The Yellow Wallpaper

The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, is not what one would consider “normal” reading for Lutheran pastors. Ms. Gilman was a turn of the (20th) century proto-feminist, advocated group raising for children (“it takes a village”), and any number of peculiar to downright evil ideas.

She also had a brilliant insight into the mindset of depression and anxiety.

In the signature short story in the above book (The Yellow Wallpaper), the protagonist has been diagnosed with melancholy. Her husband is a doctor, and believes that the best thing for her is to be kept away from all human contact. Despite her ongoing objections, she is made a virtual prisoner in her own home, a cottage they have rented until she gets better.

Of course, she doesn’t get better.  She goes slowly mad, and becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper in her upper room where she spends all her time.  The patterns in the paper become alive, she starts to see people on the other side of the paper.  It consumes her, until she finally cannot take it anymore and commits suicide.

Now the element of this story which I found so intriguing is the role of her husband.  He is a doctor, so he is an expert.  She cannot question his judgment, because that would be both unseemly and totally counterproductive.  So she is forced to accept his diagnosis even though everything within her says it is wrong.

The parallels between this and modern approaches to depression and other mental illnesses is striking.  What “camp” you fall into will determine your diagnosis.  Traditional medicine.  Homeopathy.  Good ole’ American willpower.  The “Luther” view of sing more hymns loud, drink more and be with people more (more on this little topic in another post).  Some will say drugs are the only way to go.  Therapy must be the answer.  Others will say that prayer is the only way.  Still others meditation, sunlight,  etc.  But it is surprising to me how completely exclusive these approaches can become.

The reality is that the mind is an incredibly complex thing, truly a wonder of God’s creation.  Just as there are many causes for depression, even so there may be many roads out of depression.  What we must be on guard against is presuming that one view or approach is the end all only way to come to a right way out.

In this path we walk, our Lord has given us many tools for healing.  God will see you through, no matter what path you may end up talking along the way.


4 thoughts on “The Yellow Wallpaper”

  1. The difficulty comes because the person who is depressed is feeling rather hopeless, and when one approach, one medication, or one therapist doesn’t work, all seems lost. Also, when you look at the sheer effort it takes for a depressed person to make that call, go to that appointment, or fill that prescription, change that diet, etc. it can be so completely exasperating, and it isn’t easy to see that another pill has a different mechanism for working, or maybe it IS an allergy to a particular kind of food, or hypothyroidism or something else that doesn’t get looked at (and doctors don’t consider this either). And it is even harder to see that some therapists just don’t mesh with some clients, just like you don’t make friends with just anybody — something has to click, just any therapist might not be the right therapist (and some might just be dead wrong, as well).

    Depending on your personality, the therapist, and what might be triggering depression, a therapist that subscribes to a psychoanalytic paradigm of leading you through resolving childhood issues and giving you a safe place to relive those things might be what you need. On other occasions, a good cognitive psychologist who simply teaches you to change the way you are viewing something and challenges your worldview might be just what you need. Or it might be something else entirely. Unfortunately, it is at just these moments, when we are seeking protection and resolution from pain that we do not make very good consumers in this area. Unfortunately, being depressed doesn’t make us any less complex…in fact, it makes us more so.

  2. Excellent post! I think sometimes, what a pot of rubbish we are fed by the “experts” in many fields, including psychiatry.

    After having a breakdown and spending time in a psychiatric unit, I was sent home with medication to take and a card reminding me to keep my appointment with the psychiatrist.

    At that appointment, the psychiatrist, who I had never met before, sat there in his fancy suit behind his fancy desk and told me all about me……that I was “bi-polar, type 2”, and would have another episode if I didn’t take my medication.

    I mentioned to him that I wondered if my episode could have been caused in part by the stress of a remodeling project in our house, and all the stain and varnish fumes I had been breathing. He shook his head and said, “No, no, not possible.” Give me a break.

    As he blabbed, I made up my mind to not take the medication and never go back to see him. For one thing, its so expensive……for that silly appointment, he got over $200! Let’s not even talk about the hospital bill and the cost of the medication!

    In your post you listed practically every conceivable form of treatment for depression, and wisely pointed out that each case is different and requires a different solution, but I definitely will stick with some basics……getting exercise out in the fresh air and sunshine, getting enough sleep, and, if possible, avoiding those situations and people who cause a mood to plummet.

    Fortunately, I’m a stay-at-home wife and mother. If I’d been a career woman, I probably would’ve had to give up my job after my breakdown and be considered a disabled person. People would look at me and think, “poor thing”. As it is, I can go into hermit mode and no one notices. Thus, I do feel for someone like you, a depressive person in a people-oriented career. Not the ideal combo, but hopefully it gives you awareness to help others with similar problems.

    I think medications can really mess up a brain…..I realize they may be necessary in a few cases, but probably not as many as we think. Its doubtful that fresh air, sunshine, sleep, or hymn-singing, would ever be detrimental to someone’s brain.

    Yes, keep an open mind concerning treatment options, and don’t automatically buy into the medication notion simply because an “expert” says its the thing to do. Mostly, it keeps the “experts” and the pharmaceutical companies in business.

  3. I spent 10 years with various therapists and trying to find appropriate medication for my depression. In retrospect, I feel I sometimes used therapy as a crutch,and at times, an excuse to stay sick. I also learned quite a bit. The trick is using what I learned.
    After years of trying different medications, I found a combination that “sort of” seemed to help. Stayed with that for several years and then decided to try life without medication. For me, I think medication, at least for the time being isn’t helpful. That may change.
    I think it’s key to listen to the “experts” but realize that they are only human.

  4. An NPR story running on Jan. 17th said: “Most studies that get published about antidepressants are positive, while negative studies remain unpublished, according to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine.” I also found an article in Prevention & Treatment, (Volume 5, Article 23, posted July 15, 2002) which stated in the Abstract: “This article reports an analysis of the efficacy data submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval of the 6 most widely prescribed antidepressants approved between 1987 and 1999. Approximately 80% of the response to medication was duplicated in placebo control groups… . If drug and placebo effects are additive, the pharmacological effects of antidepressants are clinically negligible. If they are not additive, alternative experimental designs are needed for the evaluation of antidepressants.”
    There is a lot of money behind the push to medicate people. Its seems, though, that there are some questioning the effectiveness of the drugs. But the “experts” will keep pushing them. “Follow the money” is good advise to begin evaluating the use of meds for psychological issues.

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