Recently I have enjoyed listening to the Prisoner of Azkaban audiobook. Jim Dale is practically a superhero in my eyes, and his performances of this series are just amazing. If you’ve never listened to the Harry Potter audiobooks, definitely give them a try!
In listening, I found my ears pricking up as Harry first comes in contact with the dementors.
Somehow, this concept keeps ringing true to me as being representative of my own experience right now.
JK Rowling has made the connection between dementors and depression quite plain. She explained how this is her own experience of depression manifested in the story. If you’re interested, do a quick google search and read into how Jo dealt with her own severe depression. It’s an inspiring (and sobering) story.
What I’d like to do here is explore this connection a little further.
I’d like to give you a glimpse into my mind when I was reminded of Harry’s beginning experiences with dementors.
I hope that this exploration may help you to relate to how depression feels if you don’t experience it yourself.
If you do experience depression, I hope that you will take courage from some of the beautifully encouraging messages that Jo sneaks in to the story.
“Never been a breakout from Azkaban before, ‘as there, Ern? Beats me ‘ow he did it . Frightenen’, eh? Mind, I don’t fancy ‘is changes against them Azkaban guards, eh Ern?”
Ernie suddenly shivered.
“Talk about summat else, Stan, there’s a good lad. Them Azkaban guards give me the collywobbles.”
In Harry’s world, the general population is broadly aware of dementors.
Wizards and witches of all ages shudder when the creatures are mentioned, and everyone appears to be susceptible to their leeching power. No one is immune.
The broad awareness of dementors, to me, is wishful thinking on Rowling’s part.
We all wish for more awareness of mental health issues. We all fight the stigma of mental illness, and the number one weapon we have at our disposal is education.
Our world likes to pretend that depression isn’t real, isn’t powerful, and tends to view sufferers as weak or lazy.
And then there were these Azkaban guards everyone kept talking about. They seemed to scare most people senseless…
In Harry’s world, the people know. Dementors are part of common knowledge, and their power is fearfully revered.
In an ironic twist on our own cultures, Rowling imagines that the informed wizarding world still refuses to discuss the dementors and their effects openly.
Fear is symbolized quite concretely in the series, and this attitude reminds me of the fear surrounding Lord Voldemort’s name. British wizards tended to suppress thoughts of fear by ignoring them and removing them from popular discourse.
They really are scared “sense”-less.
An intense cold swept over them all. Harry felt his own breath catch in his chest. The cold went deeper than his skin. It was inside his chest, it was inside his very heart…
Harry’s eyes rolled up into his head. He couldn’t see. He was drowning in cold. There was a rushing in his ears as though of water. He was dragged downward, the roaring growing louder….
And then, from far away, he heard screaming, terrible, terrified, pleading screams. He wanted to help whoever it was, he tried to move his arms, but couldn’t… a thick white fog was swirling around him, inside him–
When we remember Harry and his experience of the dementors, this is the common image. We remember the cold, the screaming, and that Harry ends up unconscious.
As she has stated publicly, Jo experiences her depression in this way.
It’s not sadness, it’s emptiness. Deep cold.
Echoes of Jo’s own personal sorrow (losing her mother) reverberate within Harry’s story.
I experience depression differently. To me, it feels like I am stuck. I feel like I am moving in molasses. I battle negative thoughts and feel helpless and hopeless.
I relate to Harry when he can’t see, can’t breathe, can’t move.
But we can all understand how this might feel. Rowling describes the physical nature of depression so well that we feel it ourselves.
Depression is in the mind, and it manifests itself in the body as well. We feel depression physically as well as mentally and emotionally.
“It was horrible,” said Neville, in a higher voice than usual. “Did you feel how cold it got when it came in?”
“I felt weird,” said Ron, shifting his shoulders uncomfortably. “Like I’d never be cheerful again…”
Ginny, who was huddled in her corner looking nearly as bad as Harry felt, gave a small sob; Hermione went over and put a comforting arm around her.
“But didn’t any of you– fall off your seats?” said Harry awkwardly.
“No,” said Rob, looking anxiously at Harry again. “Ginny was shaking like mad, though…”
Harry didn’t understand. He felt weak and shivery, as though he were recovering from a bad bout of flu; he also felt the beginnings of shame. Why had he gone to pieces like that, when no one else had?
Here we see how depression impacts each individual differently.
Ron’s response hits me most poignantly, because I have felt that way. Remembering how he was affected by carrying the horcrux in HP7, we understand that this is Ron’s typical response to mental and emotional stress.
Don’t we all wish for a comforting arm like Hermione’s? For the empathy that leads someone to just be in your presence, not asking any questions, but just being THERE?
Harry’s shame is so important here.
I would venture to say that most individuals who suffer from depression deal with shame as a direct symptom.
Harry experiences shame all on his own, even before Malfoy taunts him for fainting on the train.
We are ashamed of our behavior, of our thoughts, of our lack of control.
We are falsely convinced that we are abnormal, isolated, and weak.
Harry… we’re with you.
Harry felt himself going red in the face. It was bad enough that he’d passed out, or whatever he’d done, without everyone making all this fuss.
“It was a dementor, Poppy,” said Professor McGonagall.
They exchanged a dark look, and Madam Pomfrey clucked disapprovingly.
“Setting dementors around a school,” she muttered, pushing back Harry’s hair and feeling his forehead. “He won’t be the last one who collapses. Yes, he’s all clammy. Terrible things, they are, and the effect they have on people who are already delicate–”
“I’m not delicate!” said Harry crossly.
“Of course you’re not,” said Madam Pomfrey absentmindedly, now taking his pulse.
Ah, the patronizing voices of health professionals.
Every person who has engaged in mental health treatment understands the annoyance Harry feels here.
We already fear that we ARE delicate. That we ARE broken, weak, and that we won’t ever be saved from this.
We definitely don’t need people giving voice to these irrational fears– especially not people who we are paying to help us.
Sadly, this is so incredibly common.
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard mental health professionals tell me that I am “not depressed enough” or that I don’t “look depressed.”
Or how many times I’ve heard the logic that I should be able to “just get out of bed.” When I protest, the patronizing voice says “Oh yes, you can. You just turn off the alarm and get your little self out the door.”
In Ron’s words, I just want to slug those people.
“Did you hear about the dementors too?” said Harry with difficulty.
Lupin looked at him quickly.
“Yes, I did……. I suppose they were the reason you fell?”
“Yes,” said Harry. He hesitated, and then the question he had to ask burst from him before he could stop himself. “Why? Why do they affect me like that? Am I just–?”
“It has nothing to do with weakness,” said Professor Lupin sharply, as though he had read Harry’s mind. “the dementors affect you worse than the others because there are horrors in your past that the others don’t have.”
Everyone, please give Remus Lupin a rousing round of applause!
Lupin’s wisdom surprises us throughout the series, but this moment really speaks to me. Harry doesn’t even know him yet, and Lupin intuitively understands Harry’s struggle.
It has nothing to do with weakness.
All sufferers of depression need to have this painted on their wall and tattooed on their foreheads.
Depression strikes people indiscriminately. We are from all age groups, all ethnicities, all ability levels, and all religions.
This statement also reminds us that depression is NOT our fault.
Depression affects us, but it does not become us. We are more than our depressed minds.
In my opinion, struggling with this daily battle makes us even stronger than the average Joe. We know what it means to live “in a body that fights to survive with a mind that tries to die.” We are daily warriors.
“Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Even Muggles feel their presence, though they can’t see them. Get too near a dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you… You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.”
If you ever try to explain depression to someone who thinks it’s not a big deal, just read them this passage.
This is the truth.
It’s true that when I feel depressed, it’s almost impossible for me to remember a time when I didn’t feel that way. I struggle futilely to remember a happy moment, even one that happened in the last twelve hours.
Depression steals the happiness from you and from the very air around you until you are only left with negativity.
Rowling’s words ring so true to us because she’s lived them. She has written about what she knows.
Finally, I leave you with this: the hope that Rowling gives us.
“Oh yes, said Dumbledore coldly. “But I’m afraid no dementor will cross the threshold of this castle while I am headmaster.”
I love thinking about the allegory between Harry Potter and the holy trinity. It’s not foolproof, it’s not concrete, and it’s not True with a capital “T.” But it’s fun to think about, and I like to entertain the idea.
The allegory assumes that Dumbledore represents the heavenly father, the essence of pure goodness, and the source of almighty power.
If we can assume that this amazing wizard reminds us of the divine presence in our lives, then we can draw a few conclusions here.
Dumbledore fights the influence of the dementors just as God fights for his children who suffer from depression.
I love imagining God reacting with outrage when depression takes over our lives.
I love the image of Dumbledore racing out to the quidditch field, wand blazing, angrier than anyone had ever seen him before, acting to rid the area of hundreds of dementors.
I like to think that God is not only “with us” in the sense that he is around somewhere to provide peace and comfort after everything is over… but that he’s also fighting in the arena on our behalf.
I imagine that what angers God most is when his children suffer.
And as Jo so beautifully illustrated, depression cannot stand when under attack by the almighty.
This is, of course, not the end of the story.
Harry goes on to learn how to fight dementors himself and has many other dreadful encounters with them as the series comes to a close. Perhaps that can be fodder for a different blog post one day.
I hope that by delving deeper into the dementor motif, you were able to understand depression a little bit better.
I hope that realizing even wizards deal with this suffering made you feel less alone.
This is why I’m here: to prove to myself and everyone else that I am not alone in this.
We are not alone in this.
Take the wisdom of our favorite author to heart when she says:
“Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” –Albus Dumbledore