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Bipolar Disorder & the Pursuit of Creativity

In the summer of 2018, I believed that learning how to spin my own yarn would be my next great conquest. A few days later, I had a wooden drop spindle and two handfuls of roving yarn at the ready. After a consecutive 9 hours—which is about 6 episodes of Homeland, a few dance parties, and at least two conversations with myself in varying accents— I proudly held up, in my dingy pajamas that smelled like wet sheep, a tiny imperfect ball of yarn like it was the holy grail. Honestly, the entire night is a manic blur of creative energy. 

And by manic, I don’t mean it in the ironic “Omg I’m SO bipolar!” type of way. I mean it in the clinical sense—I really am bipolar.

Illustration by Andy Hollingworth, a former Literary Illustrator Intern

When you’re sick, each day is the same, and yet every day has the potential to be different. I get out of bed after a night sedated, stumble to the bathroom and usually do something bone-headed. Just the other day I picked up my toothbrush and 120 seconds later found myself standing in front of the kitchen sink. That’s what medication does to you: it condenses into a thick fog that you have to dig yourself out of. I like to think that trudging through this fog has become a special skill in my repertoire: right alongside being able to swallow a large handful of pills in one go. 

There’s this romantic ideal of Bipolar Disorder that seems to dig its heels into everyone who’s ever seen Silver Linings Playbook: you’ll work hard, get a little therapy, get into a few fights, find love, and live happily ever after. Your disorder will lead you through your most creatively difficult times, leaving masterpieces and pure genius in its wake. That the disease is just a marketing ploy: you’re not crazy, you’re just creative. 

This is what they don’t tell you: the mania can be great, but very few people experience true euphoria. Most of us cycle between depressed and “agitated with a just sprinkle of happiness”. The energy that you feel isn’t always pleasant—sometimes it’s bouncing knees and pacing back and forth all while the static of the television in your head is dialed up to ten. And then the world feels like it’s ending, and the man standing in the corner is CIA and you are convinced he was sent to take you out.

And, like most people with a mind like mine, I spend the majority of my time treading water. I stop when I need to and I work when I can. It gets harder and harder to juice out the creativity from the hard skin that I’ve grown to protect me. So, I do things in steps, broken down into the tiniest components. 

I know, not very creative, but sometimes you need to take smaller bites so you don’t choke. 

But, then again, sometimes you have to unhinge your jaw like a snake and swallow the thing whole. These are the days that when my muscles are screaming, I push through the pain, because I have to: I have deadlines. So, I work. I plan and draw, I research and watch little pieces of my creativity come together into form. The entire time, there’s a voice in my head, soft but insistent, telling me I can’t, and yet I do. But when I don’t, when my illness wins, I’d like to say I don’t take it personally, but it’s difficult not to when it’s your own mind that’s against you. 

And then I remember that, like most artists, I am different. I have something new to offer, a different perspective. As a maker, a creator, I can change the world, even if that world is only one person. So, I put myself out there, share my story, and listen to others. My voice is important, just like everybody else’s—even when I feel that it’s not. 

There’s this wall that people put up, this facade of excellence, empty of struggle beyond how late you stayed up last night to finish that one assignment to make the deadline. What if we broke down that wall? Opened up that box? Wouldn’t we feel more connected, less alone, a part of something bigger? What if we shared our stories, without worrying about who reads it? What if we let go of the mask, stood up, and danced? A big hoorah, and put ourselves out there, and weren’t afraid of failing? 

And yes, I know it’s cliche, but you can’t really fail if you tried. Treading water is still swimming. 

During the hard times, I thank my mind for doing what it could. No more grinding: that’s for people with the privilege of health. So, instead I rest, feeling defeated, feeling less than myself. Maybe one day it will be different, but today, it’s just a battle I cannot win. 

But, there is always tomorrow.

Ally Landrum
Ally Landrum

Ally is a current senior studying graphic design in Washington D.C. Prior to moving, she lived in the Midwest and valued family, friends, and nature. Raised in a household with pets, a lot of her work centers around animal rights. As a woman with disabilities, she is also passionate about using design to better the health care experience for women.

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