Embracing the spirit in the American flag

I’m a fan of the American flag. It represents what people in my native country aspire to be, and there’s a good amount of cool ritual built into the very law around caring for and respecting it. The flag also can be a target for people unhappy with how American policy impacts the world; the fact that there are ritual practices for establishing respect means that disrespect through actions like burning in effigy are pretty easy to identify.

Politically, the flag is used as a focus by those supporting or opposed to particular policies enacted and conditions extant in the nation. Subscribers to some political philosophies like to think that the American flag — and by extension, American patriotism — belongs to them alone. It is also sometimes claimed as the special property of Abrahamic monotheists, as evidenced by the insertion of “under god” into the pledge of allegiance. It’s not surprising, in that light, that patriotism itself is on the wane right now.

None of the political trappings anyone seeks to attach to this flag are true: the flag belongs to all Americans, and as symbol of this nation it encompasses values both timeless and adaptable, including liberty, freedom, democracy, and equality under law. It would be a far better land if those values were expressed consistently by we humans; of that, there is no doubt. Nevertheless, it’s sad how many Americans are even quicker to cede their rights to the flag than they are to abdicate their obligation to vote. Some of those who, for example, decry the environmental toll of unchecked capitalist ambition, are unlikely to wave the American flag in celebration when a president stops a pipeline or expands a national monument.

I am not blind to the harm that has been inflicted with this flag flying overhead. I can only imagine what that the spirit represented by that flag has borne witness over the past two-plus centuries, and I imagine that seeing it all for myself would break me. The suppression and oppression visited upon some of our number is horrific, and sometimes I wonder if it’s possible to break that cycle of violence. I’m reminded that Frederick Douglass, who rightly decried enshrining slavery in our constitution, still believed in the ideals set forth in the declaration of independence itself. That document has no legal force, I’ve been reminded, but it’s the foundational document through which the American spirit was, and continues to be, invoked.

Since I am not a victim of that sort of generational trauma, I have the perspective to allow me to place the blame on the humans committing the acts, not the flag flying overhead. Yes, this flag is the physical manifestation of the spirit of a nation that was built on subjugation—and that should not be denied or forgotten—but the profane acts of humanity do not define the sacred nature of spirit. Yes, we must acknowledge the dark and devastating history of the United States of America and its founding fathers, but I believe our national patriarchs invoked a spirit that doesn’t have those human flaws. In fact, had they fully grasped what was invoked with words like “liberty,” “freedom,” and “equality,” it might have scared them silly. It’s their intellectual descendants who ban books and decry teaching accurate history, and it’s their descendants who will wither on the vine of history themselves.

The spirit that was called at the forming of this nation has had a lot of work to do righting those wrongs, and many enemies set against it. It’s curious how anyone who loathes the harm done in the past might direct their wrath at this spirit, rather than at the human beings who actually committed these acts. It’s similar to how we may cry, “corporations are not people!” yet refer to those non-person entities with the pronoun “who.” We tend to find proxies for our frustration, rather than directly confront the humans who are causing the problems.

The American flag reminds us that proclaiming “mission accomplished” does not mean that a mission was accomplished; as long as it flies, there is work to be done to live up to what it represents. It is sentinel and beacon, calling out the very hypocrites who wrap themselves in it. It is an icon of truth that dogs the heels of evildoers. The flag serves as a reminder of the type of society we are striving toward, one that is free of injustice; by aiming toward it, we can do better. If it ever comes down, I fear what the economic and military power of the United States might be used to do without even that much of a collective moral compass.

Long may it wave.

Eternal bedtime

It’s high time I write a bedtime story about depression.

When I use that phrase, “bedtime story,” it’s a trick. A story about bedtime technically qualifies as a bedtime story, but that’s a slippery way of looking at it. Slippery is how stories about depression have to come out, though, because everything about depression is slippery. Those who want to talk about it have trouble stating their case directly, and those in a position to listen often are not inclined to hear about that particular color of pain. Likewise, the meaning of the word “depressed” is infuriatingly hard to pin down: are you talking about losing a favorite toy, missing out on a big concert, grieving a miscarriage, or contemplating taking your own life? The word can be used for any of those, and more, because depression is slippery. Blunt, direct, literal language can be an effective tool to stun it insensible, hopefully for long enough to get a point or two across. In that spirit, I am writing a bedtime story about depression.

Once upon a time, I didn’t want to get out of bed. I have a fearsome will, but I was mostly unaware of that fact at the time because my will was mostly being used to keep me from being swallowed up by a spirit, the presence of which I had only recently come to recognize. When I set my will to a goal that was aligned with the desires of this spirit—remaining in bed—my will was unfettered to achieve that end. There were certainly occasions I simply had to move about the apartment, but I could masticate, fornicate, cogitate, and ruminate from the comfort of my ill-laundered bedclothes. I can’t say exactly how I managed to have enough money for food or charm for a sex life, but I did it without going outside that much, at a time when home internet connections were still years off.

That bed of mine carried memories of not only dreams and desires, but also some terrible tragedies including a miscarriage and a broken marriage. It had developed an emotional gravity that drew me back whenever I wandered away, back to steep in a sense of failure and inadequacy. That toxic combination took on a veneer of familiarity, of comfort, of safety. I’d learned as a child that it was possible to ward one’s room with mess; this too I did during this period of young adulthood, protecting myself from the pain that came from being out in the world. These kinds of wards are fairly effective in blocking many outward threats, but ensure that inward dangers are given leave to feed upon the caster. It was an excellent time for my spirit of depression.

I cannot move in this next paragraph to “they lived happily ever after,” because a relationship with depression is almost always more complicated than that. Who gets to live, much less happily? Any human who has experienced a story like this is not experiencing happiness, but sometimes the sense of comfort, or security, or predictability is more highly valued than happiness. When depression is near, it’s possible to forget what happiness feels like altogether. I would argue that keeping its human safe—at any cost—is what brings happiness to this spirit; therefore, “depression lived happily ever after” is a very real possibility for a story like that one. There was a time when I believed that depression feeds upon happiness, but my understanding is more nuanced now: depression doesn’t place value in happiness, and is more than willing to sacrifice that emotion for the sake of survival. Depression is also not particularly clever, and does not seem to understand that the sacrifice of happiness or liberty for short-term security will eventually lead the human host to have neither happiness, nor liberty, nor security.

Depression, in that way, is very much like the humans it chooses as companions.

This is a spirit that protects us with the brute force of sickle-cell anemia, a crippling, painful condition that shortens life by years but guards against malaria, a disease that kills in days or weeks. Some of us who experience this spirit’s touch are absolutely flattened by it, but not all. It’s a minority of those in depression who struggle even to perform daily tasks, and it’s a smaller minority still who choose to end their lives rather than endure in this manner; such is the brutal logic of the natural world. In an earlier time, what I experienced only would have been triggered by the stress of infection or serious injury, but the factors that subject humans to stress today are far more numerous and varied. Nothing about spending months barely moving, much less making social contact with others, did anything to promote my own healing or to protect my tribe. Humans respond to stress in an ancient, straightforward manner; the subtleties of work-life balance and other modern factors are irrelevant. Stress results in inflammation nearly always, and enough stress allows for depression to set up housekeeping. Much of modern medicine is about preventing our own healing factors from killing us. Perhaps it’s because depression kills more slowly and infrequently that it’s endured as long as it has as a human companion.

Not being able to get out of bed is a stereotype of depression, but as with any stereotype it’s rooted in experience. It’s important to acknowledge that some of us are suffering in this manner right now, and that it’s a horror. It’s equally important to remember that an even larger number of human beings are just a little bit better off than that: they go through the motions of life, surviving from day to day, but not especially living. Even those of us who have never felt the foot of depression upon our necks are probably far closer to that form of living death than we realize.

Depression endures because for all the pain it brings, this partnership with humanity has actually helped our species survive. I cannot speculate or how or when humanity may finally part company with depression, but until that day comes it’s essential that we recognize that this spirit is always in the shadows, and that being touched by it is neither a failing nor a flaw. Mindfulness for ourselves and patience for others will do more to help us manage this problematic relationship than any combination of stigma and denial.

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.