I have chosen to give an overview of several famous and influential people who have suffered from various forms of anxiety disorders, in order to show not only the prevalence of the disorder, but also to illustrate that it is possible for those who suffer from these
disorders to be valuable members of society. If not for the presence of these conditions, these individuals would have led otherwise happy and extremely productive lives, and obviously they have enriched our lives despite these difficulties.
Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809 – 1892)
A poet of the highest distinction, he was a Poet Laureate and an inspiration to others. The years 1840-1845 were in many ways the most challenging in his life. He was separated from his wife; he had lost his money; he felt more nervously ill than ever, and he could not write. So severe was his nervous illness that his friends despaired of his life. “I have”, he wrote, “drunk one of the most bitter draughts out of the cup of life, which go near to make men hate the world they move in. In 1843, he wrote to a friend ” … the perpetual panic and horror of the last two years had steeped my nerves in poison: now I am left a beggar but am or shall be shortly somewhat better off in nerves.”
He was undertaking Hydropaths treatment, which includes no reading, no going near a fire, no coffee, a perpetual wet sheet and cold bath, and alternation from hot to cold. It did not work. In 1848 he went to a new doctor who gave him iron pills. It was commented “..this really great man thinks more about his bowels and nerves than about the laureate wreath he was born to inherit..”. Many of his friends thought him a hypochondriac. He never received appropriate treatment for his condition and so experienced nervous illness through his life. He was also a brilliant poet and writer of the first order.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
Freud developed and taught psychoanalysis, which is a form of psychotherapy. Psychoanalysis is associated with the couch, the note pad and the silent listener. Contrary to popular belief, Freud was not the father of psychiatry. Sigmund Freud suffered from Panic Disorder at the time when he wrote his famous papers on anxiety neurosis. He had symptoms of an Anxiety Disorder and worried a great deal about his ‘spells’. He had many medical evaluations for them. Nothing of a serious medical nature could be found wrong with him. He was told that his symptoms were ‘nervous’ in origin. Freud was not satisfied with what he was told. In his quest for a fuller explanation, he searched for a psychological cause. He built an elaborate model based on psychology of the mind and the role of internal conflicts in causing and maintaining anxiety. This model has preoccupied everyone studying anxiety for most of the century.
Nikola Tesla (1856-1943)
Tesla was a genius and perhaps the greatest inventor the world has ever known. He invented a device to harness alternating electrical current, radio, fluorescent lighting, the bladeless turbine, developed the fundamentals of robotics, computers and missile science. Many of the “modern conveniences of life” are a result of Tesla’s inventions.
At 5 years of age, following death of his older brother, he developed many phobias and compulsions and in general became a “perfectionist” – subjecting himself to iron discipline in order to excel. He was also plagued by panic attack – like symptoms; strong flashes of light that marred the sight of real objects and “shooting flames” through the body. The intensity seemed to increase as he got older.
“This caused me great discomfort and anxiety”, said Tesla, “none of the students of psychology or physiology whom I have consulted could ever explain satisfactorily these phenomena …”
Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727)
A physicist, mathematician and genius, he was the most original & influential theorist in history of science. He co-invented calculus, discovered the laws of physics, the law of gravity, the composition of light, and planetary motion. He had a nervous breakdown in 1677, and again in 1693. He underwent a period of severe emotional disturbances including severe insomnia, loss of appetite, loss of concentration, extreme sensitivity and a decrease in mental acuity. He withdrew from society until 1684. Factors involved around this were the shock of his mother’s death, a fire that destroyed some important papers, exhaustion following the writing of his Principia, local problems with the university at Cambridge. And we thought we had it bad, he hasn’t received an accurate diagnosis for a couple of centuries!
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
An American poet, her poems were published soon after her death. They met with instant success, and unpublished poems continue to appear. Emily gradually withdrew herself physically from the world, confining herself to her own room, and, as her verse reveals, withdrew mentally and psychologically as well. In correspondence she stated
“I had a terror since September, I could tell to none; and so I sing … because I am afraid… While my thought is undressed, I can make the distinction; but when I put them in the gown, they look alike and numb.”
Her poetry was her way of expressing the inexpressible. A friend described her as follows:
“The impression … made on me was that of an excess of tension, and of an abnormal life. She was much too enigmatical a being for me to solve in an hour’s interview, and an instinct told me that the slightest attempt at direct cross-examination would make her withdraw into her shell; I could only sit still and watch…”
Robert Burns (1759 – 1796)
Robert Burns is regarded as Scotland’s National Poet. Debts, chronic physical illness, and domestic troubles led to Burns ‘nervous disease’ and he addressed Alexander Cunningham thus:
“Canst thou minister to a mind diseased? Canst thou speak peace and rest to a soul tost on a sea of troubles without one friendly star to guide her course, and dreading that the next surge may overwhelm her? Canst thou give a frame, trembling alive as the tortures …, the stability and hardihood of the rock that braves the blast? If thou canst not do the least of these, why wouldst thou disturb me in my miseries with thy inquiries after me?
For these two months I have not been able to lift a pen. My constitution were, ab origin, blasted with a deep incurable taint of hypochondria, which poisons my existence. Of late a number of domestic vexations; losses which, though trifling, were yet what I could ill bear, have so irritated me, that my feelings at time could only be envied by a reprobate spirit listening to the sentence that dooms it to perdition. Are you deep in the language of consolation? I have exhausted in reflection every topic of comfort. A heart at ease would have been charmed with my sentiments and reasoning; but as to myself I was like Judas Iscariot preaching the gospel; he might melt and mould the hearts of those around him, but his own kept its native incorrigibility.
Still, there are pillars that bear us up, amid the wreck of misfortune and misery. The ONE is composed of the different modifications of a certain noble, stubborn something in man, known by the names of courage, fortitude, magnanimity….. gives the nerve of combat, while a ray of hope beams on the field …” (25 February 1794).
Robert Burns bathed in the freezing waters of the Solway Firth as part of what seems like a kill or cure remedy by his friend Dr Maxwell.
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
The following is a story of one man’s life.His mother died when he was 9 years old. He was born the son of a farmer and therefore received very little education. He failed in business at the age of 21. He was defeated in a legislative race at the age of 22, and failed again in business at 24. He was devastated by the death of a sweetheart when he was 26, and subsequently had a nervous breakdown when he was 27. At 34 he lost a congressional race, and lost it again two years later. He lost a senatorial race at the age of 45. After another two years, he failed in an effort to become vice president. He then went on to lose another senatorial race at the age of 49. He was often described as insecure, shy, depressed, melancholy, secretive, non-confrontational, self-doubting and preoccupied with the idea of premature death and even the possibility that he might go mad. He was uncomfortable in high-society gatherings, and his etiquette was often considered substandard. At the age of 52 he became the sixteenth president of the United States. The man was Abraham Lincoln.
Once Lincoln mentioned to an old friend that “all the troubles and anxieties of his life”, could not equal the opposition and criticism he received during the Civil War. They were so great, Lincoln said, that he did not think he could possibly survive them. From all over America came cries that he was too stupid and unfit to be president or to reunite the country. But, a great man such as Abraham Lincoln is a gift to his time. He drew strength from his personal history of tragedies. He had endured the unendurable from childhood to adulthood. Thus, anchored on his personal strength, he led an entire nation through its
John Steinbeck (1902 – 1968)
Part of a great generation of American writers, he won the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize for Literature. The author of The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Cannery Row, Of Men and Mice, The Winter of our Discontent, Tortilla Flat, Viva Zapata plus many others.
“I remember the sorrow at not being part of things in my childhood” Steinbeck, Journal of a Novel.
John Steinbeck’s life was influenced most importantly by his childhood, a legacy he would carry with him throughout his life. One of the great problems for John Steinbeck was that his father had put up a thick wall between himself and his children. “He was a distant sort of man”, John’s sister says. A neighbor recalls “John’s father stayed in the background. He didn’t play with John or the girls. He seemed always in the shadows in the house, at the edge of things, lonely and depressed. I think John was very angry with him.” This anger makes sense: his father did not shield him, even slightly from the intense, even domineering, scrutiny of his mother. “Mrs Steinbeck”, says the neighbor, “was stern, even a little cold. John was a little afraid of getting on the wrong side of her. He could never do anything right as far as she was concerned. She was always trying to get him to achieve more than he did”. Taking into account his childhood environment, one important feature of Steinbeck’s character was his sense of himself as someone who never quite achieved enough. Every book he wrote felt to him like a failure, and he never thought he was going to summon the energy and imagination to complete the project at hand. In his later years, the situation worsened, and in the end he found himself terrified of failure, unable to complete his work. He reacted badly to criticism (and there was a lot of it) and was often plunged into dark moods and acute anxiety. Alcohol was a vent he often used to take his mind off his problems or to alter his anxiety and depression. He was consistently self-castigating.
The birth of John had been difficult for his mother and his features had been distorted by the harshness of the delivery. By the age of three, however, he had ‘come back to normal”. His mother called him “my little squirrel” through much of his childhood, while his sisters, somewhat less affectionately called him “muskrat” and “mouse”. He did not enjoy any of these nicknames, and he became very self-conscious about his looks. To the end he retained a sense of himself as being somebody unpleasant to look at.
Another childhood memory was of sitting with his mother while she taught him to read. It was not an easy task for him, especially with his mother hovering beside him as he tried to make sense of the marks on the page that supposedly contained meaning. You can imagine his mother coaching her nervous, frightened child, urging him on yet always disappointed by the results. This is a memory that remained with him.
When John was 16 he came down with a deadly flu that quickly turned into pneumonia. He was dangerously close to death. “I went down and down,” Steinbeck later remembered, “until the wingtips of angels brushed my eyes.” Despite this physically and emotionally traumatic incident, Steinbeck recovered well enough. The psychological damage inflicted by this illness was considerable. It seems to have given him a sense of someone on the edge of life, reinforcing a vulnerability which had it’s psychological roots in his troubled childhood. Not surprisingly, in later life Steinbeck would find himself physically ill when under severe psychological stress.
Entering University, John started his long and troubled relationship with alcohol. He was a man who suffered regular bouts of intense anxiety and deep depression. He turned to alcohol, a mood-altering substance, as a way of digging himself out of a trough which, of course, perpetually backfired and sent him deeper into the depths as soon as the temporary high had worn off.
Having not completed University successfully he retreated from the world. He stayed in a cabin in the mountains for two years . He was frightened, darting this way and that in search of a safe place to stand. His mother wrote to him constantly, and wanted him to “make something of himself”, as she frequently said. She would allude sarcastically to his failure at Stanford University, always hinting that he might yet “succeed” if he returned. He was “an artist”, he told her, “an artist does nothing other than create”.
Steinbeck discovered during this period of self-imposed isolation that his artistic nature was such that he could create only in solitude; indeed, whenever he listened too much to the voices that crowded around him, he became distracted, depressed, uncomfortable, anxious and artistically barren. His later life is marked by serial retreats which were creatively strategic.
When Steinbeck became famous for his masterful writing he was torn within himself. He was now famous and was expected to be a public person, a guest at numerous functions. He was, however, intensely shy and self-conscious in social situations. He would give all sorts of excuses to not attend. He would protest that he didn’t have a suit or necktie, but his worries would usually be brushed aside by the social director. It was not uncommon for him to rush out of the social gathering and head for the nearest bar to order a drink. People started to canonize him. He was a brilliant writer. He would say “You say you are afraid of me. I’m afraid of myself. I mean the creature that has been built up”. Especially after the publication of “The Grapes of Wrath”, he was an international star. More than half a century after it’s publication, The Grapes of Wrath remains one of the permanent masterpieces of American literature.
Steinbeck’s personal life was one emotional trauma after another. He was married three times. His first two marriages were a disaster. His second marriage ended after the release of The Grapes of Wrath. John felt the pressure of having to write another “big” novel. Americans wanted, demanded, “the great American novel.” As his second marriage slid away he was frightened by the problems which would follow from yet another divorce. Where would he live? Would he survive another round of deep emotional turmoil. “He was like a zombie,” one friend recalls. The second marriage failure hit him very hard.”I’m pretty banged up. In fact I have been for quite a long time as you know. I’ve got to build back up and at the same time I have a lot of work to do,” John wrote to a friend. He was referring to his anxiety and depression that seemed to rise and fall constantly. The emotional pain of his second marriage failing proved to deepen this suffering. Trying to deal with what he was experiencing he decided to go to Mexico to finish Viva Zapata. A friend flew down to visit him and was appalled by the condition in which he found Steinbeck, who understood very well the fragility of his condition.
“The sickness has been worse than I have been able to admit even to myself,” he said. Unable to shake his anxiety and depression he was forced to return to California. All he wanted to do is curl up in front of the fireplace. It took months for him to feel “less unwell”. He took long walks on the beach and spent time in nature with his sons, camping and teaching them about the natural world. He erected a kind of emotional scaffolding to hold himself up. His creative energy returned, the first in a long time “I have so much work to do,” he exclaimed. He continued his writing life, creating more masterpieces in literature. His third wife started to realize that his personal illness was more psychological than physical.
“He was really sick, I knew that, but he was also creating the sickness from mental pain” she said.
She persuaded him to sign on with a psychologist who helped ease him through this period of anxiety and depression. His wife was pleased he was seeing someone. Steinbeck immersed himself in the life around him, painting and fixing things. The alternating black moods and periods of high anxiety passed; Steinbeck wrote to friends about his sense of well-being. John sailed through life for a while, writing more world acclaimed novels and plays. However, the old demons from childhood arose. His sense of self was precarious at best. It seemed that he couldn’t take success well. He didn’t believe what others wrote glorifying his books. He despaired that he would ever be able to write again. He would exhaust himself with anxiety.
“He seemed fragile, especially after he had a few drinks in him,” wrote the son of his publisher. “His health is really the issue now, though it is not something he liked to discuss.”
John felt everything he did was inherently flawed and caused him much inner pain and anxiety. He would say “As you may know, I’ve been having a bad time – work unacceptable, to me, and a strong feeling that my time is over”. In another period of anxiety and depression, he was watching TV, not doing anything. A news flash came on saying John Steinbeck had just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He danced around the lounge room with his wife.
When Steinbeck died he had completed a huge mountain of work – some 26 volumes of fiction and non-fiction. “There isn’t a night when one of John’s plays isn’t produced somewhere in the world from Peking to Peoria,” says his last wife. Hundreds of thousands of copies of his work are sold each year, while every single book that he wrote remains in print: a version of eternal life granted to very few authors. He did find periods of happiness in his life, although plagued by anxiety and depression. It seems the huge weight of his early childhood remained with him his whole life, never being resolved. No matter how he felt within himself, he never wavered from his pursuit of the creative. He stayed true to his craft.
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
An Irish poet and dramatist, and Nobel laureate, he was a leader of the Irish Renaissance and one of the foremost writers of the 20th century.
Since his death there have been numerous biographies written about him. It has been stated “the more that has been written, the more elusive he has become.” This is true of a man who hid behind “masks” to defend his own inner reality. He spent much of his life attempting to understand the deep contradictions within his mind and working on his inner self.
Yeats was reared in the time of pedagogy. That is, strict moralistic discipline to train children. He sent them to a school kept by a Scotsman whose floggings were famous”. He later said, “When I left that school for good, I felt myself to be empty, there was a void within.” His personal appearance was out of the ordinary, almost foreign looking. He felt extremely self-conscious and his inadequacies were constantly criticized. He was called mentally and physically defective. His father resorted to “boxing his ears” to teach him and terrorizing him by references to his “moral degradation” and “likeness to disagreeable people”. Yeats was in a constant state of terror. He became extremely timid. Seeking refuge from this environment, Yeats found what he wanted in daydreaming and solitude. He had a poet’s heart.
Reaching manhood, he was described as “gentle..” but within grew the need for self-assertion and the need to “break away from my father’s influence”. He was besieged internally by uncertainties that were difficult to control. He felt the need to “Create yourself; be yourself your poem”. He felt divided within himself, he had a continual battle with his senses and was filled with self-loathing at what he thought was an unnatural and horrible state of mind. Painfully turned inwards, he was too shy to accept invitations and hid his timidity under arrogance. He was totally self-conscious of his own clumsiness and remembered all his life how he felt when Oscar Wilde disapproved of the color of his shoes. He felt he was constantly committing “gaffes”. “I was always conscious of something helpless … in my self. I could not hold my opinions among people who would make light of them …” He was extremely unhappy and made frequent mention in his letters of his “dreadful despondent moods.” He often referred to his bad health and even to physical breakdown. In this state he found writing difficult.
A deep thinker, he realized that he comprised of different aspects. That the conflict within himself was amplified by his sense of disconnection from himself, a divided self. He realized the seen and unseen part of himself, the defenses within he had constructed to defend himself from external reality. His “masks” that he presented to the world to prevent others from knowing his true inner self. He spent his life working on resolving this inner conflict. “I pray … That I, all foliage gone, … May shoot into my joy” -YEATS,
The Hernes’s Egg
Yeats succeeded in changing his personality and life. His inner and outer suffering encouraged him to nourish his imagination on heroic self-projections until his dreams far exceeded reality. With great courage and will, he become the hero of whom he had dreamed of being. His aim was inner mastery. To follow him from the beginning to the end of his life is to conclude that he was one of the true heroes of literature, who fought past inner conflict and conventionality. His life was a continual combat, and he chose the hardest battles when he might have chosen easier ones. As he himself remarked “Why should we honor those that die upon the field of battle? … A man may show as reckless a courage in entering into the abyss
As anyone can see this is a rather impressive list of individuals with impressive and valuable accomplishments. This should serve as an example of the fact that people who suffer from anxiety disorders and panic disorders need to be treated as best as possible so that they may make their own contribution to society with less discomfort and distress.