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March 28, 2016: a grim anniversary

March 28, 2016

It’s March 28th again. Seventy-five years ago today Virginia Woolf drowned herself in the River Ouse. And each year during the days leading up to this date, I think of her.

A prolific and critically acclaimed writer, Woolf was a brilliant (some say genius) novelist who struggled with periods of “madness”. For weeks or months at a time she would experience disrupted sleep, be unable to speak coherently or to eat, she would hear malevolent voices and she’d withdraw from everyone but her care-giving husband Leonard. 

The formal photographs of Virginia make her appear melancholy, at least to our modern sensibilities. But she wasn’t a gloomy person. We see her cast-down eyes, her face turned away and still, reflective. To Victorians, however, stillness in a portrait reflected the prized qualities of dignity and composure. Longer shutter exposures meant risking movement-blur, and subjects were instructed not to smile. Virginia’s nature—when she wasn’t tormented by her illness—was described by those who knew her as naturally inquisitive, engaging, even merry. She took great pleasure in practical jokes, teasing, going on long walks, writing letters, travelling. She sometimes burst into song amongst her friends, one time making a taxi wait until she’d finished singing “The Last Rose of Summer”.

Woolf was 59 years old when she ended her life in 1941. She’d long ago learned that the only way to stay sane was to be diligently working on a book: as long as a book was occupying the forefront of her mind, the malevolent voices were silenced. It was as though the disturbance of “madness” came from the exact same part of her brain as the creative writing.

Modern studies have consistently shown that most suicides take place in the spring; however it is still unknown as to whether this has more to do with hormonal fluctuations, lack of sunlight, cognitive malfunctions, or combinations thereof. Many suicide victims are extraordinarily gifted people, known for their amazing paintings, sculptures, books, scientific breakthroughs, or math formulae. It’s as though the dizzying heights of genius and the darkest depths of madness live metaphysically side by side, separated by a gossamer thread. 

Research has also unearthed a direct connection between childhood sexual abuse and mental illness, that one kind of profound disturbance morphs and manifests itself into another. In Virginia’s case the sexual abuse came at the hands of her older step-brothers, George and Gerald Duckworth.

Seven and a half decades after her death, how much has changed in the understanding, diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses? The “experts” in the 1930s and 40s didn’t know what to make of Woolf’s symptoms. There were lunatic asylums for people like her.

Today we no longer talk about nervous breakdowns, insanity or madness. We talk about schizophrenia, we use terms like bi-polar and seasonal-affective disorder, we hear about various anti-psychotic medications. We institutionalize people in special hospitals where the furniture is nailed down, to try to protect others from them, to try to save them from themselves. We set up support groups and outreach programs and then cut funding in favour of new priorities. We give the patients regular injections and send them home with fistfuls of new pills. We fund the pursuit of neuroscience and patent new discoveries.

Had Woolf lived in our times, would the outcome of her life have been any different?

“There IS such a thing,” stresses one physician I know, “as terminal mental illness.”

It was a damp and drizzly spring morning in Sussex when Virginia sat down at her desk in her writing cabin, on the back grounds of her house. She wrote a loving goodbye letter to Leonard (‘My dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again…’ and set off to silence the voices the only way she knew how. I think of her shrugging on her long dark coat and walking down to the river, bending to pick up large stones along the way. Filling her pockets with them. No one was about, not even fishermen. The water would have been running high, and must have been shockingly cold even as she yielded to it.

I think of her today, and of all those who haven’t been able to find any other way out of their mental prisons. Their great relief was our great loss. Virginia’s too-brief a life was a gift to humankind, one that humankind is still unable to understand.


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