February 12th marks the 209th anniversary of the birth of America’s greatest president, Abraham Lincoln. Ever since I was a young person, Lincoln has been a personal hero of mine. I recall reading a biography of Lincoln when I was in sixth grade, the year we moved from our hometown to Alpine, Texas. This was shortly after Daddy died, so Mother could attend college to become a teacher.
As I came to understand his story, I began to feel a close kinship with young Abe, whose own family moved from his childhood home in Kentucky to Indiana when he was just seven. Having gone through the disruption of a move, myself, I yearned for the familiarity of my former home and friends, and wondered if he also struggled with this loss.
I also could relate to the fact that Lincoln lost his mother when he was just nine years old, the same age I was when my father passed.
Years later, after my husband Larry deployed to Vietnam and I deployed to the Menninger Clinic for psychiatric treatment, Lincoln’s life came to the forefront again. At Menninger, I became interested in learning about successful people who overcame their own mental illness to accomplish great things.
I learned that contemporaneous observers of Lincoln often described his frequent bouts of melancholy, which today would probably be diagnosed as clinical depression, the same diagnosis that I had been given.
In fact, Lincoln suffered from such severe bouts of depression in his 20s and 30s that his close friends formed a suicide watch.
My research also revealed that many other great historic leaders also struggled with depression, including such geniuses as Mozart, Churchill, Mark Twain, as well as numerous modern political figures and entertainers. This gave me comfort and hope for my own life. Their stories made me optimistic that I, too, could recover from my illness and go on to achieve great things in my own life.
Of course, comparing myself to such famous iconic figures seems a bit grandiose, but you get the point. I remember thinking at the time, I don’t need to be famous; I would settle for simply living out the kind of life we’d planned together from the beginning: Larry would come home safe from the war, together we would raise our daughter, and I’d finish my education and become a teacher. Alas, destiny brings you the life you have, not the one you’ve imagined.
But the learning for me in all of this was that if these famous people who struggled with mental illness like I did were able to become accomplished composers, musicians, artists and statesman, I too could get better and move forward to live a life of meaning and accomplishment.
I also learned that positive role models make a difference in inspiring us forward. Whether they are famous people we’ve never met, or a friend or acquaintance who also struggles, their stories can give us hope.
But, at the same time we benefit from the modeling of others, we’re also called to serve as role models ourselves. That means speaking about our experiences with full-throated honesty, rather than hushed tones, which only perpetuates existing stigmas.
The irony is that Lincoln never was able to benefit from the kinds of therapeutic tools that have been developed to treat clinical depression in recent years. And yet, he managed to live an inspirational life filled with humor, grace and humility, attributes that seem sorely lacking in so many of our leaders these days.
© Tyra Manning 2018