August 6, 2013

The Power of Personal Mythology. ~ Erin Dougherty

In Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation, Joseph Campbell asks a vital question: “When you face a great calamity, what is it that supports you and carries you through?”

Let’s say you always knew you were going to be a mother. Not just any mother, but the Mother—nurturer, giver of birth, helper and healer. The archetypal mother. By the time you were five, you imagined how many children you were going to have, what they looked like, what sports they’d play and what careers they’d have. No thought to who the father would be. That didn’t matter so much. You just wanted to be a mother.

Fast forward about 20 years. You meet the man of your dreams and you’re all ready to start that family of yours, and then months go by…and nothing. A year goes by. Nothing. No pregnancy. It’s not for lack of trying. So you both go to the doctor and get tested. It turns out you’re the infertile one, not your husband.

What is it that supports us during difficult times, when the personal mythology that had guided our lives up to that point fails?

Some people turn to religion or faith. “Maybe God willed it this way.” “Maybe we’re being tested.” If these stories are powerful enough in their psyches, they may survive a personal crisis like the one I just described.

“That is the test of the underlying myth by which you live,” says Campbell. If it fails to get you through, then you break open.


Luckily, we have many myths, both personal and universal, to guide us. When one fails, we can draw strength from another.

But what about that underlying myth? That is the foundational story from which all the other stories about ourselves and our world emerge.

As we age, the foundation shifts and evolves, but I believe we all have a core myth from which our whole lives unfold.

Think of sacred contracts. Caroline Myss says these contracts are chosen before our births and hold the main lessons we are to learn in a lifetime. She also mentions archetypes that remain constant in our lives and act as guides and teachers—psychic energies we bring into our lives either through relationships, work or countless other interactions.

Maybe the mother in the story I told you needed to learn that she had value even if she never became a mother, or maybe she needed to expand her personal mythology to include other aspects of herself besides mothering.

There are so many possibilities, so many lessons to learn from any one calamity. It depends on your perspective and how you shift the story.

Take, for instance, my story. My first debilitating depression occurred at the end of my freshman year. I was 3,000 miles away from family and good friends, in a city that rained more than necessary. My life felt gloomy and lonely and frightening.

I studied creative writing and medieval literature in college. I identified with the myth of the Romantic poet who was a little mentally unstable but saw the world in fresh and creative ways, unlike “normal” people.

My literary heroes included Lord Byron, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath (not exactly sane role models). They were the mad muses—always articulate, odd, a little bit manic and very, very creative.

This took the edge off what would have otherwise been a terrifying experience. Because of this personal myth, I was able to deal with the effects of this first depression and most of the depressions that followed in the four years at college.

But then that story began to break down, to lose its power in my mind. Once the depressions deepened, became longer (the longest one lasting about nine months) and more frightening (nightmares, anxiety attacks, horrible visions), that old story broke apart. I broke apart.

After five years of recurring clinical depressions and one mild bout of mania, I finally sought professional help.

I was between myths. Floating out there in the world, unsure of who I was.

The medication and humiliation of being treated like I was less than fully human took its toll on my psyche. After three years of medication, hospitalizations and countless hours of therapy, I decided I needed a new story to guide my life. I ended therapy, stopped taking my meds and vowed to never be hospitalized again.

Living between myths is scary—like being out to sea on a small raft with no land in sight. But it was necessary. I had to discover new land, new personal myths to guide me into this next phase of my life.

It wasn’t until much later, until I had survived ten years without medication or hospitalization, that I read the universal story of the hero’s journey. The one chronicled in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Almost all cultures have a hero’s journey story, one that is bound by certain rituals and rites of passage.

The part of the journey where the hero goes into the Underworld to fight demons and wild beasts in order to find special knowledge or a magic stone resonated with my own journey. I had found a piece of mythological land to settle on for awhile. I had found a story to make sense of my experience.

I leave you with two questions to think about: What stories have helped you navigate through a difficult period in your life? How has it changed your personal mythology?


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Assist Ed: Dejah Beauchamp/Ed: Sara Crolick

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Erin Dougherty