Tracking moods

Memory is affected by depression. In particular, it can be more difficult to remember when you’ve been happy, which reinforces the idea that you’re never happy. Keeping a mood log can help dispel this lie. I first wrote about tracking mood in Empty Cauldrons, and if you find this post interesting than you might decide that you are also interested in buying my book.

Tracking mood is simple enough: just note the first emotion that comes to mind, several times a day. Looking back at the results before going to sleep, or at the end of a week or a month, can reveal surprising results.

As simple as it is in theory, tracking mood can be a royal pain to make into a habit. It involves some combination of memory, planning, and technology. Throw in a large helping of forgiveness, for all the times that you feel like you’re doing it wrong.

Memory might not seem like a solid choice for someone in the midst of depression, especially when the symptoms include brain fog, which is why I recommend reminders with triggering events. The events that work best are ones that take place at regular intervals, or irregularly but not infrequently—at least once a week. For me, a good mix includes whenever I make coffee (1-3 times a day), brushing my teeth (2-3 times a day), cleaning litter pans (ideally every day), and losing the game (which can happen at any time).

Planning might involve setting several phone reminders that go off during the day, or asking friends to check in and ask your mood from time to time. Either of these options can feel overwhelming, and if that’s the case then you really, really should find a way to do this. These are the times when understanding our own moods is most essential.

Technology is what fills the gaps in memory and planning. There are lists of mood-tracking apps out there, and the variety is quite broad. I had this idea of reviewing a number of them, but they all seem to have features I find unnecessary. I like simplicity: give me a spot to enter a word or two, and some kind of reminder system. Someone who likes apps that do a whole lot more might be thrilled by what’s available, and I don’t need to be the buzzkill. Spending the time researching the privacy policy of any mental health app before using it is also a good idea, to see if they fit with one’s privacy preferences. Remember that information that isn’t shared with a medical professional probably isn’t protected by medical privacy laws, just general ones.

I have been forgetful, I have been poor at planning, and I have been hesitant about technology, but I still think that tracking mood is very important because it’s one of the early-warning systems that depression is present. Since there may be others in the same boat, I am trying to find tools that will help the widest variety of people. Post-its and other reminders may be enough for some, but as for technology I started with this list of mood-tracking apps. As I said, most of them include a lot of features and privacy flags, but they each are probably a perfect fit for some of us.

Since I couldn’t find something as simple and straightforward as I would like, I decided to try to offer reminders of my own, to anyone with a phone number who wants to get texts from time to time. These will come at random times, and the number of messages sent every day will also vary. Some of the messages may come in while the user is sleeping; consider whether that will be a problem before signing up. The service is called Remind, and after my review of the associated app’s privacy policy I pronounce it “good enough.” What’s important to me is that the actual moods a user is feeling can be recorded on paper, or in some other document, when the reminder is seen. To make it especially useful, make sure to note down not just a the current mood (I aim for the first word that comes to mind when I see the question), but also the date and time.

All that’s needed to sign up for these reminders is a phone that can receive text messages. Send the message “@moodnow” to 81010, visit remind.com and enter “moodnow,” or download the app to get started.

depression quest

“What made me this way?”

This is a question that I have asked myself more than once, and I am not alone. It’s an expression of curiosity, which may be universal in the human species. It can take on a more painful mien when it is lifted up during a period of depression, when it can also be expressed as, “what’s wrong with me?” The question I lift up in turn is this: does the cause matter? For that question, the answer is a resounding “yes,” and also a strident “no.”

Nothing about the origins of depression in an individual is going to alter the balance of chemicals that are released into the brain, one might argue. Having an answer to that question does not alter one’s personal circumstances one whit. The living arrangements, the employment situation, the physical appearance, the other health challenges will remain the same. On a grander scale, understanding the source of depression will not alter the course of politics, social justice, or climate change. Pursuing the elusive answer to this question, trying to pin down a moment, an incident, a reason for experiencing depression can become an obsessive quest, one that leads one again into the black gyre of depression. At best asking the question accomplishes nothing; at worst it leaves one feeling more miserable than ever.

Stories are essential to the human experience, it can also be reasoned. The stories we tell ourselves shape our experience, settling into the non-conscious parts of the mind that are more closely connected to spirit. Through the intentional use of story, we are able to reshape self-image, and in turn renegotiate all our other relationships. To unravel the mystery of how and when and why depression became a factor is to unlock a personal origin story and, in that, anchor an identity. Whether this beginning was in a life-altering traumatic childhood event, or passed on through generations of ancestors, or in an accumulation of tiny disappointments that grew slowly over time, knowing the beginning of this experience opens the door to imagining a different outcome.

I say again that both are true. We ask the question because we each hold a desire to order our experience, but we can obsess over seeking the “truth,” or we can choose to hunt for someone to blame. Those are not paths to healing. On the other hand, we can shape stories from available facts and feelings that are empowering. My story may be about how depression is an alarm that was sounded generations ago, and has me on high alert until I learn to turn it off. Once I am able to find that switch, I will bring healing not only to myself, but the many ancestors who were also paralyzed by this warning system. I am now the hero of my own story, faced with a seemingly impossible task that I am destined to accomplish.

Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story, and don’t let a lack of information get in the way, either. Be the hero of your own story.

Mushrooms and depression

As the stranglehold of fear that has blocked meaningful research into psychedelics for decades begins to loosen, a lot of attention is being focused on using mushrooms in the treatment of depression. This introduces another powerful spirit into the relationship, a spirit that is now understood to help us reorganize how we think. That’s what is going on underneath all the curious sensations and perceptions: the rivers of thought in our brains are rejuvenated, which can be every bit as dramatic as when it happens to a living river. Rejuvenated rivers can be more challenging to navigate, though, which is why it’s best not to ride the rapids without a guide.

In Empty Cauldrons: Navigating Depression Through Magic and Ritual, I write a fair amount about the importance of guides when engaging with any drug. To interact with a drug is to interact with a spirit, and when this is handled poorly it can result in considerable harm. It’s when we build relationships with spirits that we are most likely to benefit. These are substances that alter the chemistry of the brain, which is the organ that we use to govern our perception, thinking, and behavior. The most dangerous drugs to my mind are the ones that alter our brains in subtle ways, like food and air. The fact that some drugs have more pronounced effect, such as alcohol and psylocybin, means that at least there is the possibility we will approach them with some caution. (It would be better if one of our cultural values was to treat all spirits with respect, but we aren’t quite there yet.)

Mushrooms go well with guides. The very idea of engaging a guide comes from advocates for the healing power of these fungi. It’s possible to find guides for hire online, but I won’t link to any in particular because I have not evaluated their competence or character. What a guide typically does is provide context for processing the experience, which begins to taking control over “set and setting,” or mindset and environment during the experience. These are perhaps the most significant factors contributing to the quality and content of the trip.

It is common—but not guaranteed—that one will experience a dissolution of self during a mushroom experience. I think of this as how the mind processes having the neural pathways of the brain rewritten, and while research suggests more and more strongly that this can be beneficial, it can also be terrifying. One’s mental moorings are temporarily erased, which includes the filters our brains use to sort out what we perceive as “reality” from the huge amount of sensory input that is received on a regular basis. Since mindset influences the experience, there is the potential for someone to spiral out of control due to fear or another emotion—especially if one has no guide to provide appropriate support. Guides appear to minimize negative results, but these experiences are going to be disorienting regardless. With the correct set and setting, it can also be incredibly entertaining, deeply profound, or both at once.

What happens once the brain is altered is a mix of sensory hallucinations, which may include altered colors, patterns in blank spaces, motion where one expects there to be none, changes in how time is perceived, voices, and song. I do not recall ever having an hallucination of touch, taste, or smell, but I imagine someone with particularly developed senses could have that experience. To a varying extent, it is possible to take control of perception in a way that doesn’t happen at other times. I don’t know of anyone who can manifest a specific vision on command, but it’s possible to amplify or reduce certain hallucinations, for example. A “bad trip” is really just the mind directing this heightened control into a dark place—often without conscious intent, and driven by fear and ignorance. A competent guide lays the groundwork to minimize this danger, and knows how to redirect the experience if bad feelings rise. I have personally made the conscious choice not to have a bad trip, but that was only possible because I implicitly understood I had this power thanks to experiences of close friends. The right guide is able to step in to set a new course for the tripper, as some of us can do for ourselves.

What is reported in research is that psylocibin can result in a lessening of the symptoms of depression. It’s not a promise of a cure, but it is a promising lead. The scientific method could be our worst enemy when it comes to this kind of research, because it’s based on eliminating variables to allow for accurate measurement of the effects of whatever is being studied. If researchers try to distill the specific chemical that causes a particular sort of neuron to fire in a human brain, they could easily miss out on something important. While science has resulted in a lot of changes in how we understand the universe, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. I don’t know what or when or if a treatment for depression based on shrooms will be available, but I am clear that this plant holds much to teach us.

Given the limits of science, it will be interesting to see how this research progresses.

Real money magic: investing in problematic companies

Last year, a veritable coup was staged in the Exxon Mobil board room. Three new directors, seated over objections of company leaders, are committed to addressing climate change as a business risk for a company that’s all about oil. This is a big deal, and highlights the power that shareholders have—but rarely exercise—over companies in which they have a stake.

Voting power at these annual meetings is based on shares of stock held. This is the one form of democracy in which votes are openly bought and sold in the market. Every share equals one vote, and company insiders often make it a point to hold enough shares to block any unpopular action—often, but not always. The activists who lead the hedge fund Engine No. 1 had just two-hundredths of a percent of all the outstanding Exxon shares, yet they were able to sway the votes to pull this off. That’s even more impressive given how these decisions are framed: the proxy statement in which board candidates and other matters are laid out always have a board recommendation next to each choice. Any candidate or question supported by board members includes a recommendation to vote for the proposal, and it’s easy for an uninformed shareholder to assume that board recommendations are the way to go. That’s a lot of headwind to overcome, yet that’s what happened.

Forcing the addition of three outsiders to the Exxon Mobil board easily could go nowhere; these energy transition experts are just a quarter of the full board, after all. Convincing the other nine directors of this corporation to make such a big shift in course also faces stiff headwinds. Momentum seems still to be building, though; another investor group believes change must come faster. Energy is building.

Mostly, people think only of the money that can be made by investing in corporate stock. The fact that shareholders are owners of these companies, and as such have power to effect change, tends to be overlooked. We need every tool at our disposal. Owning even fractional shares in companies like Exxon Mobil makes it possible to have a say. Directors will always resist change, saying that their first duty is to make money for shareholders; when shareholders are the ones asking for change, they are replying that profit isn’t everything.

I now have a tiny sliver of several companies with problematic histories in my portfolio, including Exxon Mobil, Volkswagen, and Microsoft. Whether those modest investments make or lose money does not matter to me as much as the power to have a say. The dollars I spent are a component in larger spells to change the world. By my will, let it be done.

Offerings at a depression shrine

Each morning, I make offerings to my gods, and most days I follow these with offerings to my ancestors. After that, there is often [[Deipnon for depression|another shrine]] I approach. It is tucked away out of sight, nurtured in darkness. It is where I make offerings to the spirit of depression.

Giving something to a spirit that seems to suck the soul out might feel a bit off, but offerings of appeasement are part of the rich traditions of polytheism and animism. This is not an offering that’s intended to intimidate or scare the spirit. Rather, the message is more like, “You may have good intentions, but I suffer from your presence. How about you hang out in this place, and I’ll pay attention to you here, instead of inside of me?”

I cannot say if depression is a spirit that comes from within—making it a lost part of myself—or a visitor that settles in because I have such a nice place here. I am clear from my experience and study that depression does live within the body. My shrine is intended to be a nicer place for it to live.

Tending to my depression shrine is not necessarily a daily practice, but it is a self-correcting one. This spirit is not going to stay outside of my body if I ignore its new home. If the shrine becomes disused, disorganized, or downright discombobulated, then chances are depression has moved back in. Likewise, if I recognize symptoms of depression in myself, I will know without looking that the shrine fell off my radar. Tending the shrine makes me more mindful of how connected I am to myself, and to my community. It’s a reminder to take care of my health, and my relationships.

The shrine is an external signal about an internal condition that affects my body, my mind, and my spirit. Tending the shrine does not eliminate depression from my life, but it does allow me to use my external senses to help monitor it. It’s located underneath my ancestor shrine, because they desired to cover this spirit. Having it out of sight mirrors how depression can dwell undetected within my body. I am not sure if that’s a bug, or a feature. If others adopt this practice, together we may find out.

Later this month, at WitchsFestUSA, I will be giving a workshop that includes creating the totem that is central to a depression shrine. I am thrilled for the opportunity.