Letter from the Editor: Therapy is Making Me Better at My Job
A note from the BWH Editor-in-Chief, Heather Croteau
If there's a knock-knock joke about the Type-A, image-obsessed achiever who's 30 minutes late for their first therapy appointment, I'm the punchline.
It was 10:15 and I was driving confidently to meet my new therapist (after having practice-driven the course on my way home from work one day prior) when she sent me a text gently asking whether I was having trouble finding her office. The realization that I was late hit hard. I swerved into a parking lot and fumbled through my email inbox, looking for the appointment confirmation. When it instead confirmed my lateness, I swore, hit the steering wheel and called her to apologize. The next call I made was to my husband, lamenting my foolishness at calendaring my therapy appointment a half hour too late. My first therapy appointment. "I don't do things like this!" I wailed into the phone, frustration and panic mounting as I raced to catch the last 30 minutes of my scheduled time.
I was consumed with the mistake; I could think of nothing else. And not just in that moment, either—when I sat on the couch, introducing myself and apologizing repeatedly. When I arrived at work and started wading through emails. When I attempted to write copy later in the afternoon and found my mind wandering back to my “ruined” first impression. Anxiety was overflowing, and it left little room for creative thought. The irony was not lost on me (or my therapist, of course): how kismet it is to screw up your first time meeting someone with whom your primary purpose of meeting is to discuss your fear of screwing up.
In seeking help from a licensed mental health counselor, I am not alone amongst my peers—and it’s not a coincidence that so many others in my industry (creative services) struggle to maintain their mental health. There is a powerful link between creativity and mental illness. Well known are Van Gogh’s severed ear and Sylvia Plath’s own experience in the bell jar, but mental illness doesn’t always present to such extremes. The burden affecting creative people often looks like insecurity, self-loathing, intense self-doubt. Substance abuse—nicotine, alcohol, marijuana being the least of these—becomes a coping mechanism for everything from a fear of failure to the fear of success.
There are indeed the common clinical diagnoses, to which Van Gogh and Plath surely related. Neuroscientist Nancy C. Andreasen has spent decades studying creativity, and in reporting on her research, she wrote: “The creative subjects and their relatives have a higher rate of mental illness than the controls and their relatives do. The most-common diagnoses include bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety or panic disorder, and alcoholism. [...] [My colleague] and I discussed whether some particularly creative people owe their gifts to a subclinical variant of schizophrenia that loosens their associative links sufficiently to enhance their creativity but not enough to make them mentally ill.”
(Of course, mental health is not only a topic of concern for the creative industry. Indeed, Andreasen’s own work considered scientists tangential to artists, creators in their own right—of hypotheses, which are themselves ideas that exist only to be proven or disproven.)
Of artists and scientists, she says: “They have to confront doubt and rejection. And yet they have to persist in spite of that, because they believe strongly in the value of what they do. This can lead to psychic pain, which may manifest itself as depression or anxiety, or lead people to attempt to reduce their discomfort by turning to pain relievers such as alcohol. [...] Persisting in the face of doubt or rejection, for artists or for scientists, can be a lonely path—one that may also partially explain why some of these people experience mental illness.”
I have experienced many lonely nights (and days) in the dark place: disbelief in my own abilities, fear that the “genius” will disappear, deep-seated conviction that I am an imposter—unprepared and ill-equipped for my responsibilities. I am afraid this writing itself is too meandering; too convoluted and yet still too laconic. I will edit it obsessively before submitting it, and still remain unsure. Therapy is helping me see the periods of insecurity for what they are (distractions) and develop strategies for combating them. In that combating, I am flourishing, pursuing new ideas and engaged in my work, unencumbered by fear of failure and unbothered by that naysaying voice in the back of my mind.
I'm grateful to work for an organization that recognizes the mental burden our work takes on an already delicate population of people and encourages us to be proactive in the ways we manage our mental health. I am grateful for the generosity of employer-paid health insurance which makes it financially feasible for me to prioritize my mental health. In recent studies, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) has estimated that at least 50 percent of Americans who had need for mental health care could not afford to receive it. Reducing the stigma of mental health counseling is a good first step for society as a whole, but it's nowhere near the last. Employers must make a commitment to encouraging healthy practices. The wellbeing of their people—and their organizations—depends on it.
Last week, I had an idea. It was 8:45 a.m. and I was slowly driving to work, turning a problem over and over in my head like an hourglass. And indeed, time was running out: The day before I’d received feedback on a script, and I had four hours before my answer—a way to fix what was, admittedly, broken—was due. I was driving in silence, taking the long route, using the time and space to relax my brain. I was intentionally unconcerned, feeling refreshed and full of clarity after a therapy appointment the prior afternoon. The answer, when it came, hit me all at once; a flash of the most vibrant lightning as it formed like vapor and coalesced into being. That feeling—it’s not like anything else. It’s a higher high than the deepest low I’ve ever felt.
These “eureka” moments—they require periods of rest, both physically and mentally. At work, I get paid to think; our clients give my company their money in exchange for my ideas, and my company pays me to execute them. When I am free from the burden to develop the best ideas, I am free to develop my best ideas. The emotional labor of staying ahead, staying on top, staying one step in front of everyone else results in a casualty of creativity. There is a lightness in being unburdened from being “the best” that naturally makes you better at what you do.
Six days after that idea struck me, I had the incredible privilege of watching it come to life on camera. A week prior, that thing wasn’t real; not even as an idea. It came from nothing and become something. It exists. People will see it, feel the emotion of it, be moved by it. It’s the closest to real magic I will ever come.
Because of therapy, I am learning how to create space for those moments; to understand my own emotions so that I can put them into my writing; to engage my colleagues and clients with empathy first; and to process the thoughts that consume me productively, so that my brain can consider other things. The things that bring me joy. The things that make me good at what I do. The things that matter.
I am telling myself, daily: be well—so that you may be free to do your best.
Heather is an American transplant by way of Weymouth, England. Heather is our editor-in-chief, in addition to working as copy director for an advertising agency, where she's responsible for overseeing the quality and communication of clients' copywriting needs. Her focus as an editor has always been about finding really extraordinary voices, helping bring confidence and clarity to their story, then simply passing them the microphone. She lives in Seattle with her husband, Sean, and their two Australian Shepherd-mixes, Draper and Faye.