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.

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.

“Oh, maybe Wicca isn’t as stupid as I think it is.”

I was chatting with a colleague this morning about our class’s recent foray into “paranormal” subjects (we’re reading Christopher Bader et al’s Paranormal America) and I mentioned that I could understand some of the conclusions that the authors had drawn from their fieldwork (not to imply that this is a good book, because it’s terrible and just goes to show how thoroughly sociologists can mangle data and, further, why Evangelicals shouldn’t be allowed to conduct national surveys), given some of my own experiences at things like psychic fairs and New Age festivals.  My colleague’s quick response was, “But you’re not like other Wiccans!  You’re reasonable and well-read.  Usually Wiccans are the worst sort of religious flakes.”

I had to laugh at his comment.  And then I was sad because (putting personal vanity aside for a moment) his assessment of Wicca more broadly is not totally unfair.  And how sad is it that when my friend actually encountered a Wiccan he could respect, his conclusion was not, “Oh, maybe Wicca isn’t as stupid as I think it is,” but rather, “She must be an exception.”

I’m not suggesting that we should collectively be altering our behavior to garner the approval of outsiders, but I do think it’s important to consider that the negative opinions that people hold about us are sometimes grounded in reality rather than in just random, senseless prejudice.  The complaints that I’ve made against my own Pagan community are not unlike those made by non-Pagans: we tend to be uncritical readers, we tend to be gullible and naive, we are usually (and I’m very comfortable with “usually” here) pretty shallow when it comes to constructing theologies and ethe, we frequently aren’t mindful of history (both our own and those of others), many of us have a very troubling persecution complex, and our community is overwhelmingly oblivious to its white, Western, middle-class privilege.

Throw in some healing crystals and lots of fetishizing talk about Native Americans and it’s no wonder that Fox News (etc.) can say what it does with relative impunity.

Again, I’m not advocating that we collectively give Wicca a social facelift (though I personally may think one is in order).  People, particularly when they have the means to do so, should live their own lives according to their own preferences and goals.  I’m merely suggesting that, given the preferences that many of us have and the way we often carry ourselves collectively, we should stop acting so surprised and scandalized when others think poorly of us.