To many, Winston Churchill is Britain’s finest Prime Minister, rallying public spirit when the country needed it most during some of the darkest days in the country’s history. He was a figurehead, leading the charge against Hitler and the Nazis in a wholly self-assured and confident manner that frequently towed the line with arrogance. However, whilst taking the war to Hitler, he was constantly engaged in a private inner-battle. That of manic depression. The ‘British Bulldog’ constantly struggled with what he referred to as his “Black Dog”. He would feel so low during depressed periods that his mind would flirt with the idea of putting an end to it all through suicide. During these times he didn’t trust himself, stating:
“I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand right back and if possible get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.”
Experts have attempted to apply modern day theory to Churchill and many conclude that he was a manic-depressive with characteristics attributed to mania. Prior to becoming Prime Minister, Churchill’s depressive episodes often lasted a prolonged period of months rather than days or weeks and during this time he would very rarely leave his grand country house in Kent, spending most of his time in bed. Needless to say, if such an episode occurred whilst he was Prime Minister in WW2 that could spell disaster but fortunately the mid-2oth Century went through what is known as the ‘Psychopharmacological Revolution’. For the first time, new chemical compounds were discovered and administered to handle previously difficult to treat mental illnesses such as insomnia, anxiety and depression and Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran, tried many different psychoactive drugs on his high-profile patient. Most prominent was Seconal, a powerful barbiturate that depresses the central nervous system and can help with sedation and sleep. It was known as ‘reds’ due to its appearance. In high doses it can be lethal, in fact, it is currently the most used drug to use for physician assisted suicide in the United States and it is considered too dangerous to use for treatment unless the circumstances are exceptional. It is no coincidence that barbiturates were then prescribed to ease the effects of alcohol withdrawal, such as jitters, and given the amount Churchill used to drink, it can be said with some confidence that this was another reason for his Seconal. Post-war, from 1953 onwards, Moran also gave Churchill Drinamyl to help him after his stroke. Drinamyl was half barbiturate which calmed him and half amphetamine to stimulate him and lift his mood.
As well as battling depression, Churchill displayed certain characteristics that are typical of someone who suffered with mania. This is a condition that gives the person bouts of excitement, euphoria and over activity. In 1980, manic depression was officially changed in the classification system to bipolar disorder, so this may sound more familiar to the modern day reader. Perhaps Churchill’s close friend Lord Beavorbrook said it best when he described the Bulldog as either”at the top of the wheel of confidence or at the bottom of an intense depression.” with nothing in between. Traits of mania that Churchill displayed include his antagonist and hostile behaviour towards others and the pleasure he got from confrontation, he was also known to go off on tangents and would regularly dictate monologues off the cuff that went on for 4 hours. When he wasn’t in the gloomy depths of depression, his energy levels went through the roof and were excessive to say the least, with his day starting at 8am and finishing at 4am. When Churchill died, there was a hoard countless articles and around fifty works that were of book length which amounted to over 15 tonnes. Whether Churchill was aware of it, or more likely the case, he didn’t give a damn about social boundaries or being inappropriate. He displayed a total lack of inhibition everyday. Often would he work from his four-poster bed and conduct serious business with colleagues and experts from between the sheets, or summon people for important meetings at 4am which he would chair in his dressing gown. Perhaps most audacious was his lack of disregard for decency with his personal staff who he distressed by approaching them in nothing but his (in)famous silk pink underwear which he even had tailored.
Another aspect entwined in the Prime Minister’s mental health was his excessive drinking. It was a topic that was tolerated, often greeted with a roll of the eyes from his associates and something they just had to accept. Today it’s something anecdotal that makes some of his stories and quotes all the more witty, but make no bones about it, it was a serious drinking habit. There was a direct correlation between mania and substance abuse. Even today those with bipolar are much more likely than depressed people to be alcoholics – the two go hand in hand. It is argued that his drinking was a form of self-medication and his medicine was whiskey with soda. During one dinner party, guests were astounded to see him knock back 11 glasses of the stuff. Churchill’s alcoholism was so serious that during a visit to the US during the days of prohibition, he obtained a doctors note stating that he had to consume alcohol regularly.
All this being said, none of these facts should diminish his legacy in any way. Alcoholism aside, maybe the fact he suffered with mental illnesses should be talked about more as an example of how greatness can coexist and excel alongside mental illness.