Wednesday, April 12, 2006

the bell jar

So you all don't think all I ever think about is theology and Quakerism, I'm going to write about a book I just read for fun, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. It's a semi-autobiographical novel about a college-age woman who slowly goes insane. It ends on a note of hope, but unfortunately Sylvia Plath committed suicide about 10 years after her similar experience.

The book itself was well written and held my interest. It's written in a fairly easy style, where you feel comfortable and at home with the first-person narrator and the story, being mainly about everyday life, makes sense. I can empathize with the character and understand how she, quite logically, would go through a mental breakdown, even though I have never done so myself. Her actions and the paths of thought that go on in her head make sense and I can see myself having similar reactions if I wasn't careful.

I was a psychology major in college, so I've learned a lot about mental disorders, and although I've never had a situation where I've been clinically "disordered," I think there's a continuum of each disorder and everyone has tendencies toward one or another of them. Some people have tendencies toward depression, and although they don't become clinically depressed they are on the verge of it often. Some people tend toward obesessive compulsion--we even admire this in some people in certain areas, like obsessive compulsive studying.... Or there are people who have fairly big mood swings although they wouldn't technically be diagnosed with manic-depression/borderline personality disorder. I know some of people who almost have multiple personalities because they split themselves into such different people when in various company that they find it almost impossible to bring those separate personalities together into a unified version of themselves. So I think we all struggle to keep our sanity day in and day out, whether we think about it that way or not.

To put it in a more positive way, I think it's miraculous how many of us DON'T have mental breakdowns. There are plenty of difficult and downright evil things that happen in the world, that happen to us. It's amazing to me how we learn to deal with things, and have the ability to grow from them. And it's amazing to see the human mind cope with difficult and dissonant things, and instead of letting those things destroy them, they cope by splitting their personality, controlling their routine, or shutting down many body functions until their mind can reorient. Isn't the human mind amazing? I think so...I guess that's why I was a psych major.

It's pretty weird how different people going through the same hard event will respond differently: some will grow and some will break down. Something that has helped for me is community. When I've gone through tough things I've been tempted to get depressed, or to cope by trying to control an aspect of my environment, or to split myself so that the "me" everyone sees is not the one that is hurting. But I've been fortunate that the people around me have been incredibly supportive and helped me work through everything so far without major problems, and have helped me grow.

Note, however, that I'm not trying to say that if someone in your community has had a mental breakdown that means you're doing a bad job. People can make their own choices, and sometimes they choose poorly. And sometimes it's not a poor choice, it's just that they can't see any other options. Sometimes mental breakdowns seem to be necessary in order for someone to get through to another space that is more healthy. But it's amazing how a community can help ease the pain in those situations, even if there has to be a movement through psychological problems.

In The Bell Jar, the character doesn't have that supportive community. Instead she has a community that expects perfection, especially outward perfection. I think she feels like she's in some sort of science experiment, being observed and stifled in a bell jar from which she cannot escape. There is no acceptance of her personhood apart from her achievements, and I think she has to break through this by going into a mental breakdown--showing herself and those around her that she's not going to hide inside a cage of socially acceptable parameters, and only through this process can she become who she really wants to be. I hope to be part of a community that can recognize others' strengths and encourage them to live up to that, but at the same time allow that person to be fully themself and who they feel called to be. This is a difficult balance, especially in the church. (See, I couldn't keep away from theology completely!)


Peter the Anderson said...

All the world is mad except for me and thee, and even thee I worry about...No personal offence intended, of course. It has been fun visiting your blog, Cherice. God bless you and yours. See you at the pearly gates.

Paul said...

Reading your post made me think of Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. In that book, as I remember, he makes a case for maintaining hope as a means to stay sane in light of terrible circumstances. Connected to what you’ve shared, I think of the many times I was tempted to lose hope and the hopefulness of those in my community helped me hang in there.

Here’s Frankl speaking out of his experience in a WWII concentration camp.

“The prisoner who had lost faith in the future - his future - was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay. Usually this happened quite suddenly, in the form of a crisis, the symptoms of which were familiar to the experienced camp inmate. We all feared this moment - not for ourselves, which would have been pointless, but for our friends. Usually it began with the prisoner refusing one morning to get dressed and wash or to go out on the parade grounds. No entreaties, no blows, no threats had any effect. He just lay there, hardly moving. If this crisis was brought about by an illness, he refused to be taken to the sick-bay or to do anything to help himself. He simply gave up. There he remained, lying in his own excreta, and nothing bothered him any more.”

Sebastian said...

When I travelled to England to attend the WGYF for free(as I couldn't have otherwise afforded to come and stay)I stayed at a local Friend's house at Reading. He was a psychologist and he worked with people who worked with companies or enterprises and had had a nervous breakdown.

As for Sylvia Plath, I preffer her poetry to any other thing of hers, her poetry is the best of hers, I love this particular one called the thin people.

As for breaking down, maybe it's because I am underapreciative but I can't seem to appreciate the contrast more than I appreciate the uniqueness in each individual, I love being able to relate though when it feels like a goose is shoved in your heart then it might be too much as though your expression, your tolling signaled nothing else but the fact that you've been/you're broken...then it can be quite unbearable. I still preffer the poetry though, more eclectic. I recomend this site:

Joel picked berries for you.