Creative Minds: Is Being Nuts the New Normal?
An article from Scientific American was bounced among the posts of creative types last week like a game of dodgeball in a group therapy session. Entitled “The Unleashed Mind: Why Creative People are Eccentric,” the essay explores the high occurrence of schizotypal personality — not the full disorder, just the personality part — in creatives who also behave eccentrically. This last distinction is important; most creatives I know are not what I would call eccentric. In fact, most of the more successful ones seem to be well behaved and put together.
Always one to take things like this personally, I thought to myself, Ah ha! Finally we have some insight into why I am the way I am. My longtime readers and friends know that I have been trying to diagnose myself with a personality disorder for quite a while, to no avail. In fact, after listening to me prattle on about it during a hike in the Hollywood Hills, PFC contributor James Tuttle said that my likely disorder was the obsession with having one, which snapped me out of that particular crusade for a good long time, until the article in Scientific American. (I see no point in having good friends unless you not only listen to them, you let them influence you.)
The conviction that my mental wiring is faulty stems from another conversation with a childhood friend one indolent summer afternoon by the pool in the early 90s. This woman had been locked away in The Bin, as she called it, for four years. She was the prototype for Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted: feisty, funny, beautiful, creative, severely damaged. She had ‘crenulated arms’ from cutting herself, a practice that later became cliché among emos and hipsters but at the time was radical. “Jamie,” she said, for she’d known me since I was a toddler, and that was my childhood name, “you’ve simply never been diagnosed. The only reason you got away with it [i.e., not ending up in The Bin] is because you’re a boy.”
I already knew what her diagnosis was: borderline personality disorder (BPD) mixed with some schizophrenic tendencies. But it meant little because I had yet to have the romantic relationship with a schizophrenic that would launch my impassioned hobby for the real-world study of the various iterations of insanity. Girl Interrupted spent at least an hour a day on the phone with her psychiatrist even during summer vacation, so this condition of hers was all-important — it often cancelled dinner plans, or derailed pleasant conversations into screaming matches. Had I known then what I know now about BPD, I would dismiss her assertion of having been misdiagnosed and wrongly institutionalized as simply a part of her delusion, as was her perception of me as a fellow schizo — BPDs see others as being nutso, but have a hard time believing it about themselves and understanding the severity of their condition. But at the time I took her at face value because she was the resident expert on insanity in our group of friends — her stories about shock treatment and being left in solitary wrapped in ice-cold wet sheets until she calmed down were her advanced degrees in psychiatry displayed for all to see, and I believed her and thanked my lucky stars that I was indeed born a boy.
Another influencer in my self-perception was a British friend. I made a passing comment once about how I was “slightly eccentric.” He guffawed and said, “Slightly?” with so much sarcasm that a single word expanded to, “Why, you deluded son of a bitch, you have no self-awareness.” Of course, Brits as a whole are as much experts in eccentricity as Girl Interrupted was about insanity. So I was not only a fit-to-be-tied whackjob, I was deeply eccentric.
With these twin assessments from close friends so deeply etched into my inner mirror — and I confess to being smitten with both of them at various points, which made their words all the more meaningful — I naturally took the Scientific American article to be the diagnosis I’ve been searching for much of my adult life: as an eccentric creative, I was clearly schizotypal, minus the disorder part, but at least it sounded grave and had the dramatic ‘schizo’ prefix, about which I’m both fascinated and wary.
Yes, it all made sense. I’ve known for a while that my father is likely schizotypal, but with the disorder part; in the past he has been prone to psychosis and various other harder behaviors, specifically irrational paranoia (Jesus, but that was one long, hard Cold War), depression, anxiety and rage. I’m a chip off the genetic block physically, so it stood to reason that I was simply a fully self-expressed schizotypal, as opposed to one like him, tightly wound up in Brooks Brothers-styled ultra-conservative compensatory behavior.
This is how the Scientific American article summed it up:
Schizotypal personality can appear in a variety of forms, including magical thinking (fanciful ideas or paranormal beliefs, such as Schumann’s belief that Beethoven channeled music to him from the grave), unusual perceptual experiences (distortions in perception, such as Dickens’s belief that he was being followed by characters from his novels), social anhedonia (a preference for solitary activities—Emily Dickinson, Nikola Tesla and Isaac Newton, for example, favored work over socializing), and mild paranoia (unfounded feelings that people or objects in the environment may pose a threat, such as Hughes’s legendary distrust of others)…
Schizotypal people, for instance, may dress in an idiosyncratic style; their speech patterns may be somewhat out of the ordinary; they may respond ineptly in social situations; their emotional responses may be inappropriate; they may believe in supernatural phenomena such as telepathy and omens; and they may be hard to get close to—both physically and emotionally.
I was so convinced that this was my correct diagnosis when I was reading the article that at first I failed to realize that I have only some of these traits, not most, and not that severely. Just to be sure, I took a few online personality disorder tests, and as usual scored abysmally low for all major disorders, way below average, especially for schizotypal: I might be a bit of a misanthrope, but I’m the opposite of socially inept; I abhor magical thinking, have no superstitions and think omens belong in the titles of films I would never watch; I am quite affectionate and physically demonstrative; I’m too laid back to be bothered with paranoia. You need these traits on top of your odd behavior and unique speech patterns to be schizotypal.
So how could my Girl Interrupted expert be so wrong about my being an undiagnosed insane person, aside from the fact that a symptom of her BPD is seeing insanity in others where there is none? The clue came to me in a footnote on one of the online tests, presumably meant to reassure those who had tested high on a disorder, which stated that the diagnosis could likely change over time just as we all change through maturity .
That was it, then. Had I taken the test when I was in my twenties, when Girl Interrupted and I were sitting around the pool laughing about electroshock and cutting yourself, I would surely have scored off the charts schizotypal. You see, all of these discussions about my undiagnosed disorder happened before I embarked on the Sufi path when I was thirty-two, when I had reached a stage when my personality had hobbled me to the extent that I could barely function in society: my rage, delusional arrogance and general behavior was unmanageable. It was either a strict adherence to meditation and behavior modification or complete self-destruction. Survival instincts must have pulled me back from the brink.
The Sufi order I joined did have a fair number of magical thinkers in the group, but this wasn’t encouraged by the Master of the Path, who was earlier in life one of the most prominent psychiatrists in the Middle East. Over the next ten years, the meditation and adherence to the principles of the Order (or as best as I could adhere — they were tough standards to live by) served as cognitive behavior therapy. It wasn’t until after years on the Path, when I was having a discussion about schizophrenia with the Master, that I realized he had been my shrink all along. I stopped referring to my fellow Sufis as dervishes, as was the custom, and started calling us ‘the Master’s patients.’ Shortly after that realization, which made me step back and view the entire Sufi experience objectively, I no longer felt the need to participate as actively and passionately in the day-to-day routine of the order and eventually drifted away, although the behavior modification remained. As the personality tests now show, I was cured.
The biggest issue I have with continuing with that particular Sufi practice is this: Once my magical, so-called spiritual thinking, which was an essential symptom of my schizotypal personality, evaporated like a morning fog burned off by clear sunshine and I declared myself an ‘orthodox atheist,’ I was unable to brook any mention of God, and they are unable to — or rather can’t — leave God out of it. The reason they can’t is because they have centers in the Middle East that would come under attack if they didn’t adhere to Islamic practice to some degree and let a little Allah in now and then for show.
While I’m disappointed I can’t blame normal negative occurrences in my life on a crunchy personality disorder, I am thankful to Scientific American for showing me what the Sufi Path, with its introspection through meditation and behavioral change, really is: a journey from one self to a better self. I count myself lucky to have experienced it, that it seems to have worked. All poolside joking aside, ten years spent quieting your mind, breathing in and out, and being mindful of the way you treat others beats the hell out of being doped up in an ice-cold wet sheet after a few thousand volts have been put through your head. Not to mention that life gets so much easier and more enjoyable.