CW: mental illness, suicide, depression, anxiety, OCD, and self-harm.
The Tortured Artist Series:
I. The Elephant in the Room Holding a Paintbrush Needs a Therapist
She hasn’t eaten the whole day, and her room is littered with laundry; dirty dishes of every shape and size cover her desk. Her hair is unkempt, and she still wears her pajamas, having not left her bed, save only to use the restroom and get water. She reads books until her hands cramp, but she’s done all of her homework assignments. She wrote a poem about how she doesn’t know why she cries, and it is perfect and messy, and that’s all that matters. It stays in her notebook for no one to read, but if she shared it, people would feel every word.
She’s an artist—her illness is supposed to make her art better, right? It’s supposed to take people into her broken mind. Her art is supposed to show others that people can live with darkness.
But no one sees it. The thought of sharing leaves her face flushed and her heart a banging drum. She is still so, so sad. And she needs help.
Stop Calling Us “Tortured”
Around the time I was in middle school/high school, I felt a great affinity for artists like Vincent van Gogh and Sylvia Plath. I thought, “Wow, I really feel everything they make.” Van Gogh’s painting style is something I’ve admired because he saw the smallest glints of color in everything. A piece of paper lying on a table is not just white. It is also blue and gray and brown and the smallest bit of yellow. Plath’s The Bell Jar haunted me because her thoughts of hopelessness and depression were so close to my mind.
When I found out how they died, my heart shattered. My heart still breaks over the thought of how many people, in general, die by suicide, but it’s especially hard when it’s another artist.
My teachers would tell me how artists can wield their pain into art, casting it onto the canvas or on the page to express and let it out. For a long time, I truly believed that my pain made amazing art, that it somehow made me an artist. As if being “tortured” and mentally ill was a personality trait for us. I think of it differently now.
While I am no psychologist, I know how to read scientific journals and studies thanks to my short-lived identity as a Communication major in college. As any of my TA’s would say while we conducted our experiments, “Correlation does not mean causation.” Simply because ice cream consumption is linked to the increase of shark attacks does not mean eating ice cream causes you to get attacked by a shark. Spurious correlations exist everywhere.
Similarly, just because there is a link between artists and mental illness does not mean that we are more susceptible to it or that it is needed to create our art. In reality, we need more research on the connection between artists and susceptibility to mental illness. “What is clear, however, is that anyone can experience mental health challenges at some point, and artists are no different.”
So no. I don’t need my pain to create art, and nor does anyone else. My pain does not make my art. I do. I make everything. I express my depression. I express my anxiety. Just as I express my happiness and my excitement. I am not my emotions, my emotions are mine.
For a long time, because I am an artist and I have seen and read and heard of so many creatives falling by their own hand due to their illness, I thought that was my fate. Sad, I know. But that’s the issue when we talk about our artists and romanticize their pain. We make it a universal thought. We dangerously teach our youth that the emotions make the art and that they need them out of control to create.
If You Don’t Believe Romanticism Is Hurting Us, You Should
I don’t know how to tell you the reality of this problem. Maybe you’ll pass it off as worthless anecdotal evidence, but you can read many articles on the topic through Scholar by Google and formulate your own opinion.
Growing up, my friends would tell me alarming things like, “I don’t think I’ll live past 30; Plath had the right idea” (which I agreed to). Or I’d go on Tumblr in the evenings and see people reblogging edited photos of self-harm. It breaks my heart now because I understand wanting to make the pain pretty. It gives us the illusion that it isn’t something we need to heal, that we’re perfectly okay when we’re depressed. We don’t need to heal. We don’t need to do anything at all.
And while I’m all for the de-stigmatization of mental health, I really don’t think people with mental illnesses/disorders actually want to be ill. We want to be healthy and happy, but sometimes, it feels better to cover it up. It feels better to fall in love with our illness, make it part of our identity and look at it with rose-colored glasses. We fall into the fiction that anxiety attacks, starving, skipping medication, and self-harm are an innate part of who we are or make us better. We fall into the fiction that this is healthy.
I was a reader in high school. I thought that my insatiable desire to have my nose in a book in the hallways, in class, in bed until 2 a.m. was “quirky” and “nerdy.” A friend once described me as a “cute, shy, quiet, bookish writer.” I now realize reading was not only a loved hobby but a sure way to escape my reality of social anxiety, poor self-esteem, and depressive episodes. I would spend days in the summer not eating because I was reading. I romanticized my neglect into being a “bookworm” or a “writer” because I thought that’s what writers do. I didn’t know about my disorders until college, when I had the privilege and means to treat them.
John Green describes a piece of this “fiction” in an episode of the podcast The Hilarious World of Depression: John Green Falls Victim To Some Bad Fiction While Writing His New Book.
At 30:04, Green explains, “I bought into this old romantic lie that people can only write well when they are not treating their mental health problem and so I stopped taking the medication that I had been taking for many years, and that is what caused it [a period of unwellness]. It was brutal and terrifying and part of what made it so horrible was knowing that I had done it to myself.”
You know that quote about yellow paint? About how van Gogh would eat it to “paint” his organs yellow, and, therefore, make him happy? That quote turned into some pretty Pinterest board where people fictionalized his suffering into a beautiful, internal work of art, but this was never the reality. According to the Van Gogh Gallery, “it was also noted by Dr. Peyron [that] during his attacks van Gogh tried to poison himself by swallowing paint or drinking kerosene.”
Our illnesses warp our minds and take control of our thoughts in debilitating ways. It’s not pretty. I’ve opened up about the gravity of my past self-harm in my first blog post, and the affliction was not beautiful but messy and jagged. Like Green says in the podcast, “one of the challenges I think of psychic pain is that it’s really hard to find form for it—it’s really hard to tell people what it feels like.”
We know we should take our medication.
We know we shouldn’t eat toxic paint.
We know hurting ourselves is not the solution.
But they feel like an answer. And don’t tell me that’s romantic.
Humanize Us, Humanize Yourself
According to the Van Gogh Gallery, Van Gogh may have had bipolar disorder, which led to high energy manic episodes and deep crashes of depressive episodes. He also suffered from seizures, thought to have been caused by temporal lobe epilepsy. He painted 150 works, including his most notable paintings like Starry Night, The Irises, and Wheat Field with Cypresses while seeking treatment in the asylum Saint-Paul-de Mausole near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. His illnesses left him incapacitated for several months out of the whole year, but he made art when he felt well enough to do so.
“No one is creative when severely depressed, psychotic, or dead.”
- Kay Redfield Jamison
It is important to see that van Gogh’s genius wasn’t just the luck of the draw or a magical gift given by the gods with the price of suffering. Oh, don’t the gods love their collateral? It’s nothing like that. Making art is tiring trial-and-error, interrupted by whatever life is throwing at you at the time.
It’s hard to cope because of the pressures of being an artist nowadays. We commodify ourselves and our skills. We turn our art into money. We utilize our pain for others’ benefit.
I’ll write a future post to focus on the healing process, but I can give you three things for now.
1. You are human first.
Forget the pressures of creating for a second. Forget the deadlines. Forget that you have canvases or drafts unfinished. Did you eat or drink water today? When was the last time you saw sunlight? Have you spoken to anyone today about anything other than work?
Basic needs. Mental Health. Social interaction. If you answered “No" or “I don’t know” to any of these, I would strongly suggest starting with a glass of water or something to eat. After a panic attack or thought spiral, I try to ask myself these simple questions of things I need to feel balanced. You are a living being. You have essential needs. We can’t run on ink or paint no matter how much we try.
2. Seek professional help. If you can’t, there are many alternatives.
I know it is a privilege to be able to seek professional help. I know it is a privilege to be able to talk to loved ones about mental health. We are not all afforded environments without stigma, struggle, or hardship.
I got started with therapy/counseling as late as eighteen, when I went to my university’s free services. I had to change counselors every year because they were all students, but it was something and it was progress. It’s never too early or too late to start the healing process. Whether you seek professional help or look into the alternatives, you can do it.
3. Unlearning the fiction will not happen overnight.
So imagine the girl from the beginning in a better place, far in the future. She’s no longer in school, but she graduated as Valedictorian in high school and with Honors in university, even after countless panic attacks, suicidal ideation, and depressive episodes that caused her to drop classes. She’s been going to therapy on and off, seeing different psychiatrists, therapists, and counselors for the last six years.
Her next session is Wednesday at 3pm. She writes when she wants to and shares it with her friends and even total strangers. At night, she wears her mouthguard after years of neglecting her stress grinding. She still has those days where the laundry piles up and her hair is in knots and she doomscrolls for hours but she texts her loved ones for help.
I can’t promise it gets better, but you are more than capable of learning how to cope, combat, and heal.
Starry Night Over the Rhône is my favorite. It was painted the year before he admitted himself in the asylum and I can’t help but see this one as a hopeful moment.
"Once I went for a walk along the deserted shore at night. It was not cheerful, it was not sad - it was beautiful."
I can only hope that all the artists I look up to, especially the ones who died by suicide, can see their impact on people’s lives. I hope they can somewhere, somehow see their worth and feel the love we have for them and for what they left us.
I don’t know if they do. All I do know is that I am still here and I am doing the best I can. All I can do is choose to feel love, share love, and keep love for myself at the end of the day. Sometimes I can only do one at a time. Sometimes none at all. That’s okay. There will be time, there will be time.
Remember. You are not fiction. You are not a myth. You are real, just as every artist before us ever was.
*This post is dedicated to Rasar Amani, and all of the artists who have ever experienced mental health struggles. You matter to me.
P.S. Special thank you to Jordan Green for letting me continue their title. Be sure to read The Elephant in the Room is Holding a Paintbrush!
About the Author
Mei-Mei has worn many hats since joining LYF. Executive Assistant, Event Manager, Editor-in-Chief, but before anything, she is a human who loves to write and make art. She graduated from UC, Santa Barbara with a B.A. in English and a minor in German. She was the President of UCSB Poets' Club. She has traveled to 12 countries and counting, feeling lucky and cursed as an Army brat. In 2019, she moved for the 9th time from Santa Barbara to Las Vegas, where she put her love for writing, performing, advocating for mental health, and building communities into the Love Yourself Foundation.