This is a strange question, I know. As for myself, I would say: no. I cannot think of a characteristic of mine, related to the disorder, that I find helpful and valuable. But it is strange: I can readily admit that there are people, known to have suffered from the affliction, who made enormous contributions to human culture. Just look at the list with celebrities that had, or have OCD (published earlier in this weblog). Michelangelo is there, and Dr. Johnson; and Nikola Tesla.
Tesla had contamination obsessions, and he also was completely in the grip of the number 3. On the other hand, he has uncommon powers of hearing; and he was very good at visualizing concepts of his, e.g. a plan for a complex machine. Purly with the mental image, he could think up changes and improvements, and ‘see’ these being implemented, and also calculate what the end result then would be.
Dr. Samuel Johnson had ‘something with language’. There is no doubt that his ‘positive obsession’ with it helped him with constructing the first elaborate dictionary of the English language, and his own edition of Shakespeare’s works.
More generally speaking, I think there is truth in the oft-proposed connection between being highly gifted in some artistic, cultural occupation, and ‘madness’. Mind, not all great writers are suffering from a mental disorder, and not all mentally challenged people are great artistical talents. But if one is able to direct a part of one’s disorder in the right direction, the problem can be transformed in a useful way. I can imagine someone who is obsessed with order and symmetry, and who finds the right treatment, can eventually become an architect or city planner.
Two of my favourite composers suffer(ed) from a mental disorder. The first is Ludwig van Beethoven. In his later life he showed signs of neurosis and paranoia, and he felt being persecuted. He drank quite a lot, and walked the streets of Vienna, acting like ‘a wild man’. At the same time he was a musical genius; even after having gone completely deaf, he kept on composing, by ‘hearing the sounds of the instruments in his head’. A true giant of music.
Ludwig van Beethoven:
The second musician I want to name is Brian D. Wilson, founder of the Beach Boys, and now a successful solo artist. Brian was heavily abused in his youth, by an over-ambitious father. Together with his brothers Carl and Dennis, a cousin, Mike Love, and a high school friend, Al Jardine, Wilson formed the band in 1961. They are known for their trademark harmonies; and Brian quickly learned new composing skills with every album they recorded.
But after the group released their most complex record, ‘Pet Sounds’, in 1966, Brian began to show signs of mental problems. Whilst recording a new and ambitious thematic project, ‘Smile’, he began to get more and more moody and withdrawn, and he showed signs of social anxiety. He self-medicated with drugs and alcohol, and stayed in bed many, many days. This aggravated his depression. His zest, his drive to make music had slowed down considerably.
It was only in 1988 that it could be said in all honesty: Brian is back (there was a brief semi-comeback in 1976 and 1977). But there was a catch: his psychologist had prescribed such dosages of antidepressants and sedatives, that he came across as stiff, unresponsive; not as vivid and interested as in his younger days.
After cutting the ties with this psychologist, and a new marriage, Brian got involved in a slow process of getting better. There are three key elements here: Brian had become estranged from his own band, mainly because his cousin Mike sued him numerous times, or threatened to sue, over financial matters. During the 1990s, a group of young musicians and admirers of Wilson, became relatively successful, The Wondermints. Around the turn of the millennium they had become the touring band for Brian. Having started with brief appearances (e.g. in tribute concerts), the combination gelled wonderfully, and longer Brian Wilson shows were performed. Fans old and young raved about the quality of the concerts. Ambitions were set high: the complete ‘Pet Sounds’ album was done live worldwide. And in 2004, the abandoned ‘Smile’ project was finished by its creators: Brian Wilson and lyricist/composer/arranger Van Dyke Parks. This was the most risky undertaking of Wilson’s career. The album had so many negative memories attached; it was a very ‘arty’ album; and since it has already been on the back burner for 37 years, well, total failure seemed a distinct possibility.
It was a resounding triumph. And Wilson has continued to make music, to tour, and to be a member of a new and loving family, with adopted children.