By Fiona Smith
It’s the 45th anniversary of the moon landing – and in his book Return to Earth the astronaut recounts the surreal experience of being among the first to walk its surface. But it also touches on a much darker place. Despite the adulation that came with the whole lunar stroll thing, Buzz entered into a deep depression and alcoholism, leading to a hospital stay. He only found his feet again through therapy and medication.
Buzz later said: “Recovery was not easy. Perhaps the most challenging turnaround was accepting the need for assistance and help. Looking back at it now – with over 22 years of sobriety – this was probably one of my greatest challenges. But it has also been one of the most satisfying because it has given me a sense of comfort and ease with where I am now.”
Florence became a popular heroine tending wounded soldiers in the Crimean war in the 1850s, and what she learned there informed her groundbreaking nursing techniques. In addition to a cracking bedside manner, the Lady of the Lamp was something of a pie chart pioneer, inventing a new diagram system to depict mortality rates.
She was able to present complex data to the British parliament in a way that made sense to them and sparked vital reform. Florence founded the first official secular nurse training scheme and her students went on to run successful hospitals and schools across the world.
But from 1857 on, Nightingale suffered from debilitating depression, likely brought on by a bacterial infection contracted in the field. Despite being intermittently bedridden, she remained amazingly productive in social reform and hospital planning and her prolific writings have been influential on a global scale ever since.
Britain’s cigar-chomping wartime Prime Minister, famed for his V for victory two-fingered salute and rousing speeches, was plagued by what he termed the “Black Dog” of depression. With both his father and daughter affected by mental health issues, it appears to have run in the family.
While his stirring oration strengthened Allied resistance and buoyed the wartime population, he often sank to the depths of despair. Friend Lord Beaverbrook described him as “always at the wheel of confidence or at the bottom of intense depression”. But psychiatrist Anthony Storr reckons Churchill used his experiences to inform his political character, saying: “Only a man who knew what it was to discern a gleam of hope in a hopeless situation, whose courage was beyond reason and whose aggressive spirit burned at its fiercest when he was hemmed in and surrounded by enemies, could have given emotional reality to the words of defiance which rallied and sustained us in the menacing summer of 1940”.
There is some speculation Churchill may have lived with bipolar disorder – in addition to serving as Prime Minister for decades, he wrote 43 books as well as a huge volume of correspondence.
You’ve probably seen dramatic images of the inventor in his lab with his Weird Science-style contraptions, bolts of ‘lightning’ at his fingertips. But despite cutting a dashing figure, the Serbian-American scientist avoided close human relationships all his life, working in intense solitude in his efforts to create more efficient energy systems.
He had symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder and a stark aversion to germs. While Tesla’s endless innovations eventually improved the lives of billions, his employers and investors often failed to appreciate his genius and left him penniless and no longer in control of many of his patents. Tesla happily went to work digging ditches in his downtime from the technological industry. In later years, overcoming his germ phobia, he cared for wild birds in his New York apartment and could be seen standing in the park with pigeons perched on his outstretched arms.
While I’d personally take issue with her most famous one-liner ‘Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses’, the legendary wit was the breakout star of the Algonquin Vicious Circle, a coterie of wordsmiths and wisecrackers who met at the New York hotel in the Twenties. A reviewer for Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, she also had a well-paid residency as a Hollywood screenwriter, penning the Oscar-nominated A Star Is Born.
Along with her dazzling bon mots and a reputation as a social sharpshooter, she was also open about her hard drinking and depression. It was often the subject of her poetry – her most celebrated work is a list of the downsides of various unsatisfactory suicidal methods, resolving in ‘You might as well live’. And she sure did. Parker was a passionate advocate for civil rights, a fearless reporter on the Spanish Civil War, chairing the Anti-Fascist Rescue Committee and co-founding the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League in 1936.
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
The most famous composer of all time suffered the cruellest blow imaginable, when his hearing began to deteriorate age 28 and he became totally deaf by age 44. It is believed he had Paget’s disease, which caused the cranial bones to enlarge and destroy auditory nerves, also resulting in an ever-expanding forehead, jaw and feet. However
Beethoven continued to compose symphonies and concertos, which he would never fully hear, sometimes resorting to conducting them with a crude ‘hearing trumpet’ taped to his head. He descended into alcoholism and opium-use however and may have also had bipolar disorder, being prone to bouts of mania – he was said to have composed several works at once, including several of his most magnificent pieces.
The legendary jazz singer suffered with mental health issues throughout her life. Simone’s childhood obsession to succeed as a classical pianist was the seed of discontent that drove her to later unhappiness, according to biographer Nadine Cohodas. A rejection of her application to study music at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, which she believed was down to racial discrimination, was devastating for her.
Moving on to nightclub performing, her shows tended to be volatile. Nina would berate or stare down the crowd if there was too much noise, stating: “I expect and deserve respect.” Later financial disputes with record companies and the taxman fostered her sense of paranoia. While her career flourished, her illness grew steadily worse. Finally diagnosed with schizophrenia, she continued to perform regularly due to mounting debts. Despite late starts and shouting matches with the crowd, her concerts usually ended in a standing ovation due to her phenomenal talent.
Follow Fiona Smith on Twitter @fifilebon