The True Diagnosis of Vincent Van Gogh
On Christmas Eve 1888, a extraordinary scene was taking place. In a dilapidated yellow house in Arles, Vincent Van Gogh, an as of yet unknown painter, was about to spectacularly fall-out with his best friend. As result, he was also about to experience the worst crisis of his life.
Shacked up with man about town, Post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin, what was a two month experiment in the South of France, instigated by Vincent’s brother Theo, was now imploding.
Creative differences aside, Vincent revered Gaugin, but found him arrogant and domineering. Gaugin on the other hand found Vincent needy and erratic. He was also suspicious Theo, an art dealer by trade, might be using him for financial gain. Both were not far off in their assessments.
Things came to head the night before Christmas, when Gauguin decided he’d had enough. He packed his bags and made to leave. The terror of imminent anbadonment proved so severe for Vincent that he soon became hysterical, and threw a glass of absinthe in his friend’s face.
Gauguin, somehow unperturbed — at least according to his own account — took pity on his crazed friend, and managed to steward him to bed. He then left the house.
What followed next has become part of the Van Gogh folklore. Vincent, hearing the door slam shut, followed Gaugin outside in his pajamas, this time threatening him with a razor. Gauguin, once again found the courage to usher his friend to bed, and departed for the last time.
Later that night Van Gogh cut off his ear, and mailed it to his favourite prostitute Rachel, telling her to ‘keep it in remembrance’ of him. He was later found unconscious and sent to hospital.
While a young intern Dr Felix Rey pondered over the wayward artist’s state, Van Gogh himself was caught in a delirium. Confused, agitated and assaulted by hallucinations, it took months to reach recovery. When he came too, despite repeated questioning, he had no memory of what had happened to him.
In light of this story, most critics contend Vincent Van Gogh had Bipolar Disorder or Temporal Lope Epilepsy. However maverick Dutch psychiatrist Erwin van Meekeren, goes against the grain suggesting that the true diagnosis may in fact be Borderline Personality Disorder.
In his book Starry Starry Night: The Life and Psychiatric History of Van Gogh, he presents a compelling argument. This is a mental illness bound to the environment, and relationships. With Vincent, the signs are ominous , but what is BPD?
The DSM IV defintion of Borderline Personality DIsorder
A pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self image, and affects. Marked impulsivity beginning in early adulthood and present across variety of contexts. Symptoms Include
1. Frantic efforts to avoid real of imagined abandonment.
2. Pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships.
3. Identity Disturbance, and unstable sense of self.
4. Self-damaging impulsivity, e.g. spending, sex, substance abuse.
5. Recurrent suicidal or self-harming behaviour.
6. Affective instability due to marked reactivity of mood.
7. Chronic feelings of emptiness.
8. Inappropriate uncontrollable anger.
9. Transient stress-related paranoia or severe dissociative symptoms.
BPD is a serious mental illness characterised by emotional, behavioural and cognitive instability, poor self-image and chronic self-harm. Crucially, such symptoms only become active in an interpersonal context, namely the threat or real or perceived abandonment. Why this happens is still unknown; although most clinicians believe it’s linked to trauma, attachment, and a bit of biology.
Whatever the case, when we look at Van Gogh’s 1888 Christmas crisis, there’s enough evidence to believe this is the unidentified illness which ruined much of his life. In fact, if we view Van Gogh’s behaviour across a lifetime, then it’s possible to see singular episodes as part of a wider pattern. A disordered personality caught in the iron grip of instability.
Considered a madman in life, a misunderstood genius in death, beyond the legend Van Gogh suffered several hallmark symptoms of BPD: A longing for love negated by the terror of abandonment, a yearning for life offset by wish for death. A slave to intense emotions, wild behaviours, and strange cognitions, self harm, including the act of cutting off his own ear was both a consequence of emotional dysregulation but also the despair and frustration the artist felt at being unable to get better.
Like anyone with severe mental illness Van Gogh struggled to live with it — a stranger to himself, a stranger to the world. His piercing self-portraits are testament to a man who was ever looking for himself, but, as if seeing through a glass darkly, saw reflection ill-defined.
Instead, it seems the light of his own genius was projected outwards, as if to shine on reality. And with the edge of sharp pallette knife he cut a line through suffering and used painting to transform it.
What am I in the eyes of most people? a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then, even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.
A momentum that conjured Sunflowers Starry Night, and many more Expressionist dreamscapes of reality rarefied and turned inside out.
It’s cliche, and perhaps even morally questionable to retroactively diagnose one of the best artists who ever lived – but that’s the point isn’t it? People with mental health conditions are labelled like that every single day, but they are so much more than this: So much more than diagnosis, or a label.
Most won’t reach the heights of Van Gogh, but they share his sense of not fitting-in, and they too have glowing pictures inside of them, which if allowed to shine, may burst forth in astonishing acts of creativity. Is that not the story of most art? From the ashes of a turbulent and tortured life, Van Gogh declared:
In spite of everything I shall rise again.
If there is ever a true diagnosis, then this is perhaps it. The artist who painted bright dreams of magnificent beauty, who not only redeemed his own suffering, but also at eternity’s gate shared his joy.
If you’d like to submit a story of crisis and recovery visit https://medium.com/revivals
You can also find skills you need to be your own healer by visiting www.rightresilience.com