The Helm's Deep Metaphor
Anxiety and depression are crowstaken bastards that can die in a fire. Preferably one I get to light.
Right. Now that that is out of the way, let's talk about metaphors and mental illness for a second.
I've struggled with both anxiety and depression for years, off and on. More on than off, in recent days, thanks to several years of stress and disruption, but that's neither here nor there. The struggle is exhausting, and takes a toll. But worse, I find myself incredibly frustrated trying to explain the struggle to people that don't understand.
Cause I'm not "the type of person" that suffers anxiety and depression. I'm too outgoing. Too confident. I'm relaxed and patient, engaging and trusting and secure. I'm the captain of the sportsball team. I'm the Gryffindor.
People see those things and assume that's who I am. That that is all that I am.
I am those things. I am that person. But I'm a Gryffindor by choice, not nature. It takes a hell of a lot of effort for me to be that person than it otherwise would. Hence the need for a metaphor.
Peter V. Brett once asked on Twitter whether being a writer gives you anxiety, or if having anxiety draws you to the writer's craft.
I joked at the time that it was the literary chicken/egg question, but the truth is I don't have an answer. I've been a storyteller all my life. Which came first is difficult to surmise. But it is unsurprising to me that I delved into my literary knowledge to find a metaphor that fit my story as a writer and as someone who suffers from mental illness.
It took me a while to find the story that told my tale best. But when I did, I realised that each layer of its fabric told a different story of me, and enriched the connection with the struggles I face.
It may not work for everyone's story. It has guided my support group through mine though, and helped others tell theirs.
And, unsurprisingly, it comes from The Lord of the Rings:
In the second book/movie, the people of Rohan retreat from Saruman's forces1 into Helm's Deep, a valley in the mountains that leads to the Glittering Caves2, an immense cave system stretching out beneath the mountains.
They make their way through the hills and rocky outcrops known as Helm's Dike3, before finally reaching Aglarond4; the legendary fortress guarding the entrance to the caves. Aglarond has never fallen to assault. Its walls have never been breached.
The gates of the Deeping Wall5 are locked tight by the defenders, who, along with the Fellowship's Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas, and a detachment of elves sent by the council6, settle in and wait for the siege to begin.
This is the calm before the storm state. When I've had rest, perhaps even a period of time without mental struggles. I'm refreshed, and my mental barriers are at their strongest.
Each day, I battle atop the Deeping Wall with the rest of the defenders. Holding the line until night falls. Until I can rest. And each day, Saruman's forces assault the walls. Wave after wave of them, raising ladders, a rolling sea of enemies to drive back, until I'm exhausted and ready to sleep.
The majority of days, if I'm rested or relaxed, are like this. I'm so used to the battle than often I forget I am in one, leaving it in the background for my subconscious to handle.
But Saruman's forces keep coming.
Sometimes, they raid at night, their battering ram crashing through the gate, forcing the defenders to sally out and clear the gatehouse7 until the gate is secured once more, and they can withdraw to the safety of the wall.
Some days, the anxiety or depression will break through, distracting me until I address it and can refocus.
But Saruman's forces keep coming. And sometimes, they reach the top of the wall.
The fighting is always the same on top of the Deeping Wall. Savage. Ruthless. Distracting. Once Saruman's forces gain a foothold, others scramble to the top, and the top of the wall becomes crowded with combatants. Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, the other defenders, they all become separated in the battle, fighting desperately to drive the enemy back.
This is what happens when I can no longer keep it in the background. When I have to pay attention in order to cope. Some days are just particularly bad. On those, I need to rest. To cancel plans. To work from home. To take care of myself, in order to fight another day. To remember that there are people up on the wall fighting alongside me, even though I can no longer see them on top of the wall.
The defenders can only suffer so many losses though. On occassion, they must retreat into the Hornburg8, sound the Horn of Helm Hammerhand9, and wait out the storm. Wait for Gandalf and the Rohirrim to arrive on the fifth day, or for Saruman's forces to pick clean the corpses, and retreat back to their encampments to rest.
And then, when morning comes, I pick up my sword, and return to the parapets.
Most days I can protect the parapets without it impacting the rest of my life. Some days, I have to consider it a win if I can clear the wall before it is time to go to bed.
And I generally try not to think too much about what it is like on days when Saruman's forces reach the Deeping Stream grate10.
1The sometimes crippling thoughts and weight of anxiety and/or depression.
2My mental structure. Me, essentially.
3The scars and memories that give my anxiety/depression footing.
4My conscious and subconscious mind.
5My mental barriers.
6My support group - friends, family etc.
8My inner sanctum/safe places.
9... I assume the Imperial March, but for all I know it plays Nickelback.
10The weakness in my defenses, that causes everything to collapse on itself, forcing me to rebuild from scratch.
#HoldOnToTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.
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