I haven’t done a PMDD post so far this month. But rest assured, while I’ve been cheerily sending out Postcards from Slovenia, privately I’ve been going through hell. Today I’d like to discuss PMDD, and other mental health conditions, in the light of a thoroughly powerful and disturbing short story by Guy de Maupassant.
Spoiler Alert: I am going to discuss the story Le Horla in detail, including giving away the ending. If you would prefer to read it first, here’s a link to the original French version, and to an English translation.
Le Horla: A Short Story about the Demons of the Mind
My father first read this story to me when I was a child. Presumably he wanted to terrify me. The story certainly left an impression:
The narrator, an aristocratic gentleman of Rouen, falls ill with a fever at the beginning of the tale, which is told in the form of a diary. Through successive entries, he charts the progression of his strange and most disturbing illness. As the protagonist becomes more ill, he develops a growing awareness of a being which resides within his home, feeding on his vitality and sapping him of his energy and willpower.
As the tale progresses, the narrator feels increasingly that his spirit is being dominated by this strange being, which he comes to know as Le Horla. Unable to leave his house or properly command his own body, in a desperate attempt to kill the demon, he burns down his house, trapping his servants inside. Realising with horror in the end that the fiend is still alive, he concludes his diary (and the story) thus:
- ‘No, no…without a doubt…without a doubt…he is not dead. Then…then…there is no other solution but to kill myself.’
Context of the Story
The story was published in 1887, five years before Maupassant attempted to commit suicide by slitting his throat, and six years before he died in a Paris asylum. He had been suffering from tertiary syphilis which can cause ‘dementia, personality changes, delusions, seizures, psychosis and depression.’ (Source: Wikipedia).
In describing Le Horla, Maupassant was most likely describing his own struggle with his failing mental health. The narrator of the story questions his own sanity, several times during the course of the narrative, for example:
- From whence do these mysterious influences come, that through discouragement change our good humour and confidence into distress?
The narrator wakes up happy, with a song in his heart, only to return from a short walk completely desolate ‘as if some evil waited upon [him].’
The story was written at a period when the profession of psychiatry was in its infancy, when the medical profession was only beginning to probe the depths of the human psyche. Upon returning to this story, reading it in the context of my own battle with mental health issues, I can only conclude that we have not come very far in this field since 1887.
My own experience with Mental Illness
I always found it a little strange that my father chose to read this particular story to me as a child, not least because my mother had killed herself at the age of 32, when I was 8. I think for this reason it stayed with me. Perhaps it offered some kind of explanation for what she did.
To say that suicide is selfish is surely one of the most insidious and counterproductive misconceptions about mental illness. I know we say ‘mental health’ these days, but in my opinion if someone kills themself they do so because they are very ill. Only those who have experienced the battle with failing mental health and inner demons can possibly hope to understand the desperation and mental torture must drive people to take the most unnatural of actions.
I am now going through my own personal mental health battle, in the form of PMDD. Though apparently caused by an overreaction in the brain to a drop in oestrogen during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle (i.e.e, a physical cause) its manifestations are mainly psychological. I fly into blind rages over the smallest of things. I feel overwhelmed, at times completely defeated and without hope, even though I know the condition is only temporary. My family tell me, and I feel myself, as if someone else has taken over my body. Very possibly just how Maupassant felt when he wrote Le Horla.
Hope on the Horizon
PMDD, like many other conditions which affect a person’s mental health, is treatable. And I believe, it is beatable. Unfortunately, and I suspect tragically, it has only been recognised as a condition since 2013. I think of all those women throughout history who were believed to be ‘possessed by demons,’ some of whom were probably burned alive or drowned as witches. I think about my mother, who I remember flying into rages for now apparent reason, who I remember suffering from very heavy periods. No one had heard of PMDD back then. I will never know if this was Le Horla which led her to take her own life. I only know that it was not an act of wilful selfishness.
I only know that PMDD, like other illnesses which affect the mind, can only be cured by understanding. We have to listen to sufferers and try to understand their experiences, as herein must lie a clue to the root cause of their suffering. Every month, I worry that this thing will kill me. Every month, I worry that my family will turn against me because of the monster I become. I go through one week of hell and I get two weeks of reprieve. But I have the support of my family, and more recently, of other sufferers.
If you think you might have PMDD (telltale signs include extreme bouts of anger and depression which come on in the weeks leading up to your period and disappear with the onset of menstruation), you should of course seek medical advice. However, if your doctor has never heard of the condition, or shrugs it off (as has been my experience) do not lose hope: there is much information and support available on Twitter. Follow #PMDD, and use the resources @IAPMDGlobal, @MEvPMDD, @DPmdd and @viciouscyclepmd. Reach out to other women who are suffering and let them know they are not alone. There is no Horla, there is only ignorance, whose greatest enemy is understanding.