How poetry ruined my life, episode 2

If you’re paying $120 per session, the last thing you want to hear from a shrink is “Oh well, you’ll probably always be a bit disturbed”. Some days I’m almost sure I’ve morphed into Stevie Smith, the subject of my Ph.D. thesis. Some days I think I would even consider performance poetry if I could dress as a schoolgirl with conviction and sing my poesy in an off-key caterwaul, just like Stevie did.

Some months ago I perused an article in The Age about how psychiatric diagnoses are best used to ascertain how much your doctor likes you. If they find you endearing, they’ll tell you it’s bipolar like Ben Stiller; if you’re a prima donna then you must have borderline-personality disorder like Marilyn Munroe is speculated to have had. The neurological phenomenon synesthesia is reserved for crazy artists and musicians, including Franz Liszt and Wassily Kandinsky. The rock stars are depressed and/or drug-addicted, think the 27 Club: Joplin, Hendrix, Jones, Morrison, and Cobain. My favourite is this New York Times article about poets tending to die young. It reminds me of Anne Sexton’s poem Sylvia’s Death, where the poet divulges a groupies-for-suicide scenario the two women drank to – references to death as “our boy”, so beloved.

In a lecture I gave earlier this year on writing poetry, to a first year creative writing cohort, I conducted a little experiment. I asked everybody to close their eyes, and raise their hand if they’d ever suffered from depression, anxiety, addiction, self-harm, insomnia… At the end of my list the students opened their eyes to find a room full of raised hands, everybody in there had experienced their share of the crazies.

So, do you have to be mad to create? Can you write better on a good day or on a bad day? Might medication for a mental illness alter the creative process? How does writing impact your mental health? Most importantly, what’s crazy, anyway?

Over and out.

PS. I have a new poem up at

Tara Mokhtari

Tara Mokhtari is a Persian-Australian poet and screenwriter based in New York. She is the author of The Bloomsbury Introduction to Creative Writing and Anxiety Soup.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. Woah. I don’t suffer from anything like that. Can anyone cure my lack of a condition? Maybe I should put an add into the paper: ‘Wanted: one bout of insanity to disturb my natural equinamity and replace my normal good temper with an unnatural distemper’. I mean, if it’s a qualification to be a writer and all…

  2. Are you sure? Maybe you’re just in the denial phase.

    I certainly wouldn’t call it a qualification. Just so happens that creativity and mental illness have some undeniable ties. You can be a sane writer. You can be a sane writer feigning insanity. You can be an insane writer feigning sanity. You can just be plain insane.

  3. Totally sane here also I’m afraid. Just sick of backing away when people realise I’m a poet and tar me with the mad tag 🙂 I’m evidently much more approachable when I introduce myself as a lawyer. Cause lawyers may be mean as hell, but at least they’re not crazy, right?

  4. It’s largely a romantic/post-romantic myth spread about to make writers and artists seem exotic, I think.

    Pretty sure I’m a sane person who thinks he’s a sane person. I don’t have insomnia, but if it’s any consolation, I do have cats, and they have been waking me up at odd hours to bit my toes. Does that count?

  5. Tara, okay some creativity is linked to mental illness and yes, taking a pill will probably reduce that creativity, but mental illness is a REALLY serious topic, and not something to be thrown around lightly or humorously such as your comment “psychiatric diagnoses are best used to ascertain how much your doctor likes you”. No offense, but it’s writing such as the above that contributes to the stigma of mental illness. Not all people that suffer from a mental illness are crazy eg anxiety, depression, and for that matter I hate the word “crazy”. Mental illness should be treated with some respect and seriousness in our society, like heart disease or kidney disease – it’s just a different part of your body that’s unwell. I get really frustrated when people treat it like a bloody joke when it’s not.

  6. I hear what you’re saying about mental illness being treated seriously Koraly, but can’t it still be treated seriously and discussed with humour?

    The below are common definitions, though true, perhaps not the most appropriate. I think that’s due to the stigma now attached to the words ‘crazy’ or ‘mad’ rather than to any widespread consensus that they are incorrect terms:

    cra·zy (krz)
    adj. cra·zi·er, cra·zi·est
    1. Affected with madness; insane.

    mad (mad)
    adjective madder mad′·der, maddest mad′·dest
    mentally ill; insane

    With that quote though: I think Tara was describing the article, rather than her own opinion of such diagnosis.

  7. Just to be clear, Koraly, I didn’t invent the idea about “psychiatric diagnoses are best used to ascertain how much your doctor likes you” – that’s what the article in The Age was about. If only I’d taken note so I could properly footnote it here. It shouldn’t be taken to mean that a professional diagnosis is obsolete. And, I don’t know what the effects of all the various medications are on creativity – that’s why I asked the question.

    My best friend of 20 years is diagnosed with bipolar, I was diagnosed as being clinically depressed (whatever that means) at age 12. My verse novel is about suicidal tendencies, in part. I use the term crazy in a very affectionate way.

    I think the sooner we’re all frank about mental illness, the better. Why is “crazy” even offensive to you? Why should it be a term with negative connotations when all these brilliant artists are associated with “crazy”?

    Tim, the studies on the mental illness/creativity link are very recent, and largely instigated by case studies of the past 100 years as far as I’m aware. But yes, there is a romantic notion of the troubled artist – I’m sure there’s a lot grey area there when it comes to young artists being seduced by the exotic image of the dark soul poet etc.

  8. No, I don’t think it should be. Is heart disease discussed humorously? Mental illness is the only illness I know of that is discussed this way. It’s not funny.

    The words crazy, mad, insane – they are degrading words for someone that has a mental illness. Not all people with mental illness act crazy or insane. You could walk past a person on the street that you think is “normal” that has a mental illness. But why do we need to use these words anyway? If someone has a mental illness they find it harder to deal with every day life because of a chemical imbalance in their brain. That’s not funny, or a joke. Our society needs to support and encourage people with mental illness so they can get treatment to manage it. That is the hardest step – acceptance. When our society jokes about it it just doesn’t help. We’re taking steps back instead of steps forward. It’s sad.

  9. Tara, no I don’t like the word crazy and I don’t think metal illness should be associated with that word. That is the reason why many mentally ill people that seriously need help don’t get help. They think that by getting help they are admitting to being insane or crazy. No. They are just admitting that their mind is ill and it needs treatment. I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere in our society of we keep insisting that crazy=mental illness. A lot of my work also explores mental illness, especially my novel. I’d love to have a chat about it with you Tara face to face one day. 🙂

  10. I see where you’re coming from, Koraly, but placing semantic restrictions on an already taboo subject, disallowing humour as a tension-breaker to open up discussion on such a difficult issue… that’s the real step backward, in my opinion.

    If “crazy” is more accessible and less daunting than “mental illness” – why not use it? Your aversion to “crazy” panders to the stigma attached to the word, which is separate from its literal definition. Know what I mean?

  11. Man, this is all getting a little crazy. But in the chaotic way, not the mentally ill way.

    When I studied Creative Writing, our class had this piece of paper we called THE LIST. Everyone knew about THE LIST: it was a collaborative enterprise. Every time a class member was diagnosed with a mental illness, they would be ticked off THE LIST. At the end of three years it was just myself and another woman standing there, staring at each other warily. We were going to have a mud wrestle to see who would be left standing with THE LIST.

    It was devastating, but there was a bittersweet comedy in it, that all of us recognised. Just like when John Safran crashed the Ku Klux Klan. Just like the Deadly Funny stand-up routines. Just like Steady Eddy.

  12. Before TinTin was our Prime Minister and the fault of economic collapse was “petrol and bananas” (bananas???) I was sane.
    It’s just nobody else was.
    I am still sane, an island of normality in this weird world where people can place the blame for things on bananas … (bananas???)
    Heh, I think I might turn that into a poem.

  13. Look, I think it’s great that you can be so openly humorous about mental illness, that you’ve accepted it within yourself. But the sad truth is many people that need help don’t seek it because they don’t want to be attached to the “crazy” title. I really do think it is taking a step back when we combine humour with a debilitating and potentially deadly illness. There are so many people out there, particularly people of older generations, that believe there is no such illness, only craziness. I think there needs to be more focus on it as an illness rather then a “haha we’re all crazy” type joke.

  14. To be honest with you I don’t really think the term crazy is really relevant anymore. Whenever someone mentions the term crazy we seem to be unable to picture any ‘real’ mental health issue. Nowadays we look upon mental health not as a broad label but we look at each persons individual issues. Say if a person has bipolar they have very different requirements and treatments to a person who has schizophrenia and as a whole we are starting to learn that.
    What I am trying to say is that the term crazy, for the most part, no longer has any real meaning for we now understand that by labeling people with these problems with only one very limiting word we can not help them.
    Of course I can not speak for the world as a whole, just my own experience.

    Either way, if I didn’t learn to find humour in any and every situation I would have been dead long ago.

  15. Chesterton said, ‘funny is [not] the opposite of serious. Funny is the opposite of not funny.’ He’s right, ‘serious’ and ‘funny’ are not exclusive categories. In fact, a lot of humour lies precisely in taking an idea seriously when others do not.

    That joke about ‘being diagnosed with a mental illness is a way of telling how much your doctor likes you’ strikes me as being very much to the point because of the perils of diagnosis and the difficulty of defining and categorising mental illness – it sounds to me like fun is being made of the medical profession.

  16. Mental illness it a difficult topic to tackle – the stigma associated with it is a major problem. It sadness me when I hear of people committing suicide and never seeking help – why don’t they? Why do depressed people turn to the bottle or drugs and not get help? We need to be asking ourselves what we’re doing wrong that people aren’t seeking help. Obviously something.

    Whether we like to admit it or not, the way things are today, saying you have a mental illness is sort of like admitting you’re insane. And this is a problem. I’d like to think that one day when someone admits they have a mental illness people will understand that it is just their brain that is ill, not the person. We need to separate the personality from the illness. The word crazy implies the personality is crazy, not that they have an ill mind.

    Marc, mental illness is an illness of the brain, a chemical imbalance of the brain. It is a science. It is not about personal issues, it’s about how the brain deals with those issues. If your brain is “ill” you can’t deal with issues like someone with a healthy mind.

    All I’m saying is that we don’t look humorously on people with ill hearts and kidneys. I don’t think it’s funny. I’ve seen people debilitated by the illness and refusing to get help. I’ve seen some great psychiatrists help people with mental illness live fulfilling lives and they should be commended. It’s harder for the doctors to help these people because of the stigma. So, no, it’s not funny.

  17. Koraly, nobody here is saying mental illness is funny. The point is that humour is one healthy way of dealing with some of life’s most serious issues.

    “Crazy” is as derogatory as “gay”, in my books: neither of these terms have negative implications whatsoever, and should be reclaimed for their literal definitions instead of perpetuating incorrect, insulting usages.

    A few side notes, also…

    Your comment about personality being separate from mental illness neglects the whole realm of personality disorders in mental illness. I’m sure you didn’t mean to imply that people with personality disorders are bad-crazy.

    Mental illness is not restricted to chemical imbalances, it includes various post traumatic stress disorders.

    Psych disorders are diagnosed based on criteria set out in manuals, the criteria are often quite broad and overlap each other, which is why it commonly takes many years to correctly diagnose a mental illness. This is a key point of contrast between mental illness and physical illnesses which can be diagnosed and proved in absolute terms most of the time. I think this particular point is what the joke about diagnoses/doctors was referring to, that we don’t have the means yet to diagnose many mental illnesses in absolute terms – not that the mental illness or the patient is laughable.

  18. Tara, is depends on what theory you believe in. Psychiatrists take the approach that all mental illnesses are caused by a chemical imbalance, including post-traumatic stress which can actually trigger a chemical imbalance. Psychologists take the opposite view – that all issues can be talked through. Yes, the diagnosis criteria can overlap but as long as the psychiatrist can find the right treatment for the individual, it doesn’t matter what type of mental illness it is. There are many other illnesses that are diagnosed as a process of elimination, motor neuron disease is one that I know of off the top of my head. I’m sure nobody here thinks mental illness is a joke, but I’m sure people who have lost loved ones to mental illness would appreciate a little care and sensitivity when discussing the topic. There is a real problem here. As for the word crazy, the literal definition is “insane” which is “mentally deranged”. Like I said in previous comments, not all people that have a mental illness are mentally deranged. Many people are diagnosed from a young age and find treatment to manage their illness living quite sane lives. Yet these people have to hide in the shadows and never admit they have an illness because in doing so they are labeling themselves as crazy. Crazy is not the same as gay.

  19. Well K, at least we can agree on implementing due sensitivity to different folks’ different ways of dealing with mental illness, and embracing open discussions on the topic such as this one.

    Terminology aside, I’m still interested in the creativity-link.

  20. Koraly, you took what I said out of context, I was not saying mental illness is about “personal problems”. I was saying each different mental illness requires different sorts of attention and therefore is seen differently. I guess you got your misconceotion from the phrase “… a persons individual issues …”. It’s funny how no more than four words are used to sum up a whole argument so “neatly”.

    Anyways, In my experience people do not see people with schizophrenia as “crazy people” they see them as schizophrenics. The same goes with bipolar, they do not see them as “crazy people” they see them as people with bipolar.
    This is because these people are aware the word “crazy” does absolutley nothing to explain the persons situation and so does nothing more than impede the assistance that should be given to them.
    Does that articulate my point a little better? I’ve gotten rid of some of the rambling fuzz, but the ramble is inevitable when I’m talking.

    And one major reason people turn to drugs and alcohol or suicide instead of medical assistance is pride. Some people don’t care if they’re called crazy, if they were they’d most likely wear it as a badge of honour. It’s the saying “toughen up princess” which is holding them back.
    This problem is worse amongst males, if they come across any problems, no matter what they may be. From stress to amputation, chemical imbalance to kidney failure, (I do exagerate slightly to get my point across) they’re expected to suck it in and “get over it”.
    Seeking help is a sign of weakness and a resignation of ones masculinity.
    That’s one of many reasons.

  21. Koraly, I’d be interested in your view of disadvantaged minorities reclaiming words. Like ‘wog’, or ‘queer’ or ‘nigger’ for example. Is this different from someone with a mental illness using ‘crazy’?

    Tara, I think there is a whole new element to ‘crazy’ and ‘creative’ link as the world puts less emphasis on art and it’s creation: perhaps in our current world to dedicate so much time to something so underappreciated (and mostly unpaid) is a little mentally unbalanced in all cases, regardless of formal diagnosis.

  22. I lean in the direction of Koraly on this one. But I’d also ask, why bring up the subject without finding anything new to say about it? Mental illness crosses all occupational boundaries, but it’s only in Art that we have this cliché of necessary madness. Mad scientists or mad artists abound, I suppose, (especially in Hollywood) but I don’t know how we’d determine that if it wasn’t for their particular brand of madness, they wouldn’t have been artists or scientists. Would the ‘Beautiful Mind’ still be beautiful? The paranoid schizophrenia didn’t help, that’s for sure. To complicate matters, here we have the broadest range definition of mental illness, placing side by side, those who have suffered Anxiety or Depression with the Bipolar or Manic Depressive. Placing schizophrenia next to insomnia is like fitting a whale into a fishbowl, with a goldfish. What have we accomplished by doing it? Just ‘cause they’re both fish doesn’t mean they belong in the same sentence. I don’t know if I even believe in Art as therapy, let alone as a symptom of insanity.

  23. You’re quite right, Alec. It’s actually important to distinguish the cliche from the abundant genuine instances where certain types of mental illness are linked to certain artistic pursuits, like the performing arts/borderline personality disorder connection I mentioned.

    I suspect the cliche doesn’t help anybody, I’ve even seen a few instances where it’s dangerous – young aspiring artists emulating the drinking/drug taking habits of someone with a real problem because they think it’ll make them appear more “artsy” or improve their art.

    And then you have the whole sector of arts therapy for non-artists, strengthening the connection between art and mental illness.

    Maxine, also quite right. The anxiety involved with constant rejections, having no money, entering alternate worlds on paper you’ve created on a regular basis, the whole notion of “the muse”, writers block, peaking early, thinking constantly… Writing can be an emotional roller-coaster.

  24. Marc, people in my circle, mostly migrants, do associate mental illness with craziness and weakness.

    Maxine, I have always said I’m a wog and always will. To me it just means your parents were born overseas. I don’t see it as derogatory unless it is said in a derogatory way. I know some wogs find the word offensive, I use it in affectionate way. Crazy on the other hand implies insanity and like I said before, I think there needs to be more focus on mental illness as a scientific illness rather than an attack on a personality.

    Alec I agree that we shouldn’t be putting people with anxiety and depression under the same umbrella as people with schizophrenia. They are so different and maybe that is part of the problem, that when people think “mental illness” they think pych ward not someone with a diagnosed depression or anxiety disorder since they were 12, that has had treatment and can manage their illness and lives a rather sane life. Most mental illness is anxiety and depression.

    By the way, I’m really glad to be having this discussion with all of you. 🙂

  25. Koraly, that’s an interesting assumption about treatment/management you make about “someone with a diagnosed depression or anxiety disorder since they were 12”. And what’s wrong with a psych ward, anyway? It’s terrible to stress the scariness of hospital when it’s potentially really necessary in emergency situations – even for people with depression and anxiety.

  26. What an incredible conversation. I don’t see any problem linking creativity and seeing the world differently from most people. To me that is self-evident. If we all look at the world the same way, express ourselves in the same manner, a world of mirrors results, no creativity, no solutions, just the same old questions. (Like this debate about madness and creativity.)

    And madness is the first accusation levelled at anyone who questions a fundamental paradigm in a way the established order cannot counter. I see Alec talking about “A Beautiful Mind”. You’ll find accusations of madness in other films featuring the same actor.

    It’s easier just to throw links to the original texts than waffle on in comment boxes.

  27. Apologies for the sarcasm in my earlier post Koraly, it’s a bad habit of mine.

    Anyways, all problems that requires medical help be it physical or mental is seen as a weakness. I’ve seen people refusing to see a doctor despite struggling to breath because they smoked a pack of cigarettes (or more) a day since they were fourteen.
    The stigma is not so much about being “crazy” the stigma is that we are expected to brush everything off with the words “she’ll be right mate” and pretend we are not in pain.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *