‘tortured artists’: a note

“The myth of ‘You have to be a tortured artist’ is a myth. You can have a happy, healthy life and still go to all these crazy dark places in your writing, and then go home then go play with your child and hug your wife.”

– Dr Lin-Manuel Miranda

The year is 1870. Vincent van Gogh is  a crazily talented man who is terribly troubled and misunderstood. Nobody buys his work. Nobody cares to read his letters, and he spends much time in isolation. Time passes, and he grows more and more lonely. 1890 rolls around, and he (allegedly)* commits suicide. He dies in the arms of his brother. People start to notice him once he’s died. “His work – it’s almost as if you can see his pain!” It’s believed by many that he wouldn’t have been able to produce any his best works had he not been in such dark places so often. His work becomes a hit, and he accrues posthumous fame. The tortured artist trope is born.

Following his death, and long after, many people subscribe to the idea that those suffering will create the most beautiful things. This idea is affirmed by tragic losses such as Sylvia Plath and Ernest Hemingway. The question: does mental illness make for better art?

I study English at university, along with my other three subjects. In the literary field, you’ll come across countless artists who were mentally ill, and claimed that the mental illness enabled them to write as well as they did. Some pseudo-scientific studies have shown a clear link between depression and good poetry, but I disagree with them almost entirely. Unfortunately, mental illness is romanticised to the nth degree, thanks to the likes of tumblr, and the idea that you need to endure some form of affliction to be great is frequently taken to be gospel truth. to  I’m saying what Lin-Manuel Miranda is saying – that the myth that you have to be tortured to make good art is a myth.

I’m certain that mental illness can inspire art. My experience has inspired my writing and my choices when performing on stage. I don’t, however, believe that a poem written about heartbreak by a happily engaged person, would pale in comparison to that of a heartbroken person.

I’m of the opinion that the ability to transcend your own experience in your artform is one of the highest forms of art. To get into another’s frame of mind without being in that frame of mind yourself takes a massive amount of skill, and the idea that your work would be inferior because of your transcendence sounds highly unlikely to me.

love and light,
shalom xo

*there is speculation that good ol’ vanny may have been murdered,but it’s all a bit sketchy.

an open letter to primary school

trigger warning: depression, anxiety, eating disorders

dear primary school

dear age five to twelve

dear risidale and emmarentia and everything in between


primary school, you were not fun. In grade one my shoes got stolen and I wanted to cry but I thought I’d be yelled at if I did. So I didn’t. When I was eight I started noticing that I was detached from everyone else in the class. I used to sit and box them all, and tried desperately to squeeze into a box, and I never could. In grade four, I learned about depression, and I had a teacher who was phenomenal at the time – Ms V. She cried a lot and had body image issues and skipped a lot of school days. I remember thinking that I understood what she was going through, that we could be friends because we were going through the same thing, I thought. I didn’t say anything though. She was a teacher. I was nine. I was a girl who could spell anything, except library. I When I was ten I started resenting the fact that I was black more than I had previously. I got teased and made fun of because I was darker than the other girls. Then, I learned about depression from a much harsher teacher: experience. I started feeling things I couldn’t understand – like not wanting to come to school. I loved learning, but I didn’t feel anything except lethargy. I know- “at age ten? really?” Yes really, I was in grade six at the time. In grade seven I started to resent my intelligence, tried to join any and every group that would have me, gave my homework away, cried more than I thought I could, and then got told to “see someone”. My dad got mad when he found out that he had a crazy daughter. My mom got – I don’t really know how she felt – when she discovered that her once shining girl who was supposed to be a prodigy spent the better parts of her day crying, lying or intentionally hurting herself to “feel anything that didn’t mean I was nothing” (quote from grade seven diary). I saw my marks plummet and my opinion of myself recede into nothing – I went for three days, that I remember clearly, convinced that it was’;t my fault I didn’t have friends like the other girls, it was just because people couldn’t see me. When I was eleven teachers started thinking it was smart to talk the eating disorders section of the Life Orientation textbook rather than teach it, leaving me, and possibly (probably) others trying to tell people that I needed help, that I identified with Mary who struggles to eat in front of people but binges at night, that I related to Sue who never ate and was convinced that she was fat and would not fit through doors despite her flat chest and sharp bones, that I was Shalom who had such a strange relationship with something that shouldn’t have a hold over me the way it did. Does. Do disorders go away?


Dear Primary School,

You taught me that things are not always kind. And that honesty can get you into trouble. And that people won’t always appreciate your intelligence.

You taught me how to sit alone and how to think. You taught me how to speak to adults. You taught me how to make people listen. You taught me how different people are. Thank you.

Thanks. I wouldn’t be where I am today without you. It’s not a wonderful place, but it’s where I am and things are happening and things are possible so thank you.


these things about me are not pretty or lovely or a wonder to behold. they are parts of me that have, for so long, attacked me from the inside. secrets that i’ve had to keep alone and i won’t anymore.

these parts of me are not easy to love, but i’m going to try anyway. and maybe you will too. but the truth is that whether you do or you don’t, it’s beyond my control and i’m going to have to let things like that go.

love and light
Shalom

On Teenage Suicide (Prevention Week)

This week has been South African National Teenage Suicide Prevention Week.

Granted, some of you will be wondering why I’ve been such a twit and haven’t spoken up about this earlier, seeing that the SATSPW started on Valentine’s day – and I assure you it’s not because I was too busy with my valentine – and why I’m posting this so late.

The truth is, I don’t know what I want this post to be. I don’t want it to be just alarming statistics and frightening facts, and motivational quotes and sad stories. So, as expected, this post will be a complete mess of everything.

  1. Around the world, the third leading cause of death in teenagers is suicide. 20% of teenagers  suffer from depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, eating disorders, bipolar disorder and countless other mental disorders.
  2. I have been and am part of that 20%.
  3. I’ve written an anthology on mental disorders in teenagers which I can send to you if you comment your email address!

Seeing that it’s suicide prevention week and not mental disorder awareness month (when is that?), I’m going to fill you guys in on some suicide facts:

IT’S TERRIFYING.

Not only for everyone who is affected by it but also to the victim of suicide. As someone who has been through some rough patches, and someone who wishes she didn’t have the suicide patch on her sash, let me tell you something:

Suicide isn’t always something that happens after you notice you’re once smiley friend retreat into themselves and the darkness that consumes them. It isn’t always forecastable by looking at the scars on someone’s wrists, thighs, calves, shoulders, hips. It isn’t always recognisable by a smile that you think is false. It isn’t funny, fun, or anything of the happy variety: its death. It’s awful and untimely and terrifying, and it’s not a good experience to be on either side of the suicide line.

I don’t know how to make it better.

I know that psychologists are EXPENSIVE and that therapy doesn’t always work, and that people aren’t always there for you, and that sometimes it feels like the darkness in the world is big enough to swallow you whole, and anyone you reach out to will be swallowed along with you, and the last thing you want is for anyone else to get hurt so you may as well just erase yourself from the catastrophic picture you may not have even drawn, but even something as small as sharpening the pencil seems like a big enough offence.

This, friend, isn’t always the case.

I used to be suicidal. I used to want to die, every day. I used to hate getting up, and I despised the fact that my lungs were still working in the morning. I tried to die. Often. And the experience is something I wouldn’t wish on any being or creature in the universe.

But friends, I’m still here.

If you’re looking for a sign not to kill yourself, this is it.

If you’re looking for someone who will miss you if you die, I am them.

I found myself in a hole of darkness and I won’t even lie and say I’ve climbed out. Because I haven’t. I’m still climbing and I climb every day. I can tell you that it’s far more difficult than I would have ever imagined, but also, far more worth it.

Regardless of where you are in the world, here you can find the number to call if you’re feeling suicidal.

In South Africa, we have SADAG (South African Depression and Anxiety Group) and they’ve helped me tonnes. You can contact them on 0800 567 567.

Please don’t ever hesitate to send me an email if you ever need any help. We’re all survivors here, and I’d be so, so honoured and willing to help.

I leave you with some lyrics by my favourite band:

Friend, please don’t take your life away from me.”

Love and light,
shalom