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Harry Potter and the Manic Melancholia

Remus Lupin provides a perfect metaphor for bipolar disorder.

Key points

  • Professor Remus Lupin's lycanthropy is an apt metaphor for bipolar disorder.
  • Both conditions involve cyclical episodes, triggers, and physical transformations involving both body and mind.
  • In both conditions, the severity of episodes can be lessened with medicine.
  • Both conditions subject their sufferers to prejudice and discrimination.
Source: Johannes Geiler von Kaysersberg/Wikimedia Commons.
Werewolf attack, woodcut from Johannes Geiler von Kaysersberg's Die Emeis (1517).
Source: Johannes Geiler von Kaysersberg/Wikimedia Commons.

It’s Halloween again. When thoughts turn to witches, ghosts, and fantastic creatures. The sorts of preternatural beings that make up the world of Harry Potter. And among them, one of my favorite characters: Remus Lupin.

Lupin is a wizard who was attacked by a werewolf as a child. The attack left him infected with lycanthropy and condemned to live out the rest of his life as a werewolf. He was allowed to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry as long as he was secretly confined to an isolated house during his monthly transformations, which is apparently a reasonable accommodation in the wizarding world. Although the condition is incurable, it can be managed with Wolfsbane Potion, which lessens the severity of the transformations and allows the afflicted to retain more control over their mind.

Even in a world where it’s possible to voluntarily transform yourself into any animal you can imagine, werewolves still face prejudice and discrimination. In fact, J.K. Rowling has stated that:

Lupin’s condition of lycanthropy was a metaphor for those illnesses that carry a stigma, like HIV and AIDS ... The wizarding community is as prone to hysteria and prejudice as the Muggle [non-magic] one, and the character of Lupin gave me a chance to examine those attitudes.

For example, Lupin is portrayed as having difficulty holding jobs in spite of his skill and intelligence. He proved himself to be a talented and effective professor at Hogwarts who was highly regarded by many of his students before feeling forced to resign when news of his condition became public.

Although Rowling envisioned the types of stigmatized illnesses symbolized by Lupin as “blood-borne conditions,” I think that Lupin also provides a particularly apt metaphor for bipolar disorder.

Enrique Meseguer/Pixabay.
Source: Enrique Meseguer/Pixabay.

Cyclical nature

First, lycanthropy and bipolar disorder both result in cyclical episodes in which the sufferer loses control of their body and their mind, becomes highly agitated, and is driven by animalistic urges to engage in risky or dangerous behavior. This transformation is followed by a recovery period that is typically longer in duration. Of course, the cycle for lycanthropy is monthly, while individuals with bipolar disorder have one or two cycles per year. Medications such as lithium or Wolfsbane Potion can lessen the severity of the transformation, and going off of those medications can have extreme consequences.

Interestingly, bipolar disorder is one of several mental illnesses that were once thought to be caused by the cycles of the moon, which is the origin of the word “lunatic.”

Triggers

Second, both lycanthropy and bipolar disorder involve triggers. Clearly, the trigger for lycanthropy is the full moon. In fact, during a class exercise, Professor Lupin exposes the students to a shape-shifting creature called a Boggart that takes the form of its observer’s worst fear. For Lupin, the Boggart took the form of a full moon.

For bipolar disorder, triggers vary by individual but include lack of sleep, alcohol and drug abuse, certain medications, relationship conflicts, grief, stress, hormonal changes, or a change in the seasons. In other words, the form that my Boggart would take may be different from someone else with bipolar disorder.

Weird Tales (November 1941)/Wikimedia Commons.
Source: Weird Tales (November 1941)/Wikimedia Commons.

Physical transformation

Third, both lycanthropy and bipolar disorder involve a physical transformation that impacts the body and mind. As compared to a lycanthrope’s change into a werewolf, someone with bipolar disorder experiences changes in various neurotransmitter and hormone levels, such as adrenaline, noradrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine. These changes affect an individual’s mental state, ability to sleep, and energy level, and can prompt extreme variations in weight and personal hygiene.

And the physical transformation associated with lycanthropy results in an interesting aspect of Lupin’s character: He loves chocolate. Rowling has stated that:

[T]he mood-enhancing properties of chocolate are well known in both the Muggle and wizard worlds. Chocolate is the perfect antidote for anyone who has been overcome in the presence of Dementors, which suck hope and happiness out of their surroundings.

However, chocolate contains theobromine and caffeine, which are toxic to canines. So when Lupin eats chocolate, it not only provides him with an endorphin boost like the rest of us, but also allows him to savor his humanity.

So have a happy Halloween. And if you have bipolar disorder, try to find something that helps you remember that you are more than your disease. Find your chocolate.

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