I Against Me: The Paradox of Creativity and Mental Illness

Jun. 16, 2017 / By

Image by Chelcee Bunkley

I consider myself a creative person. In fact, I believe that creativity, if anything, was the reason I was meant to live. Not much in life matters more to me than having ideas and putting those ideas out into the world through artistic pursuits such as writing, filmmaking and music. I haven’t had the problem of scouring my brain or the world for what my meaning is in this complicated thing called life. But I have encountered another, much more damaging problem: mental illness.

I suffer from anxiety and depression. If you don’t know about either of these things, let me just put it this way: Anxiety is like a parasite latched onto your brain that makes you worry about every single insignificant thing on the planet down to the awkward way you said “hello” to someone. Meanwhile, depression is like a tumor that can suck away all your energy and ability to care about everything and anything you love.

In very simplified scientific terms, anxiety activates your sympathetic nervous system, which is the thing that causes the fight-or-flight response. It’s your brain in “alert mode” pretty much all the time, which inevitably has effects on the body. Such is the case in panic attacks, for example. Depression is generally caused by changes in the chemicals in your brain, but other factors such as stress or trauma can contribute to the condition. In my experience, anxiety is everything too much, and depression is everything too little.

These two evils sometimes feel like polar opposites, but they also work together to create a constant state of chaos in my mind. I rarely seem to get away from it. And the biggest victim, aside from my well-being as a whole, has been my creativity.

Three years ago, I was filling entire notebooks with all my ideas in the span of just a few weeks. I used to sit in my room and write for hours on end, never getting tired of imagining whatever I could. I would watch movies and cartoons as a way to study the craft since I didn’t really know how to put filmmaking into practice at the time. I used to go outside, just me and my camera with no real destination, and take photos just because I liked photography.

Writing, filmmaking and music gave me purpose and sustained my life. I felt that if I didn’t have these things, then I wouldn’t even know who I was. They defined me. These were my outlets for everything good, bad and in-between in my life, from the mundane to the extraordinary, fiction and nonfiction. I used to do things and enjoy them without any effort at all. I used to have a life — and then I didn’t.

There came a point at which creativity wasn’t a sufficient outlet for my overwhelming mental illness anymore. Writing it down just didn’t do anything to ease my suffering the way it used to. I’m not sure if it happened that way because depression made it stop being fun or because I just kept writing the same things over and over again. Either way, it just wasn’t the same.  I wish I had a clue as to what would get me back to where I used to be, but I don’t even have an inkling. It feels like I’ve tried everything and nothing has worked. It sort of feels like it’s not even up to me, that I don’t really have a say. No matter what I do, depression creeps in and drains any energy, interest or motivation.

Thinking about it now, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when things had gotten so bad that I stopped enjoying to write and create. There wasn’t much to it, that I can remember.

I noticed myself becoming more and more afraid of everything, even things that didn’t make sense to be afraid of, like success. And that translated into anxiety. And all the worrying from the anxiety translated into depression because all I could really think about was how I wasn’t good enough to reach the goals I set for myself or goals other people my age already reached. It feels like it happened very suddenly, but it didn’t.

For as long as I can remember, since middle school, I was always very sad. And I think I was anxious before I even knew what anxiety was. Creating was really the only outlet I had because as a teenager, my mother never let me see a doctor about my anxiety and depression; she would totally deny that I had a problem at all. She thought that I just needed to pray it away and God would take care of it, which has done five times more harm than good, and those effects have followed me directly into adulthood.

Things seem to have gotten much worse as I’ve grown older and been left untreated — treatment that I might have gotten earlier if the stigma of mental illness wasn’t a large part of my culture and inevitably my family. It’s become harder to go outside, harder to meet new people or even speak to people I know. It’s become harder to go to new places and to do new things. In the thick of it, it can even be difficult to keep up with my personal hygiene, let alone to write down a single idea.

After years of struggling with the internalized stigma of mental illness, which I am still dealing with to this day, I finally began seeing a therapist. And if I’m going to be honest, it hasn’t done much for me. To be fair, I’ve only been seeing her for about a month, but I suppose I anticipated more. I expected to feel at least somewhat better, after reading so many articles about how therapy helped people. I am currently considering if I should take medications. Honestly, I’m not really sure what the end result of all of this will be. Maybe seeing my therapist will really help me, maybe not. Maybe if I can just find a way to cut through all the doubt and depression and anxiety, I will be able to come out on the other side, or maybe not. It’s hard to know. All I can really do is keep trying to get better, and hopefully everything else will fall into place.

I wish I could give some sort of happy ending, but this just hasn’t ended for me yet. At this point, all I really want is to have the same passion and motivation for creating I used to have. Putting it out into the world is a battle of its own that I hope I can go on to fight. But if I could just put a pen to paper again and not feel like I was forcing myself to do it every single time and feeling nothing while I did it, I think I’d be much happier.

I can’t pretend to be an optimist about my situation because I’m not. I just hope that somehow, someway, I’ll be able to either work past this or work with it. As long as I can feel like me again.

If you experience any mental health problems, please visit your local mental health resources available here or national resources here.

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Chelcee Bunkley

Chelcee Bunkley is 22 year old college freshman attending Long Beach City College and a Southern California native, living in Long Beach since 2009. Chelcee is passionate about film-making, writing, and photography and looks forward to the challenges and victories that come with being an independent filmmaker, freelance photographer and writer. She is an active volunteer at the Gay and Lesbian Center of Long Beach. She hopes to tell stories that will help people in some form, whether it be with knowledge of resources, emotionally, or any other way possible.