Intelligence and Mental Illness: A beautiful Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste


Brilliant mind - depression meme

Scumbag Genetics meme

It has been said that a beautiful mind is a terrible thing to waste. And yet, it would seem like every day I live is just one step closer to wasting this mind of mine.

Born with a gifted brain, I once was marked for success, like so many other gifted kids around the world. One would think that a better brain could only make its owner’s life easier. But it is the most counter-intuitive thing in the world.

Gifted children have a lot of problems adapting to a world where they stand out by simply existing. School for them is infinitely boring. Classmates are boring. Teachers are boring. It’s hard to relate to a teacher when it is so obvious for you-  at age 7, that you are way smarter than them. Take my word for it.

Gifted children more often that not, quickly become outcasts. Either they go inward, like me, ignoring everybody and living a very quiet, introverted life or they become arrogant, confrontational or even destructive.

And then, mental illness kicks in.

I have often told my therapist that I consider being this intelligent a curse. For many reasons. Being gifted also means being painfully aware of everything. On the other hand, being on the other side of the intelligence spectrum also means being blissfully unaware.

Once, the following construct was a great source of grief for me : If I am so smart, why can’t I fix myself? And the fact that I have an MD degree didn’t help at all. That’s how I lived my 20’s and 30’s. It tortured me. But when one is genetically marked for mental illness, little can be done without the help of pharmacotherapy.  It is the only way to correct damaged or faulty pathways. For now, anyway. I have high hopes on gene therapy. I hoped to one day work in that field but alas, that will never happen.

However, there’s no solid data for the high intelligence-mental illness association. The following quote says it all:

Anecdotal and biographical reports have long suggested that bipolar disorder is more common in people with exceptional cognitive or creative ability. Epidemiological evidence for such a link is sparse.

The former is the first paragraph of the abstract of an article published this month* in Molecular Psychiatry: Is bipolar disorder more common in highly intelligent people? A cohort study of a million men. But the quote may as well be applied to Clinical Depression and other disorders.

Yet another recent article on the relationship between depression and high intellectual potential in children, concludes that:

based on these different levels of analysis, it appears that heterogeneity of mental functioning in children with high intellectual potential is at the centre of the creative process and it has related psychological vulnerability.

Gotta love scientific jargon!

In other words, it looks like there is some correlation but nobody really knows why or how. In the mean time, a lot of gifted people – my son and I included, struggle with mental illness. And it would seem that history is backing me up on this one.

It does seem to me that goes like this: Crap, we gave her too much of this so we better add some bad things or else it will be unfair.

But I’ve long known that I pretty much got the worse from that scumbag genetics. How is one supposed to not waste a beautiful mind when one is in so much constant pain, both of the physical and psychological kind?

I seem to have lost the battle. This beautiful mind has been wasted.

I have failed the test. I will diminish, and go into the Darkness, and remain a lost little girl.


* By the time this post is published, it will actually be last month, on February, 2013

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39 thoughts on “Intelligence and Mental Illness: A beautiful Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste

  1. No, you will NOT be lost to darkness. You get pissed off; you fight; you don’t give up. Take it from someone who has been in similar shoes … and then ended up with cancer and mind-numbing chemo to top it off! You’ll slog through it. [hugs]

  2. beautiful, eloquent and evocative. i read this as if reading about myself and my experience. thinking of others like John Nash, and those i’ve known as well. i also know the lows quite well. hopefully one day sooner not later we will start to see some of that so needed epidemiological evidence to support what we all know, and those before us have known so well–high intelligence often results in mental illness–so it is a blessing and a curse both. nice to read that i am not the only person feeling this, living this, but sorry we have to have a club at all.

  3. I do not have a “beautiful mind”, but I do have depression, general anxiety, social anxiety. I feel like I got the short end of two sticks – mentally ill and not even that smart. Most of the people I know with mental illness ARE very intelligent. It’s like being the odd man out amongst the odd men out.

    Of course, the grass is always greener, they say.

    • So they say, yes. We humans are funny sometimes.

      Mental illness is a cruel thing, no matter how one looks at it. It really doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor or intelligent or not. It is still painful and terrible. And remember, there isn’t just one kind of intelligence as previously thought.

      All the best in your journey!

  4. I think it would be helpful to you to redefine what you consider a “waste” of your mind. If you make the choice to look at it as only being useful if it gets you something, some kind of worldly success, then you are not only wasting your mind, you’re wasting your life. I know this is difficult to do when you are dealing with depression, but it’s certainly better to try to look at what you are capable of doing, rather than what you are not.

    I tested into the gifted program before I entered elementary school. I was given the blessing of not being aware of being smarter than my peers or teachers until high school — I think I just found enough in my imagination to keep me occupied and happy. Looking back now at some of my interactions with teachers as I became more aware, I think that while I may have been very intelligent, I was also quite stupid in my behaviors toward them. Being unkind to someone out of frustration is not something I am ever proud of, and the fact that I was 16 and probably hypomanic does not change that, nor does it forgive my arrogance.

    I dropped out of high school. I attended a lot of community college, but I have no degree, and I never will. I am 32 years old, I have no job, I am on disability, and I live at home with my parents. A complete and utter failure, by society’s standards.

    But I don’t consider myself a failure (quite the opposite), nor do I feel my mind is wasted in the least. I am always learning. I am using my mind to try to alleviate the difficulties that bipolar and numerous anxiety disorders cause me — I can’t cure myself, but I can learn to manage these conditions better. I am spending time in numerous creative pursuits. I am always absorbing new things from the world around me.

    Having a mental illness is no picnic, but I actually feel like it has been beneficial to my own mind. I am kinder, more understanding, more sympathetic, and more patient. And as I see it, there is not a bit of waste in that.

    • Ruby, worldly success means nothing to me. Helping others*, on the other hand, does. I strongly believe that with great intelligence, also comes great responsibility. I know that in order to help others I must first help myself. And that is my quarrel with my illness. That it takes so much from me that little to nothing goes to others.

      Also, a great mind is not necessarily related to a great heart .By which I mean that they don’t have a cause-effect relationship. Even if this mind of mine is wasted, this big heart of mine is not. Being kind, sympathetic and compassionate may have been enhanced by my own suffering but are not the sole result of my illness.

      *And by others I mean, people, animals, the planet

  5. Claudia, a great post and I wish I could offer some consolation, but I am afraid I have much more in common with ilenva’s comment, than I do with the highly intelligent folk. Though I do agree … there does “seem” to be some predisposition to mental illness at the extreme end of the scale.
    I admire your ability to maintain a sense of humor with the frustrated irony I felt here … “Crap, we gave her too much of this so we better add some bad things or else it will be unfair.”
    The closing words of Ruby’s comment are very dear to me and my feelings about finding a better me somewhere in all the sh#t!

    My friend, don’t be too hard on that little girl. 🙂

    • he he, I am nothing if not a funny girl.

      And you, my friend, don’t be too hard on yourself. As I mentioned to ilenva, there isn’t just one kind of intelligence. Besides, you are very talented. Unfortunately, mental illness has been associated with genius of any kind, including the artistic ons. So, I’m afraid you and I are on the same boat after all. The good news is that Richard Parker is not on board.

  6. I feel the same exact way so often. I know that I’m smart, I’ve always known that I was smart, but I feel crippled by the illness. I am trying to maintain some grasp on optimism that in the future I will be able to wrangle this illness and achieve some iota of the potential I have. I believe that you can too.

    Absolutely wonderful piece.

  7. hi,
    you’ve put in words the feelings that i had for so many years now…its been a huge fight to come out of it n am fighting daily…i think i will almost everyday …but i believe that’s how things shake out…when you’ve been given a gift in intelligence then there has to be some measure to balance it out or you might be darn unbearable on others…tht’s when u realize tht for ppl like that, there’s a different battle altogether, the emotional connect, handling the keen sting of missing out on something, coz the rest of it comes so easily tht we never really exert ourselves…i believe nothing is wasted as long as you are living, you can always begin again n thtz where the real challenge lies…being on extreme ends of the spectrum will ultimately tilt the scales so we have to find our balance by fighting daily n relentlessly…all the luck n courage for your journey…

    • You are absolutely right. But it is the daily fighting that gets so tiring. I don’t want to have to fight every single day of my life. I’m tired of fighting. Maybe if it were once a month like a period, I could cope better, ya know? 😉

      • hahaha…i get ya…but what to do? i bet it becomes second nature when we do something daily so that our mind starts accepting the new us by default… we might not realize that the change has already happened…but who am i to say that….i’m still stuck somewhere in between but i do admit,its become a lil better than before so i’m gonna keep at it…after all, its a wonderful challenge in tricking my own mind! I hope that the day might come when i bypass the monthly period altogether n finally achieve the pause ;p

        • Yes, one does get used to it to a certain extent. I’ve been dealing with chronic pain since I was 11 and most of the time the pain is just background noise. Like when you’re at a restaurant and you can hear other people talking but you only really pay attention to the person/people you’re with. But then at times the background noise becomes too loud and then it’s unbearable for a little while. I know that eventually I’ll go back to not being this angry and discouraged but for now, the background noise if right at the front of my mind

  8. I can definitely relate to being in psychological pain…I’m not sure I would qualify as “intelligent”, (I have been diagnosed with some learning disabilities) but, I have definitely experienced severe bouts of depression starting at the age of 6. From what I can tell, your beautiful mind is not wasted at all! From my perspective, it looks like you are winning the battle, as your writing has reached out to, and inspired people like me 🙂

    • I also have ADD which in theory is a learning disability as well. While doing research for this post, I found about the Twice Exceptional concept something that was not known when I was growing up and not even when my son was growing up. What I’m trying to say is that having learning disabilities doesn’t prevent one from being intelligent.

      Thanks for the encouragement. I might see things from a better light later on (I fluctuates, as you must know as well) but right now I am in a dark place.

  9. Oh, how I wish we could understand the brain more……I do know from experience that almost everyone I’ve met with OCD (my son included) is highly intelligent and extremely creative. If we can figure out these connections, maybe we could understand all these illnesses more. Great post!

    • Yes! There are a lot of people working on deciphering the brain. I even had the chance to do so for my PhD but opted for going to a different lab because I always found neurophysiology at bit boring. Although when one works at the molecular level, there isn’t really that much of a difference. Plus they worked with live animals which I don’t approve of. Learning should not be done at the expense of suffering of other creatures

  10. I prefer to think of intelligence as being broader than just book smarts/IQ. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple types of intelligence is more apt to how we process information and how we cope as human beings. If we consider that we all have our gifts, and for myself I have an above average IQ, but I have very high intra- and inter-personal intelligence that others do not come by as easily. I believe that my depression, anxiety, trichotillomania, and all the other things that turned me inward, helped to hone these particular traits.

    Thank you for an interesting and well thought out post.

  11. Yes, of course. Measuring intelligence but IQ only is dated. I don’t have a lot of people skills. I’m too honest and blunt much like a small child. People tend to take offence to that cause they figure that if I look like and adult, I should behave like one. And that’s understandable. That’s why I prefer to be with my cats.

    Thanks for your encouraging comment!

    • Thank you. Yes, I believe so. At several different levels. It’s hard enough to keep relationships when you’re mentally ill but I also find that some men are still intimidated by women that are smarter than them. Thank goodness it’s not all men but they do still exist.

      At the professional level, it’s hard enough to prove your value. Again, it’s not everybody and it’s worse in some places but it’s there. There aren’t a lot of women in science. I found that women were less respected by our professors at med school. Also, whenever a woman was having a bad day, like being down, or depressed or angry or any other mental illness issue, there were a lot of jokes of the “it must be that time of the month” or “She’s frustrated because she hasn’t got any in a while” or “oh, she should get herself a man” kind. Very frustrating.

  12. Fantastic post. I am so thrilled that there are more articles/post being written about depression and creativity. It makes so much in my life make sense.

  13. First, thank you for marking me as a related article! Really enjoyed yours also.

    Second, I completely understand your situation, and as I wrote, I do believe there comes a point where all your intelligence and your maddening factors get along with themselves and allow you to have some peace through creation, the thing is: What about the rest of the time? What about when they dont get along? What I do at least is the following: Read and listen as much as I can, so that, when the peaceful moment arrives I will be able to create something that amazes me.

  14. I enjoyed yours as well!

    Yes,I have had those moments of peace through creation. When I write a story, or a poem or when I dance. Even when I make my silly drawings. Yes, I read a lot both fiction and non-fiction. It does help. But there are some times when there only chaos. However, we all know that as painful as chaos is, it always bring forth creation. Perhaps that’s our role. I don’t know. Perhaps we exist so the world can be a beautiful place despite all the ugly things that humans can do to each other and to our mother earth.

  15. I wish I could just say ‘don’t lose the battle’, but what does it mean after all? I mean, Iwish you all the best, because you are definitely great, but I feel so sorry for you because everyone should just feel fine most of the time (all the time is way too hard). I know fighting isn’t fun, especially not all the time. I hope though you can get out of the darkness :s.
    Since I’m 14, I always believed you have to pay the price for happiness. If only hat wasn’t true! I really really hope you win your battle, with whole my heart…
    Lots of hugs

    • aaaaaaw you are so sweet. Thank you so much!

      I agree with you, I -too, have always believe that you have to pay the price for happiness. At least that has been my experience. And that feeling fine most of the time would be just great. It doesn’t have to be all the time, just most of time. Like I said before, you are a very remarkable young woman.

      Take care of yourself!

  16. Yeah, high intelligence doesn’t bring happiness. Sadly, it doesn’t even guarantee a “normal” life. My son, a beautiful baby, joined Mensa at 14 and then got MI at 19. What a world!

  17. Found this by accident, read it with interest… and recognized myself with inevitability.

    Your story strikes a chord in my soul, gifted and cursed by two sides of (what appears to be) the same coin. My own mental illness has longed seemed to make me unable to carry out those activities that would allow the full potential of my intelligence to shine. Understanding my condition doesn’t seem to help, are the thoughts in my head logical? Perhaps magical thinking… or a coping mechanism? How do I, internally, tell the difference? Is there a difference?

    At the end of the day my answer is simple, enjoy what I can. Acceptance of self requires me to be honest… I will, and have, contributed up to my potential. I am the sum of both my intelligence and my illness.

    Best wishes to you.

    • Hi there. Glad you stumbled upon my post.
      I agree, we should enjoy what we can. And I certainly do. However, acceptance of the unreached potential is still something I haven’t been able to quite accept. Perhaps at some point I will. I hope so, in any case.

      Best wishes right back at you!

  18. Intelligence is a gift! I too am told I am intelligent but battle in my mind. I had the inward approach growing up but as I grew older mental issues such as ADD and dyslexia became apparent. I have a constant battle in the mind but refuse any medication, my goal is to channel that intelligence into something constructive….

  19. I’m in middle and depression and social anxiety seem to be my only companions. I can’t stand most of my classmates and the ones I wish to speak to don’t really acknowledge my existence unless they need something. My mother and grandmother can’t understand what it’s like because when they were young, they were beautiful and popular. I suppose it will be impossible for me to live up to their expectations though because they constantly ask for the “old” me back. The five year old with braids who would prance around and sing like no one was watching. I don’t miss her. I can’t say I like what I have become but it’s better than her.

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