your honesty. I spent two months last year in an inpatient unit with a depressive phase. I could identify with so much of what you write. Keep on your voice is welcome and needed.

  4. fiona Lewin says:

    As a bipolar sufferer and a psychiatrist I relate to what you are saying. For me and many of the patients I treat the key is to sleep and if creative urges are preventing that you need to use medication and all available self soothing techniques to ensure you sleep and be disciplined with your creativity.

    Best wishes


  5. Claire says:

    I have had people tell me that they envy my creativity – but it comes from a very dark and painful place, and although I can tap into it when I need to, I wouldn’t want it on tap permanently. I’d want to die just so I could rest from the constant need to get it all out of my head.

    All my love to you, you know I’m just a tweet away. Xx

    • I do 💜 My fear thought is that I can’t tap into it when I need ti – it doesn’t feel like it’s always there, it kind of comes when it comes… later in the day I was in tears feeling like taking extra drugs had “broken” me and my creativity. Overreaction, I’m sure. This morning I feel high again and raring to do although no, I hope, quite so overwhelmed… xxx

  6. Paul Winkler says:

    As always, I value your ideas and experiences; they give context to my own. I would love to read what you have been writing in your notebook. I have spent my fair share of time in the psych ward, and I fear I’ve blocked out those memories for some years now. Perhaps I need to confront that chapter of my life. Good on you for doing so with such immediacy!

  7. James says:

    Hello again. I like your acute insight into the concept of patient-centred care. I normally see mental health issues within a psychological context, but your drug tapering / withdrawal is a concrete biological reality. A while ago I acquired a book (‘Psychiatric Drug Withdrawal’ by P.R.Breggin, 2013); it wasn’t cheap and has, on Amazon 37 positive and 5 critical reviews; some of them are quite detailed. I’m not about to re-read it from cover to cover, but some ‘take home messages’, as I recall, were as follows: A drug taper should be done at the rate which actually suits the individual – you can’t therefore draw out an accurate timetable in advance, but if you want a very rough rule of thumb, allow one month for each year you’ve been on the drug. There is no shame in halting the taper temporarily or going back to a previous (higher) dose if things aren’t going well enough; the objective should be eventual rather than quick success. Apparently there can be unexpected difficulty in completing the final stage of a taper, the reason isn’t known (I have seen this idea expressed elsewhere and suspect that it’d be careless to attribute it entirely to a placebo effect); if tapering from more than one drug, it is apparently advisable to taper them one at a time. Finally, to distinguish between a withdrawal effect and a recurrence of an underlying symptom (as far as that is possible) consider the time frame involved. (I think that you might be surprised at the extent to which the concerns you have expressed in this and your previous post are addressed). Some of these ideas are also raised in an earlier work by the same author, ‘Your Drug May Be Your Problem’, 2007, co-authored with D.Cohen. Please note – I have just written a few lines, but these are substantial textbooks.

    If we do actually look at Virginia Woolf (for example) we realise just how much her writing meant to her. (I also believe that she, and others also read a great deal). I suspect that you see your life today as a poor shadow of when you were in full-time employment. But you blog matters – how many people read it – loads? Many people have full-time jobs, few people could write (and moderate) a blog like yours. What I am NOT trying to imply is that you should feel ‘washed up’ without your blog, or become a slave to it. Incidentally I have chosen to work only part-time myself for the past 16y; I am fortunate in paying only a modest rent, although I had to make a serious effort to secure my property in the first place.

    You relate that on the ward, you were ‘scribbling notes into the night’. It was a very noisy , disruptive environment – was there really any better way to spend your time ?

    I have some of these experiences you relate. Writing was the first thing on my mind when I awoke this morning . And tomorrow morning. I certainly take cues from the environment. If workmates express a concern at my apparent detachment, I just apologise and say that I was ‘miles away’ or similar (doesn’t happen so often these days); it is maddening to write an idea on a scrap of paper and forget what it meant a couple of hours later. Trying to pay twice at the Co-op just now (and fazing the check-out lady), that was just my usual absent-mindedness (one does need to eat); I don’t suppose for one moment that I am as far along any spectrum as you might be, and I certainly don’t want a diagnosis, thanks. (You can only be ill if you are worse than me). If I have a fear, it is of losing something – forgetting it and leaving it out. The brain does seem to tire (or run low on glucose) eventually. Or, I have so many rather obsessive preoccupations that I reach an apathy, stagnation. The routine demands of employment, and hobbies like small-scale gardening probably help, something you touched on in the 3rd para. of your post. And my intensity is probably declining with age – I’m 52. Some of the above comments you have already received seem like opposite poles…..artist not getting a choice,……manic behaviour. I don’t think you should fear not being able to ‘tap into it’ – that is reminiscent of one of V.Woolf’s worst mistakes (in my opinion) – I simply don’t believe that she had really lost her creativity when she decided to end her life.

    Some of the following ideas are very speculative – they may deserve to be dismissed out of hand – OK? You have written previously of how your spells of hypomanic creativity morph into serious despair – obviously a problem. Predictably, a person like me will look for psychological components driving such mood shifts. Maybe you could begin to step back, objectify and at least start to build a ‘bridgehead’ against this toxic cycle; but suppose there are no psychological components that you can identify at all. Call the mood shift a ‘biological nasty’. Even that could be anticipated and prepared for, potentially. Actually I am biased. It came almost as a revelation to me one day, a few years ago – anxiety and irritability coming out of a blue sky – no triggers at all. About 24-48h after abusing alcohol ! Obviously one shouldn’t abuse alcohol, and I rarely do so nowadays. But if I do, I have learned to anticipate and make a special effort not to be rude to people.

    Lastly, I have just learned something (after about 30y) and am quite chuffed. I knew that people can start seeing colours in an intense way, part of a heightened awareness. Being psychologically minded, this has rather disconcerted me, as a potential ‘biological nasty’. I have just read of such a case, but the subject had suffered the prolonged stress of being stalked, culminating in the acute stress of the (armed and dangerous) stalker breaking into her home, before being jailed. Perhaps what I have described is another evolutionary adaptation – a defence against attack and/or predation by dangerous animals not in plain view.


  8. Jade Burrell says:

    Very insightful. Thankyou 🙂

  9. Chris McCullough Young says:

    Hi Charlotte, I see you’ve removed yourself from Twitter – I just thought I’d say hello & that I hope you’re ok.

    My email address, should you fancy a chat with a virtual stranger is
    Cheers for now


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