Much has been written and discussed about the relationship between creativity, particularly creative genius, and insanity, mental illness. Shakespeare wrote, in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: “The lunatic, the lover and the poet are of imagination all compact.” Still, there is to this day no consensus on this linkage. In Creativity and Madness: New Findings and Old Stereotypes, Albert Rothenberg, M.D. states, “Many have tried…and failed; to show an invariant connection between genius and psychosis.” On the other side, in Strong Imagination: Madness, Creativity and Human Nature, Daniel Nettle says: “Rates of mental illness are hugely elevated in the families of poets, writers and artists, suggesting that the same genes, the same temperaments, and the same imaginative capacities are at work in madness and creative ability.” I do know from experience that addicted and mentally ill people are often brilliant, sensitive, and creative, until their illnesses get so bad that self-destruction overtakes creativity.

Just today I was in a meeting with recovering alcoholics and addicts, at least two of whom are artists with 10 and 15 years of sobriety. Both of them are today very successful. When they were drinking and using drugs they were spiraling down and barely selling their work. Over the past 26 years I have worked with professionally or known personally many visual/manual artists, architects, writers, musicians and other creative people struggling with addictions and mental illnesses, many of them well known, even famous. I have known them sick and well. There is a mythology among many creative people that they are more creative when they are abusing alcohol and/or drugs and/or in untreated, unmedicated states of mental and emotional illness. This idea is fed by stories of famous artists diagnosed (often posthumously from written records) with mental illnesses. Highly intelligent and educated people have written arguments against treating such people, saying they need to be “free” to create. Madness, sickness, is romanticized as a muse. I have seen the reality. There is no freedom in mental illness or addiction. There is only deterioration, extreme emotional pain and, often, premature death. I have seen brilliant people go off medication and commit suicide, relapse in addiction and lose everything, including life. There is nothing romantic about it. It is only a sad, futile loss.

I was once in an intimate relationship with a woman who was a talented artist and suffered from a severe personality disorder. She could never get anywhere with her art because she could never show it or sell it. The idea of letting her art, or anything else she created, even a letter, leave her control triggered a fear of losing her identity. She never recognized that she needed help. Michelangelo and Leonardo DaVinci are generally seen as some of the most creative geniuses of all time. There is no evidence that either suffered from mental illness or addiction. Their creative output continued throughout their lives. Many of us, especially people in my age group, know of (or have known) great musicians, actors and others from the `50s `60s and `70s who have done some of their greatest work since they got clean and sober. We also know of those whose careers and lives were cut short by addiction and mental illness. The world probably lost the best of their potential. I know from personal and professional experience, I do not guess, that recovery from addiction and mental illness is not the loss of some mythical freedom. It is freedom, and it frees the best of creativity.

Author's Bio: 

Paul A. Hood, MS, LPC is a Licensed Professional Counselor practicing as Mountain Spirit Counseling, LLC, in Bailey and Evergreen, Colorado. He has been counseling alcoholics and addicts since 1982, families since 1987 and practicing psychotherapy since 1989. He has years of experience counseling in many types of alcohol and drug addiction treatment agencies, as well as internships in a Family Service Agency and a Suicide Prevention and Grief Counseling agency. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology and a Master of Science degree in Counseling Psychology with an emphasis in Marriage, Family and Child Counseling, and many hours of Continuing Education in his specialty areas.