The Root Of Van Gogh’s Illnesses

Being an exchange student includes dealing with temporary bouts of insanity – it’s simply part of the job description. So if you’re excitedly preparing for life abroad and think, “This girl is being soooooo melodramatic, I’d remain sound minded without any difficulty whatsoever,” I was in your shoes once, and quite frankly, you’re wrong.

Before leaving the USA, I was not very sentimental and the typical amount of teenaged-girl-emotional. The Notebook never made me cry, saying good-bye to high school was accompanied by a few tears, and my mother’s sentimentality was honestly enough for our whole family. Thus, as I started experiencing strange fits of extreme emotions in Lithuania, I’d think, oh no, the touchy-feely, saccharine gene is finally kicking in… Once, I found myself sobbing in the shower because the soap’s smell reminded me of home. On another occasion, hearing birds chirping for the first time in months filled me with so much joy that I let tears fly, regardless of standing in the middle of a busy sidewalk.

While exchange students are not insane by definition (“n. mental illness of such a severe nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, cannot conduct her/his affairs due to psychosis, or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior”), it’s natural to perceive these unexpected attacks of feelings as a small step towards madness. However in reality, this is a normal reaction to departing from home, friends, and family for a long period of time… Throwing yourself head-first and blindfolded into an alien environment undeniably will lead to a slight case of lunacy.

So, when perusing through the biography of my favorite artist Vincent van Gogh, I was intrigued to discover he’d lived in a total of 20 cities and 4 countries during his 37 short years. No wonder he was somewhat unhinged! Medically, doctors have diagnosed him with a wide variety of maladies, ranging from depression, epilepsy, and bipolar disorder to thujone poisoning, lead poisoning, and hypergraphia. In my opinion, I’d hypothesize that he had an acute psychological disorder exacerbated by the stress and strain of living abroad and constantly relocating. In a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote, “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.” I can definitely understand that. Personally, “what I should like to do” is have the ability fully communicate, the lack of which is easily comparable to being a shackled prisoner, but in truth the shackles are exclusively wrapped around my tongue.

In no way could I completely identify with the artist’s situation, but I can sincerely say that his courage, passion, and battles are relatable to that of an exchange student, especially to me. Despite his short stay in this world, he had a strong desire to make a difference, questioning, “How can I be useful, of what service can I be?” and an indubitable yearning to fight through the struggles presented in life, expressing that as “advanc[ing] in life it becomes more and more difficult, but in fighting the difficulties the inmost strength of the heart is developed.”

Many view van Gogh as an excellent artist, definitely one of the greats, who was sadly afflicted with psychological conditions that arguably were the source of his untimely death. Sadly, it’s often forgotten how positive and brave he strove to remain throughout his inner conflict. He had the same fearless and eager spirit of an exchange student, and at the end of the day, “What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?” -Vincent van Gogh