'Harry Potter' Saved My Life When I Was Struggling With My Mental Health Growing Up
It’s evidently clear from the moment you walk into my life that I am an extreme Harry Potter fan. Not just, “I read the books,” but I surround myself with it. My classroom is themed with the Hogwarts house flags, hanging cauldrons, owls and English posters themed with Harry Potter quotes and ideas. My Harry Potter book collection is proudly displayed on my library’s bookcase and tattooed on my forearm is the symbol of the Deathly Hallows.
Many believe it is an obsession. Even more find the connection as a way to relate to me and start a conversation. Very few people, however, take the time to ask why. Why have I surrounded myself with this piece of literature? It’s actually a pretty simple answer. Harry Potter saved my life.
Every once in a while I try to understand what causes someone to acquire a mental illness. It’s obvious some illnesses are just programmed into us, but ultimately, at the end of the day, there is no stopping it. Whether we were born with it or acquired it through traumatic events, it is a part of us now. For me, I don’t honestly believe I have always lived with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). I don’t remember being an anxious child or being obsessed with things to the point of almost destruction. But I do remember when it set in and I remember very clearly how I escaped it.
The first panic attack I can remember was when I was around 12 years old and I had arrived at my father’s house. At this point in my life I was very much aware of his own issues and illnesses. He lay passed out in the other room and I remember my brain beginning to spin. What am I supposed to do? How is mom going to respond to this? What if I turn out like him? I panicked. I started to have a feeling I had never had before. My chest felt like it had blown up from the pressure and heartache. My head spun and I began to sob. It had started. I believe my struggle with mental illness began that day. But, I made it through.
I locked myself in the bathroom for the day and I read “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” I escaped. I went on a journey. A journey I had no idea would change my life forever.
What I love about literature is its ability to provide us with an escape — a safe haven. That day wasn’t the last time that I found comfort in Harry Potter. But for a while, it helped me cope. I became obsessed with collecting Harry Potter memorabilia during my early teens. My mom had remarried and shortly after the relationship between myself and my new stepdad became abusive. I remember staying up late at night with my television on while I sat in bed reading “Harry Potter.” For some reason, I thought my stepdad would be more upset with me to find out I was reading than watching television when I was supposed to be sleeping. Looking back now, it was during this time I began exhibiting my OCD tendencies.
I was obsessed with my Harry Potter collection. I wanted it to be an exact representation of how I wished my life was – organized, orderly and without clutter. As the abuse went on, my obsessions expanded beyond my collection. I began obsessing over friendships, school, extracurricular activities and when my anxiety kicked in, so did my compulsive tendencies to respond in ways that weren’t practical. It got bad enough that I was getting disciplined for things I didn’t understand. I started to lose friends because I was pushing them out with my weird compulsive tendencies. Finally, though, my anxiety prevailed and I sat down with mom and told her about the abuse and its effect on me. We left. And guess what came with me? My Harry Potter stuff.
It was a constant through it all. I read it. I organized my collection. I wanted to be a part of the story. I felt alone, but not when I was at Hogwarts.
The months after leaving the abusive home, we were homeless living with family and friends until mom got us back on our feet. During all of it, I read “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” Even when our lives were beginning to improve, I still sought shelter within the series. It was a part of me now and would continue to be for many years.
The good news is that my life got a lot better after that. I began to enjoy “Harry Potter” for its wonderful stories and characters because I truly wanted to — not just as an escape. The first midnight movie premiere I went to was “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and I attended all of the movies at midnight after that. I forged strong friendships with others in high school who loved the series too. Nowadays, my wife spends just as much time in the series as I do proudly sporting her Ravenclaw attire.
I would be naïve to say that I don’t return to the series during hard times when my anxiety and OCD begin to rear its evil horns. I reread the series my first year teaching, because, well, it was my first year of teaching (a.k.a. anxiety central). When college stressed me out, I would reread “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” as a way to remind myself an end was near. And even now, my classroom is Harry Potter themed because every day when I step into my room it provides comfort and clarity.
Throughout my life I have needed comfort and structure. I have needed something to get me through my struggles and self-doubt. If you will: I have needed an Elder Wand to help me defeat those who have doubted me and defeat my anxiety. I have needed a Cloak of Invisibility to hide my struggles and my mental illnesses from overtaking my life. And I have needed a Resurrection Stone to remember the ones that have moved on to the afterlife but still battle my demons alongside me. Having all three makes you the Master of Death, but in my world, having all three makes you the Master of Life.
I have needed “Harry Potter” like others need medicine, counseling, addictions, etc. because at the end of the day, Harry Potter saved my life.
“After all this time? Always.”
Photo via “Harry Potter” Facebook page