I live my life surrounded by books. My bookshelves are filled with literature written in different times and in different languages. Far less visible are the papers that I have written. Hidden in drawers and secret boxes lie piles of diaries, poems, reflections and fiction stories no one has ever read but me.
Georg Orwell called writing a horrible exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. E. L. Doctorow went even further, saying that writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia. Jean-Paul Sartre confessed in his autobiographical work “Words” that he’d heard voices. And Joan Didion compares in her essay “Why I write” the pictures in her head with the perceptions of objects by schizophrenics and people on hallucinogens.
In fact, brain studies show a striking similarity in the thought processes of creative people and people with mental disorders. In addition, people with a mental illness in the family tend to be more creative than others and, to complete the roundabout, it is known that many highly creative people, such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka and Virginia Woolf suffered from mental imbalance. But was their creativity fostered by their illness or were they creative despite their mental health problems?
Around the same time as I wrote my first poems, my brother developed schizophrenia. I remember the early morning when the ambulance arrived: he was sitting in the smoke-filled kitchen, his long neck bent over a full ashtray, his hair covering half of his face. He had not slept because, as he would tell me later, he was afraid of the voices speaking to him horrible things. Sometimes they’d asked him to kill me and our mother, sometimes they’d asked him to kill himself. Sometimes he saw the Blessed Mother, and sometimes he saw our deceased father. But mostly he saw just me, causing him evil things. One time it was his radio I was supposed to make sound throaty, another time he thought I had sent someone to nab him. In most of his stories he played the main role and I was his antagonist. He hated me, he loved me. He would try to kill me. He would kneel down at my feet, begging me to help him out of his pain. But above all, he needed me to listen to his weird stories which he thought I would understand because we share the same sad childhood memories.
Two people, however, never perceive their environment equally due to their different personalities. Baruch Spinoza was the first who examined the influence of perceptions in childhood on the development of personality and the later life. More recently, Alice Millerobserved that all absurd behaviour has its origin in childhood, although mental illnesses often do not develop until puberty. The reason for their belated onset may be that with the biological start of puberty, the young person is unexpectedly confronted with the intensity of various, often contradictory feelings, most of which have been successfully suppressed up to this point due to the child’s subservience to its parents, but which suddenly want to be lived to the fullest. This can lead to a breakdown of the emotional balance. But it is not the perception of intense emotions that can lead to mental illness, but the suppression of these emotions or the inability to process and articulate them.
In my brother’s case, the first signs of schizophrenia appeared a few months after the loss of our father. He had drunk himself to death. I was fourteen and my brother sixteen then. Initially, my brother sank into a state of silent guilt, withdrew from the outside world, stopped talking and concealed his emotions with an apathetic smile. This was followed by depressions and hypochondriac anxieties. Eventually, he felt persecuted by someone trying to kill him or ordering him to kill.
I described the day when he finally broke out of his shell in my diary:
…When I opened the door, I saw my brother standing with his back to the window and a knife in his hand. Facing him was my mother. She was breathing heavily, her arms crossed over her chest. My brother turned his eyes to the door and exclaimed: “Don’t dare come near me! Don’t fucking touch me! Do you think you know how I am? How much I fear them? Do you think they know that? They give me orders to kill you! And when I don’t want to, they laugh at me. Can you hear the laughter, Stana? Can you hear them? They are laughing…”
The renowned psychologist Erich Fromm defined mental health as a syndrome of a non-alienated, largely non-narcissistic, non-frightened and non-destructive, that is a productive human being. Schizophrenia is a destructive illness in which a person loses contact with reality – or with what the majority of people perceive as reality – and tries to survive in the seemingly changed, hostile world. The main symptom is psychosis, but there is a large list of other symptoms that can occur. In my brother’s case, depression, hypochondria, obsessive paranoia, disorganized speech and suicidal thoughts are the strongest.
One night he woke me up with a whisper into my ear:
“Are you asleep?” he asked, “They have arrived!”
I opened my eyes and sat up, totally puzzled. I looked at the clock. It said 2:25 am. My brother watched me with his deep-set eyes.
“Who has arrived?” I asked with a muffled voice.
“Who are they?”
“Shh!” He put his hand on my mouth, his nerves on edge. “They came to nab me. They have found me. They are waiting outside.”
I pushed his hand away.
“Who has found you?” I asked, angry. “Who – has – found – you?”
My brother shifted his gaze an inch or two to the side and shrugged his arms.
“I don’t know… I don’t know them… I only know their voices.”
I watched his eyeballs, which suddenly began to bulge, as if he’d discovered something scary. I couldn’t catch his gaze as I tried.
“They are outside, you said?” I asked.
“Yes. In a car. They’re waiting.”
I got up and put on my coat.
“W-what are you d-doing?” he stuttered, alarmed.
“I want to see them,” I replied on my way to the door.
There were two cars on the side of the road. Both were empty.
But my brother wouldn’t believe me.
Almost twenty years later he called me in the middle of the night. “It’s been the mother!” he screamed into the phone in a hysterical voice. “It’s her who has betrayed me! She has made up my illness and my therapy! She has sent them to nab me! I’d always distrusted you, Stana, but it’s her! You must help me. You’ve got to believe me! You’ve always believed me, haven’t you?”
The fact is that I have. Certainly not his voices, but I believed his feelings. I never waved him away like many in the family, would never laugh at him like some others. I felt with him as I felt with the characters of Kafka’s stories, which I’ve read and reread and re-reread, without ever fully deciphering their meaning. To my brother, his hallucinations are real, as is his pain. I didn’t have to comprehend his confused speech, because I felt – and how I felt! To see him suffer made me suffer too, which taught me to understand his being.
We all share the basic need to express ourselves freely – in words, in gestures, in behaviour. For me, when I’m writing, there is no such thing as the reality – there are many. I try to see over the edges. I seek the distinctive and distrust the obvious. I don’t hear voices, but I create them. I make up characters and human destinies that all have something of mine. I give them my eyes and my ears, let them suffer in the fires of my memories. I clothe them in my skin and put them in the fetters of my aptitudes, let them feel my sorrows and my fears, watch them fight, lose, fall. Close to despair. Close to madness. Close to death. And then, I set them free, watch them move on. Once on paper, thoughts aren’t mine anymore. They belong to my protagonists. I’m free.
Creative people like people with schizophrenia tend to perceive things more intense than others. But the perceptions of schizophrenics take destructive paths rather than leading to productivity. People with mental illness suffer from the abundance of their inner life, with which they are unable to communicate. Artists thrive as long as they do not perceive their environment as emotional strain, but as a source for art through which they can express their uniqueness.
This is exactly what is missing in my brother’s life. The ability to accept his innermost being, to process it and to pass it on in an aesthetically altered form as a creative expression of himself. Instead, the pictures and voices in his head grow into such clear shapes that he trusts them more than reality. The illness – a sum of painful symptoms that nobody understands – seems to be the only language in which he can bring his perceptions to life.
After taking a bunch of drugs, my brother would often say, “My thoughts are boring me, Stana, can you believe it? It’s such a horrible thing, all this sudden emptiness in my head. Do you know how it feels to be bored by your own thoughts?”
I do not know that, but I can imagine how awful it must be. And I believe, as Picasso did, that everything we can imagine is real. For me, as for my brother, reality is what we perceive. The important difference between us is the effect of our perceptions to our existence.
Depression instead of the melancholy of poetry. Hypochondria and delusions as a result of self-absorption rather than inner freedom through self-discovery. Disorganized speech in place of well told stories. Suicide attempts instead of enrichment of life. All this shows the destructiveness of mental illnesses in inverse relationship to the productivity of creative arts. And yet there were nights, though not many, when my brother sat beside my bed, telling me stories as tangible and beautifully crafted as if he was in his right mind. They all dealt with his feelings of guilt, loneliness, humiliation and fear. One of them, which I will never forget, tells about an old drunkard whom my brother allegedly drove home from the tavern with his motorbike. While driving, the drunk fell out of the vehicle and my brother left him behind. Here is a passage as I wrote it down in my diary:
I saw the man lying in the street, about two hundred meters behind me. He was not moving. I heard a car coming from the town and I fled.
— I wanted to help him, Stana. I swear I wanted to. But I didn’t. —
Today, when I came into the tavern, I discovered the man at the bar. At first, he ignored me, for which I thought he wouldn’t recognize my face. But then he ordered two beers and walked over to me with a limp. I don’t remember him limping back then. It must be from the accident.
— He is a cripple, Stana. I’ve made a man a cripple! —
He sat down at my table and looked at me in silence. I watched my knees. He watched me. It was an endless and agonizing look. My heart was pounding. I thought about to leave, but I couldn’t. It was my duty to face my guilt.
— I’m a dead man, Stana. I’ve always been dead, but now… —
The man offered me one of the beers and began to tell me his life story, at the end of which I expected to hear about me and the accident. The whole time he was talking, his bony hand was on my leg. As he paused between sentences, he watched his trembling fingers tap my knee. He did it on purpose, to let me feel that he knew about me. He tortured my legs because they walk without a limp but in the same trousers as the night when I lost him…
Much has been said about authors with emotional disorders, since it is obvious that suffering can be a good source for writing. Creativity and madness may be two sides of the same coin. Like good and evil. Two paths that occasionally cross and change directions. They are like two siblings with similar features and yet different faces. But when we romanticise mental illnesses in favour of creativity, we run the risk of underestimating the distress and struggle of the affected people, and thus reduce our responsibility to help them.
 Sartre, Jean Paul. Words (Penguin Classics, 2000), 136.
 Miller, Alice. For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence, 3rd ed. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), https://www.amazon.de; Miller, Alice. The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Hurtful Parenting (W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), https://www.amazon.de; Miller, Alice. The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self, 3rd ed. (Basic Books, 2008), https://www.amazon.de
Didion, Joan. “Why I Write.” The New York Times, 5 December 1976, https://www.nytimes.com
Doctorow, Edgar Lawrence. “The Art of Fiction No. 94.” Interview conducted by George Plimpton. Paris Review, no. 101, Winter 1986, https://www.theparisreview.org
Fromm, Erich. The Pathology of Normalcy. American Mental Health Foundation Books, 2010, https://www.amazon.de
Haviarová, Stanislava. Dennik (English: Notebooks), 1994-1999.
Miller, Alice. For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002, https://www.amazon.de
Miller, Alice. The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Hurtful Parenting. W. W. Norton & Company, 2006, ), https://www.amazon.de
Miller, Alice. The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self. Basic Books, 2008, https://www.amazon.de
Orwell, Georg. Why I Write. Penguin Books, 2004, https://amazon.de
Pavitra, K. S., Chandrashekar, C. R., & Choudhury, P. (2007). Creativity and mental health: A profile of writers and musicians. Indian journal of psychiatry, 49(1), 34–43, https://doi.org
Picasso, Pablo. Paintings, Quotes, & Biography, https://www.pablopicasso.org
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Words. Penguin Classics, 2000.
Spinoza, Baruch. Ethics: with The Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect and Selected Letters. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.; 1992, https://www.amazon.de
Stanislava Haviarová is an aspiring writer who was born and raised in Slovakia. After studying economics in Germany, she first worked as a financial analyst in a large manufacturing company before taking up studies in philosophy and creative writing at Massey University in New Zealand. She has been writing multilingual fiction and non-fiction, but it is only recently, after she began writing in English, that she has been submitting her work to literary magazines. Her passion is language-driven and experimental literature, especially hybrids of genres. She currently lives in Hamburg, where she is working on her first book, which fuses personal memoir with prose poetry.
You can find and follow Stanislava on:
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