Monday, August 17, 2009

The upside of mental illness - creative brilliance

Nice to see mental illness finally getting some good press. The latest news is of a genetic link between creativity and mental illnesses, which seems to confirm once and for all what many other studies over the decades have also found.
From the Oracle of Delphi to the great creative talents of today, this thing we call mental illness has been enriching our communities for a very long time.
These days, it’s popular to wish for all mental illnesses to be treated and cured. But we’d be a poorer society in so many ways were we ever to achieve that questionable goal. Think of all the beautiful words, paintings, music and design we’d have missed out on over the centuries were it not for the brilliant work of creative people with mental illness.
I met a young busker and his friend on the Inner Harbour a couple weeks back, and have been struggling with how to write up their very interesting story without falling into one of those man-with-schizophrenia-overcomes-disability tales.
Because the thing about mental illness is that it’s not all about trying to “overcome” it. As science is now confirming, illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are linked to creative brilliance. And what’s intriguing about the story of Jordan Blaikie and his pal Ross Johnson is that their mental illnesses are in fact what brought them together in the first place, which has turned out to be a very positive thing.
Blaikie is 30 and Johnson is 29. Both have lived with mental illness for all of their adult lives and then some, having been diagnosed when they were teenagers.
They certainly know the negative aspects of living with mental illness, not the least of which has been an inability for the two men to find and keep a decent job. They’ve had to get by on disability cheques for the most part, supplemented with part-time work at pizza joints and the like. (“It’s a lot more fun to go busking,” notes Blaikie.)
Over the years they’ve been on medication, off medication and everything in between, and are all too aware of the challenges faced by people living with chronic and persistent mental illness.
Still, if they’d never experienced a mental-health crisis, they’d never have met. They met because they were housemates in 2007 at the Seven Oaks psychiatric facility, and struck up the conversation that ultimately led them to their new business venture: Tricky Magic Productions.
Blaikie had worked off and on as a street magician for three years before he met Johnson, having inherited his sister’s old magic tricks after she lost interest. Johnson had ideas for how Blaikie could extend his busking season by performing indoors in the winter months at seniors’ centres and community events.
And so far, so good. Blaikie took his magic show to 25 venues over the winter. More recently, the pair has branched into “casino nights” at some of the seniors’ facilities, having discovered the joys of dealing blackjack and Texas Hold ‘Em for delighted residents gambling for Thrifty Foods coupons.
It’s on to bigger and better things this fall. Johnson has booked the theatre at Eric Martin Institute for a variety show Oct. 10. The show will be a fundraiser for the Friends of Music Society, an organization that works on bridging the gaps between musicians with mental illness and those without it. The headliner will be Blaikie, of course - “The Great Jordano.”
“I’m hoping to have nine performers that night - we’re calling it ‘Monty Pylon’s Family Circus,’ “ says Johnson. “Most of us have disabilities, but not all of us. Anyway, it’s about the ability, not the disability.”
Blaikie dreams of becoming a cruise-ship magician. Johnson lists six Vancouver Island theatres he wants to do shows at one day. Mental illness will undoubtedly complicate things for the men, because it generally does. But maybe it’s also the thing that helps make Blaikie a confident and charming magician, and Johnson a sweetly enthusiastic pitch man.
Think of the creative gifts that mental illness has given us over the centuries. Would Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf have set pen to paper in such compelling fashion if not for their mental illnesses? Would Van Gogh have painted with such passion and insight? Or Beethoven written with the same power?
Call it a sickness if you must, but the truth is that the world is a much better place for having people with mental illness in it. I wish my young busker friends a lifetime of shining in the dark.

No comments: