Sylvia Plath: Maybe it was just the drugs

Lynne McTaggart

Sylvia Plath has always fascinated me.  In fact, about 30 years ago, before What Doctors Don’t Tell You and The Field, I nearly did a biography on her and Ted Hughes, not because I considered her a feminist martyr, as she is often portrayed, but because something about the Plath-Hughes myth didn’t quite stack up.  


Sylvia Plath has always fascinated me.  In fact, about 30 years ago, before What Doctors Don’t Tell You and The Field, I nearly did a biography on her and Ted Hughes, not because I considered her a feminist martyr, as she is often portrayed, but because something about the Plath-Hughes myth didn’t quite stack up.  


I was also intrigued about a man who has not one but two lovers kill themselves by sticking their heads in a gas oven. Assia Weevil, the mistress with whom he betrayed Plath, carried out a copy-cat suicide some years later, but this time took hers and Hughes’ child with her.


Think about this for a second.  Here Plath pores all that prodigious talent and energy into hitting the target she’s been aiming for all her young years  -  getting her work published in magazines while she’s still in school,  amassing literary and academic prize after prize, securing the guest editorship for Mademoiselle in New York (the top literary prize for a young  collegiate woman in the Fifties),  and then,  when she’s finally able to take a breather after what was, by all accounts an extraordinarily heady spring. . . she decides she has no talent and tries to kill herself.


I can understand the second attempt a bit more. At that point, she’s got a two year old and a six month old when she discovers that Hughes, her husband and the love of her life, has just begun an affair with a close mutual friend of theirs, leaving her as a single mother of two babies, in virtually the same boat as her mother, whom Sylvia often disparaged as martyr mom supreme. 


But even then, in the midst of despair, and one of the coldest winters on record, there are ample clues (her suicide note: ‘Please call Dr. Holden’) that she didn’t actually mean to leave her babies and finish herself off.


A recently published book called Pain, Parties, Work, which painstakingly details Plath’s month in New York during the Mademoiselle editorship, offered one plausible answer. At one point, author Elizabeth Winder happens to mention, almost as an aside, that Sylvia’s aunt, a doctor, had given her sleeping pills that spring during her junior year at Smith College. She was on them all that year and into the summer, when her aunt saw fit to up the dosage. 


Since the benzodiazepams like Valium were not invented until the 1970s, Plath was likely to have been given a barbiturate, and as she tried to kill herself with Nembutal (phenobarbital), it’s likely that that was the one.


Nembutal’s side effects include agitation, confusion, nightmares, nervousness, psychiatric disturbance, hallucinations, anxiety, thinking abnormalities, confusion, poor judgment and rebound insomnia. They are highly addictive, and they can cause depression and suicidal ideation (a desire to commit suicide).


Compare what happened to Sylvia.  After the New York guest editorship and the social whirl of New York, she went home for her first summer at home with mother, only to discover she didn’t get into a creative writing class and was now stuck at home for the summer for the first time with nothing to do.


She decided to read Ulysses (next term’s reading list) and to learn shorthand, but couldn’t concentrate on either (a known side effect of barbituates), which caused extreme agitation. She couldn’t sleep (another side effect) and when her boyfriend left for officer training, she had ridiculous fantasies about him (yet another side effect) and decided that all her talent had suddenly left her (another side effect). 


After he left, her mother discovered her one morning with deep red gashes on her legs under her nightgown (suicidal thoughts?), and promptly took her to the family doctor, who prescribed yet more sleeping pills (which would have exacerbated all these side effects) and. . . electroshock therapy.


In the 1950s, ECT was administered without anaesthesia or sedatives. During the treatments, Plath would have been kept fully awake, experienced full convulsions and be left, shaking, on her own to recover.


One well known side effect of ECT is insomnia.  According to Sylvia’s personal calendars, says Winder, Plath stayed awake, despite her exhaustion, for 21 nights straight.  Soon after that, she tried to commit suicide.


Now, I have only ever taken a single sleeping pill in my life – this time, one of the so-called ‘safer’ benzodiazepines (the class that includes Valium). A friend suggested that I get a prescription from my doctor when I was 33 after my first marriage suddenly broke up and I couldn’t sleep. 


I slept a strange, disturbing sleep the night I’d begun my prescription, and remember calling my brother that next day and asking him if he would please convince me not to jump out the window. This had nothing to do with distress over the end of the marriage, and I have not once in my life ever entertained a single suicidal thought. 


I was a victim of one of these drug’s well-known ‘paradoxical’ side effects, which have been linked to a desire to commit suicide. My brother had a long conversation with me, I chucked the the bottle of pills away and I soon found other and safer ways to get some sleep.


The treatment at the time for attempted suicide was nothing less than barbaric. After Sylvia was discovered alive in a crawl space, three days after she’d taken 40 Nembutal, she was placed into a mental hospital.  Doctors could find no trace of mental illness, but nevertheless, in an attempt to shake her out of it, they gave her insulin shock therapy.


The side effects of this ‘treatment’ alternate between coma and full-blown seizures, not to mention huge weight gain – hardly a treatment that’s likely to cheer you up.


Miraculously, she survived this treatment and did indeed fully recover.  She married, had two much-loved children and in 1962, while she was still nursing her baby son, discovered that her husband was betraying her with Weevil.  Plath ultimately left Hughes and tried to make a go of it in London, on her own, during the worst winter on modern record. 


She was writing the poems that made her name, and during that autumn, wrote The Bell Jar, a novelized version of the spring and summer of her breakdown and suicide attempt. This time, her London doctor prescribed antidepressants. 


Since SSRIs like Prozac weren’t yet invented, it was likely she was given a tricyclic antidepressant, which can cause confusion, hallucinations, extreme elation or feelings of happiness alternates with depressed moods, anxiety, agitation, panic attacks, and suicidal thoughts or behavior (all very much in evidence in her poems and her journals).


In February 1963, she reached a mental cul-de-sac, put her head in the oven and this time, carried it through.


I’m not saying that Sylvia didn’t have many personal demons, but maybe, just maybe, she wasn’t just a feminist victim – just a victim of modern medicine. 

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Lynne McTaggart

Lynne McTaggart is an award-winning journalist and the author of seven books, including the worldwide international bestsellers The Power of Eight, The Field, The Intention Experiment and The Bond, all considered seminal books of the New Science and now translated into some 30 languages.

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3 comments on “Sylvia Plath: Maybe it was just the drugs”

  1. I think your theory is absolutely right on. I never knew she was given barbiturates prior to her first suicide attempt. It completely explains what happened to her. And after her marriage broke up she was taking them again along with antidepressants. Given the abandonment she suffered along with all the other external factors like the extreme winter and physical ailments she was suffering, it’s no wonder she killed herself. People kill themselves with far less extreme situations. And the drugs had to have played a major role. I know from my experience when I took medication during my own crisis that those medications which included benzodiazepines and antidepressants absolutely prevented me from accessing my own internal resources and life force. I think it’s so easy to dismiss her suicide as that of a mad woman because her genius often made her seem so extreme. But I completely agree that especially with someone with that sensitivity and genius, those drugs robbed her of herself which was the only think that could have truly saved her.
    I believe you are correct that It was that simple, that without those drugs she would have survived and it makes it even more tragic.
    One other insight I had about her suicide was about the advice her very caring therapist gave her which was to leave her husband. I think given the abandonment issues she had that this was a grave mistake. Plath was, I believe, severely traumatized by what happened to her when her husband betrayed her. Isolation played a huge part in the tragedy. She should never have been left alone with two children. Her last weekend where she was clearly medicating with sleeping pills While staying with friends who were not even that close show how truly alone she was. The isolation coupled with the drugs were a deadly combination and she slipped through to the other side.

  2. The first benzos, like Librium, were actually prescribed to the public in 1960, although some were in limited circulation since 1955 when they were first patented. They were used to manage both anxiety and as a sleep aid. It's unclear as to whether Sylvia had been prescribed Librium which was referred to by its generic name in the UK (chlordiazepoxide), but Hughes noted that there had been confusion over the US brand name of the medications that Plath took, versus their UK equivalent. It is now known that benzos can exacerbate depression, as well as cause significant cumulative damage to GABA neuro receptors in the brain.

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