I’ve been pondering a lot about the above question lately for a variety of reasons and I need to write my musings…
Can you be successful if you’re mentally ill?
The straight up answer to the above question is, ‘of course’!! Of course you can be mentally ill and still be successful. HOWEVER, it comes with a lot of ‘buts’ and variations on how you define many differing parameters within that question including the mental illness you suffer with. I’m asking myself this question based on the fact that I suffer with moderate to severe depression, anxiety and PTSD.
Being successful or calling yourself a success is a very subjective term. What is ‘failure’ (or the norm) for some can be a huge success for others. For example, leaving the house is an automatic act we do most days but to an agoraphobic person, it probably seems impossible and even opening their front door could be a huge personal success and achievement to them.
So how do we define success?
Despite what society tells us is a success, it actually has a very personal meaning and therefore how we define it can differ greatly. For some people, success, as Western society moulds us to believe, means having a good car, a career we love, holidays throughout the year, a home of our own and a family. In the wider world? It could mean providing for your family, chasing a dream or very simply, just being content with what we have (the latter being something I wish we could all achieve).
How we define our success is entirely up to us.
It doesn’t have to make any sense to others. We don’t even have to tell people what we consider a success. We just have to know in ourselves what we aim to achieve.
Arianna Huffington, the founder of Huffington Post says that, to her, success means “To live the lives we truly want and deserve, and not just the lives we settle for”.
Success doesn’t need to be measured by the numbers in your bank account or the mileage on your car. Success is achieving the goals we set for ourselves however small or large those may be or however many we have.
For me, I have just two goals that I consider defining success in my life:
- Writing and publishing a book
- Being self-employed and earning enough money through my website (and avenues that lead from that) to live
In the wider terms of being a success, when you consider I have depression and anxiety, I’ve already achieved it. I have backpacked solo around the world despite miscarriages, nervous breakdowns and mental exhaustion. I have (and am) holding down a job after suffering the most suicidal 16 months of my entire life. You very kindly tell me that I help you and even save your lives through my words which means the world to me. Even the mere fact that I am alive after 18 years of severe depressive episodes is a monumental achievement.
But here’s why I confess that I don’t think I’ll ever achieve the above:
I have depression and anxiety.
Now, your first (loving) reaction is to call “bullshit” and tell me that there are a great many successful people in the world who struggle with their mental health and still achieve the successes I aim for. Immediately I’m reminded of J K Rowling who is one of the most famous examples of this. She was broke, divorced and suicidal before writing the Harry Potter novels that would turn her into one of the richest and most successful women in the world. She has changed and saved lives and will become an important entry in our generational and literary history.
So you will, quite rightly cry “if she can do it, so you can you!” and I love you for the encouragement; truly. We all need to encourage and support each other more in this world but that’s another article for another day when I can muster up the energy to write.
But here’s the reason why I believe my mental illness stops me from being a success (in relation to the two goals above); I don’t know any other mental illness quite like depression for a creative person. That’s not to say that others aren’t crippling, life-threatening(or ending) or heartbreaking but for a creative person, depression feels like our kryptonite.
Let’s put our logical, non-judgemental hats on shall we? I’m about to massively generalise and I need you to see my explanation through to the end before you come at me with pitchforks…
Let’s take ‘personality disorders’ (I don’t consider them anything less than illnesses, not personality deficits but the medical profession, stuck in Victorian times, thinks otherwise) to start with and say that, on the whole, if you’re chronically and severely struggling with schizophrenia for example, what you can achieve in life is likely to be limited on an everyday scale therefore your levels of ‘societal success’ lessen even if you hugely achieve goals individually. That is, of course, not taking into consideration mild sufferers or people taking their meds etc; as I said, I need to make sweeping generalisations to make my point (bear with me).
And of course, the above really does depend on what you (and the medical world) define as a mental illness so for the purposes of this article, I’m not including learning disabilities and addiction. For the purposes of this article, however much you may disagree, I am using the example of ‘well known’ mental illnesses such as eating disorders, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, bipolar etc.
Though we all have acute episodes of these illness which take over our lives (or even end them), for the most part, when our illnesses are mild to moderate we can still function well (or at the very least, look like we are functioning well to the outside world). We can go to college or work full time. We can take care of our children. We can go to the pub with our mates.
But in general, especially for creative (i.e. writers/painters/designers etc) people like myself, I don’t know anything like depression to prevent dreams and goals from being achieved.
There is a beautiful soul on Twitter called Nicole. She currently has bright blue hair (recently bright pink!!), is a mental health blogger and is very open about her struggles with anxiety and OCD. And yet, I recently found myself feeling jealous of her. Why? Because she was achieving similar creative goals I had with our blogs but couldn’t achieve. And it had nothing to do with being ‘lazy’ or ‘using excuses’ but for the very simple fact that I was (and am) struggling so much with depression, even scrolling through social media has been too much for me at times. Nicole, on the other hand, was acutely struggling with her anxiety and OCD and still writing articles and scheduling her social media posts and I was jealous. But depression then hit Nicole and she temporarily lost her creative spark too.
And that’s why I don’t think I can be a success in the creative field because I don’t know any other illness quite like depression. One that stops life in its tracks. When J K Rowling wrote Harry Potter, she modelled Dementors on depression, creatures that ‘suck the soul’ out of their victims, and in doing so perfectly encapsulated what it means to struggle so greatly with depression. As Ron Weasley puts it “I felt weird…like I’d never be cheerful again’.
Severe depression is something that can’t be seen or understood until you suffer with it yourself and when you do, you finally experience the true blackness of it all. The soullessness. The void of any good feeling. Depression isn’t laziness; it’s a ‘stopper’ on life. And sadly it underpins a great many other mental illnesses too.
When I was seriously ill last year, it took me 3 weeks to put away clean laundry that was sat on the corner of my bed into my chest of drawers. It stops you taking showers for days at a time despite how dirty you look and feel and then allows you to berate yourself for being such a fuck up you can’t even wash or dress yourself. And for creative people like myself and Nicole, it adds a new layer of torture because, where we are so very often able to take solace in writing to help ourselves (and others), it steals that away from us too. Despite the many I have bought to fill up my shelves, I haven’t been able to read a book since November 2015; a pain I can’t, ironically, put into words.
I can’t count the amount of times I have opened my laptop and stared at it for hours to write with nothing to show for it apart from online shopping baskets full of products I can’t afford to buy.
And people will, lovingly and correctly, state that achieving the big goals are often the end product of achieving many, many smaller (yet still important) goals along the way and I absolutely agree. A goal achieved is a goal achieved no matter the size or length it took to accomplish. I’m all about celebrating victories in our lives. But what I’ve noticed about many published mental health authors or successful people who struggle with their mental health is that they talk about their pain in a historical tense.
They “used to suffer so badly”, “I once…”; even the author of my most-loved depressive memoir (Shoot the Damn Dog) Sally Brampton starts her book saying that she is now happy despite the very sad news that she lost her battle with depression last year. But here’s why I don’t believe I’ll be a creative success; I am never out of an episode long enough to push forward far enough to achieve my two goals.
I am someone who suffers with ‘acute major depressive episodes but chronic low mood‘ meaning that I’m technically always depressed in some capacity. If my life was an image on a ECG machine, my base ‘life heartbeat’ would be lower than others with more troughs than peaks. And I’m not asking for pity; that’s just the way it is however much I would prefer it otherwise.
I can make small and meaningful goals but the momentum never lasts for me and when that creative flow stops because my mind won’t allow me to proceed any further, it then reassures me that I’m a failure. That I’ll never be a success. That there’s no point in trying.
So can you be a success if you’re mentally ill? Of course! As I said, success is a very personal definition. And there are hundreds, if not thousands, of mental illnesses and levels of struggles within those. But can you be creatively successful when you’re actively depressed? I’m really starting to doubt it; even science is potentially saying otherwise, suggesting that the right-hemisphere of the brain which houses creativity is also the side of the brain which hosts depression.
Looking back on the last 18 years of my life and realising its pattern, I’m going to say that it’s extremely unlikely that I’ll ever fully recover from depression. Even when I found 10 months of contentment in Australia, I still struggled with acute severe depression even if the episodes were shorter in length. So if I’m never in a long period of ‘remission’, can I really write a book? Or become self-sustaining through creative avenues? Doubtful. Does that mean I won’t try and achieve those goals? Absolutely not and I’m not writing this article from a ‘woe is me’ point of view; just someone who craves to put their musings into words.
But what if it happens? What if I do somehow manage to publish that book? Or become a public-speaker, writer and/or e-commerce founder; depression can bring the curtain down at any given moment. Even today I have emails, comments and private Facebook messages that are weeks old which I can’t bring myself to reply to. And from an outside perspective, that sounds ridiculous. Believe me, it sounds ridiculous to the ‘sane’ side of my brain too but I just can’t bring myself to write back. I have used up so much energy trying to be sane at work and not fuck up that I have nothing left in my energy bank by the end of the day or week.
When you suffer so badly with depression, everything becomes a monumental task to achieve. Dinner often becomes a few slices of salami because you don’t have the energy to even cut up cheese or boil pasta. Bikini bottoms become underwear because doing laundry is overwhelming. Doing anything you love or once enjoyed becomes almost impossible to do because you can’t *feel* the enjoyment you used to.
And to my article, people will likely say, as they have done to me privately, that writing a book whilst currently struggling is probably more inspiring than those who have recovered; that it gives people hope that they can still live despite their mental health struggles and I completely agree but am I the one to be able to write that book or be that success that people need? Who knows.
But I will continue to try…