Weekly Feature: Cristy Dodson

Sylvia Plath Said More In 30 Years Than I Will In 60

by Cristy Dodson

“The floor seemed wonderfully solid. It was comforting 

to know I had fallen and could fall no farther.”

― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

On February 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath died after having placed her head in an oven with the gas on. She was 30 years old. She was 9 years older than I am now and she was gone.

In the fall of 2017, I took my first literature class at the University of Tennessee, American Literature: Civil War – Present. I only read one book. I have always railed against being told what to read, but I made an exception for Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. My older sister had read it before and recommended it.

She said, “It’s right up your alley. Plath committed suicide after she wrote it.”

My sister tends to get me depressing books (the last one I received was an anthology of Death Poems). I don’t know if I’m really as morbid as she thinks, but I suspect I might be. I have always been interested in suicide, at least since I first understood what it was. I can remember being young and reading a book with this word I didn’t recognize. I asked my mom what it meant.

She said, “It means he died.”

I, of course, responded, “Well why didn’t the author just say that then?”

She said, “Suicide means he died, but he killed himself.”

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a definition of a word I didn’t know that has ever hit so hard. I couldn’t understand it. Why would someone die on purpose? Why would they leave all their friends and family behind when they didn’t have to? Wouldn’t they miss the sun and the ice cream man and when a dog takes a good, long lick up the side of your cheek? I was young, and I couldn’t understand leaving this world for the unknown. As I grew up, I got it. 

“The silence depressed me. It wasn't the silence 

of silence. It was my own silence.”

― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath’s first known suicide attempt happened when she was 19. Sylvia swallowed her mother’s sleeping pills in excess and crawled under her house. She lay in the dark crawl space for three days. Can you imagine three days, suspended between life and death, lying in the dark underneath the home where you lived?  I can or at least I think I can. To be below the life you knew on earth and lost in some transient space? It seems peaceful. In that place, on the edge of death, she was also on the edge of life. I think I’d find comfort in that subliminal space. I hope she did.

Sylvia was 19 in the crawl space of her family home. I was 19 reading The Bell Jar in a pre-requisite literature class. We only spent 2 days on the novel, and when my class talked about it, they focused more on Plath herself – and they crucified her. Classmates tossed out that “she was selfish” and “there’s no good reason to commit suicide.” Someone even said, “I don’t understand why she would go that far, it’s not like she was raped or tortured.” Every terrible comment reverberated through my mind. 

She wasn’t raped, but she was invaded by a depression that she had no control over. And she was tortured. Electroconvulsive therapy. Insulin shock treatment. She was hurt so much trying to be “fixed.” Nobody in my class even had the decency to google her. They didn’t want to try to understand her choice. They wanted to condemn it – to condemn her. 

I sat in class that day and didn’t say anything. I didn’t defend her. I couldn’t even force myself to stand up and walk out. I did nothing, and I still think about it. Sylvia Plath, and the countless others who have thought about or committed suicide, deserved more from me. They deserved more from all of us. I didn’t have control over what everyone else did, but I should have made myself do something. Plath deserved better. I deserved better. 

Plath said later that she believed she had died on that first recorded attempt. She thought the blackness surrounding her was “eternal oblivion.” But those students in my class? A few of them said that she went to hell. That suicide was a sin. I don’t – I can’t – believe that. There has to be something better on the other side. I hope when Sylvia finally did end it in 1963, she found that eternal oblivion she was searching for. Or maybe she found something better.

“I was supposed to be having the time of my life.”

― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

When I was 10, I was prescribed my first antidepressant, Celexa. I can remember going to sleepovers with my pill box tucked away in my bag. At my friend Keylee’s house, the other girls would run downstairs when Keylee’s mom, Tina, said that breakfast was ready. I’d wait until they had all left the room before digging around for my medicine. I would walk downstairs with a little orange pill hidden in my palm and wash it down with swig of milk as other girls gossiped. Normally they didn’t pay attention, but Keylee’s mom did once.

She said, “What are you taking Cristy? You’re too young to be taking pills for your health.”

“Oh, it’s just an antidepressant, Ms. Tina,” I responded not even knowing what that really meant.

Her eyes narrowed and she said, “I don’t believe in that,” before walking off.

I didn’t really understand what she meant for a while, but Keylee told me later that her mom didn’t believe depression or obsessive compulsive disorder were real illnesses let alone believe in meds to treat them. Her viewpoint made me question if I was just being dramatic. I thought that maybe I was just making things up, that I was wasting my parent’s time and money for no reason. But the drugs did help. Celexa changed something in me, something that willing myself to ignore my problems couldn’t change.

Unfortunately, depression is much like the old adage that “what goes up must come down.” Medicine stop being effective. Symptoms change. Nothing works forever. Sylvia Plath is as good a representation of this as anyone. She attempted suicide, wrote a thesis, received a Fulbright, married, went back into treatment, had two children, wrote Ariel and The Bell Jar, and committed suicide. There was a lot more that happened, but she had bursts of creativity and spans of hopelessness. Nothing was constant. Neither her children nor her writing could save her in the end; that last low was too much. 

Eight years after receiving my first prescription, I came back down. Summer 2017 was not as big a low as Plath’s, but it was such a low in relation to my own mental health that my parents found a new prescriber. And she was worried. I was emotional, didn’t have any energy, and I had no appetite. I lost 25 lbs. in one month which is how I ended up with two new drugs on top of my Celexa. Wellbutrin and Rexulti were added to the mix. That was the closest I ever got to feeling even a fraction of what I imagined Sylvia Plath felt over and over. I thought about suicide in an off-hand way, but I never planned it. I made jokes about it, but I never once attempted it. Later that fall, my therapist told me that my nurse practitioner was overzealous in her approach to my depression. She said, “I knew you were never gonna do it.”

“The trouble was, I had been inadequate all

along, I simply hadn't thought about it.”

― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

I often wonder what made her so sure, if something made me fundamentally different a woman like Sylvia Plath. I have never gotten to the point of attempting to take my life, but I am not sure that I couldn’t. My therapist was there telling me she didn’t believe I would have done it, and I was seeing Tina, Keylee’s mom, in her place. I was brought right back into that dangerous headspace of doubting what I knew I felt. Depression began to seem like something for people to discredit others with, like something that wasn’t real. I wondered if I had been making it all up. I thought that if it happened again, I wouldn’t try to get more help. It seemed like a waste of time and money if I was “never gonna do it” anyway.

Plath did do it. She did it even though she and the people around her were treating her depression like something real. I could take that information and use it to support Tina’s argument of not believing in treatment, but it has started to mean the opposite for me. I believe that because Plath lived her life between attempts, treating mental illness as valid does matter and treatment is important. The fact that Sylvia Plath didn’t survive but that doesn’t make me want to try to get better any less. It makes me want to try more. People who are ignorant to mental illness will always exist, but I’m going to trust what I feel despite them. Even when it’s hard and sometimes it’s incredibly hard.

“I told him I believed in hell, and that 

certain people, like me, had to live in hell

 before they died, to make up for missing

 out on it after death.”

― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

My professor for my first Writing Poetry course was Dr. Kallet, one of those people who wants to fix you rather than relate to you. I was in her last poetry class before she retired from the University, and I often wish she had retired just one semester prior. Each week had to write a poem under a new topic, but overall, we were told to write what we knew. I knew depression. I wrote about being in that headspace even as I was doing better, but that didn’t always come through. One week I read this:

“Answers in Space”

I like to think of the stars

as cracks in the armor

of our night sky.

I like to think of the planets 

as failed attempts

at creating the Earth.

I also have cracks

that are filling with sand.

I have failed attempts.

I am also a mistake of man.

I stand upon this piece of space junk,

calling out to the moon,

and the stars to my scars

answer me back.

The cosmos is broken

and so are you.

I chose to write about depression, but it was, and still is, hard to write mental illness without getting pity back. People read a sad poem, and they think it is a cry for help even when it isn’t. They can’t separate experience from a person overall. Kallet was like that.

She said, “What are we going to do with you? I do the poetry readings at the memorials for the students that commit suicide at UT. I don’t want to be doing yours next.”

I had never had a teacher be so tone deaf to a situation. My classmates said nothing and looked like they felt unbelievably sorry for me. I emailed her after class and told her I was not a spectacle for the class to pity. I ended that email by writing: “Every single person in that room knew what you were doing to me except for you. But you don’t have to worry about losing a student because if I can make it through the days like today, I can sure as hell make it through the rest of them.” 

That was one year ago. Last week, Dr. Kallet was in the paper for doing a poetry reading at a memorial for a student who committed suicide in his dorm room. I’m sure she read something lovely.

That same student’s memoriam section in the UT email headed “April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month” was a few sentences long, halfway down the page. It said nothing about who he really was, but I wondered anyway. I wondered what led him to that choice. I spent time searching for his social media profiles and his obituary. At the end of all that searching, I found nothing. There wasn’t a trace of him. The answer of why is hardly ever given, but I’m always searching for a piece of it.

When I read The Bell Jar I went through the same process, a process I’ve now done with countless other suicides: I went down the research rabbit hole. I searched through everything I could find about Plath, her life, and her death. I learned about her cheating and abusive husband, Ted Hughes. I read that Hughes’ partner Asia Wevill killed herself and their daughter in an oven 6 years after Plath killed herself in the same way. Every part of Sylvia Plath’s story that I found has been absorbed into my consciousness. Even knowing about her relationship with Ted Hughes and the violent treatments she received in the name of healing, I still can’t know why she did it. People are always trying to boil events down to one singular cause, and they hardly ever find one. Tragedies are hardly ever because of just one thing. It’d be easier to understand if they weren’t, and I think that’s why I keep searching.

I took an Intro Psych class where I was told that women attempt suicide more often than men, but men’s suicide rates are higher. Men succeed more. A male is more likely to choose a more violent method, to really die. When Sylvia Plath committed suicide on February 11, 1963, she put her head in the oven. That was her last attempt, her only success. I want to know what it was about that time that was different, if she wanted it more that time.

“If you love her", I said, "you'll love

somebody else someday.”

― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

“Lady Lazarus” is a poem that appeared in Sylvia Plath’s Ariel published two years after her death. The middle section is as follows:

…And I a smiling woman.

I am only thirty.

And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.

What a trash

To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.

The peanut-crunching crowd

Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot—

The big strip tease.

Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands

My knees.

I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.

The first time it happened I was ten.

It was an accident.

The second time I meant

To last it out and not come back at all.

I rocked shut

As a seashell.

They had to call and call

And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.


Is an art, like everything else.

I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell…

“Lady Lazarus” is Sylvia Plath. I can feel her reaching out and taking my hand when I read it. I feel the honesty, the choice. She told everyone what was going to happen, we just read it two years too late. And I feel like that’s the point. She didn’t want to be saved. I love Sylvia Plath and, because she has given me that love, I’ll love someone else someday. 

“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped

as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”

― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Learning of different methods, different tragedies, makes me think about if one way of death is inherently sadder than another. I know that deaths of mass murderers are generally less sad, but what I mean is death undeserved. I think of my classmates in my lit class and how they would likely say that suicide isn’t sad, just selfish. I think of soldiers dying, terrorist attacks, school shootings, plane crashes, and even death from old age. There are countless ways to die by chance and much fewer ways to die on purpose, but for me I don’t think either is worse. I can’t rate tragedy. And suicide is tragedy like any other. I don’t believe that choice takes away any of the sadness. 

While I don’t believe in claiming one death as sadder than another, there are ones that hit me harder. A few weeks ago, I was on a bus reading a news story on my phone. A student that had survived the Parkland shooting killed herself. I read further down the page and it said she had PTSD, that she had enrolled in college but was scared to be in a classroom. I got to the end and it said that she had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. All I could think about is how hurt you must be to choose to kill yourself using the same weapon that turned your world upside down. That choice reverberated through my mind and I felt tears trickling down my cheeks, saw them hitting my screen. I am morbid but, being affected by something like that, I think it’s important.

“I felt wise and cynical as all hell.”

― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Despite my fascination with the subject, I have only seen death once. In high school, I played soccer on a field surrounded by telephone wires. I remember the afternoon that a bird hit one of those wires. We heard the crackle of electricity, looked up, and saw it crash through the air. While girls laughed or screamed, I ran towards where it had met the ground. There were feathers littering the grass, surrounding a corpse, still steaming. There was nothing left to save.

The truth is, I wasn’t really running towards it in the hopes of saving it. I knew it was dead the second it hit that wire. I just felt the inescapable urge to see its death for myself. I believe that death isn’t a grand extraordinary thing, it’s momentary. You take your last breath, die, and you’re gone. It’s the missing of that person, that animal, that’s hard not the dying itself. I don’t know if anyone missed that bird, realized he was gone, but I felt the need to give him more than a passing glance. I needed to see what I’d been obsessing about for so long.

I looked death in its vacant eyes, and it was nothing spectacular. It was as mundane as living.


Cristy Dodson is a student majoring in English at the University of Tennessee. She wants to be a writer/social worker/publisher/english teacher/lawyer/comedian/business woman/speech writer etc. She's 21 and just trying to figure it out.