I think I'm dumb-- or maybe just happy.
November 16, 2012 3:23 AM   Subscribe

Wellbutrin flattening out creativity?

I've been on Wellbutrin for a little over a year, and it's working out pretty great. My baseline mood is much higher, it's way easier for me to snap out of negative scripts and self-talk, and my good moods are more impervious than they've ever been to challenges. My anxiety got a slight bump, but I find that avoiding caffeine (totally, even black tea) keeps me perfectly stable.

On the other hand, for about the last year, I have not been able to write. I write poetry. It's been a big part of my academic life and a major source of joy and pride for me. I've had some professional success in poetry that's led me to consider pursuing an MFA, and it's been a big component of my identity/personality for almost a decade. (Just emphasizing that it's something I enjoy and love and feel seriously about.) Since I started Wellbutrin, I've maintained the critical intelligence that I use in research writing, but I've felt no "spark," had very few ideas and a basically non-existent urge to write poetry at all. I took a workshop somewhere around five months into taking Wellbutrin and eked out some poetry for the requirements of the class, but even though I wrote things I'm now proud of on an intellectual and technical level, my heart wasn't in it and I felt a basic emotional incompetence in approaching my work.

So, it seems well-attested that a little emotional flattening is a result of an antidepressant, but in my case this has mostly been a good (great) thing-- keeping my head in a crisis, not feeling deep feelings of self-loathing or shame, not being overly influenced by guilt, and so on. But it so happens that this has dulled my edge when it comes to writing creatively. If I weren't invested in writing poetry, I wouldn't have noticed at all-- nothing feels "off" and I'm overall very satisfied with the drug. I'm less moody and it means I'm less dynamic, creatively. I realize now that much of the work I used to connect to was very sensual, emotional, intuitive-- whereas now I'm more impressed by technical skill and elegance and expressions of ennui. I would absolutely love to still feel deep (positive and negative) emotions while filtering out the self-hating ones, but maybe that's not how it works. In a way, it feels like I've matured a bit, but that feels a little self-deceiving in light of my disinterest in something I used to connect with.

Has anyone else been there before? What did you do? Should I shop around for a new antidepressant, or is this pretty much the pinnacle of effectiveness? It seems that searching for a "better" anti-depressant would be kind of bizarre since it does what it's meant to so well.

Oh, and a note: I'm not a regular smoker, but when I do have one or two cigarettes, I get bumped into a much more fluent mindset where I can generate thoughts and words much more prolifically. The same when I drink coffee and push into my anxiety. I suspect a touch of hypomania.
posted by stoneandstar to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Was poetry a release before you had access to Wellbutrin? Maybe attempting to write poetry about the new situation - involving rewarding personal feelings - is creating the block. Here is an example from the web of what I am saying, although it looks to be written by a teenage girl. Neil Young has described the sense of wonder with writing music since stopping smoking marijuana.

Due to spam, it is damn near impossible to find a support group for writers who use anti-depressants. Lev Grossman has written about it and the effects of coming off the medication. This comment in the thread should be read by anyone who is wondering what the effects of medication can have on writing code, although I should say it sounds extreme.

Maybe writing about the experience of taking medication and trying to keep up your professional success in the genre will spur a change in poetic perspectives and, if published, bring others to help.
posted by parmanparman at 4:13 AM on November 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: The Lev Grossman piece was pretty fascinating to me-- I feel like his novelist friend John Beckman who's lost something "dark and essential," but I'm also otherwise pleased with Wellbutrin. He also described the mechanism of Wellbutrin perfectly-- I do actually still feel high highs and low lows, but I bust through the lows quicker and keep up with the highs. However I hadn't heard that going off of Wellbutrin makes it less effective in the future, and I'm kind of weirded out by that info since I went on and off it twice before committing this time (and my psychiatrist never said anything about it). (Also, it's true that it feels a lot like a nicotine bump, except that nicotine actually works better for me. But I'd like to quit smoking and don't like having to maintain an hourly supply.)
posted by stoneandstar at 4:29 AM on November 16, 2012

This previous question might interest you: some people who take Wellbutrin find it harder to express themselves in words. If writing is your main creative outlet, aphasia can feel like a loss of creativity.

(I've been on Wellbutrin for a couple of years. My experiences: Loss of creativity: no. Struggling with words: sometimes, though I'm not convinced it's the drug and not age/stress/confirmation bias. Flattened affect: nope. Increased anxiety: somewhat, though again, not sure if it's the drug.)

On the other hand, it doesn't sound like this is just a case of losing the words. When your depression is successfully treated/in remission, it's often easy to revisit old actions, feelings, and writing, and identify when "that was the depression talking." Rereading your older poems, do you get an overwhelming sense of your depression talking, or do most of them read as "healthy" to you? If it's the latter, switching medications could be a wise move.

The Lev Grossman piece and the subsequent comments are off-putting to me. The idea that antidepressants necessarily blunt creativity and prevent people from "really" feeling is a dangerous misconception that can dissuade people from seeking the treatment they need, or getting better quality treatment, for fear of losing their "true" selves. You shouldn't feel like you are sacrificing a part of yourself to feel well, and you don't have to.

If you don't want to switch meds but think the Wellbutrin is doing you a disservice, work with your doc to transition to non-medical treatment: exercise, therapy, eating well, meditation, whatever works for you. You'll likely want to start while you're still on the meds, and once you've established the routine you can wean yourself off.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:56 AM on November 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think one thing that happens for some people also is that their writing is triggered by their sadness. So sometimes, when you lose your sadness, it's harder to write because there's no immediate trigger. It may not mean you can't write, but it may mean that it's harder to hook into the impetus for it.
posted by corb at 5:29 AM on November 16, 2012

I've found that I'm actually MORE creative on Wellbutrin, and am able to hold a conversation better as well. No clue why. The "different strokes for different folks" adage seems to work for antidepressants as well!

(Lexapro made me feel the way you are describing to a tee)
posted by Kamelot123 at 5:40 AM on November 16, 2012

I am not sure what it may(not) do for your poetry but your prose is excellent. i find this a very interesting question with equally informative and interesting responses. Thanks for posting
posted by rmhsinc at 6:03 AM on November 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have taken Wellbutrin for years and years... and I rarely write poetry anymore. However, in my case, I think the lack of poetry writing has more to do with not having a community of poets around me, as I did back in my MFA days. Also I don't read much poetry these days, and I have found in the past that when I do read it, it kind of "turns on" the poetry spigot in my head.

If I were you, before totally ditching the WB, I would try looking at my writing process. What experiences (reading, music, meditation, exercise, etc.) might you use to get inspired? Are you open to trying new things? Like, go for a long walk, whip out your notebook, and free-write for 20 minutes... that kind of thing. Maybe you just need a bit more inspiration now that you're not miserable.

Also, you didn't ask about this, but I have found as I age that my creativity has taken other forms-- collage, drawing, fiber work, etc. I don't know that it's related to Wellbutrin but I found I wanted to express ideas visually, at least sometimes, and concrete poetry just didn't satisfy the urge to express myself in color.
posted by tuesdayschild at 7:12 AM on November 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Writing for me was an anxiety controlling mechanism. I turned out great stuff, but the anxiety attacks were damn near going to kill me.

I went on Celexa and for sure, that spark isn't there anymore. I almost wish I had finished my novel before I started it.

FWIW, Prozac didn't have that effect on me, but it gave me hives.

I can still write (see the 3000 posts I write here) but that incessant drive to do it isn't there anymore.

I firmly believe that if I hunkered down and did it, that I could crank out the end of my book. I just don't wanna.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:45 AM on November 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I know next to nothing neuro-related, but I'm not sure the feelings experienced on anti-depressants are less 'real' than feelings arising as a result of other interactions that manipulate emotion (exercise, coffee, films, propaganda…). The drugs generate conditions for different emotional experiences, that's all (arguably, and afaik)*.

But if, as you've grown into yourself as a person, you've used particular patterns of emotion to drive activities that have acquired a kind of capital in your mind (writing, being praised for it, thinking of yourself as a writer), it's no surprise these new ways of feeling should be disconcerting.

I'm sure there's research around creativity that might be more useful than my reflections, but my personal experience has been that writing (music in my case) has almost always at least started as a cathartic exercise, and required a certain level of agitation/drive to expiate it (but not so much I'm beyond the effort), and had to last long enough for me to establish the beginnings of a thing (its mood, and an initial form). And then at some point, interest in refining the idea might have taken over, and I'd be able to revisit that embryo with more of an eye towards formal/technical (or whatever) things, on another day. I've almost never wanted to bother with making things when I was happy (like, actively happy), or with friends, or fully present & engaged in daily life/exchange/obligation. When music has come to me, it's in that moody, reflective sort of space. (But I'm an amateur, rainy-day writer, it's probably different for serious, professional musicians.)

*That said, my only experience has been with Paxil, which put me off most drugs (and I'm not up for more trialling and erring; am trying to manage without drugs, or, without engineered ones, coffee, exercise, booze, I use). But I know lots of people like Wellbutrin, which seems to be less deadening. Hope you hear from more of them.
posted by nelljie at 9:11 AM on November 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I know for me, the pits of untreated depression are the absolutely most viscerally intense experience I've ever had. Just completely all-encompassing. Like a bad trip or a waking nightmare or like being possessed by (horribly slow-moving) evil spirits. It's like it's some sort of perverse ecstatic state, only with the euphoria swapped out for its opposite.

And you know, there is a long, long tradition of getting artistic inspiration out of ecstatic states. It's not how everyone works. But it's how a lot of artists work. And I know for me personally, when I used to write poetry, an awful lot of the inspiration did come from depression itself. Not that I was writing "Oh god I'm so depressed," but that the images and ideas I used — even the happy ones — would still all somehow be stuff that came to mind when I thought back on my worst and most all-encompassing trips through the pits, the same way other people might get images from remembered dreams or psychedelic experiences or whatever.

So I wonder if that's what's going on for you. In which case, chasing down other healthier sorts of ecstatic or altered state might be useful. Which sounds like I'm saying "take drugs" — and, well, maybe, if that's something that works for you — but what I'm also saying is, try skydiving or long-distance running, or meditation, or dance for six hours straight, or spend a week in the woods with nobody else around, or go to death metal shows and stand right in front of the speakers, or — well, you get the idea. Find other sorts of ecstatic state that don't make you wish you were dead, and see what sort of inspiration they afford.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:26 PM on November 16, 2012

As you know, Wellbutrin lowers a person's seizure threshold.

And seizures and seizure disorder are often tied to artistic expression:
As Eve LaPlante discusses in her book, Seized, the intense emotions, sensory experience including vibrancy of colors, and particular mental state provoked by temporal lobe abnormalities may have contributed to the creation of significant works of art. A number of well-known writers and artists are known, or in many cases suspected to have had temporal lobe epilepsy, aggravated, in some cases, by alcoholism. They include Vincent Van Gogh, Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll), Edgar Allan Poe, Fyodor Dostoevsky (whose novel The Idiot features a protagonist with epilepsy, Prince Myshkin), Gustave Flaubert, Philip K. Dick, Sylvia Plath and contemporary author Thom Jones. Peter O'Leary has also discussed this in relation to work of poet Philip Jenks in his "Gnostic Contagion: Robert Duncan and the Poetry of Illness". Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti has discussed the significance of Lewis Carroll's epilepsy online and in a forthcoming book on the subject.
Perhaps written artistic expression in particular:
The first researcher to note and catalog the abnormal experiences associated with TLE was neurologist Norman Geschwind, who noted a constellation of symptoms, including hypergraphia, hyperreligiosity, fainting spells, and pedantism, often collectively ascribed to a condition known as Geschwind syndrome . [my emphasis]
I was even able to find an account [pdf] of a patient who felt compelled to write rhymed poetry after the onset of his seizure disorder.

So I would speculate that your brain, possibly as a result of a near approach or two to a seizure after you started taking Wellbutrin, has turned down the baseline level of excitability in the poetry-producing parts of your brain, making it more difficult for you to write poetry.

Oh, and a note: I'm not a regular smoker, but when I do have one or two cigarettes, I get bumped into a much more fluent mindset where I can generate thoughts and words much more prolifically. The same when I drink coffee and push into my anxiety. I suspect a touch of hypomania.

Caffeine and nicotine (more equivocally) are recognized as seizure triggers.
posted by jamjam at 3:41 PM on November 16, 2012

Best answer: It didn't happen to me, but it did to a friend of mine. He was a programmer and couldn't code while he took it.
posted by radioamy at 7:34 PM on November 16, 2012

Best answer: I love Wellbutrin. I've taken it for years. I hadn't noticed any artistic side effects though, now that you mention it, I haven't painted in years. But I always found myself more interested in artistic expression when I was in The Dark Place. Ani DiFranco said at a show that when she was in a rough place, she would write longer songs so she knew she was in a good place when she wrote an album or shorter tracks. What made you write poetry? What inspired you? Was it internal or external?
posted by kat518 at 8:19 PM on November 16, 2012

Response by poster: It's so interesting to me that programming has been brought up twice (three times?) because I can absolutely see how the creativity used in coding (I've done some Java programming) would be similar to that in writing poetry. Maybe I'm thinking about it wrong? But the ability to come up with novel or efficient solutions that kill two birds with one stone, writing syntactically complex statements that accomplish multiple purposes, &c., it all seems in the same cognitive class to me, and involves the same kind of mental grace and agility, and rewards the brain with the same glow and kinetic sense of fluency. Maybe I'm making too much of a coincidence?

The Lev Grossman piece and the subsequent comments are off-putting to me. The idea that antidepressants necessarily blunt creativity and prevent people from "really" feeling is a dangerous misconception that can dissuade people from seeking the treatment they need, or getting better quality treatment, for fear of losing their "true" selves.

THIIIIIIIIS. The expression of the idea that people with depression take drugs to avoid dealing with reality is one of the reasons there's such a stigma against it. It's a gross misconception.

I agree that avoiding treatment for these reasons is a flawed conclusion, but I wonder if it really is a misconception so much as a mis-emphasis. It seems I still have my creative abilities within me, but I do feel slightly at a remove from deeper (non self-loathing) feelings that used to be significant to me. In fact, I don't even "feel" distant from them, I just am, and can only tell the difference by comparing evidence. I also feel much happier and more capable, and I am much better at linear tasks. It's an interesting change. I definitely don't feel like a zombie or alienated from myself, however; that's what I would call a misconception. I feel like a more capable version of myself. (I also wouldn't say that it has anything to do with "avoiding reality," it's just lack of access to certain feelings and modes that I used to strive to express poetically. I don't think those modes were more real than the ones I feel now, but these don't seem to beg as much explication.)

Which makes me grateful that people have brought up the internal/external inspiration question. It's really hard to say. I remember a time when I would walk past a seagull on the pavement and get home and decide to write a poem about a seagull on the pavement. Obviously there were stray thoughts hanging around in my head that made the seagull ripe for muse-dom. The feeling that I have now is that those stray thoughts have been wound up and tucked neatly out of the way. There's not as much frayed wonder and contemplation of my human scale. I feel very comfortable in my place.

To a depressed person that might seem complacent, but I'm also much better at focusing on my work and focusing intellectually and loving people in my life deserving of love, so dropping antidepressants does not at all seem an obvious answer. I'm better at organizing my feelings and relationships which makes me better at cutting out negative and manipulative influences. I feel much more clear-eyed, but it's funny how I miss feeling a bit messy. When people in discussions of ADHD point out how it's not entirely a loss as it's made them a more contemplative and creative person-- I understand what they're saying.
posted by stoneandstar at 3:54 AM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: but I found I wanted to express ideas visually, at least sometimes

This is also totally true-- I feel really interested in collages and other visual art that I had a difficult time connecting with before. (Doesn't apply to music, though.) I have a desire to make visual art that I've never been able to stick with. (I would give up very quickly due to lack of talent or just lose interest.)

I also meant to mention that I've been working on some poems lately (as in the last week) in a workaday fashion and they're actually turning out pretty well; I just don't feel the creative drive I used to. That seems to be pretty common from this thread. I went off Wellbutrin about four months ago just for a couple days when my prescription ran out and it was interesting-- I started feeling much more vividly but quickly dropped into a state of fatigue and lack of motivation that was really pretty awful by comparison to how I feel with WB. I think I may try to really get on track diet/sleep/exercise/therapy-wise and see if I can transition at point to an unmedicated state, but honestly I think that WB is an answer for me in a big way and I want to keep experimenting with different states of writing. Part of me dreads trying other antidepressants that have a much worse rap.

Rereading your older poems, do you get an overwhelming sense of your depression talking, or do most of them read as "healthy" to you?

Most of them definitely feel healthy-- there's sadness there, but it's a contemplative sadness. I actually found it totally impossible to write while in a deeply depressed or agitated state-- I often tried to write as a creative outlet during times of really tumultuous emotion and all that would come out was the most stilted, boring, confessional garbage, so that's really never been my style. I think I might be just as capable of writing poetry, but maybe it's not so much a natural state for me now as something I feel compelled to do depending on my external involvement with poetry. I guess it's up to me to figure out whether it still fits into my life in a meaningful way (and whether a slight emotional remove and better mental focus might be a great asset).
posted by stoneandstar at 4:07 AM on November 17, 2012

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