You’re Invited: Pity Party

CakeIt occurred to me in the middle of ritual, hitting me during libations:

I’m angry with the gods.

It’s not reasonable, and I shouldn’t be, and it’s depression and blah blah blah, but I’m pissed.

Fuck. I thought I was just sad again.

Wicca doesn’t really have the same kinds of moral codes and rules that lend themselves to having tons of expectations about the divine. Nobody tells us that if you behave well and toe the line, then you’ll live a good life. There’s no promise that if you make sacrifices and be extra committed, then the gods will bless you especially. Witches are their own agents of change. We can’t even settle on whether or not “worship” is a thing we really do. Most of us talk in terms of “partnership” with the spirits, or “honoring” the gods, or some such. We’re supposed to find magic wherever we are in the world, and cultivate beauty and change, and recognize the divine that’s inherently in us, and all that, and have-you-tried-keeping-a-gratitude-journal lalala…but fuck it. This is all really, really hard right now.

I do worship my gods. I’ve been Doing The Thing. I’ve worked for years, sacrificing a lot of the “normal” stuff that I’ve discovered in my adulthood that I really want and am secretly terrified that now I can never have. Beyond myself and my own practice, I serve.

Maybe the fact that I have expectations of my gods at all makes my religion necessarily shallow. “I am God” isn’t enough to earn my devotion. The Devil makes deals, and that’s what I expect, one way or another. But I’m still disturbed to discover that I have a bride price, and on top of that I feel cheated. When I choose to keep working (because I will, because that’s what I do), can I do so without the self-pity and this disgusting sense of martyrdom?

It’s gross, because I think religious people usually sound naïve and entitled when they talk this way. When people pray a whole lot and their loved one dies of cancer anyway, no one is really surprised. We’re sad for them, but we’re not surprised. We don’t really expect God to intervene. Even when we’re in the throes of something truly horrific, most of us still only hope. Maybe we bargain. We recount all of those past doings that should entitle us to one outcome versus another, retracing where we went wrong. We do everything we can think of that might tip things, even if it’s just because “it couldn’t hurt.”

Feeling angry means I had expectations I didn’t realize I had. I wasn’t just hoping. Here I am, surprised. And that makes me feel stupid.

It’s hard to model devotion in a coven when I feel angry at the gods (and when was the last time I heard another Wiccan talk about that kind of anger?). It’s hard to focus on the good things that happen when depression and anxiety won’t even let me take a full breath or get a full night of sleep.

Part of the reason I started keeping a blog was to humanize the experience of Craft. Most of what comes up in Google or in your Facebook feed is heavily filtered, designed to market things at you, or persuade you that a particular way of living is better than others. But sometimes it’s messy and horrible and you don’t know why you do what you do. Sometimes the gods tell you things you don’t want to hear or, probably a lot more often, they’re just infuriatingly silent. I also wanted to normalize depression, because so many of the conversations that take place in public Pagan spaces get things wrong. You can’t reason your way out of it or focus on the good stuff and trust it’ll go away on its own. It just is, and sometimes it has to be dealt with.

It used to make me irritated in grad school when professors would describe religion as a thing we do to make the world make sense, or to make the human experience easier. It doesn’t make anything easier. I don’t feel like things make sense. Devotion makes shit harder.

I’m okay. All of this is normal. All of it will pass. It just sucks to feel blindsided, and it sucks that I can’t just make answers or even comfort materialize, no matter how many libations I pour.

Everyone is Sort of Terrible: On Taking Breaks from Community Participation

Sometimes I really just don’t want to be around other Pagans. Part of it is my introverted personality. Part of it is the stress that just naturally comes along with running a group. And part of it is genuine irritation at the pettiness of other people, bringing out my own pettiness.

There are times when withdrawal from a wider community is necessary. I think it’s easy to blindly get caught up in patterns—that’s the nature of any social group. We’re people; it’s what we do. There’s always some kind of (sometimes subtle) hierarchy, some kind of covert measure for determining authenticity (oh, he’s not really one of us), speech patterns, memes, outfits…it starts to feel gross after a while. I stop feeling like I’m progressing. I get caught up in the dramas of other people and lose sight of my own objectives.

It’s not personal. I mean, sure, the Pagan Community™ has its share of brokenness, but I’m not convinced it’s really more prevalent than what goes on in other spaces. Everyone is sort of terrible sometimes, whatever freak flag they’re flying. Abandoning one group for another doesn’t usually solve much because fundamentally people follow the same sorts of behavioral patterns just by virtue of being people. Withdrawing entirely can be equally problematic because isolation doesn’t usually help anyone in the long-term. It’s worse if you’re prone to depression.

For me, it comes in waves. I get excited about participating in a wider community right around summer and sustain those feelings through fall (LET’S GO TO ALL THE FESTIVALS). Winter and spring, I don’t want anything to do with anyone (EVERYONE IS SO DUMB OMG). It’s normal, I think, to want to take breaks.  And it’s especially important to be aware of your own waves to keep from being caught off guard by shifting moods.

I start feeling drained and the depression gets worse. I don’t have as much energy for new connections or casual acquaintances. I get irritable and start speaking in sweeping generalizations. I roll my eyes a lot more. It’s unpleasant for everyone involved.

To remedy this I try to do a lot more art. I paint, I play music, and I journal a ton. It helps me to center and recharge. I run a lot more, and further. I usually cut down on my time spent online. I also like to plan trips, either to go backpacking in some backcountry somewhere or to visit close Craft family. Sitting around with my upline shooting the shit over cocktails is basically my idea of heaven. I can start feeling like I’m part of something worthwhile again. All of this leaves me with more energy for my coven—that tiny portion of the community that I’m directly responsible for.

The stigma of mental illness in Pagan and metaphysical communities

I don’t usually double-post my YouTube videos to my blog, but I thought this one may be valuable to the people who keep googling wicca and depression and ending up here.  Clearly, there aren’t enough people talking about this sort of thing.  I see the subject of mental illness and the notion of the “proper person” rear up periodically online, usually clouded by a lot of fear, misunderstanding, and judgment from people who don’t really know much about it.

The reality is that bazillions of people live with depression, described personality disorders, PTSD, anxiety, and all kinds of mental health concerns.  For most of us, you’d never know it.  In fact, often the only difference between us and a lot of “normal” people is that we’ve acknowledged our problems and are seeking treatment.  It both saddens and angers me to hear about covens actively excluding people who are in psychotherapy, who take anti-depressants, or who have particular diagnoses, under the blanket assumption that everyone who struggles with mental health is unfit for coven work or somehow otherwise not a fully-functioning human being.  It’s one thing for a coven leader to be unprepared to deal with the problems of a particular individual (I’m not trying to downplay the severity of certain conditions or suggest that everyone should get a free pass), but quite another to assume that everyone in therapy or on an SSRI isn’t “stable” or “healthy” enough for Craft.

In the above video, I talk a little bit about my own treatment history, the stigma attached to mental illness in Wicca/Pagan/metaphysical communities, and touch on the relationship between mental illness and magic.

Wicca and Depression, Revisited

One of my favorite things to look at when I take a peek at the statistics for this website are the search engine terms that people use to find me. There’s the usual wicca in nc, witchcraft in charlotte, or, my favorite, wiccan pussy (Oliver is pretty spectacular, I know). But one of the most common search terms is something to the tune of wicca and depression or depressed wiccan. My post Being Depressed and Being Wiccan is consistently my most-viewed and, given that it was mainly designed to criticize a stupid Internet meme, I thought I’d write something that was a little more general.

If you’ve never dealt with clinical depression, then I don’t even know what to say to you. What must your life even be like. When I imagine life without major depressive episodes, dysthymia, anxiety, or PTSD, the only thing I can think of is what it must be like to be able to see without glasses or contacts. I’ve been dependent on one or the other since I was five and have never had the experience of just opening my eyes in the morning and being able to see clearly. Never.

Mental illness can be much the same. Some things we’re born with. Some things are the result of our upbringings, traumas we’ve suffered, or brain chemistry that just goes haywire for who-knows what reasons.

When you struggle with depression, it flavors your whole life, like iodine in your drinking water. You might get used to it, but you never really stop tasting it altogether. When I have strong feelings (or no feelings), I have to ask myself, “Is this me being reasonable or is this my anxiety/depression/PTSD talking?” I have to check all of my reactions before I have them. I am constantly second-guessing social cues that other people take for granted. I catch the tiniest details in inflection, posture, and phrasing because I have to supply myself with evidence that people really mean what they say, or explain their behaviors, however trivial, because I learned that people often don’t mean what they say and desire to hurt you (this was a survival mechanism developed after several years with an abusive partner). It takes me longer to decide how I feel in any given moment than it does for other people, because, for a variety of reasons, I can’t always articulate what’s going on inside of me very well. I don’t even always instinctively know when I’m hungry because hunger, sadness, anger, and fear often feel the same to me. A social worker literally had to teach me—with illustrated flash cards—what those emotions might look like in myself.

And there are basically no resources specifically for Wiccans. (Clearly, because people keep Googling wicca and depression and ending up here.)

I’m not actually complaining. I have no idea what Wiccan-specific resources for mental illness would even look like. Given what happens when I Google Wicca or scroll through #wicca on Tumblr or Instagram, it’d probably be pretty fucking terrible. Like Wiccan ethics, we’re mostly left to deal with things on an individual, case-by-case basis. I’m okay with this, because there are, thankfully, other places to turn (at least, there are for those of you—the six of you—who have enough insurance).

But I am disturbed by the tendency in Wiccan, Pagan, and New Age communities to eschew psychiatric care, qualified counseling, and even open discussion of mental illness in favor of, essentially, positive thinking and lots of herbal tea. As I started to get at in my last post on mental health stuff, there is a trend toward shaming those who seek professional help in struggling with depression (etc.). The implication is that if you struggle with mental illness, you’re doing Wicca wrong. You’re “giving in” to negativity or not visualizing hard enough or something. And if you choose to take chemicals to right your brain chemistry, you’re not only doing Wicca wrong, but you’re violating your body, the earth, and tiny kittens and orphans everywhere. Or whatever.

While it’s none of my business what choices other people make for themselves, I am frustrated by the implication that people who live with depression somehow aren’t trying hard enough. Like if they just had a greater knowledge of crystal healing or believed in themselves more completely their lives wouldn’t be what they are.

I’m not disparaging these other treatments, only those who insist that modern psychiatric care and secular counseling are the enemy. I’ve benefited enormously from massage, ritual, time outdoors, and a whole lot of other things that show up in New Age memes on the Internet. But the reason “nature is cheaper than therapy” (or whatever that stupid quote is) is because it doesn’t fucking fix clinical depression. At least not on its own. And if you’re evidence to the contrary, then good for you, but I would have (actually, literally) died without the professional help that I was fortunate enough to receive. Yoga, lavender dream pillows, and walks in the woods were just not going to fucking cut it.

So to you, depressed Wiccan reader who found me via Google search (not you, wiccan pussy guy), please know that you are not alone in your struggles. Your religious choices probably have nothing to do with your brain chemistry or emotional innards (I’m being generous with the “probably” here) and your feelings are not your fault. Wicca—as well as a lot of other things that don’t come in a prescription bottle—can absolutely be beneficial. Wicca was part of the equation when I was deciding whether or not I wanted to be alive anymore. I’ve found enormous meaning in ritual, I’ve built connections that are worthwhile, and I’ve found a place for myself in a world that sometimes seems too fucked up to be allowed. It can be done, and many have done it. Do not hesitate to avail yourself of the resources available to you, whether it be a counselor (secular or religious), a psychiatrist, an SSRI, or a whole lot of hot tea. When other Wiccans (or whoever) tell you you’re not being positive enough, you’re poisoning yourself with “Western medicine,” or that you should just meditate more, they’re probably not intentionally being assholes (I learned this in therapy). They just don’t know what it’s like to wake up without being able to see every day.

Being Depressed and Being Wiccan

Actually, let’s go ahead and talk about some of the mental health stuff that I said I wasn’t going to get into last time.10003466_302815689867384_1467143949_nThere’s a meme called “The Ten Wiccan Commandments” that’s been floating across my tumblr dashboard lately.  I keep writing snide comments in preparation to reblog and then choosing not to because I decide at the last minute that it’s not really constructive to do so.

There are all kinds of problems with this meme (not the least of which could be summarized with the assertion that the people circulating it should simply go back to church if they’re so insistent on having commandments), but I’m mostly troubled by seven: “Don’t self harm or have self doubt.”

Aside from my usual reaction of “what does that even mean,” I’m troubled by the implication that those who struggle with self-injury (I’m yet to meet anyone who doesn’t engage in self-doubt) are somehow doing Wicca wrong. I’m troubled because this isn’t the only such meme floating around and not by any stretch the first time I’ve dealt with (perhaps marginally less asinine) conversation concerning self-harm and Craft practice (usually in the form of, “But that’s, like, totally against the Rede!”).

As someone who has been coping with self-injury and depression for the past couple of decades, I thought I’d do my part to shine a light on what depression can look like from a Pagan perspective.

Caveats first: I am not suicidal, nor do I mean this as a passive-aggressive attempt to get either my friends or people on the Internet to tell me how great I am. You don’t need to reach out to me.  Just channel that urge into hugging a puppy or something.  I am years into recovery and have all kinds of supporting crap in place.  This is merely an illustration of my own depressive thinking, reconstructed to make a point.  I cannot choose not to have these thoughts, only to redirect them in constructive ways (which can be a positively Herculean task some days) that hopefully help to minimize them over time:

Hey, I haven’t called my mom in a while.  I wonder what she’s up to.

 But we’ll probably just talk about the same old things.

 I’ll probably whine too much about stuff that doesn’t really matter.

 Nothing really matters.

 Life doesn’t really matter.

 I should be dead.

 Or this:

Hey, Morgan’s calling!  Yay!

 I’m lucky Morgan is my friend.

 I’m lucky anyone is my friend.

 Why would anyone be my friend?

 I am terrible.

 I should be dead.

When these thought trains end in self-injury, it’s usually because I’m so anxious that I wasn’t able to come up with alternatives as I was rocking back and forth on my kitchen floor.  I don’t want to be dead so I’m going to do this other thing that I know makes me feel better because that would be better than being dead right now probably maybe I can always kill myself tomorrow if I change my mind.  It’s problematic, but it’s not really unreasonable in the moment.

And when it’s all said and done, I don’t need some asshole on the Internet shaming me for it because I feel terrible enough as is thanks.

My struggles with mental health are not reflective of my status as a Wiccan.  My struggles with mental health are the product of a combination of god-knows-what-brain-chemistry-I’m-not-a-neurologist and past traumas, neither of which has any bearing on my witchhood.

Which is not to say that they don’t impact it. Obviously one’s mental health does not occur in a vacuum.  My practice is absolutely affected by my depression.  Just like I don’t feel like going for a run (or maybe even getting out of bed), I don’t feel like circling.  I don’t feel like fucking talking to people, let alone gods or spirits.  My patience is low, my foresight is lacking, and I have exactly zero fucks to give about self-care. And just like running, if I can stand to make myself circle I almost always feel better afterwards. My involvement in Wicca improves my quality of life.  It’s even helped me to find ways to—for lack of better phrasing—use my crazy to productive ends.

People do not choose to suffer from depression and mental illness.  Sometimes we fail to address problems when given the opportunity, sometimes we fail to acknowledge we have problems to begin with, and sometimes we make poor choices even after we’ve developed the tools to help ourselves.  But it’s not a matter of simply “Don’t self harm or have self doubt.”

I’m not violating any kind of moral code in struggling with depression.  I don’t owe anyone an apology for either my scars or for any relapse I might have in the future.

So shove your Wiccan commandments.