Sunday, June 20, 2010

Virginia Woolf and Her Madness

From mcmanweb:

A telegram arrived at the HMS Dreadnought, the flagship of the British home fleet, advising the Admiral of a visit by the Emperor of Abyssinia and four of his entourage. The dignitaries were given the red carpet treatment and the visit went off without a hitch, except for the fact that the real Emperor happened to be back in Addis Ababa. One of the "Abyssinians", decked out in flowing robes and dark greasepaint, turned out to be a youthful Virginia Woolf.

The media and political storm that broke out in the wake of the hoax did little for Virginia's mental equilibrium. She had already experienced one breakdown and was well on her way toward another. All her life that beast/companion we know as manic depression would stalk both her and her family, and finally claim her. One cold day in 1941 - her body wasting from neglect, her thoughts racing, and hearing voices - she wrote:

I feel certain now that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time ...

Then she walked down to the river bank, filled her pockets with stones, and left her walking stick on the ground. Children would discover her body three weeks later. Following an inquest, the verdict was announced as: "Suicide while the balance of her mind was disturbed."

Virginia Woolf has no shortage of chroniclers, many who know far more about literature than they do about mental illness. Her childhood traumas, sexual frigidity, and lesbian flirtations may have been the stuff of Freudian psychodrama, but it was the storm and fury of manic depression that truly governed her life. One biography appears to have tackled her madness head on, "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Manic Depression and the Life of Virginia Woolf" by Peter Dally (St Martin's Press, NY, 1999).

The title pretty much says it all. According to Dally, who is a psychiatrist: "Virginia's need to write was, among other things, to make sense out of mental chaos and gain control of madness. Through her novels she made her inner world less frightening. Writing was often agony but it provided the 'strongest pleasure' she knew."

The Bloomsbury crowd and the literary highlife fed her hypomanic surges, but it was from the depths of depression that she seemed to dredge up her best inspiration. When she started a novel, according to Dally, she was excited but relaxed and stable, only succumbing to exhaustion and depression in the revision stages.

Her husband, Leonard Woolf described her early stages of mania: "She talked almost without stopping for 2 or 3 days, paying no attention to anyone in the room or anything said to her ... Then gradually it became completely incoherent, a mere jumble of dissociated words."

In full flight of madness, according to Dally, "birds spoke to her in Greek, her dead mother materialized and harangued her, voices called her to 'do wild things.' She refused nourishment. Trusted companions like her husband Leonard and her sister Vanessa became enemies and were abused and assaulted ... "

Fortunately, her friends and family tolerated her and took care of her. Had she been born into a different class or with a less understanding family, she undoubtedly would have been locked away for life. As it was, lengthy asylum stays were a fact of life for her, as were long recuperative periods spent at home.

Her first breakdown occurred at age 13, shortly following the death of her mother. Several breakdowns later, at age 31, she entered a severe depression in which she made an attempt on her life by swallowing 100 grains of Veronal. Only the serendipitous presence of a distinguished physician in nearby lodgings saved her life. He pumped out her stomach and stayed with her throughout the night.

The suicide attempt was part of two back-to-back breakdown/recuperations lasting the better part of two years. Fierce, though decidedly less lethal, mood swings would continue to dog her the rest of her life. One night, in 1921, she went to a concert and stayed up all night, only to take to her bed for the next eight weeks.

"What a gap!" she recorded in her diary. "How it would have astounded me to be told when I wrote the last word here, on June 7th, that within a week I [should] be in bed, and not entirely out of it till the 6th of August - two whole months rubbed out .."

Husband Leonard acted as her protector, seeing her through the depressions and nipping some of her manic surges in the bud: "I am alive; rather energetic," Virginia wrote in her diary. "But half the horror is that [Leonard] instead of being, as I gathered, sympathetic has the old rigid obstacle - my health."

By 1935, when she was working on "The Years", the constant cycle of mania and depression was beginning to overtake her. The revision was particularly difficult, and in 1936 she wrote to a friend:

....never trust a letter of mine not to exaggerate that's written after a night lying awake looking at a bottle of chloral and saying, No, no no, you shall not take it. It's odd how sleeplessness, even of a modified kind, has the power to frighten me. It's connected I think with these awful times when I couldn't control myself.

She took time off to ride out the depression, only to throw herself into her next work, "Three Guineas", which "pressed and spurted out ... like a physical volcano."

There would be one more novel after that, "Between the Acts", then the writing would cease. Husband Leonard was struggling with his own depression, leaving Virginia to fend for herself. The timing could not have been worse. England at the time was on the losing end of the Second World War, and Virginia was isolated in the south of England, away from her usual circle of friends. The beast/companion was literally eating her alive, and in the end, in the only way she knew how, she decided to stop the madness.


Lavinia said...

Very interesting story. I wonder if this would be the case today now that we know what we do about depression and manic depressive disorders.

As I continue to digest my mother's life after her death, I restore my own faith in the practice of medicine and how so many have been misguided. Now there is support and people to find and network with.

I use to feel very alone ( a person not depressed) with a mother and sister with chronic disorders.

Now even knowing I have permission to say this is how they were and to know I am not responsible is freedom to me.

It is a gift now to know what we know and know people who live well with this illness and recognize they can find a way of health to relate to those who love him who are not this way.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Lavinia. Unfortunately, it is too often the case today. The meds can be a life-saver, but it is rare over the course of a lifetime that they keep working. Relapses are all too common and just about inevitable.

Virginia happened to be born into a social class and a society that was conducive to her best health. I originally wrote this piece 10 or 11 years ago. Were I writing this today, I would place greater emphasis on how both the rest (in asylums and in family estates) and the stimulation (her Bloomsbury Group "support network") operated as a fairly good recovery plan.

The movie "The Hours" ends with Virginia going against doctor's orders (and husband's wishes) and ending her country exile for to be amongst her circle of friends in London again.

It is significant her suicide occurred when wartime conditions rendered it impossible for her to return to her London network.

What would be different in modern times is Virginia might have been a lot smarter about maintaining the balance. Taking strategic time-outs from the London social whirl when she was mindfully aware that she was starting to feel too good for her own good on one hand. And making sure not to totally isolate herself in the country (and thus reduce the risk of sliding into depression.

In other words, the rest and stimulation can be both tonics and toxic. It depends on the context. In a modern society where we have to conform to strict schedules in crazy situations it's extremely difficult to maintain this balance. We're asking too much of the meds - they can only do so much.

We have the knowledge, but not the flexibility. Woolf (until the end) had the flexibility but not the knowledge.

And when the depression overtakes you - there is almost nothing anyone can do. I strongly suspect Virginia faked it and otherwise hid her intentions from her husband. Her social group might have picked it up, but she was cut off.

Hope this makes sense.

You'll have to tell me more about your family. It sounds like what you're going through is very healing - but can also be very trying.