Routine, including ritual, has gotten me through some tough times. During periods of deep depression, having routine allows me to put my life on autopilot and thus minimize the harm that I endure from this soul-sucking experience. That might be why clinging to routine is also seen as a symptom of depression: not because it’s causing the condition, but because it’s a set of indicator behaviors that signals that something might be going on that’s worth a closer look.
Regular ritual and routine do not need much attention from the conscious mind to accomplish, much like a regular drive home from work doesn’t. That’s useful, because a profound experience of depression tends to suck up all that attention, leaving little bandwidth for anything else. My morning routine to offering to gods such as Hestia and Poseidon, as well as spirits including my ancestors, requires no thought at all: the prayers come automatically, for they are memorized, as is where and when they are performed.
You may be thinking, gentle reader, that that’s all well and good, but doesn’t offer much to a person who can’t even get out of bed. It is with no disrespect that I am focusing in this post on readers who can, at this time, get out of bed. Due to the pervasiveness of depression in the world today, those of us who are not currently utterly paralyzed or contemplating suicide may not feel like we need help, but believe me: we do. Just because the experience of depression is only ruining relationships and job prospects and housecleaning practices doesn’t mean that it can be “shaken off,” or that it’s not serious. After I got to the point of being able to function through my periodic dark times, it still took me 30 years to get a college degree. It still has led to me losing lucrative jobs and clients because I needed to pull back and regroup. I’ll never get those peak earning years back, and there are millions of others in the same boat. Ritual and routine are especially useful for depression at this level, when life is not black as much as it is gray.
Routines and rituals can be a lifeline during those gray times. It might begin by making an agreement with oneself, or one’s gods. I’m fortunate in that I follow a tradition in which vows have power. While it’s a good idea to think through the wording of a vow to make sure that it can be adhered to, that doesn’t mean that one can’t swear to brush one’s teeth after eating, or to smile when someone says, “hello.” If that feels like a misuse of an oath, there are other ways to incorporate the sacred. Try committing to making simple offerings on a regular basis, and then set up some reminders until it sets in as automatic behavior. Doing something is superior to doing nothing, and doing the opposite of what the voice of depression is whispering is all the better.
That last part may not come easy, because intentionally listening to what depression is saying is yet another behavior that’s discouraged, and may result in pain or strong pressure to stop thinking and doing too much. That’s why I wrote a prayer to do one small thing: Shining ones, if you will it,
may I see past the fog
to do this small thing.
It’s a prayer that’s short enough to be read aloud without much effort, and can more easily become memorized than a longer passage. It can be recited as often as necessary as one works on screwing up the effort to do that one small thing.
The most effective ritual and routine will be activities that have meaning already, and that can be incorporated into life during good times and allowed to become habits. Forming a new habit takes time; the median period to get one set is 66 days according to one study, and for some subjects it took much longer—up to 254 days. Yes, that’s a lot of time, but habits are investments in your future. It can feel discouraging, but study subjects who missed a day here or there still were able to succeed. Trying intentionally to establish a new routine has no downside: if it doesn’t work, just try again, and tell the voice of depression encouraging you to give up that it can pound sand.
The voice of depression has other tactics for undermining healthy change. It might warn that the line between habit and addiction can be a thin one, but this can be tested by determining if there if it feels like there is a choice. The spirit of depression can manipulate by using that fear of addiction, or by using addiction itself, to modify behavior. To balance those internal voices, add in some external voices: spending time with others is an important check against this concern. Mental health counseling counts as social interaction, but ideally is not the majority of social contact for anyone. The healthiest situations for small-group primates such as ourselves is to have a small group that interacts with us regularly.
In short, don’t be afraid to try to develop new habits, whether it’s early in a new year or at any other time. This may be easier when free of depression, but don’t wait because habits of ritual and routine can contribute to being free of depression. Yes, obsession and addiction are negative forms of habit and routine, but rather than sitting home alone worrying about that potential downside, remember that sitting home alone is something depression wants of you.
Don’t rely just on the conscious mind that’s afflicted by depression, friends. Tap into the rest of the mind, and you may discover you are stronger than you dared believe.