These stories can be viewed in their entirty under the Video Archive Section
“It’s very crippling to an individual because you don’t have very good balance, you’re very nauseated, you’re very dizzy.” – “They would have to bring me home from work because they thought I had a problem with alcohol or some other situation.” – Larry Veber, Meniere’s Patient, Interview
“I was in a grocery store going down the can food aisle and all the sudden the cans started moving and the room started moving and I said to myself, ‘Not here’” – Phyllis Warburton (News inside Aurora, Ear Trouble Piece
“Most of the times when my attacks came I just immediately hit the floor, crawl to the bathroom and spend the next 2-3 hours in there.” – Paul McNamee (Channel 4)
“That (inner ear valve )surgery…changed my life. I no longer had vertigo attacks, the tinnitus subsided, and I could go out in public with total confidence I wouldn’t fall. To this day I have not had one vertigo attack in the operated ear.” Randy Foshee e-mail, July 1, 2008
Vincent was sadly no different than any of my many patients with inner-ear disease. He had a very characteristic clinical history consistent with Meniere’s disease, not epilepsy. Therefore, Meniere’s disease is the correct, clinically accurate diagnosis and explanation of his violent attacks of vertige and any hallucination of (rotary) motion with strange earl and head noises. Did his attacks of vertigo and the other symptoms of his inner-ear disease have any impact on his death?
First, one might wonder when and where Vincent van Gogh experienced his first attack of violent vertigo. Was it Paris, Arles, Saint-Rémy? According to Marc Edo Tralbaut, a leading twentieth-century biographer of van Gogh (1969), these attacks really started in Arles. Did he have an attack on December 23, 1888, that may have precipitated the unusual confrontation with Paul Gauguin? There are many theories regarding what drove van Gogh to mutilate his own ear, including the possibility that it was not self-mutilation at all, but the result of a physical altercation with Gauguin. Still, it is possible that a violent and unexpected attack from this inner-ear condition could have caused this frightened and frustrated man to seek a desperate solution with extreme action. Did Vincent hallucinate rotational vertigo and hear noises inside his ears and head that night? Maybe in the heat of the moment, during an early episode, it seemed like cutting off his left ear would make the symptoms of vertigo and/or the ringing noises in his head go away. We do not know, but that had been speculated as a possibility. Vincent was aware of some of the recently discovered information about inner ear function by Marie-Jean-Pierre Flourens. Is it possible that cutting off his ear had nothing to do with Gauguin’s abrupt departure from the Yellow House in Arles, and nothing ties the two incidents together except bad timing and coincidence? Is it possible that Gauguin cut off van Gogh’s ear and declared him mad? This theory has been broached before. The accepted legend about this event comes down to us from Gauguin’s later memoirs in his Intimate Journals. Would it not have been easier to blame Vincent for the ear episode, since Gauguin always maintained he was mad? Why blame himself or say what really happened? When Gauguin finally put down his story in his journals, both Vincent and Theo had already both died, and he was far away from Paris, as Vincent’s fame was growing.
There are no corroborating accounts from Vincent himself. As such, this story has become mainstream history, even though it relies only on Gauguin’s possibly unreliable and biased recollections. As Vincent’s fame began to catch on, Gauguin made some self-aggrandizing gestures that he took credit for pointing Vincent on the correct path when they roomed together in Arles. His path, he shared, brought Vincent’s art to such an acceptable and recognized level—but this is yet another story without substance, elaborated on only years after Vincent died. Perhaps it’s just another story fabricated for the teller’s own benefit.
Van Gogh’s output, once he was allowed to paint again, was as prolific in St. Remy as it was in Arles. The only thing that would stop him from painting was an attack of his violent vertigo, nausea, and vomiting. He painted in the high winds and blowing dirt of the infamous mistrals, he painted outside in the blistering sun and heat of Provence, and he painted in the rain. He even painted in the evening with candles lit around the brim of his hat.
Tralbaut (1969) says that Vincent had four more major attacks of “madness” in Saint-Rémy. I believe his attacks of “madness” and his attacks of vertige are one and the same, at least when Vincent names them vertige. He had a series of these episodic attacks in 1889, covering the period from July 8 to mid-August. The rest of 1889 was not a good year for Vincent either, in terms of his attacks of his inner-ear vertigo. Holidays, particularly Christmastime, had frequently been a problem period for Vincent over the years. Familial stress may have exacerbated his symptoms, and he had a miserable time from December 24 through the start of the new year. Again, Vincent had both major and minor attacks lasting the entire week of January 23 to 30, 1890. He then had a calm and productive period. Then, he again had a series of major and minor spells from mid-February to mid-April 1890. Vincent expressed a major life- and art-changing fear, writing in a letter that “a more violent attack [of vertige] may forever destroy my power to paint” (#605, Sept. 10, 1889). However, instead of allowing his affliction to slow him down, the overhanging, persistent fear and dread compelled him to paint even more obsessively.
Yet, despite this terrible fear of another attack occurring unexpectedly, Vincent, who had just had a notable series of less severe attacks lasting two months, was able and anxious to leave the asylum in spring 1890. He desperately wanted to go to Paris to see his brother, his new sister-in-law, Johanna, and their new son, his namesake. Now there was another Vincent Wilhelm, the third van Gogh in thirty-eight years blessed with that name and big shoes to fill. After a year of lessened anxiety in which he painted as much as possible, he arrived in Auvers-sur-Oise on May 20,1890. Some have suggested that he manipulated Theo into letting him stay in the asylum and paint unimpeded. Maybe he did put undue pressure on his younger brother, pushing him to the brink?