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The Power of Imagination in Taming Mental Illness

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Einstein famously said that, "Imagination is more important than knowledge."

He was of course correct, but when Einstein made that statement, he had accrued a sufficient amount of knowledge, a threshold level, from which he could extrapolate and conduct his thought-experiments, his daydreams of riding on a beam of light.

Others who have made such metaphorical leaps discussed the role of memory in fueling their imagination, an imagination that was linked not only to their poetry but also to their mental illness.

The Romantic poets, Wordsworth and Coleridge, grappled, in the first case, with depression and, in the second, with debilitating episodes of what we would probably now call bipolar disorder. Wordsworth, in particular, tapped into his visionary world and managed his illness by exploring early childhood memories.

Is it possible that imagination enables some of us with psychiatric diagnoses to survive our greatest traumas and even flourish?

I have written before that psychosis might be viewed as imagination taken to an extreme, taken to the nth degree, and that it can serve as an evolutionary adaptation. Like almost all adaptations, psychosis does not develop at a conscious level.

It drips subconsciously, like water from a leaky faucet, into the hypothalamus and perhaps elsewhere in the brain.

The key is to fix that faucet before the psychosis floods the brain with too much water or too many neurotransmitters, before the brain is swamped, and before the psychotic individual drowns from lack of oxygen or spirals into a vortex of doom.

In my case, I have indeed swirled in such a vortex. But I have swum to shore, and my imagination, which has been abetted and nurtured by an open mind and a fierce love, has been a buoy, a life-preserver that has helped to keep me afloat.

When I was a child, my father used to sit on the side of my bed at night and tell me stories. He would invent tales in which I was the star, although he directed me, literally swung my arms, like a puppeteer with his marionette. Before I knew it, I would drift off into dreamland with these nighttime tales fluttering in my head.

Around this time, in 1971, my father introduced me to the old Warner Brothers movies of the 1930s and '40s that were being broadcast on channel 5, now the Fox flagship, which was then an independent station in New York. I was about six and already deeply depressed, suffering from what clinicians refer to as anhedonia. That obscure word, the opposite of hedonism, means that nothing seemed to give me any pleasure.

When I watched those old movies, many of which were urban melodramas, set on the Lower East Side, I entered an imaginative universe where I did have friends; where I was not mocked by some of my classmates, including my nominal best friend in grade school; where I was not humiliated but rather delighted and engaged by streetwise, tough-guy actors like James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, John Garfield and the Dead End Kids, people who never hurt me.

Instead, they rewarded me with their pugnacious, sing-song prose, courtesy of the streets of New York, in particular the streets of immigrant New York during the Depression.

To this day, those Warner Brothers films play a huge role in my imaginative universe. They influenced me not only in my decision to move to L.A. in 1994; they have contributed mightily to the fictional worlds I inhabit when I write novels.

Besides the old movies, geography remains a life-long love.

In Appendix A to Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson, who, as author of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, knew more than a little about psychosis, wrote of maps, "I am told there are people who do not care for maps, and find it hard to believe...here is an inexhaustible fund of interest for any man with eyes to see, or twopence worth of imagination to understand with."

Once again, my father was the one who introduced me to this subject. I pored over street maps of New Haven, Conn., my hometown, and the outlying suburbs, as well as larger maps of the United States and the world, which adorned the kitchen in our clapboard house.

I also loved sports as a boy and began to read the sports section of the newspaper when I was in fifth grade. Until that time I had done next to no reading. Back then, I did not realize just how depressed I was, nor did I or anyone else seem to understand that depression can rob the afflicted of the desire and concentration necessary to read anything, even sports.

Thankfully, I loved baseball, in particular, so much that, in spite of my depression as a child, I became a devotee of the sports section of the New Haven Register and, as I got older, the New York Times.

More than a decade later, in the late 1980s, when I was a young waterfront planner for the NYC Parks Department, I came up with the idea for the Baseball Ferry, a ferry that took fans from various locations in the city to the World's Fair Marina for New York Mets games.

My mother, who had chirped the lullaby, "Rock-a-bye, baby," in my ear every day when I was an infant, pointed out that, in conceptualizing the ferry service, I had combined my love for geography with my love for baseball.

I had made a leap from one field to another, which, as it turns out, is characteristic of creative people, who connect one idea, one passion to another, a point that Professor Jonathan Feinstein of the Yale School of Management made in his book, The Nature of Creative Development.

I mention all this because, although I did not realize it when I was younger, imagination may have saved me all these years from some of the devastating effects of trauma. Without a doubt, imagination over the decades has opened up my mind to new and different ideas, to places ethereal and magical, where novelists, poets and other artists thrive.

At the same time, I have come to realize that I need to have my feet on the ground, or else my pocket will be picked.

Perhaps, it is that tension between floating in the ether and remaining grounded that permits some of us to tame depression and psychosis, to produce our best art, to sustain it over a lifetime and to live with wisdom.

As Percy Shelley, another Romantic poet, once said, "the function of the sublime" is to "abandon easier for more difficult pleasures."

Whether or not we suffer from mental illness, we all have free will, and we need to show a fierce determination to stay alive.

For those of us who battle depression and/or psychosis, we can also help ourselves and everyone else by opening our minds to other possibilities, to the distant spots on a map, and by nourishing our brains with love, so that we can enter the universe of imagination.

Note: This article is adapted from a speech I gave today, Wed., May 18, at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital on the occasion of Mental Health Awareness Month.