Creativity and Brain Meds

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This week marks an important anniversary for me: I’ve been off my brain meds and out of therapy for a year.

I’ve mentioned previously that I have OCD, and that I’ve taken medication for it. A low dose of Abilify was my wonder drug. It turned me from someone who lost hours a day to a crippling mental illness into a functional human being. It gave me a foothold so that I could do the hard work of therapy.

There’s a reason I’m proud of this anniversary, and it has nothing to do with whether I’m on or off meds. It’s that I’ve learned how to interact with the world with my own peculiar filter. It didn’t matter to me whether I needed to stay on medication or not to do it. What mattered was that I got my life back. 

But when I mention this achievement, the people I tell it to often focus on me quitting my medication, as if that was the real victory. Why did they do that? And why do I find that response so frustrating?

The answer is a complicated one. I’ve seen a lot of friends fight with depression and anxiety and a variety of other mental illnesses. And every time, medication is viewed as a last resort. They try to manage their mental health in every other way first: diet, exercise, lifestyle, talk therapy, you name it. If they do end up taking medication, it seems to be viewed as a failure.

Yes, I know that some of this is because SSRIs can cause a lot of side effects. But beyond that, there’s still a social stigma around taking medication. People don’t weigh the benefits against the possible side effects like they would with a physical ailment. Instead, you’re just seen as weak or flawed if you use it.

But what really gets me is the commonly held belief that medication will ruin your creativity as an artist. Maybe it stems from the idea that an artist has to suffer to make good art—it’s where we draw our raw material from, right? Maybe there’s some belief that if medication changes how you feel, it’ll change what you make. That there’s an inherent creative state that we can’t tamper with if we want our art to remain pure.

I took medication for my OCD for several years, and here’s what I can tell you about those beliefs from first-hand experience: they’re all bullshit.

Before I started taking medication for my mental illness, I was definitively a worse model. I had trouble traveling for work because of my OCD—and it turns out that “traveling” is a pretty big part of the job for a traveling freelance model. Gas stations terrified me; planes were even worse. New surroundings made my symptoms flare up. Even leaving the house was hard. I frequently had to hide panic attacks when I was on location or in a studio. It would leave me wishing that the shoot would just be over, so that I could go back to hiding and feeding my compulsions.

My art was uninspired, to say the least.  

I’ve had several fellow models ask why I didn’t travel as much during that time period. I would tell them a variety of rationalizations: I wanted to maintain my relationships with more time at home. I had a strong local market to pose for. I wanted to stay in one place to put more time into my writing.

Those reasons were all more or less true. But I also knew I mentally couldn’t be on the road from my first, disastrous modeling tour. Nothing bad actually happened, just the usuals of a tour: cancellations, stress, scheduling and transportation hiccoughs, crashing on strange couches and using unfamiliar kitchens and bathrooms. By the end of that tour, I was a wreck. I called my boyfriend a couple days in, saying I would do anything to come home. I’d give up modeling completely if it meant I never had to do this again.

He convinced me that tradeoff wasn’t necessary, and luckily I had my last few shoots flake so I could limp home early. But that experience was enough to make me wary of touring. I didn’t try it again until the year I started taking Abilify. Then, I could handle it. Yes, I took precautions, and yes I was only on the road for a third of the time, but I could do it.  

On medication, I was a better model and a happier person. I could concentrate on the art I was making, rather than my fears.

On medication, I was a better model and a happier person. I could concentrate on the art I was making, rather than my fears. And when I wasn’t making art, I could enjoy being in my own mind, rather than feeling like the inside of my skull was a hostile place.

Let’s be clear: one of the reasons I even considered going off my medication was that I knew I was transitioning more to writing, and wouldn’t be traveling nearly as much as a model. If I was still touring, I’d still be taking it. I did my last big tour on a tapered dose, and it was doable. But a lot of it was unpleasant, and the mental cost was not something I could regularly endure.

And if my OCD flares up again? You bet your ass I’ll take medication, and gladly. I only have so many battles I can fight. Do I want to put those resources into warring with the demons in my head, or into making more art? Do I want to spend my life checking faucets and light switches, or posing and writing?

I will choose the art. I will choose the art every time.  

The stigma in our society against medication is so strong that it’s easy to internalize. But it’s possible to create—and thrive—on medication as an artist. Sometimes it’s even necessary. Honestly, I wish that I’d started sooner. I can only imagine how much more, better art I could have created.

Luckily, I have a large body of medication-fueled art to remind me that there’s nothing wrong with taking a pill if I need it to live a better life. And to remind me that being off medication isn’t the success: making the art in the first place is.

So next time you see one of my pictures or read one of my essays, remember: this art was brought to you by brain meds and a ton of therapy.