Can Psych Treatment Make an Artist Too Healthy to Create?

Kill your demons and annihilate the muse, the fear goes

Gaelle Marcel
New York has 76,385 mental health practitioners. It’s likely 80 percent of their patients are artists. Gaelle Marcel/Unsplash

After years of agonizing over whether or not do therapy, TV writer (Seinfeld, In Living Color Jon Stewart Show, Law & Order: Criminal Intent) and NYU Writing Professor Charlie Rubin finally decided to hit the couch only to face another dilemma: how to break the news to his then writing partner—an anti-shrink zealot. The two went to dinner, Rubin confessed his action with the hesitation of one sharing participation in a robbery. The response validated Rubin’s fears: “Hope it works out for you… I just hope it doesn’t make you stop being funny!”

According to 2014 statistics from the Office of Mental Health, New York has 76,385 mental health practitioners. It’s likely 80 percent of their patients are artists. Indeed, author and New School Writing Professor Susan Shapiro (Charlie Rubin’s spouse) calls herself a “public shrinkaholic.” Shapiro not only co-authored a book (Unhooked) with her ex-therapist, she regularly hosts ‘speed shrinking’ events (think speed dating) to help writing students connect with potential therapists. Molly Peacock credits her shrink of 38 years with helping the poet forge the emotional health necessary to forge a rich literary career.

And yet, just as Samson feared cutting his hair would rob him of his superhuman physical strength, Rubin’s former writing partner is not alone in the fear that psychotherapy will steal their neurosis, rendering them creatively impotent. Okay, let’s not dwell on Samson’s fate.

Kill your demons and annihilate the muse, the fear goes. Writer Susie Felber says flatly, “It’s a New York thing—the energetic, hyped up need to exist in a pressure cooker. We look at LA writers and say, ‘Nice for you to be happy and in the sun.’ Here we hold onto our suffering like a badge of honor.”

Felber’s late mother, popular historical romance writer Edith Layton, was perennially tempted to get help for her neuroses but time and again opted to battle her demons sans treatment. Felber sighs, “Mom kept saying, ‘How can I be sure I’ll be able to plot out that next book if I’m not firing on all crazy cylinders?’”

Years after Layton’s 2009 death, Felber (who briefly saw a therapist for post-partum issues) still feels sadness that Layton’s “fear of losing her touch if she was happy and contented” caused the novelist to go through many life trials—a husband’s 10 year illness, widowhood, ovarian cancer and chemotherapy—on her own. Felber finishes, “Mom published books through all of it!”

Arguably, those books would have been just as good or better if Layton had sought help. Dennis Palumbo, a screenwriter (My Favorite Year) turned psychotherapist, says, “Probably one/fourth of the people who come to my practice say, ‘It’s my craziness that makes me a writer.’ I tell them, ‘It’s your craziness that makes you unable to write!’” Palumbo, whose patients include “writers of the TV shows and movies people really relate to,” adds, “Look at Van Gogh. He had all the symptoms of being bipolar. But the illness didn’t cause his genius. Talent comes from your work ethic, powers of observation, and craft.”

‘You initially come to this very simplistic explanation of what your core issues are. A good therapist can help you push deeper.’

Like Palumbo, I switched midlife from a writing career to one as a therapist. Also like Palumbo, I’m flooded with patients who worry that artistic brilliance is unattainable if they’re not aided by competitiveness, crippling anxiety, anger, low self-esteem and other ‘gifts’ from the psychological grab bag of dysfunction.

While studies cite the creative brain as having greater complexity than more linear thinkers, ‘messier’ thinking doesn’t automatically connote misery. At least not full time. Part of being an artist is being able to tune into joy. Contradictions abound, as attested in a study circa the 1960s by creative researchers Frank Barron and Donald MacKinnon that found writers were in the top 15 percent in terms of psychopathology, and yet also managed to score uber-high in psychological health.

Chris Gethard, is the creator and star of the off-Broadway hit Career Suicide, a hilarious and at times heartbreaking foray into his history of mania, depression, suicidal ideation, alcoholism and flirtations with therapy and psych meds. Gethard says, “Being a guy and from North Jersey I felt I needed to ‘man up,’ stop being a baby and deal with my pain behind closed doors.”

The pain got so bad he came close to intentionally allowing a truck to hit his car. Gethard’s been seeing his current therapist Barb (a target in the show for outrageous boundary missteps such as spending an entire session showing him pictures of her new house in Mexico) since 2007.

While his priority is to “be a comedian and speak honestly” that honesty has caused countless audience members—many young creative people—to reach out after a performance. Typically they report how good it feels to realize they’re not alone in struggling with mental health issues and uncertainty about whether to try therapy.

Gethard muses, “Maybe depressed people are attracted to the arts because they are prone to observing, analyzing and processing the world while feeling a bit out of step with it.” Writing and performing nightly such an emotionally wrenching show has helped him see the universality of the inner darkness and the creative mind “whether you’re a Hemingway-esque novelist or a sad clown or a hard driving rock and roller who belts songs about his deepest emotions…” While Gethard doesn’t want to get on a soapbox, he has passionate opinions: “I get that we love the romance of Kurt Cobain but we’d love it more if he’d stuck around, raised his daughter and produced more music.”

In Career Suicide, the comic says he was always scared he would ‘lose my ideas’ if he got healthy. The opposite has come true. “Now I get out of bed consistently, am organized, do second drafts…One of my biggest regrets is that I waited so long to seek help.”

Ariana Seigel, who just celebrated her two-month anniversary on Lexapro, is a big fan of Gethard for being public about his psych treatment. The comedy writer and performer says, “The industry is like the chicken and the egg—attracting people who have mental health issues, then driving you crazy.”  While she’d been seeing a shrink since college, for years Seigel feared psych drugs would render her “numb,” thus unable to access her creativity.

However, anxiety made her everyday life a hellish hamster wheel of panicky thoughts. Seigel recalls, “I kept obsessing: ‘I’m going to die alone with no money; I’m not funny’… Panic attack symptoms—racing heart, trouble breathing, chest pain—finally drove her to a psycho-pharmacologist.

A few weeks later, feeling emotionally lighter, she ‘came out of the closet’ on Facebook, admitting to her biochemical assist. “I got so many responses from people thanking me for my admission, saying stuff like, ‘I’m an artist and I’ve been taking meds for years but I’ve been afraid to admit it.’”

Seigel adds gratefully, “I’m reconnecting to my most playful artist self. The anxiety and all the voices in my head of negativity, jealousy, no longer run me. Even if I go to insane places in my work I don’t have to live there…”

Her hard-won philosophy: “I would rather deal with my mental health at a relatively early stage of my career. It’s a marathon. I don’t want to burn out…”

Novelist Amy Sohn (Run Catch Kiss, Motherland, The Actress) defines herself as “a mid-career artist.” With her current therapist of 13 years, she jokes, “It was more fun to be a writer when the cure for anxiety was alcohol.” Sohn’s take on whether psych treatment can make a writer too healthy to create is, “It’s pretty hard to unlock all your neurosis whether you’re in therapy five years or 35 years. We still act out around certain family members, we still unconsciously marry mirror images of our mothers or fathers.”

Here is how she views the pickle of simultaneously sustaining good art and good mental health: “You are serving two Masters at once—the Domestic God wants you to avoid conflict and the Creative God needs you to come up with work reeking of pathos, self-hatred and drama…” Married with offspring, she admits, “I have provoked someone for the purpose of material!”

Over the years she has morphed from writing about ‘searching for bad dates to motherhood novels.’ The reasons she finds therapy helpful have morphed as well. “You initially come to this very simplistic explanation of what your core issues are. A good therapist can help you push deeper.”

As a therapist, my jollies come when patients aren’t coming to sessions to obsess about the crisis du jour, but to dive into their inner life. Therapy can be a place to talk about your nuttiest ideas (remember, it’s strictly confidential!), to give voice to dreams you’ve never dared to express, to, in a non-judgmental environment, acknowledge how you’ve been limiting yourself and find new, richer ways to see yourself and the world.

Charlie Rubin, whose former writing partner would sooner throw himself under a bus than visit a shrink, feels once he took the plunge, therapy helped him become more successful. “I felt my friends were really, really talented and I wanted to maximize my potential to be as talented as they were.”

The result? “I don’t think therapy took away my edge. In fact I’d test the waters by making a shrink appointment right before I had to show up for work on a TV show!”

Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW is a NYC-based therapist who works with writers, and the editor of the new ‘shrink’  anthology ‘How Does That Make You Feel? True Confessions from Both Sides of the Therapy Couch.’

Can Psych Treatment Make an Artist Too Healthy to Create?