Priestessing Depression: Why are Pagans So Afraid of Negative Emotions?

Priestessing Depression: Why are Pagans So Afraid of Negative Emotions? January 28, 2016

The other day I found this story in my Facebook feed:

This Turmeric Lemonade Is Better At Treating Depression Than Prozac

This anti-inflammatory, antioxidant packed, cancer fighting, anti-bacterial and anti-viral superfood, turmeric has now been found to lift depression more effectively then any other conventional drugs.

In a clinical trial on major depressive disorder (MDD), Curcumin (the active ingredient in turmeric) was found to have equal effects as the prescription drug fluoxetine (the generic form of Prozac), without any adverse effects.

That’s right, Depressionauts: you can throw away your prescriptions and cancel your therapy appointments, because the cure is a refreshing glass of lemonade!

My friends. If your bullshit detector did not go haywire just now–if you did not hear klaxons and sirens wailing during every single sentence of that article–then we need to have a long talk. First off, there’s the contradiction in the article itself: that curcumin having “equal” effects as fluoxetine somehow makes it “more effective.” (“More than” and “equal to” are different concepts, as I’m sure you’ll recall from first grade math.) Then there’s the claim that being more effective than one drug means that turmeric is more effective than “any other conventional drugs.” Then there’s the question of dosage: how much lemonade would one need to drink to match the dosage given in the original study? One glass a day? Five glasses? A hundred?

Finally, of course, there’s the rule of thumb for reading anything you find anywhere, ever: if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.

Now, as someone with depression who has tried a variety of treatments over the years, I have a very real stake in public perception about it, so I looked up the study on PubMed to see what was going on. (Pro tip: you, too, have full access to PubMed, if you ever want to verify a medical claim you read on a shady alternative health website.) My suspicions were confirmed: the claims in the article bear no resemblance whatsoever to the results of the study. In the study, the researchers divided subjects into three groups: one that got only curcumin, one that got only fluoxetine, and one that got both. Of the groups, those that received both medicines together showed the most improvement, and those that got only curcumin actually did worse, by one measure, than those that got fluoxetine. Plus, the differences weren’t statistically significant anyway. Conclusion? Curcumin shows some promise. Further study is warranted.

Part of me feels silly even blogging about this, because the article is so blatantly ridiculous. Whoever wrote it is clearly just plugging their lemonade recipe. Doesn’t this seem like pretty easy bait? Don’t I have more important things to write about?

Except, like I said–it came up in my Facebook feed, and although I’m friends with a lot of people I don’t know well, I don’t accept friend requests from kindergartners. A Pagan friend of mine posted it without comment. When I left a comment with the link to the study and an explanation of the actual findings, I was met with mostly silence while the original story continued to rack up likes. This, to me, signals that what we’re dealing with here isn’t an issue of gullibility, but of wishful thinking. Witches and Pagans want this story to be true.

It really got under my skin. Because even when we’re not talking about clinical depression, these kinds of social media posts illustrate two major problems within witchcraft and Paganism: 1) an intense aversion to negative emotions, and 2) a deep fear of mental illness.

* * *

I actually have two Facebook accounts, one for my professional and mundane life and one for my Pagan communities. Long before the turmeric story came up, I’d begun noticing a disconcerting pattern in the types of posts I tended to see in my Pagan Facebook newsfeed. Here are a few (fictional) examples of the kind of thing I’m talking about:

Feeling #gratitude for my sacred path. Close your eyes. Listen. The world is singing to you, do you hear it?

So blessed! Every day is a transformation!

Today I communed with the forest spirits in my backyard, received a mind-blowing revelation from Isis, worked some earth-shaking magic, and received the gift of heirloom veggies from my garden to make the best sacred meal of my life. Not bad for one morning!

#deepmagick #cosmos #evolution #perfection

Obviously there’s nothing wrong with feeling exuberant and sharing it with your friends. And we all know that image crafting on social media is a thing. But compare it to my non-Pagan facebook feed, which also contains many happy and spiritual people but tells quite a different story day to day:

I got the job! YES!!! Moving to Duluth in January! Now where the hell is Duluth.

Divorce papers went through. Feeling shitty. Thanks for your support, everyone.

Motherhood is amazing. Every day is an adventure.

Motherhood sucks. There, I said it.

My day today: (video of a raccoon trying to wash cotton candy)

Frankly, my non-Pagan feed often feels much more honest than my Pagan one. Under my non-Pagan Facebook account, I’m a member of not one, but two private groups devoted primarily to complaining. Complaining! And contrary to the abyss of bitterness and self-absorption you’d imagine such a group to be, they’re both home to some of the warmest, funniest, most supportive people I know. Whereas in my Pagan life, when I’m feeling blue or depressed, I’m hesitant to say anything about it. I know that at best, I’ll get a lot of advice about essential oils and restorative asanas, and at worse, I’ll get judgment and cold shoulders.

Because here’s the thing I’ve noticed about us mystical folk, online and off. Even when we own up to having negative emotions–anger, fear, sadness, resentment, jealousy, whatever–we seldom allow ourselves to simply feel them. Instead, we couch them in highfalutin spiritual rhetoric and try to spin them out of existence. My jealousy is a lesson the Goddess is teaching me; now that I’ve learned my lesson, I can’t possibly feel jealous anymore! My rage at the guy in traffic is the next level of my left-hand path; therefore, flipping him off is a divine mandate! I am so lucky to be blessed with what seems for all the world like a shitty feeling but is actually a lightning bolt of undiluted wisdom that’s been crafted by the universe just for me!

And before you start to wonder if I’m putting myself on a pedestal here, don’t worry–I do it, too. All the time. I am constantly catching myself doing it.

When we’re unable to admit that sometimes shitty things just happen and our brains respond like the human brains they are, then we enter into dangerous territory. If our anger is actually wisdom, we think, then that means we’re allowed to take it out on whoever we want. If someone challenges us, then they’re standing in the way of our spiritual evolution and must be cut down. Everything bad that happens is actually good, which means that I should only ever feel good, which means that this bad feeling is really a good feeling in disguise, which means that I just need to break it open to see it for what it is, which means that…jeez, where on earth did this migraine come from?

This problem is compounded a thousandfold when it comes to mental illness.

Back to the turmeric thing. My main problem with that article, even more than the dishonesty, is the way it portrays depression: as a mild ailment, something that will evaporate with a simple home remedy. This idea plays into so many tropes I can’t possibly list them all. If you think you have depression, you’re just not taking care of yourself. Just eat better. Why do you want to poison yourself with drugs? Only stupid people take Prozac. Don’t you know Big Pharma wants your money? Just stop thinking negatively and the problem will go away!

It’s no secret that Paganism has a demonstrable problem with mental illness. Here’s one example of many: once I was involved in a retreat at which someone was engaging in harmful and inappropriate behavior, and the problem got so bad that they were banned. Except the official reason they were given didn’t mention the behavior at all. Instead, the organizers cited this person’s decision to seek emergency treatment for their depression. (Never mind that seeking emergency treatment is the savviest, most responsible and self-aware thing a person with mental illness can do.) When I tried to point out the ableist nature of this response–see the link at the beginning of this paragraph for a thorough explanation of how it supports a culture of oppression–I was astounded by the vitriol I received. I was told that I was “alienating myself,” that I needed to “shake off” my feelings on the matter. People seemed unable to hear what I was actually saying; most of their responses were non sequiturs. All throughout the ordeal, a line from The Descent of Inanna kept bouncing around in my head: “Quiet, Inanna, the ways of the underworld are perfect. They may not be questioned.”

The message, in community after community, is clear: if your mental health isn’t pristine, then you’re not fit to be a witch. We talk a great deal about healing until one of us is actually sick.

Image: young woman lying on her side, looking sad
Image via Pixabay

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the definition of the word “priestess,” both the noun and the verb. What does it mean to priestess? Why do we need priestesses? What are priestesses for? And here’s something that I come back to again and again. It’s easy to priestess the good things in life: the soaring mystical experiences, the breathtaking encounters with divinity. In ritual we cultivate ecstasy; at our altars we craft beauty. We post Facebook pictures of the seedling but ignore the dog shit that’s nourishing it.

It’s much, much harder to priestess the bad stuff in life–the petty revenge fantasies, the tantrums born from exhaustion, the moments of cowardice and greed, all the emotional farts and belches that every single one of us experiences. It’s much harder to be present for these moments, to tend them, to hold them and honor them and truly try to understand them.

But that’s exactly what we need priestesses for.

* * *

Right now I’m taking Camelia Elias’s class on tarot and magic. At the end of our first lesson, she told us something that should be obvious, but that a lot of card readers (including me) try their hardest to avoid. When reading for a client, she said, you have to be willing to deliver bad news. So often our impulse is to sugarcoat a troubling spread, tell the client that it’s not as bad as it looks. Well, sometimes it is as bad as it looks, and the client has a right to know.

The same goes for your mental state. Sometimes you feel bitter because someone said something nasty to you and you just have to let the bitterness run its course. Sometimes it turns out that your brain is miswired and allopathic medicine is the most effective treatment.

That’s what it means to be human, folks. We don’t get to opt out just because we burn incense every day.

There’s a nice mindfulness exercise for when you find yourself getting worked up: STOP (Stop, Take a breath, Observe, and Proceed). You observe your mental state without denying it. Observing it helps it fade; denying it just makes it fester. Trust me, I’ve been there. So the next time you feel the urge to spin a negative feeling into something positive, pause for a bit. Do you actually mean what you’re about to say? Or are you trying to weasel out of feeling bad? Next time you think that magic practitioners who rely on psychiatric medication just aren’t trying hard enough, ask yourself honestly: do you truly believe that, or does the idea of a witch on Prozac scare you? Does it make you wonder, perhaps, if healing is more complicated than a quick ritual under the moon? Does it make you fear that your healing may be more complicated than that?

A true priestess asks hard questions and confronts hard truths. If you’re afraid or unwilling to do that, then I guarantee that you’ll do yourself and your community more harm than good.

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