Vincent van Gogh is said to have eaten yellow paint to “get the happiness inside him.”
And this is why we fact-check.
This is a very cute and poetic example of symbolism. However, when taken literally it makes no sense, and is also historically inaccurate.
According to the van Gogh Museum’s website,
During one period of extreme confusion, he ate some of his oil paint, following which he was restricted to drawing for a while. Despite such relapses, however, Vincent was exceptionally productive at Saint-Rémy, where he completed around 150 paintings in the space of a year.
Okay, I don’t think anyone came here looking for a lesson in art history, so I’ll cut to the chase. My point is: expressing your sadness creatively is awesome! But building your identity into your sadness? Less awesome. Let me explain.
I was diagnosed with depression and anorexia around the time I was fourteen. It was my freshman year of high school and I’d just barely escaped from the living hell that was eighth grade. I didn’t have any friends at my new school, and for whatever reason, I had a self-loathing streak a mile wide. Nothing in particular could be pinpointed as responsible for this change. I’d gone from being a reasonably smart, polite, and otherwise unremarkable kid to a hostile, withdrawn, and dangerously suicidal teenager.
When my parents discovered that I was making tiny cuts on my body with thumbtacks, needles, and safety pins, they thought I’d grow out of it at first. After about six months passed, it became apparent that my self-harming was only becoming increasingly extreme. Later that year, I found myself in my first therapist’s office, then a psychiatrist’s office, and then an out-of-state, residential treatment center.
All of the therapy, medication, and hospital stays did very little to dissuade me from my belief that I was an absolutely awful person. If I had been asked to identify one good thing in my life back then, it would’ve been my writing. I’ve always been an extremely creative person, and it came naturally to me that I should write about these confusing, intense emotions I was going through.
Because of the way tragic, creative figures are hallowed after their deaths, I began to imagine that I, too, would be remembered as van Gogh or Sylvia Plath were. I did not anticipate a long life, nor a happy one.
At the onset of my eating disorder, I was presented with the concept of self-love. I was instructed to write down things I liked about myself, to stand in front of the mirror and repeat positive affirmations, etc. Not only did I hate doing this, but it was also ineffective because I felt that I was just trying to please a treatment team.
At some point, I got it in my head that any thought I had about myself that wasn’t 100% positive was a symptom. I was constantly analyzing my interior monologue, battling with myself, basically policing my thoughts. It gets exhausting very quickly! I was constantly aware of the fact that I was a sick person, that my thoughts were sick thoughts, my writing sick writing…
So where does van Gogh fit into all this? He, like myself, created his best work during periods of remission, when the sadness wasn’t so burdensome. If I could go back in time and tell my fourteen-year-old self one thing, it would be that the soul-crushing depression that altered the course of my life was never the most interesting thing about me, that there is life outside of treatment.
I am thankful that now I am at a point in my life where I have a little bit of perspective, I can see my whole self for what I am, rather than just magnifying the blight on my psyche. Sometimes that image wavers, sometimes I get fed up and short-tempered with myself. Other times I feel like my own best friend. What I know now is that I am more than a collection of symptoms and diagnoses. I am, in the words of D. H. Lawrence, “a very curious assembly of incongruous parts.” Some of these parts are mental illness, but many of them are not. They are creativity, spirituality, and loyalty. Each day, I uncover something new, some previously unknown aspect of who I am and who I hope to become.