How Reading Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ Helped Me Cope With Anxiety
October 09, 2019
Istood in front of my bookshelf. I had three unread books piled up in front of me. As a lover of literature, I love collecting and hoarding books whenever something exclusive catches my eye. I moved my fingers across the second row of books. I stopped when I saw her, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. I had read it once and yet I pushed myself to pick it up again, once again ignoring the unread stack of books. The Bell Jar had stirred me when I had read it for the first time a year ago, but this time, it had a different meaning for me. I had first read her honest poetry when I was a literature student in college. I swore then that I could have read her over and over again.
The past few months had been particularly difficult for me, so when I decided to read The Bell Jar again, I knew it wasn’t just to re-read the book, but to find answers, words and expressions that I had failed to find myself. At the age of 17, when I had a sudden outburst of accumulated feelings and emotions and a long period of intended seclusion, I ignored it as a result of my switching schools. Five years, several scars and extensive reading on the Internet later, I diagnosed myself to have been suffering from severe anxiety for years, the signs of which were visible in my habits and actions even when I was a kid.
An anxiety that had now latched itself deep into my heart in such a way that it affected my day-to-day activities and chores. I would lapse into depressive episodes full of silence, my heart racing, my hands and feet cold from the extreme nervousness that was caused due to reasons that were ignorable in the commonplace life of people around me. Words and actions that hardly affected the people around me- my family and friends, bore abnormally large meanings for my unrestrained heart. I would persistently think about a joke that someone had cracked months ago, trying to read into it, delving deeper and deeper until it affected my daily routine.
An over-used and largely misunderstood word, ‘anxiety’ now had a different meaning for me. On that day, when I saw The Bell Jar on my bookshelf, I felt like it was calling out to me, to read it again. I knew Plath had the means of answering my questions and expressing me- my complicated and ‘twisted’ state of mind and heart. Every page resonated. Plath’s semi-autobiographical counterpart Esther Greenwood’s every depressive episode tore me up. I believed I knew why she threw her clothes out of the hotel window the day before she left. I could feel her aversion towards Doctor Gordon. I felt as if I had encountered a number of Buddy Willards in my life. Even as the book was ending, I knew that I didn’t want to stop reading the book. I would re-read several passages and each time the passage would mean something different to me. The fig tree in the book stood as the perfect expression of the jumbled distortions that my mind was- “I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
As the book ended, I realised I wanted more of Plath. This couldn’t have ended so quickly, so incompletely. I knew Plath had more answers for me. I decided to pick up her poetry, a form that I usually neglected, preferring prose instead. This was also the time I confided about my anxiety to my mother.
Every line, every poem in Ariel, and in Colossus struck the deepest strings of my heart. I knew what every subtle hint, every hidden word meant. The ‘peanut-crunching crowd’ of Lady Lazarus reflected the silent, mocking audience of my own life.
“What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see
Them unwrap me hand and foot-
The big strip tease.”
The constant objectification of my ‘womanhood’ found expression in the lines from the poem The Applicant,
“A living doll, everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook,
It can talk, talk, talk.”
The utter frustration and exasperation of Plath with the men in her life, the silent bondage that she felt, and her eventual emancipation from it found its way in her poem Daddy, where she exclaims, “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.” The line encapsulated the freedom that my thought-ridden mind was looking for. The immense sense of relief and release in her lines helped me let go of the emotions that I had bottled up inside.
I knew the battle that I fought every day and I knew I didn’t want to lose and give up. Reading Lady Lazarus for the second time snapped me out of it. I could feel what Plath wanted to say by referring to the woman who rises out of the ash with her red hair.
“Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.”
I believed that even if the red-haired woman (who ultimately rises triumphantly out of the ash in Plath’s poem Lady Lazarus against every force that had restricted her previously) was set differently in our respective set of schemes; the woman’s rebellion, her rising against every force of the world, against the men binding her down, spoke to me. I knew that letting go would liberate me, free me from the binds that I had woven around myself, binds that pulled me down, keeping me from growing and overcoming.
Plath’s quick end to her glorious writing career has always disturbed me. I have always wondered what it would have been like to read the works, poems and books that she would have written had she not let herself perish in the poisonous gas from her oven. How would it have felt to overcome the urge to breathe, even as her children slept in the next room. I figured I wouldn’t want to know. Just reading about her death had affected me enough.
If only Plath could have held on to Esther Greenwood’s line in The Bell Jar that has helped me remain afloat on numerous occasions, “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”
If only Plath had someone like herself, another Plath, who could have helped her to hang on and fight.
I know now that Plath would be smiling, if she exists in some world elsewhere, knowing that her confessional and yet powerful writing has in fact become a means of survival for another; someone who fights battles like her, perhaps not as big, but big enough. I haven’t overcome my anxiety completely. I still have my bad days, but I know that clutching on to Plath’s work will always help me float; never let me sink. I know that I will indeed rise with my red hair one day, and at that moment, I’ll happily turn back, attributing Plath for the help and the recovery that unfortunately she never received.
As an old soul with a fiercely modern and progressive thinking, Mahima’s eccentric personality was fueled by her companionship with literature, something she feels helped her survive the oddities of the world. Her passion for discovering new things has led her on many paths, good and bad alike, both of which she cherishes. The smell of books and freshly brewed coffee stimulates her mind like none other. An obsession with learning new languages led her to discover the beauty of Urdu language, something she feels stirred the deepest corners of her being. You can either find her reading or writing in a quaint coffee shop or taking an early morning solitary walk in the mountains.
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