Harry Potter: one of the most recognisable names in the modern world. The boy wizard was largely developed during an episode of severe depression for author J.K. Rowling, who fought her own dementors by creating the magical world of Hogwarts in her tiny Scottish apartment.
Rowling was in her late twenties with a young child to provide for whilst on unemployment benefits. Stuck in fearful cycles of rumination and doubt she began writing the novel Harry Potter with the attitude, I’ve got nothing to lose, what’s the worse that could happen to me? If I get rejected from every major publisher in the UK, big deal.
For Rowling rock bottom wasn’t the end; it opened up new possibilities and eventually led to her success. Her own personal failures gave her energy to work on her passions. Look at what she said in a Harvard commencement address:
Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy to finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one area where I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter, and a big idea. And so rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life. – Harvard commencement address, 2008.
And on TED:
Rowling steadily and methodically poured her life into creating the world of Harry Potter. Rowling had already developed a great writing discipline over many years, starting in fantasy stories when around the age of five. Finally the right story came along for her. She first conceived the idea for Harry Potter in 1990 on a train.
Writing Harry Potter wasn’t the only help for her depression. Rowling sought medical assistance, but she was dismissed carelessly by a stand in GP in spite of needing urgent attention. Unfortunately this anecdote strongly resembles Graeme Cowan’s story of his first interaction with a GP. In both instances they presented with suicidal ideation and both times were turned away quickly. This highlights the urgent need for all GPs to have basic mental health training.
Fortunately her regular doctor saw the warning signs and understood the seriousness of the issue. The doctor sent Rowling to counselling, a relationship which was very beneficial. Like Rowling, if you are having suicidal feelings please contact a doctor immediately.
Depression is the most unpleasant thing I have ever experienced. . . . It is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad. Sad hurts but it’s a healthy feeling. It is a necessary thing to feel. Depression is very different.” *
Rowling later managed to channel her experience of severe depression into the hooded monsters, the Dementors. Her descriptions of Dementors mimick her own comments about clinical depression:
“Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they 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.“
Writing and seeing her vision become reality was the turning point in her depression. Like Emma Thompson and Carrier Fisher, Rowling discovered the power of writing to beat depression. Not just writing a little bit, but building it as a daily discipline and seeing it through. Writing generates more structure in one’s life, countering the unstructured and chaotic lifestyle that mental health problems can produce. Secondly, writing also helps people get out of their head. Concentrating on the page and letting it all come out is healing, meditative and therapeutic. Writing interlinks the two brain hemispheres and encourages healthier brain function.
She’s open to discussing her depression in an effort to destigmatise the disease that affects millions worldwide. While she’s found fame difficult at times she has managed it admirably, is an active philanthropist and has carried herself with grace and thoughtfulness.
Harry Potter has enriched the world in a magical way, and J.K. Rowling’s victory over depression also lifts our hopes and hearts.
How JK Rowling Beat Depression
Rowling wrote to combat her depression and conjured up one of the most loved fantasy landscapes of the past century. Other people who beat depression through writing are Carrie Fisher, Emma Thompson and Winston Churchill.
She got a referral from a GP for counselling to manage the acute phase of severe clinical depression whilst a single mother and unemployed.
She discusses her experiences with depression freely and openly and is proud of beating depression.