Monday, January 16, 2012

Martin Luther King

Why write about Martin Luther King on this blog?

Because he tried to kill himself. Not once, but twice. And we can learn from that.

Time tells us this in the "Man of the Year" article about Dr. King. (The excerpt is quoted in A First-Rate Madness by Nassir Ghaemi, reviewed on this blog last year.)
Twice, before he was 13, he tried to commit suicide. Once, his brother, "A.D.," accidentally knocked his grandmother unconscious when he slid down a banister. Martin thought she was dead, and in despair ran to a second-floor window and jumped out--only to land unhurt. He did the same thing, with the same result, on the day his grandmother died.
I read a few more accounts of the story, about young Martin seeming quite dead, then rising and walking off like a child who had been clobbered by a baseball. It made me wonder, frankly, if he just jumped, as a kid, off trees, perhaps. Kids jump.

But it does seem to have been overwhelming despair that drove him to the ledge. Most of us would point to it as a strong indicator of childhood depression, rather than a grief response. The depression came first.

Ghaemi tells us that by 1966, after Dr. King had accomplished his goals, voting rights for blacks, and desegregation, that he initially felt empty and depressed, even thought he should resign. But Black Power, radical (violent) politics, the very opposite of civil disobedience troubled him, and so did the Viet Nam War.

He spent his last few years fighting for both of them. He did what he could to guilt Lyndon Johnson into ending the war, and he arranged meetings with the powerful radicals, those who believed in revolution. He didn't sleep, worked feverishly through the night, through his depression. A closer read of Ghaemi's biography finds Dr. King's personal struggle to be yet another example of an individual who struggled with mental illness-- his whole life-- and yet, what a life. What a legacy he left us all.

And he didn't take that life in the end. He didn't jump.



Smitty said...

I am glad for this insight into the young Martin, today.

Mother Theresa had her despairs too, do they drive us to action, to press on?

Thank you for these wonders.


Anonymous said...

how can you be sure he had depression?

therapydoc said...

I would never have known this, but there's a chapter in Dr. Ghaemi's book about famous people who suffered affective disorders, and Dr. King is in there, gets his own chapter, second to Gandhi, his mentor.

Medkid said...

It has always been interesting to me the co-existence of mental illness and outstanding accomplishments in a human being. Neither is mutually exclusive as it is indeed a human being that has the mental illness with unique personality traits.

Last week we launched the planning stage of physician/medical student depression and suicide awareness programming at my medical school. 27 students across all 4 years volunteered which totally blew me away and also proved that the issue is not something I dreamed up in my own head.

The hidden curriculum of medical education and the hidden culture of physicians shun mental illness and decrees it as selfish weakness and evidence one is not fit to be a doctor.

A professor of mine said to me once upon finding out that I had held off tutoring my classmates in the fall because I was in the midst of a relapse: "That is not an excuse. When you are a physician you must get out of bed no matter how sick you are to take care of your patients. You must be tougher than anyone else." Lucky for me I was far enough along my path to healing to realize that comment was that of an old cynical physician likely damaged from years of self denial. I was far enough along the path to answer with compassion instead of anger.

As much as I wish I was tougher than anyone else (and don't get me wrong I've developed a back bone in med school) years spent pretending I was super human, devoid of emotions and needs took their toll. We can pretend we are tougher than everyone else, but being human beings we will eventually fall to the consequences of ignoring our own fallibility.

Yes. There will be times as a resident when I will get up when I have nasty colds and flus and all sorts of grossness and take care of my patients (against my better judgement...secretly hoping it develops into pneumonia so I will have to be admitted and have someone else take care of me for a change!) because it is what my profession and especially training demands.

However, when it comes down to it how much good are we to our patients when we are more broken down then they? How much good can we do when our empathy is run dry, and minds foggy from the lack of physical, emotional, and spiritual nourishment? We are likely to miss the real story and sometimes the real diagnosis. We give sub-optimal patient care.

Great people can do great things despite and sometimes in spite of illness. Sometimes illness opens our eyes to different needs in our communities and lives others might not see or have the courage to stand up for. Of the 27 volunteers that stood up last week I would venture a guess many have personally had mental illness touch their lives in some way. So we'll see how it goes. My hope is that one student will know they are not alone.

Zach said...

Thank you for the isnight on Dr. King's childhood. It's amazing how much one can accomplish when living without fear of death.

therapydoc said...

Medkid, simply wonderful comment. Thank you so much. And Zach, that's a great way to look at it.

What It Takes To Be Me said...

Thanks for this post. It gives hope. Important stuff when you find yourself struggling.

And, Medkid, great comment!