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Spells, Salves, and Pills

On page 213 of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, Quentin thinks while confronting the depths of his sadness, “Wasn’t there a spell for making yourself happy?  Somebody must have invented one.  How could he have missed it?  Why didn’t they teach it?”

And I thought to myself: if there was a spell like that, I would use it.  I mean, provided it didn’t have any unwanted side effects.  But if all I had to do was point a wand at myself and chant a few words, I would use it.  Not all the time, but sometimes.  Most of the time.  No one wants to struggle; no one wants to be down or anxious or moody.  But if there was a spell that could help keep emotions in balance?  Sure, I’d take advantage of it from time to time.  Wouldn’t you?

Then I thought, if there was an ointment that I could rub on my skin to make myself happy, I’d probably do that too.  It would be akin to sunscreen, except it would protect you from negative energy buzzing through the air.  If all I had to do was rub a salve on my skin and it would keep out all the unwanted thoughts and feelings, help me to regulate reality so that I wasn’t being led astray by fear or worry, I would massage that cream in.  Again, provided that it didn’t have massively negative side effects.  But if it was well-researched?  If the benefits outweighed the drawbacks?  Then yes, pass me the tube.  Wouldn’t you?

So why do we have such a stigma around drugs that we ingest that accomplish the same task?

When it’s magical: bring it on.

When it’s topical: rub it in.

When it’s internal…

When it’s internal, there is suddenly this layer of judgment.  What is okay for the outside of the body is anathema inside the body, even if it accomplishes the same thing.

Despite being a health editor and having read countless pieces about depression, I had never thought about the stigma in quite this way until I encountered a hypothetical spell in a book.

I am still on the first book in the trilogy, and at this point, Quentin doesn’t know that spell for a specific reason given later in the chapter.  I don’t know if he ever gains knowledge of that spell in the future, and if he does, if he chooses to use it.  But wouldn’t you?


1 a { 10.22.14 at 8:26 am }

I don’t know – you’re talking about mental health medications, but this could also apply to other drugs like cocaine or ecstasy. The downside for those is the addictive nature, which I think is more relevant to your spell idea than anti-depressants.

Would I use a spell to make myself happy? Probably not – I’m too much of a realist, and a spell would seem like artificial happiness.

2 chickenpig { 10.22.14 at 8:29 am }

Hell yeah! When I was in the darkest depths of PPD I had a magic pill called Zoloft that lifted me out of the pit.

I don’t think it is the cure that has a stigma attached, though, it is the disease of depression itself. “How can you be sad? You have two babies, what’s the matter with you? If I had two babies I would be over the moon with happiness!” We still have a long way to go when it comes to accepting mental illness the same as other illnesses. (Heck, we have a long way to go when it comes to accepting infertility as an illness.)

Love the Magicians series. I would read them again right now if I could find the damn books. Also gone missing is about half of my Harry Potter books and the Corrections, which I’m sure I lent to my mom.

3 fifi { 10.22.14 at 9:25 am }

There is a difference between “sadness” and “depression”. I wouldn’t want to get rid of sadness altogether; life would be rather flat without some sadness in it.
But depression is a different beast altogether. JK Rowling knew what she was doing when she created the dementors, who sucked the joy out of life.
Of course, it’s not always so easy, especially for the person suffering it, to distinguish between ordinary sadness and clinical depression. And the drugs don’t always work, and they do have side effects. But yes, less stigma on the anti-depressives, please. But also more awareness that there’s no one solution to it, magical or otherwise.

4 Karen (River Run Dry) { 10.22.14 at 10:38 am }

I would love if there was a magical spell to make me happy. Or a cream. Or even a pill. There have been times in my life when I was clinically depressed where I could really, really have used it.

That said, for me, that kind of happiness is fleeting, because the underlying issues are still there. My patterns in behaviour and emotion and reactions are what causes me to suffer, and though a pill might ease my way through it, I still have those issues which cause suffering. The way to change it forever is to treat the WHOLE thing – not just the body (chemical imbalance), but also the heart and mind (behaviour and emotions).

At least, that’s what I tell myself when I pay the $$ in therapy bills we rack up every month. 🙂

5 earthandink { 10.22.14 at 1:00 pm }

I wrote quite a long comment, lost my internet connection and lost my comment, so I’ll try to come back when I’ve time and re-respond.

In the mean, offtopic, but I think something you’d enjoy reading, a post I found this morning bouncing about the web: http://levgrossman.com/2011/11/what-is-fantasy-about/

6 Megrae1225 { 10.22.14 at 6:27 pm }

I really liked how you put things in perspective. Amazing. We need more awareness for how we think and also for how we project those thoughts on others.

7 Mali { 10.22.14 at 10:28 pm }

It’s weird what stigma there is to various illnesses or states of mind. I was actually talking about this over coffee earlier today. We might freely have a drink at the end of the day to relax or get over a tough day or week, so why wouldn’t we take a medication or ointment to do the same thing? It’s a good question, and worth thinking about.

Certainly when it comes to depression, I don’t think there should be any stigma in taking medication to combat this. But like one of the other commenters, I don’t think life should be nothing but happiness (which sounds odd to say out loud). Because how could we appreciate our happiness if we never experienced the alternatives? And so often we learn and grow and develop as human beings from those alternatives.

8 Tiara { 10.23.14 at 9:21 am }

When you were talking about the spell or salve, my first thought was, “But if I didn’t feel sadness, then I won’t feel gratitude” not that all my feelings of gratitude stem from my feelings of being said but they do seem to go hand in hand for me.

When talking about taking a pill for depression, there shouldn’t be a stigma. If you have a headache & take a Tylenol, rarely would anyone pass judgement. If you have diabetes & need to take insulin, no one would pass judgement on that. So if you suffer from depression or other mental health issues, you should not be judged.

9 Justine { 10.26.14 at 9:36 pm }

I think I wouldn’t mind having something that gave me more protection against my own self-defeating thoughts. Not against sadness, exactly. But better armor.

I think my concern with medication (having seen quite a few students on it) is that sometimes they’re medicated and don’t remember what life was like without it … and sometimes they’re so flattened and dull that I’m not sure that was the right way to go, either. The pill is too easy, and there are too many unknowns. For some of them, though, when used right, it’s a godsend. Like my student having a breakdown the other day who needed anti-anxiety just to stop the spiral. And the other who was recently diagnosed bipolar.

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