I had no idea what Black Box was about when I started watching, but was soon delighted with it – a brain scientist with psychological issues recounts her last near death manic episode to her psychologist.
While I’m writing about drugs and creativity, she makes the opposite point – sometimes we normalize our episodes with drugs. Needing to revamp her keynote speech, she goes off her meds because she knows it will unleash her creative passions.
While high on life, she gives the following speech:
I study extraordinary brains to help understand normal ones… when Van Gogh painted Starry Night he was a patient at a mental hospital. Temporal lobe epilepsy allowed St Paul to hear the voice of God. Hemingway, Silvia Plath, Billie Holiday, Charles Dickens, Hermann Melville. These are just a few of the minds that have suffered from a fine madness. But should they have been medicated into mediocrity?
On the one hand, she’s right – many great artists, thinkers and (especially) religious visionaries were a little bit crazy. Had they been alive today, they would certainly be on medication.
On the other hand, many of these same figures were life-long abusers of all kinds of potent drugs. Did they self-medicate because they suffered from a “fine-madness?” Or did they take drugs, and become both crazy and creative?
Contemporary society allows us the normalizing drugs that lead to stability and productivity, but deny us the madness inducing drugs that inspire creative genius. We are all trying to be “more creative” but we refuse to let ourselves go mad (or experiment with substances that can at least give us a temporary sense of madness).
Is creativity worth the risk?
Her psychologist counsels:
“Let’s talk about some of the exceptional people you mentioned in your speech. Earnest Hemingway used his shotgun to blow his brains out. Silvia Plath was 30 when she stuck her head in a gas oven. Billie holiday died of acute alcoholism after years of drug abuse. Van Gogh shot himself in a wheat field right after finishing a painting. Normalizing does not doom you to mediocrity. It allows you to live long enough to do your best work. Do you want to be exceptional and dead?”
She doesn’t ask the implied opposite question,
Do you want to be alive and boring? (Do you want to live a boring life?)
Creativity doesn’t have to kill you. You can deliberately manage your crazy episodes to maximize both creativity and productivity. When I was younger I was much more crazy (and creative) but now keep myself pretty balanced. Until I need an insanely manic few days of epic creativity, in which case I’ve got a cabinet full of pharmaceutical goodies at my disposal.
But let’s assume it’s black and white: would you rather live a long, boring but happy, unproductive life, raise a family, buy a house, play with your grandchildren – and be completely forgotten in 100 years; or produce some of the greatest shit humanity has ever seen, become a legend, die early but live forever?
Which choice is more selfish? Which one is more valuable?
In the premiere of Black Box, her boyfriend of one year has proposed and is waiting for an answer, which forces her to confess her secret – she’s bipolar and she’s been hiding it.
She’s fine when she takes her meds, but she has a history of “non-compliance.”
“But why in God’s name would you ever go off your meds?” he asks.
“Because it’s an incredible high. When I’m ramping up I do my best work, life is beautiful, I feel like I could conquer the world.”
It’s exciting to have a TV show that’s going to focus exclusively on mental illness. But it’s even more exciting that the boundaries between creativity and mind “disorders” are being explored – and not only as a dangerous symptom, but as an exciting and enjoyable “high” and integral part of the protagonist’s personality.
When she goes off the meds a second time (probably to sabotage her new marriage and show him what she’s really like during mania) she sympathizes with her patients.
Earlier, a young man with a brain tumor asks if the operation is necessary, and if he’ll still be able to draw afterwards. She says, “Without the operation, it will grow, so will the pain, and you’ll die in agony. There’s no choice here.”
Once off her meds, after finding they’ve “cured” the woman who imagines a little elf-friend, she realizes the woman is lonely and decides to reverse the treatment.
“How did taking away her hallucinations help her? Why does everyone assume normal is a good thing? Her brain created exactly what she needed – a companion, and I like an idiot fixed her by taking away her only friend.
High again, she catches the gorgeous, sexually predative new neurosurgeon stealing modafinil before surgery (because it gives “laser focus”) and jumps his bones.
Then she goes and attacks her fiancé and throws the wedding ring back at him. She alienates her family and her daughter (who’s being raised by her brother and his wife). She ends up alone, on a beach, contemplating suicide and calls her psychologist again.
Give me a reason to go on living.
“Your work” comes the answer. And “People love you.”
“Not for who I really am,” she says.
“The best part of you is who you really are. The rest is a disease.”
The episode concludes with a balance of sorts… she saves the boy’s life, and he’s back to normal once the tumor is removed. But she lets the other woman continue hallucinating her little friend and sends them off together to the crazy house.
Her fiancé even forgives her (as we knew he would) although his motives are suspect: he says, “What you did to me that night? I liked it. I want to do it again.” Which means, he liked the crazy, violent sex and wants more of it; so she may need to go off her meds to please him.
Not a healthy relationship, but good for TV drama.
The best part of you?
If the best part of us is who we really are, and everything else a disease, we should focus on increasing the best parts of us, no matter how. Socially anxious? Take Vicodin or Propranolol. Anxiety disorder? Try an SSRI. Lazy? Modafinil is great to overcome procrastination. If you want manic genius, Ritalin comes close, or HuperzineA for me.
Experiment and find what works for you. Take care not to repeatedly destroy everything around you. Stay away from things that trigger depression or suicidal tendencies. Don’t wreck your body and health. But beyond that – be as productive and creative as you goddamn can be.
Update (Episode 2)
Perhaps my conclusion was hasty: in Episode 2, she wants to solve her problems with more meds.
Meds to help her stabilize, to help her sleep.
Her doctor wants her to make behavioral changes instead. Stop drinking coffee. More aerobic exercise. “I want you to make better choices.”
That said, coffee and exercise both trigger specific brain chemicals in predictable ways. They may be safer and healthier than the harder stuff, but they’re basically different paths to the same outcome: bio-hacking.
Meds are for lazy people, but if you’re lazy and can’t make behavioral choices, meds are better than living a boring, meaningless life.