Of Depression and Druidry

I know a startling number of Druids who suffer from depression. Actually, I also know a just as alarming number of non-Druids with the same problems. It’s increasingly common. In fact, at this rate it’s going to become normal to be emotionally ill. One of the implications is that the nature of depression will need far more understanding. What non-sufferers imagine depression to be all about is painfully wide of the mark. But, if you’re not enduing it, the odds are increasingly that someone close to you, will, or that you will. Understanding how it goes makes it easier to deal with. Both for yourself and other people.

I think many of us assume that depression is a form of melancholy. People who feel sad may describe themselves (often inaccurately) as ‘a bit depressed’. There’s often a sense that what depressed people need to do is pull themselves together, stop being whinging emos, and get on with it. I probably don’t just speak for myself when I say, I find myself wishing it was that easy. Faced with someone who is pale, wilting, claiming they can’t do things, it can be easy to assume you’re seeing a freeloader, someone playing up, being melodramatic, attention seeking. Now, anyone who tells you they are depressed and then starts telling you what you have to do as a consequence of this is, frankly, a bit suspect. Controlling behaviour, regardless of the excuse, is not a thing to support or facilitate. Most of the depression sufferers I know find it very hard to ask for help. Telling people that they have to do things, is hard to imagine. Depression is not something we seek or enjoy, it’s life sapping and a bloody nuisance. Some days I feel like the whole time I’m walking round in lead boots wrestling with an octopus wrapped around me, that no one else can see. Normal things take ridiculous amounts of effort.

Depression is not ‘feeling a bit blue’ or ‘being a bit down’ or ‘needing to pull yourself together’. Depression is a defence mechanism. It’s a way of coping with things that the individual cannot otherwise handle. From the outside it may look like melancholy, from the inside it’s a process of shutting down, climbing into a shell, putting up the walls to keep out whatever it is that the body can no longer endure feeling. Stress, anxiety, and physical pain can all contribute to this process. The person who is weeping over something can often be in a better sort of place than the person who is still and silent because they’ve gone numb. Depression can be all about watching the colours drain out of your world. All the hope, all the reasons to keep going, fade away, and it feels like dying on the inside. Which sometimes results in people thinking that actually dying might not be such a terrible thing.

Why are so many of us falling soul-sick in this way? I think the more interesting question is, why everyone else has not done so yet. We have unprecedented access to the horrors of an entire planet. Every really attention grabbing murder and act of abuse makes it to the media. There’s a daily diet of war crime, tragedy, political idiocy. Every day we see the triumphs of money and power over common sense and decency. We’re driving species to extinction. When did you last see an image of a sick or dying child? Recently, at a guess. When was the last time a news item made you despair for humanity? Probably in the last week, at a guess.

In making a dedication to the land, in relinquishing ignorance and trying to live ethically, Druids take a course that eradicates any real hope of burying the head in the sand, and ignoring what’s out there. And of course we aren’t alone. People of heart and integrity are bound to feel what is constantly presented to them. Of course the violence, cruelty and tragedy are nothing new. It’s just that most of our ancestors only had to deal with what happened directly in their own lives, without simultaneously being burdened with the griefs of the world. One of the big problems with the griefs of the world is that most of the time, individually, there’s nothing we can do. A sense of powerlessness will eat away at your capacity for hope like nothing else. And that, in time, will put you on your knees.

As a Druid I have to stay open and aware. I cannot look away, ignore my responsibilities and pretend that all is well in the world. As some ambling ape-descended biology, I can’t always sustain that and keep moving. I have good days, and bad days. My body has a finite capacity for coping with distress. I try and generate hope. I do not always manage this.

I saw a facebook thing the other day, the gist went like this. The media tells you what to think and what to do. You run round on the treadmill making money for someone else, to buy stuff you don’t need that is killing the planet. Your air, food and water are being poisoned. And still you shuffle along. You are the zombie apocalypse. Wake the hell up.

I think there’s an argument for saying that a lot of depressed people are that way because they are awake. Perhaps if everyone woke up, we wouldn’t have to feel like this anymore. None of us. We could just fix things. And we really could just fix things, if enough of us wanted to and we could agree on how to do it. Let’s not go there. Hold the positive thought.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

23 responses to “Of Depression and Druidry

  • Athelia Nihtscada

    I like your wording with the question “Why are so many of falling soul-sick in this way?” Why indeed? What is the soul trying to tell us? What do we need to do?

    There has been some new research about depression and it is being speculated that depression could be a way of the brain (or nature) telling a person that the situation he or she is in needs to be changed. It has been said that depression may be useful in that it puts people in a bad enough mindset that they should take the signal that something is wrong. Unfortunately, it can go to far and upset the balance of neurotransmitters, etc. if left too long without resolution.

    I’ve looked at countless medical journals as a university student of psychology where depression is seen as a co-morbidity to a neurological disorder or as a result of PTSD. I tend to think “Well, of course the person is depressed! Wouldn’t you be if this were your situation and your body was in a state of ill health or decline, or you were witness to or a victim of a tragedy?”

    There is some speculation about a kind of cumulative PTSD as well – that being benign seeming things, and perhaps some major trauma, which build up over time and cause the scale to tip the balance as it were. Some therapists are having clients take stock of “gains and losses” in life to see if this might be the case. Big and small changes such as new jobs/lost jobs, loss of a pet, death of a family member or friend, loss of a favourite object, car breakdowns, major home repairs, etc. All these things can build up over time, and if not balanced with joyous events or even small pleasures, can lead to some major problems. My therapist asked me to take stock of these things and I’ve had a number of minor and major losses that seemed to outweigh the gains over the last 5 years. It put things into perspective for me and made me think about how much I was wallowing in losses of all sorts in my life, hence making me depressed.

    Taking stock of these things and making some changes in my own life has helped dramatically. Looking at my past when I was having debilitating panic attacks 7 times per day for hours, experiencing near suicidal thoughts as a result, etc., I soon learned that things got way better when I made some major changes. During those times, I encountered the Morrighan a number of times and she urged me to make some painful, but necessary changes. I moved, changed jobs, cut certain toxic people out of my life and after a while the attacks would stop… for up to 6 years! The depression seemed to disappear too. I have never been able to take medication for it because of my horrible reactions to it. Thankfully, taking stock and making big changes in my life helps a lot. Changing my outlook also changed things.

    Maintaining this has also been a help. Yes, I still have weeks or months where I just can’t seem to pull out of it, but it has not been nearly as bad since I changed my entire outlook on things: how I view things, taking stock, new perceptions, etc. I do manage to pull myself out.

    These are things that are at the base of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT. It’s gaining more results than medication or even just regular therapy alone, because it forces people to wake up, take charge of their their own minds and destinies and be the change they need.

    Doctors throw drugs at depression, hoping that will help and in many severe cases it does. But then the depression comes back again. What I have found in too many cases (even my own at times) is that the person may go on the medications, but the problems are not dealt with. The root cause is very rarely, if ever dealt with. It could be something from the past, a present situation or perhaps even the spirit rebelling because the direction we are going in life is not the one it is steering us to.

    You ask if depression is because we are awake. I take that one step further and say: perhaps now that we are “awake” and see that something is out of sorts, we need to get up and take action, starting with ourselves.

    • Nimue Brown

      Brilliant, inspiring words Athelia. Thank you.

    • Will

      I think there might be something to depression being a signal that something needs to change. Not too long ago, I was suffering from a severe depressive episode. One of the things that helped me pull out of it was doing something to change my situation. I had a lot of friends trying to help me by telling to just accept things, unfortunately, that only made things worse. It doesn’t matter what you change, as long as you can make a positive change, it helps. I think it’s because you are no longer acting in a passive manner; you’re starting to act in an active one.

      • Nimue Brown

        I think that sense of not being able to do anything can be part of what cripples people. Bing able to make change, to reclaim power, to not be a victim, all these things are liberating and hope-building, and where th depression has a lot to do with circumstances, I think the power to change those circumstances is a hugely healing experience. THanks for sharin your experiences Will.

  • Alex Jones

    The Celts have an idea about the “Wasteland”, the cause is separation between people and land. The symptoms are sickness, despair, barrenness. Indigenous peoples are taking a hammering mentally, the Druids are picking up the same sickness.

  • Taryn

    Yes so true..I think having events in life that are uplifting help to balance out the down times is one of the ways I deal with the doom. Also realising that we have choices in life and the power in ourselves to make necessary changes is helpful as a way of challenging crippling depression. There is a terrible sense of being overwhelmed by the pain of the world which wouldn’t probably have happened in years gone by when we were only concerned withour immediate community. There is a sense of stagnation when in the midst of darkness and a paralysis on all kinds of levels. My spirit heaves me out of it and into my garden where I work hard, or onto my drum where I beat out my feelings. However I understand that sometimes it’s hard to move out of this state and the only thing left is acceptance and patience. Knowing we have choices is empowering and feeling this gives a sense of hope that we may have some control over what happens in life, so we can become less of a victim and break the cycle and chains of depression.

  • angharadlois

    Thank you all for sharing your insights on this thread, and thank you Nimue for writing.

    One of the most poisonous effects of depression is the way it can make you feel as if the problem is *you*; you are the one whose body feels so heavy you can barely move; you are the one who has to talk yourself through every little step of the day so that the thought of facing it whole doesn’t send you into a panic; you are the one who finds it difficult to cope with things the way they are.

    I agree with Athelia that often depression is often an extreme warning: things must change! But it can be very difficult to allow ourselves to accept that things *can* change; often, the necessary changes involve such radical differences to our lifestyles… I have to admit that I am trying to balance a compromise, rather than leave this lifestyle entirely.

  • dreadpiratejenny

    Interesting thoughts, but I’m not sure I entirely agree. As someone who has been hospitalized for depression, I can’t say that it’s a matter of being more awake or seeing more clearly. In fact, in my case, I was seeing things that didn’t exist. Not hallucinations, but I was ascribing motives to people that weren’t there. I persisted in learned reactions to an emotionally abusive childhood. And most important, I suffered (well, still do) from major unipolar depression. (Major depression is a specific diagnosis not a description of how bad the depression is.) It is a physical illness. Studies have shown that brain cells that form while a person is depressed don’t form correctly. They’re malformed. The nucleus is malformed.

    Drugs alone won’t cure depression either. But damn, they help. The cells formed while on antidepressants form correctly. But therapy is also needed to help get over a lifetime of reinforced behavior.

    • Nimue Brown

      That sounds like an entirely different exerience from the kind of ‘normal’ depression I was reflecting on. Thank you for sharing. I wonder how useful it really is even thinking of these kinds of depression as being all one kind of thing? It sounds to me like they aren’t.

      • dreadpiratejenny

        There are indeed different kinds of depression. It’s one reason being diagnosed by a professional is so important. Recovery depends on so many things and treatment differs for major depression, situational depression, bipolar disorder, etc. One book I found very useful, though it deals with only major unipolar depression, is called Against Depression by Peter Kramer. Though it’s a few years old by now (I sincerely wish he’d update it), it’s excellent. It’s an excellent argument for how we should be treating depression as a disease and that we need to eradicate it, like many other diseases (heart disease, cancer, etc.). There are so many fallacies, such as it makes people creative, makes people more compassionate, etc. Which is all utter bs. Everyone I know who has been depressed has the same experience in some respects. It never made any of us more creative–in fact, it was all any of us could do to get out of bed in the morning, let alone do something creative like write, paint. Many of us could barely work. And it made us more selfish, not more compassionate. Depression is a selfish disease–you can get to the point where you feel everything bad that happens is somehow because of you. Which is an extremely egocentric view of the world. And when you get to the point of being suicidal–well, that’s also very selfish. Coming out of it makes you more compassionate. I could never understand why anyone would want to kill him- or herself before. Now I realize it’s not a matter of wanting to be dead but rather a matter of being unable to endure any further pain.

        I’ve been mostly symptom free for the past 12 years or so. I have small relapses and have had one fairly large one, but I didn’t require hospitalization that time, as despite feeling awful, I didn’t become suicidal again. I’ve been on antidepressants since being out of the hospital, maybe 14 years or so. They are the best thing ever. I tried going off them at one point (under supervision!) and became suicidal again, with absolutely no triggers. It’s definitely a brain chemistry thing for me. So I’m kind of a proselytizer about depression. And gratified I know I’ve helped at least one good friend not only deal with it but be open with it as well.

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  • Nimue Brown

    Dreadpiratejenny(love the name) thanks for sharing this, and all power t the prosletysing, it needs doing. I ge the impression many of us get a generic ‘depression’ diagnosis from the local doctor and don’t see anyone else. In my case, because I don’t want signing off, and because my doctor felt it had more to do with what’s going on in my life, and what has hppened to me in the past, and that until its all sorted, I’ve just got to muddle long. If it gets too bad I will ask for medication. It’s a tricky subject, but more talking has to be good.

    • dreadpiratejenny

      More talking is definitely good. Also, regular docs don’t really diagnose things all that well in regards to depression. There is so much happening with it all the time, and they really don’t stay up to date on it. Not their fault–it’s not their specialty.

      If you have the means to see a counselor, that might help in many ways. They can do a preliminary diagnosis, and if you don’t want to try meds right away, they can help give you tools for coping with what’s going on, both now and in the past. And if the counselor feels you need more help, they can usually recommend a good psychiatrist. I saw a social worker trained in therapy for a number of years. She was also very open to alternative thoughts (meditation and such–she brought up those ideas, not me, which was even better).

  • Nimue Brown

    I had some counselling support last year – not NHS, through a scheme. She was great, and that put me on a much steadier footing. I’ve done NHS we send you a pack self starting CBT, which helped a bit. I’ve got control issues, so surrendering myself to the medical profession, or drugs intervention, in some ways seems more alarming to me than trying to handle it myself, most of the time. I figure, when that doesn’t seem so, I probably do need to talk to them, given how my brain works. Needing to build a sense of having some control over self, body, life, as much as anything. A historical and not fullyresolved loss of power underpins a lot of why I get into dark places, I think.

    • dreadpiratejenny

      I definitely understand that. I had a great-aunt who was hospitalized, became catatonic, and never left. She would sign letters to my grandparents “love Raggedy Ann.” Things are so much better now than in the 1920s or ’30s (I’m not positive what year she was committed, but she was in there for being “willful”) but it still stays with you.

      If it helps in terms of meds, I think of them as brain vitamins. I did try the St. John’s wort route, but it didn’t do anything for me. Turns out my depression is atypical as well, meaning it’s not serotonin levels but norepinephrine levels that are my problem. St. John’s wort doesn’t help with that. It also doesn’t help with severe depression.

  • Potia

    I’ve read and heard people say that 1 in 3 people will suffer some form of depression at some point in their lives. My own feeling is that this figure is increased to at least 1 in 2 in Pagan circles.

    For some people I know it has been turning to Paganism that has helped them take control of their lives, for others their spirituality has not made much of a difference one way or another. I’m currently cutting down on medication that I have been on for a year, not a high dose, but I needed it to help me cope even though I was not keen to start medication and was worried it would change my personality a bit. It didn’t, it just helped take the edge of things. For me much of what has been causing my depression has been situational stresses that I couldn’t control. Things are changing now and life has improved.

    And yes, I recognise that there are different forms of depression. The more we can all talk about these things and our experiences the better we will all understand these things.

    • dreadpiratejenny

      That’s one of the fears people have about meds. I think it really needs to be said often and by a lot of us that the meds do not change personality. Like you said, they allow you to cope with what you’re going through.

      I thought that treatment for my depression would make me see the world less magicallly. That I’d stop seeing/hearing the glimpses I get in ritual, things like that. (It’s not like a schizophrenic voice in the head telling me to do stuff btw.) But it didn’t. And that affirmed to me that the experiences I had were not part of an illness, which made my belief even stronger.

      Potia, I’m glad you’re doing well enough to cut back on your meds!

  • Sophia Catherine

    This is a fantastic post. Like some of the commenters above, I’ve experienced a form of depression (bipolar disorder) that I think is mainly chemical. On the other hand, I completely recognise what you’re talking about, in terms of awareness and ‘awake’ness. I think there are people out there whose souls *and* bodies/brains need support. I think working on one can also help the other, too. Many blessings for your work of holding hope.

  • Lorie Staffan

    As a nature spiritualist myself, and a depression sufferer, I think you may be onto something about depression being related to people being “awake.” I feel like I’m always mourning for our beloved Mother Earth and I feel helpless to change the environmental situation for the better. I remember reading about a study that said depressive people are more likely to see things as they are, rather than as we wish they would be. Call us Cassandra! 🙂

    • Nimue Brown

      Yes, and to be personally affected by loss of landscape, and environmental vandalism. Bad enough to be aware of it, soul destroying when it happens on your doorstep and you can’t stop it….

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