Author: Cynthia Atkins

When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.—Friederich Nietzsche

“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”– Graham Greene

A few years ago, I taught an English class called, MEAN MADGENES: Mental Illness and the Artistic Temperament.  One of the texts we used was by Kay Redfield Jamison, “Touched with Fire,” which documents the numerous array of writers and artists

who were afflicted with Bi-Polar disorder, touched with ‘the bile’s’ as the Greeks

used to call melancholia.   No one paid much mind to my class, subject matter, or content, until April 17, 2007, the day of the Virginia Tech Massacre. The fact that the shooter had been a student in creative writing classes, made it all the more chilling.  All of the sudden, a dormant course on artists and mental illness became quite a curiosity.  Jamison points out that the difference between a psychopath and an Artist suffering from intense mood swings, is that artists and writers have a place to put this ‘disquieting rage’—We archive, take notes, ask hard questions, rant with words or paint or music or images.  Psychopaths don’t have this same ‘healthy’ outlet to express discord. Their expression of rage becomes a tragic and savagely violent act, as we’ve seen in Arizona,Colorado,Virginia.

“Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self — to the mediating intellect– as to verge close to being beyond description.”  –― William StyronDarkness Visible

Next to death, the subject of our mental health is the most taboo topic in the collective conversation. There isn’t room in our happy-talk world of polite good manners and niceties for mental illness, depression, mania—it is the bad child that doesn’t belong with the well-behaved children. It is the delinquent gene, the elephant in the room. So how do we cope with and manage our moods, especially when they can’t be managed?— Many writers have addressed ‘the beast’ of depression and or illness: William Styron in “Darkness Visible.” Sylvia Plath wrote about her suicide attempt in the “Bell Jar.” Robert Lowell, exclaimed in his poem “Skunk Hour,” “My mind is not right.”

“There was never a war that was not inward.”—Marianne Moore

I’m not qualified here to talk in ‘clinical’ terms, as I am not a mental health professional. I am only a woman, a sister, a daughter, a friend, a poet, someone that has dealt with mental health issues since my early adolescence. My father was bi-polar and I have a sister with schizophrenia. In his manic states, my father would drive 90 mph with three children in the back seat, or ‘play a game’ to see how far he could drive with no gas in the car. At 13 yrs. old, I saw my older sister dragged out of our house and admitted into a psych ward. These were hard lessons that made me grow up fast. In writing about this material, I felt it had to be my own pain, not writing to expose someone else’s private pain.  Later in life, I discovered my own predilection for mood swings, though

nothing as severe as my father’s, but I came to recognize there was a cycle, a pattern.

Some days it was a black hole and some days a kind of mania. Getting practically no sleep, drinking too much coffee, I’d be exhausted by 11 am—with a son, a job and a household to keep together.                                                                                                                                                 

“We construct a narrative for ourselves, and that’s the thread that we follow from one day to the next. People who disintegrate as personalities are the ones who lose that thread.”–Paul Auster   As a writer I live in two worlds—the real world and the mental space I create art. The very act of being a creative person who makes art of one kind or another, means we are looking, analyzing and dissecting, processing the very interiors of human psyches—the good, the bad and the ugly! We all carry ‘heavy baggage’ in one way or another, which is probably one of the reasons we are artists. Writers are ‘the physicians’ of the soul—looking at blood and guts and innards with a pen, the same way an internist uses a scalpel.

I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you can see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.—Kurt Vonnegut

In a world where we are engaged on social media minute by minute, there is less opportunity to succumb to our aloneness, and to be disrobed by it, dissolved or enriched by it, with all of its pain, nakedness and baggage. We are almost never alone. But for many of us, the art we create is our “church’ or holy place, the place we go to ask the questions—sometimes, the questions aren’t pretty, as well, the answers. We have to keep going, getting out of bed, making lunch for our kids, and ultimately, creating our art—trying to crack light from the darkness.



I desire the things that will destroy me in the end—Sylvia Plath

When learning that I would be writing this article for LitBridge, I put a call out to other writers.

I am grateful to them for their honesty and candor and for sharing their own thoughts

“It’s funny, three of my five siblings, plus my mother, wanted to be artists–and we’re all screwed-up in some way. I’ve often wondered about why so many artists are associated with mental illness,

substance abuse, etc. Were they like that before? Did the “artist life” enable or give them comfort or help make their problems worse? Other professions have higher suicide rates and substance abusers, I’m almost sure: law enforcement, for instance. But artists carry the stigma in a different, and much more defining way.”—Carmen Adamucci

Here’s how I cope.  I feel the dark vortex hovering closer and closer, daring me to fight it. I am unable to read, write, paint, cook or do any of the things I love as it screws up my ability to focus.  So, I just give in. I have learned to sleep through it.  I stay in bed, sleep easily around the clock with a low dose of Xanax or two.  I get up to go to the bathroom and eat a bite of anything handy, sip some water, then go back to sleep. I do this for three or four days.  Usually on the morning of the fourth day, I wake up and think – well, damn, this is boring.  I get up, get dressed and move on.–Maryanne Kolten

As a writer, I have learned how to tap into my lowest lows, ugliest hours and saddest days and use my experience in my work. But I have also learned that I don’t have to live in those dark places. Choosing to be responsible allows me that distinction, and affords me a far better quality of life. (Let me know if you’d like me to elaborate on my process.–Alexis Fancher

In order to remain sane in this insane world, there is only one solution: to assert that rationality doesn’t exist and to use your words to prove it.—Seb Doubinsky


O Secret Reader
heal a rock
and drop-lift it
into a limousine.

My gas station
pours sand
out of its shoes.
Earth is changing
into a sphere
of emotional energy.
I’m a whirlwind in a madhouse.
I’m a madhouse in a whirlwind.

Chris Toll from “The Disinformation Phase,”Publishing Genius Press, 2011).

Cynthia Atkins is the author of “Psyche’s Weathers” and the forthcoming collection, “In The Event of Full Disclosure” (Wordtech, 2013). She is an assistant professor of English at Virginia Western Community College, and lives with her family in Rockbridge County, VA.

*Christine Drake, “Siren Sketch 5”. 

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