The 2012 American historical drama film “Lincoln”, directed and produced by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, has been nominated for seven Golden Globe Awards and twelve Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. The movie was meticulously done and succeeded in capturing Lincoln’s enigmatic, complex, and charming self.
However, it wasn’t the great acting or directing that had me so glued to the screen that I was afraid to reach for popcorn.
Lincoln has been my mental health hero ever since Joshua Wolf Shenk, who has since become a friend of mine, published his acclaimed book, “Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness.” Shenk took seven years to research and write the masterpiece, and it gained attention right as I had graduated from one psych ward unit and was going into another one.
The afternoon I sat in the lobby of the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Clinic waiting to be evaluated by a team of psychiatrists (after my first hospitalization), I read Shenk’s interview with Karen Swartz, M.D, the Director of Clinical Programs and one of the physicians who evaluated me.
I learned that Lincoln shared my greatest fear: that he would go insane only never to regain his sanity.
In one of his depressive spells, he wrote:
“I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were distributed to the entire human family there would not be one happy face on the Earth.”
He had all of the same symptoms of acute depression that are found today in the DSM-IV: social isolation, suicidal ideation, loss of appetite, difficulty concentrating. He told one of his friends that he felt like committing suicide often.
“One friend recalled, ‘Mr. Lincoln’s friends … were compelled to keep watch and ward over Mr. Lincoln, he being from the sudden shock somewhat temporarily deranged. We watched during storms, fogs, damp gloomy weather … for fear of an accident.’”
Another neighbor recounts, “Lincoln was locked up by his friends to prevent derangement or suicide.” An older couple in the area took him into their home to keep him safe for a short while. The fact that Lincoln’s behavior provoked a suicidal watch meant that he must have suffered intensely.
Yet, despite his acute pain, our president was able to transcend the crippling nature of his depression and hold on to hope. Explains Shenk in his interview with Johns Hopkins:
“The essential question that Lincoln grappled with during his lifetime was how you have hope in the face of great suffering. That question never ceases to be relevant for him. To me, Lincoln was a main who suffered more than anyone in his circle of contemporaries, and a man who achieved more than anyone in his life. And the reason he was able to succeed all came down to hope. It’s as if Lincoln were saying, ‘In my darkest moments I am still capable of seeing a great life.’ It is a matter of belief: No, it can’t be demonstrated empirically. But the peculiar and grand mystery to it is this: If you believe in hope, then you are on your way to making it true.”
Whenever I remember the story of this great man, I breathe a sigh of relief that I am not alone in my chronic struggle with sadness. His happy ending makes me feel less pitiful and weak about my obsession with death. And I wonder if there may be hope for me even if I, like Lincoln, never stop battling the beast of melancholy.
Originally published on PsychCentral.com