11 January 2011

A Few Words About Art, Mental Illness, and Love

Old Man in Sorrow (On the Threshold of Eternity)
I have a deep love for Vincent Van Gogh. He has always been one of my favorite painters, even from a young age when I had absolutely no appreciation for art, or what made a piece of art "art". I just knew that it spoke to me. As I've grown older, I've discovered that's the real meaning of art - does a piece move you in some way? Who cares what others think - that feeling alone makes it valuable art. An artist does not create for himself (I'm not so much of a feminist that I care which gender I use here) but rather for love of the feeling of creation, of expression, of solace, and of catharsis.

Over the past 18 months of my life, I have discovered a few other things about myself. After a lifetime (ok, most of my thirty-odd years on the planet) of feeling out of step with others, being neurotically obsessive about certain things, of unexplained crying spells that could last for months, of euphoric highs with erratic behavior, and with no one listening or trying to help, I was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder, OCD, and major depressive disorder (and a few other things, but we won't get into the nitty gritty - I'm spilling enough for one post). The doctors put me on medication...too much medication. WAY to much. It was a hard time, trying to sort out what worked and what didn't, what I could and couldn't do, which type(s) of therapy I could tolerate, and which type(s) I would respond to. I lost a lot of friends during that time - and it made me sad and angry. It still does. It has taken me over a year to figure out that if I lost them, they weren't really the kind of people I needed in my life. It takes a committed soul to be by your side in your darkest hours, and not everyone is cut out for that.

I am reading Elizabeth Kostova's The Swan Thieves right now (I'm almost done), and the book revolves around a man with mental health issues. One passage in particular resonated with me, and I wanted to take a few minutes to explore that. The spouse of the gentleman who suffers from mental health issues says, upon learning of his diagnosis, 
"...But it was too late. Robert was no longer only Robert for me. He was someone with a diagnosis. I knew already that nothing would be the same, ever, no matter how much I tried to feel about Robert as I had before. My heart ached for him, but it ached even more for myself..."
Words cannot explain how that went straight to my heart. It's a wonderful thing, when reading a book, that you can so identify with a character that you get angry on their behalf - and I was angry for him. I'm not saying this character had been perfect, or that since I've read further didn't behave in a less than exemplary way. But as a person who lives with these illnesses every single day, I was outraged to read those words from a spouse (and yes, I know it is a work of fiction, and it didn't really happen - I'm not delusional!).  But I was angry for more than just this fictional character in a novel. I was (and still am) angry for every person who is burdened with a mental illness (or any illness, really) that has to suffer the added agony of a selfish person like this in their lives. If more friends, loved ones, caregivers, and acquaintances were prepared to stand up and BE THERE for the people afflicted with these illnesses, the stigma surrounding them would lessen dramatically. Did I (or anyone) ask to be saddled with a host of issues that often make it difficult to get out of bed, to care for my kids, or to go to the store? Nope. And I know that partners and spouses didn't ask to be dumped on, either. But that's what you do for people you care about - stand beside them, to help them when they can't help themselves. If you don't have a mental illness, it is often impossible to understand the how's and why's of a behavior. And as a companion, you don't have to - you just have to extend your hand and expect nothing in return. Only the bravest of brave can delve into the reasons behind the behaviors. And I am so lucky, grateful, blessed, and appreciative that my husband is one of those people. Never, not once, has he made me feel bad or guilty for being ill, for needing him to care for our kids. Never, not once has he criticized me for cleaning out closets at 2:00 in the morning, or scrubbing the kitchen counters 5 times exactly, or sobbing uncontrollably when the trash pick up doesn't come on the right day. He encourages, lifts up, holds hands, and hands me tissues. Every single time.

He supports my decision to go medication free (disclaimer: this course of action is not right for everyone, and some days I'm not sure it is right for me), and helps me make the schedule adjustments our family needs to keep my much needed structure in place. He eats the way I want (certain foods are recommended and/or not recommended for managing mental illness), so that I dont' feel like I'm eating a restricted diet. He gets up with the baby, so I get a solid chunk of sleep. He never balks when I ask to buy art supplies, no matter how thin the budget is that week. He knows that being creative is my outlet, my expression, my voice when I can't find the words.

And that leads me back to Van Gogh, and his haunting painting "Old Man in Sorrow." This painting speaks to me, captivates me, and grabs me every time I look at it. I understand how this man feels, how he felt when he created it. He painted it while hospitalized in Saint-Remy, in April or May of 1890. He later killed himself. But to know that something so filled with emotion that it resonates over 100 years later can come out of such a dark spot in someone's life gives me hope. Hope that one day, everyone will stop being selfish, and be more understanding of mental illness. Some things help - art, talk, practice, schedules. Selfishness and ignorance do not.

I've rambled in this post, and I thank you for sticking with me. I tend to get over-emotional when I talk about mental illness, because so few people can grasp what it is like to be held prisoner by it.

**This post was inspired by Elizabeth Kostova's The Swan Thieves, which I received for free as part of the book club From Left to Write. Other than a free copy of the book, I was not compensated in any way for writing this post.**

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