Editor’s note: Author Eric Word-Weaver Sjerven has a BA in Psychology, is a licensed Child Care Administrator, and has worked in the field of psychology for 15 years at a residential care center.
Throughout time immemorial, men and women have known of the shadow. That ever present, nagging passenger that rides just behind the shoulder, speaking dark and vile things into the ear and summoning the darkest parts of the human psyche. This shadow we now know by the name Depression, and it is an illness that roots its way into the soul and minds of people across the world. Much effort has been made in the modern age to aide those with depression. Articles and videos abound with advice for the individual dealing with this shade, but little has been put out to the purpose of those that stand by watching and feeling the pain as their loved one’s struggle with the shadow.
It is fair to say that most people do not fully understand Depression. This is how it should be. The healthy mind has no frame of reference regarding the shade that seats itself in the psyche of the afflicted. The depressed individual is like a person sitting in a darkened cave. With their eyes adjusted to the dark, they can see what lurks there in the shadows, and they can look out into the light and see clearly what passes beneath Sunna’s rays. They can see the smiles on the faces of those that walk in the light. They possess clarity of vision that comes of looking from shadow into light. Those that walk in the light can see around themselves with little effort, but when they turn their eyes to the cave, they see only the darkened entryway. The sun glints in their eyes and they miss details around them that those in the shadow see clearly, and they cannot perceive what lies beyond that obsidian aperture. They know nothing of the beasts that lurk within the shadows, and they are the better for it. Stanza 55 of the Havamal (Hollander translation) advises thus:
Middling wise every man should be: beware of being too wise; for wise man’s heart is happy seldom, if too great the wisdom he won. Ignorance is bliss, as it were.
Depression, From The Inside
Because people who have not suffered with depression cannot see the plight that surrounds those who are in the dark, they do not know how to help them when the creatures begin to gnaw upon their victims. They do not hear the voices as they whisper vile things into the ears of those that have no choice but to listen. “Worthless,” “idiot,” “less than human,” “undeserving”… These are the curses drip-fed to those caught in the clutches of the shadow. Like Loki bound beneath the serpent, venom dripping into his eyes, these individuals are bound to the stone and the poisonous secretions drip into their souls. To a Heathen, Worth is integral to the sense of self and the Heathen’s place in the world. Without Worth, they feel they are undeserving of the boons granted by Midgard and the Gods. They see themselves as weak and broken. They grow angry with themselves for this weakness. They resent it. This anger turns inward, and they begin to hate themselves. Many that do not understand Depression dismiss it as self-pity, or seeking the pity of others. This is often far from the truth. The depressed Heathen frequently does not seek the pity of others; instead, they feel that they do not deserve such pity, or love, or compassion. Those things are meant for “good people,” those with worth. No, the depressed Heathen more often feels a sense of self-loathing, hatred, and vitriol aimed at their very existence.
These individuals are, of course, incorrect. They do have Worth; they have value to those that love them simply by existing. The Havamal advises that no man is without worth: let the lame ride a horse and all that. Despite the clarity that looking from shadow into light allows the individual, their vision of themselves is blurred and their better traits are hidden deep in the inky blackness. They do not measure themselves aright. Rather, they think ill and vile things about themselves that are often untrue and hyperbolic. They lack the sight to see the truth of their situation, and they bear the heavy weight alone. For they dare not let others see their weakness. They fear being discovered as the frauds they believe themselves to be. A strong front is cast out, like a suit of armor, and they cling to it with every fiber of their body. This is not true for all. Each person struggles with the shadow in their own way, but this is frequently the case. Those in the light do not see past the masks and armor often skillfully deployed as decoys, and those in shadow defend that visage with all their might. They feel they cannot open up. They fear that, if the light were to reveal the creatures in their shadow, they would be looked down upon and that their weakness and worthlessness would be laid bare to the judging eyes of those without such ailments. This is especially terrifying when those looking on are the ones held most dear, one’s Innangardh.
Understanding a smidgeon of their world, those in the light can better understand these individuals and can lend them aide. This is the crux of this article. Heathens are a social lot. Heathen culture, however diverse, is centered strongly upon social structures we call Tribes or Kindreds. Those we hold most dear we call family or Innangardh. It is these people upon whom the depressed individual should lean most heavily, but the fear of disappointing them or being seen as “less” in their eyes, prevents the depressed Heathen from baring that part of their souls. Luckily, there are things to look for that help those in the light see when the shadowed individuals are struggling.
Hidden Negative Self-talk
Depression is frequently accompanied by negative self-talk. These are statements that a person tells themselves such as “you idiot,” “moron,” “I deserve this bad thing that is happening to me,” “I do not deserve the love of those I love,” etc. These negative statements are often interpreted by the outside world as attention seeking behaviors or fishing for compliments. Instead, they are like roaches. Where there seem to be few, there are legion. Their loved ones are never meant to hear these statements. They slip up and let them out at times that the shadows get too loud, and are sometimes overheard. One thing that is guaranteed, if a few statements are overheard, there are hundreds more that are not. Furthermore, these individuals truly believe these things they say about themselves, or at least, they fear they are true. Sometimes they let them slip subconsciously in order to see if the reactions of those around them validate these fears. While not diagnostic in themselves, these statements are red flags that something deeper is going on. This is where their loved ones come in. Supporting these individuals is important. This is not coddling them, but rather, shedding light on the inaccuracies of their statements. There is no shame in reminding these individuals of their worth and their strong points, but words do little to quieten the voices of the shadow. Actions speak louder. Encouraging these people to do the things they are good at and praising their successes here will help to reinforce that they do indeed have worth and can contribute. Expressing concern is helpful, but actions that show the person they are valued and loved carry more weight.
Depressed individuals will often seclude themselves as the effort in maintaining the mask is tiring, and the illness saps their strength by its very nature. Loved ones can take note of this and include the shadowed ones in activities that they will enjoy, distractions from the shadows, but often they will need to bring these to the depressed individual as they will shrink from the light of day and social interactions. Loss of interest in things that a person once enjoyed is a known characteristic of Depression, and it can be infuriating to the individual that is “just trying to help.”
Avenues of Treatment
Medications are helpful in combating Depression. It is very much an illness of the body and soul alike. From a neurological standpoint, Depression manifests itself in the body through an imbalance of neurotransmitters such as Serotonin and Dopamine. Serotonin Specific Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI’s) are the most common form of antidepressant used today as they offer good therapeutic results with fewer risks of toxicity and negative side-effects. There are still some, but these drugs are far more stable than some of their more archaic counterparts. Medications help to normalize the levels of the associated neurotransmitters in the brain and help to regulate the system. However, this is not a cure-all. Doctors and psychologists alike acknowledge that antidepressants are meant to be short term tools that allow the brain to function more normally, but they need to be accompanied by talk-therapy in order to help deal with the underlying thoughts and feelings. The medications simply make the brain more receptive to the corrective actions in therapy. Therapists will frequently help build coping skills and redirect thinking errors that lead to these negative thoughts and self-statements.
It should be noted that Depression can be a terminal illness. Suicidal ideation can arise in the depressed individual and often accompany the other diagnostic criteria. This is the most difficult part for a person without depression to understand, but it is a very real part of the disease. The individual grows so hopeless and disgusted with themselves that they honestly believe the world would be a better place without them in it. Suicide seems the noble act in this case. If the person were not around anymore, their loved ones would not be further burdened by their issues and they could all move on without them. Sometimes, the inner pain grows so great that ending one’s own life seems the only option to achieve relief. Frequently, the general fatigue and lack of energy that is characteristic of depression will sap the individual of the willingness to follow-through with any plan to kill themselves. However, during the first two weeks or so of treatment with an antidepressant, the person’s energy returns before the medication reaches therapeutic levels sufficient to fight the negative emotions. As such, the first few weeks of treatment are a dangerous time wherein a person that might have suicidal ideations but no energy for follow-through might find themselves sufficiently energized and still in the depths of depression enough to act on these ideations. Those nearest to them should watch them closely during this time for red flags such as a sudden calm coming over them, giving away material possessions, tying up of loose ends and settling affairs, etc. Stanza 95 of the Havamal (Hollander translation) reads:
One’s self only knows what is near one’s heart, each reads but himself aright; no sickness seems to sound mind worse that to have lost all liking for life.
How to Support People Who Have Depression
Ultimately, the battle with the shadow belongs to the depressed individual alone, and outsiders can do little more than offer support. Yet, this support can carry a great deal of weight and impact with the person. Understanding that depression is very much a disease that attacks both the body and soul-complex will help one in supporting a loved one with the ailment. Being there for them, talking with them, showing through actions that they are loved and valued, are the things that will have the most impact. Dealing with the depression from the inside is difficult enough, but watching helplessly from the sidelines is a difficulty all its own. Building support from within the Innangardh, and seeking the aide of support groups and professionals versed in depression, will be of great help to those watching their loved ones struggling with this shadow. As Heathens, we struggle with the psychological world not understanding the worldview or the nature of the belief structure, and it is sometimes helpful to educate those individuals on Heathenry so that they can better aid their patient.
One cannot help but think on the story of Idunn and her apples. It is said that these apples were stolen thanks to Loki’s involvement, and their absence deprived the Gods of their source of eternal youth and vigor. Sans these life-giving apples, the Aesir begin to wither away. Upon Idunn’s returning the apples to the gathered Gods, their life and vitality are restored anew. This is a key metaphor in the support of one with Depression. By supporting one’s nearest-and-dearest as they struggle with this shadow serpent, the depressed individual sups, ever so briefly, on the juices of these divine apples. They find succor in the fruit, but the shadow whispers to them that they are undeserving of it.
In the end, only those in the shadow can help themselves out of it. Those on the sidelines can enlist a few of the recommendations as well as many others, but those without cannot lift that loved one out of the pit. They must do this for themselves. Focusing on empowering the individual will help them reach that end, but it can be a tiring and daunting task. For brevity’s sake this article will not venture into the following topics, but if they are living with an individual that suffers from depression or any other chronic ailment or condition one would be well served reading on Compassion Fatigue and Secondary Traumatization. As Heathens, we know the value of Innangardh, we rally the Shield-Wall around those that we love and hold dear. Depression is a monster that devours from within, and the shield-wall can be just the thing that helps these individuals fight the monster off. This article is well beyond the size typically hosted on this site and it is still woefully short and abridged. Hopefully, it will help you see the shadow around your loved one just a bit clearer and perhaps can point you in a direction to help them rise out of the darkness to bring honor to their Ancestors while they hail the Gods with pride. Whether dealing with the shadow yourself, or watching a loved one battle, know that you are not alone. May your ancestors smile on you.
Eric Word-Weaver Sjerven is the Gođi of the Hridgar Folk, a Heathen Tribe in Texas. He has been a Heathen since his teenage years and has a unique view on the world that he shares through his writings and his YouTube channel. His focus is largely on Grassroots Heathenry and finding a balance between innovation and tradition within Heathenry today. His YouTube channel can be found at https://www.youtube.com/ericwordweaversjerven. Check out Eric’s companion video on Helping Heathens with Depression.