Navigating between Scylla and Charybdis (part 2 of 2)

My first post here was unplanned — I wrote about the first thing that came to mind. Because of that it’s not polished or complete.

But I really like the idea, so I’ve come back to add to it. In particular, I can throw out the idea of “Between Scylla and Charybdis,” carelessly, and lose 80% of the audience. They’re too many people who do not know the Odyssey, who are not familiar wit the story of Scylla and Charybdis, or have heard this story in the original Homer (me included, that is why I am fleshing this out, never read it). Of course not – speaking for myself, in my engineering undergraduate training, I had one elective during my four years of school. It really wasn’t an elective, because it was required to be in the English department (I would have preferred philosophy). Our engineering school recognized that engineers, on the whole, have difficulty writing clear, effective English.

So I have returned to this idea so that people stumbling over these posts have the opportunity to have a clue about what I am implying. In game pursuit, I chose the best translation that I could find of the Odyssey (Lattimore) and the best pictures to illustrate the story that I could find (thank you, Google images) and created my own picture book of this story. I believe that this is better done with illustrations. Pictures, like movies, can unduly influence our imagination about a particular story (I could not imagine Dumbledore without thinking of Richard Harris). So I chose many different sources in hopes that this opens up people’s minds to possibilities about the story within their own imagination.

A very brief introduction to the story of Scylla and Charybdis, drawn shamelessly from Wikipedia, Youtube, and other provincial sources 

The idiom “between Scylla and Charybdis” has come to mean being forced to choose between two equally dangerous situations. In Greek mythology, Scylla was a monster that lived on one side of a narrow channel of water, opposite her counterpart Charybdis (another female monster according to male sailors). The two sides of the strait were within an arrow’s range of each other—so close that sailors attempting to avoid Charybdis would pass too close to Scylla and vice versa.


There are numerous origin stories for Scylla, substantial creative license taken since then, and enough dubious stories about her parentage to satisfy even a Game of Thrones script writer. According to one commentary on the Aeneid, Scylla was a beautiful nymph who was claimed by Poseidon, but his jealous wife Amphitrite turned her into a monster by poisoning the water of the spring where Scylla would bathe. In another story, a jealous Circe poured a potion into the sea water which caused Scylla to transform into a monster with four eyes and six long necks equipped with grisly heads, each of which contained three rows of sharp teeth. She attacked the ships of passing sailors, seizing one of the crew with each of her heads.

For the purposes of bipolar disorder interpretations, Scylla has an acidic, raging, violent fury about her, akin to the worst of mania.


In contrast, Charybdis, was simply a large whirlpool. It appears that there is a factual basis for this myth, “Charybdis in Greek mythology was later rationalized as a whirlpool, which sucked entire ships into its fold in the narrow coast of Sicily, a disaster faced by navigators.” (Wikipedia).

The word whirlpool seems vastly understated to me in this contrast. In contrast, the word maelstrom is much more evocative. It is a word introduced into the English language by Edgar Allan Poe to describe a huge whirlpool, a gigantic circular vortex that reaches the bottom of the ocean, and later used by Jules Verne. (The vast majority of whirlpools are not very powerful and very small whirlpools can easily be seen when a bath or a sink is draining. More powerful ones in seas or oceans may be termed maelstroms. Wikipedia).

An illustration from Jules Verne’s essay “Edgard Poë et ses oeuvres” (Edgar Poe and his Works,1862) drawn by Frederic Lix or Yan’ Dargent

Three times a day, Charybdis swallowed a huge amount of water, before belching it back out again, creating large whirlpools capable of dragging a ship underwater. In some variations of the story, Charybdis was simply a large whirlpool instead of a sea monster.

A later myth makes Charybdis the daughter of Poseidon andGaia and living as a loyal servant to Poseidon. She aided him in his feud with Zeus, and as such, helped him engulf lands and islands in water. Zeus, angry for the land she stole from him, cursed her into a hideous bladder of a monster, with flippers for arms and legs, and an uncontrollable thirst for the sea. As such, she drank the water from the sea three times a day to quench it, which created whirlpools. She lingered on a rock with Scylla facing her directly on another rock, making a strait.

The main connection between Charybdis and clinical depression is the downward spiraling, soul sucking feeling which, unchecked, invariably leads to death (see the story in the prior post). There are so many parallels between clinical depression and Charybdis that I could not possibly describe them all, because as soon as I tried to put them into words another similarity would crowd it out. But other resonances include the passive, “loyal” nature of Charybdis’s enmeshed subservience to her father. Depression does not allow independence, the best that we can do is loyally go along with someone else’s agenda with what little energy and motivation we can muster.

Monsterous whirlpool (Youtube)

If you have never witnessed the destructiveness of a powerful vortex, this fascinating YouTube video shows a whirlpool in relatively slow motion at first (beginning of clip) and then how it digests material much larger than itself. It is a long clip (almost 8 min.), but if you hop around a bit you can see it is amazing footage well worth watching.

In facilitating DBSA  support groups for people with bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder, I would frequently use the metaphor of the vortex, although I used the humble bathtub drain as an example. Where this was particularly useful was in describing our ability to save ourselves from the download spiral of depression. At the top of the vortex things are moving relatively slowly, and it is possible to resolve a depression by means such as cognitive behavioral therapy or simple health regimens that add more exercise and sunlight. But at the bottom of the vortex the downward pull is so hard and fast that it is no longer possible to combat the depression except with more dire psychopharmacology and even ECT.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Roma Tre Univ.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Roma Tre Univ.

Odysseus successfully navigates the strait, but when he and his crew are momentarily distracted by Charybdis, Scylla snatches six sailors off the deck and devours them alive.


Offline I am writing blog posts (articles). After carefully telling the story of Scylla and Charybdis the plan was to next apply it in new and hopefully practical ways to the experience of bipolar disorder. The story needed to be released first so that readers could refer back to it. But after all manner of obstructions and detours this is going to be part two instead of that scholarly tome.

When I wrote earlier articles, began to release material, and get feedback from readers, I realized a couple things about the blogging process. There are undoubtably similarities to writing articles for magazines etc. but I believe that writing things online, especially those that have a personal angle, may have a peculiar process. I saw that there is a rhythm to it. There are probably variables you can measure and play with in order to optimize your readership and likability out in the Internet. Specifically, I saw that there is a momentum that can be tapped, so that if you post and respond at a certain rate, with certain carefully chosen pauses, that your number of likes and follows would be greater. I’m sure somebody more knowledgeable than me about blogging has noticed this, written about it, and is harnessing it.

But then I started working with this idea and found that I wanted to do it right enough that it required breaking that momentum. I knew that I had to go back and carefully parse that story myself, not just flippantly refer to it. My inner researcher wanted to see for myself how exactly, precisely, if at all, this story was relevant to bipolar disorder.

One of the off the planned pathway observation that I made in researching this story is that everyone lays claim to it. Usualy in a casual, flippant way without any careful research. There is something about the story that appeals to people and they apply it to their personal or professional situation because they instinctively feel the resonance, even if the details feel vague. Mea Culpa Maxima. I had never read any of Homer’s stories, not really, just heard about them and watched them on TV. That’s the real reason that I wanted to study it carefully.

Why this story? Why this imagery? There are other images that work quite well in similar situations. For example, the first phrase that I used, between the devil and the deep blue sea, worked quite well for me and would for most people referring to the Scylla and Chabtdrus story. And the image of walking a tightrope, with the extremely heightened awareness necessary not to fall, should work for those who imagine a narrow, dangerous pathway but who do not actually face different scary monsters on either side. Their story probably has a quick, sharp, drop into nothingness or downwards to an unforgiving ultimatum, but no monsters, sucking, or munching involved.

I moved from over from the image of the devil and the deep blue sea to this particular story because the monsters themselves called to me. Then, after witnessing most of the world laying claim to the story, I judge that bipolar disorder can lay greater claim to it in a way which the other contenders cannot. There is a wide range of articles on the Internet, some well done but most not, appropriating the story’s imagery for their particular situation. For example, there were three articles on a site for physicians that referred to it, but none fleshed the idea out and instead they dallied with the idea.

I came to see that people like to refer to this story when trying to describe situations in which we are faced with a narrow pathway between two potentially life-threatening prospects. But all of these casual references to the story focused on the narrow pathway, trying to get through it, and upon not being annihilated by the monsters. In contrast, in bipolar disorder, you don’t have the luxury of that simple, if potentially lethal choice.

In bipolar disorder our choice is not simply between avoiding one monster or the other. It is between becoming one monster or the other.

In dancing with severe mania you are not only faced with a monster, you’re also faced with the prospect of acting monstrously. You can become extremely disruptive to other people in your lives with an fiery, aggressive, self-centered attitude. Very Scylla-like. Mania is not just personally destructive. Some people with bipolar disorder destroy objects (cars come to mind) and hurt other people but do not remember afterwards. It can be like someone in a drunken spree who blacks out, destroys part of the house, beats up on the family, and doesn’t remember it when waking up the next day. This is another similarity – family members all say to themselves, “This creative memory is very convenient. They could remember if they really wanted to.”

In facing clinical depression, you face the monsterous downward vortex into a deep from whence you may not return. But you have the potential to be that monster as well. You can become a downer for those around you. They may love you very much, but they will still be affected. A close friend or family member, even a spouse duty-bound to stick it out, they all instinctively feel that black pull and don’t want to be sucked in themselves. Again and again I have watched people who were frightened by severe depression that unconsciously felt that it was somehow catching, and backed away. It is exquisitely difficult to spend a lot of time with someone who is severely depressed.

In my experience it is impossible to spend a lot of time with someone who is in a severe depression without being negatively affected emotionally. It is difficult even for the rabidly cheerful and for the emotionally clueless. I call this the tuning fork phenomenon. Strike one tuning fork properly and it will vibrate at a certain frequency. Set another tuning fork right next to it and even if it was quiescent before it will begin to resonate at the same frequency. People are afraid that if they stay around someone one who is depressed that they will begin to vibrate at the same frequency and succumb to depression themselves.

I remembered while I was writing the first few articles here that thus is an intense process. It is an activating and sometimes aggravating process that began to affect my equilibrium and my health.

Before starting this website I made a halfhearted promise to myself that I was going to work slowly and thoroughly, preferably stay on-topic, and avoid toying with hypomania. Then I witnessed the pace at which I was working and its effect upon me. I pulled back on my internal reins quite hard. If you have biochemical tendencies to do things over the top it is wise to learn how to self-modulate.

In writing this article I stumbled upon one final application of this story — writing the damned story. On the other side is Scylla, the big scary monster with a million head that snatches you up and tears off hunks. There is agitated, fiery, destructive energy. That was easy to point to, because I was spending way too much time and energy, even if it is well-intentioned.

On the other side is Charybdis, the downward spiral into nothingness. And it was also applicable in writing this article. This type of work triggers my tendency to hyperfocus. Hyperfocus is an ADD term, like tunnel vision or a horse with blinders on both sides of the eyes, so that they can only see ahead. All you can see is that one thing ahead of you, and you lose track of time and space. Overfocus may not suck me down in a deathlike grip, but it certainly sucks me somewhere. And I have the tendency to be sucked down into a morass of reading too much, researching too much, and spending way too much time on the computer. In any downward spiral you lose perspective. It is like being in a deep valley — you cannot see the mountains. You can’t see beyond the vortex. You lose track of what is important and what is not, about what will help others and what is just a random byway.

I am ready for a new story, To put these two monsters behind me — Their story has been played out. I have a new piece, somewhat Oscar Wilde. But I promised myself that I would not release it until I finished this. Vegetables before dessert.


Released into the Internet ethosphere with no further edits, a deep sigh, and a sense of relief.


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Sabbles woz 'ere

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#ActuallyAutistic - An Aspie obsessed with writing. This site is intend to inspire through sharing stories & experiences. The opinions of the writers are their own. I am just an Autistic woman - NOT a medical professional.

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