Medication and the Myth of the Tortured Artist

In 2018, Netflix released a new episode of its Twilight-Zone-esque cult hit, Black Mirror, called “Bandersnatch.” It caused a stir because of its interactional nature. The episode follows programmer Stefan Butler as he attempts to adapt a “choose your own adventure” book called Bandersnatch into a revolutionary adventure video game. Viewers, too, “choose” their own adventures over the course of the episode. 

In one troubling scene, however, Stefan visits his psychiatrist, Dr. Haynes, and she prescribes him medication. The viewer is then asked to choose whether Stefan will take the medication or flush it down the toilet. If he flushes them, his story continues. If he takes them, the story leaps to one of its endings, with Stefan’s game released. Critically, it is given two and a half stars. Apparently, it seems like it was made “on autopilot.” 

This echoes an earlier possible ending, wherein Stefan can accept help from his company in developing the game, or he can go it alone. Accepting help is considered the “wrong path”; the game is a critical failure, and Stefan considers trying again. The viewer is given the same choice, bringing them back to the episode’s start. Alone, this scene would be harmless. The game could suffer from the input of too many voices, too many opinions on what will create a profit. Together, though, the scenes make it clear that Stefan’s life is meaningful and creative only when he declines help, when he faces his hardships alone.

This is the underlying issue with “Bandersnatch”, and with much of modern artistry. Again and again, we are taught that good art comes from suffering. This can be true. It does not, however, mean that we should promote the idea that people work best when they are isolated and face adversity, that they should deny their own well-being for the sake of our entertainment. 

The image of the “tortured artist” has been around for generations. People continuously romanticize the suffering of creatives like Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, and Kurt Cobain. “If they got help or just took a pill we wouldn’t have ‘Starry Night’/The Bell Jar/’Smells Like Teen Spirit’…” Maybe. Or maybe we would have had even more of their art to celebrate. Maybe we would have found other artists to uphold. Either way, no art, no matter how great, is worth years of suffering without help.

This association between mental illness and great creativity continues to be reflected online. 

In late 2018, Kanye West posted a tweet that included: “I’m loving the new music I’ve been working on. 6 months off meds I can feel me again...” This promotes (to an audience of 29.5 million followers) the idea we’ve seen time and time again: that medications cloud the mind rather than make it clearer. 

Here’s the thing, though. Medication and creativity are not mutually exclusive. The idea that creativity and “good art” depend upon individual suffering is a myth. Medication, at its best, creates space for expression. A person can be happy and still make good art. People can access the difficulties of being human without having to sacrifice their lives to these difficulties, literally and metaphorically. For every “naturally gifted” tortured artist there is an equally valuable person learning their talent through practice and consumption and dedication. We promote the idea of the tortured artist because we rely on it most during hard times. Art is connection. But that connection shouldn’t always be rooted in the bad stuff. Artists should be allowed to heal. You are allowed to heal.

It can be a beautiful thing to connect with someone else’s pain through art, to see that you are not alone, even if it’s just for one moment. But that art is a product of the creator’s desire to ease suffering — both yours and their own. Should we not, then, shape our society to ease their suffering rather than encourage it? What makes us think that they should sacrifice their well-being — many times, a longer life — for the sake of our own comforts? There are already so many pains in this world that we cannot escape, that we cannot help. We can, however, stop using creative work as a justification for misery. 

Extend this sympathy to your own life and the work you produce. Not feeling like yourself or not feeling “all there” when taking medication for a mental illness is something plenty of people have experienced. But this may just mean you’re not on the medication that works for you. You don’t have to live a life free of medication in order to be the “real you.” The real you doesn’t have to suffer alone, without help, just to be creative and authentic.

We don’t hope to deny the validity of people’s concerns. Some medications don’t fit well; they do as much harm to some as they do good for others. We just don’t believe that the answer is stop taking your medication, it’s stifling you now which means it will stifle you forever. Finding the “right” medication can be a long and tiresome process, but it is still a process worth engaging in. Maybe your medication isn’t helping because you’re still within an adjustment period. Maybe your medication isn’t helping because (thankfully) everyone’s brain works differently. That’s okay. Frustration is okay.

Some people might genuinely never find a medication that works for them. They should arguably, in an ideal world, still go see a therapist, but they have the right to decide not to. A failed journey to become medicated, however, should not be promoted as a universal truth of medicine, or rather, as proof of medicine’s failings. It should be seen as the individual experience it is, influenced by millions of cultural and biological factors.

Although bad medications seem limiting, good medications are liberating. We don’t live in a culture that prompts us to disclose (much less celebrate) the help we’re getting, so articles about who medicine fails largely outvoice articles on who medicine helps. But we can personally attest to the monumental benefits medications have had on our lives and our creativity.

Paola: When I first got to Kenyon, I was paralyzed by anxiety and depression. I couldn’t walk or sit in class or eat food without feeling like I was being watched, like any mistake I made would be seen and judged. So, I did barely anything. I couldn’t go into the servery to get food most days; if I wanted to eat, I had to ask a friend to bring me a plate. (Looking back now, I don’t think I would have survived that first year if I hadn’t miraculously won the friend group lottery.) Class was a nightmare in which I either couldn’t speak or spoke like an idiot. I sure as hell didn’t go to office hours. I didn’t do the things that I desperately wanted to do, didn’t make the mistakes you’re meant to make when you’re young, didn’t try out for music groups, didn’t reach for any of the things I wanted. I felt like a coward and a failure and I hated myself for it.

There was something that felt profound about my worries and sadness when I was drowning in them, but medication opened up so much room in my life for things that feel more meaningful, for a reality in which I am allowed to live. Now on my medications, I write poetry (even perform it sometimes!) and I talk in class and I can eat. I’ve made really stupid mistakes, and it feels like a blessing more than a curse most days. My hand still shakes after I raise my hand in class, my body still tenses when I draw too much attention to myself, and I still have some terrible, awful, inconsolable days. But I could not have become a better poet if I didn’t have ADD medication to help me focus, to help me sit with a poem. My creativity would be dead without the courage to attend readings; it would be dead if my self-loathing drove me to feel inadequate rather than invigorated by those readings. I certainly could not have made art if I were dead by 19. Isn’t there something to be said for that?

Image Credits: Feature, 1, 2, 3, 4