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Emily Dickinson, SAD Poet

Emily Dickinson was probably America’s greatest female poet, but during her lifetime she wrote only for herself. Because she felt that her work was of inferior quality, only seven of her 1768 poems were published during her lifetime.

I will give you clues that should lead you to tell what disease she had. She spent a year at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which is now Mount Holyoke College. Then she withdrew from college and became more reclusive with each passing year.

By her thirties, she dressed only in white, stayed at home and hid in her room when visitors arrived. She wrote letters every day. She never married.

Lost Her Best Friend to Her Brother
She met Susan Gilbert at college and they were close friends until Susan became engaged to her brother, Austin. She felt that Susan had betrayed her by marrying Austin, so she refused to talk or write to Susan or her brother. Two years later, Susan and Austin moved next door. The world is richer for this because the two women then wrote letters to each other almost every day. She wrote hundreds of poems about her profuse love for Susan, her desires to hold and kiss her, and her sorrow at not being able to spend all her time with Susan.

Here is a major clue that should help you diagnose her disease: she wrote almost all her works in the spring and summer months.

She wrote more than half of her 1800 poems in three years between 1862 and 1865.

During her lifetime, friends submitted seven poems for publication, she submitted none. She died in 1886. A complete list of her poems was not published until 1955, 69 years after her death.

An article in the American Journal of Psychiatry (May 2001) shows that Emily Dickinson suffered from a type of manic depression called SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder.

People with manic depression go through periods of depression where they can do nothing and periods of mania in which they can do everything. Emily Dickinson wrote more than half of her 1800 poems in the three years between 1862 and 1865 when she was manic. She had long periods when she couldn’t write because she was depressed. She wrote almost all of her works in the spring and summer months when sunlight made her feel good, and was unable to write in the winter when lack of sunlight sent her into depression. She wrote of the summer as life and the winter as death. “There is a certain slant of light on winter afternoons that oppresses, like the weight of cathedral tunes.”

Genius often accompanies mental illness. Emily Dickinson had severe manic depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder.

January 20th, 2013
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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