Six Keys to Mastering Chronic Low-Grade Depression
He became friendly with Ann Rutledge, a bright, pretty young woman with golden hair and large blue eyes. In August of she took sick. Visiting her at her family's farm, Lincoln seemed deeply distressed, which made people wonder whether the two had a romantic, and not just a friendly, bond. After Lincoln's death such speculation would froth over into a messy controversy—one that cannot be, and need not be, resolved.
Regardless of how he felt about Rutledge while she was alive, her sickness and death drew Lincoln to his emotional edge. Around the time of her burial a rainstorm, accompanied by unseasonable cold, shoved him over.
Indeed, the villagers' anxiety was intense, both for Lincoln's immediate safety and for his long-term mental health. Lincoln "told Me that he felt like Committing Suicide often," remembered Mentor Graham, a schoolteacher, and his neighbors mobilized to keep him safe. One friend recalled, "Mr Lincolns 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.
After several weeks an older couple in the area took him into their home. Bowling Green, the large, merry justice of the peace, and his wife, Nancy, took care of Lincoln for a week or two. When he had improved somewhat, they let him go, but he was, Mrs. Green said, "quite melancholy for months. Was Lincoln's melancholy a "clinical depression"? Yes—as far as that concept goes. Certainly his condition in the summer of 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 —, Lincoln broke down again, and together these episodes suffice for modern clinicians to make an assessment of recurrent major depression. Such labels can help us begin to reckon with Lincoln.
Most basically, "clinical depression" means it was serious, no mere case of the blues. Someone who has had two episodes of major depression has a 70 percent chance of experiencing a third. And someone who's had three episodes has a 90 percent chance of having a fourth.enter site
Persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia) - Symptoms and causes - Mayo Clinic
Indeed, it became clear in Lincoln's late twenties that he had more than a passing condition. Robert L. Wilson, who was elected to the Illinois state legislature with Lincoln in , found him amiable and fun-loving. But one day Lincoln told him something surprising. Lincoln said "that although he appeared to enjoy life rapturously, Still he was the victim of terrible melancholly," Wilson recalled. Yet as we learn about Lincoln, a fixation on modern categories should not distract us from the actual events of his life and the frameworks that he and his contemporaries applied to his condition.
In his late twenties Lincoln was developing a distinct reputation as a depressive. At the same time, he was scrambling up the ladder of success, emerging as a leader of the Illinois Whig Party and a savvy, self-educated young lawyer. Today this juxtaposition may seem surprising, but in the nineteenth-century conception of melancholy, genius and gloom were often part of the same overall picture. True, a person with a melancholy temperament had been fated with an awful burden—but also, in Lord Byron's phrase, with a "fearful gift.
But the gift was a capacity for depth and wisdom. Both sides of melancholy are evident in a poem on suicide that Lincoln apparently wrote in his twenties. Discussed by his contemporaries but long undiscovered, the poem, unsigned, recently came to light through the efforts of the scholar Richard Lawrence Miller, who was aided by old records that have been made newly available.
Without an original manuscript or a letter in which ownership is claimed, no unsigned piece can be attributed definitively to an author. But the evidence points strongly to Lincoln. The poem was published in the year cited by Lincoln's closest friend, Joshua Speed, and its syntax, tone, meter, and other qualities are characteristic of Lincoln. The conceit, in other words, is that this is a suicide note. As the poem begins, the anguished narrator announces his intention. 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" ; he knew how, oppressed by the clamor, people often become hopeless, and seek the most drastic solution.
This poem illustrates the complex quality of Lincoln's melancholy in his late twenties. He articulated a sense of himself as degraded and humiliated but also, somehow, as special and grand.
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And though the character in the poem in the end chooses death by the dagger, the author—using his tool, the pen—showed an impulse toward an artful life. Lincoln's poem expressed both his connection with a morbid state of mind and, to some extent, a mastery over it. But the mastery would be short-lived. Like the first, Lincoln's second breakdown came after a long period of intense work. In he had been studying law; in the winter of — he was trying to keep the debt-ridden State of Illinois from collapsing and his political career with it.
On top of this came a profound personal stress. The precipitating causes are hard to identify precisely, in part because cause and effect in depressive episodes can be hard to separate. Ordinarily we insist on a narrative line: factor x led to reaction y. But in a depressive crisis we might feel bad because something has gone awry.
Or we might make things go awry because we feel so bad. Or both. For Lincoln in this winter many things were awry. Even as he faced the possibility that his political career was sunk, it seemed likely that he was inextricably bound to a woman he didn't love Mary Todd and that Joshua Speed was going to either move away to Kentucky or stay in Illinois and marry Matilda Edwards, the young woman whom Lincoln said he really wanted but could not even approach, because of his bond with Todd.
Then came a stretch of intensely cold weather, which, Lincoln later wrote, "my experience clearly proves to be verry severe on defective nerves. In January of Lincoln submitted himself to the care of a medical doctor, spending several hours a day with Dr. Anson Henry, whom he called "necessary to my existence. On January 23 Lincoln wrote to his law partner in Washington: "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 the earth. Whether I shall ever be 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. This spare, direct letter captures the core of depression as forcefully as the Gettysburg Address would distill the essence of the American experiment.
It tells what depression is like: to feel not only miserable but the most miserable; to feel a strange, muted sense of awful power; to believe plainly that either the misery must end or life will—and yet to fear the misery will not end. The fact that Lincoln spoke thus, not to a counselor or a dear friend but to his law partner, indicates how relentlessly he insisted on acknowledging his fears.
Through his late twenties and early thirties he drove deeper and deeper into them, hovering over what, according to Albert Camus, is the only serious question human beings have to deal with. He asked whether he could live, whether he could face life's misery. Finally he decided that he must. Speed recorded the dramatic exchange that began when he came to Lincoln and told him he would die unless he rallied. Lincoln replied that he could kill himself, that he was not afraid to die. Yet, he said, he had an "irrepressible desire" to accomplish something while he lived.
He wanted to connect his name with the great events of his generation, and "so impress himself upon them as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man. In his middle years Lincoln turned from the question of whether he could live to how he would live.
Nrf2-dependent persistent oxidative stress results in stress-induced vulnerability to depression
Building bridges out from his tortured self, he engaged with the psychological culture of his time, investigating who he was, how he might change, and what he must endure. Having seen what he wished to live for, Lincoln suffered at the prospect that he might never achieve it. Even so, he worked diligently to improve himself, developing self-understanding, discipline, and strategies for succor that would become the foundation of his character.
The melancholy did not go away during this period but, rather, took a new form. Beginning in his mid-thirties Lincoln began to fall into what a law clerk called his "blue spells. In his memoirs the Illinois lawyer Henry C. Stuart"—Lincoln's first law partner—"while a case was being tried, and our conversation was, at the moment, about Lincoln, when Stuart remarked that he was a hopeless victim of melancholy.
I expressed surprise, to which Stuart replied; 'Look at him, now. In one sense these spells indicate Lincoln's melancholy. But they may also represent a response to it—the visible end of Lincoln's effort to contain his dark feelings and thoughts, to wrestle privately with his moods until they passed or lightened. Cohen, "recovery may be a matter of shifting from protest to more effective ways of mastering helplessness. He worked well and consistently at his law practice, always rousing himself from gloom for work. He and Mary Lincoln whom he had wed in had four boys. He was elected to a term in the United States Congress.
Yet his reaction to this honor—he wrote, "Though I am very grateful to our friends, for having done it, [it] has not pleased me as much as I expected"—suggested that through booms and busts, Lincoln continued to see life as hard. Indeed, he developed a philosophical melancholy. Lincoln took the book and wrote,. At a time when newspapers were stuffed with ads for substances to cure all manner of ailments, it wouldn't have been unusual for Lincoln to seek help at a pharmacy.
He had a charge account at the Corneau and Diller drugstore, at South Sixth Street in Springfield, where he bought a number of medications, including opiates, camphor, and sarsaparilla. On one occasion he bought fifty cents' worth of cocaine, and he sometimes took the "blue mass"—a mercury pill that was believed to clear the body of black bile.
To whatever extent Lincoln used medicines, his essential view of melancholy discounted the possibility of transformation by an external agent. He believed that his suffering proceeded inexorably from his constitution—that, in a phrase he used in connection with a friend, he was "naturally of a nervous temperament. Some strategies in response were apparent. As noted, work was a first refuge; he advised a friend, "I think if I were you, in case my mind were not exactly right, I would avoid being idle.
He told stories and jokes, studiously gathering new material from talented peers and printed sources. And he gave vent to his melancholy by reading, reciting, and composing poetry that dwelled on themes of death, despair, and human futility. Yet, somewhat in the way that insulin allows diabetics to function without eliminating the root problem, this strategy gave Lincoln relief without taking away his need for it.
Consider his favorite poem, which he began to recite often in his mid-thirties. It was in one sense, as a colleague observed, "a reflex in poetic form of the deep melancholy of his soul," and in another a way to manage that melancholy. One story of his recitations comes from Lois Newhall, a member of the Newhall Family troupe of singers. Are there methods of getting people to reorganize their environment in ways that will support the creation of habits?
People want to minimize both the amount of time spent thinking about their behavior and the amount of effort required to act. You want to make the desirable behaviors as easy as possible to perform and the undesirable behaviors hard to perform. California bans smoking in workplaces—and indeed, in any public space. As a result, employees have to walk a long way just to have a cigarette—which in many circumstances makes smoking very hard to do.
There are other ways to manipulate environments to encourage desired behaviors. The city of Austin has installed a number of dog hygiene stations all over town. These stations consist of a garbage can with a liner and a dispenser with plastic mitts that can be used to pick up dog waste. These stations make it easier for dog owners to clean up after their dogs, which cuts down on the number of people who fail to do so. Generating communities around a process is an efficient way of engaging people to change their behavior.
That is the function of groups like Toastmasters International, which aims to help people improve their public speaking skills. Toastmasters organizes groups of people who get together, give presentations, and give feedback to each other. The atmosphere is professional but relaxed, so the community works to help others get more comfortable with speaking in public. Many people who have been helped by this group continue to attend meetings to help new members improve their skills.
In this way, Toastmasters functions as a source of both mentors and partners in behavior change. Social relationships are a critical part of behavior change—and conversations are a critical part of relationships. A community of other parents facing the same challenges can be a great source of support.
Groups like this enable behavior change to be made as part of a larger process, like parenting. The conversations they have on the playground or at PTA meetings can change behavior, growing organically out of networks that are built on discussion. We are intensely social creatures—and, of course, conversation is a two-way street. Your own behavior is being shaped by others all the time! Because so many of your behaviors are driven by habits, there are many actions you take on a daily basis that you do not consciously choose to take. To the extent that other people are affecting your environment, your neighborhood, and the development of your habits, you may have ceded control of your behavior to them.
Understanding the ways that people can manipulate your motivational system will allow you to recognize when others are affecting your actions. At that point, you can decide for yourself if their influence is bringing you closer to your goals—or pushing you further away from them.
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Art Markman, Ph. He got his Sc. He has published over scholarly works on topics in higher-level thinking including the effects of motivation on learning and performance, analogical reasoning, categorization, decision making, and creativity. Art serves as the director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations at the University of Texas. Become a subscribing member today. What was your personality like before the initial impact of your mental illness? How did it change? I remember being much more lighthearted and carefree.
Nowadays, people tend to describe me as intense. How can you challenge this negative thinking? Is any given thought completely true or only partly true? I am understandably a downer when I am in physical and emotional pain. I can recall plenty of times when I made others laugh or provided encouragement. My critical nature, which is based on a unique ability to quickly and accurately read others, has helped me set boundaries with harmful people or avoid them altogether.
It will provide considerable encouragement to others living with mental illness, helping them realize that they are not alone in their feelings and experiences. Some may also recognize the approach of cognitive behavioral therapy CBT reflected in the exercises above. I would like to give special thanks to veterans—which Dr. Ashear also does in his acknowledgments.