Review of Shoshana Kessock’s essay “Falling/Burning: Hannah Gadsby, Nanette and Being a Bipolar Creator”

Shoshana Kessock speaking on stage

Shoshana Kessock is an author and game designer from Brooklyn, New York. She wrote about her experiences as a bipolar creator in Alice Wong’s collection of essays by disabled activists, ‘Disability Visibility: First Person Stories From The Twenty-First Century‘, (Vintage, 2020) that seeks to represent the vastness of disabled stories, voices and backgrounds in the present day. I read this book in October 2020 for a book group I belong to at work. It opened my eyes to the power of speaking from your own experience to others in our community and to our non-disabled friends, families and colleagues. I was also humbled because this collection of essays included someone with bipolar – before this point I had rejected the idea I had a disability. I was only diagnosed in early 2019 and I didn’t want to have this label. But Shoshana’s essay was not only empowering in terms of owning my true situation, it also gave me a tool to think about how society treats bipolar creators and how that relates to my own life.

Shoshana exposes the belief that if you are a bipolar artist you should stay off meds because they dull or even extinguish creativity. I have experienced this frenzied state of creativity, where words literally flew out of me: it was exciting but exhausting. Shoshana believed this for 10 years of her life after having been wrongly medicated in her teens. Largely unmedicated, Shoshana describes this intensely creative period as like living in a tornado through which she was falling, not flying, and which left chaos and destruction in its wake. She talks about the voice encouraging her to live high on life and throw caution to the wind as the manic voice – the illness talking – rather than a creative way to live.

Shoshana describes her revelation when finally working with a doctor to get the right medications and coping strategies to deal with the ever-changing face of bipolar. The ever-changing nature of bipolar is something that I have lived through over the last couple of years, but only very recently understood. What works in some situations doesn’t in others.

Shoshana writes ‘Being bipolar is a constant system of checks and balances. These days I fight against needing my medication adjusted a lot, against depression and anxiety, mania and hypomania. I still end up flying some days, sometimes for days at a time, because as times goes on, the body changes and you have to adjust to new needs, new doses, new medication. Coping mechanisms change, life situations go ways you never expected, mania and depression rear their ugly heads. But the day I went on medication was one of the greatest days of my life, because it was the day my creative spark stopped becoming an excuse to keep putting up with an illness that was killing me’.

Shoshana Kessock

Like Shoshana, I have given up seeking that manic high because I know with it madness comes: I can spot it and take steps to dampen it down.

Shoshana had a further revelation when she heard the comedienne Hannah Gadsby talk about her own struggles as an artist, saying she told people to f*** off when they said artists had to “feel” for their art. As Shoshana writes, ‘I owe nobody my suffering to make what is precious to me, creators don’t need to push aside their own mental health to be hailed as artists’. This is because society generally equates manic energy with the creative spark that drives artists to greatness. But it isn’t mania that makes artists great – art is a craft, a talent and a passion that all need to be worked at. In Shoshana’s words ‘I take medicine and work my craft at the same time because I don’t need to suffer as an artist. I don’t need mania to take flight and reach inspiration. I can do that on my own’.

Both Hannah and Shoshana believe that there is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself. Having lived through unemployment and being sectioned as a result of developing bipolar, these words give me hope. Shoshana’s essay has given me a way to reclaim my experience for myself, rather than fitting in with other people’s ideas of how I should behave and what I can be.

Author: Phillippa

I love art - I’m a trained art historian and I make art and write poetry. I used to work for a museum but now I’m an administrator for a university. I am Buddhist and practice meditation and yoga. I’m married with two kids, one with special needs. I was diagnosed bipolar in early 2019 after being sectioned because of mania. I have struggled with depression throughout my life and experienced postnatal depression with both kids. The mania grew out of work related stress as I had to leave my museum job.

1 thought on “Review of Shoshana Kessock’s essay “Falling/Burning: Hannah Gadsby, Nanette and Being a Bipolar Creator”

  1. L’ourse bipolaire says:

    Medication definitely does not affect creativity and productivity negatively. They actually help to be able to utilise creativity. My only concern with current meds are the negative effects on the body.

    Reply

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