Velleda C. Ceccoli PhD – On Monsters, Dementors and Other Magical Beings

This blog is about Dementors, those magical creatures in the Harry Potter books, that suck all happiness away with a deadly kiss, leaving one empty of life and with nothing to look forward to. A fate, some would say, worse than death. If you are not familiar with the Potter books, no worries, read on, as I am writing about the experience of depression and its life threatening reality.

Those of you who know me, know of my strong attachment to Harry Potter and his world of magic. You also know that I often use magical creatures as metaphors for what ails us. I have been known to talk about depression as the monster that must be walked, first thing, everyday. This came to me a long time ago, when I remembered an interview with Ingmar Bergman, in which he was talking about his life long struggle with depression, and the fact that it had not stopped him from being a prolific film maker because, after much therapeutic intervention he had learned to “walk his monster every morning.” This, he stated, needed to be done everyday or else he might not find his way out of bed. I often share this story with my patients because it speaks to the necessity of knowing one’s monsters intimately, and of finding our own way to take them on, daily if needed.

So first, the defintion of Dementor, as per the Harry Potter Wikipedia (yes there is such a thing!):

A Dementor is a dark creature, considered one of the foulest to inhabit the world. Dementors feed off human happiness, and thus cause depression and despair to anyone near them. They can also consume a person’s soul, leaving their victims in a permanent vegetative state, and thus are often referred to as “soul-sucking fiends” and are known to leave a person as an “empty-shell.” They cannot be destroyed, though their numbers can be limited if the conditions in which they multiply are reduced, implying that they do die off eventually.

Or as Professor Lupin explains to Harry:

Dementors drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them… Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself…soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.” (Harry Potter)

So here we have the magical equivalent to depression. A state that comes upon a person and begins to suck out every happy memory or feeling, until all that is left is dark, negative and deadly. In the Potter stories, Dementors appear suddenly but their presence can be felt long before they are in full view. Their approach feels cold and dark, its iciness takes your breath away and freezes you on the spot. Then a Dementor will appear in full force and begin to literally suck your life away.

Thinking about depression in this way moves us away from diagnostic categories and into the felt experience of the thing. Depression comes about slowly, its presence felt and pervasive. It slows people down, makes them feel vulnerable, negative, pessimistic and lost. It creates a negative feedback loop, which traps the person in ongoing despair and connects them to the worst, traumatic experiences in their lives, repeating and resonating them affectively. In such a state it is difficult to remember anything that is good in life. There is literally no light at the end of the tunnel because depression has extinguished it.

When doctors diagnose depression they look at vegetative states – as in changes in sleep, appetite, activity, interests, relationships. People who are depressed may continue to function, but always in a reduced capacity, as it requires enormous effort to undertake even the simplest of actions. Depression impairs the ability to think clearly, make decisions, interact with others and gain any enjoyment out of life. It reduces people to “empty shells” moving in a time warp through their lives and routines, with no attachment to anything, except the depression itself.

In psychotherapy, working with depression involves taking on the Dementors a deux, within the relationship that is forged between therapist and patient. It means that the patients’ demons and monsters are invited into the room so that they can be known and understood. So that the experiences which have called them forth can be articulated and addressed. So that the monsters will not continue to feed on and destroy what is good. So that the affective states that the demons live within can be known, experienced and worked through within a relationship that offers new possibilities and choices.

Similarly, in the magic world, Dementors can be fought off by learning to concentrate and think about joyful experiences which then bring about a protective shield, called a Patronus. Of course, learning how to do this depends on a relationship of trust with another. This is how Professor Lupin describes it to Harry:

A Patronus is a kind of positive force, and for the wizard who can conjure one, it works something like a shield, with the Dementor feeding on it, rather than him. In order for it to work, you need to think of a memory. Not just any memory, a very happy memory, a very powerful memory… Allow it to fill you up… lose yourself in it… then speak the incantation “Expecto Patronum”. (Wonderbook: Book of Spells)

Lest this sound too simple and childlike to you, take heed: J.K. Rowling was on to something when she came up with Dementors and Patronuses – she recognized the feelings that depression engenders and the feelings that it takes away. She also recognized that we need joy in our lives and that this usually involves our connection to real others. And while treating depression is not a simple matter, neither is producing a Patronus! Both require trust, effort, concentration, practice, and most of all courage. The courage to look deep inside, to review and share our history and trauma, to face the wounds and the pain, and to reconnect with what is good about us and our lives. This is a process, which begins to build our very own protective shield against states of mind that are disruptive, disorganizing and life threatening. It is a process that is contingent on the psychotherapeutic relationship and its ability to engage all types of monsters and demons.

In Harry Potter, a Patronus takes on the shape of an animal which goes forth emanating its positive force and dispelling the Dementors (Harry’s is a Stag).

I like to think that in psychotherapy, it is the space that is created between two people, through a relationship of recognition and understanding, real enough to take on and work within the intimate language of affect and emotion, that creates a protective shield, a magic circle of sorts. Within this circle I sometimes ask patients, particularly those that are familiar with Harry, to think about what their Patronus is like. Often the image of it is faint and distant (just like it was for Harry when he first attempted to produce one), and so we continue our work, until what has been faint grows stronger.

So now a question for you: You probably have an idea of what your Dementors look like, but do you know what your Patronus looks like?

Velleda C. Ceccoli PhD

First published on Dr. Ceccoli’s blog, Out of My Mind, on August 01, 2011. 


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