An Open Letter to Creatives Living with Mental Illness
Written by Magdalena Antuña
When I was a freshman in high school, I had a predilection for pens. Not just any pen, BIC Round Stic Ball Pens with a comfort grip. It was just a quirk, until I couldn’t find one moments before my Chemistry midterm. I borrowed a pen and attempted to write my name. Each time I grabbed it, a loud static erupted in my brain — like a TV with no signal. Over and over again it echoed in between my ears until suddenly, a bell rang. The class had ended and my test was blank.
At first, my school thought it was Test Anxiety - until some time after, at lunch, when I couldn’t get up to clear my tray, because if I did, my mother would die. At least, that’s what my brain told me. I was sick. In truth, I had been sick for years but now it was starting to disrupt my life. With every new episode and breakdown, my parents reminded me to keep my cool at school. Kids can sense weakness and they wanted me to keep thriving and fitting in. It kept me safe but guarded, and to this day, very few people know that I live with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, among other things, on a daily basis.
Recently, as my web editor Elizabeth and I were brainstorming ways to raise money for the magazine, I felt that same pang of self-preservation. We were discussing starting a Patreon page and the vulnerability of that, the admittance of needing money and, by association, failure, made me want to run. People are only attracted to strength, I told myself. This would be a disaster. But I support a Patreon myself. So, how does that logic work?
I won’t bore you with the long list of famous people who have achieved great success with mental illness. You’ve been told countless times, maybe Googled that list yourself. I also won’t patronize you and tell you there’s some hack, a way to get back to the beginning. I’ll always be sick, just by varying degrees. What I can tell you, are a few things that have helped me and kept me thriving through almost four years of running an environmental magazine:
Lemons Into Lemonade Adjacent
That chem test I failed? It triggered a domino effect that no amount of summer school could repair and eventually, I gave into the idea that going to college for science wasn’t going to happen. I set my sights on linguistics and didn’t look back. We’re chameleons, colored by the jockeying of our mental illness. In life and in business, you have to learn to take the bitterness of failure and turn it into opportunity. I’m a jack of all trades, master of none, and I’m better for it. Later in my college career, I switched my major to Biological Anthropology and stayed there. Now, I can tell you all about the ontogeny of long bone geometry in capuchin monkeys and I speak Russian. Just please don’t ask me to tell you in Russian ;) The fact that these skills were born of failure doesn’t make them any less great!
Touchstones Are Important
Unfortunately, my brain is irrational at times. Is this a great idea or a manic episode? It’s something that threatens to suck the life out of my art at a moment’s notice. When I get like this, I just think of the old advertising adage: there are no bad ideas in brainstorming. Here’s how I keep myself tethered to reality without stunting my creativity: I write my ideas in a notebook and revisit it days later. I tell one friend, then another. I gauge reactions and then I go with my gut. My ideas are focused now, though I do sometimes lament not buying the gas station down the street and turning it into a community center.
Honesty Is Not Weakness
The reality is that people appreciate honesty. It’s a biological imperative to put your best foot forward, to protect our delicate psyches, and when someone breaks that barrier, it’s refreshing. I run a print magazine with a team of seven people, in an era where Conde Nast — the world’s most prestigious publisher — drops a seasoned title every few months. Of course, I need help! To not seek it, to hide my truth and lie by omission, just makes it harder for other people like me to reach for their dreams. Being honest isn’t the weak move, it’s the intelligent one.
Most days will be hard. Running a business, being creative — these feats take a level of strength that would knock a neurotypical person on their butt. But remember that we’re an adaptive species. You’ve learned to zig when your brain says zag, and that’s something to celebrate. So, the next time life hands you a lemon and you can’t make lemonade, take solace in the fact that a Whiskey Sour might be in your future ;)
A self-described “workaholic,” Magdalena Antuña is a former primatologist, turned editor-in-chief and founder of the vegan lifestyle magazine Selva Beat, which serves a community of readers all over the world. Not only is her passion for educating others about a palm-oil free lifestyle inspiring, she's also frank about the challenges of maintaining mental health as a creative person. From discussing the realities of self-care, to her financial mantra: "life is short and beans are cheap," Magdalena is wholeheartedly and refreshingly real.