Depression is an illness that is nearly impossible to define or explain. The causes are a combination of family predisposition, surroundings, and life events. Sufferers fight a mostly silent battle, and are a largely misunderstood, yet often talented, group of individuals. Joshua Wolf Shenk’s novel, Lincoln’s Melancholy, is both educational and moving; it outlines Abraham Lincoln’s life and how he faced depression with determination and courage. His entire adult life was spent on the roller coaster of emotions that accompanies this illness.
Depression affects a surprising number of people. In 2005, at the time of Shenk’s research, he notes that 100 million people a year are affected by depression. That number has risen to 350 million today. He also points out that in the year 2000, “about a million people worldwide killed themselves- about equal to the number of deaths from war and homicide that year put together.” One would think, due to the prevalence of this issue, that there would be a better understanding of the inner thoughts of those afflicted. Education is a great tool for those providing emotional support, since it helps to understand the viewpoint of the sufferer. “In the midst of a depressive crisis, the question ‘What’s wrong?’ can be infuriating, because the answer, in the depressive’s mind, is ‘Everything!’” There aren’t always straight answers or immediate alternatives, which can be frustrating to those trying to help. Most of the time, simply the act of letting the person know you are there for them is helpful.
It helps to see how Lincoln harnessed his negative emotions and used them as ammunition against supporters of slavery, and against those who doubted his ability to preside over a nation. Even though negativity has its downfalls, such as changes in sleep patterns, loss of appetite, and decreased energy, many people have learned to use their emotions to focus their energy on one goal. This coping mechanism often brings great talent to light. Lincoln’s oratorical skills, Edgar Allen Poe’s verse, and Heath Ledger’s movies are all examples of this. One common misconception is there will always be an outward sign as to whether a person is suffering from depression. Many individuals have concealed depression, in which they have learned to hide their depression by overcompensating with outward optimism, burying themselves in work, or simply denying its existence.
The depressed state often comes not only from negative emotions, but from a lack of positive ones. The imbalance of chemicals denies the sufferer the ability to derive pleasure from things like family, friends, hobbies, or the view of a sunset. Shenk notes psychiatrist’s Emil Kraepelin’s findings, who wrote that depressives “see life as ‘a burden which they habitually bear with dutiful self-denial without being compensated by the pleasure(s) of existence.’”
Even those who are grappling with these emotions have a hard time understanding what they are going through. In a day when depression was still a complete mystery to most of the modern world, and viable treatments were nonexistent, Lincoln managed to grasp some understanding of his psyche.
He was able to relate to a poem by William Knox, as he notes a few of his favorite lines:
“Yea! Hope and despondency, pleasure and pain,
Are mingled together in sun-shine and rain.”
Lincoln leaves us with his own words, which truly reflect his inner battle, and show the conflicting emotions so many humans struggle with today:
“The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Shenk, Joshua Wolf. Lincoln’s Melancholy. A Mariner Book, Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston. 2005. Print.
image 2: www.shenk.net