Sherman Alexie on Mania, Bipolarity and Great Art

April 11, 2013

Writer Sherman Alexie talks candidly about mood swings he experienced before he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, explaining the ways in which his manic periods influenced his creative process. “Just staying up, you know, two days in a row writing — and great stuff often,” he tells Bill. “I mean, you’re crazy. So, you get these incredible images.”

He cites Collossus, Sylvia Plath’s book of poetry, as an example of great art emerging from experiences related to mental illness. He admits that when he was younger he found his manic periods “addictive” and he ventures that “most of the world’s great art has come out of manic periods in the artist’s life.” But he says he has a strong desire to “be in the middle,” because when you’re depressed it “feels like the world has ended.”

Now medicated, he talks about the challenges presented by his illness, including the constant adjustments that need to be made to his medicine. “The brain sneaks around it,” he says, “your bipolar brain is like these soldiers, and your sanity is like the civilians.”

Watch Bill’s full conversation with Sherman Alexie. Join us on Tuesday, April 16 at 1 PM ET, for a live chat with the author.

More Information about bipolar disorder:
National Institute of Mental Health
Mayo Clinic
American Psychological Association

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  • Sarah Ferrell

    Research does not bear out his assertions. Bill… Bill. This kind of thing needs caveats if you are going to post it.

  • Susan MacDonnell

    I love Alexie’s writing, and have learned so much from his short stories about what it is like for “modern day” Indians spanning both their native and the conquering culture. Perhaps a better way of thinking about mental illness within an entire population would be to consider PTSD– as many have suggested for African Americans who have grown up all their lives in dangerous neighborhoods, under siege from the violence within as well as the violence of the police who occupy their communities. As a group, I would certainly think that the two plus centuries of constant military attack and efforts to erdicate them as a people would leave American Indians quite prone to symptoms and traits of PTSD as well.

  • Teresa Cain

    What does research not bear out, Sarah Ferrell? This is quite a personal assertion.

  • Anonymous

    What research are you referring to? As a bipolar (II) wired person for over 14 years, I heard nothing that was out of the ordinary per current experience, research and practice.

  • jdelascoop

    I really wish your editors had taken out Mr. Alexie’s “expert” comments on bipolar illness. Alexie’s work is not any more relevant to me as an audience member in knowing he has bipolar illness, and I feel like Bill’s serious look-him-in-the-eyes question about what’s it like to be bipolar, really strayed from the story. Please Mr. Alexie, don’t diminish this illness by overgeneralizing and reducing it to an”artists are just crazy” deal. There are different types of bi-polar illness that present differently, in different people. Media needs to enlighten the public as much as possible to help eradicate the myths, stereotypes and harsh judgments about mental illness so that families and individuals get help.

  • Ricky T

    How did it stray from the story. This is his opinion and his life experience. i didn’t hear him say we are all 100% like this. I can relate to what he says to a point because my experience is indeed my personal experience and i choose to deal with my bi-polar without medication. I agree with you that there’s different degrees of being bi-polar and this is his. i don’t see him as the pied piper. And yes the media should do a better job in regards to various forms of mental illness and maybe that day will come. Until then we all have to deal with it in our own way. I am accountable to myself. A great day to all.

  • Paul Calhoun

    It was simply refreshing to hear someone speak openly about the stigma of mental illness. If what he said is not borne out in all of science and perhaps overgeneralized, should he apologize? More importantly, he has taken what might be and is, a debilitating illness for many, and creating beauty as well as personal truths. He is to be commended for that, and for me, appreciated.

  • Theresa Riley

    Sarah, Thanks for your comment. As stated in the video description, this is Sherman Alexie’s perspective on his own mental illness, nothing more. Alexie has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and he brought it up in his conversation with Bill. In no way should this be considered a medical or expert explanation of bipolar disorder.

  • Anne Pyburn Craig

    I don’t get why people seem to think it’s a problem for Sherman Alexie to speak of what bipolar is for him. As someone living the experience, he has every right.

  • Lonewolf

    I am curious about the research you have done to support your comment. May I recommend that you read Touched with Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D. “As a scientist who has done distinctive research in the mood changes of manic-depressive (bipolar) illness, she writes with jargon-free eloquence of the interaction of the illness and the artistic temperament.” ” Stigmatization of people with mental disorders is manifested by bias, distrust, stereotyping, fear, embarrassment, anger and avoidance. Stigma leads people to avoid others with mental disorders. It reduces access to resources and leads to low self-esteem, isolation, and hopelessness. It deters the public from seeking and wanting to pay for care. Stigma results in discrimination…More tragically, it deprives people of their dignity and interferes with their full participation in society.”US Surgeon General, Dr. David Satcher

  • SteveinLongBeach

    I’d love to have been Jacqueline Du Pre’s cello… even greater than Yo-Yo Ma… hearing her live changed my life.

  • Patti McIntosh

    I also love Sherman Alexies writing and it was great to watch this interview and get to know him a little better. I appreciated his openness about being bi-polar and alcoholism among native Americans.
    It made me wonder if he has heard Dr. Gabor Mate’s views on addiction as Dr. Mate’ referres to natives as an example of how the loss of their culture, poverty & genocide are the source of the pain that has lead so many to self medicate.
    ~Susan MacDonnell I think you may be onto something ~ PTSD. I have a dear friend who was originally diagnosed w/bi-polar several years ago. After years of observation it is now clear that she is struggling with PTSD and is only manic when she has been severely triggered. Dr. Mate’s model puts depression/anxiety, PTSD, bi-polar etc on a spectrum similar to the Autism spectrum.

  • Devonee Trivett

    His openness and intelligence around the subject is very valuable. Thank you for publishing this Interview. I love Sherman Alexie, and every time I learn more about him I understand more about why I love him and his writing. .