I finally visited the d’Orsay yesterday, and I had a chance to be up close and personal with Van Gogh. I happened to remember I had a book on him on my kindle, so I started reading in the museum to stay away from the sweltering 39°C heat.
His sister-in-law wrote a short memoir on him. In it she described his “nervous attacks” (probably similar to anxiety/panic attacks in modern day):
”On the 7th of January Vincent leaves the hospital, apparently entirely recovered, but, alas, at every great excitement or fatigue, the nervous attacks return . . . they last longer or shorter, but leave him also periods of almost perfect health, during which he goes back to his work with the old vigour.”
There were cycles where he would be in good health, these attacks would come, and he would be a pale shade of himself:
‘He is fully conscious of his condition, and speaks with me about his illness, which he fears will come back, with a touching openheartedness and simplicity,’ writes the Rev. Salles. “I am not fit,” he told me the day before yesterday, “to govern myself and my affairs. I feel quite different than I was before.”
In between he had spurts of recovery and found enough energy and inspiration to paint some of what would be his best work. But just when they thought he was over his worst, he apparently killed himself shortly after.
I have begun to experience anxiety attacks myself for the first time ever. It runs in the women in my family, and I have always believed I’ve gotten the depressive gene, not the anxiety one. I have always wondered why my mother had to be on long-term anxiety medication when there is no longer anything to be anxious about.
I now know why.
The nervous system simply malfunctions and sees every fucking thing as a perceived danger, and it responses like my life is in danger, be it a car is about to knock me down, or simply the arrival of an email. It doesn’t matter what I think or believe – it is not true when they say mind over body. The body decides she had enough, and that is it. It reacts whether I want to or not. My mind can be thinking that this is the most trivial thing ever and yet I start experiencing shortness of breath and heart palpitations. Some nights I try to sleep and my heart starts to race for no apparent reason.
Yesterday, I wondered about the finality of my health. If I could ever recover, or have to depend on medication for the rest of my life. I wondered if I too, would recover in short bursts enough to make me believe that I was fine, but they are only but a prelude to a permanent condition.
I wonder of all the things I was able to survive from, if I could survive my own inability to have prolonged periods of thought and creation.