A little creative angst is good for you

Once again, a study linking creativity and mental illness has wafted across the media like a darts player’s fart settling on a trifle. “COMEDIANS AND PSYCHOTICS SHARE TRAITS”, it screams, clanging together rhetorical kitchenware in a desperate bid for attention. At first glance, it seems something that we’d all agree with: who could possibly want to stand in front of a room full of strangers and tell them carefully-worded fibs? What kind of maniac does that?

Well, I do, for a start.

I’ve been performing comedy for four years now. Improv, sketch, stand-up – you name it. I’ve been on Radio 4, performed in front of Stephen Fry, and had drunken chats with the great and the good of the comedy world outside an Edinburgh bar at 6am.

I’ve also been taking a pretty hefty dose of anti-depressants for just over a year.

The idea that these two are linked – that the time I’ve spent sweating on stage for a happy audience and the time I’ve spent rigid with dread on the floor outside my bathroom are somehow connected – makes me so furious I can barely speak.

As a society, we still see mental illness of any kind as something special, something exotic. Being unable to see depression in the way that you can see a broken leg lends it an ephemeral quality. Gives it a sense of mystery. We treat creativity the same way: ideas must come from somewhere, after all, and it’s far more romantic to think of inspiration flowing straight from the Muses and into the ear of a slumbering artist than it is to think of a comedian hunched red-eyed at four in the morning, spitting an endless stream of invective because she can’t get the FUCKING words to come out in the FUCKING right order and FUCKING STUPID BASTARD BLINKING CURSOR.

Creating things is hard. There’s no magic. No mystery. Inspiration may strike every now and again, but if you want to consistently make things that are funny, or beautiful, or moving, then by god you’re going to have to sit down and sweat over every tiny, hateful detail.

That’s no fun. Hence, we fetishise mental illness. We make the bipolar into special snowflakes, crawling from a pit of black regret and soaring through the sky on wings of pure artistic drive, while schizophrenics, when not viewed as mass-murderering beasts by the media, are inscrutable psychonauts, guided through imaginative realms beyond our comprehension.

It’s all very romantic, and it’s all very damaging.

Going to the doctor for the first time was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. Despite knowing, knowing, that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, I still felt silly. Like I was wasting his time. I thought everybody felt like I did, like it was a reasonable reaction to the world and my place in it.

Then I realised that if I somehow took it all away, all the sadness and the anger and despair, I genuinely couldn’t think of what would be left of “Me”. That’s all there was.

I realised that wasn’t healthy. I booked an appointment. I told my GP all this. About the dread. About how walking through my office felt like wading through treacle. About the infinitely long minutes spent standing on the edge of the tube platform, waiting for a train and feeling the desire to take a step forward almost overwhelming me. I told my GP all this.

What did he say?

“You’re a comedian. A little creative angst is good for you.”

I felt like an idiot. I felt like I’d wasted his time. I felt like every one of my fears had been confirmed and that this was all normal. That I was making a fuss over nothing.

That was bollocks, of course.

Through the insistence of close friends, I went back to the doctor. I asked to speak to a different GP. I told her that sometimes I’d take off my boots and just scream into them and I asked her if that was normal.

“No…” She said. “That’s not normal.”

She told me about the options available and the treatments offered. We chatted more, and eventually she wrote me a prescription for an SSRI.

Weeks passed. I was still glum on occasion, I still wrestled with my place in the world. We all do. The difference was, this was now manageable. I no longer felt like iron bands were crushing my chest, like the walk to work was some Russian deathmarch. I felt like I could cope.

Weirdly, it didn’t make me less funny.

Reviews didn’t say “The performance was lacking a certain something” or “Since Guy no longer howls in agony, the spark in his writing has vanished”. Of course they didn’t. Why would they?

I guess that’s the point of all this. I’m not a comedian because I’m depressed anymore than a David Beckham is a footballer because of a sprained ankle. I’m depressed because my meat is faulty. Nothing more. There’s something in my brain that doesn’t quite connect, like a joint that clicks or a propensity to get food poisoning¹. I’m a comedian because I love it. I love wordplay and sight gags, stupid props and convoluted stories. I love making people laugh and, yes, I love the attention. Look upon my face, ye mighty, and sodding well clap.

It’s not the worst stereotype out there. I could have schizophrenia and have people worry that I’m a murderer, or I could have an eating disorder and have people think I’m just doing it for attention, but it is just another tiny, tiny stumbling block on the road to society finally seeing mental illness as the vital issue it is, rather than a shameful and murky domain of freaks and perverts.

That’s comedy.


¹I am, of course, aware that mental illness has myriad causes. I’m not for a second saying that X is purely mental or Y is purely physical. Pills aren’t for everyone and therapy takes colossal courage. People are complicated, but for this piece, hyperbole is convenient.

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5 Responses to A little creative angst is good for you

  1. Claire says:

    Correlation is not the same as causation, of course, but of the people with mental health issues that I know personally (of which there is a surprisingly not-small number), almost all of them are creative types, which is striking. Indeed, I count myself as a creative type and have also had problems with anxiety and depression in the past. To say the one leads to the other (i.e. you need to be mentally ill to be creative, or indeed, being creative is a sign of mental illness) is facile and pointless, I agree, but it would appear there is a connection of some sort. It would perhaps be more useful if the meeja didn’t immediately leap to the “tortured artist” image, in the same way it goes to “RUN FOR YOUR LIVES” for people with schizophrenia and other psychotic illnesses, and instead, explored the possible link with more sensitivity and insight. But heck, why do that when you can scaremonger and make people afraid to go and see a stand-up show because comedians are all kerrrrrazy, right?

    By the way, glad to hear you’re getting the support you need!

  2. Mickey Carroll says:

    You are spectacular.

  3. Rita says:

    Well done, Guy.

  4. Thiefree says:

    Nobody’s interested in how many traffic wardens struggle with depression, because it doesn’t fit a narrative, but the ‘tears of a clown’ cliche still gets a lot of press. I think your encounter with that GP shows why that can be dangerous. Glad you wrote this.

  5. Thiefree says:

    I’ve had this open on my phone for about a month and only just remembered to read it. I’m very glad I did.

    I remember feeling like I’d be wasting everybody’s time in seeking help. I had a really rough patch recently, but since seeking treatment for my horrendous allergies, I’ve been better. Strange, holistic creatures that we are.

    Here’s to always crawling out of it, with whatever help we can get. X

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