Sylvia Plath and mental health

Someone once told me that, after their partner had died, they read the Stephen King book Lisey’s Story and said they felt like King was writing their thoughts down on paper. They told me that it was eerie how much the book echoed their feelings, echoed their loss, hopelessness, confusion, sadness, bewilderment, everything. They said King must have lost someone so dear to them, to be able to write so truthfully. This is how I feel whenever I read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Even though it was released more than 20 years before I was born, it’s like she wrote my thoughts down on paper. I’ve never read something so beautiful, so profoundly moving, and so terrifying.

This piece isn’t going to be a review of The Bell Jar; this is going to be about Plath herself and the profound effect she’s had not just on me, but on the whole of literature.

Better known as a poet, Plath was a hugely talented, yet deeply troubled woman. Originally born in Boston, USA, she relocated to England when she was accepted to study at Cambridge, and it was here she met fellow poet, and her future husband, Ted Hughes. Hughes is a controversial figure in Plath’s life; he was her husband, he fathered her two children and some people are convinced he murdered her. Plath’s life was short and not particularly sweet, but her memory will last forever.

It’s impossible to read any of her work and not see Plath reflected in it. She suffered from severe depression and tried to take her life several times before she eventually succeeded in February 1963, aged just 30 years old. It’s this depression that is so prevalent in her writings.

You can almost hear her begging, pleading, wishing for it to go away. One poem that always springs to mind when I think of Plath is her 1951 piece Mad Girl’s Love Song. Her struggles are right there for us all to see, her use of ‘Mad’ in the title not shying away. The lines of the poem are filled with regret and remorse, a sadness unmeasurable, and yet they’re so beautiful, so poignant, you’d have to be made of stone not to be moved;

“I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)”

There’s so much beauty, so much wonder, so much pain in those lines. I feel like she’s calling out to me, and I wish I could help her.

The Bell Jar is her only full length novel, and it’s along the same lines as her poetry. It’s very autobiographical, the names, dates, and events altered, but probably the feelings very much not. The first time I read it I was simply blown away; someone feels the way I feel? Someone understands and is going through the same? I’m not alone.

It’s a very heavy book to read. Plath writes about isolation, sadness, loneliness, attempted suicide, sectioning, sex, alcohol, youth, beauty, the pains of growing up, the pains of being a woman trying to make something of herself in a society where women are still wives, mothers, cleaners and cooks. She writes about them all so honestly, so painfully – painfully honestly. It’s a compelling read and her frankness surrounding her depression is admirable. The lines of this book are as beautiful as they are awful:

“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”

“I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.”

“How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?”

Plath echoes exactly how I feel dealing with my own depression. The hopelessness of the struggle, the despair, the ugliness of the world. The novel ends with Esther (who is surely Plath under another name) interviewing in order to leave the hospital she has been committed to. Unfortunately, whilst Plath did leave the asylum, she never escaped herself. On the morning of February 11, 1963, Plath sealed the room she was in, turned on the oven, placed her head inside, and left us forever. This was less than a month after The Bell Jar was published; the book has, unfortunately, far outlived its author.

I’m lucky enough to live only a few miles from where Sylvia Plath is buried in Heptonstall, West Yorkshire. I’ve visited her grave many times, and it’s impossible for me to describe how I feel each time I stand there, looking down at her headstone. To know I’m standing 6 feet away from the bones of one of the greatest literary minds there ever was, or ever will be, is as awe inspiring as it was devastating. The world is a worse place for having lost her too soon.

I’m lucky in so many ways; I’m lucky I live in a time when mental illness awareness is higher than it’s ever been, when treatment is available and offered to those who need it. I’m lucky I have a great family, friends, and a fantastic fiancée, who I know are always there for me. I’m so, so, so lucky that I’ve never been in a position where putting my head in the oven seems like the only solution.

Read Sylvia Plath’s work, for it’s absolutely incredible. Feel her pain, for it’s overwhelming. But don’t do what she did, for it’s not the only option. Plath left us too young, her great mind was stopped long before it should have been. Don’t let yours be stopped too.

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air

Lady Lazarus, Sylvia Plath

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