Creativity and Mental Illness: Hobby or Vocation?
By Fake Zappa
American MultiMedia Artist and Mental Health Activist
If there’s one big thing I can’t seem to communicate to others, it’s that for some disabled artists, getting out in public kills them, especially if they happen to get too much exposure (or negative press). For other disabled artists, remaining in obscurity with something valuable to contribute can actually kill (undermines their will to live) mostly related to self-harm.
The elephant in the room accompanying my ranting lectures I give to unsuspecting people (especially when I hear lovely statements like, “we all struggle”) is that disabled people are, well, disabled. Those of us who rely on others to survive are disabled. Pretty simple. We don’t struggle: we die – if we don’t have others, we don’t survive. The other biggie, and one that’s conveniently popular these days and (rarely) sincerely acknowledged; is that mental illness is an illness. (Except for when it annoys and scares people, then it magically stops being an illness and transforms from a chemistry flaw to a character flaw.) Poof! Did I also mention that, for the most part, it’s invisible? Sometimes I wish I had a tick, then folks might not expect me to function like most people do. (I also don’t, for lack of a better term, “act gay”, so most people assume I’m straight, in addition to not “acting crazy”). At the same time, when it comes to mental illness, if I lived with a head and face that twitches, the sad reality is that most people, even sincere people, will react in fear. Fear is the override button that seems to get nice people to justify being mean. It’s also the thing that makes people not only become afraid OF me, they get afraid FOR me. If I’m put in any place of influence or position of power, chances are (unless we have adequate support) people like me typically mess things up. We also would be in a position with more stress and opportunities to get hurt. Does that mean those of us close to my functioning level should stay in our virtual ghettos, kinda existing in society, yet separate. Out of sight, out of mind…
Hopefully this series of tedious ramblings might make the invisible a bit more visible. Just keep in mind, the perspective I’m writing from is seen from my particular functioning level: personally, I’m functional enough where I don’t require someone to manage my finances (a payee) however I don’t qualify for a case worker to manage my care. I’m often not functional enough to advocate for my own care, especially when in crisis, and more so in particular parts of the world and in this age of what I love to call: Cheap Mental Health. I haven’t been able to keep a full time job without panic attacks which lead to burnout which lead to termination. When I was younger and supporting myself, I worked 40+ jobs in just over a dozen years of my fun-filled adult life. The latest twelve years I have lived almost entirely on support. (This is where having too many jobs, with no formal education, actually pays off to be such an epic loser! I got on SSDI, disability status, and Medicare…) I’m one of the many who fall through the cracks of the system: too sick to function in society and well enough that I don’t need 24X7 care. Sigh. As much as I beg and plead for reasonable mental health care, I’ve found that the deeper level of care I get, the less choices I get (for instance, residential care takes away a lot of freedom and privileges in exchange for more intensive care).
The other fun thing is that I rarely can get through to “non-crazy” people about what I can and cannot do: it’s agony for me to go to the post office alone. It’s natural for me to get lost in the woods for hours. As an entertainer, and comfortable on stage, I feel more safe in front of 500 people than in the audience of 500 people. I can envision a big musical compositions, arrangements, and productions; and I can’t remember a simple address or phone number. It takes me over an hour in a grocery store just to find a half week’s worth of food. I can analyze a piece of music playing in the background and struggle with simple math like addition and subtraction. I tell that to people and I can see my words glide over their head like cheap hair gel. Figuratively. My career isn’t a struggle – it’s simply impossible – impossible to accomplish on my own.
Right now I’m sitting on a deck at a Mexican restaurant in Newport, Oregon as I write this introduction. I wrote most of this article when I was living in a cabin at a nudist resort outside of the Seattle area. Since I lost my home earlier this spring, I have seized this tragedy as an opportunity to get my “stuck” life to get “un-stuck”. Living on the road has gotten me out of my agoraphobic dull little paradise I once called Home to get out where people are. I like to study non-crazy people and notice how crazy they are – especially us Americans in the last few years. I love Americans, red and blue people included equally. Delusion is so common these days (AKA Fake) and I often question what this thing we call “sanity” really is, and if it actually exists. On the other hand, mental health is trendy these days, and so many people are more quick to freely admit they suffer from forms of acute mental illness. “Oh, there goes my OCD again!” chuckles the office manager. Trauma is also trendy. These are good trends. There’s more awareness these days. There’s also more misunderstanding between the difference between career people that suffer mentally, and those of us who can’t function in their complicated world. One of the biggest misunderstandings I want to hammer into people is the difference between creative hobbyists who use art as part of their self-care, and those of us who define our life and our vocation by our creativity. I have seen this in most mental health related circles and is the main point of this article.
I often annoy the hell out of people; therefore I thought it would be fun to write the way that I talk. I used to be on the newsletter committee for a mental health nonprofit and designed their first logos and templates. I don’t write that way anymore. Even if I did in fact manage to summarize some of my articles, none of them ever made an impact. So here I go… Ego trips and guilt trips and my Playdough Fun Factory of semi-organized words. I heard a preacher years ago mention that his sermons were worth it if they made people “mad, sad, or glad”.
Jason T. Ingram
NEXT: Jason’s World