Loving Those with Mental Illness: A Lesson from Vincent Van Gogh’s Life

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I was on the receiving end of mental illness during my formative years. My beautiful, brilliant mother was also bipolar and paranoid. She thought people were chasing her which resulted in us living in hotels and her buying a gun. I woke up one morning to the sound of her shooting a hole in the hotel wall because the people in the next room wouldn’t turn the TV down. Life after that got simpler in a way–she was arrested and later institutionalized and my sister and I put in foster care and then under the guardianship of my grandparents.

They loved us, but they had their own disorders, namely an undercurrent of bitterness from a failed marriage and a son who was an alcoholic. These experiences shaped me as a child, making me fear mental illness. I’m not afraid of having it–I’m afraid of being at the mercy of a person who does have it. This fear has moved me to be highly cautious in my social interactions.  Any hint of weirdness, and I run. I find the possibility of out-of-control responses terrifying.

I’ve lived my whole life like this, and it has protected me well.  However, the love of Christ pushes against this self-preservation. Jesus reminds me that love is for everyone and not just the ones who have it all together. The Gospel is for the addict, the depressed, the emotionally needy person, and the mentally ill.

A New Perspective

Recently I read an ALA award-winning book about Vincent Van Gogh called Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman. Many of us are familiar with his artistic genius in well-known paintings such as The Starry Night and Sunflowers (a print of which I had in my college dorm room). Even more infamous is his self-mutilation of his ear and suicide. When I picked up this book in order to write a review for a Christian journal, I was not prepared for the emotional connection I would make. More than likely, Vincent had bipolar disorder from the descriptions of his mania and severe depression. What many don’t know about him, though, was that his brother was the one steady person in his life, enabling him to create the masterpieces that he did.

In fact, the narrative radiates from the hub of one moment in their lives. Two young brothers becoming men go on a walk and make promises to one another. Heiligman describes it like this:

But now, on the walk, it’s only Vincent and Theo. The brothers arrive at a polder windmill in Rijiswijk just as the rain stops. They see a sign in the window of the mill: milk for sale, one cent a glass, and also fried eels. Vincent and Theo each buy a glass of milk. No eels. They drink their milk and make a pledge to each other. They promise to always be close, to keep the bond between them strong and intimate. They will always walk together. They will be more than brothers, more than friends. They will be companions in the search for meaning in life and meaning in art. Together they will achieve lives filed with a purpose. And they will, when needed, carry each other’s parcels.

Vincent paints this scene and later sends it to Theo as a reminder of this eventful day.

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Heiligman describes the two men in the painting:

The men are in workers’ clothes, not fancy establishment garb. One of the men is thinner than the other, of a slighter stature. He stands straight and neat. The other man is bigger and maybe taller, but he is slouching, so he looks shorter. He’s messier, and he is leaning into the other man, his right knee bent toward the other man’s leg, his right foot forward, touching, or almost touching, the other man’s left foot. It makes sense to see the men as Vincent and Theo. Vincent leaning into Theo.

Vincent does lean into Theo, but Vincent repays with love and commitment. Though Vincent is passionate and sporadic, he pours himself into his art and his genius emerges. This genius would have never been possible except for the patient love and understanding of his younger brother, Theo. When Vincent shoots himself, he does not die immediately. There is time for Theo to come to him. Then, laying side by side like they did as children, Vincent dies in Theo’s arms. A year later, Theo himself dies from advanced stages of syphilis.

A Reciprocal Love

It would be easy to say that Theo was the one who gave to Vincent, but the author of this biography makes it clear that the respect and connection were mutual. Theo needed Vincent as much as Vincent needed Theo. I was not prepared for how emotional I would feel upon the conclusion of this book. For one, the author helps you see, through his letters, Vincent’s heart. He knew that there was something wrong, and he couldn’t fix it.  He could only do his best and pour his energy into loving his family and doing what he was gifted to do.

Not Solutions, Love

This relationship humbled me because I see so much of God’s love in this.  This fierce commitment to the beloved, not because they perform well, but because they are family.

In a New York Times article titled “The Problem with How We Treat Bipolar Disorder”, the author Linda Logan describes her own bout with mental illness. She is institutionalized several times and even experiences hallucinations and loss of identity. Her story sounds much like Vincent’s ups and downs. When discussing this with her father who also struggles with bipolar disorder, he helped her see things differently.

One day, about eight years ago, it struck me that bipolar disorder was the hand I was dealt. I remembered what my father said to me when I moved from Boston: “Don’t look at what your disorder has taken away from you, try to find what it has given you.”

We want solutions to problems while some things, like mental illness, cannot be completely solved. We have to live in the midst of brokenness that cannot be healed on this side. The hope though is that our God who is good and gives good gifts has not arbitrarily allowed us to struggle. There is a gift within the struggle if we can hold on long enough to receive it. For Vincent and Theo, it was a rare genius that impacted culture for decades. For Logan, it was the ability to reach out to others in the same situation and help them process the grief caused by losing yourself in mental illness. For those who struggle with these things, they need to know that they still have something valuable to give the world.  The church can help those who struggle to find their gift to give.

In this way, it is not the needy leaning into the church, but it will be a mutual bond where the church grows and learns from those who are weakest. When we do this, we will finally be operating in the philosophy of the kingdom of God where the first shall be last and the parts that seem most dishonored will be the ones most needed. This is the power of the Gospel that our world so riddled with fear and isolation so desperately needs to hear. 

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