The oceanic feeling

Ewan Morrison’s novel Nina X is about a woman who was born and raised in a cult. We asked him about the links between mental health and his art. Includes extract.

I have spent most of my adult life navigating through a minefield of mental health issues – through misdiagnosis and conflicting types of treatment, towards something resembling mental health in the last six years. I am now 50. This minefield is well known to many cultural outsiders and artists, and with a misdiagnosis and the wrong kind of treatment the outcomes can be tragic.

Whether or not it is true that creative people are 25 per cent more likely to carry genes for mental illness, we, as a culture, do love our ‘mad artists’. We love our Plaths and Van Goghs, our Kurt Cobains and David Foster Wallaces, our Chester Benningtons, Anne Sextons, Virginia Woolfs. All those brilliant artists who battled depression, bipolar disorder, personality disorder; who lost the fight with the creativity that had sustained them and who chose suicide, only to be romanticised once again for that choice. In the end their creative energy either dried up or it wasn’t enough to justify their suffering. Half of the artistic role models of my youth have killed themselves and I have lost two friends who were artists to suicide. I have survived periods of suicidal ideation.

Since adolescence I sensed that I’d turned into something that wasn’t like normal people. I also learned that making art – writing fiction being my chosen art – was the only way to feel whole and not worthless. Making art cured me of a stammer, it gave me self-esteem, focus and escape from a broken family and a hostile community. Alone with art, it gave me the ‘oceanic feeling’ described by Jung, which is a high like that of an opioid. Making art fed me vast amounts of energy.

I recall one Psychodynamic Psychotherapist telling me, ‘you have many conflicting personalities… if you didn’t have your writing you’d be lost.’ I recall another therapist (CBT with the NHS) telling me that I might want to consider putting all the artistic struggle behind me and looking for a gentler, more stable, kind of work. Then there was the Jungian analyst who told me that my problems with severe depression arose from a blockage of my artistic energy, and that if I learned to use that flow of I could be full of vitality, hope, love (the obverse being that if I didn’t learn, this energy blockage could destroy me). I’ve laughed in the faces of Art therapists, and told them that the only people who ever get cured by art therapy are amateurs; that for serious artists, art is more like a drug than a cure.

There is so much false mythology around the artist and mental health – a legacy we inherited from the 1960s. I know from experience that it is only mild depression that leads to the creation of paintings and poems; that deep depression is a creatively barren place. I also know that no-one can be creative on anti-depressants. Most artists who kill themselves do so because they have become addicted to art as their only source of self-worth and escape. When they sense they will never be able to be creative again, external reality hits them, unmediated… it is too much to bear.

Depending upon art can be very dangerous. Like drug use, it isolates, it can lead you to a place where fear and resentment of the outside world festers and grows. I’ve seen and experienced addiction, and over the years I’ve asked myself whether obsessively making art is making me well, or making me worse? Is art like some demon of addiction, that wants to keep me dependent, keeping me ill?

So how can a balance be struck between creativity as a healthy activity – and the dangers of addiction to creativity-as-salvation that results, so often, in mental collapse and the danger of suicide? Over 15 years of creative writing and therapy I’ve come to certain conclusions. There are two different kinds of creativity – the dangerous kind that is a secondary gain of a disturbed mind; that is an addiction. And the gentler kind of creativity that can heal a damaged person.

There are few therapists and psychologists I’ve encountered who understand this distinction. To my knowledge, after going through five different types of therapy, no single one has it right when it comes to artists. I remain fascinated by the process of art-dependence, as someone who has been both addicted to art, and saved by it. 

- Nina X is out now on Little Brown. This is an exclusive extract.

Jotter #242 2018

Nina had to be wired to two machines one that beeped and one that had a rubber thing tight on Nina’s good arm, then they put a needle in the skin and took blood out and the woman said, Be brave, so Nina thought about how brave Dorothy was when the Monkeys flew her to the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West to be tortured.

The next visit in Hospital was much easier because Nina was listening to The Wizard of Oz with the voices in the ear-wires and Nina’s eyesight was getting better and less was blurry. Nina kept being introduced to new people but Nina didn’t have to say hello to everyone passing by so it was OK to just look at the Hospital floor and passing shoes of many colours instead.

Charity Sonia has flat shoes because she believes in equality. The nurse had shoes with a lady heel because slave women have been trained not to run because they are required to lie down for penetration and heels make their toes point like a sexual climax which is flattering to their owners, but if you wear only small heels it means you don’t want to put this message across quite so much.

Nina told this to Practice Nurse Amy McGill and she said, That’s very interesting, Nina. And Charity Sonia said something about appropriate language and this being why they needed the test.

Then Nina had to sit and it was a game like a test but no one was going to be the winner or loser but this wasn’t because the NHS was communist. This was what Nina was told by Practice Nurse Amy McGill who had a uniform but was not a fascist. And she said a list of statements and then Nina had to take them and put them through Nina’s own head. Then Nina had to tell the nurse if Nina did strongly agree, slightly agree, slightly disagree or strongly disagree.

I keep abreast of the latest fashions.

I often find it difficult to judge if something is rude or polite.

The sentences said I all the time, so this was good practice at having an I, but it was hard. People in freedom do say I an awful lot.

When I was a child I enjoyed cutting up worms to see what happened.

I tend to look on the bright side.

I find it easy to put myself in someone else’s shoes.

Practice Nurse Amy McGill told Nina what literal meant and Nina shouldn’t be it, so when it said put yourself in other people’s shoes it didn’t mean how Nina used to share flip- flops with Comrades Uma, Ruth, Jeni and Zana.

Charity Sonia explained to Practice Nurse Amy McGill that Nina had come from a communist Collective. And Nina corrected her and said Marxist Leninist actually not reformist like the Soviet traitors.

Charity Sonia said, OK, let’s just try to answer the nurse.

Nina said, Do I have to take my clothes off again for the flashing pictures?

Charity Sonia said, Not just yet, the nice nurse is here to help you with your feelings first.

Practice Nurse Amy McGill said, Don’t worry, we’ll need to see how your bruises and scars are doing and Nina felt cold in the bad hand and tried to hide it. But the Nurse said let’s just get this new test done first, OK, Nina?

Nina said, Do you have to put the things inside my vagina again?

Practice Nurse Amy McGill looked confused.

Charity Sonia said to the nurse, Sorry, her only other experience with doctors was ER on the first night and we had a swab taken.

Practice Nurse Amy McGill looked at her bright box and said, I see we’re still waiting on the results.

Charity Sonia said, She’s never been to a dentist either, have you, Nina?

Nina nodded.

Practice Nurse Amy McGill made a long breath and a smile again and said, OK, Nina, I like to keep abreast of fashions? Does that apply to you, Nina? Nina laughed and Practice Nurse Amy McGill thought that was unusual so then Nina explained how abreast was a pun because all fashion was about the turning female body bits into sex commodities.

Nina told Practice Nurse Amy McGill that being a sex object was banned before but Nina knew it was important to be a sex object from now on because Nina had read about it in Top Tips in In Style magazine. There were stacks of these learning magazines on all the tables in all the government places Nina had been made to wait, like the council building with Charity Sonia and the Housing Office and the Emergency Doctor room of waiting. These magazines contained important government information on how to behave.

A woman who smiled like the capitalist wolves had a secret way of losing seven pounds and a famous slave woman with a large chest made of plastic under the skin had ten tips on finding love.

Practice Nurse Amy McGill said, OK, fine and maybe Nina could put strongly agree to the one about trying to keep up with fashion.

Practice Nurse Amy McGill was keen to get back to the question of cutting up worms which could also mean killing bugs or hurting small creatures or big ones or even not feeding them and this could be a cat and had Nina ever done any of these things?

Nina said Nina had never hurt any small animals apart from a higher primate when Nina had killed one of the Comrades.

Practice Nurse Amy McGill looked at Charity Sonia then she did a smile like in Hello magazine. Then they were silent.

Charity Sonia said, What do you mean by that Nina? Did you call your pets Comrades too?

Nina shook her head and said, A human, a woman. The two women looked at each other and other Hospital noises became loud.

Charity Sonia said, Do you mean that literally or as a figure of speech, like I could kill for a cup of tea?

Practice Nurse Amy McGill said to Charity Sonia, It’s quite normal for victims of abuse to internalise the violence and feel that they are to blame.

Nina said, Not like a cup of tea. She had foam and blood in her mouth and her eyes were all white but it took a while longer for her to properly die.

Charity Sonia gripped Nina’s arm and said, How old were you when this happened, Nina?

Practice Nurse Amy McGill said to Charity Sonia, It’s also possible that she can’t tell fantasy from reality.

Practice Nurse Amy McGill said, Who did you kill, Nina?

Charity Sonia said, Was this in self- defence, Nina?

Nina’s bad hand went cold. Nina had to rub and hide it but Charity Sonia saw and she bent down close and she said, Was that when someone hurt your poor hand, Nina?

Her eyes were so big and Nina wanted to tell her but every time Nina tries to think of that time all the pictures and words are rubbed out and the head hurts.

Charity Sonia and the Practice Nurse Amy McGill talked quietly to each other and very fast. Charity Sonia said, Right, so now I have to contact the police again. She sighed. This gets worse every minute. Deaths. Were any reported? Oh Nina.

Practice Nurse Amy McGill said to her, Do you want me to continue?

Charity Sonia said, Nina can you please tell me who this was, this person who died?

Nina remembered what Nina had been told and told them, All Comrades are not to repeat it. We are to erase it.

Charity Sonia said, My God. OK, let’s just finish the test and then I’ll call the station.

Practice Nurse Amy McGill said just one more, Nina, and she said, I prefer animals to humans. Nina told her about the pigeons and how watching them gives a feeling in Nina’s chest when they fly, expanding out and filling up the hollow like music does and this does not happen when Nina looks at humans. Nina likes birds best.

Nina wasn’t supposed to look at the page when they left Nina alone to whisper behind the door but Nina did and it said:

Empathy Rating. On average, most women score about 47 and most men about 42.

Nina felt incorrect because Nina’s answers had only made four boxes be ticked. Nina stuffed papers from the desk into Nina’s pockets in case they had tips for future tests.

Charity Sonia drove Nina back to the Charity House and was silent and she gave Nina some paper money for food. She gripped the wheel for the hands and said, Nina, you know, with cults, you can’t blame yourself, people aren’t really individuals. They’re all to blame, equally. What did they do to you, Love, what on earth?

Charity Sonia’s face was having emotions and she said, Nina, can you tell me, this person who passed away. When did this happen? Were you very small?

Then Nina had sore head pictures and then words came and Nina said, All who betray the cause are dead to us.

Charity Sonia said, OK, sorry. Don’t worry, best not to think about that right now, sorry.

Charity Sonia said goodbye and said it was OK for Nina to hold onto her hand like that just this once and it made Nina’s bad hand feel better. And she said she really, really had to go now and speak to the Pigs and Nina really shouldn’t call them that and, Yes, Nina would be all alone again tonight, like everyone else in Freedom.

When she was gone the hole feeling came again so Nina took out the pages from the pocket from Practice Nurse Amy McGill’s desk.

I really enjoy caring for other people. I would never break a law no matter how minor. I think that good manners are the most important thing that a parent can teach a child.

It was no good. Nina would have to break a law and become a parent to be able to know the answer.

Another page had other kinds of boxes and one was ticked and it said, Shows little signs of facial, gestural and vocal indices of empathy- related responding.

Nina felt sorry for this person and thought maybe that meant Nina could tick the caring box. Then Nina looked at the top and it said Patient Name Nina X.

Nina had an emotion and it made the shivering come. Nina must stop writing because it means Nina is still under the control of Comrade Chen and is not yet an I.

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