Guy I know is one of the most miserable men on the face of the planet. He's sad all the time. Almost no one knows this about him. I know it. I think his mother knows but she won't tell him she knows, she hints, hoping he'll say something. Couple of his other friends from college know, because they saw him through some pretty dark times and they learned to read the signs. But most everyone else who knows him would be shocked to hear how he really feels. He's the kind of guy other people go to to be cheered up.
Even those of his friends who know the truth forget sometimes. He makes it easy. Around other people, he doesn't mope or whine or withdraw into brown studies. He's a funny guy most of the time. Witty, a great story teller, quick with a comeback. But if you know him well, you can tell he's in a mood by the change in his sense of humor. When he's feeling sad his jokes turn dark, he's more sarcastic, his view of the world and of other people fatalistic and bleak. "Aren't you cynical today," people will say to him after after a surprisingly morbid wisecrack. But they treat what he said as a joke that didn't work, not as what it is, a sign that he's suddenly finding nothing to laugh about.
There are times, he admits, when the sadness nearly crushes him. He feels that if he sits still for a minute he won't ever move again. And he doesn't want anybody to know how he feels. When he feels it coming over him and he can manage it he sneaks off somewhere to hide, or he hides himself in plain sight, burying himself in some project, snapping and growling at anyone who comes near, letting them think that he's too busy and annoyed to talk at the moment, when he's just afraid that if he stops for a second he'll collapse into tears.
What he is, most likely, is clinically depressed. But he won't accept that when I've tried to suggest it to him. "For one thing," he says, "Depressed people don't move at all. They don't get out of the house. They don't get anything done. They just sit there or they don't even get out of bed."
If I point out he has had days like that, he says, "Sure, but it's not all the time. It's not even a quarter of the time. It's just now and then." Then he says, "And for another thing, people who are depressed don't feel sad. They're too depressed to feel anything. They just feel nothing. They don't even feel depressed."
He means that people who are depressed don't know they're depressed because they're so used to feeling that way they can't imagine any other way to feel. They think being depressed is normal.
"And," he says, protesting too much, but you can't tell him that, "If you're depressed everybody else knows it. You can't hide it. You're depressed all the time and everybody arounds you can see it. You don't have the energy to hide it."
He's describing his grandmother, who was clinically depressed too. But, I've explained to him, she was that way because of when she lived and because she was a woman. People expected a woman to be "moody" so women who were depressed didn't feel they had to hide it. But men feel the opposite. I've read that lots of men who are depressed become so good at hiding it that even their wives don't know they're depressed. Right up until they kill themselves, people around them think they're the cheerfullest bastards going.
My friend has a question about that one.
"If nobody knows they're depressed then how do they know they killed themselves because they were depressed?"
Not nobody nobody. Just most people who knew them.
"I'm not depressed," he insists. "I'm just prone to melancholy, like Abraham Lincoln."
But now there's a new biography of Lincoln by Joshua Wolf Shenk that posits that Lincoln wasn't simply prone to melancholy.
In his book, Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, which has been adapted into an article, Lincoln's Great Depression, in this month's Atlantic, Shenk writes that Lincoln was prone to depression in exactly the way we mean when we use the word:
Was Lincoln's melancholy a "clinical depression"? Yes—as far as that concept goes. Certainly his condition in the summer of 1835 matches what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders labels a major depressive episode. Such an episode is characterized by depressed mood, a marked decrease in pleasure, or both, for at least two weeks, and symptoms such as agitation, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, and thoughts of death or suicide. Five and a half years later, in the winter of 1840—1841, Lincoln broke down again, and together these episodes suffice for modern clinicians to make an assessment of recurrent major depression.
(That quote and all the one's that follow are from the article.)
Shenk's thesis is that Lincoln's melancholy---his depression---was the well of his strength, his creativity, and his special greatness. Maybe. The article's promising, and I've put the book on reserve at the library. But it was this that made me think of my friend.
Often understood as an emotional condition, depression is to those who experience it characterized largely by its cognitive patterns. The novelist William Styron has likened his depression to a storm in his brain, punctuated by thunderclaps of thought—self-critical, fearful, despairing. Lincoln clearly knew these mental strains (he wrote once of "that intensity of thought, which will some times wear the sweetest idea thread-bare and turn it to the bitterness of death")...
It's that last sentence by Lincoln himself that particularly caught my eye. I steered my friend to the article but he wasn't convinced. Shenk's description of Lincoln's melancholy doesn't match his image of depression.
"He wasn't passive when he was overcome with it," my friend said, pointing out this passage:
Observing Lincoln in an hour of trial, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote that he was unsteady but strong, like a wire cable that sways in storms but holds fast. In this metaphor we can see how Lincoln's weakness connected to a special kind of strength. In 1862, amid one of many military calamities, Senator O. H. Browning came to the White House. The president was in his library, writing, and had left instructions that he was not to be disturbed. Browning went in anyway and found the president looking terrible—"weary, care-worn, and troubled." Browning wrote in his diary, "I remarked that I felt concerned about him—regretted that troubles crowded so heavily upon him, and feared his health was suffering." Lincoln took his friend's hand and said, with a deep cadence of sadness, "Browning I must die sometime." "He looked very sad," Browning wrote. "We parted I believe both of us with tears in our eyes." A clinician reading this passage could easily identify mental pathology in a man who looked haggard and distressed and volunteered morbid thoughts. However, one crucial detail upsets such a simple picture: Browning found Lincoln writing—doing the work that not only helped steer his nation through its immediate struggle but also became a compass for future generations.
"And," said my friend, "He knew he was 'depressed.' He wasn't so overwhelmed by how sad he was that he couldn't remember or imagine feeling anything else. He wasn't so sad that the sadness exhausted his ability to feel sad. He wrote that poem."
"This one. 'The Suicide's Soliloquoy.' When he was in his twenties."
Here, where the lonely hooting owl
Sends forth his midnight moans,
Fierce wolves shall o'er my carcase growl,
Or buzzards pick my bones.
No fellow-man shall learn my fate,
Or where my ashes lie;
Unless by beasts drawn round their bait,
Or by the ravens' cry.
Yes! I've resolved the deed to do,
And this the place to do it:
This heart I'll rush a dagger through
Though I in hell should rue it!
To ease me of this power to think,
That through my bosom raves,
I'll headlong leap from hell's high brink
And wallow in its waves.
Ok. We don't know Lincoln wrote that. It's attributed to him. He could have written it at a time when he wasn't depressed. And even if he did write when he was depressed, it's a pretty standard bit of Romantic sentimentality, he wouldn't have had to have been at his emotional or intellectual peak to have come up with it.
"But he didn't try to hide it!" my friend said with special triumphfulness of someone who gets to use your own words against you. "You said that men hide their depression. He told everyone he knew when he was feeling miserable. Look."
When Abraham Lincoln came to the stage of the 1860 state Republican convention in Decatur, Illinois, the crowd roared in approval. Men threw hats and canes into the air, shaking the hall so much that the awning over the stage collapsed; according to an early account, "the roof was literally cheered off the building." Fifty-one years old, Lincoln was at the peak of his political career, with momentum that would soon sweep him to the nomination of the national party and then to the White House.
Yet to the convention audience Lincoln didn't seem euphoric, or triumphant, or even pleased. On the contrary, said a man named Johnson, observing from the convention floor, "I then thought him one of the most diffident and worst plagued men I ever saw."
The next day the convention closed. The crowds dispersed, leaving behind cigar stubs and handbills and the smells of sweat and whiskey. Later the lieutenant governor of Illinois, William J. Bross, walked the floor. He saw Lincoln sitting alone at the end of the hall, his head bowed, his gangly arms bent at the elbows, his hands pressed to his face. As Bross approached, Lincoln noticed him and said, "I'm not very well."
Lincoln's look at that moment—the classic image of gloom—was familiar to everyone who knew him well. Such spells were just one thread in a curious fabric of behavior and thought that his friends called his "melancholy." He often wept in public and recited maudlin poetry. He told jokes and stories at odd times—he needed the laughs, he said, for his survival. As a young man he talked more than once of suicide, and as he grew older he said he saw the world as hard and grim, full of misery, made that way by fate and the forces of God. "No element of Mr. Lincoln's character," declared his colleague Henry Whitney, "was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy." His law partner William Herndon said, "His melancholy dripped from him as he walked."
Different times, I said. Men, and women, were much more open about their feelings. Besides, everyone's different. And, if you agree with me that a sign of depression in a man is how much trouble he takes to hide it then you've just diagnosed yourself, haven't you?
My friend gave one of those sardonic smiles that signal his mood's turned and he asked to change the subject, promising that he would have to read the book.
(I'll have to read it too. Meanwhile, I'll be going over the article in a few more posts. Lots of interesting stuff, about Lincoln and about depression. The blonde and I subscribe to the magazine and subscribers have access to the whole of the Atlantic's online edition. But I'm not sure what non-subscribers are allowed to read or even if you have to register. Please let me know if you have trouble one way or the other.)
Please help keep this blog up and running by donating to my Tip Jar in the upper right hand corner, using either PayPal or Amazon or you can just click here to go straight to Amazon. Thanks for your support. Also be sure to visit our advertisers and consider buying an ad yourself through The Liberal Prose at BlogAds.