Thursday, May 12, 2011

Harry Potter: Dementors

Dementors are horrible non-human creatures that appear in the Harry Potter novels. Dementors serve as guards at the wizard prison of Azkaban.

Physically, dementors are repulsive. They are draped in black cloaks, but what is under the cloaks is not clear. However, one can often see the dementors' hands, which are bony, moldy, and grasping. One can also hear their rattling breath, which smells of death and decay.

Dementors affect the entire environment when they are present. Everything grows cold and black. The cold is not only external but seems to enter a person's very heart. The person, then, finds all joy seeping away, leaving only blackness, hopelessness, and despair. It becomes impossible to remember any happy memories, and one feels as though one will never ever be happy again.

The worse thing about dementors is that sometimes, as a punishment for a particularly bad human, a dementor is allowed to perform the dementor's kiss. The dementor puts its mouth, or a round hollow where its mouth would be, over the human's mouth -- and sucks out the human's soul. After the dementor's kiss, the human continues to exist, but devoid of his or her soul and of his or her personality. There is no full description of what existence is like for one who has been kissed by a dementor, but such an existence is clearly a hollow one, utterly lacking in joy, purpose, meaning, or humanity.

Humans are not completely defenseless before dementors. A witch or a wizard can use a patronus spell to produce a patronus spirit. This is a protective spirit - often in the form of an animal - that will chase the dementor away. Harry Potter's patronus takes the form of a stag. Hermione Granger's takes the form of an otter.

As I see it, the dementor is a personification of depression. The dementor, like depression, kills all joy and meaning in life. The ultimate end of untreated depression is, indeed, a soul-less existence -- and this is so unbearable that many people with severe depression actually kill themselves.

Suicide used to be considered a terrible sin, but how much compassion we should have for someone suffering from severe depression. We now know that depression has physical causes -- it is not a moral failing of the depressed person. The severely depressed person finds himself or herself simply unable to find ANY joy or meaning in life -- to a such a degree that existence becomes excruciating. Rather than blaming a person for killing himself or herself, we might do better to ask ourselves what unbearable degree of pain that person must have been feeling.

I believe that J. K. Rowling does a wonderful service for us in at least three ways with her description of dementors in the Harry Potter novels. First, if we can make the dementor/depression connection (which seems quite obvious to me), we can feel something of the horror that a severely depressed person must feel. As we identify with Rowling's characters and feel their horror in the presence of dementors, we get a small taste of what a severely depressed person may be feeling. This can lead to real compassion for the severely depressed.

Second, personification of an inner state is very salutory. When depression is roiling around vaguely and horribly inside us, we can hardly get a firm grasp of what is happening to us. But if we can find a way to put depression outside ourselves by picturing it -- so that we can look at it squarely -- then we can begin to find a way out.

To look at depression objectively, words help and pictures help. I first understood my own moderate (not severe) depression when I read a magazine article describing depression in my thirties. Until then, I had thought that something unique and probably shameful was wrong with me. But this magazine article described what I had been feeling in clearly articulated words. I now had a name for this condition, a description of its characteristics, and the knowledge that others suffered from it, too. Objectifying depression in this way was a wonderful revelation and set me on the path to healing.

As part of the path to healing, I found that pictures were very helpful. I often drew pictures of depression, thus putting it outside myself where I could look at it. This, too, helped to objectify depression -- depression was not something that I was, but something that I felt or experienced. It was a feeling or an experience, not a core part of me. This is an important function of the dementors -- they are a picture of depression.

Third, Rowling tells a story that includes vanquishing the dementors by using a patronus spell to call forth a patronus spirit. Each person who suffers from depression can find his or her own patronus. What chases away the dementor, the depression? Sometimes it may need to be medication. It may also be a deliberate change of thought, an activity, a mental picture, or a story we tell ourselves.

So, with the dementors, J. K. Rowling gives a picture that allows us to objectify and look at depression outside ourselves, and she tells a story that can help us to find a way out of depression and to have compassion for those who are severely depressed.

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