“Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in its head.”
(As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 1)
It is Postnatal Depression Awareness Week in Australia (November 15 to 22). Probably only those who have suffered depression can understand the anguish, the sadness, the hopelessness, the isolation, and the fatigue it engenders. On top of that, many sufferers resist treatment for fear of being stigmatized and permanently judged as ‘not coping’.
Shakespeare said, ‘Sweet are the uses of adversity’ and it seems true, in the case of depression, that the adversity of depression sometimes ‘wears yet a precious jewel in its head’. Many people who brought great good to the world suffered depression.
John Curtain, the much-loved Prime Minister who led Australia through the Second World War, suffered severely. So did Winston Churchill who is credited with saving not just England, but Europe, from being overtaken by the Nazi regime, a police state, a reign of terror. Abraham Lincoln was President of the United States of America throughout the Civil War leading the war over whether the US was to become a slave-holding society or a slave-free society. He too, at one time, suffered extreme depression. Everyone connected with Lincoln testified that he was an extraordinarily funny man. His wit and humour boiled over. But he said he laughed so he would not weep.
The U.S. author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, a mother of six children, was another sufferer. Weighed down by the cares of child-rearing (she had six children) and housekeeping (without electricity or central heating or very much money), and subject from childhood to depression and ill-health, Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, one of the first international best-sellers.
Published in 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is credited with powerfully communicating the evils of slavery to a broad cross-section of American society. It issued a powerful call to Americans to offer refuge and help to runaway slaves and became a focus of the anti-slavery movement.
With particular passion Stowe attacked the way in which, in slavery, children were torn from their parents, and husbands and wives from each other and from their children. Her ability to convey the feelings of slaves who were treated this way turned Americans who had been unconcerned about slavery, or who had thought slaves were to some extent sub-human, into ardent opponents of slavery.
The impetus for writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin came from Stowe’s own experience of depression. The passionate writing through which Stowe conveyed the suffering of slaves to her readers had its source in her own suffering and depression. Her worst experience was the death of her son, Charley, who died as a toddler in a cholera epidemic.
‘It was at his dying bed and at his grave that I learned what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her’, she wrote. ‘I felt I could never be consoled for it unless this crushing of my own heart might enable me to workout some great good to others.’
The impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was so great that when in1862 Stowe visited the White House, President Abraham Lincoln greeted her with the words, ‘So this is the little lady who caused the great war.’
Despite—and perhaps because of—her depression, Harriet Beecher Stowe did indeed bring about a great good for others, for American slaves especially, but also for the whole U.S. society and the whole world. And Harriet Beecher Stowe also demonstrated that the power of a mother’s love can change the world.
Moira Eastman PhD
“I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.”
“I wrote what I did because as a woman, as a mother, I was oppressed and broken-hearted with the sorrows and injustice I saw, because as a Christian I felt the dishonor to Christianity–because as a lover of my country I trembled at the coming day of wrath.”