I conceive of depression as a spirit, but that does not resonate with everyone. Whether or not depression feels like a spirit—a non-corporeal being with agency—it’s probably easier to agree that some of the symptoms of depression manifest in spirit directly. The whole idea of trying to categorize diseases and conditions based on whether they hit the mind, the body, or the spirit is not very helpful: these are different parts of the whole, and all health issues impact every part of the self. To me that seems especially obvious when it comes to depression. It’s categorized as a mental health problem, but the symptoms can cause physical pain. It’s categorized as a mental health problem, but the symptoms can cut off spiritual connection. In this case, we are limited by our language: since we have different words to describe these aspects of self, we conceive of our selves as fragmented. Sometimes it takes a serious condition like depression to teach us that this fragmentation is an illusion.
The term “acedia” describes the spiritual dimension of depression, while “melancholia” the mental aspect. Acedia’s first use in written English was in 1607, while melancholia has been written about since at least 1553. That’s centuries of effort to reinforce this idea of fragmentation, that the mind controls the body and the body is not the seat of self, and perhaps more importantly that the spirit or soul is distinct from the other two—except that the actions of mind and body can impact that soul. We’ve been spending hundreds of years or more trying to put that square peg of an idea into the round hole of what we actually observe about human beings.
One of the ways that depression impacts spirit is to drain away our interest in spiritual matters. While maintaining a daily practice is in no way indicative that one is free of depression, dust collecting on the altar is certainly a clue that something might be up. No information should be interpreted out of its context, mind you; there are very spiritual people who simply do not dust, and there are others who might take the time to set up a nice altar and then move on to something new. I know that it’s a common belief that physical tidiness makes spiritual connection easier, but as hard as I pray to Hestia to help me dive into housecleaning as a sacred practice, I need a day’s notice if anyone other than one of my closest friends is coming by to visit. I am not a fastidious housekeeper—but I seem to be in the middle of the pack, based on the homes of others I’ve visited. An orderly home feels good and doubtless has spiritual benefits, but it seems that earth-worshipers generally don’t mind a little bit of dirt, either.
What dirt might indicate is that there is an accumulation of spiritual detritus, too. That can happen during a period of depression, but again, physical evidence of a spiritual condition must be considered in context. For example, if I look around at the dusty corners and hard-to-reach places where grime accumulates with revulsion not for the dirt but for myself, then I may be moving through a dark place. At another time, I might recall that I have chosen to make my home welcoming to spiders or other spirits, embodied and otherwise. The difference is internal: do I feel in relationship with other beings, or do I feel like smothered by the state of my own existence? The cause is also internal; the spirit of depression has joined the conversation in my head and tends to bring the mood down.
Depression is a powerful spirit; most humans lack the ability to truck with it at all, and I don’t know of anyone who has consciously invited it into their own life. Nevertheless, many of us are in relationship with this spirit. Know this: if you have walked with depression and lived, you are a spirit-worker of great power. You may be entirely untrained and lacking in focus, but you have raw strength. I am still trying to understand the nature of this spirit, but it could be that it’s drawn to that strength and is sustained by it. It could also be that this is a protective spirit that is doing harm in an attempt to prevent even greater harm. Perhaps both are true: depression might be protecting us or those around us from power we do not understand how to wield.
All I can say with confidence is that an encounter between a human spirit and a spirit of depression can be a difficult one. A common metaphor of the experience is that the world is drained of color. Color does not literally drain from the world; what happens is that we lose the ability to care about its vibrancy. During a period of depression we do not process micro-affections, we fail to interpret acts in a positive light, and our joyful memories are suppressed. There’s a spiritual pall surrounding anyone on such a journey, which may suppress the use of subtle senses even if it doesn’t make it harder to move subtle energy. If your cosmology includes spirit as an element, then it’s just as easy to see depression expressed as spirit as it is earth, and air, and fire, and water. Depression is all of these things, because depression grows in the shadow of human lives.
Depression makes spiritual matters less appealing. Courtney Weber, in an interview for my book Empty Cauldrons, may have said it best: “You should go to your altar every day, but if you’re in a bad place, go three times a day.” It’s dangerously easy to abandon practices during a period of depression, to become convinced that they have no value. Double down, despite not getting any validation. Pray. Meditate. Worship. Offer. Celebrate. Depression does not turn the gods away, but can make them difficult to notice. It’s routine that helps us push through, and faith that the world is every bit a magical and sacred place today as it was on a day before depression took root. The human spirit is resilient, and I am here to bear witness to the fact that there can be a time when that spirit is again free of this condition.
Never forget that one’s own spirit is far stronger than can be easily understood.