An edited version of this piece originally appeared in The Age
Two days before Barack Obama’s inauguration, I visited the Lincoln Memorial. It was busy, of course—people from all over the U.S. had come to visit their secular saint, a man their soon-to-be President had so insistently evoked during the campaign. Days later, the 44th President of the United States was sworn in on Lincoln’s Bible.
On the day I was there, a black man approached the inscription of the Gettysburg Address, knelt, closed his eyes, and prayed. I assumed he was giving thanks to Saint Lincoln, and perhaps, behind those closed eyes, he received benediction. I felt awkward watching a man pray and I shuffled off.
What the others saw that day is another matter—Lincoln’s real monument can be found in his prose, but for most Americans the hagiographic Lincoln is the most enduring: the log-splitting frontiersman turned Great Emancipator. The dark and complex contours of the “real” Lincoln are often missed. The black humourist; the fatalist; the raconteur; the depressive.
I was depressed at the time, though not severely. That would come later. I didn’t much feel the complex, deeply depressive Lincoln behind that large, marble head; the eyes suggested determination and foresight, perhaps, but betrayed little of his melancholy. That said, historian Henry Louis Gates has remarked that we see in Lincoln what we want to see.
It may surprise people to learn that prior to assuming the presidency in 1861, Lincoln experienced at least two major depressive episodes, one in 1835 and the other during the winter of 1840-41. In a letter sent to his law partner and political mentor John T. Stuart in 1841, Lincoln wrote:
For not giving you a general summary of news, you must pardon me; it is not in my power to do so. I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth. Whether I shall ever get better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.
These episodes are detailed in Joshua Wolf Shenk’s beautiful book Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, a book I had picked up during a long bout of severe depression. For months, suicide was never far from my mind. The thoughts were frequent, instinctive and uninvited and my mind’s way, perhaps, of helpfully suggesting relief.
It was not myself, per se, that I wanted to snuff out—my esteem was not in jeopardy—but rather the pain which was increasing in mendacity and meaninglessness. Things felt irrevocably hopeless and I grew familiar with Wordsworth’s lines that “suffering is permanent, obscure and dark, / and has the nature of infinity”.
At its worst, the despair assumed demonic proportions. I disliked my skin; I had difficulty breathing. The despair became so large that it became incomprehensible. Infinite.
In the face of such spectacular dimensions—or, more accurately, the absence of dimensions—I felt myself receding into the great folds of darkness. My vitality was replaced with vertigo as I peered out into something “obscure and dark” and which seemed to stretch on forever.
This is Wordsworth’s “infinite”—a suffering which truly appears never-ending and inexhaustible. As I faced this, my own personal knowledge that it has, in fact, ended in the past and would do so again, crumbled. The comfort this should have bestowed was disabled by the frightening illusion of infinity. The depression created a temporal fog which smothers a sense of self, time and place. Personal precedent—the knowledge that this will end and there are things you can to do to hurry the end along—dims considerably.
In Lincoln’s Melancholy, Shenk includes this quote from a psychologist: “If you were seriously depressed, and you knew that it would end in five days, you aren’t depressed”.
At times it felt as if I was lost in space and without the grounding fixture of the Earth to make my position relative. There was a vast darkness which, in turns, was humbling, exhausting, corrosive and, finally, consumptive.
It’s a clumsy and insufficient metaphor, of course. And that’s part of the problem. One of the symptoms of a deep depression is an inability to express it. And this inarticulacy only compounds the awful loneliness.
Opening his short story “The Depressed Person”, David Foster Wallace writes: “The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror”.
Over the course of the story, Wallace painfully records the depressed person’s escalating self-absorption until she is teetering on the edge of solipsism. Suffering’s seemingly infinite reach sponsors a gross, inward gravity. If you don’t put up a strong fight the outside world can quickly fade to black.
Throughout this essay I have used literary quotes, historical references and metaphors. The problem, I think, is by intellectualising depression, one runs the risk of fetishising it.
But the intellectualising of depression—and the literary quotes which stain this essay—also seem to this writer a necessary evil. It’s a communicative over-reaching designed to overcome the brutal difficulty of expressing the illness.
During the worst stretches of my depression I felt myself becoming blurry. I felt my vitality fade. I felt less human—that is, less caring, careful, curious; less charmed and charming. And compounding these losses was the loss of being able to speak about this evacuation of spirit.
The point is that historical and literary references to depression are fixed spots which help me navigate in the darkness. They’re spotlights, lighthouses, stars. They’re grounding. They remind me that this has always existed, and always will. It reminds me that others have suffered it and were strong enough to record it. They put words in my mouth where once there was just the silence of terror.
* * *
Years ago I began reading Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. With great intelligence, Solomon canvasses the inner and outer worlds of depression. He maps his own terrifying depression, its contours, consequences and treatments, but he also travels the world, speaking to eskimos, survivors of Pol Pot’s regime and single housewives in the south of America. He speaks to psychologists and psychiatrists and authors.
I could not face the success of the book. Solomon had written with such astonishing clarity of his own chronic depression that I felt at times I was close to occupying his pain. When I was unwell the book helped provide some self-knowledge and practical tips; when I was well it would not. For me, at least, reading about depression was a wonderful way of triggering it. I never finished the book.
So I was trepidatious and excited about Shenk’s book. But while there were times when the proximity of my illness to the subject of the book set off an awful resonance, most often it did not. I was so low that Shenk’s obvious intelligence, compassion and depth provided able company. I was reminded, importantly, of the possibility of human warmth. Suicidal, I needed a hero. I found one not only in Lincoln, but in the author of the book.
It did not save my life. For all of the wretchedness, I retained a portion of lucidity–and upon that small, reflective surface shone the knowledge that my suicide would be indefensible and grotesque. From the small part of my mind left uncontaminated shone the knowledge that I would never—could never—extinguish myself. Awkwardly, this was both comforting and distressing. Comforting because I found an unerring strength in myself, distressing because I knew I never had Hamlet’s option of taking arms and ending it.
And I would return to the book and discover practical wisdom:
When a depressed person does get out of bed, it’s usually not with a sudden insight that life is rich and valuable, but out of some creeping sense of duty or instinct of survival. If collapsing is sometimes vital, so is the brute force of will. To William James we owe the insight that, in the absence of real health, we sometimes must act as if we are healthy. Buoyed by such discipline and habit we might achieve actual well-being. As Lincoln advised a grumbling general who felt humiliated at having only three thousand men under his command, “Act well your part, there all the honor lies.”
Fake it ‘til you make it. I dragged myself out of bed—a nagging sense of duty—and showered even when, and this sounds ridiculous, the physical effort required was nearly beyond me. I still tried to see friends and tried hard to keep cracking jokes. It became easier. But as all of this went on—as I exercised my brute force of will—I couldn’t help but think how successfully I was deceiving my friends.
While I took a sip of beer and nodded in agreement to something, I imagined my friends’ shocked responses to discovering I had killed myself. “I don’t believe it. He seemed okay. I really didn’t expect this.” And I imagined this massive, if temporary, crisis of confidence befalling those friends: did we ever know him? Do we really ever know anyone?
* * *
Despite what I’ve experienced, within me there is still a nagging suspicion that we’ve gone overboard in prescribing and describing depression. A nagging suspicion that a culture of individualism and confession and quick fixes and micro-labels has created a reflex to medicalise normal emotions—heartbreak, disappointment and sadness.
I like to think that today I can distinguish between what I would consider “normal” feelings of pain, fatigue, or anxiety— “normal” in the sense that they can not and should not be separated from our indigenous condition, and “normal” in the sense that I feel them to be in proportionate size to the experience that caused them—and the more heinous ravages of depression which sponsor a despair so overwhelmingly disproportionate to everything that it makes you dizzy.
I must remind myself that because I suffer from depression, that what I am feeling at a given time is not necessarily depression. I am not depressed all of the time, and refuse to stigmatise myself with a label which does as much to help people get the help they need as it does to promote an ignorance of normal, if painful, human emotion. I am convinced of anti-depressants’ efficacy, but I also know that a pill has nothing to say on the fact of being human.
Towards the end of Lincoln’s Melancholy, Shenk remarks:
A common argument today has two people standing over the bed. One says, “He can’t help it. He has an illness and should be treated with deference.” The other disputes this, muttering “He just needs a swift kick in the butt.”
Lincoln’s story allows us to see that both points may be true. First, when overcome by mental agony, he allowed himself to be overcome, and for no small time. He let himself sink to the bottom and feel the scrape. Those who say that we must always buck up should see how Lincoln’s time of illness proved also to be a time of gestation and growth. Those who say we must always frame mental suffering in terms of illness must see how vital it was that Lincoln roused himself when the time came. How might Lincoln have endangered his future, and his potential, had he denied himself the reality of his suffering? How, too, might he have stagnated had he not realised that life waits for those who choose to live it?
When I look at photos of Lincoln; when I study those eyes; when I read about his melancholy, I am looking to dignify my own depression with his.
But it’s not as grandiose as it appears. Lincoln’s Melancholy, and my subsequent self-discussions, helped reinforce my coping strategies. No, I would not save the Union, but I could save my life. Viewing Lincoln’s work and wisdom—is he history’s highest functioning depressive?—made it easier to view what I need to do. A satisfying, purposeful life could be had, not reclaimed from the jaws of depression, but lived in between them.