Monday, November 28, 2016

Van Gogh and I

Love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is done well. - Vincent Van Gogh 

Walking around the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam I read every placard. While the Dutch painter is now world famous for his very prolific but short career (he completed 900 paintings in the 10 years he painted) there are historians the world over who disagree about the end of his life. It's widely debated whether or not he cut off his own ear, as well as if he died of a self inflicted gunshot wound or he was murdered. 

I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people. - Vincent Van Gogh 

Two things are very clear to me: he was incredibly talented and he suffered greatly. You can read (and listen to) letters he wrote to his beloved brother, Theo, at the museum. You can read all the letters he wrote Theo in a book deemed an autobiography, Van Gogh telling the story of his own life, in expressive and vibrant detail. While reading his letters I couldn't help but feel for him. He was such a positive person, trying so hard to live and work in love while dealing with bouts of crippling depression and anxiety. Nearing the end of his life he even checked himself into an asylum. From there he painted Starry Night, Irises, and many other of his most famous works (which, by the way, he considered to be total failures). Reading Van Gogh's words I saw myself mirrored. I am far from as talented a painter, but the desire to love all things and people, to care for others and to express that love and inspire joy, in these traits I saw myself. The vulnerable purity.

Great things are done by a series of small things brought together. - Vincent Van Gogh 

And there are other things I see. I am also a sufferer of bouts of incapacitating depression and anxiety. Luckily for me, there are medications available. But on this day at the Van Gogh Museum I felt more kinship with him, as I too was suffering. Let's back up. 

A brief history:

I first discovered what was "wrong with me" was depression at 12 years old after reading about the symptoms. I told my mom, who dismissed it. I felt shame and I never spoke about it again until I was 18 and started seeing a holistic homeopath. I was afraid to take western medication. After a few years and several remedies, I began to have anxiety symptoms on top of my depression. I started having panic attacks in which I would black out. I became so frightened to black out that I stopped driving. At one of the lowest points in my life, at age 21, suffering from both symptoms of depression and anxiety on a daily basis for a period of 9 years, it came to a head and I admitted to myself I could no longer go on dealing with life in this manner. But somewhere deep inside me hope still resided. So I made a decision to try medication. Over a decade later, I have been on every SSRI that exists. This is not an exaggeration. In the last 10 years I have tried to go off my medication twice, once cold turkey, in which case I ended up in a hospital, and the other to taper off when I lost my health insurance. This did not go well either. I am a person who has an illness and I need to take medication in order to be ok. I have accepted this. My depression and anxiety have been deemed to be "extremely resistant" to medication and thusly I have to make sure I do everything right to get myself on a level playing field of feeling ok enough to be a person in the world. The medication I am currently on is one in which I cannot miss a dose. Unlike most SSRIs, this medication has very intense withdrawal effects almost immediately. 

The night I arrived in Belgium, as I got ready for bed at my Airbnb, I realized I'd forgotten my toiletry bag. No deodorant, toothbrush, face wash...and then it hit me that I didn't have my medication. I could barely sleep that night trying to decide what to do. I booked a rideshare car in the morning to go back to Paris just to get it; I'd meet my cousin at our next destination. The guy never showed up. I'd met a Belgian girl in my travel group so I texted her for advice. She told me to try a pharmacy, someone who speaks English, and maybe they'd give me a few pills to tide me over. I found a prescription in my wallet as proof of what I needed and set out, speaking not a word of the local language. Three pharmacists later I was sold a box of my medication. 

Still, because I had missed a dose, I wasn't feeling great when we got on the train a couple days later to Amsterdam. The withdrawals were there. I felt numb and cloudy and exhausted by life. So, while walking through the Van Gogh Museum, reading his words and seeing his brush strokes, I felt connected to him. My heart hurt for the pain he was in, and could do nothing about. And I understood, whether he shot himself or not, his hopeless desire and the tiring trials of living with mental illness. 

I am so angry with myself because I cannot do what I should like to do, and at such a moment one feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless. 
- Vincent Van Gogh 

I am grateful there are medications and other practices (like meditation, for me) that can help people - 3.3 million Americans - with these debilitating disorders. I'd like to think that if Van Gogh were alive today he'd be able to get the help he needed and fill his life with love and creativity. 

Life has become very dear to me, and I am very glad that I love. My life and my love are one.
- Vincent Van Gogh 

What hasn't changed much is the stigma surrounding mental illnesses, and for that I will do my part to shed a light in the darkness by writing posts like this and standing up for those who suffer.  I have found this disease to be so lonely, and I want to do what I can to help others who suffer in silence by raising my own voice. Dear reader, you are not broken. You are not alone. I am with you. 

Let us keep courage and try to be patient and gentle. And not mind being eccentric, and make distinction between good and evil. - Vincent Van Gogh 

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