The 'Moby Dick' Character I Relate to as Someone With Mental Illness


“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” — Captain Ahab, “Moby Dick”

This last of Captain Ahab’s lines from the classic story, “Moby Dick,” is well known to both lovers of the book and a certain Star Trek movie as well. For those who might not know the story of “Moby Dick,” in my opinion, I believe it can be summed up in one word: mania.

For those of us who have dealt with anxiety, bipolar disorder and particularly depression, the term “mania” is one that is very familiar. As I think about those days, I recall the many episodes of mania that were caused by my mental illness. When reading “Moby Dick,” I recall the experiences of mania so many people have gone through.

Mania is marked by periods of great excitement, euphoria, delusions and overactivity. It is part of bipolar disorder, but many don’t notice during depressed periods, the depressed person is fighting a battle in their mind that has no end. I believe this is because of what I’ll refer to as a “Captain Ahab tendency” for this article. I believe the real problem with mania is that it can cause a great disruption in our lives and move us even further away from allowing healing from a mental illness to take place.

Sometimes, mania is less “elevation” and more irritability. So now back to our “Captain Ahab tendency,” and why we must fight this mania that works to tear at our souls. Many people have analyzed “Moby Dick” and the story of the Captain Ahab’s obsession to kill the white whale. See, the whale has robbed the sad captain of a part of himself. It really doesn’t matter that it is his leg — the point is he feels monomaniacally fixated on getting revenge against the whale, even though everyone around him knows the peace he seeks is not in killing the whale, but in himself.

But sometimes, when someone is in a state of mania, we cannot share these insights. Sometimes, people in a manic state may not realize they are experiencing mania. During the whole story, Captain Ahab’s fixation caused him to relentlessly hold onto pain, even though it not only hurt him deeply — but also those around him. In the end, all that was left of the situation was destruction. In my experience, this is all too familiar. It is pain that causes me to remain in my state of depression and anger at myself, while blaming everything else around me for my condition. 

Herman Melville may have realized what he was truly writing about by making Moby Dick a white whale. Why? Because it is much easier for the great captain to search for a unique white whale than another whale. And don’t you ever wonder how, in a vast sea, he is able to find it and battle it? I believe the battle is really in him and not with the whale. Yes, it is a good story of this mania he experiences and the action around his obsession, but I believe his revenge teaches a great lesson about why we have to work even harder to give up and move forward, without allowing ourselves to be haunted by our pasts.

Sure, it’s so easy to say that. But here’s a picture of me. For over 20 years, I allowed the bullying that happened to me as a child tear me up inside. In the end, it only brought me pain and a great loss of moving forward. It was my white whale and I wanted revenge in the worst way. I was consumed with questions. But when do we take personal responsibility for our own actions or inactions? When do we face our white whale and instead of wanting to kill it, just forgive it and move on?

I believe this is the heart of what we must do to get past the painful aspects of the past. It is mindfulness that allows this forgiveness and yes, the forgiveness is for ourselves. Let’s pretend for a moment that in “Moby Dick,” the captain just lets go of this manic revenge obsession and moved forward. The book would be about two pages, but Ahab would be alive and on the path to healing. 

So what is your white whale? What do you not want to give up, because it is so much easier to blame something on the outside for all of your problems? What is it that keeps this one thing from allowing you to move on?

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Thinkstock photo via goldhafen.


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