What has Sylvia Plath taught me?


Sylvia Plath was a  renowned poet and novelist who died in 1963 and famously wrote a semi auto-biographical book called The Bell Jar. In her adult years she suffered from severe bouts of clinical depression and was hospitalised and received multiple bouts of ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). She sadly committed suicide. Plath is credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry and is best known for her two published collections, The Colossus and Other Poems and ArielHer work is gripping and compelling to read, obviously greatly influenced by her mental illness combined with her gift as a beautiful, wonderful composer of prose and weaver of words.

She is quoted as saying, “I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life. And I am horribly limited.”

Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar being a semi-autobiographical book about her depression and mental distress is obvious. It is a book I have been able to relate to well at times in my life as she strives to negotiate her illness as her talent allowed her the ability to be able to write so cogently. One passage captures this beautifully.

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. 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.”
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

but then she could write with such positivity when well, “I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, “This is what it is to be happy.”
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

She had the ability to capture that for those who battle mental illness all is not lost. There are moments and hours of light and normalcy. Days when the darkness goes and the light shines through. Our families are available to us and us to them and it is a good day or week to be celebrated. Sustains us through the dark times. That is what Sylvia Plath taught me. I have to believe there is hope. That I deserve to be happy. I deserve my family. I must fight for them, fight to be out of this quagmire.

I would love to hear from you so please leave a comment. All feedback is much appreciated. Thank you. Erin

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