Thursday, October 4, 2018

How the Concept of Patronuses in Harry Potter Helped Me Fight Depression and Negative Self-Worth

I finally got around to reading Harry Potter this year.

Yep, I know the Hogwarts Express left the station two decades ago, but I've only now, at the age of twenty-something, gotten on it to don my wizarding robes (yellow and black, if you care to know.)

I wasn't allowed to read the Harry Potter books growing up because, well, I grew up in a conservative Christian home and my parents heard that the books encouraged witchcraft. Now that I've read them though, I realize the "witchcraft and wizardy" of the HP world is really more closely akin to the elusive concept of "magic" that pervades most other fantasy staples (the Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, both widely loved in Christian circles) than the religion of Wicca. But that's a whole other discussion. The point is, I grew up in complete ignorance of what house the Sorting Hat would have put me into, the finer points of the game of quidditch, and the wonder of butter beer (though somehow I found out that Harry and Ginny ended up together...I guess that news rocked the world, rightfully so.) My friends would play Harry Potter at recess, and apparently I was excluded, my mother recently told me when she apologized for not letting me read the books when the rest of the world was hanging onto every interview Daniel Radcliffe gave.

I don't really mind that I didn't get to experience the wonder of Hogwarts until last month, because I feel like the experience of immersing myself in the stories was all the more poignant as an adult. I've always had a soft spot for children's books because of the sense of wonder, fragility, and humor that pervades them. Harry Potter does not disappoint here. It sheds light on the human experience in ways that other books haven't for me. It meant so much to me to read about characters like Neville Longbottom and Luna Lovegood, out-of-place loners often excluded from their houses, who repeatedly express their love of Dumbledore's Army because it "almost felt like having friends." The past couple months, I've felt more and more like I have next to no friends left with little hope of making more any time soon because of my horrible shyness. Heroes in books always have sidekicks and BFFs, so to see two characters who didn't but who are placed in roles of great importance by the author, I felt a little less alone in my loneliness.

Beyond that, I related to J. K. Rowling's poignant descriptions of the effects of the Dementors (I apologize if I'm misspelling or incorrectly capitalizing names/characters...I listened to the books on tape) which I read were inspired by Rowling's own struggle with depression. It's a comfort to have the invisible demon you grapple with daily painted into a character you can identify and other people can understand. More than that, recently when I was reflecting on the concept of Patronuses (read: complaining that the Pottermore Patronus quiz had identified my protective creature as a Wild Boar. Not a graceful doe, majestic stag, or whimsical otter, but an overweight, aggressive, feral beast that senselessly destroys property.) I had a breakthrough in how I looked at my struggle with depression and the self-doubt that arises from my social anxiety.

In order to cast a Patronus, you have to think about the moments that have made you the happiest. To the cynical depression sufferer, this admittedly starts to sound like the classic adage, "Think positive and you will feel better!" But the concept of casting the Patronus gains its real power, I think, in this: You are summoning the concentration to create a charm that chases the demons away and protects you from soul-sucking darkness. In essence, you are your own savior. As I was complaining about my wild boar Patronus, I realized that the point of the "animal" is protection, not a reflection of personality. I realized what self-help sites and my therapist have been telling me all along my mental health care journey: I have to stand up for myself. Change in my mental health starts with how I treat myself, my inner dialogue. It has been so negative and filled with self-doubt for so long:

"Did you do well enough on that project? Your boss seemed disappointed. You really screwed up by getting it in so late in the day. I bet it's full of mistakes."

"Why doesn't anyone love you? Most of the people you know are married already."

"Nobody wants to be your friend. Everyone is forgetting about you. Why can't you be more interesting and appealing?"

"You're so far behind everyone else. You should really have a job and a normal life by now."

"Nobody's going to want to date you now that you still haven't had a boyfriend."

"Why do you still get afraid of talking to people, much less leaving the house? It's ridiculous. You've been in therapy how long and you're still a fucking crazy person!"

I won't regress any further into the horror of my negative thought cycles. Suffice it to say, we all can be our own worst enemy, harshest critic. As much as we decry the haters, the reason they usually get to us so much is that we have a lot of hidden criticisms of ourselves and concerns about how we measure up to different standards we've learned from our families, our peers, the media, our religious communities, etc. over the years. We seek validation that we are doing well, sometimes even when we don't realize we are doing it, masking it as "Asking advice," "reading the room," "being sensible," etc. I find that I constantly have my invisible socio-emotional "feelers" out, trying to read any interactions I have with others for signs that they are or aren't pleased with me.

I guess what I'm trying to get at is that I realized yesterday that I need to cast my own Patronus by putting a distance between myself and all the negativity I tend to let infiltrate my life, just in small ways at first, but gradually it accumulates and takes over. Today at work, I had a lot of moments where I felt tempted to start berating myself as a project I was working on ran off the tracks, past the deadline, and into interrupting other people's schedules. The issues weren't entirely my fault, but my immediate reaction was to include notes of sardonic self-scorn in my updates to my family letting them know I was staying late. Comments like "[Insert name of seemingly perfect high-achiever you know here] would never have let this happen." "I completely tanked. I don't know why they gave me this job." started itching at my fingers, dying to be typed out and then repeated over and over in my psyche. I began to imagine furtive conversations my boss and coworkers would have, exchanging complaints about "the intern" not living up to expectations. I started to read disappointment and frustration into every interaction I had, every email exchanged.

But I also had more and more moments where I realized nobody is going to step in and making me stop beating myself up. I know sometimes I beat myself up to goad others to give me the verbal affirmation I seek. That's only the motive sometimes though, all in all I realize that I often am holding my breath, waiting for either a person/relationship or a change of circumstance to magically whisk me into a happier state of mind (maybe that's why I fell in love with an escapist novel series that I'm now drawing on for inspiration for my psychological well-being and future birthday celebrations.) That's not how mental health recovery works, however.

Relationships and happy life milestones are nod bad things, but oftentimes once the novelty wears away, we're left with our same insecurities. We can probably all think of at least one person we know who is self-conscious in spite of being beautiful and having a significant other who tells them so daily. Seeking validation from others tends to exacerbate the problem, not solve it.

Casting a Patronus means taking control, remembering what we're thankful for, what makes up happy, and owning it, empowering ourselves to put distance between ourselves and harmful patterns of thought that threaten to overpower us.

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