Does magic work during depression?

Depression does not make magic fizzle, but it may make it harder to care about magic in the first place. There is some debate about whether magic is powered by belief or by will, but depression can dampen either.

First, some definitions: here, “magic” is the understanding that it is possible to manipulate forces that thus far defy easy measurement (such as probability) to influence the outcome of events. “Depression” refers to the mental state that is characterized by a propensity for a more negative outlook and reduced motivation, among other symptoms.

Ivo Dominguez, Jr. was one of the many people to generously offer time and knowledge as I wrote Empty Cauldrons: Navigating Depression Through Magic and Ritual. Dominguez told me that during an experience of depression, “the world is grey, food isn’t as good, nothing’s as lively.” During the height of magic, “it’s the reverse,” with colors seeming brighter and hyper-realistic. There is a “melding, a blurring, everything more united, yet sharper in focus.” If the sensory experience is that different, does this mean that depression and magic are antithetical, that they do not coexist?

Not necessarily. Dominguez performed a lot of magic while in depression, and found that an aftereffect is often a respite from the condition. Not everyone I spoke to found that this was the case, and I think the difference is that Dominguez has trained on magic the way some people train on weights. Perform the same actions often enough, and they can be taken over by autonomic functions of the brain. Depression directly impacts conscious thought and deed, but if it doesn’t touch the unconscious and automatic parts, that may explain the difference.

Courtney Weber, another of my sources, recalled a spell cast during depression that worked to tremendous effect. It also seems to have had a much more destructive impact that the target desired. Dominguez says that emotion is tied to the movement of energy, including through magic. What I draw from this is that the subtle senses used to calibrate the spell are dulled or blocked. I think of times when I have had to walk on feet numbed from being sat upon: I can do it because my muscles know the drill, but it’s clumsy because my nerves aren’t sending any feedback about the terrain.

Magic does work during depression, but 1) this is not the best period to learn how to use it and 2) your awareness of the effects may itself be depressed. Training and practice are the best ways to ensure your resilience to do this work, because during depression your casting may seem like it’s into a boundless void. Cast with care, because relying solely on reflex and training may be disconcerting. Cast with need, because love and duty can help you find reserves about which you were unaware. Cast with faith in the unseen ones with whom you are allied.

Yes, Virginia, there is magic, even during depression.

The pets who go before us

Seven times, I’ve borne witness to an animal companion of mine reaching the end of life. Seven doesn’t look like a very large number, but it’s big enough that I have developed some personal practices around honoring the passing of a pet or familiar. I’ve buried more pets than humans in my lifetime, and the humans have had input into how it’s handled that the pets have not. In its current form, the visible component of my pet funereal practice is nine days of public mourning in the form of pictures and stories shared on social media. Each day I post images to my more popular instagram account (@justmycatsandme, because cats are much more popular than anything else), along a theme that rises based on the pictures I have available. I drop in hashtags such as #petmemorial, #whatisrememberedlives, and #ninedaysof[insert pet name here].

During this nine-day period I stop making offerings to the gods, but continue to make regular offerings to my ancestors. That comes from the Hellenic understanding that we must undergo purification after being close to death, and before we return to honoring the sky gods. I add in something for my deceased animal friends, including the one whose life most recently ended. When I completed this cycle recently for my cat Kapoios, who I had euthanized not because of the intermittent pancreatitis or chronic kidney failure or asthma or deafness or serious dental problems (all of which we were able to manage) but because the lung tumor was making it difficult to breathe and the likelihood of this cat surviving surgery was vanishingly small. I wept as this cat died in my lap, and I wept as I shared the news with other humans who loved this cat, and I wept my way through the first three days of memorial posts. By the ninth day, I was able to sit with the loss without it overwhelming me. As of this writing, I occasionally hear the strange “quark” Kapoios made in lieu of a real meow, and at least once I’m sure I felt this kitty trying to slip under the covers. Once that initial period was over, I cleaned my altar, purified myself, and resumed my regular practice.

Nine days is the correct amount of time for me to fully mourn the loss of a companion cat in this way. I am someone who snaps a lot of cat pictures to post online already. Sharing those images, and especially the stories that accompany them, is how I process the emotions and honor the relationship. What’s important is acknowledging that grief occurs, even if the loved one who dies was not human. If you’re blessed with friends who call or send sympathy cards when a pet dies, as I am, then that’s also going to support your ability to work through these difficult emotions rather than denying them.

It’s possible one might experience grief more intensely for a companion animal than for a human family member. This is because grief looks different each time it is experienced. Relationships with pets are often less complicated than they are with other humans. Those complications can block grief, or cause it to manifest differently. Mourning my parents involved a withdrawal from social media, rather than using social media as a tool to express grief—I had public ceremonies with a good many people expressing their sympathy, and for me that was a useful outlet.

Suppressed grief does not always presage depression, but it’s a significant drain on the energy in its own right. It’s much easier to reach one’s personal stress threshold while in this state, that limit beyond which our immune system is no longer able to repel depression and other threats to the self. It can be difficult to recognize when one is stuck in grief, because just taking a long time to process this emotion isn’t necessarily unhealthy. Nevertheless, the presence of grief makes us more vulnerable, and more than ever we need support systems to shore us up. Being that grief is all but inevitable among humans, it’s good planning to think through who is in that support system, and to build more social relationships if that network feels frail.

Godwin’s law does not mean we can’t talk about nazis

When Vladimir Putin called the Jewish president of Ukraine a nazi, it didn’t surprise me that the leader of Russia could make such a bizarre claim with a straight face. I don’t know how it is in the rest of the world, but my experience in the United States is that people work very hard to enforce ignorance around fascism, and especially anything that has to do with Adolf Hitler. That’s an environment in which misinformation and disinformation can thrive.

Under Hitler, 11 million people were put to death for being undesirable—most of those for being Jewish. It was not the first act of mass brutality, nor was it the first genocide, but the documentary evidence collected after the fact made it the most memorable of these atrocities in history. Those who bore witness at the time clearly felt that it should be remembered, for engraved on a plaque at the Auschwitz concentration camp is a well-known aphorism of George Santayana, translated thus: The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.

Look, and remember, because if we do not understand what acts we humans are capable of committing, we will never be able to prevent more of the same.

Curiously, it wasn’t the periodic waves of holocaust deniers who have eroded our understanding of what occurred in Germany of the 1930s and ’40s. Those crackpots have always been resisted and denounced. Rather, it’s when someone tries to draw any kind of comparison that the silencing occurs. Given that we still don’t know enough to be able to identify someone like Hitler before the next genocide begins, it’s not uncommon for people to note similarities to actions taken in Germany during the nazi period, or beforehand. That tendency was summarized in 1990 by Mike Godwin. As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

This is as it should be. Since we don’t understand what causes these brutal events, it’s appropriate to test our observations with others, and to watch events that feel chillingly familiar with interest to see how they pan out. Ideally, we will eventually be able to figure out how to prevent ethnic cleansing, genocide, and the like. I’m not talking about killing would-be dictators when they are infants; I’m talking about changing the course of human lives to prevent any from rising to power in that way—or for anyone else to be prone to following despots like that.

Something about how we relate to the horrific events of the holocaust has changed, though, and it’s reflected in what we understand about Godwin’s law. Instead of observing the inevitability of discussing Hitler, it’s common now for people to believe that Godwin’s law is something to the effect of, “whoever mentions Hitler first in an internet argument, loses.” It’s been twisted into a warning not to speak about those events at all.

In a world where it’s never okay to talk about the bad people and what they did, it’s not surprising that Putin can claim that a Jew is also a nazi. That kind of ignorance can take decades to develop in an oppressed populace—it took a long time for Tianamen Square to be forgotten in China—but we in “free” countries are free to choose that path. Sadly, many of us have done just that.

Am I a witch?

Since my book Empty Cauldrons was published, I’ve had the pleasure of being interviewed by a number of remarkable podcast hosts who are also witches, including Patti Negri (on the Witching Hour), Dawn Hunt (of Cucina Aurora Kitchen Witchery), and the legendary trio who host That Witch Life, namely Courtney Weber, Hilary Whitmore, and Kanani Soleil. I’ve been asked some thoughtful questions about my life and practice, but one that I’ve never been asked is if I’m a witch. Hosts of two of the aforementioned programs assumed out loud that I am, but I’ve never used that word to describe myself. Am I a witch? I am finding that the answer to that question is not immediately obvious to me.

There have been points in my life when I would have answered, “I guess I am,” and others when my response would have been, “Definitely not.” This is a word reclaimed, a word that I have seen transformed over the course of my life from caricature of feminine evil to magic-worker at the margins of the world. It deserves a certain amount of authenticity and commitment before it’s claimed, and in the past I never felt I had both at the same time.

When Courtney Weber asked me the signature That Witch Life question, “When did you realize that you were a magical person?” my response was, “When I got angry at the sky,” when the wind blew down our tent during a really excellent invitational camporee on the grounds of West Point. I should have said that as of that night, I started thinking of the wind as my enemy. My filters were angry, oppositional, and combative, but I was still recognizing that the wind has opinions of its own.

I didn’t even touch upon what was in my earliest formal magical training. It was all about consequences. I was taught that magic can’t affect anyone who doesn’t give it permission, but that setting wards and putting up shields were a form of permission. I was also taught that the impacts of a working are the responsibility of the worker, even if they are unexpected. It was impressed upon me that emotions shape and fire spells, and that working during a period of uncontrolled emotion could yield very unpredictable results.

As a teenager recognizing that the wind is a spirit, my first reaction had been anger because there was a lot of anger within me. Now I was being told that magic feeds on my emotions, that the consequences of my magic were mine to bear, and that the more I incorporated magic into my life, the better the chance that magic would be used against me at some point. Those are the lessons that informed me, and by my early 20s, I just stopped doing magic on my own. I was willing to lend my energy to build a cone of power as part of a group, but on balance I figured that magic was more than likely to backfire on me at that point in my life.

What makes a witch varies across time and space. My friend Penny Novack has been a witch longer than I have been alive, and gave an interview that’s in the book Drawing Down the Moon about that path. Penny holds to the axiom that a witch should do no harm, and should never work dark magic. Witches who began their work more recently are more likely not to follow an explicit “harm none” credo, sometimes arguing that all magic has consequences and that it’s impossible to eliminate them all. On that, I disagree: the one certain way to eliminate all possible negative impacts of magic is to work no magic.

I chose to lay down casting spells because I didn’t want to take risks I did not understand. I chose to lay down casting because I didn’t want to take risks I could understand, either. Is it the casting that makes someone a witch? Penny Novack might disagree. When interviewed by Kirk White for Advanced Circle Magick—the material of which has since been incorporated into Masterful Magick: a Guide for Advanced Wiccan Practice—Penny admits as much. An adept understands consequences to such a degree that very little spell-work is needed to effect a particular change. There is magic in both action and inaction.

“It has so much to do with relationship,” Penny told me. “I know some easy things which are basically more about finding a level of relationship with the world and walking a different path briefly. But intellectually created magic is more like art. There are tools but they are like the short-cuts in math or the ways a good cook uses tools to achieve things which otherwise are difficult and time-consuming. It’s art because you have to pour your own creative fire into the structure for the thing to happen. You don’t just throw your energy at the desired end. You see the potential and you create a conduit shaped by your will and vision. Or you can just make friends with the local elemental spirits and be nice to them all the time so now and then they can do a small favor for you. It’s kind of a way of life.”

Am I a witch? I do work magic, now, for more years than I avoided it. Unlike the wiccans who first taught me, magic is not central to my religion. Unlike the non-wiccan witches who are prominent today, magic is not a pillar of my identity. Animism is a pillar of my identity, and magic that is based on building relationships with spirits resonates in that pillar. I am not the angry adolescent who once screamed defiance at the wind. I am now one who is open to the gifts spirits may choose to bring, and one who engages with those spirits from a place of gratitude. I do not use spells the way I use pens, for example. I’ll reach for a pen multiple times a day. Instead, I use spells the way one of my woodworking friends uses a sawmill: I plan my day around the preparation, and give a lot of thought as to what I want to accomplish before I start the engine. I am also drawn to slow magic: I have one spell that I’ve been actively casting for a dozen years.

The word “witch” has a fluid meaning by design, and I have no doubt that no one in these esoteric communities would question my right to use it. I have raised cones of power in a sacred circle under the auspices of two unnamed deities. I live at a largely private life at the edge of my village, willing to provide aid to those who seek me out, uninterested in promoting witchcraft as a service. That’s enough for me to own the term, perhaps, but it still doesn’t feel like a good fit. I’ll just have to continue to associate with witches I admire, and see if my perception changes.

I may someday be a witch. Time will tell.

water of depression

I am surrounded by thickened water, slogging through a pond or pool that has much more resistance than nature intended. It’s gray: rather than murky, like a pond rich with life, this liquid looks as dense as it feels. My sight is blurred by this near-liquid, and my thoughts slowed as much as my limbs. The desire to cry out is muted by a sense of futility even as it is muffled by the medium surrounding me. It is difficult to rise, to walk, to speak, to think.

Water is the element most often connected with emotions, and it’s the element that is perhaps most polluted by the presence of depression. Those who shared their experiences with me as I wrote Empty Cauldrons used water analogies frequently. Depression is a torrent, a still pool, a sucking swamp, a cold rain, an impenetrable bank of clouds, a thick fog, and capable of drowning those who experience it. Water’s life-affirming qualities are not the ones evoked in these discussions; it’s more Creature from the Black Lagoon than it is Stranger in a Strange Land or Dune. This is water when it brings sickness and death.

Each of the elements has qualities essential to life, and for that reason this experience of water can be transformed. Even though it may feel that water brings only woe during depression, water is central to healing. It is through tears that we humans have learned to release our most intense emotions. In depression we may become convinced that to let those feelings go is to lose ourselves entirely, but this is a lie. It’s an easy lie to believe, because the truth is a paradox: the more we let go, the more we find ourselves. “It’s okay to be sad,” Orion Foxwood told me; I would argue that allowing ourselves to feel sadness is necessary to being a whole person. Reject the lie that emotions must be suppressed.

One of the healing tools I am privileged to be able to use is a bathtub. Whether or not you find a bath useful for cleaning the body, warm water is a balm for spirit and mind. I write about how I use a particular set of stones for easing depression in my bath, stones that each have are known to support emotional health, and also won’t dissolve or fall apart in the tub. I include a ritual with which I have personally had success. Inspired by my interview with Kirk White, I also developed another bathing spell that’s intended to break depression, like a curse. Depression can present in many ways, which is why trying different approaches to address it is worthwhile.

What I cannot stress enough is that among the different approaches used should be techniques to address body, mind, and spirit. Spell-work is not enough. Always act in accordance by seeking professional help for this condition. Driving that point home, a spell provided by Kelden Mercury to me for this book will help in finding a therapist in a time of need.

It gets better, friend.