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Writers and their Battles with Addiction

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Writers and their Battles with Addiction

American author, Truman Capote, famed for Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, may have enjoyed great success in his lifetime, but he also led a lifelong struggle against drug and alcohol addiction. Capote wasn’t alone; many fellow authors also had their brilliance curtailed by addiction and indeed, by mental illness as a whole. As far back as the Romantic era, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge detailed the effect that opium had on his creativity, penning the compelling Kubla Khan, about the ‘stately pleasure dome’ inhabited by one of poetry’s greatest emperors. In more recent times, Stephen King acknowledged heavy drug use, and stated that he barely recalled the process of writing some of his most famous best-sellers. Many writers were forced to battle depression at the same time as they tried desperately to overcome addiction. Capote admitted to being suicidal, for instance, while French writer, Yves Navarre, was burdened by depression. Scientific studies show that drug use is far from a temporary habit willingly chosen by writers to enhance their creativity; rather, it is closely related to mental illness, which is present in scribes more than it is in other professions.

The earliest studies on the link between creativity and mental illness, found that creative types had an unusually high rate of mood disorders. Everyone from Dickens right through to Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, appeared to show symptoms of clinical depression. As interesting as these studies were, they nevertheless relied on anecdotal evidence, and on a very small group of highly renowned writers.

More recent studies include one body of research which is considered the most conclusive: Simon Kyaga and his team of scientists at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, focused their research on nearly 1.2 million Swedes and their family. The subjects had a wide range of mental conditions, including anxiety disorder, ADHD and depression. The study showed that those working in creative or artistic professions, including writers, photographers and dancers, had an 8% greater likelihood of having bipolar disorder. Writers were particularly affected, being 121% more likely to display symptoms of bipolarism, and almost 50% more likely to commit suicide, than those working in non-creative fields. Those working in the arts were also more likely to have anorexia, autism and schizophrenia.

Another interesting study was carried out by Keri Szaboles at the Semmelweis University of Hungary. The subjects of the study took a creativity test, then had a blood test. The scientists found that those who were most creative carried a gene associated with serious mental conditions. A third study, led by neuroscientist, Andreas Fink at the University of Graz in Austria, showed that arty types took in more information than members of the general population; in other words, they were less able to ‘filter out’ external stimuli so that they received more information from the external world than others. This could bring about highly creative thoughts and ideas, but was also a marker of those with schizotypy, a less severe expression of schizophrenia.

In a fascinating article published in Scientific American regarding the death of singer, Amy Winehouse, John Hopkins University neuroscientist, David Linden, talked about another possible link between creativity and addiction in particular: “Genetic variants make for a low-functioning dopamine system, specifically D2 receptors. If you carry those variants, you are more likely to be more risk-taking, novelty-seeking and compulsive. None of which are explicitly creative, but they are things that get to creativity. So novelty-seeking might be a spur to creativity.”

Linden went on to state that while genetics plays an important role in determining one’s level of creativity and/or addiction, it is not the be-all, end-all; in fact, genetics is only “40% responsible” for how we turn out. It is possible to carry certain variants and not become an addict or not develop mental illness, and vice-versa. The statement is highly promising, since it shows that even those with a certain predisposition to mental illness/addiction can recover, through a combination of the right treatment and the will to succeed. Family support is also a vital pillar for those seeking to escape from the clutches of mental illness.

Further reading:

Kwikmed.org, Great Writers Cut Short By Drug Abuse, accessed November, 2015.

CNN.com, Tortured and Brilliant, accessed November, 2015.

Standford.edu, Exploring the link between addiction and creativity, accessed November, 2015.

DJ Marotta, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Opium (2006). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 2181.

Vanityfair.com, Capote’s Swan Dive, accessed November, 2015.

CBSnew.com, Almanac: Truman Capote, accessed November, 2015.

ScientificAmerican.com, Best Treatment Option for Mental Disorders May Come Down to Genes, accessed November, 2015.


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