Depression, Tragedy, Suicidal Thoughts, and the Man Who Overcame Them

He had so many nicknames and titles throughout his life that we’ll just call him G.E. for now. His name isn’t nearly as important as his symptoms. It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to realize G.E. was depressed — dangerously so.

Nor does it take a detective to deduce at least some of the causes of his depression. Each of his bouts of extreme emotional turmoil came at a time of great personal loss. There was the death of his mother. Then he endured the untimely death of the woman he loved. Just as his heart began to mend, he fell in love again and proposed, only to have his heart broken when she rejected his offer. He experienced setbacks and failures at work. The fact is that we should have been surprised if G.E. had not experienced some kind of emotional injury.

“The doctors say he is within an inch of being a perfect lunatic for life. He was perfectly crazy for some time…”

Even so, the depth of his depression was alarming to those who knew him. One of the worst periods was immediately after his marriage proposal was spurned. He uncharacteristically didn’t show up for work — even on days when he needed to perform important tasks. One of his friends wrote, “[G.E.], as you know, is despondent and melancholy. He has grown much worse. He is now confined to his bed, sick in body and mind.”

That was about the time that he published a poem — without revealing his true name. It was only because he confided to a close friend that he had done so that we now know G.E. wrote these suicidal lines:

The following lines were said to have been found near the bones of a man supposed to have committed suicide, in a deep forest, on the Flat Branch of the Sangamon, sometime ago.

Here where the lonely hooting owl
Sends forth his midnight moans,
Fierce wolves shall o’er my carcase growl
Or buzzards pick my bones.

No fellow-man shall learn my fate,
Or where my ashes lie;
Unless by beasts drawn round their bait,
Or by the ravens’ cry.

Yes! I’ve resolved the deed to do,
And this the place to do it:
This heart I’ll rush a dagger through,
Though I in hell should rue it!

Hell! What is hell to one like me
Who pleasures never knew;
By friends consigned to misery
By hope deserted too?

To ease me of this power to think,
That through my bosom raves,
I’ll headlong leap from hell’s high brink,
And wallow in its waves.

Though devils yell, and burning chains
May waken long regret;
Their frightful screams, and piercing pains,
Will help me to forget.

Yes! I’m prepared, through endless night,
To take that fiery berth!
Think not with tales of hell to fright
Me, who am damn’d on earth!

Sweet steel! come forth from out your sheath,
And glist’ning, speak your powers;
Rip up the organs of my breath,
And draw my blood in showers!

I strike! It quivers in that heart
Which drives me to this end;
I draw and kiss the bloody dart,
My last—my only friend!

His thoughts on suicide were not limited to this occasion. After the death of his first true love, he was obsessed with self-harm. One of his mentors recalled that G.E. “told me that he felt like committing suicide often, and his neighbors mobilized to keep him safe.”

Another associate said G.E.’s friends “were compelled to keep watch and ward” on him. This was because “he, being from the sudden shock, somewhat temporarily deranged.”

A neighbor recalled that G.E. “was locked up by his friends to prevent derangement or suicide.” It was the talk of the town whether G.E. had fallen off the deep end. Elizabeth Able, said, “That’s the time the community said he was crazy.”

“I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel now 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 cannot tell. I awfully forbode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible. I must die or be better, it appears to me.”

After several weeks of G.E.’s worrying behavior, repeated talks of suicide, and long periods of him wandering in the woods with his gun, an older couple decided to intervene. They took him into their home to keep a close eye on him. After he showed some improvement, they allowed him to leave. They were still concerned. They said that G.E. continued to be “quite melancholy for months.”

G.E. admitted to a business associate that he was “the victim of a terrible melancholy at times” and that was why he refused to carry a pocket knife. It was too much of a temptation for him to use it on himself when things looked particularly bleak.

Depression can be caused by traumatic events. It can also be influenced by heredity. In G.E.’s case, he got it from both sides. His father was never diagnosed with mental illness but was known to be gloomy. A neighbor recalled that he “often got the blues and had some strange sort of spells and wanted to be alone all he could when he had them.” A great-uncle once testified in a court of law that he had “a deranged mind.” Another uncle was known to have massive mood swings. All of his sons — first cousins to G.E. — all had reputations as melancholy men. Another cousin had to have his daughter committed to a hospital for the insane. Another family member who was plagued with various manifestations of mental illness referred to his condition by the family name, indicating that it was a generational curse.

G.E.’s experience with depression was textbook. He suffered severe bouts, and recovered for a time, only to sink back into another depressed state. He sought professional help. This is an indication of G.E.’s wisdom and courage, particularly in a day when mental illness had an even greater stigma than it does today. G.E. should be commended for recognizing that he needed help to get through this slavish condition.

Professional help came not a moment too soon. One of G.E.’s colleagues recalled, “The doctors say he is within an inch of being a perfect lunatic for life. He was perfectly crazy for some time, not able to attend to his business at all. They say he don’t [sic] look like the same person.”

Dr. Anson Henry was the first physician to treat G.E.’s symptoms. Unfortunately, medical science had yet to develop to the point where it could provide the type of help now available. The most common treatment was bleeding, either through leaches or lacerations, under the theory that the mental illness was caused by “bad blood.” Other treatments involved purgatives to induce vomiting and laxatives to purge “bad humours” from the other end of the body. An additional treatment was an abundance of extremely cold showers.

Dr. Henry also prescribed medication. This came in the form of mercury tablets that G.E. called “my blue pills.” The mercury had purgative and laxative properties. It was also quite toxic and likely exacerbated G.E.’s mental condition.

No amount of medical treatment seemed to help, and G.E. recognized that. He wrote, “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel now 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 cannot tell. I awfully forbode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible. I must die or be better, it appears to me.”

That may be part of the explanation for why, despite all of the photographs that bear his face, not one of them shows G.E. with a smile.

As with most people who suffer from chronic depression, G.E. experienced deep valleys of darkness, would get better for a while, and sink once again into despair. As has been noted, his most serious episodes were triggered by moments of personal tragedy. His final severe struggle was brought about by the sudden death of his young son. He spent the next couple of years in deep despair and was only beginning to emerge from it at the time of his death.

Do you or a loved-one struggle with thoughts of self-harm? Help is available! Contact 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline

Despite his inability to break the shackles of depression, G.E. persevered. He refused to surrender to the recurring thoughts of self-harm. In the face of many personal tragedies, failures, and struggles, he refused to let the darkness prevail.

This aspect of his character is why history remembers him, not as one who was a slave to morose, suicidal thoughts, but as a champion for freedom. That is, in fact, how he got one of his many nicknames. G.E. — the “Great Emancipator” — was Abraham Lincoln.

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