A Salute to the Invisible

by Carolyn Burch

Recently I was treated to an afternoon spent leisurely enjoying one of the best movies I have had the privilege of watching, A Beautiful Mind. In this portrayal of Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash's life story, director Ron Howard presented an elegantly conceived vision of mental illness. Of course, with the natural tendency of Hollywood to inflate or distort facts for the sake of artistry, some parts of the story were enlarged, or otherwise or retouched to make them more appealing to a broad audience of what can, I think, be safely called the clueless, while teaching them about the invisible. For instance, Professor Nash himself has said that he never actually saw people, but merely had more delusions of grandeur and importance, as is characteristic of his named "disease": schizophrenia.

I say this not out of spite or dislike for the general population, but rather out of a need to share the information that I have learned as a matter of course in my writing life. Having experienced firsthand the effects of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses in my parents, others, and to varying degrees myself, I have come to some conclusions about the vast numbers of people who are overmedicated for various "disorders" that seem to plague our society in America at this point in time.

I believe, you see, that most of us who are writers, artists, and musical geniuses, are, by our very nature and ability, what normal society would term "odd." By both attrition and necessity, the wiser among us make ourselves largely invisible, just as Nash found himself having to be throughout his life. And there are of course, varying degrees of "oddness."

I am not, even with my considerable writing or life successes, saying I am better than anyone else, only that I have found the secret in my own life of also being able to be invisible in the most basic, and perhaps mental sense of the word, as I think so many creative artists have done before me in order to survive.

Mozart On Prozac

When you use an analogy to describe what we are and what the rest of the world, simply put, is not, it seems ever increasingly ridiculous to consider ourselves flawed in some way. It is well-documented that creative people have a higher incidence of mental illness, as compared to persons in non-creative professions. Few would dispute the fact that professions such as engineering, science, mathematics, astronomy, and economics are now today, and have always been, dominated by what many people have called the "oddballs" or "geeks" of the world.

And just like in the quintessential struggle for the answer to the nature versus nurture question, people have been trying for millennia to decide which came first: mental illness or creativity?

Because by all accounts, they do admittedly appear together with alarming regularity.

It also seems ridiculous at times that in the quest to be "normal," (whatever that may mean to the individual) we often have doctors who treat us, without having any experience treating creative types. It seems obvious to me that one should ask a potential doctor if he or she is artistic or creative, but I am told most people do not. If the doctor isn't creative or artistic, I keep looking. To be an artist and to be treated by a non-artistic doctor is like having a vet treat a human being: There are certain parallels and similarities, certainly, but you're certainly not going to get the best treatment. I wouldn't go to a marital therapist who was single or who was divorced. I would not want a pilot of a plane in which I am flying to have driven a car and have a handbook on flying a plane, but no personal experience flying the aircraft.

Psychologists name a portion of the society "mentally ill" and that range is, interestingly, almost the same number of writers, artists, poets, and talented musicians in the same society. Each group numbers approximately 2.5% of the population. Some of the writers, artists, and musicians are in the first group, with just some outside of it. And these, I believe, are the creatively-invisible: the people who never quite fit in with "normal," but who know how to seem like they do.

One of the things that especially touched me about Nash's story was the speech he made where he hinted at his conception of invisibility when he won the Nobel prize for his fantastic "Game Theory" that is used today in applications ranging from economics, military uses, and other various ways in the world. When speaking his carefully chosen words about his "illness," he said:

"So at the present time I appear to be thinking rationally again in the style that is characteristic of scientists. However, it is not entirely the matter of joy that one has if someone is retrieved from physical disability to physical health. One aspect of this is that Rational Thought (as we know it) imposes a limit on a person's concept of his relation to the cosmos".
In other words, I believe he means that one can create and dream magnificently and think outside the box in so many more ways if one is slightly arced in the direction of being delusionally arrogant in the first place, as so many schizophrenics are known to be. If one cares just a bit less, perhaps, than the average man what other average men think about him. Or about his grades. Or about his ability to "fit in" with the other guys. This is probably because our world, and the societies in which we live, largely are created and maintained by us creative types, but are homes to a majority of non-creatives. Such a society has many dire consequences for non-conformity and, of course, majority rules.

That is not to say that medication is bad, or has no usages or applications. I believe it does indeed, as so many of our population who are under the influences of drugs and alcohol are merely trying to self-medicate themselves from the inherent pain that is ours to bear as the creative 2.5% of society. We feel, and when we do, it is on perhaps a deeper level than others around us feel. We hear, we feel, we absorb, we remember, we magnify everything around us, for that is our unique gift that goes hand in hand with our pitfalls of mental illness; the unique ability to see what others cannot see by means of magnification. Unfortunately, to shut out the pain and difficulty of feeling so deeply with medications, (and which the doctors often know but neglect to tell us) usually proves also temporarily fatal to our creative abilities and other by-products of deep feelings such as sexual enjoyment. And to try to eradicate them completely, as used to be the common custom, with electricity and insulin shock therapy, and by various other barbaric means, while not so to the person, was usually fatal to the creative powers and good points of character that the person had previously had, to the point where the person might as well have been dead because not only had they lost the good with the bad, but they often knew they had lost it. Just imagine for instance if someone had put Mozart or Einstein on Prozac, for example. Musical history would never have been the same. Many of our walking-wounded from these "therapies " of the 40's and 50's can be found today on street corners washing windows, as there is no place for them now in society, with all creative ability permanently gone and a deep disconcert and distain ingrained in them for society's rules.

But these deep abilities also have other pitfalls besides making us society's whipping-boys. Just like inbreeding in animals, we magnify the good and the bad characteristics in equal measures. We also magnify things like alcoholism, drug abuse, frailty, actual diseases, allergies, sensitivities, fears, and other vices and mentally altering circumstances, which is no help at all to our attempts to stay invisible. Our anger may be out of control or more vibrant and loud than other people's anger. Our joy may also be disproportionate to what most people expect. Our actions at work may be more than most people can take. The whole of our lives in general may be more intense and more alive than other people's. In short, we stand out as odd, neurotic, unusual, eccentric, and just plain crazy.

And to ourselves, we often think that we are severely loony and just wonder perpetually when someone is going to notice and haul us away, while partly wanting to believe that the pain and often unbearable proximity to life at the edge is what society tells us it is: An illness to be cured, and by association, a negative thing (since of course there is no such animal in the medical world as a "good" sickness).

This is an unfortunate thing, because what we really are a gift. To ourselves, to mankind, to the teams and families and companies who are privileged to have us.

Pain? Yes. But boy is the reward worth it.

Finding Help to Cope

When in doubt, and there is always some doubt with intelligent minds, one should find a doctor. Medical advances provide very little reward these days for doctors for locking people up permanently, and so the danger of loss of your freedom ultimately is unlikely -- unless in fact you are a danger to yourself or others.

Being invisible is, I believe, a mechanism we use to fit in. And doctors can can help us to achieve this goal, sometimes. There is a fine line between those of us who are too arrogant and cocky to even try to fit in, and those of us who have enough that we stand to lose in life by not doing so that we must at least try. It is this group in the middle who become invisible and stay invisible for most of their mortal lives, by appearing "normal", by denying that they are different, at least to most people, and by closely modeling what others do that doesn't come naturally to us, such as conforming, dressing like everyone else, and having a regular career.

So, in the end, you have more to gain than lose by seeing someone. You might, after all, feel better. You might find, in fact, that some of the medications do help you to be more invisible in society, and less likely to be named by your neighbors "most likely to thin out the population from the neighborhood bell tower." You might just become one of the "quiet" ones.

Hopefully as in, "He was such a quiet neighbor, we never knew he was famous."

Carolyn Burch **Carolyn Burch is a fulltime freelance professional writer, author, and columnist for several online writing, parenting, and career sites online, and is the 2002 lead instructor for the Cornerstone Creative Writing one-month intensive workshops. She also is the editor of Write Angles, an ezine for writers and authors.

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