Sunday, March 30, 2014

"Vincent and The Doctor:" In Celebration of World Bipolar Day 2014

Today is the first World Bipolar Day:

"World Bipolar Day (WBD) will be celebrating its inaugural year on March 30th, the birthday of Vincent Van Gogh, who was posthumously diagnosed as probably having bipolar disorder. The vision of WBD is to bring world awareness to bipolar disorders and eliminate social stigma. Through international collaboration the goal of World Bipolar Day is to bring the world population information about bipolar disorders that will educate and improve sensitivity towards the illness."

Logo from ISBD.
Since Vincent Van Gogh's birthday was chosen to celebrate this day, I think it is fitting to talk about one of the TV shows I feel raises awareness about bipolar disorder, helps decrease stigma, and increases compassion: Dr. Who's "Vincent and the Doctor" (Season 5: Episode 10.) When I saw this episode, I felt like part of my story was being told. It was a compassionate understanding of mental illness and the struggle of those of us with bipolar disorder.

I think what the episode shows about mental illness that most people fail to understand, is that while our mind may not work the way we want it to sometimes, one of the amazing things about our illness is the way we see the world. We often see it as more real than other people. In Dr. Who, Van Gogh not only sees the nuances of color, light, and beauty in the world, which makes him a great painter, he also sees truths that others do not see. As Van Gogh says, "There is so much more to the world than the average eye can see."

In this science fiction story, something has recently brought death to the community, which everyone blames on the "madness" of Van Gogh. We discover though that the thing which is bringing death is a monster from another world that no one else can see, except Van Gogh.

Our Van Gogh/Dr. Who Poster. Copyright C. Norris.
This ability to see more than others can- whether that be through physical sight, increased empathy (which can be seen in the show with Van Gogh's ability to see Amy's sadness over a loss even she does not remember consciously), superior leadership skills, the ability to see organizational systems, etc...- is well documented in bipolar disorder. You can read about this in A First Rate Madness by Dr. Nassir Ghaemi and Touched with Fire by Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison. Many people see us as irrational, eccentric, too sensitive, too emotional, and thus disregard what we see and feel. The research shows that we actually have more insight that people believe we have. I love in the show when Van Gogh says "I may be mad, but I'm not stupid." So true, and what so many of us want to say to those who think we are incapable of contributing to the world.

Dr. Who also shows the great agony those of us with bipolar live with daily, and yet we fight to carry on anyway. One of the things many of us worry about is that our illness will make us unable to leave anything good behind when we die. Will we ever be worthy of the precious life we were given? There is a beautiful scene at the end of the episode when The Doctor, Amy, and Van Gogh travel forward in time to the 21st century and Van Gogh is able to see that he has made a difference and left the world more beautiful.

The museum guide, an expert in Van Gogh's art says of Vincent:
"He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy, joy, and magnificence of our world; no one had ever done it before, perhaps no one ever will again. To my mind that strange, wild man.... was not only the worlds greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived."

Transforming the pain of my tormented life into beauty and good is something I strive for every day. Most people I know like me are all trying to do this, but rarely does the world see our resiliency, gifts, or talents because too many people choose to focus only on the negative aspects of the illness.

After their trip to the future, Amy believes they have "saved" Van Gogh and prevented his suicide. After they return Vincent to his own time, she hurries back to 2010 and thinks she will see hundreds of new paintings by Van Gogh hanging in the museum. However, they were unable to "save" Van Gogh, and he still dies from suicide at 37 years old.

Bipolar disorder is complex and like any illness, it takes lives. We wish we could save everyone, but we can not. Sometimes we are unable to find the right treatment in time to prevent death by suicide. It is sad, and I wish this were different, but this is a reality our loved ones have to understand about mental illness. They need to understand this for their own well-being, because the burden of attempting to "save" someone is too much for anyone to bear.

Because they could not prevent his death, Amy thinks they did not make a difference to Van Gogh's life at all, but she is wrong. Showing someone compassion always makes a difference, it makes our life better, and we never forget it.
As Dr. Who says to Amy, "Every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don't always soften the bad things, but vice versa. The bad things don't necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant. And, we definitely added to his pile of good things."

I believe Vincent and the Doctor is the perfect show to watch on this, the first World Bipolar Day, for it reminds us that:
  • Those of us with bipolar see and experience the wonder and beauty of the world, also it's pain and sadness, in a way that others do not. This can be a struggle at times, but it is also an amazing gift, a gift which we can use to make the world a better place.
  • We may not always be able to fix or save someone, but we can always add to their pile of good things. The simplest way to do this is to show another person compassion.
In honor of World Bipolar Day, may we all add to someone's pile of good things today.


Rev. Katie

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this Katie. One of my closest friends is in the midst of a very hard episode of her bipolar life, off meds, often psychotic and not communicating by phone or web, which makes it hard for those of us who don't live in her town. But she is such a brilliant soul, and has so much insight and vision--a few years ago she was developing a more holistic kind of science for work on the environment. I pray that she can get through this darkness and share her gifts with the world.