Published on June 6th, 2013 | by Becky Castle Miller
Fangirl Therapy: Harry Potter and the Nervous Breakdown
Learning about emotional and mental health from TV, movies, and books is way more fun than learning from textbooks. Fangirl Therapy is about watching fictional characters work through their struggles and drawing lessons for our own lives.
Grief is the natural emotional reaction to loss. And trauma involves loss – loss of innocence, of our perspective on the world, of health, of independence.
Writers create interesting plots by putting their characters through trauma. Harry Potter is no exception as J.K. Rowling subjects her boy wizard to endless anguish before, during, and after his time at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
I envy Harry his education, not for the teaching on feeding a unicorn, transfiguring a hedgehog into a pincushion, and flying a broom, but for the teaching on processing loss. “Working Through Grief 101” wasn’t a course I took in school, and this lack of understanding led to an emotional breakdown when I was 28.
Professor Dumbledore is the Hogwarts headmaster and one of the greatest wizards who ever lived. After Harry endures a severely traumatic experience during his fourth year at school, Dumbledore takes the opportunity to teach him about grief and trauma recovery. Harry has further significant grief experiences ahead of him in the later books, including the deaths of many loved ones, so it’s important at this stage of his growth and development that he learns not just the science of magic and how to defend himself, but also how to emotionally handle the difficulties to come. Though we don’t have the fun of studying at the wizarding school, we can still learn this most valuable lesson with him.
The Goblet of Fire, the fourth book of seven, climaxes with multiple horrible events in quick succession. Harry:
witnesses the murder of a classmate
sees Voldemort, his mortal enemy who killed his parents and is now after him, come back to power
barely escapes, with the help of a phantom vision of his mom and dad
manages to return the body of his classmate to the boy’s parents in spite of his own physical injuries
is kidnapped and nearly killed by one of Voldemort’s servants disguised as a trusted teacher
Harry is finally rescued by Dumbledore, just as the boy is starting to emotionally fall apart.
Harry has experienced fresh trauma—mental, emotional, and physical—as well as re-triggered the trauma of his parents’ deaths. In this breakdown moment, he learns about processing grief in a way that provides a practical guideline for us as well.
1. Don’t ignore the pain. That will make it worse.
As Dumbledore carefully guides Harry to a safe place, the boy begins shaking and detaching from his surroundings:
|tab||A kind of numbness and a sense of complete unreality were upon him, but he did not care;
he was even glad of it. He didn’t want to have to think about anything that had happened . . .
He didn’t want to have to examine the memories . . . . He wanted nothing more than to sit here,
undisturbed, for hours and hours, until he fell asleep and didn’t have to think or feel anymore
(Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, page 693).
Dumbledore draws Harry out of his detachment and gently forces him to re-engage in the present. Dumbledore says:
|tab||“If I thought I could help you by putting you into an enchanted sleep and allowing you
to postpone the moment when you would have to think about what has happened tonight,
I would do it. But I know better. Numbing the pain for a while will make it worse when
you finally feel it” (page 695).
2. Talk about it with trustworthy people.
When other adults who care about Harry protest that he should rest and not recount the night’s events, Dumbledore explains, “He will stay . . . because he needs to understand. Understanding is the first step to acceptance, and only with acceptance can there be recovery” (page 680).
He kindly says to Harry, “You have shown bravery beyond anything I could have expected of you. I ask you to demonstrate your courage one more time. I ask you to tell us what happened” (page 695).
Dumbledore and Harry’s godfather, who is also listening, are safe people: they want the best for Harry, will believe what he tells them, and have the power to act on the information he gives them. They are the ideal people to help him initially process his experience.
And Harry does find it helpful to tell them:
|tab||It was even a relief; he felt almost as though something poisonous were being extracted from him.
It was costing him every bit of determination he had to keep talking, yet he sensed that once he had
finished, he would feel better (page 695).
Knowing when, and where, and with whom to share, is as vital as speaking up. You don’t have to spill your guts to everyone around nor to anyone who asks. After the initial telling, Dumbledore takes Harry to the hospital wing where his friends are waiting, and the headmaster warns them not to make him talk about the events again. Not until he has rested.
Later, Harry carefully chooses a select few people with whom to share the details of his experience, and with all others, he tells them only what they need to know. Knowing whom to tell is healing, and knowing whom NOT to tell is protecting yourself. Both are important.
3. Rest (within reason).
“A Sleeping Potion, and some peace,” is Dumbledore’s prescription (page 699), and Harry drinks thankfully then sinks into a dreamless sleep. Mental and physical rest are key in the recovery process. Accepting temporary weakness and accommodating those limits will ultimately speed the healing.
Sleeping too much to avoid the work of recovery is detrimental and can be a sign that the initial trauma may have led to a longer term problem like depression. Be discerning in treating yourself carefully, while knowing when it’s time to take healing steps. Friends who are very much in tune with your circumstances and your personality may be able to help you with this determination, yet you know yourself best. When a friend pushes you to be further ahead in recovery than you know you are capable of being, assert your right to be “in process.”
4. Allow time for healing.
Dumbledore knew grief. I think this lesson he teaches Harry about healing came from his own experiences. As the reader learns in the last book, when Dumbledore was a young man, he lost his mother and sister in tragic circumstances that also involved painful changes in his future plans, abandonment by his best friend, and estrangement from his brother.
When Harry begins to understand Dumbledore, he guesses that the professor’s deepest desire is to see his family whole and reunited. All those years later, regret still haunts him. Dumbledore’s long view backwards on his own healing process makes him empathetic toward Harry’s losses and patient with Harry’s rocky recovery moments.
I enjoy fiction because the human experience translates from our favorite characters to us.
Your trauma won’t be dueling wizards and potion-disguised bad guys, but your losses are significant. You can begin your healing process just like Harry Potter did: open up your pain, talk it out, rest, and let time work its magic.
Image created from a photo by Marcelo Brito Filho on Stock.Xchng.