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Robert Lowell on What It’s Like to Be Bipolar

“My disease, alas, gives one (during its seizures) a headless heart.”

Robert Lowell on What It’s Like to Be Bipolar

In contemplating art as experience, philosopher John Dewey argued that the rhythmic highs and lows of life are essential to its creative completeness. Almost a century later, in her marvelous meditation on the pursuit of happiness, artist Maira Kalman observed: “We hope. We despair. We hope. We despair. That is what governs us. We have a bipolar system.”

Although this oscillation might be an indelible part of the human condition, its clinical malignancy — bipolar disorder, first termed manic depression for its alternating extremes of psychotic elation and paralyzing depression — is one of the most debilitating forms of mental illness. Alongside clinical depression, it is also one of the most common conditions afflicting the artists who compose the long lineage of the relationship between creativity and mental illness.

Among them was the great poet Robert Lowell (March 1, 1917–September 12, 1977), whose 1947 Pulitzer Prize made him one of the youngest recipients of the coveted accolade. The feat was followed by one of the most severe bipolar episodes in a lifetime with the disease, which first began bedeviling young Lowell decades before Bipolar Disorder was included in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and even before its progenitor, the term manic-depressive reaction, was coined in the early 1950s.

With his uncommon poetic potency and mastery of language, Lowell has provided what is perhaps the most piercing account of what it’s like to live with this tragically common and woefully disorienting disease.

Robert Lowell at the Grolier Bookshop in Harvard Square in the 1960s (Photograph: Elsa Dorfman)
Robert Lowell at the Grolier Bookshop in Harvard Square in the 1960s (Photograph: Elsa Dorfman)

In a letter from August of 1957, found in Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (public library) — which also gave us Bishop on why everyone should experience at least one prolonged period of solitude in life — Lowell captures the anguishing intoxication of the manic phase:

I see clearly now that for the last few days I have been living in a state of increasing mania — almost off the rails at the end. It almost seems as if I couldn’t be with you any length of time without acting with abysmal myopia and lack of consideration. My disease, alas, gives one (during its seizures) a headless heart.

In a testament to the perils of pharmacology in the face of our incomplete understanding of the mind, Lowell describes his experience with an antipsychotic drug that has since been banned from human use and is only administered in veterinary medicine:

I am taking my anti-manic pills — 75 mgs. of sparine, no more than what my doctor prescribed on the bottle but too much to drive a car or even see people much. The effect is something like the slowing and ache of a medium fever. One’s thoughts are not directly changed and healed, but the terrible, overriding restlessness of one’s system is halted so that the mind can again see life as it is.

By the next morning, he has descended from the manic high:

Yesterday was mostly bed, sparine and letting my beard grow. Today I feel certain that I am not going off the deep end. Gracelessly, like a standing child trying to sit down, like a cat or a coon coming down a tree, I’m getting down my ladder to the moon. I am part of my family again, I love my lovely family again.

Despite the medication, the disease continued to afflict Lowell, resulted in multiple hospitalizations, and frequently interfered with his interpersonal relationships, including his deep, sincere, lifelong friendship with Bishop. One of the most agonizing aspects of mental illness is that we come to confuse our neurochemistry with our personhood, mistaking how we are for who we are, and come to feel deep shame about the states spurred by our clinical condition. Accordingly, Lowell often found himself self-flagellating and apologizing for his disorder. In a 1958 letter, he beseeches Bishop:

Let’s not let my slip into the monstrous cloud our love.

By the following year, he has taken a more modern approach to mental illness, combining medication with therapy. In an unusually optimistic 1959 letter to Bishop, Lowell seeks to reconcile his art and his illness into a working relationship:

My therapy (three days a week) is really doing great things, and I begin to hope that by this time next year the knot inside me will be unsnarled. I do so want to live on into gray and white hairs, still growing. All the battering of the last ten years now seems to be paying off.

My trouble seems (just one angle for looking at it) to be to bring together in me the Puritanical iron hand of constraint and the gushes of pure wildness. One can’t survive or write without both but they need to come to terms. Rather narrow walking — I can always go off the beam into hallucinations, or lie aching and depressed for months.

As psychopharmacology evolved, Lowell tried a number of different drugs, all of which have since been replaced by newer ones. (A decade later, while on a new meprobamate treatment, he would write to Bishop: “Well, I’ve weathered my excitements and everyone’s astonished. It’s party Miltown, a drug that somehow soothes, without the heaviness and depression, preliminary panic.”) With the help of medication and therapy, he did “live on into gray and white hairs,” winning a second Pulitzer Prize and the $10,000 National Medal for Literature.

Words in Air is a beautiful and wholehearted read in its totality. Complement this particular aspect with William Styron on what it’s like to live with depression, Tchaikovsky on finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul, and astrophysicist Janna Levin on the relationship between genius and madness.


Havelock Ellis on the Function of Taboos, Their Vital Role in Community, and How They Bolster the Discipline of Compassion

“Life is livable because we know that wherever we go most of the people we meet … will allow us the same or nearly the same degree of freedom and privilege that they claim for themselves.”

Havelock Ellis on the Function of Taboos, Their Vital Role in Community, and How They Bolster the Discipline of Compassion

The English physician, writer, and social reformer Havelock Ellis (February 2, 1859–July 8, 1939) possessed a mind remarkably ahead of its time. A pioneering scholar of creativity and a lifelong influence for Oliver Sacks, he was a maverick psychologist before psychology as such existed. Ellis introduced the notion of narcissism, which was later expanded upon by Freud, and spent a considerable portion of his career studying human sexuality. In 1897, he wrote the first medically objective textbook on homosexuality, treating same-sex love as worthy of sympathetic scientific inquiry rather than as immoral and illegal, as the era’s cultural and legal institutions considered it.

In the 1930s, Ellis wrote a series of trailblazing essays exploring the social implications of sex and the deeper philosophical dimensions surrounding the physical aspect of human intimacy. They were eventually collected, two years before Ellis’s death, in On Life and Sex: Essays of Love and Virtue (public library).

One of the most incisive pieces in the volume, titled “The Function of Taboos,” argues that in an era of cultural upheaval, when the old externally enforced social mores are being demolished, we are called on to develop new, intrinsic, resolutely upheld rules of social conduct — a proposition at least as timely if not timelier today, as we find ourselves amidst a maelstrom of changing norms and expanding possibilities redefining love, sex, community, and civic life.

Havelock Ellis
Havelock Ellis

Ellis begins with a working definition:

A taboo, speaking roughly, simply indicates something that is “not done.” The reason why it is not done may be, and often is, unknown to those who observe the taboo. So that all sorts of reasons — often very unreasonable reasons — are invented to explain the taboo. But below the surface there always are reasons for taboos.

Some of those reasons, Ellis argues, stem from a kind of adaptive evolutionary instinct:

Among wild birds in a special phase of bird-existence it is taboo to remain close to humans. That taboo is strictly analogous to human taboos; it is an adopted custom. It is not found everywhere among birds. When men first visit virgin islands of the southern seas there are birds who do not regard human beings as taboo. The taboo is introduced later when human beings have become destructive to the bird society. It is, of course, completely unnecessary to be aware of the reason for the taboo, and if birds ever acquired speculative minds they would invent reasons. That is, as we know, exactly what human societies do. The distinction of human taboos lies largely in their high imaginativeness, alike as regards their nature and the supposed reasons assigned for them, and in the comparative swiftness with which they may change.


Taboos are constantly liable to shift backwards and forwards over the threshold between prohibition and permission.

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky from Advice to Little Girls, young Mark Twain’s irreverent children’s book encouraging girls to question social mores

But taboos, Ellis cautions, are essential to human life for reasons that transcend evolutionary instinct and come to inhabit the space between manners and morality, thus preserving our mutual dignity:

Unthinking people sometimes talk as though taboos were effete relics of the past which it is in our power to cast away altogether. A little reflection might serve to show not only that they are far too numerous and too deeply rooted to be torn up at will, but that we should be in a sad case without them; indeed, that human society could not survive without their loss.


Life is livable because we know that wherever we go most of the people we meet will be restrained in their actions towards us by an almost instinctive network of taboos. We know that they will allow us the same or nearly the same degree of freedom and privilege that they claim for themselves.

This humanizing power of such internalized taboos, Ellis argues, is evidenced in everything from our intuitive understanding of property rights, which stops us from barging into a stranger’s house and sprawling on their sofa, to the basic customs of etiquette, which keep us from cutting the TSA line however vexed by the process we may feel. Those devoid of such internal taboos, he points out, are civically undesirable members of a community:

The individual in whom the taboos necessary for such organization are not either automatic or self-imposed is an anti-social individual, and his elimination would be for our benefit.

But the most vital and vitalizing aspect of taboos is their evolving nature — they are in constant dynamic interaction with the changing norms and needs of society, a sort of self-renewal mechanism for the culture they serve. Ellis writes:

The recognition of the permanence of the taboo-observing impulse, and the constant tendency to develop new taboos, may enable us to face with calmness the counterbalancing fact of the falling away of taboos which have served their purpose and are no longer needed under changed social conditions. That is a process always going on.

Some taboos, he notes, are deliberately broken by the evolving standards of newer generations; others fall away imperceptibly, almost automatically, as they gradually cease serving our needs. But in order to be fruitful as humanizing rather than dehumanizing forces, their defining feature must be that they are intrinsically motivated by our moral sense rather than extrinsically enforced by law or authority:

Old taboos can only be replaced by new taboos [and] mere legal enactments enforced, or left unenforced, by paid officials or the police, to be effective must themselves become taboos, printed on the fleshy tablets of the individual citizen’s heart. If they are thus to become of the nature of taboos they must be few in number, indisputable in value, and so urgent that they are felt to be on the way to become instinctive. No society can live wholesomely by any other sort of regulation, and State legislatures stultify themselves when they fail to realize that their part is merely to formalize, and record, and support, the growth and decay of taboos.

Alan Turing and his first love, Christopher Morcom. Art by Keith Hegley from The Who, the What, and the When, an illustrated celebration of the little-known inspirations behind geniuses.

Writing in an era when homosexuality was so stigmatized and criminalized in England that its callous legal persecution drove computing pioneer Alan Turing to suicide, Ellis adds:

Sex taboos are at the centre of this process, not only because it so happens that sex is a sphere in which change [takes] place with unusual rapidity, but because sex is at once an extremely important region — so that it becomes a training ground for the social activities generally — and yet a region in which most of the essentials do not lend themselves to direct external control, and so its taboos must be both made and maintained, at all events in the first place, privately.

It is the private internalization of taboos, he argues, that makes them essential to the moral scaffolding of society — they become a form of intrinsic discipline by which we uphold our values of right and wrong, rather than relying on external regulations to guide us. In a sentiment that calls to mind Adam Smith’s notion of the “impartial spectator,” Ellis writes:

Life … is always a discipline… It is so dangerous that only by submitting to some sort of discipline can we become equipped to live in any true sense at all. The disappearance of the discipline of the old external taboos thus imposes upon us, inescapably, the creation of a new self-discipline of internal and personal taboos. If we are not responsible to an outside order which we no longer regard as valid, then we are responsible before the inner tribunal of the self, which cannot but be valid for us so long as we are alive.

Echoing Simone Weil’s abiding wisdom on the difference between our rights and our responsibilities, Ellis considers how this discipline shapes the task of each generation and becomes the seedbed of compassion within a community — a sentiment triply timely today, amid our accelerated rate of change that is continually shedding old external taboos and thus calling for the cultivation of new internal moral codes:

That really is the task for all who are young today. And so far from it being an easy and pleasant task, as some may at first have thought when they saw the old taboos melting away, it involves difficulties which their grandparents never knew. If it means the making of new and personal taboos, it involves a slow self-development and self-responsibility, which is not only in itself a continual discipline, but runs the risk of conflict with others engaged in the same task and with the same sincerity. For what we may still term morals, since it has now become an individual outcome, will not be entirely the same for all individuals. All our moralities, indeed, cannot fail to be modifications of a common pattern because we all belong to the same community; but the differences involve a greater degree of mutual understanding and forbearance than when uniform taboos were imposed from outside.

On Life and Sex has stood the test of time admirably and remains a fascinating read both as an anthropological artifact of a bygone era and as a surprisingly prescient perspective on many of the issues we tussle with today. Complement it with André Gide on how to master the vital balance between freedom and restraint and Susan Sontag on what it means to be a moral human being.


The Tragic Necessity of Human Life: Willa Cather on Relationships and How Our Formative Family Dynamics Imprint Us

“In those simple relationships of loving husband and wife, affectionate sisters, children and grandmother, there are innumerable shades of sweetness and anguish which make up the pattern of our lives day by day.”

The Tragic Necessity of Human Life: Willa Cather on Relationships and How Our Formative Family Dynamics Imprint Us

“To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn wrote in his short, potent meditation on how to love. Developmentally, we humans learn — or mislearn — how to love through our formative attachment patterns, modeled by and cultivated within the family — patterns that imprint our emotional identity and shape the defaults of how we connect, be they wounding or harmonizing. Family dynamics thus become inseparable from our sense of identity, and although we might eventually rewire our attachment patterns through new relationships and ample self-work, we can never fully unmoor ourselves from those formative affections, for they are woven into the mysterious thread that makes us and our childhood selves one person.

That peculiar, inescapable dance between the family and the self is what beloved novelist Willa Cather (December 7, 1873–April 24, 1947) explores in one of the pieces found in her altogether magnificent 1936 nonfiction collection Not Under Forty (public library).

Willa Cather (Library of Congress)
Willa Cather (Library of Congress)

In a beautiful appreciation of Katherine Mansfield’s genius for conveying the complexities of human relationships, Cather writes:

I doubt whether any contemporary writer has made one feel more keenly the many kinds of personal relations which exist in an everyday “happy family” who are merely going on living their daily lives, with no crises or shocks or bewildering complications to try them. Yet every individual in that household (even the children) is clinging passionately to his individual soul, is in terror of losing it in the general family flavor. As in most families, the mere struggle to have anything of one’s own, to be one’s self at all, creates an element of strain which keeps everybody almost at the breaking-point.

One realizes that even in harmonious families there is this double life: the group life, which is the one we can observe in our neighbor’s household, and, underneath, another — secret and passionate and intense — which is the real life that stamps the faces and gives character to the voices of our friends. Always in his mind each member of these social units is escaping, running away, trying to break the net which circumstances and his own affections have woven about him. One realizes that human relationships are the tragic necessity of human life; that they can never be wholly satisfactory, that every ego is half the time greedily seeking them, and half the time pulling away from them.

Art from In Pieces by Marion Fayolle , a wordless exploration of human relationships
Art from In Pieces by Marion Fayolle, a wordless exploration of human relationships

And yet even amid this glibness, Cather does what she does best — out of the seemingly damning, she wrests the redemptive:

In those simple relationships of loving husband and wife, affectionate sisters, children and grandmother, there are innumerable shades of sweetness and anguish which make up the pattern of our lives day by day, though they are not down in the list of subjects from which the conventional novelist works…

These secret accords and antipathies which lie hidden under our everyday behavior … more than any outward events make our lives happy or unhappy.

That Not Under Forty has gone out of print is nothing short of a tragedy, but used copies are still findable and well worth a trip to the public library. Complement it with Cather on how to persevere through difficult times and the life-changing advice that made her a writer, then revisit philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how storytelling rewires our emotional patterning, immunologist Esther Sternberg on how relationships affect our immune system, Charles Darwin on family, work, and happiness, and Adrienne Rich on honorable human relationships.


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