The Experience of Depression

I’m having a bad day today. It started yesterday, maybe even as early as Sunday night. I thought I was just tired. I went to bed early (earlier than usual) last night, and when I woke up this morning, I thought today would be better. It took a period of sitting on the couch crying for me to realise that it wasn’t.

Last night, I wanted to blog about how I felt, all the icky things going through my head. But I didn’t want to make those things public, because of their overwhelming negativity. Because of the fear of being judged as whiny. Because I’m trying to attract readers to my books, and I didn’t want to put them off. Because agents and editors (and yes, I still am concerned about what they think, even though I am an independent author) check you out on the internet, and I didn’t want to come across as difficult or over-morose.

But now I think presenting a picture of what happens to me when I have an episode of depression might be helpful to some people, both to those who experience it themselves and those who don’t and have no idea. Maybe the fact that I can think this way signals that I’m on the upswing. Or maybe I turn to writing as a form of self-soothing, and I have finally figured out a relatively acceptable way to do it. I don’t know.

Biochemical depression is a chicken-and-egg thing. I don’t know whether issues in my personal life set the chemistry in motion, or whether the chemistry of depression causes me to see and feel the issues in a different way than I would otherwise. It’s true I have some difficult things going on right now. My books aren’t selling, despite my doing everything in my power to attract readers. I saw a family with two daughters, whom I remember being born, who are now teenagers. We don’t have enough money to pay our mortgage this month, let alone the other bills we’re behind on, and I can’t think of a single thing we can do to better our circumstances. All these things are causing me significant pain, guilt, and feelings of helplessness. But I also know that when my brain chemistry is different, when I’m in a better place, I am more able to have hope, believe that things will improve. The problems of everyday life don’t seem so insurmountable.

This is one reason I am not a great proponent of cognitive therapies. The techniques are helpful sometimes, and I believe it’s good for depression-prone people to learn then. But I am fairly certain that severe depression of the kind I experience is not a thought disorder. It’s not like I woke up one day and decided to see the world in a negative light. Rather, my ability to experience positivity was compromised. So when mental health professionals focus on a person’s ability to change their thought processes, when my therapist has said, “But think of all you HAVE achieved!” it DOESN’T HELP. Sure, I can turn my mind to the fact that I’ve published a number of books. That doesn’t change the fact that I don’t seem to be able to sell them, and this causes me frustration and pain. I can look at my marriage and know it’s a good marriage and many people would give an arm and a leg to have a marriage as good as mine. That doesn’t change my feelings of isolation and loneliness. Maybe it helps to be able to distance myself from the emotional component a bit, to be able to place those positive things in the balance against self-doubt and despair and worthlessness. But no amount of positive thinking has any affect on the actual feelings. Feelings aren’t thoughts. No one can convince me otherwise.

The last time I was in the hospital, I mentioned this to one of the staff. I told her that I don’t start thinking bad things and then spiral down into bad feelings (which is the basic philosophy behind cognitive therapies), but that I feel bad FIRST and that causes the bad thoughts to have more prominence. She’d never heard of such a thing.

When I am in a depressive cycle, every action becomes more complicated and every decision is loaded. The voices in my head challenge me at every turn. I’ve mentioned these voices in other posts. Time and time again, mental health professionals have asked me if I hear voices. And I’ve had to say “No,” because I don’t have an auditory experience.  Not long ago, I read an article about how “new research” has determined that hearing voices doesn’t have to have an auditory component (I wanted to link to the article, but a Google search didn’t turn it up and I spent about half an hour going through my Facebook feed and couldn’t find it). So I’m gonna go ahead and say what I’ve always believed: Yeah, I hear voices, and Yeah, my ability to perceive and interact with so-called “objective” reality is impaired. It isn’t just negative self-talk or the repetition of stuff I’ve been taught to think. It’s as real as hearing the same phrase of the same damn song OVER AND OVER when I have a migraine–which, incidentally, my neurologist said is a brain function problem. So there.

Anyway. Here’s a thing that happened this morning. Since the new year, I’ve been trying to work on becoming more fit. This involves doing yoga every other day, with hopes of gradually increasing my activity as I get used to it (trying to be active every day right off gives me migraines). I was sick in February, so I had to start over in March, which is why I’m still doing it every other day. (And FYI, I felt huge internal pressure to justify the fact that I hadn’t made any progress yet. Hence the last explanation.)

Today was supposed to be a yoga day. A couple hours into it, I realised I simply didn’t feel up to doing it, and I was trying to decide whether or not to push myself into it. This exchange happened:

Me: I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t feel well.

Voices: Is that true? Do you REALLY not feel well? Or are you making excuses for yourself BECAUSE YOU’RE LAZY AND WORTHLESS?

Me: I really don’t feel well. I’m super tired.

Voices: Oh, you’re tired. So is everyone. You know, you could do it if you really wanted to. You could do it if you tried.

Me: I’m allowed not to want to.

Voices: No, you’re not. Not wanting to push yourself into activity because you don’t feel well MAKES YOU A LAZY AND WORTHLESS PERSON. AND BESIDES, YOU’RE FAT. FAT PEOPLE AREN’T ALLOWED TO DECIDE NOT TO BE ACTIVE IF THEY CAN POSSIBLY MOVE.

Me: I think I’m going to barf.


This went on for some time, and I ended up in tears. It is painful to have these uncontrollable thoughts berating me for trying to take care of myself in the best way I know how. I don’t know whom to trust. I don’t know if I can trust myself to know the reality. Am I sick? Am I not? Is it okay to be gentle to myself when I feel shitty? I mean, when I have a migraine so bad al I can do is lie down with the heating pad on my head and moan pitifully, that’s okay. But what about the in-between times” What about when I feel KIND OF sick? What about when I’m having a depressive episode? Is that even real? Or can I put my mind to it and overcome it somehow?

It’s confusing and disturbing. Sometimes I have made the choice to “push through,” and I always end up crying on my yoga mat because I feel so bad and the voices don’t let up even then. Sometimes I have walked down the back road sobbing, because the common wisdom is being active will help alleviate the depression. When I’m in the middle of an episode, it does no such thing, and I know this. But the voices in my head are like being beaten with a hammer. I don’t believe I have a right to make decisions or contradict them or say no. It doesn’t matter where they came from. Nothing I do is right.

Today I did make the choice not to do yoga, and it didn’t help much, either.

I’m running out of things I wanted to say at this point. I’m going to stop and maybe try to sleep a little. One good thing is, writing this–even as half-assed as it ended up–has taken some of the charge off. I hope if people who don’t experience clinical depression stumble upon this post, they’ll get a better understanding of what it’s like, and why we can’t simply wish or think it away.


After I published this, I was trying (obviously unsuccessfully) to take a nap. I kept thinking about trust, about the feeling of not knowing what part of myself to trust, the cognitive part or the Voices. About the struggle to do what I know on an intellectual level might be right or what I need in the face of the overwhelming pain those Voices inflict to…do whatever it is they do, get my attention, get their own way, whatever. About the feeling of being caught between these two realities and having no idea which one is correct.

Anyway, I realised that this is part of where the loneliness of depression comes from. There’s no one to guide you except maybe other people whop have been in the same place. I know mental health professionals mean well, or else they would not go into the field they do. BUT I DON’T TRUST THEM. My experience is even the best of them are married to an agenda about what my mental state is, how it can be defined, what will help, what I should do. They believe they know better than I do what is going on with me. They don’t listen except inasmuch as they need to to support their hypotheses. Even the best of my many therapists, the one I stayed with longest, did this. Every time I tried a new doctor or counselor, I hoped so much this would be the one who could hear me. And every time I was disappointed. I got into the habit of withholding stuff I knew they wouldn’t be able to cope with. Things that would challenge them. Because since I was a teenager, the agendas of mental health professionals have done actual damage to me. Whether it was deciding I was anorexic and threatening to force feed me when depression was the issue (which resulted in my becoming anorexic to please them) or dismissing my reality because I was able to articulate it (which lead to bad treatment), mental health professionals have taught me that the only person I can trust with finding a way out of this is myself.

If there are any mental health professionals reading this, I encourage you to do something radical: Listen to your clients. Believe them. Put yourself and your degree and your expectations aside. That’s the only way you can find a common ground, and the only way your profession remains meaningful.

Carving Up Writer’s Block

The other day on my Twitter feed, I stumbled into a conversation about writer’s block. I’ve addressed the topic before in other blogs, but never here. And I wouldn’t have decided to address it here, excepting that the conversation shed some light on an issue I’ve been peripherally aware of for a long time: Whether or not writer’s block actually exists. (Spoiler: I believe it does.)

If you want, you can read some articles supporting the idea that writer’s block is a myth here, here, and here. You can even reference this Google search. All of the articles dismissing writer’s block as a real phenomenon say pretty much the same thing: It’s an excuse people make for not doing the work. It’s lazy and you should “just power on through it.” Sometimes people will acknowledge that maybe there is some other thing–life stress, a change in the weather, self-doubt–interfering with a person’s ability to write. But writer’s block as an issue in and of itself…no, that’s not possible.

All right: Nothing exists in a vacuum. Writer’s block as I have experienced it is intimately related to many other factors, and the presence of those other factors may make writer’s block more likely to appear. (In disease theory, this is known as “co-morbidity.”) But dismissing writer’s block because other things may contribute to it is like dismissing someone’s depression because they also suffer from hypothyroidism. Treating the second does not necessarily cure the first. Also, I’m going to come right out and say that any time I hear anyone say “It’s a lazy excuse and you should just muscle through,” or if I read those words, my head explodes. It’s an ignorant and judgmental stance. “Lazy” is a word meant to shame, both when other people use it toward you or you use it on yourself. It comes from a reality where everyone must be engaged in productive industry all the time, where work for its own sake is accounted the highest virtue. After all, you don’t want to go to hell like those naked heathens who pull fruit off the trees and lounge naked on the beach all day! White Westerners have a tendency to believe that any easy path is invalid, and it shows up in attitudes toward making art as well as in everything else. And as for “just muscle through,” that advice may be wonderful for healthy folks in ideal situations. It’s not the reality of most people most of the time.

Is it, or is it not, an actual thing?
Is it, or is it not, an actual thing?

So what is writer’s block?

I actually think about this a lot, because although I have “been a writer” virtually all my life (okay, since first grade), when I add up all the years, I have spent a great many more of them not writing than I have writing. Sometimes it’s been through choice, and sometimes not. Sometimes I’ve had ideas that fizzled when I tried to put them on the page, sometimes I’ve had ideas too distant or uninteresting in the moment for me to put them in any coherent form, and sometimes I’ve had no ideas at all. All those experiences are subjectively different. So are all of them writer’s block? Some of them? None at all?

I think any discussion of writer’s block needs to begin with defining what it means to be a writer. My handy dictionary tells me “writer” means “1. One who has written something” or “2. One who writes as an occupation, an author. ” This is practically useless, because it encompasses just about every literate person on the planet. If I go to “author,” the results aren’t much better. I find 1. “The original writer of a literary work,” 2. “One who practices writing as a profession,” and 3. “The original creator of anything.” I could go on unpacking by looking up “literary,” or “profession,” or even “creator.” It wouldn’t be helpful.

Looking at my writing friends and my life experience, my personal definition of “writer” is as follows: “A person who is dedicated to the process of making art with words as their medium.” I find this a useful definition, because it encompasses both those who write as a profession and those who don’t (or don’t yet), those who are currently engaged in “writing behavior” and those who, for one reason or another aren’t. “Writing behavior,” to me, describes the Gestalt of the writing experience and can include research, plotting, thinking about what happens next, and even sitting in your recliner staring into space while things gel as well as the act of setting words on the page. Since every person’s process is different, everyone’s writing behavior is also going to look a little different from everyone else’s. AND THAT’S FINE. It’s up to every artist to find their own definition of success, and their own way of achieving it.

Digression: This is the main reason I have an extremely hard time with “writing rules.” Rules–especially rules about art–presuppose everyone has the same process and that there’s some magic code for unlocking success. It ain’t true. I have a particular dislike of the biggest rule of all: Write Every Day. What other profession requires of its practitioners that they go to work every single day, whether they feel like it or not? You don’t hear “Paint Every Day” or “Do Spreadsheets Every Day.” Granted, working in the arts differs substantially from working in an office or as a physician. There are times when you DO engage in your art every day, especially if you’re learning a new technique or absorbed in a new piece. And since art, and one’s relationship to it, is ever-changing, it’s a good idea to keep your hand in. But once you reach a certain level of skill and professionalism, writing simply to write every day can be a waste of energy. [N.B. As far as arts go, music and acting are a bit different because they’re more body-centered. When I don’t play the flute or sing for an extended period of time, I lose skill. I get rusty. I don’t experience the same thing with writing. Even so, taking a weekend or a few days off from scales and tunes actually makes you better when you pick up your instrument again, because you’ve had a chance to absorb the practice. And in this case, the experience of writing is the same.]

burning words
And so it begins…


Will you PLEASE get to the point?

Okay, fine. Writer’s block. In my experience, there are three kinds. I’m not saying these are the only kinds, mind. But these are the ones I’ve been through personally and feel competent to discuss: Depression-related, Fear-centered, and Wrong Direction. They can occur simultaneously (there’s that co-morbidity factor again) and in any combination of intensity.

Depression-related writer’s block is both the easiest and the hardest to deal with, and it’s the one that’s most interfered with my engaging in writing behavior. When I first started writing in a serious way, around about eighth grade, it was all joy and puppies. Writing was my escape and my haven. I loved the process of letting the story unfold, the time when I entered a different world where nothing hurt me. I loved the feeling of doing something I was good at. I looked forward to opening up my notebook and taking up my special pen and seeing what happened next. It was delightful and it was easy. I didn’t have to struggle the way I did in my non-writing life. Every contest I entered, I won first prize, and that was pretty keen, too.

And then my depression got worse and the words dried up. Just like that. One day I opened up my notebook, more out of habit than for any other reason, and I felt nothing at all. The story didn’t come, the characters didn’t speak, and I didn’t see the landscape. I’d stopped caring.

For at least five years after that, I didn’t write at all. Not a single word. Not even in my journal. I didn’t agonize over it, because I was too sick. I wasn’t even sure I’d live to see the next day–no one was–so whether or not I wrote wasn’t important. When I came out of that first bad episode, I remembered my writing self, and for the next ten years or so I sometimes wrote and sometimes didn’t. I dropped into and out of degree programs in writing and turned out the occasional short story when the spirit moved me. But mostly it didn’t move me. I got down on myself for “being lazy” and “waiting around for inspiration,” both of which I had learned were the wrong way to go about writing. But the truth was, when I didn’t have any inspiration, I didn’t have anything. I lacked the spark, the thing that made me write in the first place. So I figured I wasn’t a writer at all. I did some other things. I got a degree in Dance Therapy and worked as a counselor in a women’s shelter. I facilitated workshops on women’s spirituality. I developed a radio show.

In my better times, the times when I felt most alive, I still wrote. I actually finished a couple first drafts of novels (including the one that would become The Unquiet Grave). More often, I got halfway through a story, lost my impetus, and stopped. Not because I didn’t want to do the work. Because I didn’t care.

In the mid-2000s, my depression got debilitating again. I did virtually nothing for five years but sit on the couch and stare into space, and I ended up hospitalized and over-medicated. Eventually, late in 2009, after trying about every antidepressant medication on the market and many combinations thereof, my doctor prescribed me a new one, and it worked.  Before that point, I had never believed the stories of antidepressants changing people’s lives, but that one did. By January of 2010, I had started writing again. It wasn’t hard or unnatural. I didn’t have to think about it. I just opened up the manuscript of The Unquiet Grave and began to work, as if I had never left off. Since then, I’ve taken a few breaks (some lengthy). But I’ve never again lost the ability to write at all.

That’s what it looked like when I couldn’t write because of depression (and I want to make it clear that I mean the debilitating mental illness and not just feeling blue and out of sorts, or even lacking energy because of other life factors). I couldn’t “muscle through” because there was no muscle and no through. It was the hardest thing to conquer because it took thirty years of trying different medications before anyone even invented one that worked on my brain chemistry. It was the easiest because I’d also done thirty years of therapy, so once the meds kicked in everything fell into place. I didn’t have to work or try–not very hard, anyway. The words returned in the same way they had dried up, suddenly and without warning.

If you are clinically depressed or believe you might be, GET HELP. Find someone to talk to. Use your support system. Talk to your doctor or another person you trust. You may want to try the medication route. Keep in mind that psychoactive medication does not work for everyone, and even when it works, it takes time.

What it feels like. (Image credit: Joel Holland)
What it feels like.
(Image credit: Joel Holland)

Fear-centered writer’s block is the one I believe most people think of when the term comes up. It’s probably the most common, and it may be the most responsive to the advice to “power on through.” The tricky thing about it is that we don’t always know what we’re afraid of, or even that fear is the thing keeping us from writing. Fear is a difficult emotion to process, and our culture doesn’t make it any easier by painting fear in a negative light, as something only weak people experience. So when you have a fear-centered block, it can present a lot of different ways. It might be a lack of interest or an inability to focus. It might be that the ideas you came up with in the coffee shop, or on your daily walk, or lying in bed at night dribble away or vanish when you try to put them on the page. You might make excuses for not writing, like not having time or other things in your life being a priority right now. This is when turning writing into a discipline by setting aside a dedicated time to write regularly and sticking to it whether or not you feel like it can actually be helpful. And for some people, this works.

The problem is, when you “power on through,” you haven’t actually faced the fear that’s causing the block in the first place. And when you don’t confront a fear, it finds ways to come back and bite you in the ass. So while it might work in the short run to work on your discipline, in the long game it’s possible that writing will become harder and harder until you’re banging your head against your desk because you simply can’t make it work. Or you get stuck on writing the same page over and over, “making it better,” because every time you look at it you only see the flaws. And this reinforces all the negative self-talk that likely is the source of your fear.

In this case, what you need to do it take a deep breath and ask yourself what you’re afraid of. Try to be honest. Some fears are common. People fear the empty page. This is one I’ve never had to deal with personally, so I’m afraid I’m not really sure what it’s about–maybe the idea that YOU’RE ABOUT TO CREATE SOMETHING AND IT HAS TO BE SIGNIFICANT takes over. To this I can only say, nothing has to be anything. Loosen up. A description of your cat sleeping or of your lunch is still writing, even if it isn’t the Great American Novel that will win awards and earn millions. Let go of your expectations of yourself. Give yourself a break. Every writer churns out thousands and thousands of words that never see the light of day, much less publication, and that’s fine. Or maybe you have an image labeled “WRITER” somewhere in your brain and the idea that you might not measure up terrifies you. In that case, too, it’s maybe a good idea to go back to the simple dictionary definition: A writer is a person who has written something. There’s no value judgment involved. If you’ve passed notes in school, you’ve written something. Maybe someone–or multiple people–has dismissed your ability, or your dream, or sneered at the idea of you being a writer, and you want to prove them wrong by making a success at it. Maybe there’s a quiet voice in your brain telling you “maybe they were right all along!” This is a lot of baggage you’re bringing along to your work. I’ve found an effective technique for dealing with it is to make a pact with yourself, and with that doubt, that you’re not going to bring that baggage into your writing time. You write for you and not that voice. So what it thinks doesn’t matter.

Another thing I’ve discovered about fear-centered writer’s block is that it often strikes when you’re about to get better at writing. Remember how I described writing being easy and full of joy, way back in the long ago (both of my life and of this blog post)? A lot of that writing, from a critical standpoint, wasn’t very good. It was derivative and it rambled. The characters didn’t have clear motivations, and I had no idea how to plot. Later, I discovered that good writing is actually work, and that it doesn’t happen quickly. My joy level diminished exponentially because I was no longer able to fall right into a different world. I had to think about it. And when my joy level diminished, I began to wonder why I was writing in the first place. Not being able to answer this question kept me from writing at all. I had to make a leap of faith, convince myself that whether I experienced joy in the moment or not didn’t really matter, because the act of writing mattered. When I realised this, I started writing again and the writing was better. I’ve gone through this cycle over and over again, and I’ve learned that some days are great and some aren’t; some days I’m “in the zone” and some days I’m not. And this is okay. I miss the joy and the spark when they aren’t there. I feel frustration on the days when writing is drudgery. But I don’t waste time on longing for it (not much, anyway), or berate myself for not experiencing it.

In the end, you have a lot of power over fear-centered writer’s block, because you’re the only one who can figure out the nature of your fear and what you need to do about it. If sometimes that means stepping away for a while, that’s okay. (Yeah, it becomes more frightening and problematic if you’re operating under a deadline. But even in that case, taking a reasonable break usually does more good than harm.)

My brain on bad days.
My brain on bad days.

I guess Going the Wrong Direction may not be a type of block on its own, but I mentioned it, so I’m going to talk about it (even though this blog is already 3000 words long and shows no sign of ending anytime soon). It has a lot in common with fear-centered block, and is sometimes a result of it. I experience it often, both in regards to pieces of projects and projects as a whole. What happens is this: I start out great guns one a book or a chapter, and the writing gets slower and slower and harder and harder until I give up. Then I sit around on my ass for a while. I complain that I don’t like what I’m doing. I complain that it doesn’t make sense, or it drags–this is a HUGE indication–or it doesn’t feel right in some indefinable way. I can’t think what happens next. I can’t see the scene or hear the characters talking. I’m not THERE. I’m stuck. I piss and moan to my husband for a few days, and eventually something clicks. And inevitably what I realise is that I am going the wrong way. I’m writing the wrong book, or the wrong chapter. I have to back up and start over.

This, incidentally, is why Book Four of the Caitlin Ross series is a prequel instead of a story that continues the internal timeline. After finished A Maid in Bedlam, I tried to go right on into the next book. I wrote 400 pages and stopped because something was off. I cut 200 pages and wrote 200 more, and stopped again. I abandoned the project and didn’t write much for the next year because of life. When I did start writing again, I wrote The Parting Glass because I had NO IDEA how to deal with the next events in the timeline. After finishing The Parting Glass, I went this way and that way–tens of thousands of words that were fine words, but they just didn’t work. Finally I realised I was starting the book in the wrong place. I had jumped too far ahead in the continuity, and I needed to look at an earlier point. By a strange coincidence, this earlier point took me to a story I had thought of before but was afraid to write for various reasons. Out of fear, I made a conscious decision NOT to write the story that needed written. Once I faced the fear and decided to write the story anyway, the block dissolved. This is a good example of how fear-centered writer’s block and going the wrong direction can work in concert.

There’s always a reason not to write, and many of them are valid. Not all of them constitute writer’s block, and most of them have to do with a writer’s particular process. Some people can come home from working a day job eight hours and jump into another five to six hours of writing (I have a suspicion these people are extraverts, and I have no idea when they sleep). Some people don’t have the energy or even the desire to write after working a day job, so if they want to dedicate time to writing they need to find another way. Both these paths are legitimate. There’s no one right way to be a writer; in fact, thinking there is and trying to fit yourself into a box where you don’t belong probably causes more writer’s block than anything else.

In writing, being your authentic self is the best way to be. Depression, fear, and mistrust can interfere with your ability to be that self. Developing awareness can help you chip away at all those things and become better able to convert your writer’s block to dust. And sculpture, of course.


Judgment Call

Right now, a fair number of my friends are dealing with judgmental people in their lives. I posted a Twitter rant on the topic last night, but because of Twitter’s limitations and because I had a migraine and that constrains my thinking and ability to be coherent, I didn’t say everything I wanted to say. Hence this post. It’s dedicated to anyone who needs it, but my friends most of all. You know who you are.

*Clears throat.*

Anyway, judgment. At one time or another, all of us encounter it. It’s a word that gets bandied around a lot. “Trust your judgment.” “You’re the only judge of what’s right for you.” If you aren’t paying attention, it can seem pretty innocuous. Making a judgment is no different from having a choice or stating an opinion, right? So what’s the problem?

The problem is, making a judgment IS different from making a choice or stating an opinion. You can disagree with someone’s choices or opinions, and, generally speaking, it’s no big deal. You like Rap music and I don’t. I like the color orange and you don’t. Individual choices and personal preferences are fine. They differentiate us from each other, and that’s a good thing. Exploring them can be interesting, even exciting.

If you’ve ever faced judgment, however, you know it’s neither interesting nor exciting. It’s painful. It makes you feel small. It makes you question your heart, your decisions, your worth. It can evoke guilt, defensiveness, and rage, to name a few of the unpleasant possibilities. If you’re one kind of person, it might provoke you into a fight. If you’re another kind of person–and I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that this second type is more likely to take judgments to heart–it can make you feel like crawling into a hole and never coming out. And it might tempt you to do anything in your power to make those miserable feelings go away.

scary judge
You feel about two inches high just looking at this picture, don’t you?

This is what judgment is designed to do. Because a judgment isn’t just an opinion or choice. It’s a tool people and institutions use to enforce conformity.

Think about the word for a minute: Judge. What do judges do? In a legal sense, judges hear cases and sentence criminals. The guilty. A judge of a contest weighs the participants, be they human beauty queens or sheepdogs, against a set of standards and decides who wins, who places, and who loses. In other words, in both cases judges decide who fits into a particular segment of society–law-abiding citizens, exceptional athletes, well-trained animals–according to their interpretation of the standards. They’ve been given the authority to do so, usually by a group of their peers or others who participate in that segment of society. And when a judge hands down their decision, ideally those on the short end of the stick will be motivated to conform. To meet the standard. Sometimes the motivation comes in the form of a prison sentence, and sometimes it comes in the form of not having a trophy to display. But whatever it is, there’s an assumption that it’s not something you want to repeat. So next time you make the decision NOT to steal that car or to work even harder on that triple axel. Because next time, you want to win. You want to gain the judge’s approval.

The authority accorded a judge infers not just rightness, but righteousness, which means correct not only in a factual sense, but in a moral one. A judgment is a decision that cannot be questioned, at least not if the person on the receiving end wants to continue participating in the culture that hands it out. By its very nature, it implies guilt, not living up to expectations. It elevates the judge (and by association, the conforming culture), while making the object of judgment lesser.

Of course, there are problems with this system, because no one, not even a judge, is entirely objective. We’ve all seen the Olympic contests where that one guy from that one country gives a “3” to the spectacular performance everyone else rated “9,” and a “10” to the competitor from his homeland no matter what. And there’s a whole sub-genre of movies and fiction about people who have been judged guilty of crimes they didn’t commit. It happens in real life all too often. Because a judgment depends on a personal interpretation of the standards, and that means a personal agenda can get in the way.

Outside the courtroom or competitive arena, the personal agenda is almost always behind the judgmental people you encounter. You know the ones. That relative who gets off on being the arbiter of what is and isn’t fashionable, who sneers at your shoes every holiday. Or that co-worker who counts the number of paperclips everyone uses, so he can bring up the misappropriation of office supplies at the next staff meeting. Or the parent who initiates a power struggle over a haircut. The list goes on and on.

Your cousin, Fred, waxing politic about marriage equality.
Your cousin, Fred, waxing politic about marriage equality.

Here’s a personal story, since I like to include personal stories in my blog.  A dozen years ago, in my Celtic band, we once scheduled back-to-back gigs a hundred and fifty miles apart from each other, which required driving over several nasty mountain passes, playing for four hours, sleeping two hours, driving back over the same mountain passes, and playing another two hours as soon as we unloaded the car. This was NOT something I enjoyed. But when I mentioned this fact to the person who had scheduled the gigs, she said:

“You know, Kel, if you want to be a REAL band, you have to do these things. Professional musicians play back to back gigs ALL THE TIME.”

Oh, slap! The judgment, it burns! See, I had been under the impression that we WERE a “real” band because we played music at a variety of venues on a regular basis, and that we were at least semi-professional because most of the time people paid us money to do so. I had also been under the impression that since we weren’t under any kind of management contract, we could make our own terms for what we were or weren’t willing to do. But this other person had different ideas and made herself the sole authority on what constituted real and professional. Or she just disagreed with me, but instead of saying so, she had to concoct some pseudo-objective standard which I failed to meet.

Now, at  this point, the band was already in the middle stages of disintegration, so I didn’t feel bad for long. Mostly, I felt frustrated, invalidated, and angry that she would pull that shit. Still, I did suffer a fair amount of guilt and self-doubt. I thought things like, “Maybe she’s right,” and “Maybe I don’t take this seriously enough,” and “Maybe I’m lazy,” and “No one else had a problem with this, so maybe I’m just being selfish for putting my limits above what the rest of the band wants.” I got into the spiral of self-judgment. And even though it was twelve years ago, those thoughts cross my mind when I write about the incident now.

Because I’ve gained some perspective, I can see where the judgment came from. My band-mate had a lot of insecurities, both about her personal identity and about herself as a musician. Not to put too fine a point on it, those insecurities–at least the ones about her musicianship–were justified. She was a terrible musician, with an awful ear and no sense of rhythm or phrasing. She wanted badly to be awesome, but instead of working on her skill set, she built a wall of denial and attacked anyone who challenged her. Since I am (or was; I’m out of practice) a good musician who learned new material easily and didn’t struggle with basic control of my instrument, I threatened her. And so, I became the prime target for her judgment. If she could put me down, she could feel like she had worth. She could even feel superior. And all this came out of the fact that she already judged herself. When she made a mistake, it wasn’t just a mistake; she was a talentless hack. When she had trouble keeping up in rehearsal or learning new material, she was absolutely worthless, would never achieve what she wanted, and probably failed as a human being. Self-judgment takes trivial problems that you could remedy with a little effort and turns them into insurmountable moral failings. And it’s self-fulfilling, because I would have been happy to help her become a better musician if she’d been able to face the difficulty and accept the help. But since she’d internalized her self-judgment and made it part of her identity, the only way she could have value to herself was by sitting judgment on others. And I was not up to meeting that challenge, particularly since she had no intention of owning up to it.

I’ve learned over the course of my life that most people who practice being judgmental of others have similar difficulties with self-worth. You can tell these people because everything they say is an accusation: “You’re selfish!” or “You’re too fat!” or “You’re lazy!” or whatever. They’re always eager to point out what’s wrong with you and never ready to talk about their own emotions. If they did, you might hear something more along the lines of, “I’m hurt because you seem to be pulling away,” or “I don’t find your body attractive,” or “I’m frustrated because I asked you five times to take out the trash and you haven’t.” Which at least makes room for discussion in a way that judgment doesn’t. Sometimes judgmental people honestly don’t know how to contact and express their true feelings. And sometimes, like my band-mate, they don’t care to. Because it’s easier to blame and make it all about someone else.

Other people’s judgment can be a bitch to throw off, especially if they’re people you care about. Here’s a few ideas for getting out from under the hammer:

First, listen for the “charges,” those statements that sound accusatory and/or start with “you” (like the ones I mentioned above. Obviously there are an infinite number.). Be aware that some really practiced judges can make “you-statements” sound like “I-statements.” E.G., “I’m concerned that you’re getting too worldly” can be condensed into “You’re too worldly.” It implies that only an unspecified change on your part can alleviate their concern. A true “I-statement” is an expression of feeling (“I’m angry”) sometimes followed by a concrete reason for that feeling (“because you didn’t take out the trash”). Beware of nebulous terms like “selfish,” “real,” “ungrateful,” etcetera. If you have to ask what actual behavior that you have any control over changing is meant, or make assumptions about what is meant, the person you’re talking to is likely making a value judgment. As well, once you start making assumptions about what Cousin Fred means by “immoral,” you’re in danger of sliding down the self-judgment spiral.

Second, remember what judgment is designed to do. It’s designed to make “backsliders” conform to cultural expectations, whether that culture is religion, or gender identity, or the Rainbow Family. Or any combination thereof. It’s also designed to elevate the culture in question to a position of superior morality. Cultural identity is fluid. People grow and change, and that’s okay. But acknowledging this fluidity challenges oppressive power structures, especially ones not given to introspection. I mean, if you can just decide to, oh, worship another god, then why in the world should you conform to a religion that requires complicated expressions of devotion? Well, there are a lot of reasons you might, which I won’t get into here (maybe a different blog post). But rather than look at those, most people would rather make others feel bad about their choices.

Third, decide whether or not you care. This is easier said than done, especially if your vegan friends are still important to you after you realize you’d rather eat meat or something like that. If you can, talk to the person sitting in judgment about your concerns. Caveat: this is seldom possible because the threat factor often causes them to get more judgmental than ever. You might have to entirely detach yourself from the culture in question and find another that suits your needs. This does not mean anything about you personally. It does not make you bad or wrong. It does not indicate an irredeemable flaw in your soul. It just means you’ve moved on.

And fourth, be compassionate. Bear in mind that judgmental people are usually unhappy and afraid. And you’re about to do one of the worst things you can do to a judgmental person: Ignore them.

It’s difficult to get out from under judgment, and old judgments can stick for a long time. Be compassionate with yourself as well, and make sure you get what you need, whether that be more sleep, an alcoholic beverage, a walk in the woods, or whatever it is that supports your soul. People’s judgments might always sting. But you don’t have to carry that weight. Let it go.



Challenging The Crone

The other day, I got an email inviting me to participate in an event known as the Crone Council. I deleted it as soon as I read the first line. Not only because I don’t do events (for various reasons including being an extreme introvert and not having the disposable income for travel), but because I have a violent visceral reaction to the word “crone” when used in relation to myself.

For the non-Pagans and others in the audience who may not be familiar with this archetype, many forms of modern Paganism–and perhaps ancient Paganism, though it’s hard to be certain–view the female principle as a triple entity, each part of which reflect a stage of a woman’s life: Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Operating under an old-world view, the Maiden is a girl who has not yet begun menstruating; the Mother rules the years of fertility, from menarche to menopause; and the Crone represents womanhood after the cessation of monthly bleeding. There’s some flexibility to the first two stages. Maidenhood might last several years after a woman’s periods begin and cover sexual awakening and exploration, while identification with the Mother archetype might not begin until a woman has borne her first child, or settled down to her adult role in life. The Crone, on the other hand, has no such leeway. Once a woman stops bleeding, she becomes as the waning moon, a mysterious figure on her way into the dark.

Lots of world mythologies include trios of goddesses conforming to this archetype, which is why it’s easy to think that the pagans of ancient history also subscribed to the Maiden-Mother-Crone idea. There are the fates of Greek myth: Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. There are the three Norns who guard the Well of Urd in Northern European cosmology: Urd (Fate), Skuld (Being), and Verdandi (Necessity). The Irish battle goddess, the Morrigan, often appears as a triple goddess, embodied most frequently as Badb, Macha, and Nemain. Even the weird sisters of Shakespeare’s MacBeth partake of the power of the triple goddess archetype.

The Triple Goddess archetype, as depicted by archseer.
The Triple Goddess archetype, as depicted by archseer.

Most women I’ve known of a Pagan, or feminist, or vaguely alternative mind as regards religion and spirituality have been excited to enter the sisterhood of the Crone. As a keeper of hidden magic, who’s privy to the mysteries of life and death and answers to no one for her decisions, she’s a powerful figure and role model for older women, who are all too often dismissed as irrelevant in the modern world. For women in a patriarchal society (which, like it or not, modern society is), who have probably spent the first fifty years of their lives conforming in one way or another to male expectations of what a woman should be, it can be liberating to throw it all away and answer to no one but themselves. As a Crone, you’re no longer an object of desire, no longer required to cater to fashion trends or make choices with the welfare of your family in mind. You’re free from the moon’s tidal pull and from the demands of young children. For women who love babies, there are always grandchildren, whom you can enjoy and cosset, and return to their mothers when you’re through. Or so runs the party line.

So what’s my problem? I’m what is still known in some circles as “a woman of a certain age,” prime Crone material. Why does the idea of claiming this archetype turn my stomach?

The Crone from the Well-Worn Path Tarot.
The Crone from the Well-Worn Path Tarot.

Part of it is personal. Looking to the triple goddess as a guide through the stages of a woman’s life and the changes a woman’s body goes through from birth to death can be a powerful tool. But I, for reasons of upbringing, and culture, and perhaps simple Fate, missed out on those life stages. In all the ways that matter to me, I have always been a Crone.

It’s a fact that even in the worst society, a person is rewarded for conforming to social norms. This is something I have never been good at. My family, my parents in particular, had a severe impediment when it came to discussing the realities of young womanhood. And being a bookish kid growing up in virtual social isolation, I didn’t absorb the lessons of popular culture–not many of them, anyway. Consequently, I never learned how to be a girl. And though in some respects this has been an advantage, I didn’t get the rewards contingent on “girling” well. I never had a boyfriend until I was well into my twenties. No one looked at me with desire. To this day, I’ve never been asked on a date. My husband and I sometimes go on what we call “dates,” but it’s something mutually agreed upon rather than an event geared towards wooing, where one party, in the mating display peculiar to humanity, invites the other to participate, arranges the details, and picks up the tab. I didn’t get a marriage proposal. When we decided to formalize our relationship, my husband and I were sharing a burger at a bar in Silverton. One of us–I think it was me–said, “So, you think we should get married?” and the other said, “Sure, okay.”

As a feminist, I feel deep down I shouldn’t regret the lack of these things. After all, I managed in large part to escape ever being treated as an object, as prey, as lesser. As something to be pursued and won. However, by nature or nurture, I’m an incurable romantic at my core. I DO feel the lack of those things. And although much psychology and New Age philosophy holds that we need to find our own inherent value, desirability, worth, et al, it’s a truth that we learn to see ourselves, in great part, through the eyes of others. Having our inner selves seen and acknowledged by the people around us teaches us to see an acknowledge ourselves. It’s incredibly difficult to stand up and say “I AM DESIRABLE AND SEXY!” (or intelligent, or graceful, or capable of success) if no one has said it to you first.

I never got the quintessential “Maiden” experience, and I’m angry about it.

In a similar way, I never got the “Mother” experience. I have no children of my own. I’ve never had a child quicken inside me, never felt it move and grow, never experienced my power as a giver of life. I have been a caretaker, looking after the needs of those around me, sometimes at the expense of my own. I still do this. It doesn’t fill the hole. It’s not the same–or what I imagine it would be like, if I’d had children. I’ve heard that though having kids is difficult and frustrating, it’s also rewarding. My efforts at mothering garner me little reward.

crone 1

Perhaps it wouldn’t matter so much if I didn’t want those typical Maiden and Mother things–and of course, I believe that to be a good feminist, I really shouldn’t want them, because I shouldn’t crave the societal perks of subscribing to stereotypical gender roles, blah, blah, blah. But I DID want them, and I DO want them. I long to be romanced and desired. I long for a man (because I’m heterosexual) to put on his vibrant plumage and strut around in an attempt to gain my favor. My last normal menstrual cycle was some years ago, but I still dream of pregnancy, of birthing and raising a child of my body.

But I have always been the Crone. I have been the One Who doesn’t conform to the images we hold of Maidens and Mothers. The One Who speaks uncomfortable truths. The One Who Doesn’t Put Up With Nonsense. The One Who wears what She pleases and goes where She likes, and walks in the dark, and gathers grubs from beneath rocks. Some of this identity came from not understanding how human society worked, and some came from not really caring, even though the not caring often brought me pain. Most came from not knowing any other way to be. But now that I am physiologically a Crone, more and more I feel the lack of passing through those other stages. I feel incomplete, and this puts a serious damper on my enthusiasm for embracing the freedom that comes to others from making it to this stage of life.

Those are my personal reasons. The societal are perhaps more complex. I don’t feel the Crone archetype as we understand it, as it is associated with a woman’s reproductive life, makes sense in this day and age. We live too long for it to make sense. When we had shorter lifespans, when a woman’s reality was inextricably linked to her fertility, one might say “Twenty years a Maiden, twenty a Mother, twenty a Crone,” and encompass a life. It doesn’t apply to the world today, not in the same way. With the advent of reliable birth control, women–first world women, at least, and increasing numbers in less developed nations–are no longer slaves to their menstrual cycles or to the inevitability of devoting large portions of their lives to the bearing and rearing of children. Getting free of that is less of a transitional marker than it once was. You can choose not to experience it at all and still have an active sex life. Women have more educational opportunities, as well. So the archetype of the Wise Woman as an elder who has outlived her fertility and thus has time to devote to arcane knowledge has less validity. Of course, there is always something to be said for the wisdom gained through perspective and years of experience. All the same, it seems to me that the power of the Crone has been diminished in this realm.

At the same time, we “women of a certain age” aren’t really free of the expectation society puts on Maidens and Mothers any more. For years, magazines have shown us how to remain desirable and active, how to cater to the male gaze, at higher and higher ages. At fifty, at sixty, we’re still not allowed to “let ourselves go.” Women are also choosing to delay childbearing later and later. With the help of science, some become mothers well into what once would have been considered the Crone years. And more power to them. But all this makes me wonder what kind of relevance the traditional interpretation of Crone-hood has today. There are other factors at play, too. The emphasis on two genders–a goddess and a god, or goddesses and gods–in much of modern Paganism, as well as the prominence accorded at-birth biology and the biological events associated with particular body parts (e.g., the uterus), is unwelcoming to trans*, intersex, queer, and gender fluid individuals. How can a woman who has never possessed a uterus relate to an entity whose entire identity hinges on menstruation or lack thereof? How can a man who goes through pregnancy and bears children relate to a god who has never done either? Is the Maiden sufficient to her, or the Mother to him? Is the Crone relevant to either?
There’s no doubt that the Crone as an archetype gave power (of a kind) to a set of women who were often set aside or scorned as lacking value once their fertile years had ended. It’s easy to imagine how a society with less knowledge of modern science would imbue these women with magic simply for the fact that they survived multiple pregnancies and births and reached an age where their wombs “dried up.” And it’s equally easy to imagine this same kind of society believing that a woman’s menstrual blood was a key element in the creation of life (which is kind of is), and that a woman who now kept that element to herself instead of expressing it on a monthly basis also retained its creative force. But what does the Crone do for us now?

I come from a long-lived family. Barring serious illness or accident, I can expect to have as many years ahead of me as I have behind me. Another half a century of prospective Crone-hood holds no appeal at all, especially if it entails all the burdens of both Maiden and Mother and few of the blessings. Older women are not much respected, these days, simply for the fact that they’re old.

No myth, philosophy, archetype, or thought-form is all-encompassing. Part of the appeal of modern Paganism comes from its willingness to incorporate this truth and adjust when necessary. Yet all too often, instead of using archetypes as guides along a personal journey, people try to fit every experience into the shape of their chosen archetype, shoving things in where they don’t go and cutting off the awkward bits that stick out. It’s not my intention to dismiss the Crone’s value to those who honour Her. However, if Paganism wants to remain a relevant and living religion, we need to expand our paradigms to incorporate the lived experience of all women, not just that of those who fall neatly into the patterns we have adopted from years past. And in this sense, perhaps the time of the Crone has passed.