With Unraveled slated for release on 14th December, we’d love to share with you this short essay that Claire has written about archetypes and mental health. It’s a slightly longer read but it’s well worth it. Check it out below!
The Archetype of Mental Illness
There are nearly as many definitions of the word ‘archetype’ as there are archetypes. They range from Jungian psychology to symbols in literature and mythology. Carl Jung’s philosophy was that an archetype is an idea that exists in everyone’s subconscious, one that we can tap into: something that we’re born with. Archetypes are things that crop up to some degree in every novel, movie, and song, but we often don’t stop to consider the meaning behind them. Everyone falls into an archetype of some sort, and finding your archetype can be a worthwhile quest. For me, it was quite a relief when I realized parts of me could be sorted into an archetype: it’s reassuring to know others have come before you.
The word ‘archetype’ can be easily confused with ‘stereotype,’ and I had difficulty differentiating the two at first. After all, both words refer to a generally understood idea of a certain group. However, when we look at the dictionary definitions, the difference becomes clear: the word archetype is defined as “a very typical example of a certain person or thing.” Note the words “very typical” here—it doesn’t claim to be an exact rule for defining a certain person. The word stereotype, on the other hand, is defined as “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.” The key word here is “oversimplified.” When an idea is applied as a fixed rule for a group of people, it falls short, because of the very nature of people: since everyone’s different, someone will diverge from the rule, thus rendering the rule inaccurate.
The word archetype, then, allows for some divergence: it’s an idea, not a formula. To me, it calls to mind Plato’s Theory of Forms. Plato theorized that everything exists in a realm of forms, or ideas, that essentially exist only in our imagination. For instance, when you hear the word ‘chair’ you have an idea of a chair; even if you’re not picturing a specific chair, you understand the concept. The Forms are essentially concepts; everything that exists in this world is a mere imitation of a Form. This translates to archetypes as well. Aphrodite is a perfect example here—she’s the Greek goddess of love, created for one purpose only, which is to be confident in her sexuality (and sleep with countless gods and mortals in the process). However, in Robert Graves’ retelling of her story, she grows tired of this being her sole purpose in life and decides to take up weaving. She diverges from her archetype of ‘goddess of love.’ At this, Athena grows angry and demands that she stick to her one job, or her archetype. This illustrates that it’s impossible to follow an archetype to the letter, because that’s not what archetypes are for.
Archetypes, it seems, are created after the fact: to describe what has already occurred. Humans like putting labels on things, even—or especially so—when it comes to stories and myths. The mother image spans several religions, from Mary and baby Jesus to Demeter and Persephone. Yet Mary and Demeter have extremely different stories—the Immaculate Conception and virgin pregnancy of Mary, while Demeter struck a deal with the god of the Underworld to retrieve her daughter. Somehow the archetype still fits, though, and I think that’s partly because it brings us comfort to sort things into categories. Humans are creatures of habit, and it helps us understand things to have it laid out like this. These myths and stories are hard to comprehend, but when it’s put in perspective by being compared to another myth, it suddenly becomes a little easier to understand. Having a label, no matter how broad, is helpful.
It’s interesting to imagine what would happen if we were told our archetypes when we were born. How would it change things to have a blueprint for our lives? We would know what to expect, common pitfalls to avoid, and would benefit from the knowledge of people who came before us. More than that, it would offer an explanation as to why we behave the way we do: it would demystify our ‘nature and deeds.’ A prime example of this is the hero archetype, which was beautifully illustrated by Joseph Campbell in ‘The Hero’s Adventure.’ He gives an outline of the staples in every hero’s life. Although there are dozens of heroes throughout mythology, I’ll use the examples of Theseus and Heracles. The first trademark of the hero archetype is an unusual birth. Theseus was born to formerly childless King Aegeus and given divine abilities by Athena, while Heracles was fathered by Zeus himself. Both figures follow the traditional hero’s journey, with Theseus fighting the Minotaur and Heracles performing his twelve labors. Both Theseus and Heracles save lives, and both follow the ‘departure, fulfillment, return’ formula, leaving to perform a deed and coming back changed and improved. Their stories are different in detail, but nearly identical in structure.
This ‘hero’s journey’ formula doesn’t only apply to figures in mythology. Modern-day heroes such as Wonder Woman, Luke Skywalker, and Harry Potter all follow this trajectory as well. It would be quite helpful for them to have an idea of what awaits them, and they can do so by identifying their archetype. This is an idea that I’ve come to recognize in my own life: for instance, I identify strongly with Athena because of her love of literature, the arts, and intelligent conversation. I’ve been reading for as long as I can remember, and I’ve dabbled in knitting, crochet, sewing, spinning, and weaving.
However, in my experience, the idea of an archetype goes a lot deeper than that. I recently was diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and as I began to do research into the disorder, I realized that it explained almost everything from my life. Having a simple label made everything fall into place. The theory I’ve developed from this experience is that a mental illness diagnosis has many similarities to archetypes.
OCD is characterized by two things. The first is obsessions, which is described by psychguides.com as “images, ideas, and thoughts that simply will not go away.” The second is compulsions, which Psych Guides explains as “behaviors that individuals with obsessions display in order to relieve themselves of their anxiety.” These behaviors go hand-in-hand, and they can manifest in a number of different ways. Not everyone with OCD experiences every manifestation, as the disorder is different for everyone—just as Theseus and Heracles have different stories but still meet the hero archetype.
When I was fairly young, my sister came down with a case of the stomach flu. I was not a particularly selfless child, so my instant fear was that I, too, would get sick. I was so terrified of this thought that I started carrying hand sanitizer around with me and obsessively washed my hands before each meal. Those actions make sense, because that’s the logical way to avoid germs, but not all compulsions do: I also held my breath for sixty seconds at a time and splashed cold water on my stomach because I felt it would help ward off illness. To this day, I have to knock on wood whenever I hear the word “flu” (writing this paragraph has been a challenge). For years I thought I was just a germaphobe, until I found out that “fear of contamination” is a common occurrence with OCD. This is where the image of people washing their hands hundreds of times a day originates. Another trademark of OCD is intrusive thoughts and the fear that you may hurt someone you love. It’s distressing to have these thoughts pop into your head uninvited, and even more so when you don’t understand what’s happening. As a child, these intrusive thoughts moved me to tears and made me think I was a bad person, when it’s really just one of the more distressing symptoms of OCD.
There are countless instances throughout my life that match up perfectly with symptoms (or ‘archetypes’) of OCD. As a child, I had no explanation for why it took me hours to put on my socks and burst into tears because the seams didn’t feel right. During ballet class, when I moved my arm a certain way, I would have to reverse the motion or feel weird for the rest of the day. Compulsions often change over time, and mine evolved into things like setting four alarms to make sure I woke up on time, checking my backpack five times before leaving the house to make sure I had everything, and stepping over the cracks on the sidewalk with my right foot first. The list seems endless. Although it doesn’t make it easier, it’s a comfort to know why I’m doing these things: it’s OCD, not me.
It took nineteen years for me to have this diagnosis; I never talked about it much because it’s hard to explain and I felt uncomfortable. OCD is often associated with ‘neat freaks,’ people who can’t have a single thing out of order. This led me to believe there was no way I could have OCD: one look at my backpack will confirm that I am not a particularly tidy person. However, the cleanliness is a stereotype. Looking back at the differing definitions of archetype and stereotype, it’s clear that one is helpful and one is harmful. I never really considered the possibility of my having OCD because it seemed so far-fetched—after all, my room was a mess and I didn’t wash my hands 24/7. The stereotype was a contributing factor to why I never realized it.
Being diagnosed with OCD was like putting on glasses in the morning and having everything come into focus. I was diagnosed with anxiety at a young age, so I grew up knowing exactly what was different about me. Although it’s not exactly fun to give yourself a stomachache worrying about going to school the next day, at least I knew why I was doing it. With OCD, though, I had no idea why I was doing these things, and as a result, I felt confused and scared. Now that I have a name for it, I know how to tackle it, and I know other people have forged through. I can only imagine how Heracles would have felt if someone had told him, “You’re a hero archetype.” He would have known a trial, a helpful stranger, and a hero’s quest awaited him. He would have known what to expect. For me, the bottom line is that archetypes give you a blueprint to work with. However, we aren’t limited to these archetypes; Aphrodite herself branched out from her role as goddess of love and took up knitting. They merely offer us a starting point, a model of sorts—something to remind us that others have gone before.