They say, "Write what you know."
I think that mostly applies to nonfiction. For people like me whose fiction is mostly fantasy of the elves-and-vampires-oh-my variety, writing what I know would involve the most boring elves on Earth.
At any rate, I thought I'd devote some time to exploring a subject that I had hoped I wouldn't have to think about for a while, but apparently is a hot topic in the crack-addled theatre of my brain these days.
It says something about both the state of the world and about the sort of people who become Pagan that I hardly know anyone who has not at one time or another battled depression.
Having a mood disorder is the "in" thing these days. Pharmaceutical companies are very interested (and invested) in everyone stuffing pills in after every unpleasant feeling. And while antidepressants and their ilk can absolutely be lifesavers (as they have for me, more than once), I don't think that numbing ourselves to our real emotions, no matter how horrible they are, is a useful solution for the long-term. A bandage can stop you from bleeding, true, but eventually you're going to run out of Band-Aids if you don't quit stabbing yourself.
I recently discovered an interesting blog, one of the few things on Beliefnet I would actually bookmark, that deals with the relationship between depression/anxiety and spirituality. It's called Beyond Blue, and is penned by Catholic author Therese Borchard. Her entry on Friday entitled "Depression: It's Spiritually Incorrect" really hit home for me.
I have heard it said that obviously Pagan religions are inadequate for people's spiritual needs because so many of us have problems with depression and other emotional/psychological disorders. Though such a statement is of course offensive and ridiculous--the ever-growing numbers of people popping Prozac are most assuredly not all Pagan--it does highlight something interesting about our culture, and mainstream religion's attitude toward depression.
To hear proponents of The Secret and members of the Church of Oprah tell it, if there's something wrong with your life, whether ennui or starvation, it's all your fault because you didn't put your positive intentions out there strongly enough. Some ministers--an alarming number--will tell you that if you lay all your troubles in the lap of Jesus, they'll magically disappear. Forget therapy, just pray your depression away!
There's a disturbing similarity between those two views. As Borchard says in her column, these attitudes are poisonous, because not only do they keep people from getting help they need, they make matters worse by adding guilt to the equation. If I'm dealing with depression obviously it's because I'm not pious or faithful enough, right? I brought it on myself, right? Not to mention, these ideas take the responsibility for working through the problem out of the person's hands and put it off on the universe to take care of. The whole "let go, let God" thing doesn't really work for most Pagans, however. We tend to be a bit more involved in our own development than that.
It's important to remember, however, that even the most devout person, the most attuned mystic, the coolest and most together person you know can fall prey to personal demons. It's not limited to people of any one social stratum, religion, or race.
I believe that, in addition to problems like a history of abuse or post-traumatic stress disorder, there are two oft-overlooked factors that contribute to depression among Pagans and, in a broader sense, all people who think and question and explore the inner worlds both in shadow and light.
First of all, we are none of us perfect--if we were, why would we be here? In fact intense spiritual practice can lead to an equally intense crash, as the openness required to progress spiritually will expose our ingrained patterns of self-destruction and all those nasty little lines of negative programming written into the deepest parts of ourselves.
I've always found it interesting and extremely frustrating that the moment I feel I'm "leveling up" spiritually, I am almost always slammed with some form of existential crisis that plunges me back down lower than I was before. Unlike some religious practitioners I don't believe this is God "testing my faith" or anything so Job-like; I feel it is, as I said, evidence that my work is working, and it has brought forth something raw and painful that has to be dealt with before I can truly integrate what I've learned. It sucks rocks, but it is often a necessary step. I wouldn't try to convince someone who is suicidal that their pain is a positive learning experience, though. It's just something I try to hold onto personally.
Secondly, depression and anxiety are in my opinion natural responses to how screwed up the world is and how our culture's priorities do not feed our souls or our hearts. The constant impossibility of "having it all" takes its toll. We're never thin enough, never rich enough, never good enough no matter how hard we try. We're supposed to be these superhumans who can manage careers, families, and "living our best lives" all at the same time when in truth many of us are doing well just to get out of bed, go to work, and make dinner without ending up on the six-o-clock news in a story that ends with "before turning the gun on herself."
If you're a Pagan or a remotely aware person in these turbulent times, you're also no doubt worn down by the constant litany of bad news: we're destroying the planet, we're killing each other, our politicians are idiots, our future is bleak. There are drowning polar bears and vanishing bees and factory farms and cancer-causing chemicals and Darfur and school shootings and soldiers to worry about. Pagans are generally thoughtful and intelligent people who do not have the luxury of turning a blind eye. What harms the Earth and any part of the Web of Life harms us too--we are only too aware of this truth, yet it seems impossible to do anything about any of it.
Lord, who wouldn't be depressed?
When it comes right down to it, though, when you're laying in bed trying to decide whether to move forward or fade away, the problems of the world simply cannot be a factor. When it's that personal, when it's your life that hangs in the balance and you are so overwhelmed by the inertia of your own existence that you can't even remember to eat, you have to start small. You have to start with you, your own health, and let the world go for a while. Get the therapy or medication or whatever you need to get you climbing again, and deal with the polar bears later. Chances are the world will not fall apart in the meantime, and I guarantee those problems will still be there when you feel strong enough to take them on again.
You may not believe you can make a difference--but that's only absolutely true if you die.
The first step is to decide to live.
What do you do then?
I'll get back to you on that one.