“You see, I really have wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labor and — that they have thus honestly earned their food. I wanted it to give the idea of a wholly different way of life from ours — civilized people. So I certainly don’t want everyone just to admire it or approve of it without knowing why.” Van Gogh 1885.
Imagine a life where everything seemed as if it was an oil painting. Objects, people, animals, flowers, trees, faces, waters, skies, starry nights, your mother, your hands, were all distorted. Imagine them melting, extra vibrantly colored and skewed images of what Van Gogh called his own reality.
This experience is a symptom of a mental illness we label today as Schizophrenia, a brain disease in which Van Gogh most definitely struggled with in the latter years of his life. Van Gogh painted his realities just as he saw them, melting images and all.
As a mental health professional working in an out-patient clinic, I see individuals who unfortunately live their lives more or less every day with schizophrenia.
Schizophrenia is one term that applies so differently to the individual and can look so drastically different from one person to the next with various sub-types and symptoms. There are some schizophrenic individuals who see people and/or objects that are not there; some complain of apparitions, talking animals, and flashing lights as no one else sees what they do.
Other individuals who experience auditory hallucinations may experience gentle whispers repeating to them that they are no good, some voices may have a higher volume telling silly jokes and others may experience something called command hallucinations.
Now, those are out patients who may meet the “high risk” list criteria; people we need to keep an extra eye on. Someone who experiences command hallucinations may hear a voice that tells them to hurt others or themselves.( David Berkowitz’ dog told him to kill people.)
Van Gogh had an intense heightening of senses during his psychotic episodes;another form of visual hallucinations. Imagine a life where everything seemed as if you were walking in a dream. Liquefying tree tops, sparkling skies of blue and purple, animated flowers, and stretched,pulled,exaggerated faces of others..something similar to “tripping.”
Van Gogh did not need shrooms or acid for this. His brain naturally tripped.
As mentioned earlier, Van Gogh most definitely suffered from positive symptoms of schizophrenia, and by all means positive does NOT mean good or happy in any way. Positive symptoms of schizophrenia are known as the more active symptoms which include, visual (sight), auditory (hearing), tactile (touch), gustatory (taste), and olfactory (smell) hallucinations. Although he suffered greatly from this disease which caused others to stigmatize him, caused him to be in a constant state of anxiety and depression, and was disorganized in thought, he was still able to make beautiful use out of his sufferings…his art.
Everything Van Gogh painted was exactly how he experienced and perceived the world. His art did not only involve innate talent, technique and the skill to mix color, but mostly it was his disease that encouraged him to show us his world. I’m sure Van Gogh believed he honestly earned his “food” just like the potato eaters he painted in 1885.
Part of treatment for a schizophrenic is by far most importantly medication therapy.
Schizophrenics are usually prescribed antipsychotic medication which decreases the amount of Dopamine activity in the brain. Dopamine is an awesome neurotransmitter because it’s main purpose is to recognize behaviors that lead to rewards and pleasure. Too much of this leads to psychosis, and too little of it leads to Parkinson’s disease because dopamine is also responsible for the control of voluntary movement.
Anti-psychotic medication comes with many severe side effects.
One very commonly experienced side effect is the development of Parkinson’s disease like symptoms. This medication decreases dopamine activity in the brain, and remember too little dopamine is the cause of Parkinson’s. The schizophrenic has to decide between the two evils, and many choose no meds!
We call that “non compliance”, they call it “not worth it”.
Though there are many “non compliance with meds” patients, antipsychotic medication is shown to be extremely effective with decreasing psychotic symptoms.
Van Gogh definitely did a “little” self medicating with the illuminating, ghostbuster green colored potion..
Van Gogh really liked that stuff and I can’t blame him. Absinthe is known to actually increase cognitive functioning in the areas of the brain where thought organization, abstract thinking and creativity takes place. Doctors told him he had to stop taking “his medication” because of the other ill effects it had on his body. Poor guy
Another part of treating schizophrenia is helping the individual to build on their strengths, educate them on the disease, and validate their experiences. They also have to involve their families and to teach them distraction techniques.
It seems as if Van Gogh had a great distraction technique/coping skill. Not everyone is as fortunate to have such a powerful outlet as did he.
I had one schizophrenic patient whose outlet was chess. Man was she good! She was a pro, and she knew every trick. After the very first few moves of the game, she was able to predict how the entire rest of the game was going to work out.
She was a lunatic who thought Whitney Huston was her best friend, hallucinated that her own reflection would stand right before her, could not hold an organized and appropriately reciprocated conversation with anyone, but damn could she play chess. That was her outlet; the only sense of normalcy and self-expression she had.
Most individuals with schizophrenia also experience symptoms known as negative symptoms.
Negative symptoms can be described as a deficit or lacking things. Such symptoms include the loss of the ability to feel emotions known as blunted or flat affect, lack of motivation and no desire to act on a task known as “avolition”, poverty of speech known as “alogia”, the lack of desire to form relationships known as “asociality” and the inability to experience any kind of pleasure known as “anhedonia”.
If you look through the beautiful and expressionistic gallery of Van Gogh’s work, you can see the different representations of positive and negative symptoms of schizophrenia.
For instance, “Starry night” is a clear representation of visual hallucinations as he included melting colors and skewed perceptions of his realities.
If you take a look at a painting known as “cottages” you can see the “FLATNESS” of the painting , the poverty of his speech, the lack of desire to include people in his life and the dark,depressing un-pleasurable life he may have been experiencing; a very still painting, with little desire to move..still says so much though.