The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is a book that still resonates deeply with me today.
The coming-of-age novel follows the life of Esther Green, a spunky, young college-aged woman and her haunting descent into depression and subsequent recovery. While I never experienced the extent of depression that Esther did, Plath’s powerful imagery of Esther being incarcerated by her own “Bell Jar” and suffocated by its stale air was something I immediately identified with.
When I asked my friend for her thoughts about the novel, she told me that she had mixed feelings about the book. In her eyes, the protagonist was incredibly whiny — Esther was a girl who had things that other people could only dream of: she had landed an internship in New York City, was entering her 20s and yet she still felt this inexplicable lingering sadness.
When I heard her comments, I felt ashamed. Ashamed for feeling the inner turmoil, confusion and disorientation that Esther had felt. Even today, I know some people who tell me to show more gratitude or tell me that I could have it so much worse.
And so whenever I feel myself paralleling Esther’s plight, I ask myself, "What do I have to be depressed about?" I have a beautiful apartment, an education, wonderful friends and so much more, and yet I’m still hounded with an inexplicable emptiness that I continue to deny.
Why do I feel this way? Why do I feel that by feeling depressed that I’m suddenly ungrateful? Perhaps it’s because society enforces the notion that happiness comes from external factors, as implied from the statements given by my peers. If you have these external factors, like money, a job, good grades, clothes, etc., you should be content.
While external factors do contribute to your happiness to an extent, internal factors also play a significant role. How you feel about yourself, how you view the world and the underlying biochemistry of your brain also contribute to your overall wellbeing. Because of this, depression or feeling depressed is not as simple a matter as “thinking positive” or “showing more gratitude.” You can still practice gratitude but feel empty.
By denying my feelings and feeling this shame, I, like Esther, continue to suffocate by the airless enclosure that is my feelings and thoughts.
And so perhaps Plath’s work resonates with me so much because it gives you such a poignant insight to what it’s like to have depression that spirals out of control. It gives me insight to the stigma towards mental illness that I still feel today.
Because depression has such a broad spectrum and affects everyone differently, there’s still so much that needs to be understood. We must continue down this long and arduous path of shedding the stigma, so that we can educate ourselves about what it means to be healthy. Your mental health is nothing to be ashamed about, regardless of how seemingly perfect your life is on the outside.
- Vivian Cheng is a second-year medical sciences student
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