The World Health Organization deemed the first week of October as Mental Health Awareness Week. Reflecting on that made me think of how many famous people have found fame, fortune and worldly success despite their mental afflictions: Abraham Lincoln, Charles Schulz, Terry Bradshaw, Demi Lovato …
And especially Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, who was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940-1945 and 1951-1955.
One of the world’s greatest 20th-century leaders, Winston Churchill suffered severely from a mental illness that he called his “black dog.” For months on end, Churchill’s manic-depression could paralyze the man to the point of despair that held him in bed and unable to attend sessions of British Parliament. In his case, the dog’s bark and bite both had frightening effects. Yet despite the “black dog” that frequently jumped on his back, Churchill managed to help the world avert lasting disaster.
Be aware: Mental illness can be a game-changer. But life still can be amazing. That’s an important message not only for people who suffer from a mental illness but for anyone who stands toe-to-toe with any major adversity.
I found metaphors besides “black dog” used by others who struggle with a mental illness, people with much less fame but just as much pain as some of those previously mentioned men and women:
“I think of depression as walking in a tunnel through the mud.” … “My depression is a large hole in the ground. I try to climb out but the dirt gives way with every grip of my hands and I sink even further.” … “Depression is like drowning — except you can see everyone around you breathing.”
I long have referred to my major depression as a “roaring lion.” The illness has been like an dangerous, carnivorous lion ready to consume me — mind, body and spirit. Actually, it has a Biblical origin. I began praying the Liturgy of the Hours about 20 years ago. The Scripture passage for Tuesday Night Prayer each week comes from the First Letter of Peter, chapter 5, verses 8-9:
Stay sober and alert. Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, solid in your faith.
Several years after my diagnosis of major clinical depression, I was spending a late Tuesday night in prayer with the good St. Peter after I had endured a particularly difficult day of sobbing for no reason at all and isolating from the outside world. That’s when spiritually and mentally I connected my depression with the lion. I never have taken my eyes off God during my almost 15-year journey. The answers from doctors and therapists and pharmaceutical scientists and marketing experts have helped keep me alive, allowed me to manage life. Yet as I have gone looking for a life that not only is manageable but meaningful and even fulfilling, the medical and psychological experts aren’t able to offer completely satisfying hope.
A man such as Churchill, with his experiences, offers a semblance of hope.
A British psychiatrist named Anthony Storr said of Churchill: “Only a man who knew what it was to discern a gleam of hope in a hopeless situation, whose courage was beyond reason and whose aggressive spirit burned at its fiercest when he was hemmed in and surrounded by enemies, could have given emotional reality to the words of defiance which rallied and sustained us in the menacing summer of 1940.”
The Prime Minister’s depressive episodes began as early as the 1910s and continued for more than 30 years. In those hellish times, he had no energy, no interests, lost his appetite, couldn’t concentrate. He was completely non-functional. These “rough patches” might last several months, and then he would emerge as work with his usual brilliance. But the concern, the fear, always hovered near the surface.
“I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through,” Churchill once said. ”I like to stand back and, if possible, get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.”
Actors Jon Hamm and Alan Alda. Actresses Catherine Zeta-Jones and Brooke Shields, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashley Judd. Princess Diana. Tipper Gore. Athletes Ken Griffey Jr. and Zach Greinke. President and founding father John Adams, astronaut Buzz Aldin, funnymen Johnny Carson and Drew Carey, authors William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald … I could go on and on. Obviously, major depressive disorder doesn’t have to derail or end a successful life.
Plenty of Biblical figures as well as current men and women of God have fallen prey to mental illness. An active prayer life isn’t the magic formula that can change God’s mind – in a perfect wisdom we can’t comprehend – about allowing bad things to happen to good people. People suffer from cancer and multiple sclerosis, from diabetes and chronic back pain, and from depression and bipolar disease and schizophrenia. None of those have to be considered a death sentence or overwhelmingly crippling. But the effects of mental illness, though not always obvious to the casual observer, can be profound.
For instance, for more than a month, I have been weighed down by heavy depression and irrepressible anxiety. The emotional paralysis hasn’t been as severe as other times. I haven’t broken down in inexplicable tears
Sometimes, Satan stalks me like a roaring, ravenous lion who knows that if I run, I might trip and prove an easy prey. Other times, the lion prowls and stalks in a less obvious, stealthier manner that poses just as much danger to me.
I have learned to keep an eye on the lion.
Some years ago, I was on a retreat at Saint Meinrad Archabbey, a monastery and seminary in St. Meinrad, Ind. While browsing the gift shop in between prayer sessions and conference talks, I spied a cool-looking cross. Donna and I have a small collection of crosses, most of which adorn our living room walls. I also have a couple on my nightstand, including a somewhat plain yet simply beautiful one at which I smile each night before I turn out the light.
My Saint Meinrad visit was shortly after the Tuesday night when Peter’s “roaring lion” image seized my mentally ill brain and depressed spirit. Immediately, recognizing a gift of holiness and hope, I knew this particular cross had to join the others on my nightstand.
On the lower half of the vertical beam was the well-known quote from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians:
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Just above those words, where the horizontal and vertical beams intersect … was the head of a lion. So every morning, I have a reminder of the enemy, but also a reminder on the battle plan that promises success.