SARAH SMILEY

Learning from Lincoln and my battle with depression

Posted Jan. 12, 2014, at 1:29 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 12, 2014, at 7:48 a.m.
Sarah Smiley
Sarah Smiley

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw. Actor Marlon Brando. Comedian Jim Carrey. Princess Diana. Charles Dickens. Tolstoy. Billy Joel. And President Abraham Lincoln.

Especially President Lincoln.

These are just some notable people who have battled depression. For most of my life, I counted myself as one of them — not for being notable, but for suffering from depression. After a serious case of postpartum depression when my first son was born 13 years ago, I started taking medication for the disease. And it is a disease.

Over the last decade, however, I was doing extremely well. Last year, I decided maybe I didn’t identify with the likes of the list above, and it was time to stop taking medicine. I mean, I’m not having anymore babies, so postpartum depression is no longer a concern. And I hadn’t had a major episode in 13 years. So, against the advice of my doctor, and despite my husband telling me he would actually pay me to keep taking the medicine, I started tapering my dose in early 2013.

Through that spring and summer, I felt great.

“See, I don’t need the medicine,” I said to my husband. In the back of my mind, however, I was cautiously aware that a true recurrence of the disease doesn’t reveal itself until a patient has been off medication for about six months. And in my eagerness to be “normal” again, I completely overlooked signs in September — roughly six months after I altered my own dose — that I was not doing well. And then everything went out of control in December.

I explain the feelings of depression to my husband, who has never experienced a true depression, like this: It’s a creeping feeling, a heaviness that is there when you first open your eyes in the morning and wonder how you’ll get yourself out of bed. Shopping for Christmas presents is an effort, holiday music an annoyance. Deadlines, bills, cleaning — even cutting my own toenails — seem like enormous obstacles. But mostly, I feel hollowed out, like a shell of a person.

It doesn’t matter what triggers the depression. The triggers are different for everyone. But anyone who has been through it knows that the abyss quickly feels like it will swallow you whole.

During one of my first depressive episodes when I was younger, I clung to stories of Lincoln and his depression. They helped me understand, or at least accept, something that has always puzzled me about myself: most of my friends know me as an outgoing person. I make a living out of telling stories and writing books that are sometimes humorous. How could someone like me suffer from depression?

In a 2005 Atlantic article titled “Lincoln’s Great Depression” by Joshua Shenk, Lincoln’s colleague Henry Whitney is noted as once having said, “No element of Mr. Lincoln’s character was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy.” William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, said, “His melancholy dripped from him as he walked.”

My husband might say the same of me at times.

And yet, most of us learned about a very different Lincoln in school — the jovial Lincoln who was known for a quick wit, telling funny stories and loved to visit with people in the White House.

My husband might also say this about me.

It is this juxtaposition of deep sadness, creativity and an intense drive to connect with others on a personal level that has always seemed like an ill-fitting puzzle for people who suffer from depression. And it’s part of what made me in 2013 erroneously decide I don’t need medicine.

“Depression” isn’t me, I told myself. It was just something I went through once. It’s not who I am.

Except it doesn’t work that way. Diabetics often need medicine for the rest of their lives. So do people with heart disease. Likewise, depression is usually a lifelong disease, and often it is in fact part of who we are.

In December, I knew things were bad, but I held out hope that I could be one of those “regular” people who didn’t need anti-depressants, who could go for a jog and feel better. What finally changed my mind was when I was crying in my room and my youngest son slipped a note under the door that read, “It’s worse when you are sad.”

The next day, I took my medicine, and today, thankfully, I’m starting to get better … for them. After all, if I had diabetes, I’d take medicine to be healthy for my children.

There are days when I feel like a failure for being “stuck with this.” There are days when I curse the pill bottle. But there also are days when I look at that list of notable people again, and I realize, it’s not a bad group of which to be part. Quite the opposite.

As Shenk’s last line in the Atlantic, one that haunts me still, said of Lincoln, “Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.”

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at www.Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.

 This column was updated August 12.

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