Music and Me

There is a long standing, well documented connection between bipolar disorder and creativity. Indeed, while in hospital I met some people who were extremely talented and creative and artistic. I wasn’t one of them. 

I used to be creative. I sung, wrote music, played guitar and piano (albeit very badly!), and participated in various bands and choirs. I LOVED it. Music was a release for me, and it was forefront in my life. Then somewhere along the line I lost it. I became too busy for music, and lost my creative spark. 

I often wonder if Lithium was responsible for this change. A large number of people with Bipolar disorder refuse to be medicated because of the allure of mania and hypomania, and often the creativity that accompanies these states. I haven’t written much about my “highs”, but it’s safe to say they are generally pleasurable.

I’m not sick when I’m “high” (or “productive” as my husband and I call it…because let’s face it, no one wants to be labelled as “manic”). No I’m not sick… I’m awesome! 😉 I’m shouting from the roof tops and going to change the world. “Slow down, Rachael!” I hear people telling me. “Keep up!” I feel like shouting back. 

My creativity didn’t vanish during periods of depression either. In fact some of my favourite songs were written during very difficult times. It seemed even the dark moods were enough to elicit creativity. 

Perhaps then it was parenthood and the life I led, busy and exhausting, that diminished my desire to create. At the end of the day, when dinner dishes are packed away and my little boy is in bed, do I really have the creative energy left in me to write, or sing, or go to a music studio for a jam? Usually I am lucky to make it through a TV program without falling asleep. 

When I had the spark, and wrote music I had this bizarre belief that songs were floating out there, and you just had to be in the right state to reach out and grab it. I would write very quickly, words and chords erupting out of me, like it was just meant to be. When I finished writing a song, I couldn’t imagine it not being there. It was perfect in all it’s imperfections, and it owned it’s place within the universe – even if I was the only one to ever know of its existence. I have a large black book of songs I have written, most of them never to have been showcased to anything other than my bedroom wall. 

But there were some songs that did make it out of my bedroom. Quite a few years ago I used to get together with a good friend to write and record songs. He dealt with the music and production side, I did the vocals, and we both wrote the songs. Today, for the first time in years I listened to some of the songs – and the way that music so often does – many memories were evoked. I remembered the creative outlet I once had, and I missed it. 

Often I wonder how my life would be without Lithium, and I suppose recently I have had a sneak preview as to life without being medicated. My body’s inability to absorb Lithium and Seroquel and the rest of the vast band of medications I am on was rocky, unstable, frightening, and – frankly – disastrous. 

I hate that I am dependent on medication…but  I swallow down the pills, even if it is with resent. Many see Lithium as the enemy, zombifying and potentially taking away creative energy, flattening moods to only include the mediocre middle ground. I don’t disagree, but to me it’s a drug worth taking if it means I am there for my family. As a psychologist once said to me “it doesn’t matter how talented or creative or clever you are…if you keep having breakdowns and hospitalisations no one is going to want to hire you, and no one is going to be able to rely on you”. It’s a basic law of physics that what goes up must come down, and following a period of high creativity, productivity and mood I almost inevitably crash. To me, any potential crash that was as debilitating as what has just happened is not worth the risk of being unmedicated.

I do hope, and I do anticipate, that one day I will be able to go back to my music, my terrible guitar playing and limited piano skills. But for now I just listen to what I used to do, and I smile because I know that that creativity is locked away in me somewhere. I just need to learn a new way of accessing it, throughout the Lithium and parenthood and all the rest. 

“Here” is my favourite of the songs I co wrote with my good friend all those years ago. It makes me smile and reminds me of good times, when my husband and I were young and (relatively!) care free. If you feel so obliged you can listen to it here… on a site I had forgotten even existed. Enjoy 🙂 

Would I….?

Sometimes I wonder, if I could, would I take away my bipolar disorder.

Would it be easier, would I be happier without that roller coaster ride, that inevitable and uncontrollable swing from elation to depression and back again.

Would I want that?

I suspect life would be more stable. I wouldn’t need to be on the cocktail of medications I am currently depending on. Some things would be easier, I’m sure.

But would I miss out? 

While I would never glorify the illness, I do feel I have learned a great deal from my experiences. Aside from the crash course in clinical psychiatry and psychopathology, but I have also learned about human emotions and vulnerabilities. Becoming hospitalised allowed me to witness other people at their lowest, or highest points. To be on their side. A normal kind of crazy.

I believe there is still great stigma attached to mental disorders. While I will go into my feelings about this another time, All I can say that I feel very strongly that mental illness should be treated as equal to physical illness.

I feel I understand the mental pain of another, and empathize. If I hadn’t have experienced those highs and lows would I be able to truly understand someone at their most vulnerable state?  I feel my experiences have supplied me with an empathy I may not otherwise have.

Would I be the same person without bipolar?
Would I experience the same drive and creativity without this experience. My best work, musical, artistic and written has generally been during mania or depression. Is this due to the disorder, or due to my inherent personality? Or both?

There is a documented link between bipolar disorder and creativity. Nina Simone, Stephen Fry, Ernest Hemmingway, Virginia Woolf, Mel Gibson, Frank Sinatra, Catherine Zeta Jones, Kurt Cobain and Winston Churchill. All of these people have bipolar disorder.

I’m not sure I can answer the question, as bipolar is such a strong part of me. My highs and lows and yes, even my psychoses have become an everyday part of life. It’s something I deal with, and something I can’t easily separate from.

But after all these years of self hatred I can say one thing. I am happy with the person I am. And bipolar or not, that’s the way I want to be.


Art Therapy


It was in hospital that I first started being creative again. In a previous life I participated in a number of  creative activities; I sung in bands and choirs, wrote music, learned instruments, painted, did scrapbooking and card making, enjoyed sewing and knitting and writing. But somewhere along the way I started to let go of my hobbies. I didn’t have the time, I didn’t have the energy. I had an assignment to write, a newborn to care for. Somehow the little things I enjoyed became less and less important. I became less and less important.

In hospital I started knitting, I found pastels and drew wild colourful pictures, I painted and wrote and brought in my guitar to sing. I don’t profess to be in any way to be any good at these things, it was more a release. I could draw or write how I was feeling far better than I could say it. I loved sketching frantic wild pictures and then blowing the rainbow dust off of my hands. It was about creation and expression rather than production of anything to be proud of.

I realised recently that I have neglected the creative side of me. That part of me of me that was so important and so therapeutic lay dormant. Looking back I have rarely sung or created any type of artwork for anyone but myself. During my school years I became very involved in singing, so much so that it ended up a chore. Another performance, another exam, another piece to learn. Something I loved started to become an effort. So when I left school I vowed to never succumb to pressure again. If I joined a band it was for me. If I painted or sewed or knitted or scrapbooked, it was for me. The Hubster has not heard all of the songs I have written, perhaps he never will. Those songs are important, and they are for me, not to showcase.

So I have started unlocking that creativity once more. I sing and write every day. I have started crafts again, and have many little projects that I am undertaking. I’ve moved all of my art materials into a cupboard that is easily accessible.

Suddenly I feel content. If I’m angry, or sad, or happy, or excited I have an outlet. I can write about it, sing about it, paint it. I can get the feeling out and understand it. I can look at it. I can release it

Yesterday I was doing some crafts with my Mum. It was the first time we had done anything like that in years and I was in my element. I got all my materials out, planned my design and then gleefully muttered to myself “I can tell already this is going to be GREAT”. Mum laughed, “you always were so over confident about your work”. I thought about it for a while. I did used to feel fairly optimistic about my creative activities. But I don’t think it was to do with thinking I was especially talented or artistic. I enjoy the process more than the end result. I enjoy he feeling of creating something through words or art or music. But most of all I know that if it turns out to be a disaster I can chuck it away and start again. There’s always another blank canvas.

There’s always room to start again.