In Van Gogh's Room - Michelle D. Wagner Photography
One of the pleasures of being a photographer is getting to travel to places where well-known events in history have occurred. Sometimes those events are especially close to my heart and to my own experiences. This summer I had the opportunity to travel to the hospital in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in France where the Dutch post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh spent a year of his life, almost the entire last year of his life, as he tried to recover from mental illness.
Almost as well known for the fact that he cut off one of his ears as for his prolific body of paintings and drawings, Van Gogh came to the psychiatric facility in Saint-Rémy of his own accord on May 8, 1889. He was given two rooms - each with bars on the windows - one to function as his sleeping quarters, and another to function as a studio where he could paint and draw. It is amazing to me that, in the midst of dealing with depression and being largely in confinement, he was able to create some of his most famous works: "The Irises," and "Starry Night," among many others. He was so confined - allowed only short, supervised walks - that he had to draw on previous work, both his own and other artists', for inspiration. In total, it was an abundantly creative time for him, and he created 143 oil paintings and over 100 drawings during his stay. Unfortunately, Van Gogh continued to struggle with his illness, and not long after he left the hospital, he committed suicide in July of 1890.
It was quite an emotional experience for me as I walked into Van Gogh's room, so starkly furnished, because I too have dealt with mental illness and have been hospitalized for it. I struggled mightily with severe bouts of depression in my 30s, and voluntarily entered myself into an inpatient program on three separate occasions in one of the best psychiatric hospitals on the east coast. As I looked out from between the bars of Van Gogh's windows this past summer, the memories flooded back of what it is like to peer from your hospital room window and long to to be somewhere else, anywhere else. To be confined and to go everywhere supervised or observed by a nurse or a doctor, as if you are a mouse on a treadmill. To wonder if you will ever feel...like yourself again.
And yet there was beauty to be found in it. The compassion and empathy shown by the hospital staff, my friends, and my family. The unlikely and motley group of hospital mates who turned out to be my comrades, if only temporarily. I learned to appreciate the simplest things. Going outside on a December day and feeling the sting of cold against my face. The delight of seeing my Mom or Dad walk onto the hall for visiting hours. A phone call from my nephew, who was just a child at the time, asking me if I was feeling better.
And right now in this moment, I'm alive. There were times I wasn't sure I would - or wanted to - survive the awfulness of depression. It will never go away completely, and I still have times when it gets worse, but now I have better strategies to manage it.
If you are having issues with mental health, there are resources available to you. Remember that situations are always temporary. Hold out hope. I am so glad that I did.