Tag Archives: depression

Empty Cauldrons – not quite a review

This is not an objective review. Empty Cauldrons by Terence P Ward is a book about depression and Paganism. For this book, Terence interviewed a number of Pagans about their experiences, and I was one of those people. We knew each other from the period when Terence was reviewing books for The Wild Hunt and I was sending out review books for Moon Books.

Unlike most of the interview-based books I’ve read, this one does not get samey. The interviews were conversations, and each went in its own direction. Rather than publishing the interviews, Terence uses them as source material to explore various aspects of what’s unique about depression for Pagans. This content is woven together with a wealth of ideas about how to navigate depression as a Pagan. Terence brings a lot of deeply explored ideas to the reader, including spells, rituals, prayers and diverse approaches for thinking about and dealing with depression. It’s really innovative work and any Pagan reading it has a decent chance of finding something that might help them. I have never seen content like this before, it’s  highly original and potent.

I found it refreshing to read something that acknowledges this is an issue many of us just have to live with. There are no promises about cures here, or magical ways of never feeling depressed again. These are tools for coping, for surviving, for climbing back out of the hole. It’s realistic and comforting and does not set anyone up to be further crushed. This is not a book that explores the causes of depression much – because the reasons are so individual. Instead, it focuses on how to live with the reality of it – and the symptoms are a lot more commonly shared by people who suffer. That means the odds of it being relevant to anyone with depression are high.

This is a very readable book, the tone has a nice balance of pragmatism and mild optimism. I find that when I’m severely depressed, anything too optimistic seems unrelatable, patronising or irrelevant. It helps to read work from someone who understands what depression is. Presenting it as something that may not ever be entirely overcome but can be managed and lived with offers hope, but not so much hope as to seem unrealistic.

Reading it also put some things in perspective for me. I recognise entirely the kinds of inner landscapes being described here. A significant amount of the book is about dealing with the kinds of things that does to a person – how depression can make you lose control of your life and do things that only make your situation worse. Reading it made me realise that I’ve done a solid job of fighting that, for years. I get up, I do the essentials, I keep moving, no matter how bad things are inside my head. It probably means things don’t look that bad from the outside – that I do manage to keep going may look like evidence that the depression is mild. But I can hold this knowledge for me and I can be a bit kinder to myself in recognising that I have been fighting an epic battle with this for years, and doing all the things I could have done to make a difference.

More on the publisher’s website https://www.llewellyn.com/product.php?ean=9780738763330


If I were king of the forest

Recently I’ve been contemplating courage – the role that quality has played in my life and the degree to which I’m not feeling it at the moment. I’m not feeling a lot of things; depression has me operating on a narrow bandwidth at the moment and I’m trying to find things I could change that would help with that.

Often people think about courage as a response to fear. Courage is what you call upon to square up to threatening situations. I assume I’ve still got it in me to show up for the things that must be done, but I’ve not been tested in a while on that score. I’m really happy not to be tested and am in no hurry to have to be brave about anything.

The courage I’m missing is more of a state of being. I used to have more boldness, and a willingness to go open hearted into the world and throw myself fully into things. I’ve become cautious, wary, mistrustful. It’s not been an irrational or unreasonable process, not even slightly. It might even represent something like wisdom. However, I don’t like this version of me. I liked me better when I was a bit less sensible and a lot more open and available.

It’s not as simple as choosing differently. There’s an emotional exhaustion underpinning all of this. Experiences have taken a toll, and the prospect of pouring from an empty cup is unbearable. But perhaps that means the question is really about how to refill the empty cup. 

Part of the point of living with courage is to be fearless in face of uncertainty. To love without hesitation, unafraid of whatever does or does not result from that. To give, to care, to show up… That was easier to do when I felt that I made a difference and had things to offer. To find my courage again I need to find a sense of purpose and worth. I need to be able to imagine that showing up fearless and wholehearted is worth something in some way, and not just to me.

How many times can a person get this sort of thing wrong before they stop believing in it? I’ve got a lot of things wrong. I’ve messed up really badly with a number of people along the way – perhaps I chose the wrong people, but there’s an exhaustion that comes from having done the wholehearted thing and have everything I was trying to do fall apart in my hands, yet again. Love like you’ve never been hurt is a bloody difficult thing to aspire to, and nobody talks about what happens when the hurt level starts to compromise your underlying ability to love.

I don’t have answers at the moment, but it seems productive to frame the questions. I don’t want to be closed and anxious. I also don’t want to mess things up by being too intense (I got called weird and creepy a few years ago, that one still haunts me). 

I suspect that reclaiming my courage and my former way of being in the world is going to depend on finding spaces where that’s actually wanted and welcome. I may need help with this. I’m exploring that too, albeit cautiously at the moment.


The language of mental illness

I notice that I feel more comfortable writing ‘mental health problems’ than ‘mental illness’ because the second option seems so much more loaded. The words we use to talk about mental illness are problematic, too. Anxiety and depression are words that really don’t convey the life destroying nature of being overwhelmed by those things.

Years ago, a doctor gave me a questionnaire that talked about being anxious and fearful. I wasn’t those things – I was overwhelmed by terror on a daily basis and unable to function as a consequence and I could not express the severity of my situation in the terms the survey offered. I was then given a CBT handbook to help me manage those small fears that will go away if only you push back against them. Only I was terrified, all the time, thanks to the genuinely threatening things that were going on in my life.

Depression, as a term does not convey the state of being so weighted down that you no longer know how to move. It does not express the experience of being so numb that you no longer seem like a proper person on the inside. Depression does not convey the utter despair and hopelessness that sometimes kills people. Talking about the fatigue that comes with depression does not express what it’s like to be so overwhelmed that even the idea of trying to do something is unbearably exhausting. 

‘Triggering’ is a word that has been sorely abused by people deliberately minimising how trauma impacts on people. Triggering as a word is not adequate to express the horror and loss of control of finding that your mind has been thrown back into reliving traumatic experiences from your history. The word ‘trauma’ alone does not do enough to convey to untraumatised people what that kind of experience this means. And I don’t want to expand on that because not triggering the traumatised folk is a consideration alongside wanting to educate those who don’t really get it.

‘Personality disorder’ is an awful term that has stigma hard wired into it. It’s also a really problematic area of diagnosis – it’s just a label, it doesn’t represent anything that can be measured. How do you tell between these ‘disorders’ and perfectly reasonable trauma responses? How do you tell between trauma in undiagnosed neurodivergent adults, and ‘personality disorders’? This is an area where the problematic language represents a lot of problematic thinking. If this isn’t familiar territory, have a look at the ‘symptoms’ for schizophrenia https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/schizophrenia/symptoms/ and consider how many of those might be caused by trauma and by real threats that are assumed not to exist. What happens to an abused teen whose parents frame their behaviour as delusional? 

Often, the official language to describe conditions comes from an unaffected observer, not the people having the experience. This isn’t a neutral process, and the stigma against mental illness and neurodivergence is massive and longstanding. And please, if we’re going to label murderers as being mentally ill, could we at least have a specific label for that illness rather than making it seem like mentally ill people are dangerous to those around them. We’re not. Most of us are far more likely to harm ourselves than anyone else.


This is not invisible illness

There are more ‘invisible’ illnesses out there than visible ones. Granted, there are a few that will announce themselves on your skin. There are quite a few illnesses that are obvious because they impact on your movement and speech – and I’ve heard far too many stories about those being assumed to be the result of substance abuse.

Depression and anxiety are not invisible illnesses. Not if you care to look closely. The picture in this blog was taken during a very bad week, where the panic had compromised my ability to sleep amongst other things. I was exhausted, and I looked it. My skin tone, my posture, the shadows around my eyes, the look on my face… 

It’s tempting on social media to present the best version of your face to the world. It’s tempting to want to be seen as your best self – and in some ways that’s a stronger pitch for an author. Some people will judge you for being fragile, ill, in trouble and some people will see that as a sign of weakness or failure. That’s part of why I’m sharing this photo. 

I panic when I can’t work out what to do, or when everything I do seems to be wrong. There’s a very particular kind of panic that goes with feeling that I have nothing to offer, and that my very existence may be harmful to others. The kind of anxiety I get on normal days is mild and bearable, but the kind of panic that leaves me feeling like a failure as a human being… that one is really dangerous. 

It doesn’t look like a broken arm or like blood gushing from my body, but it’s not that hard to spot. Most people’s ‘invisible’ illnesses aren’t that hard to notice if you listen to what people tell you and pay some attention to what’s going on. Failure to recognise this stuff should not be an excuse for ignoring it, denying people help or acting without compassion.


Do what thou wilt

It’s probably the most famous Crowley quote – Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. I’m good at will. I’ve spent much of my life doing things more by willpower than anything else, but it has a price.

Recently, my quest for improved health and my desire for healing has had me looking at brain chemistry. There are a number of things I don’t really experience, and never have – feelings of reward are one of those. I gather that part of what impacts on ADHD brain is a shortage of dopamine, leading to a latching on to anything that gives the person that kind of reward. Short term rewards are thus more tempting than long term goals. That isn’t me. I just use my will to get the needful things done and accept that I never feel anything much around achievement or success. This likely contributes to my ongoing issues with depression.

There’s no way of testing for any of this medically. However, as I poked around in what people have figured out about dopamine, I learned that it is also the chemistry of learning, attention, willpower and concentration. That started me thinking. Dopamine can fairly be assumed to be a finite supply in any given body. Am I simply using all of mine for willpower and attention?

If there was a time in my life when  I didn’t have to push to get things done, I don’t remember it. This hypermobile body has always been challenging, and making my body move, and even trying to keep up physically has always been demanding. Growing up, there was always shame around not being busy, useful, productive. I push through the fatigue. I push through pain. I get up and work when the depression makes me want to just lie there. I push.

At the moment I’m trying to become more aware of when that pushing happens and what it feels like. I’m trying to stop rather than just pushing all the time. More breaks, more rest, more things to lean on, maybe some better planning around how I use my time and resources. It will be interesting to see what happens, and whether cutting back on the willpower frees up some chemical resources for feeling good, or rewarded. If anything interesting emerges, I’ll write about it.

Doing everything by will is certainly stressful. Maybe willing things isn’t that great. Maybe pushing all the time to make things happen isn’t ideal. Maybe trying to will myself into things is no more sensible than trying to force my will onto the rest of the world and maybe I would be more comfortable if I could let go of all that and learn to be a bit softer in myself.


Staying Alive

CW suicide

I can’t remember when I first had the experience of wanting to die, but I was young. It wasn’t so much an urge to kill myself, more the desire to have never existed. By the time I was 11, I was trying to figure out how to justify my existence day to day. At that point I was fighting to work out how to live, but that’s changed over the years. 

If I could simply stop breathing by choice, then I would. That’s part of my everyday experience. It has to do with living with pain and always being tired and feeling so worn down most of the time that I have no idea how to keep going. There’s also too often nothing much I’m excited about and moving towards that makes me actively feel like I want to live. This is not the same as wanting to commit suicide.

I’ve never actually experienced it as wanting to kill myself. Sometimes what I have is an intense and overwhelming desire to not be in pain anymore – physical or emotional. Sometimes it is a thing that rises up within me and seems intent on killing me – and thus far I’ve managed to fight that, although what it brings up for me is violent, terrifying and close to overwhelming. I don’t know how to describe it except to say that it feels separate from me.

I’ve reached out for help many, many times. As it happens I’ve had years of asking people for things that would give me a better chance of not being in so much distress. What this has taught me is that help mostly isn’t available. On days when I’m struggling with self-harming impulses and the thing in my head that wants to kill me is menacing me, it’s hard to imagine who I could take that to who could actually help me. I’m not an easy person to comfort – this seems to be a brain chemistry issue. I’ve reached out for medical help, and it wasn’t there and I don’t have it in me to keep fighting – be that people or systems. I’ve been fighting myself for a long time. At this point I think I’ve worked out who would be both willing and able to step up in an emergency, but its taken a while.

Sometimes, the only thing I can do is to keep doing something. To put some kind of action between me and my death. To go one breath at a time in trying to figure out what there is to live for and how to keep going. I mostly don’t know how to keep going. But if I’m typing, I’m not doing anything else and there have been times when writing blog posts has got me through.

I did not write this blog today, it is not an urgent issue so no one needs to feel like they have to come and rescue me right now. Part of the point of writing is to try and explain so that other people are better equipped for their own experiences and the suffering of people in their own lives. Part of the point is to flag up that people won’t always tell you when the help they ask for is a matter of life and death for them. It’s not always easy to tell what might get someone through an otherwise impossible day and how much good you can do without knowing it.

And sometimes the answer is to write, because writing isn’t dying. Today (the day when I wrote this), not existing is an attractive idea – more so than it usually is. I can see no way forward, no way of doing anything good enough, no way of making my existence bearable. I’ve been here many times and I know things won’t get better but that I may learn how to make do with less and how to keep moving despite how much it all hurts.


Helping your depressed friend

Most days I see someone on social media encouraging their depressed friends to ask for help. Would that it were that simple! There are reasons depressed people don’t seek help that have everything to do with the nature of depression. Depressed people don’t generally ask for help.

Asking for help can lead to pressures to do the things the other person wants you to do. It can result in being told to take up yoga, pay for therapy, get on anti-depressants right now… as though you’ve never considered doing anything that might help. If the depressed person’s reasons for not doing something are ignored, or rubbished, that’s not helpful. If pressure is applied to seem happier so that the person you asked for help can feel validated and helpful… you don’t ask for help. Go a few rounds with such responses and you stop risking being put through all of that.

Depression can make it hard to think, and hard to make choices. Rather than telling your depressed friend to ask for help, try offering them specific forms of help and then helping on the terms they would find helpful.

Offer to listen. Be very clear whether your friend needs someone to hear them or if they actually want advice. If you have first hand experience of depression  you may well have useful insights, but if you’ve not been through it yourself it is better to assume that you don’t know anything useful about how to deal with the depression itself. Unsolicited advice based on assumptions is the opposite of helpful.

Look for the practical things. Does your depressed friend need a hand with the housework? Could you pick up some shopping for them or cook them a meal? Depression can make it very hard to do the things that would take care of yourself. Stepping in to do simple, practical things can make a lot of difference. You don’t need to do emotional heavy lifting to help someone who is depressed. Helping them overcome the problems depression causes can be worth a lot more.

Can you do something to lift their spirits? Can you do it while being ok with however they seem? If you can take someone out for the day or do something nice for them without needing that to instantly magically fix them, then get in there. Don’t offer if you’re going to get cross when your one intervention doesn’t instantly fix everything. 

Often what seems to happen is that well people offering help mostly want to make themselves feel more comfortable. This may sound harsh, but I’ve seen it too many times. The people who get angry when you explain why their magic solution wouldn’t work for you. The people who get angry when you don’t want to go on antidepressants, or take whatever wonder-substance they think you should take… this is not about making the depressed person better. It is about the comfort of the person who wants to be seen as a saviour.

If you’re offering anyone help, think long and hard about what kind of help you can really offer and how you think that will play out. If it’s all about you, centre stage as the marvellous hero, then you might do your depressed friend more good by just leaving them be.


Managing the energy

For some months now, I’ve really been struggling with energy levels. It’s affected what work I can do, and how far I can walk. It’s also been depressing and worrying. I’ve been making a lot of changes in order to try and handle things better and in the hopes of being able to recover from this to some degree.

I notice that I tend to think of poor energy as a head issue. It’s one I’ve previously dealt with by applying willpower and pushing through. Like a lot of people dealing with fatigue, I have a history of not being taken very seriously and being encouraged to think of it as a personal failing, not a body issue. I find that when I treat low energy as something that is happening to my body – not as a failure to make enough effort – I can improve things. Mostly it’s about food and rest.

Increasing my food intake often helps. Even if it doesn’t solve the energy problem, it tends to ease the panic and depression that go with having run out of energy. Toast is my friend. Fruit is also good. Plant-milks are easy to digest and sometimes biscuits are the answer. I have to remind myself that comfort eating doesn’t make me a terrible person, and that I am allowed to do things that help me feel less horrible.

Rest makes a lot of odds, and as I’ve explored in previous posts (Doing Nothing) sometimes flopping in a heap is about the only option I have. I’ve established that how and when I rest makes a lot of odds. It is currently fair for me to assume that I’ll get three or four hours in a day with good concentration and scope to be active, and that I might get a few hours beyond that where I can do some things in a more limited way – reading or crafting perhaps. I can no longer just work flat out in the way I used to. To have four hours or so of good brain, I have to take breaks. Slow the pace and more becomes possible. I still have to be careful not to wipe myself out, but pacing is clearly key.

I have to prioritise. I have to say no to things. I have to make the time to stop and recover.  It’s a lot to learn and is requiring me to identify and rethink a lot of beliefs I have about myself. I need to feel that I am allowed to rest, and I need to deal with the voices I have internalised that tell me otherwise. If I keep on as I was, I will likely get worse. If I can change things, there’s some hope of turning this around.


Seeking Joy

For wellbeing, we need joy. We need things in our lives that uplift, inspire and comfort us. Lockdown really isn’t helping with that – the loss of live music and places to dance has hit me hard. I miss the steampunk evens and the people I only see there. There are people it is distressing not to be able to hug. Joy is really important, and knowing what gives you joy is essential so that you can invest in it.

Depression strips the joy out of everything. It takes away the colours and flavours, and makes life seem thin, hollow and grim, even when it isn’t. If joy is in short supply, depression will leave you with very little.

It is possible to find happiness in very small things. This is usually something I’m really good at. The light on the trees outside the window. The brief appearance of a wild bird. A joke on social media. I practice gratitude and I make the best of what I have, and that helps. It is good to look for the best in things. However, these small joys are crumbs at best. If you have a life that is full of wild beauty and small joys then those many crumbs can start to look a lot like cake. If you don’t, then the diet of crumbs may not be enough.

What I crave most, and have always wanted most, are intense interactions with other people. Thinking and feeling, loving, laughing, co-pondering, imagining, sharing stories, creating together. I’m good at doing that sort of thing online, but I need enough of it in person to sustain me, and lockdown makes that really hard.

How many people live without access to beauty? How many people have little or no comfort in their lives, and no time or money for things that would genuinely feel good? How much depression is caused by the lack of joy and by a society that pushes consumerism at the expense of health and wellbeing? How many people have little or no access to green spaces in their daily lives? How many lives are lived without enough warmth, kindness and tenderness? What if the availability of joy was a collective concern, not just something for those who can afford to buy opportunities?


How hard is it?

If you’re dealing with long term illness, pain or mental health difficulties, it can seem appropriate to try and figure out how hard things really are. How does your experience compare with other people’s? This will likely stem from a feeling that you are making too much fuss, and not being stoical enough. You may not feel confident that you are entitled to ask other people to take your suffering seriously.

Distress is not really a thing that can be measured in relation to other people’s distress. However, the urge to do so comes from experiences like being told you shouldn’t make a fuss because other people are worse off. By this logic, only one person in the world at any given time is allowed to make a fuss!

In any sane and compassionate scenario, what will matter is that you are suffering. If you have to prove you are suffering enough to be taken seriously, there’s something wrong with the situation. If you’ve had extensive exposure to having to prove your discomfort, you may be in the habit of doing it to yourself even when there’s no longer anyone around to suggest that it probably isn’t as bad as you are making out.

Many people have terrible double standards around taking their own discomfort really seriously while being dismissive of everyone else. It is of course the people who know perfectly well that they make a fuss about little or nothing who tend to mistrust other people’s self-reporting. People who are used to being comfortable often treat minor setbacks like a bigger deal, people who are used to being uncomfortable often learn not to let it be the most important thing.

I’ve noticed around my issues that I feel obliged to be able to explain and demonstrate things. If I am upset, I have to make sure that I can reasonably explain why I am upset and I have to feel confident that any normal person would also be upset in the circumstances. It’s never felt like enough just to not like something or be uncomfortable. I’m trying to stop doing this, and to make space for how I feel regardless of whether I can demonstrate the reasonableness of the feeling. I often catch myself accounting what I’ve done against how I’m feeling, like this is an equation to balance, and if I haven’t done enough to feel tired, I don’t feel comfortable stopping.

All bodies are unique, all situations are unique, all minds are unique. What someone else might do is not that useful a measure. How hard it is for you is the most important consideration. But, if you’ve had knocks to your confidence, or don’t get taken seriously, it can be hard to hang on to that. No one else really knows what anyone else is feeling or going through. How hard is it? Really only you can say. Feeling you are entitled to say can be challenging. Trusting that your experience and needs are what matter can be hard if you’ve been taught not to do that.

If you know it’s important to keep a sense of proportion… if you care about not asking too much of other people… if you worry about whether things aren’t as hard as you think they are… trust yourself. You are paying attention, you aren’t being self-indulgent, your experiences and opinions are valid. It’s the people who never worry about these things who tend to make a lot of fuss over very little. Try and work out whose the voices are that tell you your experiences aren’t valid – the odds are there are specific people who have downplayed your distress and treated you like you were playing up the discomfort to get your own way, or get out of something. You don’t owe those people anything at all.