An Island of Inferi: Harry Potter and the Perfect Analogy for Depression

Dumbledore screamed; the noise echoed all around the vast chamber, across the dead black water…
“It’s all right, Professor, it’s all right!” said Harry loudly, his hands shaking so badly he could hardly scoop up the sixth gobletful of potion; the basin was now half empty. “Nothing’s happening to you, you’re safe, it isn’t real, I swear it isn’t real- take this, now, take this….”
“It’s all my fault, all my fault,” he sobbed. “Please make it stop, I know I did wrong, oh please make it stop and I’ll never, never again…”
“This will make it stop, Professor,” Harry said, his voice cracking as he tipped the seventh glass of potion into Dumbledore’s mouth.
Dumbledore began to cower as though invisible torturers surrounded him; his flailing hand almost knocked the refilled goblet from Harry’s trembling hands as he moaned…

-Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, p. 572

Sound familiar?

I don’t mean the passage- of course it sounds familiar if you’ve read the Harry Potter books. Here Dumbledore has finally given Harry the chance to prove himself, allowing him to embark upon a dangerous magical adventure with a teacher’s blessing for the first time in his life, but the adventure isn’t what Harry thought it would be. Dumbledore, Harry’s mentor and idol, must drink a potion that reduces him to the likes of a tortured child, and it’s Harry’s job to take care of him.

This is where things might start to look familiar, at least if you know a bit about J.K. Rowling’s life. Rowling has publicly discussed her personal battles with depression and suicidal thoughts, and to me that’s what this part of Book 6 is about.

Those of us who have read Book 7 know that Dumbledore has certainly had trauma in his past, but at this point Harry knows almost nothing about Dumbledore’s life outside of his duties as headmaster (and he doesn’t even really know those very well). In Harry’s mind, Dumbledore is the ultimate boss: he’s unnaturally perceptive, enormously well-learned in all branches of magic, and- as Kingsley Shacklebolt says- he’s got style. Imagine how utterly disconcerting it is for Harry to see his seemingly invincible hero suddenly fall apart.

When Dumbledore drinks the mystery potion, his past comes back to haunt him. The potion causes him to be vulnerable, to feel the full force of his mistakes and his losses. Although he has hid it from Harry and the rest of the world, Dumbledore’s pain is still there underneath the surface, constantly in danger of boiling over. The potion does not give Dumbledore pain; it simply opens the floodgates, enabling him to feel the tsunami of hurt that he has been holding back.

Here, Rowling offers a sensitive and totally illuminating way of understanding depression. Depression does not make a person sad; it alters one’s ability to feel sad feelings, either blowing them out of proportion or dulling them almost completely. This can mean that a person with depression has difficulty feeling much of anything, or that negative feelings overflow disproportionately in response to what should be events of minimal significance. A person with depression, just like a person without, has had painful experiences. The difference is in the ability to deal with that pain, and that’s what Dumbledore perfectly embodies here.

Think about how Harry responds. To paraphrase: “I’ll make it stop. It’s alright. It’s not real.” In other words? “I don’t understand what you’re feeling, so I’m telling you that it doesn’t exist, and I’m going to make it my responsibility to fix it.” That, in a nutshell, is the reaction that people experiencing depression often hear from loved ones. Loved ones cannot understand how depression feels without having experienced it, just as Harry cannot see what Dumbledore sees while drinking the potion. From Harry’s perspective, Dumbledore is fine one moment, and the next he’s on the ground moaning.

In the same way, people who experience depression often have difficulty explaining their experience to loved ones, and in turn, loved ones struggle to know how to respond when the depression takes its hold. Pretend you have depression; pretend you’re Dumbledore. People don’t understand. They try to help, but you’re practically impervious because you feel so alone. You’re reliving the worst bits of your life and it isn’t happening in real time but you’re completely powerless to stop it. You would rather die than feel this. Your facade disappears, your pain is exposed, and now it takes everything you have to cry out for help and hope that somebody around can hear it.

“Water,” croaked Dumbledore…
“Sir, I’m trying, I’m trying!” said Harry desperately, but he did not think that Dumbledore could hear him; he had rolled onto his side and was drawing great, rattling breaths that sounded agonizing…
He flung himself over to the edge of the rock and plunged the goblet into the lake, bringing it up full to the brim of icy water that did not vanish… A slimy white hand had gripped his wrist, and the creature to whom it belonged was pulling him, slowly, backward across the rock. The surface of the lake was no longer mirror-smooth; it was churning, and everywhere Harry looked, white heads and hands were emerging from the dark water, men and women and children with sunken, sightless eyes were moving toward the rock: an army of the dead rising from the black water.

Finally, you gather the strength to communicate what you need: water. You are too weak to get it for yourself, and the simple act of asking is almost too much. In fact, it takes more than strength. It takes trust, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is one of Dumbledore’s greatest powers of all.

And the person you ask for help? That person doesn’t know what to do. They feel panicked, blind to your invisible but immense pain. They want to help, but they don’t know how. Possibly the worst part is that you both fear that your plea for help will drag them down with you, just as Harry sacrifices his own safety to get Dumbledore just one precious mouthful of water.

We all know what happens next. Harry never regrets helping Dumbledore. Instead he bravely fights off the inferi and gets himself and Dumbledore back to Hogwarts, where it all goes down on the astronomy tower. Here Rowling makes her last point in this beautifully crafted comparison: only after dealing with his pain, only after getting through it, not around it or over it, only after asking for and accepting help by giving total trust in somebody who cares about him, does Dumbledore become himself again. Dumbledore knows that his end approaches, but imagine the feeling of peace and relief that he must have to be able to say, “I’m not afraid, Harry. I’m with you.”

Dumbledore doesn’t get a happy ending, but he gets an ending in which he has full control over his fate and his legacy. After a life of hidden pain and guilt, an empowered sort of death would be, to Dumbledore, a personal victory. It is more powerful for him to die having accepted his story than to die feeling happy; in fact, Dumbledore’s selfless, regret-less acceptance of death may be one of his greatest accomplishments.

Rowling offers a piercingly true depiction of depression from inside and out and from before, during, and after. I think her most important lesson, though, is this: any hopelessness can be overcome if we take the leap, trust in somebody else, and forgive ourselves. Only then can we truly find peace.

 

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Always

Yesterday Alan Rickman died, and although he had a whole life and a family and a career that included all sorts of wonderful roles, at least in my generation he is remembered as Severus Snape.

Obviously, we didn’t know Alan Rickman the man. Many people my age haven’t seen his other work, except for maybe Love Actually or Die Hard (three guesses which one of those I’ve seen and which I haven’t). So, because we respect him and we feel something, we talk about Snape. Snape is someone we know, perhaps one of the characters we know most intimately in the Harry Potter series. And, as of the end of the seventh book, most of us love him.

Snape might be one of the most unique and unsolvable characters in popular literature. There are so many angles from which we can analyze him. We all talk about how Snape is a hero, Snape is so brave, Snape’s story is so tragic. And although the professor doesn’t get much credit for being good during the series, in pop culture we tend to look up to him a great deal and to feel for his heartbreaking story. But, as flattering as all of these viewpoints are, I think that, in fact, they sell Snape a little short; I would argue that Snape has the biggest damn heart in the whole series.

Here’s a boy who didn’t see love between his parents, never had his own romantic feelings reciprocated, didn’t even have any real friendships. In fact, it’s no wonder that he became so obsessed with Lily; he never had a single example of an appropriate, mutually beneficial, caring relationship in his life. And yet, he literally devotes his entire life to love. He is shunned by both the good side and the bad side. He constantly risks his life as a double agent. He is not trusted by anybody, and, even if he doesn’t show it, he surely suffers from loneliness as much or even more in adulthood as he did in childhood. And none of these awful things are in pursuit of love, which is so often how we justify them in stories. Snape stands to gain nothing- especially once we think about the fact that, even if he helps Harry, Harry is intended to die in the end anyway. Honestly, the only way Snape might ever have any satisfaction in life is if he lets go of Lily… but there’s no way he’ll do it. He would rather look at the face of James Potter’s son every day, risk his life, live without relationships or trust, than forget Lily Evans. Snape lives his life for his heart.

And that is why Snape is the bravest of all. Not because he risks his life, not because he protects Harry, not because he kills Dumbledore. Snape is brave because he is vulnerable. Snape is brave because he keeps living for his heart even though he knows that there’s no way he’ll get a happy ending. Snape is brave because he knows, without a doubt, what he lives for, even if nobody else could ever understand. Even if it means that he will never be accepted in this life. Snape would rather do right by his heart than anything else.

We tend to think of Snape as ultimately one of the most tragic characters in the Harry Potter series. But, in a way, I think he may be the luckiest. Snape is not tied to any societal conventions; he lives singularly to honor the woman whom he loves, and for him, there is nothing else. At the very end, Snape expresses no regret. He expresses one thing: his love for Lily. I think that many of us would give a lot to be that sure of what’s important to us in life, to know for whom or for what we would give it all.

The world mourns Alan Rickman, as it should, and he deserves to be thought of as a whole person rather than for just one character. But, for those of us for whom this is our only way, let’s honor Alan Rickman- a man who seems to have incredible empathy and heart- by truly understanding one of the characters he played. Let’s think about Snape not only as brave and tragic, but as huge-hearted, single-minded, and lucky for it all. Let’s think of him as the person who taught us that fulfillment comes in many forms, and that, even if we are not lucky enough to be popular or to be in a relationship, that does not mean that our life is a waste. What matters is not how the world sees us, but that we always do right by ourselves and by our hearts.

Always.

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The End of the Story

I’ve shared before on this blog that one of my greatest, most important beliefs is that everything turns out okay in the end. The struggle may be long and tough, but you’ll come out on the other side a better person, and your reward will be happiness. For me, that has always meant that somewhere, somewhen, I will finally feel at home and at peace with where I am and who I’m with.

I’ve always felt this way: I remember in 9th grade English class, when we would read short stories that ended abruptly with no resolution whatsoever, and I would say that the stories were garbage. My teacher wisely observed that maybe my problem with the story wasn’t that it was bad, but that it didn’t have a perfect storybook ending. He thought that maybe I would understand when I got older. What is it with teachers and always knowing more than we do?

Lately I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot, that everything always works out in the end. I recently watched Boyhood, an incredibly interesting and innovative film that came out in 2014. Boyhood chronicles the life of a boy, but also the life of his mother as he’s growing up. Mom marries and divorces and remarries and gets a job, and then remarries again, and every time the guys are jerks. At the end of the movie as the boy is going off to college, Mom says plainly that this is the worst day of her life- that from here on out, she’s basically just going to get old and die. The boy eventually realizes that his mom is just confused about life in her forties as he is as a young adult.

We have this dominant narrative: go to school, go to college, get a degree, find somebody who makes you happy, settle down, have a career, have a family, the end. But the older I get, the more I realize that this isn’t necessarily how it works out for everybody. And even if that is the story, there’s actually more. You actually do things as an adult other than raising kids- and you’d better, otherwise when they leave your life is going to be a mess.

But what I’m realizing is more than the idea that life isn’t linear. Not everything turns out okay. I just finished a book called Commencement, which tells the story of four Smith grads and their lives before, during, and after college. Throughout the course of the story, each girl undergoes tragedy: death of a parent, sexual abuse, estrangement from family… one of them is even believed to be murdered. The book was a gripping read, but I was surprised by the end. I won’t give anything away, but essentially nothing is resolved. The one who has always wanted to be a writer but never had the guts still isn’t writing. The one who couldn’t be honest with her family about the relationship she’s in still doesn’t know what to do. The murder thing gets figured out, but all of the issues surrounding it don’t. And yet, the book ends. It’s not like the series finale of some television show in which everything miraculously gets wrapped up and each character finds exactly what he or she needs to be happy in life.

So why does the book end before everything is fixed?

That’s the big question. I’m still coming to terms with it: not every story has a happy ending. Not everyone gets to have it figured out. Why do some people get to settle and for some people, the story never ends? Maybe it doesn’t depend on the kind of story, but instead on the kind of person you are. Maybe if you’re someone who’s naturally happy and naturally feels settled anywhere, you’ll get that storybook ending. But plenty of people are always searching for something, and maybe the searching is more important than what they actually find. The process of exploring and learning and becoming more than you were before can’t possibly just stop when somebody or someplace new comes into your life.

For my entire life, when someone has asked what my biggest goal in life is, I have said that I want to find my soul mate. I’m starting to realize that maybe this isn’t the right goal, not because there’s not a good match for me out there, but maybe because my soul mate- the thing that literally matches my soul- is the act of searching. Searching for more knowledge, more people, more challenges, more new experiences so that I can constantly be growing. A great match for me will be a person who loves to do those things too, or maybe someone who balances me out. But I’m coming to terms with the idea that maybe I won’t ever feel like my story has come to a close, because that’s not my personality.

Saying that everything turns out okay in the end necessitates an end. And maybe there doesn’t ever have to be an end. Maybe the story just gets to keep going. And that’s perfectly okay for me.

My Own Horcrux

***This post contains spoilers for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows!***


In a book full of plot twists and surprises, perhaps the most important realization of the last Harry Potter: Harry is a horcrux. When Voldemort tries to kill Harry as a baby, poor Tom ends up splitting his own soul by accident. That part of his soul enters Harry, who for so long has no idea that his scar means anything important.

As Harry gets older, he begins to have visions. He can read Voldemort’s mind, feel Voldemort’s feelings, see through Voldemort’s eyes. His wand and Voldemort’s have twin cores. And Harry can talk to snakes, a talent that Voldemort was known for. Harry and Voldemort clearly have some links that can not be explained by coincidence alone. Isn’t it interesting how two people with so many similarities chose such different paths in life?

All of these abilities and similarities haunt Harry throughout his years at Hogwarts. Most mildly, they’re upsetting. Most seriously, they lead to the death of the only father figure Harry has ever known. And in between we have the disturbing visions, horrendously difficult occlumency lessons with Snape, pressure from Hermione, and physical pain of the scar. All in all, having a part of Voldemort’s soul inside makes Harry’s life pretty difficult.

But without it, he wouldn’t be the Chosen One. Once Voldemort chooses Harry, Harry has both a burden and a gift. Possessing part of Voldemort’s soul clearly wears on Harry, but without these peculiar opportunities and abilities, Harry would not have the tools he needs to defeat the very person who gave him these capabilities in the first place. In short, the thing that makes Harry’s life so difficult is also what makes him special. Living with the soul of a villain makes him a hero.

That’s life. Often, our best qualities are tied to our worst; the thing that hurts us is also the thing that makes us strong. For me, it’s perfectionism. I want to do my best; I strive for excellence, and I care with my whole heart. That’s why I’m so hard on myself and why I’m such a stickler for rules. It can be exhausting. But despite the negatives, I wouldn’t give up the positives for anything.

I think that’s what Harry taught us. Everybody has the bad, but every piece of bad has some good. It’s up to us to decide which one we want to focus on. And as Albus Dumbledore says, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Let’s all look inward and identify our own horcruxes. Let’s not let them stay hidden in the darkness where they can only grow to hurt us. Let’s be brave like Harry, and face our fears. Let’s be vulnerable enough to discover the worst parts of ourselves. And then let’s remember the boy who showed us how they can also be the best.

Let’s all face our horcruxes. But instead of seeing the darkness, let’s choose the light.

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