Saturday, October 22, 2011

the upside of depression

If you struggle with depression, particularly chronic, lifelong depression, as I have (although at times my depression and even more prominent anxiety abate for a while, they always come back), it is probably pretty hard to see any upside to their place in your life.  I know it has been hard for me.  Sometimes the weight of these emotions on my shoulders has been significant and even crippling at times.  A while ago, I saw Nassir Ghaemi interviewed on The Colbert Report, concerning his recent book, A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness

I found Ghaemi's thesis so encouraging: that during crisis times in history a person with a non-psychotic mental illness such as depression or anxiety is of more use than a person who scores high on the optimism scales and would generally be described as mentally healthy.  This is because a person who battles depression or anxiety has certain qualities such as resilience and realism that well-equip them to deal with trying times, qualities which the average healthy person does not possess in the necessary quantities.  Well, I have had A First-Rate Madness on my library waiting list for a while, so in the meantime, I got a book that follows the same theory, but zeroes in on just one great person from history, Abraham Lincoln.  The book is Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk.

For any person who struggles with any mood disorder and wonders what the point of it all is, this is highly recommended reading.  Abraham Lincoln's journey with depression is carefully portrayed, with all the fine elements of story.  This is no dry history book, but a living, pulsing account of the private agony that Lincoln suffered throughout the course of his life.  It emerged publicly in young adulthood and at that time, Lincoln's friends sought to protect him from suicidal urges.  Later, Lincoln's depression became quieter and more indrawn, particularly after his marriage to Mary Todd.  He was able to use the energy of his depression to fuel a larger purpose, for which he became relentless and more determined over time, the cause of ending slavery.

Shenk shows how Lincoln was able to deal with the complex times into which he was thrust through the perseverance that he developed dealing with depression throughout his life.  He shows how Lincoln developed patience that enabled him to plod through, steady as the tortoise to the hare.  He shows how despondent he was over his failures but so willing to continue in what he believed.  He shows how Lincoln overcame his suicidal tendencies to live for something greater than himself, how brave this was, and how Lincoln can be a profound role model for the depressive.  As I was reading the book, I said to myself, "there is no way Shenk could write about the agony of depression the way he does unless he himself had suffered from it."  And sure enough, a perusal of his website reveals that part of the attraction to Lincoln's story for him was that Shenk was battling depression.  It appears that Lincoln's character became profoundly transformative for him, just as I believe it will be for any depressive who reads this book.

Lincoln's story gave me great courage in thinking of what the life of a depressive can look like through the years of life. So often, it is easy to look at "just now" and feel that all is lost.  But if I can train myself to take the long view, as Lincoln did, I can let the storms of depression carve my character out of the rock of life.  I can nurture in myself creativity, resilience, and realism that will make me available to the challenges of leadership that come my way.  Rather than viewing my depression and anxiety as shameful, I can look at them as opportunities to deal with life as it really is, rather than with avoidance of challenges.  Depression can be an awful burden but it can also be a great gift.  I have written before about leaning into the pain (rather than avoiding it) and how that has been a helpful metaphor for me in dealing with depression.  Shenk's book on Lincoln provides even more hope to embrace the gift of depression and the benefits it brings with it which would not otherwise be possible.

I'm linking this post up to Momma Made it Look Easy and you should too!


  1. OH MY GOSH. Girl, you are great. I will definitely be back. I am pressed for time right now, but I like your perspective. I found you at Momma Made It Look Easy. I will follow you on my own now. Great post.

  2. Hi Maggie...Thanks for stopping by and following! If you're interested in other posts on depression, click on the label above...I've struggled with it since my teen years at least. Strength in numbers!


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