Friday, October 20, 2017

People in History Who Suffered From Depression, Episode 1

I think I could write a whole book on People in History Who Suffered From Depression. Obviously I cannot make any kind of clinical diagnosis of people from the past (or from the present, because—as I frequently emphasize—I am not qualified as a health care professional; I am merely experienced as a health care patient).

Nevertheless I find again and again descriptions people give of their own experience (often in diaries or personal correspondence) of an affliction that hinders them to varying degrees and has a variety of symptoms that we associate with clinical depression. It debilitates people in many periods of history and many different cultures.

I'm not surprised.

Recently, one line of my research has taken me to English history in the era of James I (if you read a certain very fine publication, you'll see why in...oh, hmm...about seven months😉😊). We have this English gentleman Sir Tobias Matthew—that fellow in the picture, who looks "fine," does he not? In a letter to a friend written in the year 1609, he describes this complaint:

"I have sometimes such fits of melancholy, and to speak truly, I have seldom any other thing, that when they take me, I become as if I had been bitten with the torpedo [i.e. the stingray], and my wits fall withall into such restive tricks, as no spurring can get them on, to make one pace in the right way.... it is but a very dreaming away of my time, for I do nothing in it like a man awake, and this is that which of all other things doth most afflict me."

Tobie, dude, I feel your pain. It "doth most afflict me" too, sometimes.

The analogy to being bitten by a stingray was brilliant! (Haha, a "torpedo"—I had to google that but he obviously wasn't talking about what we mean by torpedo...although there are days more aptly described as being torpedoed in the modern sense.😝)

I find it very interesting that his "fits of melancholy" are not described in a moody, introspective way (that can happen too, of course, but Depression is a wider phenomenon than "feeling" in the sense of an emotional mood). He speaks of symptoms that indicate a continuity between physical and "mental" states. His "wits" are paralyzed in a way that can only be described with a physical analogy, a kind of numbness. He "does nothing like a man awake"—again, sleep is a physiological state of the brain. His description here is also accurate.

I'll have to keep a running series on this blog of Depressed People Throughout History. Our forebears may have more to teach us that we realize by their simple analogies. At least we'll feel a little less alone in the great human story.