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  • Writer's pictureAndré Delicata

Churchill’s Black Dog

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was a man of many talents, a superb and inspirational leader, and a complex character.

Churchill was a prolific writer. In terms of quantity, he wrote roughly twice the amount of words Charles Dickens wrote. The Nobel Prize in Literature 1953 was awarded to Churchill “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.” At his death Churchill left 15 tons of personal papers.

He was also a talented painter. Though his work was not outstanding, experts say that he could easily have made a living off painting. He painted over 500 pieces throughout his lifetime, mostly landscapes.

One of the reasons he painted was because he found painting to be uplifting, which was vital to him, as he suffered from bipolar disorder.

“Painting came to my rescue in a most trying time,” he wrote. He preferred uplifting colours. “I cannot pretend to feel impartial about the colours,” he wrote, “I rejoice with the brilliant ones and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns.”

He would experience long bouts of depression during which he would take a step back from life and spend much of his time painting (he used to speak of the depression as his Black Dog).

He also found brick-laying to be soothing during these periods, a pastime he also took very seriously.

A close look at his life shows that he had several typical features of bipolar disorder. His friend Lord Beaverbrook once said of Churchill that he was either “at the top of the wheel of confidence or at the bottom of an intense depression.”

When mania (periods of great excitement or euphoria, delusions, and over-activity) kicked in, he would be on a roll, still bursting with energy at two in the morning, exhausting his secretaries who could not match his energy levels, and a perennially erupting volcano of ideas most of which would be unfeasible.

He was impulsive, at times putting himself in grave, personal danger and often irrational in his decisions and actions, with disregard for consequences.

An incorrigible spendthrift, throughout his life he always spent far beyond his means in extravagance, luxury he could ill afford, gambling, and an obstinate refusal to plan or monitor his finances. He was plagued by financial problems throughout his life.

He was often selfish, self-centered, belligerent, obnoxious, sarcastic, overbearing, rude to others and arrogant, and had little regard for the opinions of most people.

Churchill had this sense of grandiosity, his unwavering belief in himself as a great man, his early sense of self-importance and grand destiny. He once said:

“we are all worms, but I do believe that I am a glow worm”

Despite these typical bipolar traits, his inspirational leadership in war-time, when everyone thought that the odds against Britain surviving the war (let alone winning) was a beacon of hope for the British nation, and one of the key factors that determined the outcome of the war. Some would say that Churchill managed to lead Britain to victory over Nazism despite having bipolar disorder. Others would say he managed to do so because he had bipolar disorder.

In an essay in his book Black Dog, Kafka’s Mice, and Other Phenomena of the Human Mind, psychiatrist and historian Anthony Storr wrote:

“Had he been a stable and equable man, he could never have inspired the nation. In 1940, when all the odds were against Britain, a leader of sober judgement might well have concluded that we were finished.”

If you suffer from a mental health condition, be it depression, bipolar disorder, personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia etc, take courage from Churchill’s achievements and know that you can do great things!

Not everyone can be a Churchill, but you can make a positive difference in some way or another (it doesn’t really matter whether it’s in a small way or a big way) to the people around you, to society and to the environment

Try keeping Churchill’s life maxim in mind:”Never give up”.

And in the darkest periods of your life, remember that dawn never fails to follow hot on the heels of every nightfall.



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