The year I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder was the same year I discovered Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Villette. Lucy’s story is, like mine, one of a young woman who moves away from home for a career opportunity–she to a pensionnat in a fictional Catholic town called Villette where she planned to teach, and I to New York City, where I would attend grad school, and become a teacher too. Her story is also, like mine, one of mental suffering and recovery– and in particular, suffering that stems from intrusive thoughts that seem to come from elsewhere.
I had been cautioned in school against diagnosing literary characters, but I was driven to articulate the connections between myself and this character who, like me, experienced such severe mental suffering at the hands of unknown forces. For neurodiverse and mad readers, reading literature in light of our own experiences of mental suffering can be an empowering act. I hope to show others that, a form self-understanding may stem from diagnosis, one that ultimately allows reader/sufferers to take the power of naming and defining into our hands — to say, “this person who is suffering—I am like her.”
Villette, despite its pockets of fervent adoration, remains in the shadow of more prominent novels by the Brontë’s such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. It tells the story of the mysterious Lucy Snowe, who after suffering an unnamed trauma, and spending a period of time as a caregiver for an elderly woman, decides to seek a new experience in the town of Villette in the fictional land of Labassecoeur. She is seeking work, but also, it is implied, a new beginning—though again, readers know little about her past.
I want to spend a little time on some details in the novel, because they are the clues through which I came to recognize, in Lucy, myself. Lucy’s narration is famously evasive, and at times, even deliberately misleading, and her desire to hide her anxiety from readers is one explanation for her peculiar brand of storytelling. For instance, it seems likely that Lucy has suffered from the loss of her family, as she has no one to rely on financially—a fact that ostensibly sparks her search for employment. She also speaks cryptically of a metaphorical “shipwreck” in her life. After a period of calm, Lucy writes that “it cannot be concealed…that I must have somehow fallen overboard, or that there must have been wreck at last.”
Though she reluctantly reveals this much to readers, it’s not until a scene that occurs at the novel’s halfway point that Lucy fully reveals the long-term psychological suffering she has kept from us. After teaching at the pensionnat for months, Lucy suddenly finds herself alone during a long vacation. Her thoughts seem to “intrude” on her, miserably from elsewhere. She has bad dreams as well as what seem to be waking nightmares, and struggles to account for a “nameless experience that had the hue, the mien, the terror of a visitation from eternity.” Crucially, this vision featured her family—not as she remembered them, but “elsewhere, alienated.” Alone, and unsure of the lines between fantasy and reality, she questions the only thing that seems to have given her hope—her belief that her family was waiting for her in a pleasant afterlife.
It struck me that it’s in a prayer that Lucy first makes her long-term psychological suffering clear. This moment also shows that her suffering touches the very foundations of her inner life—her religion. Trying to pray, she “could only utter these words—’From my youth up, Thy terrors I have suffered with a troubled mind.’” In this moment, Lucy seems not merely to have lost her faith, but to suspect God himself of being her tormentor—perhaps for creating her as an anxious person. Even so, Lucy finally decides to go to the one place in Catholic Villette where she knows she is unlikely to be turned away — a church at the hour of confession. Lucy experiences doubt about how to approach confession, telling the priest that she is “perishing for a word of advice” and that she “had a pressure of affliction on my mind of which it would hardly any longer endure the weight.” Rather than sin, she has come to him with despair. Perhaps it is because of this disjunction that, even in a confessional—a place made for her to speak her turmoil — Lucy has no words to adequately convey her affliction to the priest.
My experiences are different than Lucy’s. But they share important qualities: an intensity of suffering, and a painful feeling that both faith and language had deserted me.
From as early as I can remember, I had thoughts that I might harm myself, and that I didn’t really love my family. At around 9, my fears became more serious. After seeing a report of infanticide on the news, I began to fear that my parents might be capable of killing me. Despite my fear, I also knew that my parents were (and are) good people, causing me to feel intense shame about my fears.
Moreover, I believed these thoughts were a unique part of me — rather than a mental health issue that needed treating. We were an Evangelical Christian family, and as a sensitive, dreamy child, I had always been devout. I loved praying, singing, and attending church and experienced many transcendent moments down at the altar during revivals. But in these years, I increasingly equated my OCD with the devil, and my thoughts with sin. To make things worse, confession, repentance and continually recommitting my life to God became compulsive for me. During altar calls at church, the music and a voice within myself that I identified then as the Holy Spirit pulled at me powerfully. I found this voice to be one of the most beautiful and mystical aspects of my religion, and yet, combined with the church’s emphasis on sin and repentance, the voice became punishing and severe.
At the time, I believed the problem was my sinful thoughts. So I suffered both from my wild imagination and from the part of my belief that sought to punish me for these thoughts. Like Lucy, I turned to my faith as a means of hope and power. Instead, I found, as Lucy did, that it was not capable of seeing me through such intense experiences of mental anguish. And as an adult who now understands religion as a central force that exacerbated my childhood OCD, I understand best of all her bitter, pained, plea to a God whom she believed was causing her suffering.
Brontë herself experienced severe anxiety and depression when alone at school, first, as a teacher at Roe Head School in 1838 and then, in a different teaching position Brussels in 1843 — an experience which powerfully informed Lucy’s story of despair and confession in Villette. Like me, and like Lucy, she hoped the act of confession might save her. In a letter to her sister Emily that could seem flippant if one didn’t know the depth of her struggles, she writes of experiencing “a fancy to change myself into a real Catholic.” Perhaps attempting to undermine what might seem too much like a sincere conversion, she attempted to explain herself to her sister, saying “when people are by themselves, they have singular fancies.”
Unlike Lucy, Brontë notes that she makes “a real confession,” though of course we do not know what she confessed. Biographer Juliet Barker assumes Brontë was experiencing guilt about her feelings for a married man, Constantin Heger, the director of the pensionnat where she worked. However, knowing how confessions can frequently be compulsive for OCD’ers, I wonder if Brontë might have been suffering from guilt over imagined, rather than real, wrongdoings. As an OCD’er, her confession reads to me as a possible symptom of suffering rather than an unburdening of it.
The similarity between Lucy’s story and Brontë’s — and mine — led me to read more of Brontë’s letters and diaries, and in them, I found confirmation that Brontë suffered in ways very similar to Lucy and to myself. I first began to notice what I now think of as Brontë’s OCD in her relationship with her best friend, Ellen Nussey. She considered herself to be spiritually inferior to Nussey and often remarked on what she saw as the disparity between them. In one letter, for instance, Brontë admonishes her friend not to “deceive yourself by imagining I have a bit of real goodness about me.” As the letter continues, the gap between them widens: “My darling, if I were like you, I should have my face set Zion-ward…but I am not like you.” Brontë’s language for the plays she wrote with her siblings, the Angria sagas, similarly show her anxiety about an “infernal world” that seems both within and without her — self-generated but not under her own control.
In article about Villette, Rachel Ablow writes of the diagnostic label that Lucy (and Brontë) found useful — hypochondria. As Ablow has argued, the label of hypochondria allows Lucy to develop a strong connection with other sufferers, even those whose interior lives she only imagines. For Brontë as well, hypochondria provided a term that allowed her to understand her experience and that of others.
Comparing her experience to that of a friend who suffered from similar maladies — “the concentrated anguish of certain insufferable moments and the heavy gloom of many long hours” — allows her to communicate her suffering; to explain that such sufferers become “a weary burden to those about them” and that self-consciousness “infuses a new gall…into their bitter cup.” Her diagnosis therefore also allows her to shed light on some of the shame sufferers from mental illness face at not being able to overcome their afflictions.
When I read Brontë’s letters, in which she confides in trusted friends about her malady, rather than with a forced flippancy, I see more than her suffering — I see the relief that comes from being about to speak suffering in a language others find intelligible.
I was diagnosed with OCD when I was in grad school. I had moved from the small college town of San Marcos, TX to a shoebox apartment in Brooklyn, where I knew no one. I rode loud trains into the city twice a week for my classes. Because of my fellowship, I was lucky not to have to teach during the first year of my degree. But for me, the absence of any other activity besides reading for classes was actually paralyzing. I started having disturbing thoughts — about whether I might harm myself or my partner or whether my partner might harm me — of the kind I hadn’t had since childhood. I cried constantly; I lost sleep.
Finally, I got up the nerve to begin therapy at my school counseling center. My therapist diagnosed me with OCD. Medication and years of cognitive behavioral therapy helped me get my OCD under control, but for me, I began my recovery the moment my therapist told me there was a name for what I was. Though there was plenty of work I still had to do to understand my own experience, it was the label that first gave me hope. It meant that I wasn’t crazy. It meant that I could still be saved. In retrospect, I realize that there was nothing shameful about my experience, regardless of the label that was placed on it. I also realize that sufferers should have the power to accept or reject the labels that the medical establishment gives them (labels that can be profoundly stigmatizing), and to define and understand those labels on our own terms. In addition to my formal therapy then, I also consider this essay and other sense-making efforts I have engaged in to be part of my recovery process.
I should also say that for me, this “recovery” is not synonymous with “cure.” I still experience intrusive thoughts regularly, and don’t wish for a cure. However, medication and therapy have allowed me to more carefully and precisely choose the thought patterns I engage with. Additionally, like Bronte, I see the value in the unique perspective offered by my OCD brain.
As Brontë did with her imagined land of Angria, I have found that intrusive thoughts (when they are not completely overwhelming) can be repurposed into creative premises. Finally, through therapy and the examples of historical figures like Bronte, I have been able to let go of the most destructive aspect of mental suffering—the shame attached to it, and so, I continue to identify openly as an OCD’er. I hope that, in doing so, anyone suffering in silence can see the power of owning experiences of mental suffering as part of one’s identity.
Because making sense of our experiences is such a crucial part of recovery, representations of little-understood mental illnesses like OCD are desperately needed — especially for the young people struggling with them. If I had seen representations that showed the kind of OCD I had as a child, I might have put the pieces together and reached out to my parents or a teacher far earlier in my life. Reading the experiences of Lucy and Brontë might also have shown me that I had nothing to be ashamed of and that I could experience recovery through diagnosis and treatment.
In addition to more representation, however, I also believe that scholars, critics and everyday readers can contribute by refusing to turn a blind eye to our own mental and psychological pain when we read. Merri Lisa Johnson pioneers a model of feminist disability studies reading that is liberating for the neurodiverse in that she advocates just such an attention to our own experiences. In particular, she argues for the validity of using her personal experience with borderline personality disorder as a critical lens — “as a gauge to sense others in the vicinity who share it,” which she playfully suggests might constitute a “psychiatric version of gaydar…mad insight perhaps, or cray-dar.”
Johnson therefore embraces diagnostic reading of characters, arguing that in many cases, the label leads not to stigma, but “only to therapeutic care.” Johnson writes that when readers diagnose characters, we “mak[e] illnesses in literature visible as illnesses.” My experiences have certainly matched those Johnson discusses, as for me, diagnosis did not lead to stigma, but to receiving care for my psychological pain. I realize also that there is also privilege in being able to say this. Many people who confess suicidal or dark thoughts to therapists are forcibly hospitalized, and those living with even more misunderstood conditions such as schizophrenia may be in more danger of facing stigma and violence at the hands of the mental health institution. People of color and working class people may be in particular danger of such violence, as they are already stigmatized by racist and classist attitudes about who is a “danger to themselves or others.” Diagnosis can certainly be inaccurate and even dangerous to those who are marginalized. I would add, however, that diagnosing a character does not require diagnosis of oneself—either formal or informal. Sometimes, merely reading about someone’s similar experience of mental suffering could be helpful—could show a person that they are not alone.
For me, the label of OCD helped me to articulate that similarity to myself and other. Most importantly, using OCD as my own particular version of cray-dar has allowed me to take my own pain seriously as a heuristic for criticism. I believe using our own bodies and minds as lenses could be a radical act, even in the face of such stigma and danger, as it puts more knowledge and therefore, more power in our hands—rather than relying only on therapists or other authority figures.
And for me, diagnostic reading is not so much an ending as a starting place. As individuals who share a diagnosis, a label, how do we make use of that label for our own ends (or throw it out if we decide to)? Labels are inevitably inadequate—especially for nebulous experiences of mental suffering. Additionally, no diagnostic category is a monolith. OCD in particular can involve widely varying experiences and intrusive thoughts that follow very different “themes.”
For this reason, when those who do have not experienced OCD try to represent it, folks with OCD can experience a painful sense of misrecognition. So much of OCD representation in the past has focused on tired stereotypes and treated the illness as nothing more than a humorous personality quirk. This is another reason why it is so important to claim and use our own experiences as heuristics for reading (and perhaps writing); if we do not, they will be used by others who do not understand them.
I am profoundly grateful to Brontë for writing a book like Villette, late as I found it. Though she did not and could not have known the nonexistent term OCD, her book and her experiences shine with the intimate knowledge of experiences very similar to mine — experiences of intrusive thoughts and compulsive actions. Perhaps one of the things I most appreciate about Villette, however, is Brontë’s rendering of a person experiencing psychological distress with no understanding of how to end that distress or framework for understanding it. Seeing Lucy grapple with the feelings of being profoundly alone was paradoxically, one of the first things that made me realize I was not.
Before my diagnosis, my failure to find words to describe or explain my experience was a key aspect of my own mental suffering. Likewise, facing that failure of language has been an important part of my recovery. Not having words for my own experience was so hopeless and disorienting. Having words—even inadequate ones is better. Being able to see literary descriptions of mental suffering that mirror one’s own such as to make them recognizable is a profound gift. I am grateful to Brontë for being brave enough to confront her own suffering in writing. I hope many readers of this essay will do the same. May we all be brave enough to use our experiences of mental suffering as lenses in our reading and writing, as ways of seeing those who share them. Perhaps in doing so, you will become a helper in someone else’s recovery—the face whose worried lines some stranger seems to recognize.
Elissa Myers teaches writing and literature, and is working on a book about girls’ crafts in the nineteenth century.