From the writer and director of Miss Representation, Jennifer Siebel Newsom brings us another stirring look at the damaging effect gender stereotypes have on our society. With commentary from mental health experts, educators, advocates, men in prison for murder, parents and children, The Mask You Live In examines the concept of masculinity and how it is reinforced in our culture. The movie addresses the effects of gender stereotypes on mental health, violence and relationships. Must-sees, both of these movies are streaming on Netflix now.
I have long been interested in the connection between creativity and mental “illness.” I put “illness” in quotes as I have serious reservations about using this term. As an artist, my whole life I have found solace in my art. As a child I would draw for hours on reams of computer paper my mom would bring home from work. I could be shy and quiet at times but in art I found my voice, clear and true.
I also suffered from social anxiety, digestive disorder and frequent nightmares. At the age of 12, I developed a stomach ulcer and was put on an antacid and anti-anxiety medication. I remained medicated into my early twenties for anxiety and recurrent major depression.
I continued with my art up through high school and even went to a local art college for a year before following my heart to study psychology. Although I still struggled mentally, I enjoyed immense happiness and creativity and excelled in my studies, eventually earning a master’s degree in psychology.
Over the years, I watched my own struggles mirrored in the creative community as we lost one after another creative genius: Heath Ledger, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams to name a few.
What is that snuffs out these flames that burn so brightly in our lives? I am not satisfied with the old idea of “tortured genius.” No, there is something else that plagues these artists, singers, actors and comedians. It is not merely an appetite for excess or uncontrollable emotions, there is a connection between our imagination and our destruction.
When I was looking up synonyms for creativity, I found that the only antonym for the word was “reality.” Similarly, when I looked up synonyms for inspiration, I found the opposite word “depression.” Could it be that inspiration and depression are two sides of the same coin? Does true creative genius run up against reality? If reality is full of prejudice, hate, injustice and insatiable consumerism, where does creativity live and thrive?
Perhaps our creative voices are heard on the stage, seen painted on the canvas or written on the page. Perhaps we struggle to be seen and heard in our own lives by the people we love or even when we look in the mirror.
I do not believe this phenomenon to be restricted solely to the social realm. I believe there is also a neurological basis for this connection. After all, the same brain structures and neurotransmitters involved in our “illnesses” are also involved in our ability to convey emotion through creative means.
The best part of this dialogue is the hope it brings. With a greater understanding of the link between creativity and mental dis-ease, we increase the chances for satisfying lives among those who are gifted creatively. An increase in understanding will also increase our compassion for our fellow human beings and our ability to see every person as complete, vibrant and essential to the whole scheme.
Thank you for reading.
‘Til next time.
Today I ventured back as I went to the Social Security office to straighten out my benefits. My anxiety crept in me like a growing fire, ready to explode at any moment and engulf me in flame. As we got nearer, I spotted the baseball stadium — a trigger for a particularly painful memory. In no time, I was sucked back into the past, experiencing all the feelings I had on that day. I asked to be alone in the car and dissolved into hopeless tears. Other memories of doctors and nurses asking me endless questions flooded in as well. I did not want to be there. I did not want to feel small and powerless again.
My inner mom (more on her later) came to me and told me, “You do what you can do and that will be enough.” I collected myself and enter the building and sit for a short time in the Social Security Office. The visit was relatively uneventful. I sat quietly plugging my ear and closing my eyes.
Once we were done I went to the bathroom where I once again dissolved into tears. Exhaustion set it.
When I got home I looked up an article by Michele Rosenthal, a woman very knowledgeable on the subject of PTSD. In the article, Three Ways Trauma Affects Your Brain, she describes the ways in which trauma alters key brain structures affecting your perception, emotional regulation and memories.
When we experience trauma, the amygdala, our emotional center, becomes hypersensitized to seek out danger. I used to see danger everywhere. Today I saw it in the baseball field and the Social Security Office.
The hippocampus moves short term memories into long term storage. Trauma causes the hippocampus to stop working properly and traumatic memories (the baseball stadium, doctors) stay in the short term area, readily available to ruin your day!
The prefrontal cortex which usually works wonderfully at modulating our behavior, language and emotional reactions goes on the fritz after trauma. We are left unable to inhibit inappropriate responses (hanging up an important call, running at full speed away from a stressful situation), sometimes we lose our words and can’t speak and sometimes we find the words but they’re all derogatory (I have unloaded a barrage of cussing and all together horrible language I could never have imagined).
Facts like these have acted as guide posts in the dark forest, showing me I am not alone. Someone was there before me and erected these signs for me to follow so that I don’t get lost.
The ways in which my thoughts and behaviors have changed because of the PTSD have caused me to doubt myself, sincerely. But as I continue to learn, I know I am not alone in the forest, other people have walked there, other people are walking there now. We have but to find each other.
Michele Rosenthal also offers a wonderful supportive online community for healing from PTSD on healthunlocked.com/healmyptsd
Thank you for reading.
‘Til next time.
At the suggestion of two important people in my life, I am endeavoring to “get it all down” in writing. I don’t quite know how to start.
I have chosen to, at least for the time being, remain anonymous. While the title of my blog is an anagram for my name, it is also quite appropriate for this stage in my life.
A rain and a gale.
Over the past couple of years, the weather in my life has been filled with quite a bit of rain. I also seem to have been swept up by a strong gale, quite like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. As in the story, I was “swept off my feet” as a bit of stormy weather entered my life, only to be set down again in a land, strange and far from home. Things were not as they seemed and I longed for something familiar.
While in Oz, I learned that home no longer existed — not as I knew it anyhow. My life up to that point was not as I thought it had been. I descended into a dark wood, a place of perpetual night and constant fear: PTSD.
My life has changed unalterably as have I. While on my journey, I’ve discovered many things: some terrible and frightening, others illuminating and inspiring. After years of silence, I am beginning to discover my voice and I want to share my experiences with others.
I’ve felt utterly alone at times but I am determined not to be lonely. Hopefully, in setting down my thoughts and sharing them, I will find value and strength in my voice. Ultimately, I hope to find myself as I’ve been lost for a long time.
I will discuss relationships, feminism and psychology as they’ve come to be significant themes in my life. I’m sure other things will come up as well. I would be glad if my words rang true for some readers so that they too would not feel lonely. We should not got through life that way.
For now, I will say goodbye and thank you for being with me as you read.
‘Til next time.