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I first tried to read Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar twenty years ago, while I was in college.  But I got about fifty pages in, just to the mass food poisoning scene, and I quit.  And I didn’t pick up the novel again until this past weekend.

I wish I’d finished the book twenty years ago;  I also wish that I hadn’t had a serious case of OCD and depression, both of which are what stopped me from finishing the book.  I had such fear of food poisoning that I couldn’t even read about it. How’s that for neurosis?

Esther’s descent into depression is one I’m well familiar with, and Plath is able to nail it with poetic language and startling imagery.  Esther seemingly has it all:  she’s smart, driven, focused.  She wins a scholarship and travels to NYC.  But during this trip, as in everywhere else in her life, she fails to connect to others.  As she grows more and more depressed and realizes that she can’t envision her future, she starts planning her suicide.

Esther becomes very paranoid about others; as her own confidence fails, as her disinterest in her life grows, she begins to distance herself from others, and from her life.  This is classic depression:  losing interest and beating a quick retreat from everything.  If life is too painful, just quit.

After Esther makes a good attempt at suicide (modeled after the author’s own first attempt), she is sent from hospital to hospital, eventually ending up in a private country club sort of facility, the 60’s version of a psychiatric hospital.  She has shock treatments, first at one hospital, then the private hospital.  There aren’t many details about the treatment itself, but it was common at the time.  ECT is still in use today, but not as common as chemical treatments.

The other treatment Esther is given is Insulin Shock treatment, which makes her gain weight, but seems to have little other effect.  Talk therapy is ineffective as well, so what is it that changes so that she is freed from the hospital?  Is it time that makes her better? Is she really better?  Is she back to her ‘normal’ self?

In the throes of depression, this is a thought that often surfaces for me:  why can’t I just be myself again?  The problem with this line of thinking is that, most likely, I wasn’t really feeling like myself before the sudden onslaught of depression, and most likely was already feeling unlike myself.  Romanticizing the past (and thinking of what you’ve lost or given up) is detrimental to you, but it’s a self indulgence few can resist.  Esther is no exception:  she looks back at her life and wonders why she couldn’t enjoy her achievements.

Again, is she cured?  Has she improved?  In the last few pages of The Bell Jar, Esther’s thoughts:

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. 

I am, I am, I am.” 

Bragging over still beating, or bragging because she failed at her suicide attempts?  The ending can be seen as positive, with Esther returning to school and leaving the hospital.  But what has changed?  Is she cured, or will she return to a similar state in the future?

The answer depends on your view of mental health and psychiatry.  There are no known cures for depression or anxiety or bi-polar disorder; there are only ways to control the symptoms.  Every generation has its panacea for these ills:  electroshock therapy, lobotomy, life commitment.  Our generation has seen Prozac and other SSRI’s claim to battle our ills with little white pills.  Even further in our past, there were holes drilled in heads (trephining), blood let from our veins.

Mental illness doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it’s more of a spectrum.  It can also be episodic, with remissions lasting years, decades.  I don’t know what happens to Esther after she is discharged from the hospital, but i do know what happened to the author.

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