Muddy Puddles and Sheild Maidens

Hmmm, two posts in a week; I think I need my head examining. Still, as is the way with most of what I write, I start out journalling and end up sharing if it seems the thing to do. This means that most of what I write doesn’t make it, but sometimes you seem to have spent a few months having your head kicked in until you learn something. So that means a lot of journalling. This is the first time I’ve written about this and it feels like it takes courage to do so, not least because my take on this subject is probably so very different to the usual pagan/druid approach and at the very least may be somewhat controversial.

I think mostly though, I’m writing simply to find myself present in the world again as I’ve seriously frightened myself over the past month or two, sinking into a place I have felt completely incapable of extracting myself from. That’s unusual, normally I have a handle on it. I know the signs, I shake myself, refuse to submit to it, give myself a good talking to, determined that the muddy puddle will not suck me down. I’ve watched my Dad, utterly consumed with it for the past three or four years and I WILL NOT be there. Decision made, no arguments. You see, this ‘it’, this thing more normally called ‘Depression’ is interesting; firstly, I should probably say that I don’t call it that quite deliberately, not in relation to myself anyway, others do of course chose to use the word and that is fine, everyone deals with it in their own way, I’m not devaluing that.

If you read this blog regularly you probably know that I have a vivid imagination and like to tell stories. Personal mythology and imagery is such an important tool when the rational will not do, and so I prefer to think of my depression more as a muddy puddle with a whirlpool in the middle. Not a small whirlpool either, but one of those Pirates-of the-Carribean-Calypso-made-this-and-I-can’t-see-the-bottom whirlpools. My mud puddle is a selfish, clawing thing that likes attention and validation, it’s hungry and it wants feeding. To give it a label, particularly a medical label, makes it a THING, and that makes it happy and self-important and rather more powerful than I like to think it deserves, so it doesn’t get a name. It also makes it something that you can apparently treat, medicate and solve, and 20 years experience on and off of flolloping in the mud puddle tells me that this is not so.

Of course there is depression that is related to chemical and hormonal imbalances and whilst there is a huge amount of overlap on this spectrum, that is a slightly different thing. In any case the causes of depression are debated and whilst the seratonin theory is widely accepted, it’s just as widely questioned, particularly by psychologists, see Seratonin and nurogenesis. Whilst this is only an article, it’s actually quite good and will point you in the direction of actual research if you’re interested. But either way, I’m not talking about that, I haven’t the space. Nor am I talking about the kind of pathological, acute mental health conditions that get you hospitalised. I’m talking about the 40% of depression that antidepressants don’t work for, the kind of depression that happens for other reasons, and that happens to lots of us because sometimes, we are just not that great at dealing with the things that the world throws at us. Because sometimes those things are just too big and too much, and staying sane and functional is sometimes a very big ask. This is worth a read, again, just an article, but it points to some interesting World Health Organisation research about differing rates of depression around the world.

I deliberately use terms such as ‘mine’ and ‘my’ when I talk about my mud puddle, as they are incredibly important. This is me after all, a part of my soul, not something that is seperate, not someone or something else, not something that happened to me, not something I suffer from, just me. The decision to take ownership is a powerful one. There is a tendency, in modern health care to set the disease apart from yourself, to make it something that attacks you from the outside, that you become a victim of. Not something that you can own, that you create from the inside as a response to the world, something which you actually can make choices and decisions about. But I feel that this approach makes me powerless. The mud puddle is not something outside of myself, but something right in my middle, integrated, inseperable, an emotional tide that must be swum. If I’m to own it and have a any sort of autonomy with it, it has to be mine. This too is controversial; the debate surrounding the degree to which we have a choice about depression will run and run. It’s easy to write off this kind of approach when you don’t want to believe that you have a choice, but there is a stack of research on the subject suggesting that it makes a difference, which is well worth an explore if you are inclined. Personally I believe that choice is not everything (clearly it’s not) but that we have much more of a choice than we imagine. Whilst we can’t always control what happens to us, we have a choice about how we respond to the shit that does happen. I also believe (from very personal experience) that one of the symptoms of depression is that it robs us of the belief that we have a choice at all. That’s also important; it robs us of the belief, it does not rob us of the choice. Our ability to chose is in direct proportion to our belief that we can choose. Believing I am helpless is step one towards being swallowed by the whirlpool. Remembering that I have that choice not to remain there, not to allow it to define me, is what helps me claw my way out. Every single time.

The other things that help? A sense of humour. Having important people in my life who don’t give it the time of day either. That’s not to say that they aren’t supportive, but they don’t engage with the depression or validate my “poor me, I feel so awful” outlook, recognising that’s not helpful. They engage with me, in just the same way as they do when I’m ok. I have other friends who deal with chronic physical pain and in just the same way, they will articulate that engaging with them as a person not the disease and not being defined by it, is what they need. Again that’s not about not being loving and supportive but about remembering that this is a person, whole, a bit broken, a bit messy, but a person not a disease. Being normal, is so helpful, not being affected by someone else’s pain, emotional or physical is vital. As a midwife, being with women in pain is what I do. You don’t need to take it away, or feel it, or be overwhelmed or frightened by it, you just need to be there through the process. I believe that this is true whether the pain is emotional, physical or a bit of both.

It’s easy of course to tell me that my mud puddle is not, cannot be that bad. If I cope with it (usually), if I can get out of it (mostly) and am not medicated (never yet!), but this particular brand of mentalness, and I apologise for the irreverence but it’s important in maintaing my perspective, runs in my family. Lots of us are just a bit crazy. There are a number on medication, a good few in counselling and a few admissions to the local unit. As a health care professional myself, I know exactly how I would be diagnosed and probably what I would want prescribed for me, should I chose to go down that route. So I’m not speaking from the position of someone who doesn’t know how it feels. But here is the thing, the usual medical approaches don’t and haven’t helped so many people I know. The people I know using those approaches are the people who don’t seem to make any real improvement, or actually get worse.

Please don’t imagine that I’m saying that medication or medical expertise should not be utilised and is never needed, it absolutely has a place. I just cant help wondering how often we actually pathologise what is essentially normal in so many, many cases. This robs the individual of power and autonomy. Again, over pathologising mental health is another debate all of it’s own and one we are having regarding postnatal depression and the emotional changes following birth, in midwifery in particular. But (and this is my observation only, both professional and personal) the people who seem to cope best and get better, whether they take meds or not, are those who maintain the belief that they have some choice and responsibility, and refuse to believe they are helpless.

So the Sheild Maiden? Well, she’s another of my stories, my personal mythology and she is of course associated by many with Freya. She’s my medicine and my saviour. The image of the Sheild Maiden, striding forward into battle is one that is common in popular culture at the moment. She is historically rather debatable, but I’m not sure that matters overly much and she captures the mind and the imagination nonetheless. In a man’s world, I think we understand warriors best on the battlefield and so that is where she has ended up. Although as women, we do fight in the wider world, for our children and families, for justice, for peace, in the armed forces, for so many things, women also know that sometimes the greatest battles are the emotional and hormonal ones in our very centre. This is where the magic of the sheild maiden lies. Those battles require courage, bravery, toughness, fearlessness, skills of attack and retreat and strategy.  I find her within myself as the emotional warrior, she who is not afraid of what is at the bottom of the whirlpool. It’s she who says “ok, lets see whats down there this time” and walks all the way in when she feels it sucking at her toes, rather than being swept away. However scary it is, she knows that we may not have much choice about going in, so we might as well make the most of it. She makes the choice to explore and she makes the choice to fight her way out when she’s ready, bloodied and wiser, with scars and trophies but alive to fight another day. I scared myself this time, at how long it took to find her but I did and that gives me the courage to believe I will next time too.

Stories, Assumptions and Disappearing

My gods, it’s been a while since I wrote here. Over a year in fact. As a person who has a driving, burning need to write, I don’t do a lot of it in my spare time, although I do, every day, for a living. This means that my blog gets rather neglected as a result. Often I wonder why it is that I don’t write, when it is so important to my well being. Having thought about it over the past few days and having been prodded by a husband who knows how important it is for me, mostly I have come to the conclusion that I self censor a lot of the time as I have trouble believing that a) what I have to say is of any interest to anyone but me, and b) why would anyone else care? I think that mostly comes not from a place of self-depreciation, but from a total lack of ego and much of the time, a need to hide from the world. But I also realise deep within me a fear of being misunderstood and misconstrued, of giving the wrong impression or the wrong end of the stick. I seem to do that a lot, whether through my own absolute inability to communicate effectively or through others misreading of the story. This, and a bit of a ‘dark night of the soul’ over the past few months has led me to consider some old patterns I thought I had dealt with pretty throughly and to work more deeply with the idea of narrative and story as ‘reality’.

I realise over the years that I have come to understand my life and the events I look back on as a series of stories. Some of these stories are probably true and a pretty good representation of the facts, some are probably half true, others not so much, and some I am sure that I have fabricated to suit my own perspective almost entirely. We all live our lives through stories, we are all story tellers. We write new stories to explain the world and our experiences every day, just as our ancestors did. As a pagan and animist, these stories are important because in both the telling and listening they can reaveal much about ourselves, the world around us, and the realtionship we have with ourselves and other people (other storytellers).

We craft the world (much of it crafted for us by parents and others to begin with) from a very young age, putting the bits together with glue and sparkley paper, building the tapestry that we eventually call life. Each of these individual tapestries is our own stitch pattern and colour scheme, unique and personal, beautiful, disjointed, messy. If another were to look at your at your tapestry they would undoubtedly recognise some of the images and patterns, sharing your perspective and understanding. Yet, some may be unrecognisable to others, the colours jarring or the pictures blurred, even if the events were shared, our perspectives of the same event, the things it meant to us, may be interpreted in very different ways.

I grew up being told that I was difficult, demanding, precocious and asked too much. I still carry this narrative, still tell this story because on a very deep level I still believe it to be true. When I don’t find the nourishment I need (because I ask too much!) I escape rather than wanting to be seen as unnaceptable. Consequently throughout my life I have been told that I come across as proud, aloof and sometimes arrogant. Actually what this really is, is a terrible case of shyness and a rampant innability to deal with the world, or people despite sometimes making a really rather passable pretence of it, and a deep sense of pain at my own percieved unnaceptability. I know that this has me running for the hills so very often, distancing myself from others as a defense mechanism because somewhere along the line I have learned (rightly or wrongly) that I’d rather be alone than get it wrong/cause hurt/cause offense/make too many demands.

How true this story is, I’m not sure, but either way I often end up feeling lonely and it’s difficult sometimes to make friends. It is a good example of the way in which the stories that we tell ourselves become true because they affects us profoundly in our day to day lives. Most often we do it to ourselves completely, tying ourselves in emotional knots in the attempt to tell the same stories we’ve always told, often from childhood. We hold on to these stories as an important part of our reality and sometimes, whilst rewriting them would ultimately brings us freedom from the things that stop us from achieving our potential, change is difficult and painful and sometimes strikes at the core of who we understand ourselves to be and the ways that we protect ourselves from the world.

In doing it to ourselves, it is also interesting to consider how often do we do this to others, making assumptions about what they are thinking and feeling to fulfil our own narratives. I know that I am a master craftsman at making up the bits I don’t understand and of filling in the gaps of what something unspoken might mean, or what was meant or inferred by something else without having had that conversation about where that person really is. This is neither honourable or constructive and usually ends in misunderstanding. This was brought home to me recently in a conversation with someone at a pagan event (I’m sure he won’t mind me using the conversation as it was all in the spirit of burying old hatchets), where he told me that the first time I’d met him many, many years ago, I managed to piss him off within about five minutes “Me??” I said incredulously, “how on earth did I manage that? I’m nice! I hate conflict.” Apparently he had arrived late at a workshop group and whilst I have no recollection of the event or of the meeting, I know the sort of workshop it would have been, one where a group has to create a scene or a part of a ritual that then gets put together to make the whole, I’m sure you know the sort of thing. It’s generally something I avoid like the plague; too many people, opinions and disagreements. He went on to tell me how I had basically looked at him like he was shit on my shoe and then given him a job to do that he was less than happy about! Luckily his telling was quite comical and we both laughed about it, probably realising that neither of us had handled it well. As the laughter settled I started to puzzle over my behaviour. It was so hard to think of a time when I would have deliberately behaved like that. Eventally I realised that I had probably been shy, awkward, just about coping with the group as it was, hoping I could disappear as soon as possible, and hiding my fear and uncertainty behaind a facade of cool and capable. I suspect that could easily have been construed in the way he percieved it, which I am certain would not have been my intention at all.

But this got me thinking. If he had been so very, very wrong about me in that situation, how often am I so very, very wrong about others, perhaps colouring the scene to actually reflect my own insecurities rather than seeing what was intended? How often do I feel hurt, rejected, unloved etc. because of my own hang ups, ending up doing my disapearing act because of something imagined rather than ‘real’? Probably all the time. It also got me thinking about how responsible we are for what we put ‘out there’ and how we share responsibilites for misunderstandings. It’s not ok to say “your reaction to me is your problem”, because that gives us the excuse to behave as badly as we want and take no responsibility for it. I would like to suggest that whilst we cannot control how others react to us, we have a responsibility not to behave like an idiot. If I behave badly, I can expect someone to respond to me badly. Ultimately, every action or inaction is a choice.

So in that way, however difficult a task it may seem, we have a choice about the stories we write, both about ourselves and others. I have the choice not to disappear when I hear the message that I am difficult and unnacceptable and in being conscious that is a pattern I can start to retell the story in a different way. Not that that’s easy and I certainly don’t have the new story yet, but I’m working on it. At the same time, I’m working on letting others tell their own story, without adding my own chapters (assumptions) and certainly not without a conversation. Because, if we hope for the freedom to tell our own stories in our own way unhampered by the misreading of others, then we must offer others the freedom to do the same.