No, I don’t speak French. Even though I am part French, like many Americans my French is limited to a dozen or so words and phrases. The above quote is Vincent van Gogh’s last words: “The sadness will last forever!”
Today, March 30, is his birthday. It is also World Bipolar Awareness Day. It was designated on March 30 in honor of him. He was most likely Bipolar Type II — a condition characterized by a lifelong depression interrupted by short spells of hypomania.
Why van Gogh spoke his final words in French is a bit of a mystery. His native language was Dutch. However, brilliant fellow that he was, he was fluent in German, French and English as well. Another lesser known fact about this monumentally gifted artist was that he studied theology and worked in ministry for a year in a community of impoverished miners.
Another factoid: van Gogh created almost 900 painting and yet only sold one in his lifetime.
In 1890, at the age of 37, during a prolonged siege of deep despair he shot himself in the chest. He died two days later.
“The sadness will last forever!” is a statement with which I can identify. I have at the very least Dysthymic Disorder: the sadness that lasts forever — and like van Gogh, I am also Bipolar II.
Mood disorders are in my genes. Both of my parents struggled with Bipolar Disorder. My mother had many hospitalizations over the course of her life. Her illness was very apparent. However, my father’s extreme mood swings were likely obvious to only a few. He always held it together enough to continue to work and to adequately perform the routine activities of daily living. When he was down he spent most of his free time on the couch dozing or watching TV — and he was generally pleasant but quiet and sad. However, when the pendulum swung he became most uncomfortable to be around for those closest to him. He was very critical and sharp-tongued toward me. He talked much more than usual, slept little, made grandiose plans and generally just seemed too full of himself. Once again, he was fortunate to have enough self-awareness and control to only show this side to those closest to him. I suspect his coworkers and casual acquaintances were clueless. His moods played out with amazing regularity over a three year cycle that commenced and ended in late Sept or early October.
It is not fun having the eternal sadness of Dysthymia or the roller-coaster ride that comes with being a short-cycling Bipolar II. However, my personal belief is that God had a plan in shaping my extreme moods. I believe that our disabilities, our shortcomings and our struggles light the path God wants us to tread in relating to others, in loving others, in ministering to others — uniquely ministering as only fellow sufferers can.
Twelve years ago I wrote The Unwelcome Blessing. The book is a sort of manual for Christians coping with clinical depression. It looks at the problem from three perspectives: clinical, biblical and personal. As best I can tell, The Unwelcome Blessing’s multiple focus is fairly unique. I weave my story in and out of its chapters and I believe telling my story makes the clinical and biblical content more understandable.
Since 2010, I’ve attended Celebrate Recovery (CR). CR is a Christ-centered 12-step program that focuses not only on addictions but also behaviors such as anger and codependency. Working thru CR’s step-study inspired me to compile an as yet unpublished 12-step workbook Blessings Restored. It employs most of the traditional 12-steps of every addiction recovery program. However, I modify a few of the steps to adapt them to mood disorders. Though mood disorders and addictions have much in common, they also have essential differences: For one, addictions are somewhat more intentional, whereas one rarely chooses clinical depression or Bipolar Disorder. These are conditions that are largely the result of one’s genetics and physiology. Even if one accepts the disease model for alcoholism or drug abuse, there remains a strong element of intentionality in addictive behavior.
I identify considerably with van Gogh’s life and struggles. Seeking an understanding of God has been one of my preoccupations since very young, and although I do not have one iota of his talent, I do have a creative impulse, and my art (writing) likely has the same therapeutic function for me as painting did for him. I have not lived in abject poverty as he did, but I think I feel the same sense of isolation and frustration. I’ve published four books and several hundred blogs, but I have had minimal success — maybe I’ve sold 500 or 600 books and over a dozen years that doesn’t amount to doodly squat.
Self-published authors are like graphic artists in that they must rely on their own ability to self-promote. I’m not able to blow my own horn very effectively and I suspect van Gogh had the same problem. Beyond the numbers that define success, there is the frustration of feeling like one’s work could enrich so many more people than it has if only they could see it. Van Gogh must have wondered why others did not experience the world with the same vibrancy as he and felt alone because of that. I’m in no danger of putting a gun to my chest but it has certainly crossed my mind. Being a psychologist and understanding my bipolar heritage gives me an advantage. However, the greatest coping mechanism for me is that I can see God’s grace and blessing in my life — and the certain knowledge that He sustains me.
I also believe that the torment of the “sadness that lasts forever” — plus any and every addiction or affliction can be the impetus for a closer relationship with both the Infinite and our fellows voyagers on this journey.
Understanding that, and writing about it, gives me hope.