Vincent Van Gogh used to eat yellow paint because he thought it would get the happiness inside him.
Isn’t that a cute story?
Like “aww he just wanted to feel love what a cute depressed ~*smol bean*~ aww uwu”
You can just imagine the ragged artist, messy in a studio somewhere, the yellow dripping from his lips as he, with a single tear cutting through the bright paint, says that he just wants to get the happiness inside of him.
It’s got a certain warmth to it. You really, really want to believe that there was beauty in such a dark moment — that a man so sad as Van Gogh would do something as mad as drink paint just to make himself happy.
I see this one plastered all over social media as an inspirational story of how we’ll try to do anything to make ourselves feel better, even if it doesn’t work.
Because, y’know, it just might.
The quote concludes with:
“Everyone has their own yellow paint.”
Sewn up nice and pretty, isn’t it?
But it wasn’t nice.
It wasn’t nice no matter what Tumblr and Pinterest and probably some **** people on Instagram tell you.
Van Gogh wasn’t eating paint in some poetic excuse for a social media post. No, he wasn’t “getting the happiness inside of him.”
He was eating paint and drinking turpentine to fucking kill himself.
We don’t know what he was suffering from but it could have been any of the following:
Syphilis, dementia praecox, hallucinatory psychosis, alcoholism, turpentine poisoning and gas intoxication, schizophrenia, a manic-depressive disorder, a metabolic disorder, delirium tremens, a borderline personality disorder, temporal lobe epilepsy or even sunstroke (source)
Van Gogh wasn’t a man in a painting. He wasn’t handcrafted for your Tumblr posts.
He was ill. Someway, somehow, Van Gogh was deeply ill.
And we can’t write the illness out of the narrative.
Recently I was asked if I thought it’d be better to get rid of the term “mental illness” entirely and replace it with something else — suggestions included “mental difference,” “neurodiversity,” and even “superpower.”
I shit you not.
I have bipolar. Sure, bipolar makes me “different” in the same way having green eyes makes me “different.” It’s not normal or average.
But unlike having green eyes, bipolar causes me real, tangible suffering.
It’s an illness. It’s an illness so we’re calling it an illness.
Coming up with alternate terms, trying to paint mental illnesses as differences versus actual sicknesses reminds me of what people have done with the phrase “differently abled.” Obviously I can’t speak for everyone with a disability, but I know so many people who hate that term because it implies there’s something wrong with having a disability. That we have to come up with a tiptoe term to make it seem like they don’t actually struggle with the issues they struggle with:
Firstly, calling someone “differently abled” is euphemistic. It is borderline cutesy and it diminishes the actual experiences of disabled people. It suggests that the term disability should be uncomfortable and therefore should be avoided. What this does is further increase stigma against disabled people by discouraging discussion about disability and what it means to be disabled. (source)
When you avoid the term “mental illness” and instead use something like “mental difference,” you’re ending all discussion about the illness and its impacts. You’re denying the fact that it is an illness that does require accommodations and medical care. You’re ignoring the fact that I am different in ways that are detrimental to my life, happiness, and health.
Terms like “neurodiverse,” when used in the context of mental illnesses like bipolar, imply that my brain chemistry should be embraced and celebrated as it is — not that I should receive adequate treatment to help with my condition.
And terms like “superpower”?
Yes, some mental illnesses come with what can be perceived as benefits. When I’m hypomanic, I’m more productive, more creative, and I can function incredibly well on virtually no sleep.
I’m also extremely reckless and, when the hypomania ends, extremely suicidal.
Not much of a superpower if you ask me.
That’s the catch — even the “differences” people want to celebrate aren’t really positive. They all come with drawbacks for which I’m sure most sufferers would gladly give up any perceived benefits.
And the biggest question is, why should we change the terminology anyway?
As the quote above says, coming up with cutesy euphemisms for mental illness is a great way to teach people that mental illnesses are something to be uncomfortable about. These euphemisms allow people to ignore all of the tough parts of grappling with mental illness and just see the easy stuff — the “differences,” the “superpowers.”
They get to ignore the fact that this shit fucking sucks. While mental illness is obviously nothing to be ashamed of, it comes with tons of difficulties that “superpower” fails to encapsulate. Language that minimizes the difficulties only stigmatizes it more — because what happens when someone doesn’t fit the poetic Van Gogh image of a mental illness? What happens when someone’s mental illness manifests itself in a way that makes others uncomfortable? Are mental illnesses still “superpowers” then, or does the embrace of them end when things aren’t quite so pretty?
There’s no way around it: mental illnesses are illnesses. Not differences. Not diversities. Not superpowers.
We need to embrace the language.
We need to stop fetishizing, stop creating beautiful pictures of mental illness that turn suffering into poetry and allow us to ignore the incredible detrimental effects that mental illness has on people’s lives.
Van Gogh didn’t eat paint to get the happiness inside of him.
He wasn’t “different.” He was ill.
And we can’t solve the problem unless we acknowledge what it is in the first place.