Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Van Gogh was Crazy, Too, You Know

According to a study published Monday in Nature Neuroscience, a genetic link can be found between creativity and the cray-cray. The full study is behind a paywall, so I can't parse it for you myself. However, Science Alert has a rundown of the study, and The Verge makes some fair points in criticizing it. Basically, the study looked at people with genetic markers for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and then looked at people working in "creative" industries, such as art, acting, music, dance, and writing. It found that people working in these industries were more likely to carry these genetic variants than people in other types of jobs.

Greeeeeat, I thought as I looked at these articles. More pressure to be brilliant.

I'm the only child of an exceptionally talented artist. My father paints, plays music, and is an internationally published poet. One of my aunts was a professional dancer. Another is a TV editor. Another of my aunts and my cousin are both graphic artists. My uncle is a musician and an actor. I come from a family of "creatives." From the day I was born, there was pressure on me to have some sort of artistic talent.

When it became clear that I was also mentally ill, the pressure mounted.

We've always known there was a link between creativity and insanity. Vincent van Gogh is the first person who usually comes to mind (he's even the cover image on the Science Alert article), but the link has been noted throughout human history. It's a well-worn cliche that if you're crazy, you're brilliant in some fashion.

And I'm just... not. Sure, I write, and cut up tee-shirts, and make videos. Occasionally I can be found absolutely killing the Karaoke party with my rendition of Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black" (I also kill 'em with "Rehab," but that's because it's hilarious). But I'm nowhere near the level that I've observed is expected of me based on my genetics, and now, apparently, more genetics.

"Van Gogh was crazy, too, you know." Yes, I know! Everybody knows.

Not everybody with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia is a van Gogh. We can't all be. The National Alliance on Mental Illness states that about 13.6 million adults in the United States alone "live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder." There are not 13.6 million van Goghs anywhere. There was only one, and we're not him.

But I think that's okay. It has to be okay. I can do my fun projects, and you can do yours, and maybe one or two of our 13.6 million-plus brothers and sisters will be at Vincent level. It will never be me, but at least I'm doing my best and having a pretty good time of it.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

"I Feel Fine!"

When you first begin taking medication for bipolar disorder, people will tell you a lot of things. They will tell you that you might start to feel like a guinea pig or a lab rat, constantly being experimented on with different dosages and different medications and combinations of medications. They will tell you that the side effects can be pretty severe, but that you can mitigate these with further treatments. They will tell you that at some point you will start to feel better, and will be tempted to go off the medication, but that you must never ever do so without first consulting your doctor.

What they don't say about this last bit is that it's not merely temptation. It's not as simple as feeling fine and thinking you probably don't need the meds anymore. Your brain may actively fight you on this. It knows all of the rationalizations. It reminds you of how much easier it was to deal with yourself when you knew the rabble-rabble rage and the deathy-deathy despair were right around the corner. And don't you miss the euphoria of a manic episode, when you're fifty feet tall and can repel bullets, and the world-- no, the universe-- exists solely for your pleasure?

You can't be creative unless you feel too much, your brain informs you. Until you are utterly stupefied with emotional overload, you cannot truly create brilliant work. You feel fine, but are you fine? Are you really? Those side effects aren't particularly mitigated, are they? Why, your panic attacks are even more frequent now you've gone on these pills. You only used to have one every few months. Now you have at least three per week, if not more. And you look fat. You're probably gaining weight again.

The meds are not really helping you. It's you doing the things, not the pills. All you have to do is go off them, and keep doing as you're doing, but doing it better because you are yourself. You're not yourself without the mood swings and the destructive behavior. You're not yourself without seventeen elaborate scenarios in your head about how this day will go wrong. You're definitely not yourself without a death fantasy for everything that does go wrong.

You don't need the pills anymore, says your brain. You never needed them in the first place.

These are the lies and half-truths you will tell yourself after a month on crazy pills, and no one ever said a word of warning to me about it. Don't listen to your jerkbrain. Stay on your meds. Adjust them if necessary. Talk to your people. Your people are there to help you, and they want you to be well. Your brain is fighting you because it's terrified. Keep fighting back. Show it that a pill or two isn't going to best you; it's going to better you.

I'm telling you this because I need to be told this. Maybe you do, too. Maybe when it gets to that dark place, we can tell each other.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Spider-Gwen and the Cho Incident: When Feminism Erases the Hourglass

Trawling the internet earlier last month, as is my daily habit, I found so many furious posts about Frank Cho's Spider-Gwen sketch. If I hadn't seen all of those posts, I never would have known there was a Spider-Gwen comic that existed in the world.

I'm going to be honest with you. When I first saw the sketch, I was tickled. Absolutely giddy. My meat name is Gwen, and when I was a kid, I climbed on things and pretended to be "Spider-Gwen," your friendly neighborhood wall-crawling badass seven-year-old. Now I'm in my late thirties, and I'm sexy as hell, and I still love superheroes.

Not realizing that Spider-Gwen was a real thing, I believed that Cho was making a cheeky joke that coincidentally tapped into everything I needed to see at the time. I made the image my avatar on facebook. I defended the image on comment boards. And once I became aware that she had her own comic, I became Spider-Gwen's fan, vehemently, enthusiastically, and for life.

Now, I understand why people were upset. They have every reason and every right to be. Women have been sexualized in comics to a ridiculous degree. Websites like The Hawkeye Initiative and Escher Girls have hundreds of posts illustrating this point, and it's both hilarious and sad. The Mary Sue made the point that the comic’s intended audience is teen girls, and that Gwen Stacy herself is a teenager in that universe. Spider-Gwen co-creator Robbi Rodriguez was unhappy with the drawing as well, and to a certain degree, I’m always going to empathize with an artist’s feelings about responses to his work.

At the same time, I still feel good about Cho's drawing. I've got big boobs and a big ass, and I want to feel sexy, and beautiful, and powerful. Cho’s drawing gave that to me at a time when I needed an ego boost. While I agree much of the time with what feminists have to say, this sort of thing kicks me right in the nethers.

There's a deeply scary thread running through some versions of feminism. This point of view assumes the male gaze is the all-important, ever-present villain. The hourglass figure must never be portrayed, lest it give the menfolk a boner. Anita Sarkeesian criticizes female video game characters with my body type almost exclusively. As Liana Kerzner put it:

There are women like me all over the world who have found ways to be proud of our flawed, unique bodies, and we refuse to accept that breasts or hips over a certain size indicate anything inherently immoral. This puts us in direct opposition with Feminist Frequency, since they call out characters in the Tropes vs. Women videos just for having large breasts.

The Cho drawing with my childhood alter-ego as a sexy bad bitch showed up right at the moment I was thinking about this. Spider-Gwen becomes almost tangential when looking at the larger picture. I’m reminded of the weird time when the right-wingers and certain feminists were united in the cause against women’s sexuality in the 1980’s.

Man, was that a drag. Just when I was learning about what it was to be a girl, when I was learning about politics, when I was absorbing concepts of the world that would be sure to stick with me throughout my life, the people who said I could be anything said I couldn't be sexy.

Today, it’s the same. Pearl-clutchers fall against the fainting couch because women have tits, love sex, and use their hard-won agency to flaunt it. Next time, we’re going to talk about Black Widow, and how a great many of the people in the media who were complaining about supposed sexism in Age of Ultron were men.

For now I will close with this: we still need feminism to battle against perniciously right-wing forms of feminism. The hourglass exists, and will not be erased. And Spider-Gwen is fucking awesome.