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.

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8 thoughts on “The tenacious spirit of depression

  1. Having lived with it since I was eleven or twelve at this point, the best metaphor I’ve heard of for it has been the one about the black dog. Sometimes you can go through good periods where the black dog is about three blocks behind you. Sometimes the black dog’s a few feet away. Sometimes it’s chasing you at your heels and running you ragged. But it’s always there, in the back of your mind or in the forefront. My best weapon has been routines of self-care(sunlight and exercise are the things that are helping me this time), but it is *extremely* difficult to believe that anything you do or could do really matters. I’m going through the same struggle with my faith right now.

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  2. I really like the distinction you make between being depressed and having depression. I, too, have had chronic depression since puberty (if not earlier), and yeah, it’s really hard to get rid of; it’s mostly trying to find a way to keep the level of it low enough so that it doesn’t negatively affect my enjoyment of my life. I also agree that depression’s goal is not to kill but to feed; parasite, not murderer.

    One of my favorite speakers on the AA speaker circuit says that alcoholism, the disease, attacks the person’s spirit first–not their mind, emotions, or body. Cut out someone’s spiritual connection and they will be easier to take down at your leisure later, kind of like hamstringing someone in battle. For a parasite such as depression, it’s an efficient tool. The 12 step programs (and I don’t mean to harp on those here, really; just bear with me) base their entire method of recovery on the concept that if people can find that spiritual connection again, they have a chance of really putting that addiction into remission. And that that’s pretty much the only way one can heal from alcoholism. I think depression, being a disease of the body, mind, and spirit as well, needs those of us who have it to grab that same kind of spiritual connection to combat it successfully.

    As you mentioned earlier in regards to community, though–I find that the times when I need to connect to my gods the most, depression keeps me from doing so. I find now when I’m deep in the depression, that I have to reach out blindly to find the Gods that I know are there, waiting for me. If I try to think or analyze or gather data (or whatever other BS depression is tell me that I”should” do), instead, all I need to do is reach out and trust. Of course, this depends on me having previously created a trusting relationship with my Gods at some point when I wasn’t ruled by depression, but once I got that–I find that it’s easier to take that blind leap now and trust that the Gods are still there, wanting to help. Or, at least the times when it gets bad are shorter and not as deep as they have been previously.

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    • I am grateful to have established a daily routine of worship that I can go through the motions of, no matter how I feel. I imagine any habit so strong that it must be performed could be used to help carry one through.

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  3. I never thought about depression this way before, and I’m ashamed, because my husband suffers from it. He is one of the most brilliant, talented, warm-hearted people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing, but there are times he goes into a black mood and just holes up in the bedroom for days at a time. I’ve never known what to do or why what I was doing for people who were just “feeling depressed” wasn’t working for someone who had “depression”.

    Thank you so much for writing this. It’s a lesson that I need to rethink my approach so I can be there in more positive ways for my partner.

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  4. My friend, I will never send you “warm fuzzies” if you share with me that you are suffering from depression. While I have never thought of it as a spirit in its own right, I have long understood that depression has little to do with a depressed mood or feeling blue.

    Not only do I take depression seriously, I take _you_ seriously. I would much rather sit beside you in what you are really experiencing than be entertained by laughter that doesn’t reach your eyes.

    No warm fuzzies. But if you let me know when your depression has you, I will send you all the spiritual power I can muster, to help you in your fight–as I would were it cancer or chronic pain. Just because something isn’t visible on the outside doesn’t mean it isn’t devastating to the person going through it.

    I could smack that long-ago ritualist. Thank you for sharing your experience, your real experience, as painful as it is.

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  5. Pingback: Help me if you’ve been depressed | True Pagan Warrior
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