Do antidepressants help or hinder creativity?

A while ago, I stumbled upon an interesting article by the novelist, Alex Preston Does Prozac help artists be creative? and reading it reminded me of my own experience of prescription drugs in my teens and twenties.

In his article, Alex Preston interviews a number of successful writers about their experience of taking anti-depressants and one thing that comes to light is that although the pills might help people to overcome blocks and inhibitions so that they can start writing again, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily producing very good work.

I first experienced depression as a young child and I was receiving treatment by the time I was twelve. Before I started taking the pills I had always thought of my extremes of emotion as being like the weather, some days dark and overcast, some bright and sunny. Sometimes, with a sense of dread, I could feel the storm clouds gathering; other times I could feel the dark clouds lifting away.

Storm clouds gathering
Storm clouds gathering

How I dealt with the darkness was through drawing, painting and writing poems. One time, I designed the cover of a poetry book which I called ‘Poems of the Darkness and the Light,’ and my teacher didn’t believe I had made the title up. As if children could not feel the darkness as well as the light.

My darkness and light were part of my nature, they were my micro-climate, and after I started taking anti-depressants I stopped feeling like me. It felt as if someone else was living my life, but doing a better job of it than I would have done in terms of passing exams and doing the work at university.

I stopped taking anti-depressants some ten years after I started, because when my older sister killed herself with prescription drugs it seemed clear to me that they weren’t any kind of cure at all. The withdrawal was terrible.

But in time, I started to write again. I learnt to flow with my own rhythm of highs and lows. It felt like the difference between trying to find your way in the dark within the narrow beam of a torch, then switching it off and waiting until your eyes acclimatise and gradually the dark is less dark, there are stars and glimmers, a faint smudge of hedges, a pale ribbon of road.

All these years later, I remember what it felt like to be numbed out of my own life on a diet of pills. If I hadn’t been shocked out of it by my sister’s suicide I probably would have stayed like that, and never discovered the fertile darkness, or come home to myself.

Walking in the dark
Walking in the dark

The Uses of Sorrow – by Mary Oliver

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.

My feelings about anti-depressants have come out of my personal experience and I’m sure other people will have very different views and stories. Have you ever taken anti-depressants? Did you feel they helped or hindered your creativity?

Matt Haig (Reasons to Stay Alive) has written a moving and thoughtful article about depression here. Like me, he believes there isn’t any one size fits all solution.

If you think you may be suffering from depression there’s a balanced guide that’s well worth reading here

You may also like to read Carolyn Hughes’ moving account of her own experience and treatment in The Hurt Healer

 

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22 thoughts on “Do antidepressants help or hinder creativity?”

  1. I’ve been off anti-depressants for three months now. There are days when I’m tempted to start taking them again. How long did it take you to feel “normal” again? I hate the pendulum feelings. I can’t make up my mind and I can’t seem to focus on my writing. I’m glad you wrote this post. The timing couldn’t have been better.

    1. I’m glad it’s timely. 3 months isn’t very long – it takes ages to get back to your normal. I had very bad mood swings but eventually got a handle on them with some basic cognitive behavioural stuff and if you haven’t tried it I’d highly recommend. Usually free through your GP in the UK. My little book How 2B Happy is aimed at kids but it’s all the basic ideas. No quick fix, but extremely effective.

  2. The antidepressants that I am taking for the last 15 years have helped me first stay alive, second do my work and allow me to be me. I am creative, painting, writing, doing inner work and being so much easier to be around.
    By no means do I feel not normal! I still have different weather moving through but I get a respite from the relentless storms. I also have come to terms with having to take medications.
    THey are not a blindfold but a compass.

    1. ‘Not a blindfold but a compass’ – what an expressive way of putting that. It’s really good to hear different experiences of these drugs, and I’m glad they are enabling you.

  3. What a poignant post, Jenny. Your weather analogy is spot on, and I think it’s helpful too. If we realise the clouds will pass and that the sun will shine again, but also that the clouds will return, it brings a certain ‘normality’ to the emotions. Everything passes, everything is temporary. There’s a kind of a shock in that realisation and a comfort too, I think. It’s wonderful that expressing yourself creatively has been so vital to you. I have always found the same and did exactly as you did – write poetry, draw and paint. These things are part of my medicine cabinet and I couldn’t manage without them.

    1. They’re all of my medicine cupboard, Abi – well, along with dreams, of course, and creative visualisation. They are my compass, to use the image Ursula B has used in the comments above – I think what’s important is to find your compass, and it doesn’t really matter what it is.

  4. I suffered from depression throughout my childhood, teens and early adult years. I didn’t learn to work my way out of it until after about age 40. Something in me snapped at that time, and I just said ‘no more.’ I have to make a better life for myself. I never took anti-depressants, but I did salve my emotional wounds with alcohol, which can be just as bad. Many of us creative types suffer through bouts of emotional extremes. I can’t think of one who hasn’t endured something like that. I suppose it’s the unintentional price we pay for being more in tune with both ourselves and the overall human experience.

    1. That is such a thoughtful comment. I think creativity and depression do seem to be linked, and they are both a hard challenge to meet. You have to reach that moment of ‘no more’ before you can start the hard work of taming these wonderful, terrible beasts.

  5. Jenny, I recognise your ‘micro-climate’ of dark days and bright sunshine. It’s been with me since childhood too. I think I was about 9 when I first started noticing how the dark moods came and went.

    1. About 9 would be the same for me, Sue. I’m surprised how much better I understood myself then than I did in my young adult life.

  6. I’ve been taking prozac and wellbutrin for twenty-five years. In times of great stress I still have panic attacks and uncontrollable behaviour. Anti-depressants have reduced my obsessive compulsive disorder which drove my ambition to create. With the anti-depressants my creativity is moderated, but not extinguished. Meditation and exercise also help me to keep my emotions on an even keel. ~ Dennis

    1. Hi Dennis – there’s so much in this comment – the way you link your OCD with your ambition to create is intriguing. Meditation and exercise are great tools that I use too, as well as the CBT approach which, like meditation, is about observing the mind.

  7. Hello again,
    Thank you Jenny for your reply. Staying with the Weather analogy, I’d like to add that Major Depression come (came) to me not just a bad weather period, but as a relentless F4 Tornado, (F5 is suicide) during which I could not even perceive of any creative activity, but turning in tight circles around myself toward self annihilation. Just surviving another day.
    A rainy period can be very fertile and they come also on anti depressants. It goes without saying that medications don’t do the inner work and practice for me.
    Now, I can say I am happy to be alive, and delighted that all of you out there, made it, too.
    Thanks for listening.

    1. What’s coming through in this conversation, for me, is that when the meds work it’s in conjunction with some real inner work and practice. I was too young to understand that when I was taking them, and then took myself off them, and I can see it’s possible they might have helped more if I’d had more guidance and more maturity. I’m glad you’re no longer in the eye of the storm, Ursula – and thank-you for commenting.

  8. It’s always heartbreaking to read of your sister’s suicide Jenny, and I can totally understand why you then chose to come off anti-depressants yourself. Although anti-depressants aren’t addictive in the way that other drugs like tranquilizers are, you can still develop a reliance on them. Having used them myself over the years, I did find that they took the edge of my anxiety and depression at the times when I needed it. That allowed me to manage my life and my writing much better than had I not been taking them. But anti-depressants don’t just numb the difficult emotions they also take the edge of the other end of the spectrum and so you don’t experience joy or happiness in its fullest either.
    Thankfully those very dark days are passed and I don’t need the medication. I find I am able to think more clearly and freely because I experience all my emotions uncensored. For me today, that’s a good thing.
    Thank you Jenny for raising this subject. It’s so interesting to consider the different perspectives, because as with most things in life there is never a clearly defined right or wrong.

    1. You’re so right, Carolyn – there’s no one-size-fits-all way to get through life, and one thing I love about blogging is that I hear about other people’s experiences in the comments. Yours sounds like the ideal way of using these drugs – to get through a crisis. I have to say, I do think antidepressants are addictive, and withdrawal symptoms can be severe and frightening, to judge by my own experience and experiences friends have shared. Thank-you for calling by and commenting – it’s always lovely to connect with you.

  9. i’ve been on anti depressents for about 2 months. I find that it does affect my ability to think freely as i’m taking it along with an antipsychotic. I’m artistic and it’s a big deal when i cant listen to those music inside my head. I became more number while taking these medications…from experience, do you think i can quit these as soon as possible?..i dont want to discuss with my doctor because i know that she would find some way to convince me that i should take these..please comment on this

    1. Hi Rajeev. I would definitely not suggest that anyone come off the meds because, as you can read in all these comments here, they really do work for some people, especially when used alongside other strategies such as exercise or meditation. Two months really isn’t long enough to give them a fair try – ‘short term’ would be, for me, say 6-9 months? In a creative life, there are anyway periods of fallow time when we need to numb out and rest, in order to gather energy before a new project – we can’t be flat-out creating all the time. I have no medical expertise, but as an ordinary person with some experience of depression, I would say give the meds time – try to be patient – review the situation with your doctor in a couple of months. I hope this helps.

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