Friday, October 31, 2008

Churchill's 'Black Dogs' - A perspective on Depression

Winston Churhcill was frequently prone to very depressive moods, he referred to depression as "Black Dog". Anthony Storr, Oxford based Psychiatrist, in his book "Churchill's Black Dog and other phenomena of the Human mind" has a very engaging chapter on Winston Churchill's much lesser known side.

Churchill, is one who has passed into history and mostly a smoky idea of him prevails in the common understanding. To the westerner he remains a bull dog warrior who, in the bleakest of times, shouldered and unfathomable burden and saved the world from tyranny "unsurpassed in the dark lamentable catalogue of human crimes". To Indians he was the unapologetic imperialist who thundered "I've not become his majesty's first minister to preside over the liquidation of the British empire" and even more notoriously is remembered for his insulting remark characterising Gandhi as "the half naked fakir".

Lost in those images is a very colorful life, he was a biographer, historian, war time correspondent, painter, brick-layer, orator and several other. His life was peppered with moments of sheer glory and abject desolateness. Especially the years between the two World Wars. After the first War and his role in the disastrous Dardanelles campaign he wandered in sheer political wilderness for nearly 20 years. In those years he was ridiculed for his failures and labeled an alarmist for crying hoarse about Hitler. Britain had no use for him.

Churchill suffered serious bouts of depression during those years. Anthony Storr writes, "when depression is overwhelming, the sufferer relapses into gloom and an inactivity which maybe so profound as to render him immobile". What would a man like Churchill, a man of legendary talent, soaring ego, huge reserve of creative energy do? Storr continues, "To avoid this state of misery is of prime importance; and so the depressive before his disorder becomes too severe, may recurrently force himself into activity, deny himself rest or relaxation, and accomplish more than most men are capable of, just because he cannot afford to stop."

He took to painting. He was pretty good at it. Even at that he brought a passion that was deeply colored by his dark mood. "I cannot pretend to feel impartial about genuinely sorry for the poor browns, I expect orange and vermillion will be the darkest colours".

His famous remark "we are all worms, But I do believe that I am a glow-worm", is as Storr points "revealing, it combines self abasement and self-glorification in a single phrase". When he declared Britain will face Hitler, alone, he was, " a man convinced that he had an heroic mission, who believed that, in spite of all contrary evidence, he could yet triumph". Above all he felt his destiny and that of England's were intertwined. With that conviction he convinced his fellow Britons that they would triumph just as he thought he could triumph. Anyone with a modest knowledge of History can appreciate how hopeless it was for Britain in 1939-40. France had crumbled, Poland overrun, Belgium tossed aside, Austria annexed, Russia aligned with Germany, FDR standing on the sidelines. One man stood up to say "I've nothing to offer but blood and toil, tears and sweat" and lay it out clear "Victory at all costs".

Beethoven and Churchill were creative geniuses who could fight their Black Dog's and in fact turn them into manure for their creative output. What of ordinary mortals, now that's a plight worth feeling sorry about.

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