Living with a person in depression

One of the depressing aspects of being in depression is that it can make you into a depressing person that everyone else wants to avoid. That’s by design: depression wants us to avoid social contact, and not much is more isolating than being a downer all the time.

It’s not easy pushing past that defense mechanism, either. I’ve been fortunate to have friends who made the effort when I needed it most, and I fought hard against it. Just leave me alone to sit here in the dark, damn it. No, I most certainly do not want the light turned on. What’s wrong with how I’m dressed? I’m not going out, you know. Nobody wants me to go out, and that includes you. I don’t know what’s wrong with you that you want to hang out with me, anyway?

Remember that depression has no body or possibly no mind, which means that the tools it uses are the ones that are available to its host. I’ve used sarcasm, self-pity, hygiene, social awkwardness, and sleep to block loved ones from pulling me out of that pit; if you’re living with someone in depression, how they try to thwart you might be completely different. When this works, it can make others miserable and it can be very hurtful. That pain reflects back on the person in depression, in part due to a sense of impotence when it comes to controlling that negative behavior.

Somehow, whatever made me appealing, interesting, or attractive to other human beings was not smothered by that fog of depression—not entirely. Even when I felt unlovable, I was unable fully to convince all others to steer clear of me. Some part of me that others wanted to know better made its presence known. Certain connections can endure this experience, and some are even created during these dark periods. That’s the bond of community; that’s the bond of love.

To extinguish the light of my living spirit, depression would have to extinguish my life. As a surly veterinarian once said to me, “A parasite that kills its host isn’t going to be that successful.” Yes, depression can be a fatal condition; anyone who wants to read about how close to death I personally came is invited to read Empty Cauldrons (and please do review it online!). Far, far too many humans have their lives cut short through depression, but that is not the goal of this spirit. Depression is protective, in the brutal way that hemophilia is protective, and with all the modern relevance of the appendix.

Human is preternaturally strong, but any relationship can fade away if it is not nourished. If you are close to a person who endures periods of depression, you are going to be asked to do more than your share to maintain that connection, at least at times. Understanding that your loved one may not feel fully in control is an important step: anyone in that position may be unable to get out of that state without help. Here are some tips I’ve cribbed from an excellent blog post on the subject:

  1. educate yourself about the condition,
  2. encourage treatment,
  3. focus your anger on the situation, not the person,
  4. support each other,
  5. prioritize being patient, not solving the problem,
  6. celebrate even small successes,
  7. consider whether joint therapy will shore up the relationship,
  8. caring for yourself is important, and
  9. be compassionate.

Depression is supposed to feel like an attack on others, and resisting the instinct to respond in kind is an act of will and wisdom.

Ritual, routine, and depression

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.

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.