In 2018, I had a six-week Haj break from the King Abdulaziz Air Force Base in Saudi Arabia where I was teaching English to cadets. I traveled all over the Mediterranean, and one of the legs of my trip was the French Riviera.
A big hero of mine has always been the painter Van Gogh, as much for the conditions he painted under, obscurity and devastating poverty, as the paintings he produced. I stayed in the city of Arles, where he produced what are now considered masterpieces, like Starry Sky and The Night Café, and was surprised to find it full of Roman antiquities, which included an amphitheater.
One of the myths surrounding Van Gogh, is the madness he suffered from, and how in a violent fit one night he cut off his left ear and gave it to a prostitute as a souvenir. Shortly thereafter, he was hospitalized in Arles and later sought treatment at an asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence.
I rented a car and drove to Saint Remy, without a map or smart phone, and unable to read a single word of French. By the time I arrived it was late in the afternoon and I would’ve been more qualified to enter the former asylum as a patient than a tourist. I was a millimeter away from going berserk.
Walking through the beautiful grounds, past the vivid fields and flowers that Van Gogh captured in his paintings, I entered the old, stone monastery, and found the room that had been his, with bars on the window and a bed not much larger than a cot. In the next room was a small bathtub, as much of his treatment had involved cold water baths and long walks.
It is not clear what form of psychosis led Van Gogh to cut off his ear and kill himself at 37, but many of his symptoms describe what was once called manic depression, and is now commonly referred to as bipolar disorder, a condition marked by extreme highs and lows.
What causes people to suffer? The Buddha’s grand conclusion after attaining enlightenment was that all life is suffering. Many people would say that you don’t have to be enlightened to figure that out. Life is hard everywhere you go, and if things are good, they usually don’t stay that way for long. The very nature of existence on earth, where one living organism must devour another living organism to survive, makes life a constant battle. You might not need to fend off a Tyrannosaurus Rex in this day and age, but if you don’t make enough money, watch out.
If there is one person that I identify with more than most, it is Van Gogh. His father was a pastor, as well, who didn’t think much of his son’s output. When I got out of college, all I wanted to do was write songs, and though admittedly, most of the songs in my catalog were as clumsy as Van Gogh’s first sketches, I knew inside that this is what I needed to do. If I dared mention my dream to my Dad, he would immediately shut down, perhaps granting that God had made me a writer, when what he really meant was that he certainly hadn’t made me a singer.
It was a strong pipe dream that I’d been smoking from, and I found no safe place to put that dream, no haven of encouragement or hope. I remember being depressed as a kid, feeling like no one knew me or liked me, and as a young adult those insecurities carried over. Because I spent all my time practicing the guitar and coming up with new songs, I didn’t have the energy to focus on the basic necessities of life, like money, security, a place to live, or relationships.
I would read about famous artists and musicians who attained fabulous wealth and fame by largely doing the same thing I was. Whenever, I met another aspiring artist in real life, however, they were usually fighting the same desperate struggle.
One thing that I could rely on, both to inspire and comfort me, was alcohol and drugs. Drinking made me happy and courageous. Smoking weed turned me into a poetry machine. Dropping acid made me few like I was one of the few on the right path, until it didn’t. Then it really didn’t. When I was depressed, I knew I could bring my mood up by drinking. When I was anxious, alcohol would level that off. It was all part of the same package, being an adventurer, a poet, a rock and roller.
Long after every chance had faded of me ever making a living doing what I loved, I continued to make a life of it, make a war of it, continuing to battle away, more out of defiance than anything else. If you stripped that away from me, I was nothing, just a confused kid, lonely, sad, depressed, who’d taken up his pain and carved a war mask out of it. I may never have mastered music, but I definitely mastered suffering. I knew how to suffer and I knew how to escape. Those were my two arts. Nothing else even came close.