The tenacious spirit of depression

I think it’s a poverty of the English language that we use the same word to describe how a 5-year-old feels when his baseball game gets canceled because it’s raining and the way someone feels who’s about to jump off a bridge because life has become unlivable and untenable.

Andrew Solomon

I never heard of Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness until today, when I listened to the above-linked author interview on NPR.  Solomon’s quote brought me back to a time in my own life, soon after Darkness Visible was first published, when I attended a healing ritual led by a highly respected individual at my very first Pagan conference.  The room had close to eighty people in it, and after setting the sacred space, the facilitator performed triage to ascertain who was seeking healing, and what they needed help with, so that the energy workings could be organized.

For me to even speak the name of my problem aloud takes an incredible gathering of will, but when it was my turn, I admitted that I suffer from depression.

“Oh,” she said with a smile, “we’ll do you at the end, with ‘warm fuzzies.'”

What ‘warm fuzzies’ entailed, after a couple of hours of working to heal people with cancer, broken bones, chronic pain, and other life-altering diseases, was a group hug and a singalong, the words to which it seemed everyone in the room but me knew.

If you’ve suffered from depression, you are not surprised that I was crestfallen to have my malady so glibly dismissed.  If you’ve been depressed, which I describe as having a terrible event in your life precipitate a period of near-paralyzing negative emotion, you may be puzzled.  Being depressed, sometimes called “major depression,” is a serious affair, one that starts from a trauma like death, divorce, or something else from which we all generally heal; sooner if we have proper support.  Depression (“clinical depression” in common parlance, which already suggests it’s not as much of a problem because of the lack of the word “major”) is not something that is assuaged by support that comes from the community, like group hugs or therapy or venting to friends or being reminded that people care about you.  As an animist, I believe that’s because depression is a spirit, while being depressed is an emotional state.

Having been depressed and gotten through it, when one encounters someone in depression there is a sense that they, too, can “get over it,” and that this process can be facilitated with love (as described above) or by getting tough and explaining to the victim that you know it’s hard, but we don’t get given more burdens than we can bear, or that the person needs to stop feeling sorry for emself.  I recognize that people who have been depressed have indeed shown remarkable inner strength, and that the emotional support received by the community surely helps in recovering from tragedy, and that because the outward symptoms are similar this is not an unreasonable conclusion to draw, but it is the wrong one.

Depression is a malevolent spirit which feeds on the strength of the person it rides.  It works to undermine each and every tool which might be used to defeat it.  What a person in depression experiences isn’t exactly pain, insofar as pain is a sensation, something of the body, but reactions to it are the same as what one might do in response to pain.

  • Community values are undermined by antisocial behaviors like argumentativeness, nitpickiness, being demanding, curt, or cross.  The result is often isolation.
  • Personal strengths are sapped:  self-confidence is overwhelmed with doubt, sociability with intense shyness, concentration and creativity with a thick, mental fog.  At its worst, depression can weigh down the ridden so heavily that e cannot get out of bed.  This serves to intensify isolation and feelings of uselessness and powerlessness.
  • Together, the above can make it hard to keep any but the most solitary and menial of jobs.
  • Spiritual connections can be completely gutted.  Why perform magic if you don’t believe it will work?  Why pray or make offerings if the gods would allow you to suffer so?  Are there even gods?  Get the ridden to this point, and the spirit of depression can feed at is leisure.

What else can it be, if not a spirit?  Can a mere illness, or even a severe emotional trauma, work so tirelessly to ensure its own survival?  Victims carry a sense of shame which silences pleas for help, and that can’t be blamed entirely on society, which creates stigma by mixing personal experiences of depression with the confusion over the two sense of the word.  And yes, I lay that very confusion at the feet of depression itself.

The ridden are often given respite, which tells me that they must recharge if they are to feed the spirit.  While suicide is strongly associated with depression, I think it is not the desired goal, any more than a flea desires to kill by spreading plague.

I do not know what makes someone vulnerable to being ridden by depression, but judging by the things it drives from its victims’ lives, it does not thrive in an environment of community support, creativity, and religion.  However, therapy and medication — even self-medication — don’t seem to be enough.  And as well-intentioned “warm fuzzies” may be, they aren’t enough, either.  As we move into and through the darkest time of year for most of the human population, perhaps it is time to reimagine treatment for depression.  It must be holistic, treating the spirit as well as the mind and body, and it must never be confused with being depressed, for all it appears the same, for the healing powers of humanity are perfectly cut out for the latter, and are no defense against the former.

I can barely write this post, for even now I am convinced it will result in mockery, or pity, or avoidance.  Its spirit seethes within me, as it has for decades, but today, I shall overcome, if only for a moment.

Advice for the Pagan parent: can you help?

A friend of mine came to me with a problem.  Eir high-school-ish-age child was told by a teacher that “anything outside of the Abrahamic faiths is NOT a religion.”  The child “did call the teacher on it, but got shut down in class.”

I found some great resources that dance around the problem, like this piece on advocating for Pagan children in school and an essay educating teachers about Paganism (which is far from perfect, but as my friend’s family is the sort of Pagan described, was perfectly appropriate).  I recommended assuming that ignorance does not equal hatred, but that creating a written trail while approaching the teacher and administrators would be a good idea in case outside advocacy is necessary.

I also turned to my amazing wife, who lives in both of those worlds, and she was flabbergasted, asking, “Has the teacher given a definition of religion beyond this narrow statement?”  She turned up some ideas on what religion is and pointed out that academics include non-Abrahamic faiths among world religions, as well as saying, “I’d go straight to the ACLU.  They eat stuff like this for breakfast.”

So now I invoke the power of crowdsourcing:  what advice would you give my friend, and why?


I dove into my article on gender and pronouns out of a desire, as a writer, to find a better way.  While I have tried to use the singular they instead of the cumbersome “his or her” or visually irksome “he/she” (slashing is noWordle: pronounst the answer, I recall reading in an essay in college, because violence never is), my dear wife finally convinced me it was incorrect, and I was discontent.  The fact that I was discontent is a form of progress:  I am in essence a conservative, which means that I want good justification before I change something that appears to work perfectly well, and the generic “he” worked quite well in my mind for a long time.  Once I accepted that “he” doesn’t quite include everyone, I wanted to get away from the clumsy alternatives, which happily led me to recognize the need to get away from gender entirely in pronouns, if possible.

Preferred pronouns, I reasoned, did not serve that end, because I saw them referred to as “the pronouns e prefers” rather than what these sets are, more inclusive pronouns than what we’ve got.  What I learned in my research is that, even if they are simply a step in the right direction, it could be a big step if we start working on the cultural shift towards associating pronouns of preference with everybody, not just the few who stand up and say that two genders are not enough.  I was further taught that, in such a world, quite a few of us identify as one of those genders might realize we’re not entirely comfortable with the binary system, either.

And then I got very, very stressed, because when you interview a lot of people with pronoun preferences, you need to keep track of them all and get them right.  That’s not a comfortable place to be.  Granted, it’s surely not even close to living a gender that our culture doesn’t recognize as legitimate, but as a writer, I thought my head would explode.  Although I can envision pronoun preference being the norm, I think the generation that embraces it would have to be normalized to it in its youth.  What we have now is a tiny sliver of society — transgender folks and their allies — attempting to navigate a difficult transition towards a new way of thinking and communicating, and these are chaotic waters.

While I’m an ally, I don’t know any trans* people that I see on a regular basis, so the only support I can offer is through my writing.  I’ve learned more about the issues — far more than I could even cover for The Wild Hunt — but I’m left wondering if there’s more that I can do with words than simply reinforce the idea that special people deserve special pronouns, which will not sway the hearts and minds of the vast majority of people, who don’t even know the word “cisgendered,” much less that it describes them.  My desire to unfetter English from this unintended bias remains strong, but the way forward for me is not clear.  It is better, though, to lack clarity thanks to knowledge, rather than to be clear due to ignorance.

Not a question

It’s not a question of calling it enhanced interrogation or torture – it’s a question of whether we would do it to our loved ones.
It’s not a question of whether torture provides valuable information in times of desperation – it’s a question of how to avoid feeling desperate.
It’s not a question of valuing our enemies’ lives over our loved ones’ – it’s a question of not becoming enemies in the first place.

“Why can’t you be nice???”, or, why I get angry on the Internet

I ask myself this question. I loathe conflict and the way it twists my guts, but I keep diving in. Perhaps the way forward is less about moving away from anger than it is moving through it.


1) It’s my job.

2) It’s my Job.

3) People respond to it, not to my “let us pray for peace” posts.

I am a transition Priestess. I walk the Edges and I do it well. I move people and spirits from life to death, from here to there, from comfortable to uncomfortable, from complacent to transformed. It’s my job. If folks paid attention to nice, I’d do that, but on the Internet folks pay attention to RAWR! Especially on Facebook.

People engage when they see the !!!!!!s on my Facebook posts. Some engage in support, others engage to tell me I’m full of crap, or they are apologists, or they are simply saying, “But I….” Frankly, I don’t care from which direction you engage – you are engaging and that brings awareness, that promotes discussion. I tend to discuss the undiscussable (yes, not a word, I know). I discuss…

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Good news is bad news

Well I am getting a lot of feedback to my request for cisgendered folk, thanks to some kind helpers, so much so that I have to be careful not to overcompensate and sideline the people that live with ill-fitting pronouns every day. This is a good problem to have, and I am appreciative to be in this position, but don’t be afraid to contact me no matter your gender, okay?

Curiously, the feedback I’m getting is entirely from ciswomen.  Cismales, step up and represent!

Help me find cisgendered Pagans to talk to

I’m working on a story for The Wild Hunt about gender and language.  In what may be a comment on where the Pagan and polytheist communities are at these days, I am having more difficulty finding cisgendered people to talk to than anyone else, so I’m hoping for a signal boost.  If you haven’t a clue what “cisgender” means, it likely refers to you:  it’s a word which describes those of whose bodies and gender identities happen to match each other; if you consider yourself a “he” or a “she” and have never questioned that identification, you are certainly a cisgendered person.

My piece will deal mostly with pronouns, so my ideal subjects are people who are aware that there are other pronouns beyond he and she that people use in English to identify themselves or others, whether or not you use those pronouns yourself.  I’m also not opposed to talking to more people who are not cisgendered, because I need all the help I can get since I’m a cismale and I expect I’m more ignorant than I can imagine.  As of this writing, though, I don’t have any cisgendered folk weighing in, and while that may help the majority understand what it’s like to be silenced, it doesn’t make for good journalism.

I will use your preferred name (and pronouns) if I quote you, and I don’t mind not including your name so long as your commentary isn’t abusive.