The Tortured Geniuses Among Us

A copywriter I worked with years ago used to have a book in his office called, “Be Glad You’re Neurotic.” I used to think it was funny. I no longer do.

The point of the book was actually a good one. I didn’t read it, but my writer buddy told me the idea was that the OCD or whatever other compulsion you have is what’s made you the success you are.

And I think he was right. It does take somebody kind of OCD to be able to proofread and notice things like the space between these two lines doesn’t match, and this caption isn’t exactly centered under the visual, and that doesn’t quite line up over here.

I’ve always taken it for granted that I was a little off. I know I have my peculiarities, and I’m okay with that. I’m not at the level where I have to double back to my house several times to check if I left the garage door open, but I do have to check the front door several times before I go to bed, even though I know I’ve already checked it.

We’re in the market for a new car, and my wife wanted to know the dimensions of our current car so she could compare (she wants a smaller one). So I also made a list of the dimensions of the cars she was interested in, so she’d know what they were when she saw them in real life. I hadn’t had time to finish filling in the dimensions on the last two cars, but she wanted to go car shopping the other day. I said okay, hang on, let me finish the list. She said no, let’s just go. I said no, I have to finish the list, it’ll take me two minutes. She said no, let’s go. I said look, I have to finish this. That’s just how I am. Didn’t you ever see The Accountant?

When I do projects around the house, they have to be perfect, at least to the best of my ability. I can’t leave a flaw in drywall, even though I know no one will ever see it.

And like the book said, that perfectionism is what enables me to excel at my chosen craft. I have to do a good job, even for a crappy client. I take pride in my work. I agonize over using this word or that word, even when the client will never notice if I use the less perfect one. But I’ll know, and that’s what matters.

I don’t know about your profession, but the advertising business is filled with weirdos like me. Hello, why do you think I saw the book in another writer’s office?

One of my partners and I used to do an annual report for a certain client every year. We’d always do a great job and present all kinds of cool concepts. And every year, the client would say, “Those are all good ideas. But what I really want is a collage.” So every year, we’d end up doing a collage.

After the first few years, he said to me, “Why can’t we learn? Why can’t we take the easy way out? Why can’t we just go in with ideas that have collages, and just give the client what she wants, and just take the money and run?”

And I said, “Because we care.”

We have no choice. We can’t not care. We take pride in what we do. But I’d rather care than not. It’s a blessing and a curse.

But recently, I learned that for some,  it’s a bigger blessing and a bigger curse.

A good friend of mine just told me this past week that he was recently diagnosed as bipolar. I didn’t know much about bipolar disorder, other than it means mood swings. So I asked him about it, and did some reading, and I asked another friend about it that I already knew is bipolar.

It was a real eye-opener for me. I had no idea what some people go through every day. Yes, I know, people get so depressed that they actually kill themselves, but I never really understood it. I guess I still don’t fully, but I have a better idea now.

The first friend told me he’s always sad. I was blown away, because this is someone I’ve been joking around with for the past 20 years or so. I tend to usually be in a pretty good mood, and I thought this guy was too. We always have a blast together. He’s quick with a joke, and we laugh together pretty much every time we talk. How could he be so continually sad? What he must be going through. My heart broke for him.

That moved me to ask my other friend how he feels. This is another guy who’s funny and always so energetic. The life of the party. He said, “You know that feeling you get when you haven’t studied for a test? That deep anxiety? That’s how I feel all the time. All the time. Even when I’m happy.”

Wow. I had no idea. I asked both of them (at separate times) if they ever thought about harming themselves. They both said yes. That really scared me, because I love both of these guys. Those thoughts seemed so out of character for both of them. It showed me that you really don’t know what someone else is going through.

As I asked questions, I realized that bipolar disorder doesn’t always simply mean mood swings. It can have positives and negatives beyond just feeling happy or sad. 

On the positive side, both of these guys are exceptionally creative and brilliant. They’re both far beyond where I’ll ever be. In fact, I’ve admired and been envious of their intelligence for a long time. Is it because of their manic depressive condition? There’s no definitive answer, but it does seem to be a coincidence that both these guys are exceptionally bright. Maybe it’s something in the way their brilliant brains are wired that makes them more susceptible to the disorder.

On the negative side, they sometimes find it difficult to complete simple tasks. If they don’t want to do something, they can’t. Their brain just shuts down. 

For example, let’s say all three of us were asked to write an ad. And let’s say the input was lame and the whole job was stupid and so strategically wrong. I could suck it up and just do it. The other two guys couldn’t. They would just stare at the page for hours and be completely unable to do it. Even if they wanted to. They just couldn’t. 

One of these guys told me he’s been trying to clean the garage for the past four weekends. He just goes out there and has no idea where to start or how to go about it. He just ends up moving a few things around and gives up.

Being unable to do these things has a further consequence. They feel guilty that they can’t do simple things, and they feel embarrassed. Their self-worth suffers, and they have low self-esteem. One of them was called lazy and stupid in school because he didn’t (couldn’t) do homework, so he believed he was. Even though he aced all his tests.

Again, I was blown away. I admire these two guys so much, and they have low self-esteem? They can do things that most of the population can’t, and they have low self-esteem?

As I thought about it, I remembered that book. “Be Glad You’re Neurotic.” Suddenly, it didn’t seem so funny anymore. It was written to help people in pain. People suffering and wishing they weren’t so neurotic or compulsive or whatever. The book was trying to encourage them to be thankful for the brilliance that they’ve been given, and to try to make it through the low periods by realizing that their condition is both a blessing and a curse. 

Because these are the people who move the world forward. The ancient Greeks believed bipolar disorder was a divine gift, because of the inspirational thinking that often arose from an intense manic state.

Abraham Lincoln was bipolar. So was Sir Isaac Newton. Ted Turner. Ernest Hemingway. Florence Nightingale. Vincent van Gogh. Carrie Fisher. The list is long. Again, there’s no proven cause and effect, but it’s not disproven, either.

I wonder how many people I know suffer from bipolar disorder? I bet a ton of people in advertising do. There are times I wonder if I have a touch of it, because sometimes I feel as though I’m unnaturally giddy, and there are times when I get extremely depressed. Neither of those too often, but I’m aware of both. For me, it doesn’t really matter, though. I’ve made it this far, so whatever.

But for these two guys, who are both younger than me, I feel so bad for their suffering. How much worse must it be for them?

I asked the first guy what I could do to help. He said, “Just keep being funny. Keep making me laugh.” I can do that.

If nothing else though, these recent conversations have made me more aware of the hidden suffering of others. In the future, if someone isn’t getting their work done and holding everyone else up, I’ll consider that maybe it’s because they’re having trouble with that particular task for reasons unknown to me. Maybe they’re not lazy or stupid. Maybe they just need a little patience and understanding, and a little encouragement to hang in there.

Don’t we all once in awhile?

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