As a psychotherapist and Jungian analyst I have always been intrigued with, and a little in awe of, melancholic poets and artists. I have often pondered what deep place they go to find their stores of inspiration and creativity. What gods, or goddesses, possess their lives and speak through their works? And what price do they pay for their deep journey? My intent in this paper is to explore these questions and to look more closely at the challenges, stumbling blocks, and gifts of depression as expressed in the life of Sylvia Plath.
After watching the movie, Sylvia, reading The Bell Jar, portions of her poetry and journals, I believe Sylvia Plath’s was struggling with a recurrent major depressive disorder with melancholic features. She felt her life ended at age eight when father died. This left a hole inside that could not be filled and she developed a lifelong obsession and fascination with suicide and death. As an adult, she was on edge, could not sleep, and would frequently wake early in the morning. During the day she often had trouble concentrating, lost interest in her writing, and would sit for hours staring into space. She said she was frequently “menaced by something out of the corner of my eye,” felt dried up, empty, and exhausted.
At times Sylvia suffered from a low self-image and felt that everything was her fault. Her life was as bad as it could be, and then it would get worse. She did not feel solid—it was as if there was nothing behind her eyes. All she wanted was blackness and silence. Winters were very difficult for Sylvia and I believe she may have also suffered from postpartum depression after her children were born. She was jealous of Ted (her husband)
and his interest in other women. This was understandable—he was sexually appealing to women of all ages. I believe he was unconsciously looking outwardly for his creative muse, a manifestation of the anima within.
I think the main developmental issue that led to Sylvia Plath’s depression was the impact the death of her father had on her, as an eight year old child. She and her brother were not allowed to go to their father’s funeral and they never saw their mother openly grieve his death. The unmourned, idealized spirit of her father stayed with Sylvia and penetrated the fibers of her life. He appeared throughout her poetry for the next twenty years, as seen in the following excerpt from the poem, Electra on the Azalea Path,
The day you died I went into the dirt,
Into the lightless hibernaculum
Where bees, striped black and gold, sleep out the blizzard
Like hieratic stones, and the ground is hard.
It was good for twenty years, that wintering—
As if you never existed, as if I came
God-fathered into the world from my mother’s belly:
Her wide bed wore the stain of divinity.
I had nothing to do with guilt or anything
When I wormed back under my mother’s heart. (S. Plath, 1992, p. 116)
Sylvia idealized other men, especially her husband, Ted, and looked to them to take the place of the absent father that was never mourned. She needed to fill the gaping hole inside of her. However, at the same time she had ambivalent feelings about marriage and children, and feared they would take her away from creative expression and writing.
After her father’s death, Sylvia became more dependent on her mother.
I…want more than anything to make you [Aurelia Plath] proud of me so that some day I can begin to repay you for all the treats you’ve given me in my two decades of life. (quoted in N. Cater, 2003, p. 92)
However, Sylvia also resented the closeness of her mother and often hated her.
So how do I express my hate for my mother? In my deepest emotions I think of her as an enemy: somebody who “killed” my father, my first male ally in the world. (quoted in N. Cater, 2004, p. 93)
As a result of these conflicted feelings, outwardly Sylvia often seemed to be the good, cheerful daughter, wife and mother, but inwardly she was dark and revengeful. Her naked deep self revealed itself in her poetry and in her depression. Sylvia wrote about this conflict,
Now I see it must be one or the other of us.
She may be a saint, and I may be ugly and hairy,
But she’ll soon find out that that doesn’t matter a bit.
I’m collecting my strength: one day I shall manage without her,
And she’ll perish with emptiness then, and begin to miss me. (Plath, 1992, p. 160)
When in the state of depression, Sylvia felt great despair and hopelessness. M. Esther Harding said depression was “a psychological condition…of being in a desert place, or in a wilderness—a feeling of being lost, lost in an inhospitable region, so lost that one is in a state of despair” (1970, p. 1). Sylvia was truly lost in a wilderness. She was not only isolated from others, but lacked a connection with her own inner self. Harding said, “Death would be a relief. For one who could die would look forward to an end of his suffering, and so his condition would be one of hope, not of despair” (1970, p. 12). Sylvia’s life had lost meaning and she was fascinated by the relief that death offered.
Many poets, men and women, gods and goddesses, have gone to the underworld and have returned enriched with meaning and connection. When the goddess Persephone is abducted to the underworld, Demeter, is engulfed in grief and is so angry that crops cease growing. She desperately searches in vain for Persephone in the upper world and goes into isolation to mourn her loss. Eventually Demeter goes to Eleusis and meets a servant who tells her coarse jokes and makes her laugh. Demeter starts to show signs of life, begins to nourish herself, and is able to express her anger against Zeus in order to get Persephone back. When Persephone finally returns, she has changed. Persephone has become a mature woman and has discovered a deeper aspect of herself. She no longer solely belongs to her mother. Persephone is the queen of the underworld and Demeter must sacrifice her to Hades three months each year.
Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth also goes to the underworld. As Inanna enters the nderworld, she is stripped of her royal finery, is turned into a corpse, and is hung on a hook on a wall. She has become prisoner of Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld. Her fate is grim, but some helpful little creatures made of dirt descend to the underworld to free Inanna. They find Ereshkigal, sitting in grief on the floor of the underworld, and they show empathy for her plight. When they moan and mourn with her, Ereshkigal is so surprised and pleased that she agrees to release Inanna. However, as Persephone, no one leaves the underworld without paying a price and giving up something. In this case, Inanna’s husband, Dumuzi is sacrificed to the underworld for six months each year.
Both of these myths show the cyclical, and seasonal, nature of depression. They also show a way out of the depressed state—through humor, nurturing, positive expression of rage, compromise, and compassion for others. Depression forces us to slow down and gives an opportunity to go within and reconnect with our deeper selves. M. Esther Harding said, “The life energy and interest disappear into the unconscious” (1970, p. 5). She also said,
The establishment of contact with the springs of life in the unconscious is an individual task and by pursuing his own individual path an individual may be healed of his own most personal and intimate distress and despair. It is as if the unhealing wound of our time, evidenced by all our social woes, may perhaps be healed, at least in the case of the individual person, through the fulfillment of this task, namely the obligations to find his own individual way. (1970, p. 15)
The Electra myth shows another view of loss and depression. In a fit of rage and revenge over the sacrifice of her daughter Iphigenia, Clytemnestra kills her husband, Agamemnon. Electra becomes enraged at her mother and seeks revenge. Her grief consumes her and, and as her mother was unable to mourn for Iphigenia, Electra is cannot adequately mourn the loss of her father. She was stuck in an underworld of rage and grief. Nancy Cater said,
Consumed with rage and grief, she [Clytemnestra] represents the negative mother, and it is the negative aspects of the mother that she constellates in Electra. This switch in behavior may be related to her inability to deal as successfully with loss as Demeter did. Her inability is subsequently mirrored in Electra’s inability to deal with the loss of Agamemnon. And, Clytemnestra’s disconnection from the positive aspects of the mother archetype is reflected in Electra’s consequent failure to connect with these aspects in herself. (2003, p. 44)
Cater also said, “Like Clytemnestra, it seems that Aurelia Plath offered no model for Sylvia as to how to mourn for her father, and Sylvia did not visit his grave until she was in her twenties” (2003, p. 91). However, unlike Electra, Sylvia was finally able to express her grief and rage at her father through her poem “Daddy.”
This poem is a figurative drama about mourning—about the human impulse to keep a dead loved one alive emotionally. And it is about mourning gone haywire —a morbid inability to let go of the dead. The child was unready for her father’s death, which is why, she says, she must kill him a second time. She resurrected Daddy and sustained his unnatural existence in her psyche as a vampire, sacrificing her own life’s blood, her vitality, to a dead man. The worship of this father-god, she now realizes is self-destructive. (quoted in Cater, 2003, p. 103)
Sylvia finally was able to separate herself from her human father and in doing that found her own voice, but was unable to maintain the connection.
Plath, at thirty, had not yet separated from her mother or from her idealized relationship with her deceased father and with her husband. She tried to sever these connections all at once, whereas the normal course of development would encourage a more gradual separation. Her desire to be rid of these influences immediately may thus have led to the release of archetypal energies that she was unable to contain. (Cater, 2003, p. 108)
A strong container is needed for the underworld journey, but Sylvia had not yet completely built the container. She was on her way to discovering herself and the gifts of depression and the underworld, but not there yet. Her late poetry showed a new voice, a new strength and power, but, tragically, it was too much for her. She was overwhelmed by the release of primal archetypal energies and killed herself.
As Sylvia’s therapist/Jungian analyst, first of all, I would make sure she will not harm herself. It may be necessary to walk with her step by step, give her hope, and encourage her to live another day. In a deep depression, a patient’s ability to focus decreases and they cannot think for themselves, so it is vital to be with them, help them through the depths, and give them courage to continue. Anti-depressive medication may be needed and should also be considered in conjunction with psychotherapy and analysis.
It is important to for the patient to build a strong sense of self, especially if the original primary caregiver did not model this for the developing child. A well-integrated connection with the self that is strong enough to hold both positive and negative archetypal energies is needed. The therapist/analyst is an especially important ingredient who provides an adequate self-object, needed mirroring, and establishes boundaries between the self and other. The empathetically attuned therapist/analyst-patient relationship is very important to a depressed patient. Judith Hubback said, “via the transference/ countertransference, there can be a carry-over of the psychological possibility of coniunctio from analyst to patient” (1991, p. 39). Also,
Therapy in the spirit of Jung’s analytical psychology does not mean, even with chronic patients, ‘objective treatment’; rather, it means engagement and encounter which corresponds symbolically to the alchemical process in as much as both partners are involved. (C.T. Frey-Wehrlin, R. Bosnak, F. Langegger, Ch. Robinson, 1991, p. 209-210)
Working with depressed patients can be a slow process, unrewarding process, and healing may not be possible. However, as analysts and therapists, we do not lose hope, but keep on with the process. We are companions to our patients through the dark night of the soul, the night sea journey. We share their life, their pain, and the little moments when the sun breaks through. They know they are not alone and, hopefully, through our working together in the darkness, they can discover the gift of themselves.
If we remind ourselves of the original meaning of the word therapeia—‘tending’—psychotherapy continues even when there is no success in sight. Thus ‘to accompany’ takes the place of the ‘urge to heal’—a more modest approach. ‘The great departs; the small approaches’ is the essence of the sign P’i, Standstill (Stagnation) in the I Ching. (C.T. Frey-Wehrlin, R. Bosnak, F. Langegger, Ch. Robinson, 1991, p. 208)
Cater, N. (2003). Electra: tracing a feminine myth through the western imagination. New Orleans, LA: Spring Journal, Inc.
Frey-Wehrlin, C.T., Bosnak, R., Langegger, F., & Robinson, Ch. (1991). The treatment of chronic psychoses. In A. Samuels (Ed.), Psychopathology: contemporary Jungian perspectives. London: The Society of Analytical Psychology.
Harding, M.E. (1970). The value and meaning of depression. New York: The Analytical Psychology Club, Inc.
Hubback, J. (1991). Depressed patients and the coniunctio. In A. Samuels (Ed.), Psychopathology: contemporary Jungian perspectives. London: The Society of Analytical Psychology.
Plath, S. (1992).Collected poems: Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper Perennial.