Doing Battle Against the Noonday Demon

Since the death of Robin Williams on Monday, there’s been a lot of talk in the media and online about depression and suicide, so I thought maybe now would be the time to jump on the bandwagon and give my two cents about it. It’s something I’d been meaning to do already anyway, especially when the subject of mental illness comes up on pagan mailing lists or blogs. Especially when people seem to be romanticizing it in some way. That always bugs me.

I do sometimes get sad about celebrity deaths, if their work was significant in my life in some way. Of course, it’s a lot different than if someone I know personally dies, but I still appreciate what they contributed to my life, even if we never met. I’m a huge Beatles fan, so I took George Harrison’s death hard, and I’m sure Paul and Ringo will be hard as well (I was born a month after John died). Even though we never met, my life is better because they existed.

With Robin Williams, I honestly never really thought of him that much before, but when he died, I just started remembering all those movies he was in that I liked. I guess I was just about the right age to see a lot of his movies in the 80’s and 90’s, not to mention watching Mork and Mindy on Nickelodeon as a little kid. I’m not sure if that makes me a “fan” of his, but he was definitely part of my childhood. It’s hard to believe there won’t be any more.

But what’s really getting to people is that he committed suicide. Why would someone like that kill themselves when it seemed like he had so much going for him?

I’m reminded of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, since I was a kid when it happened. People also wondered why he would do that when he had become so rich and famous. Not to mention serving as a poor role model for us teenagers who may also be depressed. I was a depressed teenager myself, and after Kurt Cobain died, I became a bit obsessed with him, and read books about him, and thought about suicide quite a bit. I was already depressed. Kurt’s death didn’t cause the depression, but it might have put the option in my head more than if it hadn’t happened. I came really close to it when I was 17, but didn’t go through with it, and thankfully have not come quite that close ever again.

I assumed that it was teen angst and hormones, and maybe I had grown out of it. I mentioned to my therapist a while ago that I’m doing better now than I did back then, but that’s probably just because I’m older and more mature. He said he didn’t think so at all, and said I’m getting better because I’ve been fighting it, not because I just grew out of it.

I thought about that when I heard about Robin Williams, because he was 63. Maybe my therapist was right and it doesn’t have to do with maturity after all. Depression has become something I can work around, or work through. I can get up in the morning and at least get the stuff done that I absolutely have to get done. It comes and goes, so when I’m feeling good, I try to get as much done as possible so that when I feel bad, I can take it easy and wait for it to pass without getting too behind. I still have a lot of room for improvement, but it’s not life-threatening anymore.

But it’s still a hindrance. I am absolutely sure I would be better off without it. My therapist has compared depression to a parasite (knowing I’m a biologist), and I think the comparison is very good. Most of the time parasites don’t kill their hosts, but they do weaken their hosts, and make it harder for the host to deal with other stressors. If a hard winter or drought comes around, the animals with the largest “parasite load” are the first to die. Recent reports have said that Robin Williams was suffering from the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, and that could have had something to do with it. I know I have no idea what was going through his mind, but I do know that if you’re already prone to depression, it can make it harder to deal with the other things life throws at you.

That’s why I know I still have a lot of room for improvement, because even though I can still drag myself to work when I’m in the middle of a depressive episode, it would still be nice to not have that burden to carry with me at all.

But let me get back to paganism. There’s this annoying tendency among mystical types to romanticize mental illness (and perhaps physical illness too). Some kind of “wounded healer” archetypal stuff maybe. I don’t know, maybe it’s different for others, but I don’t think my illness helps at all. Depression sucks all the joy out of everything, so it makes it hard for me to even enjoy the company of my husband or friends, let alone gods or spirits. When it’s hard to get up the energy to take a shower or cook a healthy meal, I certainly don’t have the energy to do any kinds of rituals or devotions. Really, it makes it so I don’t even think the gods exist. Without depression, I am absolutely sure I would function better in every single aspect of my life, including spiritually.

The only thing that it may help is in the sense that any hardship might make a person stronger. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” they say, which is a very Odinic way of seeing things. I think hardships can also make a person more compassionate towards others who are going through tough things as well, so that’s good. But I don’t think mental illness or depression is unique in this regard. The same effect might happen if I had to deal with any other hardship, mental or physical.

Maybe one of the reasons why romanticizing mental illness worries me is that it may make some people reluctant to get help. I know I was at first, because depression was such a big part of my life, I didn’t know what I would be without it. I was afraid I wouldn’t be myself anymore. But really, when the depression gets better, I just become a better version of myself. I gain much more than I lose.

I’m afraid mystical-type people might think that if they get treated for their condition, they will lose their connection to the gods, or something like that. But if your connection to the gods is based on an illness, what does that say about your relationship? Shouldn’t they be able to still connect with you when you’re healthy? If not, I think something must be messed up here.

I don’t think Odin or my other gods want me to stay depressed. I think they want me to fight it. They want us mortals to live our short lives to the fullest, and depression prevents you from doing that. It’s sad that not everyone wins the battle, but that doesn’t excuse you from fighting.

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Pagan Community (or Lack Thereof)

I’m often jealous of people who have found good religious communities to be a part of. Being a solitary can be very lonely.

John Beckett goes to the UU Church in Denton, which apparently has a very active CUUPS group. My husband and I tried going to the UU church here for a while, but they all seem to be either disgruntled Christians who left overly conservative sects but are still Christians at heart, or atheists. When we said we were pagans, they had heard of it, but honestly seemed a bit put off by it. We never really ended up fitting in. My in-laws go to another UU church, and have found a community for themselves there, but my husband and I haven’t really gotten involved with that either.

UU’s are great people, but it seems to be all about social justice and very little spirituality. Don’t get me wrong, social justice is great, but if I start talking about spirituality they look at me like I’m some kind of weirdo. (And I am a weirdo, I just need to find people who appreciate that.)

One of my good friends is active in an ADF druid grove, but it meets about an hour and a half away from where I live now, and I don’t know anyone else there.

I have made an online acquaintance of one of the members of Hrafnar. I once got to meet her in person. I have her friended on Facebook and occasionally get to see her post about cool things Hrafnar does and be jealous. I went to a Heathen event in Texas once, and they weren’t very friendly.

Finally, last year in February, I started a Meetup Group, inviting all pagans and heathens in the area to meet once a week at a coffee shop. It’s been about a year and a half now, and so far it hasn’t really gone anywhere.

I have only one guy who showed up to the first meeting who still sometimes shows up. He says he’s a mixture of Druid and Discordian. Later, a Heathen guy and his wife started driving all the way from San Antonio and became “regulars” as well. He found out about me through the Troth email list. Maybe two or three other people have come to more than one meeting before, but that’s about it. I have 72 members now, but the vast majority has never shown up, and the rest only show up once and then I never see them again.

Meanwhile I’m paying $12 a month to host the Meetup site, and no one else wants to chip in. Other members sometimes suggest ideas for things they want to do besides the monthly coffee socials, but when I tell them to post it, they never do it. I set the site so that any member can post an event, but so far no one has done that.

Nobody but me wants to actually do the work to maintain a group.

I keep thinking, “Why do I even bother?” I’m the only one who cares enough to pay actual money for this and to post events for this, apparently.

I guess it doesn’t help that I’m not completely sure what I want out of this.

Well, no, actually I do know what I want. Basically, I want a pagan church, and I want to be a “regular” there but not on the leadership team. I want to show up for full moons and solstices and equinoxes and maybe sometimes have a bigger role in the occasional ritual, but not have to be completely running the entire thing myself. I’m not a natural leader; I only lead when no one else will step up. I want us to have our own building instead of borrowing one from the UU’s (though UU’s can be great allies to pagans), and I want there to be potlucks and charity drives, and Ostara egg hunts and Samhain pumpkin carving for the kids. (Yeah, I want there to actually be kids too. I want there to be something for everyone, at any stage of life, not just 20 and 30-somethings hanging out at a coffee shop talking about D&D or Lord of the Rings.)

But that doesn’t exist.

I really wish pagans could get their shit together enough to make something like this exist, but they don’t. They can hardly be relied on to show up for a Meetup once a month, and if you ask them to pitch in a few dollars for the Meetup site fees, they won’t even do that.

Forget buying a building to make into a church, or putting in the time and effort to keep a thing like that running.

I know that some pagans don’t want it. Maybe it’s because I was never a Christian to begin with, so I don’t have bad feelings about the whole concept of having some type of organization in my religion. I think it’s possible to do that without being oppressive. I was always jealous of my Christian friends who could find community and support in their churches.

Some pagans hate anything that reminds them of Christianity, so they balk at the idea of a pagan church. Or we can call it a temple if you like, or a community center. But really I’m looking for something that fills the niche that a church would fill in the life of a Christian person, or a synagogue for a Jew, or a mosque for a Muslim. I want a pagan version of that. Even Baha’is and Sikhs and Hindus have temples in some of the bigger cities. But I don’t know of any pagan temples or churches or anything like that. Why  not? I seriously doubt there are more Sikhs than us in the country.

There used to be a Lutheran church near where I live that went up for sale. It got turned into a dog grooming place. Ugh, what a waste. It has a good parking lot, the building itself is pretty, and there’s a yard in the back with a chain-link fence around it. I bet it has a kitchen inside that could have been used for ritual feasts, and we could have put a labyrinth in the yard. We could put up pictures and statues of pagan gods and goddesses inside. The First Pagan Church of Texas! That would have been great.

Then again, the UU church my in-laws go to has been vandalized more than once. Ugh, seriously? A UU church attended mostly by white-haired retirees being vandalized? That’s Texas for you. For similar reasons, my pagan Meetup group has all its info except for a short description hidden from non-members, and I moderate who gets to join. They have to fill out a few questions first so I can be sure they’re a real person. I also don’t have my picture or full name on the site.

That’s why I wish someone else would do it. Someone who isn’t as worried about being outed and losing their job, or worse. Then I can just attend quietly and if someone Googles my name, no pagan stuff will show up.

Which is another reason why I think we need better community, for mutual protection. The irony is that I think if we had a proper temple or something, it would make us seem more like a legitimate religion.

Instead, it seems like all pagans do is fight with each other. That’s certainly what online pagan “community” looks like. First it was Neopagan vs Reconstructionist, then Monist vs. Polytheist, or Devotional Polytheist vs. Immersive Polytheist… I don’t even know what that last one is about. Hair-splitting taken to the extreme, I’m sure.

I mean, I’m probably the only Nature-based Germanic Heathen in my town, which is why I opened my Meetup to all pagans, in the broadest sense.

And yet, I’m still lucky if more than a couple of people show up.