It would seem that everyone is familiar with the tales of the boy wizard, his magical world, and the dark dangers that lurk there, but I’ll recap the relevant bits for those who don’t spend their lives reading and researching Harry Potter.
During Harry’s many adventures he comes across a race of creatures who fill those in their proximity with despair, anguish, and fear. Known as dementors, these fearful creatures guard the wizard prison, and for a year, his wizarding school.
According to various accounts, these fearsome creatures were born out of the depression that the author, J. K. Rowling, went through while writing the series. If you’ve ever battled depression yourself you’ll likely recognize the markers in the following description, “…the dementor feeds upon – hope, happiness, the desire to survive…” (Book 3, Chapter 12, Page 237)
Sounds familiar, yes? With a creative knack that her fans have grown to love, Rowling managed to personify the unrelenting misery that can come when you’re battling depression. And she even showed us how to fight it.
In the story you can combat the effects of a dementor with some chocolate (don’tcha love that?) but to truly banish it from your midst you must have a powerful, happy memory to wrestle with their outpouring of hopelessness. And because it’s Harry Potter you need a bit of magic too.
Now, though we are without wands, we indeed have the power to push back against the demon that is depression, and Rowling was quite right that happy memories can help lead the way.
I know, for me, being able to recall the good times I’ve had with my husband, family, and friends can assist with making a bad day at least a sort of good day. The simple act of reminding myself that things used to feel good, and they’ll feel good again, can help shift the dark cloud that follows me around so that even just the smallest beam of light makes it through.
Of course, positive thinking isn’t the only weapon in your arsenal, and though there’s no great analogy for it in this story, medication and therapy are incredible resources to those who need them. If you need more help than you can give yourself, please reach out. (800-273-TALK)
Okay, it’s probably obvious by now that I spend more than the usual amount of time thinking about Harry Potter and how I can relate his adventures to my own life. I first experienced depression as a young teenager and being able to watch Harry really struggle with the dementors, much more than anyone else, and still manage to hold his head high and continue on fighting meant a lot to me back then. Heck, it still does.
We don’t get to see a lot of depictions of the mentally ill as heroes in our media. As I said in my intro to this series, for the most part the mentally ill are setup as jokes or even the villains. Because in our culture to struggle with mental health is a weakness and a shameful one at that.
But not for Harry Potter. Though he deals with embarrassment and shame at first, his desire to strengthen himself against the dementors becomes one of his greatest achievements. Harry not only manages to protect himself against their gloomy torment, but protects his friends as well, eventually teaching them how to guard themselves against the threat of the dementors. It’s a powerful message to the readers about their own possibilities in the face of hopelessness. We can overcome.
As I mentioned, I’ve been dealing with my own dementors on and off for roughly a decade now. That’s why I picked up so quickly on Rowlings descriptions and internalized them so deeply. But in the last few years a new adversary has made itself known, and though I had a clinical name for it (anxiety) I didn’t have a Harry Potter reference to match it to, until now.
I was sitting on my bed the other night thinking about Harry Potter and my mental health, as one does, when I got really frustrated with my relentless anxiety and my lack of ability to talk about it. Having fictional scenarios to bridge the awkward gap between what is happening to me and how I can explain it to others is priceless because that’s how my mind works, in winding metaphors and abstract references.
And so I was left with a question… If dementors are the expression of depression in Harry’s world, then what, if anything, is anxiety?
Then a pivotal scene from the first book played through my head. Harry and his friends falling through darkness, their limbs quickly tangled upon landing, and their slow suffocation as they struggle to free themselves. I’m referring of course to Devil’s Snare.
(If you’re unfamiliar with this scene you can find it in Book 1, Chapter 16, Page 277)
So aptly named for my analogy, Devil’s Snare is a magical plant that attempts to throttle anyone who comes into contact with its tentacle-like appendages. As soon as I made the connection, its similarities to what an anxiety attack feels like was startling.
People who live with anxiety disorders know how panic can steal your breath and how your pounding heart can truly make it feel like you’re dying.
As I replayed the scene in my head, and then reread it for good measure, I noticed that once again Rowling had provided us with a few ways to fight the enemy.
The first defense, portrayed through Hermione, is knowledge. She is the only one of the trio who avoids entanglement because she alone recognizes what’s happening to them. Upon landing she realizes they’re sitting atop Devil’s Snare, she quickly detaches herself and moves to safely. A version of this is what I’ve been working on in therapy. Recognizing when my anxiety is picking up, identifying what is making me anxious, and then doing my best to remove myself from the situation until I can calm my nervous feelings down. It’s not an easy task, but hopefully with some practice I too can avoid entanglement more often.
The second defense, used by Harry and Ron, is assistance. They don’t have the knowledge to fight Devil’s Snare on their own, and for most people the same is true with anxiety. The internal struggle against unnamed fears, panic, and dread are not easily fought alone. The boys managed to free themselves only with the help of their friend, who knew what she was up against. I have realized that I too will only succeed in my fight with the help of my therapist, my husband, and all my family and friends. Anxiety is not a battle you have to face alone.
Whelp, this post has been a long one, and as enjoyable as writing about Harry Potter truly is, I’m also kind of exhausted from trying to pull these thoughts out of my mind and pin them down on (digital) paper. I look forward to hearing thoughts on my theories, so please drop by the comments and tell me whatcha think! If you’ve found other parts of Harry Potter that correlate to a mental illness you’re struggling with, or have a suggestion for another bit of media you’d like me to discuss just let me know.
I look forward to continuing this series next week with a post about the YouTube channel New Father Chronicles and their series The Redo. Follow this link if you’d like to watch those videos in advance (there are 4, plus a Q&A video). The subject matter is mental illness and marriage, which really spoke to me as a new wife. You won’t want to miss it!