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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist (tm)

January 1999, No. 4

Special Announcement: Today's newsletter has been delayed for cause: The Stress Doc was "Practicing Safe Stress" at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Dazzling snow-covered mountains, stately evergreens, beguiling nature and human nature grabbing your attention. Oh yeah, there were even some far out movies. Anyway, stay tuned for the upcoming Sundance saga, including late nights in the hot tub ;-)

Dear Readers. By popular demand, here is your gumbo of the sublime, the spicy and the ridiculous: a tasty mix of my writings along with humor jokes, lists and other sparkling entities that have descended from cyberspace.

News Flash: Alas, only for AOL members, stop by my online "Shrink Rap and Group Chat," Tuesdays, 9-10:30pm EST: <A HREF="aol://4344:2993.chat.31195386.586807274">Click here: Washington LIVE CHAT</A> . It's a dynamic, lively, at times witty and always warm, thoughtful and supportive problem-solving group. We raise questions and share our ideas, hopes and experiences with each other.

For more articles on a variety of psychology topics, try these links: www.stressdoc.com or <A HREF="www.stressdoc.com">STRESSDOC HOMEPAGE</A> and on AOL, Keyword: Stress Doc or <A HREF="aol://4344:972.doc.1264535.556723207"> The Stress Doc @ Online Psych</A> . And here's an AOL link with series of articles on burnout, downsizing, layoffs and career transition, <A HREF="aol://4344:972.docwork.1255066.562088752">The Stress Doc Interview @ Online Psych</A> . I've also started a bulletin board on my website - www.stressdoc.com . I encourage you to start a group dialogue. And, of course, I will stick my two cents in as well.

If you know others who would like to receive "The Stress Doc Newsletter," please pass their names along. (AOL subscription link <A HREF="aol://1391:43-61027">form driven mail</A> .) And, if you wish not to receive the newsletter, just email me with, "unsubscribe."

"Van Gogh, Prozac and Creativity: Part I" definitely stirred some neurotransmitters. The next Stress Doc Newsletter will likely be devoted to readers' thought-provoking responses. Part II examines both Van Gogh's ideas and reflections on his life and work and my personal observations regarding the impact of medication on the depressive-creative process. Again, I look forward to sharing confidentially (unless otherwise noted) your experience and perspective with others. Write on!

A provocative lunchtime question concerning the impact of psychotropic medication on creative genius triggers a thought-provoking esay on medication and mood disorder, artistic personality and productivity. The Stress Doc ebbs and flows between his study of Van Gogh and personal reflection on depression- driven creativity -- pre-and post-Prozac.

Van Gogh, Prozac and Creativity: A Mere Pigment of the Imagination? -- Part II

Part I set the hypothetical stage: If as an adult Van Gogh had started taking Prozac (actually, more likely Lithium, or some other bipolar medication) would this have curtailed his genius, "creative madness" and/or prolific output?

The first segment had three sections: 1) The Essence of the Man, 2) The Impact and Use of Medication and 3) The Essence of a Work-Life, which closed on the artist's living outside bourgeois comfortability and sensibility. (Email stressdoc@aol.com if you missed Part I.) Let's continue the analysis:

4. The Essence of a Mind and Soul. Clearly, Van Gogh's not just out of the mainstream because of non-traditional work and spare living conditions, or even by his rejecting most superficial trappings and escapes of middle-class existence. Van Gogh is at the far sides of the bell curve because his mind- psyche ranges from intense moodiness and psychopathology to uncommon visual- spatial intelligence and ego strength. He also had to create a unique bridge between his inner and outer worlds. This artist had to seize things by the root and had to be touched by the heart. Now this doesn't make Van Gogh a saint. He could be explosive, at times extremely sensitive to criticism, and infuriatingly demanding, especially when others could not see the breadth and depth of his position.

That which Van Gogh found compelling was often overlooked or downplayed by others. That which others found impressive, was often found wanting by this unusual man of conscience and consciousness. In a letter to his brother, he imagines another artist's disparaging and dismissive attitude toward himself for not producing saleable art: "You are a mediocrity, and you are arrogant because you don't give in and make little mediocre things: you are making yourself ridiculous with your so-called 'seeking.'"

In general, I believe only improper medication or the misuse or abuse of the same would have profoundly contaminated his genius and persistently honed gifts. Actually, the stress and exhaustion from hunger and poverty often triggered his lows. At the same time, to escape the melancholy he could work himself into manic exhaustion. And still, drawing and painting was not just a diversion from pain. This relentless activity was a way of purposefully and imaginatively structuring exciting, dark and chaotic thoughts and feelings. Melancholia may even induce reflective restraint, giving "on the edge" perspective to "off the wall" mania. The creative "aha" not only yields a triumphant or, even, a transcendent moment but also a fertile field of meaning waiting to be explored and plowed.

If anything, I believe medication would have allowed just a bit more respite between mood cycles. He might have grappled with visionary highs and despairing lows without such extreme psychosomatic wear and tear. There's often a price to pay as a lonely, sometimes hungry, frequently misunderstood and psychiatrically vulnerable pioneer. However, the extreme sensitivity and obsessional quality of his mind, the tenacious yet humble search for mastery, the passion in his soul, and the edginess of his lifestyle would not and could not be denied or hormonally harmonized.

5. The Memory of a Man. If you accept my working hypothesis, then Van Gogh would have had at least two, if not three, decades without supervised medication. What this means is that he has both a treasure trove and a Pandora's box of memories and emotional associations that will not be erased or obliterated by biochemical intervention. (Now I must admit, even with low dose Prozac, sometimes my short-term memory is a figment of my imagination. Did I pick up the keys? Did I turn off the toaster-oven? On the other hand, having five decades under my belt may also be a factor.)

For Van Gogh, a highly introspective and analytic individual, his memory pool would be a primal wellspring even without quite as much hormonal "sturm und drang." In fact, mild-moderate melancholic states often induce subdued introspection, hence clearer access, to the psychic interior. In contrast, the symbolic meaning, psychological source and creative potential of subconcious material is often initially obscured by the hurly burly of manic eruption. It's the ebb and flow or flow and ebb - from melancholia to mania and back again - that often provides the unusual breadth and depth of the work of such an artist. Not surprisingly, the uncommon synthesis of contradictory elements is also a hallmark of such emotionally charged art.

Van Gogh on medication would still dip into past and present pain and passions to infuse his perceptions and projections. Memory, intuition and the practice of undivided attention to self and to other yields a capacity for profound empathy. His original and groundbreaking art springs from a historical connection and resonance with his own vital yet vulnerable self, his subjects and his surroundings.

6. The Realm and Process of Creativity. Still, the use of medication can have important impact on the primal wellspring; on how one's creative energy, sensitivity and flow is channeled and expressed. Let me draw on a variety of personal and experiential sources and styles. Before taking Prozac, my writings poured from emotional, inner world conflicts and acute, early childhood and adolescent memories. At the same time, especially when sketching contemporary clients or girl friends for the mass media, there was almost an obsessive need to use puns, to be so clever. (In fact, one woman broke off a relationship fearing her debut in a future standup routine.)

Though in some ways playful, even, liberating, too often writing was a forced process well into my '30s. Still smarting from self-destructing as a doctoral student and still lacking sufficient self-assurance regarding my writing abilities and creative status, I was trying too hard to prove my worthiness. At times I had difficulty appreciating and capturing absurdity or poignancy outside of myself. A capacity for subtly weaving my voice and persona into an inner-outer world tapestry often remained elusive.

Yet, there was a raw power in this witty, alliterative and on the edgy excavation and construction. Darkly humorous concepts such as the "Burnout Boogie," "Practice Safe Stress," "The Intimate FOE: Fear of Exposure," "Are You a Blameaholic?," "Creative Risk-Taking: The Art of Designing Disorder" and "Emancipation Procrastination" were brought to life. There was a not so shiny knight allegory about "romantasy" and addictive tendencies -- "The Dark Knight of the Soul or Letting Go Can Be a Knightmare." Or a theatre monologue based on a passionate, ill-fated romance that personified roguishly aggressive ways -- "His Moans, Her Moans, Hormones."

Pre-Prozac prose poetry and clever media sayings were a primary means of conveying pain and passion and, often, playfully transforming the charged primary process lode. For example, mid-80s radio script titles were an oft- used transformative vehicle, such as one on the defensive consequences of burnout: "Breaking Out of a Hell of a Shell or Don't Feel Too Sorry for Humpty Dumpty…He Needed to Hit Bottom!" Or another favorite: "Don't Clock the Writer's Block: Premature Impatience Will Sow Creative Impotence." Consider this prose poetry on the perils of production vs. procrastination:

Why can't writing be a race, ideas blasting from inner space with bursts of brilliance and subtle grace? Ha! For me, that starting block is a mental block building to a wall of frustration. It's the test of time. Will banging my head against the wall sooner produce a breakdown than a breakthrough?…Fortunately, I'm hard-headed.

And in the early '90s, the "Burnout Boogie" and "The Electrifying Lady" (a lyrical anthem for an African-American beauty contest) got some attention. Then, in an altered, daydream state before waking, while pondering the inanity of a therapist and university professor writing rap lyrics, the "aha" jumped out as if shaken by an unexpected morning alarm. The performance concept of psychologically humorous rap music had percolated from my subconscious - Shrink Rap Productions! And lyrics started pouring off the pen. So too the evolution of a stage costume: Blues Brothers hat, black sunglasses and black tambourine. One quasi-rap number, in particular, captured the ebb and flow of depression and mania - "Double-Edged Depression."

Waves of sadness, raging river of fear Whirlpooling madness till I disappear Into the depths of primal pain Then again, no pain, no gain…

Climbing icy spires, dancing at the ledge The phoenix only rises on the jagged edge. In a world of highs and lows Hey, the cosmos ebbs and flows…

Well I'm pumping iron and Prozac, too What else can a real man do? In a life of muted dreams How about a Primal Scream? AHHHH…

(For the entire piece, send an email.)

7. Primary Process and Practice on Prozac. To my surprise, six months after writing this lyric, which spoofed taking medication, I was on Prozac. I'm still not sure when the full impact kicked in. With hindsight, both in writing and public performance, my post-Prozac process reveals a less self- centered connection between my inner depths and individual voice. I'm more attruned to the reader's or audience's ear, psyche, heart and soul. Building on talents for witticism and poetry, I've matured into a psychohumorist, essayist and storyteller. (A friend also swears Prozac has done wonders for my rap singing.)

How much of this shift is due to the Prozac shrinking (certainly not eliminating) my primal pool of emptiness and depression or impacting confidence and energy levels? Taking medication is often a balancing act, trading off a symptom for a side effect. Though with the right medication there's a favorable balance of trade. Now I choose a very low dosage. I prefer some emptiness with a heightened sensitivity -- greater alertness, consciousness and obsessiveness -- over less emptiness, more drowsiness and reduced agitation.

Today, with biochemical support and some psychological maturation, I don't have the same compelling desire to pour out my pain in a country codependency number, as I did in this chorus from "The Love Trade":

The Love Trade, The Love Trade Why must love be so hard? The Love Trade, The Love Trade, Whose turn to play De Sade? The Love Trade, The Love Trade Why must love be so hard? The Love Trade, The Love Trade Who will be left scarred?

Also, as an individual and an artist, eventually a feeling arises of "been there, done that" -- from creative work to dysfunctional relationships; it's time for a new direction. As the Stress Doc says: Fireproof your life with variety!

Medication may well be a catalyst for developing a new balance (not better or worse than pre-meds daze) between: a) my emotional and analytical processing, or b) between using inner and outer worlds as the source for artistic conception and expression. Feeling more confident - both because of Prozac and progress in my path - my work has a less raw quality. I'm stretching more than straining. I'm not TRYING SO HARD TO BE CREATIVE! There may be some tradeoffs in terms of quality and merit. Do I still have the wild creativity of my "American in Cajun Paris" years? Now, it's true…New Orleans is the personification of the primal swamp and creative breeding ground! Then again, some of my most outrageously satirical essays on organizational dysfunction have been written in my DC and AP (After Prozac) years.

Finally, Prozac has allowed me to become more prolific; I have greater energy, overall. My obsessive drive has not been tempered. More specifically, the ebbs are shorter and the flows are steadier, along with greater patience and discipline. And as Van Gogh preached and lived, with incessant practice and reflection startling harmony and wholeness is possible despite the maddening and exhausting forces within and without. Of course, being able to grapple with and strikingly transform such warring elements for as long as he did is a tribute both to his unswerving devotion and to a vastly imaginative and powerfully analytical mind.

Along with genius, Van Gogh had an inordinate curiosity and exploratory drive in all facets of drawing and painting that left him ever hungry for self- betterment. I can only express humble awe for such a tenacious and thirsting mind-heart-soul.

Clearly, there are profound dangers in having an uncommonly balanced, if not imbalanced, biochemical/psychological apparatus. However, for the complex and committed artist, this acute sensitivity and vulnerability, while engendering risk also affords rare opportunity. To quote the aformentioned Dr. Jamison: "The integration of these deeper, truly irrational sources with more logical processes can be a tortuous task but, if successful, the resulting work often bears a unique stamp, a 'touch of fire,' for what it has been through."

Perhaps the discriminating use of medication may strengthen a gifted yet psychiatrically vulnerable, creative risk-taker's ability to navigate and, ultimately, to sustain a productive life "on the edge."

Conclusion. As I've tried to illustrate, definition and evolution as an individual and an artist is the byproduct of many factors, including biochemistry, family history, gifts, drive, discipline, support, frustration tolerance…Also, of technological innovation and opportunities, for example, the recent availability of a more precise acting and cleaner generation of antidepressant medications. Another profound technological development that has personally presented new creative doors is, of course, the Internet. The roles and literary/virtual-public performance persona of "Online Psychohumorist"™ and "The Stress Doc"™ has further expanded and sharpened my voice and sensibility.

And this is really the critical point. While depression or a bipolar state is a necessary condition for understanding many an artist (though certainly not all artists are tortured) it is not sufficient. The panoply of life -- loss and love, longing and liberation -- must be reckoned with. A medical condition was certainly a driving force in Van Gogh's idiosyncratic way of being, suffering and expressing his inner dynamics, demons and worldview. However, as I've argued, if provided a sound and self-manageable medical option, perhaps final tragedy, though surely not trauma and drama, would have been averted. And creative genius would have burned bright longer in that starry, starry night.

Just as painting in the South of France, with the stronger sunlight, led to experimenting with bolder and brighter color, as previously mentioned, so too would medication be accommodated by Van Gogh's modus operandi. Prozac, Lithium or whatever the drug therapy would be incorporated and, ultimately, transcended by his integrity, blazing passion, intelligence, obsession and harmoniously tortured essence and existence. I choose this hopeful stance because the man himself embraced and embodied so much of life experience less as a blessing or a curse but as wondrous puzzle and creative challenge.

Van Gogh, of course, has the final word -- a poignantly affirming message in an 1882 letter to his brother. Such words if taken to heart may help cultivate a determined, if not defiant, spirit of self-acceptance and empathy, of courage and purpose in us all, including our previously referenced and discouraged emailer:

What am I in the eyes of most people -- a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person -- somebody who has no position in society and never will have, in short, the lowest of the low. All right then--even if that were absolutely true, then I should like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.

The Stress Doc Newsletter The Higher Power of Humor Section...

The second section will consist of humor material that filters down from cyberspace. Due to the length of the feature article, a couple of quickies -- getting even past and present. Enjoy!

Insurance Money From: LB88

A woman recently lost her husband. She had him cremated and brought his ashes home. Picking up the urn that he was in, she poured him out on the counter...

Then she started talking to him, and tracing her fingers in the ashes, she said, "You know that fur coat you promised me Irving?" She answered by saying, "I bought it with the insurance money!"

She then said, "Irving, remember that new car you promised me?" She answered again saying, "Well, I bought it with the insurance money!"

Still tracing her finger in the ashes, she said, "Irving remember that blow job I promised you? Here it comes..."

Divine Intervention From: Bogie 361

A mother was preparing pancakes for her sons, Kevin, age 5 and Ryan, age 3. The boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake. Their mother saw the opportunity to teach a moral lesson and said, "If Jesus were sitting here, he would say, 'Let my brother have the first pancake. I will eat when he is finished.'"

So Kevin turned to his younger brother and said, "Ryan, you be Jesus."

Seek the higher power of humor...May the Farce Be with You!

And, of course...Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, the Stress Doc, a psychotherapist and nationally recognized speaker, trainer, consultant and author, is also known as AOL's and the internet's "Online Psychohumorist" ™. Check out his USA Today Online "Hot Site" website - www.stressdoc.com  and his page on AOL/Online Psych, Keyword: Stress Doc

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(c) Mark Gorkin 1998 Shrink Rap Productions