Writing through Madness

When I began this post I didn’t think I was going to have fun writing it. After all, madness is one of the most feared conditions of humankind.  But plow on, dear reader, and enter the sometimes rollicking world of manic-depression (Now so charmingly called bi-polar disorder. Presumably, the head is North and you make your way down South to your toes.) This new bi-polar disorder is all over the media and everyone all at once has it. If you don’t, your friend does or your friend’s friend does. Psychiatrists are doing a booming business. The ABC network even has an online Bi-Polar Disorder Center that dispenses advice to sufferers on demand. It’s definitely the disease du jour.

I’m toying with you a bit.  There really is nothing funny about this disorder.  It’s one of the most debilitating mental illnesses that exists. Only schizophrenia beats it for bad news.

Symptoms – let’s see.  Terrible, draining depression so deep your body feels as if it’s dropped to the bottom of a pond, curled inward so far your chest and back are one.  Curled so tight, nothing can penetrate. Not air.  Not light.  Not noise. Not scent. Not touch.

Then—suddenly glory!  Rainbows every day, diamonds on every finger (bought with an almost tapped out credit card, probably your last). Presents for everyone.  Lavish dinners. Champagne on every taste bud. It’s wonderful.  You talk. And talk. Endlessly. And fascinatingly. People are captivated. You exist in a cloud of gold that floats wherever you go and touches whatever you do.

But one day the gold floats away from your fingers – and your fingers stretch to reach it. And suddenly you feel your body coming apart at its seams. Your arms are no longer joined to your shoulders. Your rib cage is breaking. You can hear the sound of the bones as they crack. And, at night, behind your eyes, are thousands of images, insanely colored, flashing, one piled upon the next, splitting into shards of violent color and pattern, endlessly, exhaustingly, terrifyingly.

There’s nothing “fun” about this.

What it is – I’ll call it “interesting” – is the list of people, writers and others, who’ve battled this disease and come through the madness to achieve something important. Something memorable. It’s a significant list, not long, but long enough, considering that so many of them lived before modern treatment. Most of us will never know about those who tried and never made it. But the ones who did – oh, the ones who did.

Let’s start at the beginning, with one who made me laugh. He’s a fellow writer and scribe, an influential man who didn’t like getting wet and who looked a lot like Charlton Heston. Ladies and gentlemen – I give you Moses! His bi-polar disorder, like many others in the past, has been deduced from his writings, namely the Biblical Pentateuch – the first five books of the Bible. I immediately thought of that violent scene when Moses receives the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai and wondered what condition he was in — if he was a bit shaky, for instance. Did he, maybe, drop a comma or two? Forget the Eleventh Commandment? Or perhaps the real wording was “It’s OK to covet your neighbor’s wife, just don’t get caught in the act.”

All right. All right.  Enough about Moses.

Here’s someone else who made my mouth turn up.  The Grinch himself, Jim Carrey. And someone who made me lose my smile. Someone who battled her disease in movies and magazines and newspapers all over the world. And who lost the battle in the end.  Marilyn, we hardly knew ye.

There are the obvious ones (some hypothesized, some diagnosed). For my money Edvard Munch, painter of “The Scream,” tops the list He had so much horror to get out he painted his masterpiece four times. Van Gogh, of course. Friedrich Nietzsche. Amy Winehouse. Napoleon. Truman Capote. Lincoln. Beyoncé. (Breathe Deeply)

It’s tempting to go on about these folks. Some make your jaw drop. Florence Nightingale. Emily Post. T. Boone Pickens. Sweet-smiling Jane Pauley. Degas?

Some – Bob Dylan – you just know.

Some – John Hinckley, Jr. – you wish you didn’t.

But this is a literary blog and the literary landscape is littered with the achievements – and in many cases the all-too-public, raw struggles – of writers who were or are bi-polar.

Renaissance man Winston Churchill was bi-polar.  His “black dog of depression” was set off stunningly by his world-changing brilliance. “I am a Great Man,” he told his secretary, possibly on one of those days when he forgot to put on his clothes, which he did frequently. Nudity and a bottle of champagne a day – plus scotch for breakfast and brandy at all hours — didn’t stop Churchill from writing a mind-boggling 55 volumes – while almost single-handedly fighting Hitler for a stretch – and winning the Nobel Prize for Literature for his accumulated works. Whew! And he was an accomplished bricklayer and painter, too.

On a calmer level, there are the Romantic Poets, obvious candidates for the gloomy designation of manic-depressive — the triumvirate of Byron, Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Browning was, but not Wordsworth, thank God. Oscar Wilde charmed and charmed. Who knows what demons were beneath that polished, urbane surface. The doomed Sylvia Plath tells her own story of manic-depression in the “Bell Jar.” Faulkner paints the South in colors found only in the palate of the disease.

And then there is Hemingway.

And Poe.

AND Larry Flynt. I believe he does some “writing” for his pornography – excuse me – publications.

Graham Greene, my favorite writer, suffered from bi-polar disorder. It’s said that’s what gave him his edge.

But Mark Twain had no edge. Despite it all.

Interestingly, there seem to be few mystery writers who are manic-depressive, or at least who have admitted to it. But those who have are at the top.

The aforementioned Graham Greene wrote in a mystery league all his own. Raymond Chandler, too.

James Ellroy, dubbed “Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction,” penned the noir cult favorites “L.A. Confidential” and “The Black Dahlia,” among many others. He considers himself the greatest crime novelist who ever lived. “I am to the crime novel in specific what Tolstoy is to the Russian novel and what Beethoven is to music.” Sounds like manic-depression to me.

 Anne Rice is a member of the fraternity.  All those vampires and everything.

Patricia Cornwell has stepped forward to say she’s bi-polar.  Good for her. She’s a role model for writers like me.

But there’s one who defies belief.  More than any other mystery writer of all time, I would have given this person a pass, a sunny disposition, a serene life. I re-read at least three or four of this person’s books every year – just for relaxation.  The characters are charming, the settings wonderfully drawn, and the books are the kind you can fall asleep to with a smile on your face.

This mystery writer is the one who breaks the mold and makes you just shake your head in wonder.

As Hercule Poirot might say: “Ah, oui, it is indeed a test of the little grey cells!”

~~  Jane Vasarhelyi

4 thoughts on “Writing through Madness

  1. Jane,
    Interesting post.
    With so many celebrities on your Bi-Polar list, I feel like the poor relation. All I can claim is a little OCD with a touch of ADD tossed in. Hmmmm. That could be why I”m so often lost in research rather than writing.

  2. Very interesting blog! I’m thankful that at least we have more help for people these days who suffer from depression and manic depression. And, as you point out, a great many creative people have dealt with one or more of these difficulties.

  3. Thanks for commenting, Susan. Yes, it’s a tough one to cope with but there’s a lot of inspiration to be had from writers such as the ones I referenced above. There were so many others I had to leave out. Dickens, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Art Buchwald — and Carrie Fisher, of course. They all give inspiration and hope to folks like me.

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