There is a movement called The Icarus Project that is dedicated to redefining mental illness as a gift that defies diagnosis. They believe that severe psychiatric disorders are sources of untapped creativity and genius that shouldn’t be medicated. Their website states “…by joining together as individuals and as a community, the intertwined threads of madness, creativity, and collaboration can inspire hope and transformation in an oppressive and damaged world.”

There is a similar group called The Freedom Center that fights for the same cause. In their mission statement they claim they: “…alert people to the serious dangers of psychiatric drugs so that they can make truly informed decisions.” Both organizations make a point to note that the choice on whether or not to medicate comes down to what works best for the individual, but they clearly push their beliefs that holistic and alternative treatment is what is best for our society.

Sarah Hager Picture

I’ve been on antidepressants for over a year now to treat my obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety. Though I had been struggling with this since I was a child I was always violently opposed to taking medicine, partially because I was afraid how it would change me and partly because finally taking responsibility would mean that I had to accept the fact I had a problem.

I’ve always been an extremely emotional person, and I was afraid that medication would dull that quality within me. Most of my creative work is built off of empathy, whether it be working through the motivations and feelings of a character, or finding common connections with an interview subject and I desperately didn’t want to lose that strength. I have always been reliant on being able to tap that source of inspiration, and I was worried that with complacency I would stop creating.

What I didn’t understand was that what I’d been making under the influence of anxiety was only a fraction of my potential. I wrote through the cracked lens of my disorder, which severely limited the range of what I produced. As an example, I’ll share an excerpt from a short story I wrote during the height of my illness. It’s about an emergency operator whose fear of being alone becomes magnified by visions of a man who has died in isolation.

The elevator doors are wide, waiting in the lobby like a gaping mouth. I enter and jam at a button.

I feel it before I see it. As the elevator inches upwards something heavy and tight begins to rise inside of me. The medication keeps me calmer than expected. I start to feel like I’m outside of my body, looking in.

The doors spread. My body steps forward. An uncovered light bulb splays my shadow against the wall like it’s been burned in. My footing is unstable, like I’m walking in the crumbling sand footprints of someone just ahead, just outside of the light. The walls shimmer and pulse around me.

The light leads me like a beacon to his door. I’ve forgotten the exact number by this point, left crumpled in the note back in my car, but it doesn’t matter. The cracked walls might as well be marked with blood. The darkness from the edges of my vision rush towards it.  

I see a man who’s barricaded himself in, with hand pounded walls of yellow paper and debris that grew closer to his body as if to embrace him. A desperate push towards feeling complete – every book, box and broken spent appliance another step towards a promise of perfection. You are whole, a message stacked high in aged newspapers on every shelf. You are not alone.

His body is hard to miss, facedown on the kitchen floor, hands clenching at a brick of an old Nokia cell phone. He is morbidly obese, his skin a sickly shade of yellow, making it hard not to guess what killed him. He is dressed in stained sweat pants and a light blue t-shirt; pale dead skin against a scratched wooden finish.”

Morbid subject matter aside, I can viscerally feel the claustrophobic nature of anxiety in my work: feelings of panic, dissociation, the obsessive mindset of someone on the spectrum. My stories from this period were all the same; most too incoherent to revisit. Although the experience of anxiety made me understand a specific and difficult point of view, being in the midst of it was very limiting to what I was able to create.

I’ve been asked before what I believe was most significant factor in moving past that part of my life, and people often seem disappointed to hear it was the medication. I think it’d be a lot more exciting if I’d found solace in changing my diet, or exercise or meditation. These are all important factors for me to continue towards health, but it’s not what saved me.

I no longer feel like my mind is a radio station trained between two channels. I still experience periods of anxiety and depression, but I never lose sight of myself within these moments.

In one of my favourite books, David Lynch’s ‘Catching the Big Fish,’ there is a quote that I found extremely helpful in my journey out of the darkness, and I’ll leave it with you now:

“It’s good for the artist to understand conflict and stress. Those things can give you ideas. But I guarantee you, if you have enough stress, you won’t be able to create. And if you have enough conflict, it will get in the way of your creativity. You can understand conflict, but you don’t have to live in it.

In stories, in the worlds that we can go into, there’s suffering, confusion, darkness, tension and anger. There are murders; there’s all kinds of stuff. But the filmmaker doesn’t have to be suffering to show suffering. You can show it, show the human condition, show conflicts and contrasts, but you don’t have to go through that yourself. You are the orchestrator of it, but you’re not in it. Let your characters do the suffering.

It’s common sense: The more the artist is suffering, the less creative he is going to be. It’s less likely that he is going to enjoy his work and less likely that he will be able to do really good work.

…if you’re an artist, you’ve got to know about anger without being restricted by it. In order to create, you’ve got to have energy; you’ve got to have clarity. You’ve got to be able to catch ideas. You’ve got to be strong enough to fight unbelievable pressure and stress in this world…Then you can really go to work and translate those ideas into one medium or another.”

Sarah: I no longer feel like my mind is a radio station trained between two channels
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I have always been a storyteller – using my dolls as actors, writing in cramped cursive in my school notebooks and sometimes with a flashlight in the darkness to scare my sister before bedtime.