Always and Never: about Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath would have been 85 last week. I thought I’d write something about her.

Sylvia Plath was a great poet. Like most poets, she was a tortured soul. I wouldn’t be so bold as to say that most writers are tortured, I only know myself and what I’ve read about other writers. Psychiatrists debate over whether Plath was Bipolar or Depressive. What I know is that in the last 6 months of her life she attempted suicide in several different ways. She was a resourceful girl. I’ve read a great deal about Plath. One article I can’t get out of my head said “died by her own hand,” which is stupid because that makes it sound like she slapped herself to death. In the weeks before her suicide, she had someone coming to help take care of her two children everyday. She was seeing her psychiatrist everyday and he had tried to have her hospitalized for weeks, but there were no beds in London. He put Plath on an antidepressant days before her suicide, but antidepressants take a couple of weeks to start working. Maybe if she had started the antidepressant a month prior she wouldn’t have considered suicide. Maybe if there would have been an empty hospital bed. Maybe if she and her husband hadn’t been estranged. Maybe if she hadn’t been in London. Maybe if…

Depression creeped in early for Plath. She attempted to slit her own throat at 10 years old after the sudden death of her father. Her father died after having his leg amputated due to gangrene due to an infection from advanced diabetes. In a stanza of her most-noted poem, “Daddy,” she wrote:

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

I’m sure there were other factors besides her failing to get into a writing class at Harvard that prompted her suicide attempt at 20. She gashed her legs open before seeing a psychiatrist who started her on electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). After that she hid under her porch, swallowed all of her sleeping pills, and fell into a coma before her family noticed and brought her to a hospital where she was brought out of the coma and sent to a psychiatric hospital. She stayed at the psychiatric hospital for four months and was given a course of ECT, insulin treatments, and psychotherapy. I can’t imagine four months in a facility. I could hardly stand six days. At 23 she went back to college at Cambridge, where she met and married her husband, Ted Hughes, the following year. Later she taught at another alma mater, Smith, but found it hard to write and teach simultaneously. She friended other writers —Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell — and began a more confessional type of writing (sort of what I do on this little blog). She was transparent about her suicide attempts and struggles with depression and self-harm in her writing. As I’ve said many times, writing is therapy and Plath self-medicated in this way — but of course, it wasn’t enough.

Plath’s mother said Sylvia’s favorite words were “always” and “never,” which is telling. To me, those words are so Bipolar — very me. Everything is extremes. That is what this disorder is.

We have to remember that this was before the modern anti-depressants, anti-anxiety, anti-psychotic, anti-everything drugs we have now that much of the time aren’t the wonder drugs that a lot of people without mental illness think they are. If it all worked, we wouldn’t still have psychiatric facilities. Anydrug, Plath seemed to be okay for awhile (because we with mental illness CAN be okay, but still have depression). She and Hughes had children, she miscarried, they moved a couple of times, and she wrote. Once she crashed her car in an attempt at suicide. That’s kind of the thing about Bipolar Disorder and Depression. Like I said, you can seem okay, but not be okay. You can function, but not be functional. Everything can be alright and then suicide ideation comes up and you crash your car or take a handful of pills. She published the semi-autobiographical The Bell Jar to mostly positive reviews. Much discussion was made about the semi-autobiographical themes of the novel and Plath herself. If you’ve read the novel and know much about Plath, you can’t help but draw comparisons. Only a month after its publication in the U.K., Plath committed suicide. Before the publication, Plath intercepted a phone call from her husband’s mistress. They separated.  She moved into the former home of poet William Butler Yeats. She went on with life, with caring for her children, and with writing. She was fine. Then on February 11, 1963, knowing a nurse would be coming at 9 am, while her children were sleeping, she opened their bedroom window. She left food and something to drink in their room, closed the door and stuffed a towel underneath. She went to the kitchen, again stuffed towels under the door and sealed it up with tape. She turned the gas on and put her head in the oven. She was 30 years old.

 

My favorite poem by Sylvia Plath is “Mad Girl’s Love Song.” This is it.

“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan’s men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you’d return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)”

 

 

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: