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Is Psychosis A Kind Of Creativity?

Written by: Lake Angela, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 

Absolutely—yes! Psychotic thinking is driven by creative associations, unusual imagery, and original metaphors. Those with psychotic neurodivergences think in a way that poets strive to represent by creating striking associations of two or more ideas or objects that neurotypical thinkers usually do not connect. When readers encounter the new, unusual association, they feel moved by the truth of the unification and the novelty of a connection they had not considered previously. Poetry creates surprising depictions of the world in this way. Later, I will share with you some examples of how psychotic thinking can become creativity. For now, let’s dispel some of the misconceptions of what it is like to live with psychosis.

If you’ve ever watched a movie about someone who experiences psychosis, you probably learned that person was dangerous, perhaps even a murderer. While there are films about successful and intelligent people who live with schizophrenia, these usually are based on the lives of people who already have “proven” themselves worthy of inclusion in society. It is relatively risk-free to allow that Vincent van Gogh was an artistic genius despite retrospective diagnoses because he has long been included in the canon of those who have advanced society “despite” their disabilities. I wish to emphasize that such artists contribute with, not despite, their psychoses. Popular culture depicts people on the schizophrenia spectrum as dangerous. The truth is that those of us with psychosis hurt ourselves more than we hurt others. We are born into a society that already stigmatizes and excludes us. Because we have trouble adapting to the neurotypical culture, we are more likely to see ourselves as problems than as vital members of society with unique ways of experiencing the world. As Mr. Monk, the obsessive-compulsive detective, says, “It’s a gift… and a curse.”


When the objects and actions connected during episodes of psychotic thinking are terrorizing, the result may feel more like a curse; when they are beautiful, the experience may still be frightening but is also a gift. In this elevated state, senses rise to high alert. The associations are deeply affective, never benign—even the beautiful visions are composed of perilous undercurrents. Psychotic associations like mine can be debilitating, making it difficult to leave a safe place. We become hypervigilant of the scene over our shoulders. In some of my experiences, I sense a man with a silver knife behind my back. As frightening as this idea is, it is a type of metaphorical expression related to trauma I have survived. It isn’t logical, but like great poetry, it allows me to know in a different way. We would not call a poem illogical because it relies on metaphor and simile. Similarly, there is truth in my psychosis because I gather additional, necessary information about people’s behaviors and intentions through what I sense.


The power of thinking in imagery is natural to me to great effect. Psychotic thinking is metaphorical thinking; however, psychosis proceeds at least one step further than metaphor on the page. Psychotic associative thinking is transformative. When the clouds are shattered glass, for example, I experience the need to take cover and tuck myself away for protection, yet when I record the experience later, “the clouds are shattered glass” becomes a descriptive metaphor on paper, extending to common human experience by conveying a sense of the unpredictability and threatening nature of passage through our spacetime.


I promised earlier to present examples of how psychosis lends itself to creativity. The example from the previous paragraph provides a demonstration, but I want to share an example from my poetry book, Organblooms. The last “Love Poem” in the collection ends: “The dead are sealed beneath/ the lid of sky and left—to remember and to take it in—/ the blackness of lives set to night. And stone.” (89). This metaphor relates sky, stone coffin, heaven, and any number of enclosures. When we think of the sky, we often think of heaven or a goal (e.g. “The sky’s the limit”). However, in this poem, the sky serves as the lid of a coffin. The glorified idea of a return to paradise is revoked or closed, but the alternatives in the unknown become multiple, taking any shape the reader discerns from the darkness beyond her grave. By closing the lid on the usual societal perception of what it means to come to an end, the metaphor opens new possibilities for continual transformation and transports us outside our perception of a linear time. Additionally, the poem is a “Love Poem,” both literally and metaphorically, which lends additional layers of meaning to the conclusion.


So, those who experience psychosis possess a kind of multi-sensory superpower, not a loss of contact with the common consensus on reality but a swim in a deeper depth of neuron-fire that colors our perceived realities. “But what if I am not psychotic?” some readers might ask. (Keep in mind with compassion and reverence, however, that roughly 3% of the population experience psychotic thinking at some point in life, according to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.) Perhaps if you are a neurotypical reader you have accompanied me this far out of curiosity, but you believe that this article does not pertain to you. It does. Episodes of psychotic thinking magnify from emotions that neurotypical people feel as well. They begin with anxiety and then bloom or amplify. Perhaps your emotion does not blossom into the flower with petals made from the black silken hair of God ripped from the roots and dripping burning blood into your opened and all-seeing eyes but rather continues as anxiety. You can still harvest your emotions for metaphors to transform both your thinking and writing. Plus, artistic communications certainly benefit from the practice of expanding your access to your emotions as a creative source of knowledge.


Here is one exercise I developed to help you harvest the creative potential in your anxiety or emotional overload. Emotive Mapping allows us to arrange sensory details, images, words, colors, and any other symbolic ways of recording multi-sensory stimuli in a manageable formation. When we experience overwhelming emotions, our brains naturally deal with the information in a way that falls beyond logic. The sensory stimuli we are struggling to integrate or make sense of are physically understood rather than logically interpreted. Emotive Mapping provides us with a new, nonthreatening perspective on our fear or worry. It generates an objective observation of our creative potential. As an example, the vibrant image that appears at the beginning of this article is an Emotive Map I transcribed into color followed by dance choreography.


The map itself is artwork. You can collect maps of sensory experiences for your reference and insight into your unconscious preferences (what I call nonverbal language): prevalent color usage, movement of lines and curves, orientation in space, and so on. Each aspect is meaningful.


Additionally, you can translate the sensory detail into verbal information in poetic form or into dance, visual art, etc., depending upon your preferred medium or the medium most suitable to the wisdom contained in your experience. The following example comes from my creative vision, “The Birth of Savior Hawk,” which in its artistic translations reveals a critique of the anthropocentric biases advanced in the Western cultural context, in addition to its host of poetic meanings:


Savior Hawk


It is a shame to die in the sand,

a mistake to fall in the freezing rain.

One tail is softer than weather.


I love her—the blackness beneath

a bright blossom. Umbrellas bloom

around my relief, prone in the street.


There is one who sweeps effluvium,

unfolds the rope I curled, burns the tubercle

cottage to make my bed of down and rain.


My savior, hawk, watches me

from her wire.


(linocut “The Birth of Savior Hawk” and poem “Savior Hawk” by Lake Angela)


Psychotic visions are replete with important sensory information. Psychotic thinking is valuable thinking in a multimedia language–a kaleidoscope of images, tactile details, colors, shades of lights and darknesses, information from water movement, fluctuating temperatures, and so on. I do recognize that many people who experience psychosis prefer to be medicated to temper or suppress the hallucinatory quality of their experiences, but my bodymind does not tolerate neuroleptics, the major tranquilizers used to combat seizures and hallucinations alike. I develop my own ways of living with psychotic experiences. I have learned to value mine: though the cost can be excruciating, I am grateful for the natural induction into the supernatural world of poetry and the nonverbal language of my dance translations.


Find ways to incorporate the following three lessons from psychosis. First, practice Emotive Mapping of multisensory details to create and interpret meaning from uncomfortable emotions, if not diffuse them. If you need help, contact me for guidance. Second, rather than fear and perpetuate the stigma around those who experience psychosis, honor their creativity and respect them for developing the tenacity to withstand the reality of their metaphors. Third, learn to cultivate the metaphorical thinking inherent in moments of anxiety and fear by documenting unusual associations to hone a new kind of creativity.


Finally, as an additional note, let’s advocate for visionary artists’ right to exist in the near future. Scientists are attempting to locate theorized genetic markers for schizophrenia spectrum thinking. Researchers propose that recognition of schizophrenia spectrum markers in utero would allow for “preventative therapies,” but it is unclear what such therapies might be. Similarly, the case of detecting Down syndrome in utero has led to the calculated elimination of those potentially affected. The danger of eliminating those on the schizophrenia spectrum is the elimination of a necessary perspective, not to mention the elimination of poets and other artists, a number of whom are determined to live—even if the conditions pose an ineffable challenge better expressed in art and the purposeful ambiguity of poetry.


Psychosis is another way of knowing the world, an alternative language that enhances logic and transcends it–a vital mode of creation.


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Lake Angela, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Lake Angela is a poet, translator, and dancer-choreographer who creates at the confluence of verbal language and movement. As Director of the international multimedia group Companyia Lake Angela, they offer sessions in guided healing through poetry and movement and provide a platform for schizophrenia spectrum creativity. Their full-length books of poetry, Organblooms (2020) and Words for the Dead (2021), are published by FutureCycle Press. As poetry editor for Punt Volat, they select and publish innovative new poetry in four languages with co-founder Kevin Richard Kaiser. As co-founder of Poetry Midwives Editing Services, they help aspiring writers polish their manuscripts for publication. Lake holds a PhD from The University of Texas at Dallas for their intersemiotic translations of German Expressionist poetry into dance and their MFA in poetry.

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