Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Was The Therapist I Needed as a Child
I remember laying on my back one day, watching fan blades overhead chase each other lazily — uselessly, doing nothing against the high temperature. It wasn’t just the heat pinning me to the ground; it was an oppressive, overwhelming sense of dread and loneliness that had become inescapable of late.
It was the summer after I turned eleven, and I didn’t know that I was in the early grips of a despondency that would only get heavier as time went on.
I laid there, a quasi replica of Harry Potter, aged fifteen, flat on his back under the stifling summer heat, in his Aunt Petunia’s garden at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. And while the similarly in our pose had been a coincidence, still, it gave me comfort.
I had just finished reading the book for the hundredth time in the weeks since it had been published — my refuge against aimless wanderings, the lighthouse for my restless imagination —, and more so than in the other books, was beginning to find eerie parallels between myself and Harry.
In the fifth (some would say darkest) installment of J.K. Rowling’s series, Harry goes through an intense period of unhappiness that, in retrospect, has all the markings of an undiagnosed depressive episode (I am even tempted to suggest PTSD). This is not to say he hadn’t known hardship before: Chamber of Secrets sees him endure the scrutiny and bullying of his Hogwarts classmates after they suspect him of being responsible for a string of attacks on students, attributable to the Heir of Slytherin; in Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry learns the awful truth of how his parents were betrayed by Peter Pettigrew, in addition to dealing with long-buried issues about their death (through the Dementor/Anxiety metaphor).
But none of these manifestations of heartbreak compared to what Rowling laid out in Order of the Phoenix: Harry had always been steadfast, even when he was bewildered, even when he was temporarily confused. The obstacles he encountered were difficult to overcome, but overcome them he did: it was he, Hermione, Ron against the rest of the world.
For the first time, one was not so sure that those unwavering relationships would help. For the first time, one was not so sure Harry himself would overcome anything at all, let alone himself.
Maybe it’s because the previous book, Goblet of Fire, marked a turning point for Harry and the rest of the wizarding world that the tone of urgency inevitably carried over to Order of the Phoenix. After all, the fourth book ends on Cedric Diggory’s death, one of the first serious murders we witness on the page: more importantly, it ends on Voldemort’s return, and Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge’s cowardly decision to blacklist anyone who endorses the so-called rumor.
From the onset, Order of the Phoenix stands at odds with the previous books. The weeks preceding when we first see Harry, lying supine in Petunia’s flowerbeds, have been harrowing for him and Dumbledore. The press, encouraged by Fudge, have begun a smear campaign against the both of them, ruining their reputation.
But this, we come to learn later.
Before we even know what is going on, readers can’t help but notice how downright pissed off Harry is. He is biting, he is on edge. There is something vitriolic underneath his surface, just begging to be released. If, in Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry intended to run away after hexing the Dursleys, it’s in this book, for the first time, that the threat is actually believable.
What also stood out to me, the first time, was that a line seemed to have drawn itself deeply in the sand, separating Harry from his closest friends even more than before. Even more so, I say, because I never felt like the trio was actually a trio. His circumstances had always stood him apart from Hermione and Ron, but there was always that assurance that it could never be strong enough to separate him from love: because love was stronger than loneliness, because friendship conquered all, because people stood stronger together, and all that noise.
Presently, and with no exception, Harry’s anger is directed at every single person he knows, and through his furious, red-tinted gaze, everything affected: Mrs. Weasley is pitiful, Lupin’s caution is irritating, Mr. Weasley seems tired, Ron and Hermione are smug and insensitive— hell, even hilarious, warmhearted Fred and George border on the annoying.
Dumbledore is the character for whom Harry reserves his most contemptuous hatred: his erstwhile mentor comes across as apathetic, callous, frigid. When, at one point of the book, Harry felt a sudden, overwhelming urge to kill the man, I could almost understand the impulse (although I certainly would not have condoned it).
The titular protagonist’s transformation in Order of the Phoenix jarred me, but only for a brief moment. It was like not immediately recognizing someone who greeted you, before realizing that you did actually know them: they just looked a bit different was all. In truth, the book was speaking to me more than the others, because I saw myself too well in Harry’s brooding, roiling bitterness.
I was angry. I was never not angry.
I didn’t understand the strength of those emotions, at the time. In hindsight, of course, I could write a book about the factors that came to head at the same time. But then, I was in the grips of a fever I wasn’t aware I had contracted. I felt misunderstood, fundamentally, like I was operating on a frequency others hadn't tuned into, and to try to evoke some sort of common ground was useless. I was locked in a cycle as vicious as it was bewildering: I would lash out at people, feel guilt, try to be nicer, feel alienated again, lash out, and so forth.
Slowly at first, and then with lightning speed, I, who’d always found myself surrounded by people as a child, began to lose friends. I began to estrange loved ones, feeling simultaneously happy when I was left alone, and incredibly lonely that my efforts had paid off so successfully. I was souring in a prison of my own making.
Similarly, Harry sees the same happening to him: he shouts at his friends, talks back to anyone who dares cross him, and isolates himself at the first occasion he gets, pining for peace and quiet, and regretting it instantly when it is granted to him. At one point, Hermione and Ron ask him to stop yelling at them all the time, because they love him and just want to help. You know that this is something they discussed in his absence, from the telling nervousness of their words, and Harry feels terrible about it, but soon after is back to thinking that they could never understand how he feels anyway.
I am still not convinced that his dynamic with Professor Umbridge (the carving into his wrist that served as her punishment for his insolence) was not in part motivated by some sort of reckless masochism. It was about ego, of course, but it might very well have been something Harry thought he deserved to inflict upon himself, too.
At the end of Order of the Phoenix, Harry throws an actual tantrum in Dumbledore’s office, smashing nearly every object the headmaster owns, in a violent expression of his long-held anguish. It is the moment many point to as either the biggest overreaction in the entire series, or the purest demonstration of a depressed teenager who doesn’t know how else to make himself heard.
I was, at the time, used to reading books where the protagonists were poised and capable, even when they sometimes faltered. They were almost always likable, one way or another, so the contrast with Harry was blunt: the book makes him odious, makes his reactions ugly, unpleasant. It made me feel okay with being as unpleasant, and as ugly as he was, not unlike how A Series of Unfortunate Events would later make me feel okay with my pessimism and the way I handled grief.
It vindicated me: if one of my favorite characters was going through similar things, then either I was not such a terrible person, or else I was, but at least that made two of us.
Obviously, Harry was not an ordinary human being, and much of his inner turmoil could be chalked up to the fact that he was one of Voldemort’s Horcruxes, and carried a piece of the man’s soul with him. He was bound to endure overwhelming feelings of negativity. I, of course, knew that I wasn’t possessed by Voldemort, but it didn’t stop me from relating all the same.
The thing about Rowling’s universe is that it has always operated on metaphors and analogies. Lupin’s werewolf condition has been likened with a person’s struggle with AIDS, or any kind of diagnosis that society places stigma on; Dementors, Patronuses and Anxiety have been linked, as have Death Eaters and Nazis, and House Elves with social injustice; it’s also easy to see paedophilic parallels in Fenrir Greyback’s frightening proclivity to bite and infect young children.
In that way, Harry’s connection with Voldemort is nothing more than a metaphor for depression: he feels resentful, barely sleeps (and when he does, is plagued with crippling nightmares), oscillates between intense emotions and numbness, and experiences flashes of memory that bring him back to instances of trauma. This, coupled with his many breaks with reality, are things that could just as well be applied to mental illness of any kind. He is unable to reach out to others, and losing his mind convinces him he is damaged goods. Harry, additionally, experiences a powerful paranoia that begins to infect every aspect of his waking moment. He starts to believe his friends are speaking behind his back, notices the looks they exchange between them, and accuses them of cavorting together without him.
These are beliefs I, too, found impossible to shake off.
Of course people are hanging out without you.
Of course they are waiting for you to leave so they can go on with their lives.
Of course they’ve been talking about you, and the horrible person you’ve become.
When an author strips the layers off of your favorite character, and lays bare their glaring shortcomings, it makes them more human, even if the cost is their likability. Rowling doesn’t just take Harry through the wringer, in Order of the Phoenix. Every other character who had previously appeared more or less steady is taken down several pegs: be it Dumbledore, Severus Snape, the Dursleys, Hagrid...
Sirius Black is similarly eviscerated: cooped up in a house he hated as a teenager, forced to relive his childhood trauma every single day, the charismatic, swaggering man becomes petulant, petty, bitter. Cho Chang, whose boyfriend Cedric was killed just a few months before, goes from being the immaculate object of Harry’s affections to a needy, blubbering and even volatile girl, as grief consumes her. Arthur, the patriarch of the Weasley family, is almost fatally attacked by a snake, and comes out of it diminished; Molly Weasley, the solid maternal presence in the book, struggles with worry and torment she tries to keep secret from others.
It is the most powerful thing in the world, for a child reading a book, a child who herself does not know how to come to terms with her rapidly changing world, to see others flounder, and admit they do not have the answers.
I remember getting into a passionate argument with a classmate who declared that she hated Order of the Phoenix, because she had found Harry especially “whiny”. I became fiercely protective of him, lashing out at her the way I had been doing to everyone else. I argued that he was going through difficult things, and it was not his fault if they happened to be unsightly. He needed compassion, not chiding.
She retorted that she read books to be entertained, not to watch a character fall apart at the seams. With that, she ended the conversation and walked away, leaving me blinking back angry tears. In retrospect, she was absolutely entitled to her opinion. In retrospect, also, I wasn’t just defending Harry, I was defending my own right to be sad and depressed.
I came out of reading the book feeling no closer to understanding what was going on with me, but feeling much closer to Harry, and to the series as a whole.
More than I can express, they got me through much, and I will forever be grateful to Rowling for giving my unhappiness a voice, for allowing me to be seen, for being brave enough to excoriate her titular protagonist, then give him redemption and a second chance at well-deserved happiness. It told me that I could do the same.
I found more solace and understanding in the pages of these books than I did looking up at people who didn’t always get me, or want to deal with me — understandably.
As such, while we are not similar (I always thought myself more a hybrid blend of Luna Lovegood and Hermione Granger) Harry and I have been kindred souls since. When he faltered, I ached for him. When he triumphed, I triumphed ten times over. And there was something about watching him confront Voldemort, the manifestation of that sadness in his soul, and watch the latter fall dead like a limp doll that made me thumb my nose at my own depression.
I might just cast you away from me one day, with a similar, well-placed word of dismissal.