The Myth of Drugs and Creativity: Mental Illness’ Role in the Using Artist

photo of a closeup of person's eyes and forehead covered in many different color paints

The Myth of Drugs and Creativity: Mental Illness’ Role in the Using Artist

Drugs and CreativityThe writer sits at his table, a drink in hand and ready for the downing. The painter stands at her canvas, having recently smoked a bliff, and contemplates the pigments on the surface of her latest work. The musician runs on stage, revved up on coke and ready to wow the crowd.

Whether touted as an emblem of counter-cultural freedom from the restrictive thinking of mainstream society or reputed to stimulate the imagination, drugs and alcohol have been linked with the artistic process for some time now. Both celebrated and aspiring creatives often dabble in drugs at one point or another in their lives. Though emerging from different walks of life, many artists fall into a tradition that began well before the 20th century and that has been maintained by legends like Pablo Picasso, The Beatles, and most recently Prince. Cocaine, methamphetamines, marijuana, alcohol – these are all part of the artist’s toolkit, right?

Not exactly.

A Myth That Enables Addiction

This common trope of drugs as elixirs of creativity is misleading and, when taken too far, irrevocably harmful. America’s favorite horror author Stephen King, who famously struggled with alcoholism and a number of drug addictions throughout his life, has no patience for those who claim that drugs inspire creativity.[1] As he states in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, “The idea that the creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time.” The mystique that drugs hold in society is just that — an illusion.

the idea that the creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time.

When it comes down to it, King goes on to argue, artists who claim to use illicit substances to stir their creative juices are more-or-less trying to justify their inclination toward such self-destructive behavior. “But I need it to write!” or “I can’t express myself artistically without it” are not valid excuses but are instead symptomatic of a larger problem at hand: abuse and/or addiction. Drugs don’t make artists — they break them.

Stress and its Many Sources

Connection between drugs, alcohol and creativityThough those who abuse and become addicted to drugs are not one in the same and range in socioeconomic status, race, gender and other qualities, what they often do share is stress. Unstable households, physical pain or the pressures from school or work are stressors that can drive individuals to self-medicate through available drugs.

However, mental illness is one of the most prominent sources of stress that pulls people toward abusing substances in attempt to relieve or cope with their conditions. In fact, approximately a third of all individuals who experience a mental illness and about half of people living with severe mental illnesses also have substance abuse issues, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).[2]

For reasons not yet fully understood, rates of mental illness are also high among artists, and understanding this link may help explain why so many artists are drawn toward drugs.

Mentally Ill or Creatively Inclined? The Two Often Go Hand-in-Hand

bipolar disorder and creativityWhile the belief that creativity is dependent on drugs is, as King put it, just a “pop-intellectual myth,” the stereotype of the tortured artist does have some credence (though is certainly not all-defining). A body of research suggests that there is a strong link between mental illness and creativity. In 2012, Sweden’s Karolinska Institute found that, “People in creative professions are treated more often for mental illness than the general population.” [3]

In one of the most comprehensive studies conducted in this field, the researchers used a registry of psychiatric patients listed for over the past 40 years, containing data on nearly 1.2 million Swedes and their relatives. Analyzing patients with a variety of diagnoses, ranging from schizophrenia and depression to ADHD and anxiety syndromes, they saw that bipolar disorder was the most prevalent among people with artistic and scientific professions, including dancers, researchers, photographers and authors.

The creative figure of the author, however, seemed to be especially burdened by mental disorders more-so than other individuals, artistic or otherwise. The study stated that ‘authors suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder more than twice as often as the general population.’ [4] They were also more likely to be diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorders, and they also had a greater tendency to commit suicide.

Abusing Drugs to Cope with Mental Illness

emotional pain and artSo, we know the facts: a considerable number of artists experience mental illness. Since those who are mentally ill often abuse substances or have substance use disorders, according to the NAMI statistics, it stands to reason that many artists also have drug problems. Though some try to convince themselves that their lingering, preoccupying desire for another hit is a testament to their creative genius, the real story is that many artists cling to substances for a false sense of stability. They want to relieve the distress of their mental disorder left untreated, and too often they turn to drugs as a way of coping. But this only harms them in the long run.

What starts out as a casual experiment can quickly turn into abuse when an illicit substance temporarily dulls emotional pain or provokes euphoric feelings of delight in the user. Eventually, the body and mind can become so dependent on the drug that the user continues to abuse it in order just to function. This is when addiction sets in.

Case Study: Eminem’s Descent into Drug Addiction and His Sober Awakening

Take Eminem, one of the most versatile and provocative artists of the rap and hip-hop world. Though only revealed later in his career in 2008 that he has been grappling with bi-polar disorder for most of his life, his feelings of raw anger and emotional instability were exceedingly clear in his lyrics.[5] He also suffered from prescription pill addiction and even nearly died from an overdose at one point, according to MTV News.[6]

“It’s no secret I had a drug problem,” he was quoted admitting. “If I was to give you a number of Vicodin I would actually take in a day? Anywhere between 10 to 20. Valium, Ambien, the numbers got so high I don’t even know what I was taking.”

Eminem drug addictionAnd how did he get so hooked? Through the psychological and physical relief that the substances instilled in him, countering the near-constant emotional instability that he experienced from his mental illness. “When I took my first Vicodin, it was like this feeling of ‘Ahh.’ Like everything was not only mellow, but [I] didn’t feel any pain,” Eminem says in the documentary How To Make Money Selling Drugs, quoted by MTV News.[7]

“I don’t know at what point exactly it started to be a problem. I just remember liking it more and more. People tried to tell me that I had a problem. I would say, “Get that f____g person outta here. I can’t believe they said that sh_t to me.”

As Eminem’s addiction worsened, his motivation, physical health, and even his ability to string words together deteriorated. MTV News writes that at his lowest the drugs shut off his brain and made him so lazy he preferred watching TV to making new tracks.[8]

After seeking treatment and remaining sober for a year, Eminem came back to the recording studio. In 2009, he released Relapse: an album that openly discussed his struggle with addiction. But he comments that during Recovery, an album released a year later, is when he really began to repair the damage that the drugs took on him despite how impossible it felt at times.

“I had to learn to write and rap again, and I had to do it sober and 100 percent clean,” Eminem told MTV News. “That didn’t feel good at first. I mean it in the literal sense. I actually had to learn how to say my lyrics again; how to phrase them, make them flow, how to use force so they sounded like I meant them. I was relearning basic motor skills. I couldn’t control my hand shakes. I’d get in the [recording] booth and tried to rap, and none of it was clever, none was witty and I wasn’t saying it right.”

Yet he did it, creating an award-winning album that stands as a testament to how only sobriety can unlock the true potential of an artist.

Let Our Treatment Help You Find Your Creative Flow Again

Eminem\’s Recovery is dedicated, “Anyone who’s in a dark place tryin’ to 2 get out. Keep your head up… It does get better!”[9] We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

I actually had to learn how to say my lyrics again; how to phrase them, make them flow, how to use force so they sounded like I meant them.

Though the confusion, frustration and emotional agony that can come along with an untreated mental illness and drug addiction can seem insurmountable, there is a way out. Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches’ dual diagnosis program is sensitive to the hardships unique to both mental health and substance use disorders, and our professionals are experienced in treating both conditions simultaneously.

At our facilities, artists can also continue creatively expressing themselves as a way of working through their conditions. We offer art therapy, music therapy, and expressive writing therapy for those who want to discover what it means to be creative while sober.

Don’t let drug addiction get in the way of what’s important in your life. Contact us at 888-432-2467 to learn more about our addiction help and mental health treatment options and how we can help you or a loved one find the courage to recover.

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