Myth of Icarus and Manic Depression

Part of my mission with my trip is to raise awareness of manic depression, otherwise known as bipolar disorder. I will attempt to give an insight about the illness in this post by explaining the logic behind calling my venture ‘Icarus Cycles’

“Here Icarus Fell”
by Jacopo Sannazaro

Here Icarus fell; these waves beheld his fate,
Which drew the daring wings to their embrace;
Here the flight ended; here the event took place,
Which those unborn will yearn to emulate.
Thrilling and welcome was his sorrow’s weight,
Since, dying, he achieved immortal praise;
Happy that, since he died above disgrace,
So fair a prize his loss should compensate.
With such a fall well may he be content,
If, soaring to the sky like the dawn and brave,
He with too fierce a flame was burnt and spent.
His name now echoes loud in every wave,
Across the sea, throughout the elements;
Who in the world ever gained such a grave?

The poem above is about Icarus, the mythical character who infamously fell to his death for flying to close to the sun. Icarus was the son of Daedalus, who built the labyrinth for King Minos to constrain the monstrous half-man, half-bull, Minotaur. Daedalus suffered Minos’s wrath by helping Thesus kill the Minotaur and escaping the labyrinth in the affectionate arms of the King’s daughter. As punishment, Daedalus and Icarus were imprisoned in the labyrinth; so well designed, that even its creator struggled to find away out.

Once the pair managed to get out of the labyrinth, the prominent inventor fashioned a pair of wings from feathers and wax, so that he and his son could escape the inevitable fury of King Minos. Before they flew off, Daedalus warned his son ‘Icarus, to take the middle way, in case the moisture weighs down your wings, if you fly too low, or if you go too high, the sun scorches them. Travel between the extremes’ (Ovid). Enamoured by his new found exhilarating ability, Icarus flew to great heights, seduced by the freedom of flight. However, ignoring his fathers advice, he flew recklessly and unrestrainedly too close to the sun feeling “the hot wax run, / Unfeathering him”(Dante) and came crashing down where the “waves beheld his fate”(Sannazaro).

Being in a state of depression can be compared to being in the labyrinth that Icarus escaped from: it is a very dark and dreary place, in which you hit dead-end after dead-end as you struggle to escape its unforgiving grasp. Hope is replaced by an endless abyss of despair and although no Minotaur is present; thoughts are often consumed with morbidity, as depression feels very much like dying. I find it a torturous it place, where the is no light, no hope of finding it and thus feel despair at the thought that I shall be imprisoned in this inner labyrinth for the rest of my meaningless existence. A serious problem occurs when I feel like becoming the minotaur so as to end my misery and be free from my imprisonment. It is a very difficyult sensation to shrug off and is one that has proved a continual struggle.

But then, almost though suddenly, you awake to find yourself free and the light that had all but perished, is suddenly burning brightly with such intensity. The new sensations become as seductive as a sirens call. The weight of despair is replaced by infinite hope, to such than extent that it feels like flying, as thoughts of alluring fantasy fleet through your mind. As psychiatrist and author of a personal memoir on manic depression An Unquiet Mind’, Kay Redfield Jamison describes the manic state:

When you’re high it’s tremendous. The ideas and feelings are fast and frequent like shooting stars and you follow them until you find better and brighter ones. Shyness goes. The right words and gestures are suddenly there, the power to captivate others is a felt certainty. Feelings of ease, intensity, power, well-being, financial omnipotence and euphoria pervade one’s marrow’.

It is no wonder that such a state is enticing and you want to make the most of it whilst it lasts. However, it leads to extreme forms of behaviour, and like Icarus, your judgement is clouded that leads to reckless decision making. You become very grandiose in your sense of invincibility, constantly agitated that the world can’t keep up and that you are being held up from fulfilling some special destiny that has been bequest to you. Like a fire, it is a very creative and powerful force. However, it soon spreads wildly and totally out of control. No longer creative, it has become fiercely destructive and often reeks havoc on relationships, leads to substance abuse or self-harm, you leave your job because it is beneath you, run up huge debts to fuel your impulsive ideas until you are left with no more. Once it has consumed all before it, it whimpers out as quickly as it was ignited with only the burnt remnants left behind. All of the above were true for me. And when the high wears off as “too fierce a flame was burnt and spent”, like Icarus, the wax has melted and you come crashing back down to a devastating low. As Jamison firther explains:

A floridly psychotic mania was followed, inevitably, by a long and lacerating black, suicidal depression. Everything -every thought, word and movement-was an effort. Everything that once was sparkling now was flat. I seemed to myself to be dull, boring, inadequate, thick brained, unlit, unresponsive, chill skinned, bloodless, and sparrow drab. I doubted, completely, my ability to do anything well. It seemed as though my mind had slowed down and burned out to the point of being totally useless”.

A person with this illness, especially if left untreated, will cycle between these to states. It is the cyclical nature of the illness which accounts for the high levels of suicide and why many people resist seeking help; mania is often confused with normality and feels so great, you don’t want to stifle it. Freud described mania as a defence against depression, which aptly describes my experience of it. As quoted previously, Daedalus’s warning to Icarus was to take the middle way and travel between the extremes.

For me this ‘middle way’ takes place by having regular psychiatric help, taking medication (sodium valproate), getting regular support from an organisation called Mankind Project, support from informed friends and family. It requires managing my illness so that I am touched by fire and harness it to productivity, rather than be burnt by it as Icarus was.

For more info visit Rethink

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