Psych meds dull my creativity

I know I need to control my mental illness, but I miss being able to make music and art

By Cary Tennis

Published February 26, 2013 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

You asked for problems regarding creativity so here is mine. I've been a creative person since childhood. I did a lot of visual art. I played multiple instruments, including playing the piano for 20 years and the bass guitar for two. I did various handicrafts from bookbinding to decoupage. Unfortunately, I have a lot of health issues. I have an autoimmune disorder that has me on heavy-duty pain meds and a long history of psychiatric issues for which I'm on a lot of medication as well.

In the last 18 months as my psych meds have been continually increased due to my symptoms worsening, I've found myself unable to create at all. I can't focus on any one art form, and lack the motivation to even try to create. I bought a new bass and a new amplifier last year and I've barely touched them. My craft supplies sit unused. And while I'm in the process of digging out my old sewing machine, I fear that this will just be one more thing that goes nowhere. I'm on disability and spend much of my days in a struggle to focus on the simplest things.

It is clear to me that most of the issue is due to my psych meds. But changing them is out of the question. Being a bump on a log beats riding the bipolar roller coaster all the way to the psychiatric hospital and many days are a struggle regardless. So there's no quick fix that I can see. How do I get my creativity back from all the static in my mind?

Any ideas or help would be deeply appreciated.


Lost in the Fog

Dear Lost in the Fog,

Here is a way of thinking that I use a lot. When I feel a sense of loss I ask myself, what am I actually wanting? When, for instance, I think to myself, I miss playing guitar, I wish I were playing guitar more, then I ask what are the actual experiences and sensations that I am missing? I realize what I like about playing guitar is that feeling of getting lost in a rhythm, of getting swept up in something beyond thinking, beyond self.

Over time, when we can reliably play the guitar, we create a metaphor; we call having that experience of flow and connectedness "playing the guitar." We don't call it "having a feeling of flow and connectedness." There are reasons we don't do that. If I were to call up a musician and say, "Hey, would you like to get together and have a feeling of flow and connectedness?" it wouldn't necessarily get the point across.

But that's what we're after when we play. Thinking of it this way, in terms of function and result, allows us to look for substitute experiences.

Keeping time in a group is a way to get lost in the rhythm. It may not have the ego satisfaction of playing guitar and being admired for skill. But is being admired the chief thing that is missing, or is the chief thing that is missing the feeling of flow and connectedness, contributing to a whole, being lost in rhythm?

It also occurs to me that art and creativity are about giving and sharing, and while taking psych meds we may not be able to concentrate in solitude long enough to produce works of art, we can still share and contribute. One of the things we like to do art for is to see the look of appreciation on someone's face. There are ways to bring that look of appreciation and gratitude without doing art. In fact, art is a quite circuitous route to sharing with people. And it's risky. There's no guarantee that people are going to like it. There are more direct ways that are actually less risky to the ego. I mean, when we sit down to perform or show our artwork, we're taking a risk. The genius of sharing and doing humble service is that we can get gratitude and feel good about ourselves without taking a big risk and without having to be friggin' geniuses all the time!

Being a genius is a lot of work. Sometimes you can get the same feeling of satisfaction just making somebody a cup of coffee.

I like that. I like doing simple things for others. I don't do it enough. It's highly underrated as pleasures go, if you ask me.

Now, there is also the solitary "aesthetic bliss" as Vladimir Nabokov called it, and this is a rare and wondrous human experience that may indeed be impeded by psych drugs, or by symptoms of depression. This can be a shocking and terrifying feeling, not to be able to feel the aesthetic bliss of private creation. To this, I would only say that there is real loss in life and the best thing to do with loss is let it go as fast as possible. Things come back. Maybe they come back sooner the sooner we let go of them. I don't know. I know that as we age and take the blows life gives, our powers decline. Some pleasures of youth are probably gone forever -- the proud, quick, sharp memory of youth, the easy brilliance.

Let it go. Whatever is not there, let it go and turn to something that is there -- your capacity for empathy, your patience, your knowledge that in spite of the toll your meds take, this life is preferable to one of madness and incarceration.

Also, as you indicate, since this experience of having no creativity is related to your meds, it might well be temporary.

Though you may at times feel a lack of agency and lack of purpose, remember that during this time your mind is not idle. Your mind is doing a very important job right now, for which all its energy is required.

You're getting better. You're recovering. That's enough for now.

Cary Tennis

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