beyond fight or flight

“it is significant that during WW2 the amount of mental illness plummeted” – an acquaintance, in an email exchange yesterday.

We hadn’t been in touch for months – not for the whole duration of my horrible depression – but since we were debating welfare, I was open about how my recent experiences had challenged my perspective and made me more compassionate towards others. The observation about WWII was his response. It rankled.

Whether or not it was true (for a given value of “true” – how do we define mental illness now compared with how we defined it in the 1940s? How was it recorded then? How is it recorded now?), it plays to the idea that depression is a malaise of the privileged, that all we really need to do is pull our socks up, show some backbone, and imbibe a bit of the ‘Blitz spirit’.

Sure, in some ways, there is privilege involved in addressing mental health issues: when you have to struggle every day for physical subsistence, mental and emotional and spiritual needs are pushed back. Although the poorest and most vulnerable in our society suffer from mental illnesses, most of them have at least some basic provision for food and housing, creating time and space for them to tend to their other illnesses.

This does not, however, mean that we should ignore any problem that is not immediately life-threatening (and depression can be life-threatening). Nor does it mean that a state of war causes a reduction in mental illnesses (the acquaintance in question failed to provide any sources to back up the claim about WWII, but after a little digging I found that the assumption was questionable at best).

digforvictory

Dig for Victory leaflet from the British Library

 

The ‘Blitz spirit’ might have helped – having a good support network or a sense of cameraderie and common purpose can help a great deal in preventing or recovering from depression. But what this really tells us is that we need more than just our physical needs to be met: we need community and connection, work which is meaningful to us and valued by others. And why should this be more readily available in wartime than in peace?

If more and more of us are struggling with poor mental health, it is not because we are growing a nation of ‘soft’ or ‘entitled’ people, unable to cope with the demands placed on previous generations; it is because we are privileged to live in a time when we actually have a chance to heal these chronic, life-destroying illnesses, instead of hiding them or pushing them aside to deal with natural and man-made disasters. If I owe my wartime ancestors anything, it is self-care, the self-care they were denied. And that self-care finds its fullest expression in creating a better world – the sustainable, cooperative communities and ecologies so derided by people who hark back to the ‘Blitz spirit’ as some golden age of Britishness, but which grow from the same seeds of camaraderie and common purpose.

IET police station crops

community corn outside the Todmorden police station – courtesy of Incredible Edible

 

So put that in your wartime pipe and smoke it.

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druidry and depression: facing the illusion

As I write this, I can tell I am heading for a small meltdown. Work has been intense and exhausting this week. I am pushing myself far too hard to compensate for someone’s absence and am still not very good at asking for help (or admitting that I need it). Tomorrow is a holiday; it is also my birthday, a date which I often find difficult. All in all, a cocktail of little things that could lead to me imploding a bit, and wishing my poor partner was not around to deal with it or witness it at all. But I also know that I am well, more or less, and that even if I do burn out this weekend, I can bounce back from it with a little rest and care.

A few people, who I have never met in person but still care about very much, have written about their problems openly and eloquently on their blogs. I have always been intensely private about mine, mentioning them only obliquely if at all, even to people I know pretty well. But reading people who talk about their own experiences so honestly has been a massive help to me at the most difficult of times; I have no idea if writing about my own will help anybody else, but in the spirit of openness and sharing, I want to try.

Last year I managed to haul myself out of a deep depression, the worst I had experienced in about 6 years. Maybe worse. Last time around I was living in Spain, and frequently found myself unable to do anything more than just sit on the floor staring out to sea, sometimes crying, for days on end. This time, I was (mostly) able to leave the house and get myself to work – I factored in extra time for anxiety attacks in my morning routine – and, provided everything went smoothly, once I had managed that much I was mostly able to let myself get carried along by the momentum of my workplace. But at the lowest point, which lasted a month or more, I spent my days privately wrestling with the idea that I was taking up space in the world which could be better used by other people; that I was a strain on the earth, using up resources even without meaning to, creating more problems than my presence here could ever solve. The problem is, my logic was impeccable: it led me down a terrifying cul-de-sac from which there seemed to be no escape. It took a long time for me to accept the idea that my existence was not the problem – that I had as much right to exist, to simply be, as the river, or the trees.

I talk about “hauling myself out”; I am emphatically not suggesting a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps approach to dealing with depression. Everyone is different. I am proud and independent, and this ended up being the best way for me to get better, this time around. But I hid it too well, and I am still struggling with the repercussions of that. I knew, even in the doldrums of that deep depression, that spending my evenings and weekends sitting on the floor, crying because I lacked the energy to do anything else, meant that everything was not ok. What I struggled with, and still do struggle with at times, was understanding that the problem wasn’t me. The problem was what I had, not what I was.

Druidry was both a foundational support and a bit of a burden at the time. I have spoken elsewhere about how my idea of what a “good” druid ought to be just became another way to give myself a hard time about failing. I stepped away from a lot of the definitions I had built up around my path over the years; at one point, I even stepped away from considering myself a druid at all. But my underlying reasons for being drawn to this path were still there, at the root of it all, and pagan druidry gives a unique perspective on mental health problems. Depression and anxiety are often only talked about in very mainstream cultural terms; we need to understand how it affects the less mainstream but no less important parts of our lives as well, like our spirituality, and how our less-mainstream spiritual path can help. Cat Treadwell’s tremendous book, Facing the Darkness, was a huge inspiration here; her words reminded me that it was ok to seek solace in nature without feeling I had to earn it by being a “good enough” druid.

At my lowest points, intuition became incredibly difficult for me, and I still struggle with it. My brain chemistry was telling me terrible things, and I had to re-learn how to listen to the deeper wisdom underneath it, because my instincts were all awry. The idea of not being able to trust my instincts went against the grain of a lot of ideas I had built up around my pagan practice. Divination really helped. A wonderful friend had gifted me with the Druidcraft Tarot a while back, and I got into the habit of drawing three cards each time I recognised the need. Reflecting on them gave me the space between myself and my feelings to figure out the distinction between what my brain was telling me to feel and what was really going on around me.

Water also became incredibly important to me, and is still the focus of my spiritual path. In modern pagan traditions, water is commonly associated with the realm of emotion, though I associate plenty of emotional states with fire, and even earth and air as well. But importantly, for me, water is also the realm of illusion. Illusion can be protective – my high-functioning veneer of “being ok” in public, while not always helpful to me, did get me through.  It can also be terrifying. The idea that I can’t trust my brain, or my instincts, still scares me. That, more than anything, is what water is teaching me to weather: not so much the emotion (the fear, or… well… I don’t think it’s right to describe depression as an emotion, but perhaps the intense, exhausting weltschmertz that accompanies it for me), but the trick that my brain chemistry is playing on my perceptions; the illusion.

I honour my illusion, but it has no power over me.

Manannan is often described as a master of tricks and illusions, conjuring visions of a huge naval fleet from pea-shells and sedge to repel invaders; concealing his sacred isle beneath a cloak of mist. Manawydan overcame the spell cast by Llwyd ap Cil Coed by staying true to his code of honour, in spite of the illusion. To overcome illusion, first we must honour it: acknowledge its presence, understand its nature. And as soon as we see the nature of the illusion, it no longer has any power to deceive us. At least, for now…

I am also trying to learn when to embrace illusion, and when clarity is better, for Manannan is a god of blurred edges and I cannot always be fully in his world. And I am learning to embrace the ebb and flow of my emotions. There will always be low points, moments devoid of inspiration – but the inspiration returns. I got better.   I will probably get ill again, but I know I can come back, and now I have the beginnings of a map to guide me.

On Cosmology and Compost

The story of Bluebeard, as Clarissa Pinkola Estés tells it, ends with cormorants and raptors, eaters of the dead, breaking down the body of the monstrous man until every trace of him has been returned into the earth.  The destructive force is not just vanquished, in this tale; it is broken down, assimilated to the point that it enriches.  The “irredeemable” detritus of a difficult life, or a life not well-lived, is broken down by these symbolic eaters of the dead to form the soil for new psychic growth.  A long, painful process; one we don’t discuss much, in our culture.  It isn’t pretty, but it is sacred.

They are her creatures, these eaters of the dead; but who is she?

She is the all-receiving earth.

Not the universe itself; she has her limits.  She is a force vast beyond human comprehension – a giantess indeed, an endless cycle which encompasses all existences on earth – but nothing more.  This perception, I suppose, is what roots my spiritual worldview in the ground of poly/henotheism.  I believe even that if my body were returned to a different earth, in a distant place on this same planet, she would receive me with another face.  I have heard – and not always understood – the different voices of the land while travelling the world, acknowledging the limits of my ability to understand, formed by time and experience.  Here, I hear her clearly; she is Hel.

Estés tells another story about the eaters of the dead: how the dead are carried in the bellies of these creatures to Hel, to her realm, where she shows them how to live backwards: “they become younger and younger until they are ready to be reborn and re-released back into life.”

Like many writers of a pagan sensibility, Estés makes great use of natural cycles as allegories for psychological experience.  The carrion birds in her tale are “sin-eaters,” processes by which the toxic waste of difficult experiences are broken down, transformed and released back into life.

In our minds we die over and over, constantly reborn to new understandings, new ideas, new ways of feeling and being in the world.  Even our bodies break down and form new expressions of themselves, cell by cell, over a lifetime.  Death is more than just the end of life; it is the process by which life is possible.

All these thoughts were on my mind this morning, as I walked the sandstone trails to the sacred place where I first felt her presence.  For years, I have carried this burden of sadness, unsure of where to put it down, unwilling to entrust it to the earth – it seems so toxic.  But what is toxic to the living may be beneficial to the soil.  The earth transforms.  I am ready to trust her, to place my heart in the hands of her relentless cycles of release; this year, at last, I am ready to set down this burden and learn to walk on through life without it.  And it may take a while…