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
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.