Solution? Read autobiographies of famous people who had mental illnesses. In particular, I have always found the autobiographies of people like William T. Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant to be very, very comforting. Why?
They were two of the most influential people in the American Civil War, and both of them had mental illnesses. Both felt like failures well into their late thirties because they seemed to fail at everything while everyone else flourished. Their stories are similar: they both enlisted in the Mexican War in the early 1800s, and found civilian life after to be incredibly difficult. Both were treading water, barely able to stave off bankruptcy and starvation. Both had grim outlooks on the remainder of their lives. Both changed careers multiple times, failing at just about each one. They were best friends, and therefore are both in Part 1 of this series.
William Tecumseh Sherman
"I find myself in a whirlwind, unable to guide the storm."
William T. Sherman was one of the lynchpins of Union success in the American Civil War. Sherman became a feared and respected commander, eventually going onto become the highest general in the land, and even suggested for President (which he did not want, and told others "If elected, I would not serve.") His military strategy is still taught in American military colleges today. William T. Sherman meets all the criteria for Bipolar Type 1 Disorder. He was a chronic insomniac with severe anxiety and was prone to bouts of deep depression. In fact, he was so erratic in moods during the first year of the Civil War that he was relieved of his command and sent on leave with newspapers calling him "Insane." His wife was asked to come get him and take him home to Ohio because Sherman was so paranoid and agitated in the fall of 1861. Aides spoke of his agitated manner, talking so fast no one could get a a word in edgewise, and staying up all night pacing and muttering to himself. He would become paranoid as things progressed in his manic states, thinking the enemy vastly outnumbered his own forces and that complete disaster was imminent. After a manic state ended, he would crash into a deep depression, or "melancholy" as people described it. His wife, Ellen Sherman, wrote that the "melancholies" ran in Sherman's family. She also wrote that in his depressive states, he would not eat or sleep, and would withdraw from all human contact. Bipolar was not a "thing" back then, but Sherman most certainly had it. His mood episodes lasted months at a time, and careened back and forth throughout this adult life. When he recovered sufficiently to return to duty, Sherman writes in his autobiography that he thought his military reputation was in shambles due to his past behavior and newspaper reports. He redeemed himself in 1862 at the Battle of Shiloh, committing acts of distinguished courage and bravery, riding back and forth in front of enemy cannons to keep his men from growing fearful. After Shiloh, he got his self-confidence back, and went on to further fame and military glory. His story is that despite failure, setbacks, and mental illnesses, there will always be a way for you to be better at something than anyone else. That could be cooking meals for
family, raising kids, serving in the military, being a nurse, doctor or salesman, a teacher, police officer or a volunteer. Mental illness does not mean you are a failure.
Ulysses S. Grant
"The vice of intemperance had not a little to do with my resignation."
Ulysses S. Grant struggled from job to job, just like his good friend William T. Sherman. Grant was a quiet person, and someone who had strong moral qualms about slavery and the treatment of American Indians. He inherited a slave from his father-in-law, whom he freed instead of selling him even thought Grant and his family were poor and near starvation. He lamented about the treatment of American Indians, saying that whites had been cruel to them. He also struggled with an addiction to alcohol. He was forced to resign from the U.S. Army in 1858 due to several run-ins with superiors while intoxicated. Some say that he didn't drink any more than the average man, but he was small and therefore was easily intoxicated. Rumors followed him throughout his life about his drunkeness, which bothered him. However, he provided the fuel for the rumors, even going on a multi-day bender in 1863. Despite this, his military strategy, common sense, bravery and determination led him to become the top military commander in the United States during the Civil War. Afterwards, he would be elected President. Addiction does not mean you are a failure. It can stand in the way of success, as Grant found out during his mid-30s. But he seemed to have enough of a handle on his tendency to drink, even appointing an aide-de-camp whose responsibility it was to help him stay sober during the war. This shows a high level of awareness of his own weakness on Grant's part. Despite his past failures and predisposition to drink, Grant is one of the best-known figures in American history.
Next post I'll be talking about Lincoln and his wife. Those of us with mental illness are in good company.