Being a mentally ill “pagan” is all sorts of fun. (high levels of sarcasm here) Mostly because of all the people out there the broader community who all seem obsessed with how everything has to be “naturally” done, or go back to nature, etc. etc. ad nauseum, blah blah blah. And it’s not like this is anything new to experience or see going on; it’s not. Really, it’s rather old-hat around the pagan community, if you just take a few seconds to google or look up past conversations. And I’ve been dealing with the fall out of this ever since I was a baby pagan back at like 12 years old on Gaia Online (my very first experience with online pagans!).
See, back then I was diagnosed with depression, and I was already on medication. Granted, very low dosage, but I was already on my way to learning that I’m medication-resistant. I was diagnosed with dysthymia; which is ‘chronic’ depression, not major depression, but long-lasting, usually over/about 2 years in duration. So I was in some low places back then. But I was also trying to act normal, because mental illness has always been something that the majority of any community wants nothing to deal with. And being diagnosed with a form of depression, and then silently watching online pagan communities was a huge eye-opener for me. There was a lot I saw back then that I was not too terribly fond of, and have certainly held true through the years.
While I was on Gaia (and also silently reading a host of other pagan online boards), I would often read adult-only pagan/witchcraft boards. I would never participate, because I was a little mouse and goody-girl, and I never wanted to break the rules. But if I just bookmarked and read the posts, well I wasn’t breaking rules and I still got the benefit of learning and information that I otherwise would not have gotten. But this was also something that started to help me in growing out of my “baby pagan” stage, because being a kid and reading adult discussions really does have a way of jarring you out of your comfort zone.
I learned very quickly that the majority of these boards were full of what I now term, and lots of others do, the “love and light” brigade type of pagans. So lots of blessed bes out of context, lots of “no cursing”, throwing around of karma and the “Rule of Three”…all things that I stopped holding to well over 10 years ago now. So I got kind of overwhelmed with all the cloyingly sweet and quite frankly (from many of them) oppressively down-your-throat-shovingly pushy pagans that were insistent on what they believed to be right. Now, I’m biased, because of my experiences, but this experience was pretty formative. So many of these people would push the whole love and light, no cursing, make sure you do everything to be happy and for no personal gain, etc, they all had pretty strong opinions on just who should be allowed to practice or worship.
I remember a specific forum conversation that cropped up on one of the online websites, which one in particular I don’t remember anymore. Original poster commented that they were upset that “sickos” were being let into their local gatherings. Meaning, a new member of their real-world community rituals was open about suffering from depression, and this poster absolutely hated that. Because the person suffering from depression was going to “ruin” the ritual. There was a bit more in the original post, I don’t remember the specific wording, but the gist of it being: mentally ill people should not be allowed to participate in such things, they are incapable of doing ritual, and they should be spiritually quarantined because they will “contaminate” other people.
There were a few people that were calling the poster out on their rudeness, ableism, and general asshole behavior/wording. Those people presented great arguments about how if the community or ritual leaders had met with the new member and had evaluated the situation, then it was fine. If the leaders believed they could accommodate the new member, and the new member had cleared it and was taking care of their own health–well everything is fine. Also, mental illness did not disqualify anyone from participating in open ritual, or even in coven work, so long as the new member and leadership had cleared up specific “rules of engagement” per say.
Most of the group though were of totally different mind. Lots of comments about how the poster was right and that sickos should not be allowed in ritual. That mental illness was a sign of deficiency, and anyone without solid mental state was not qualified to practice. Oh, and my favorite, that anyone with mental health issues was totally incapable of worshiping the gods, or even being cared about by them. Lots of people were cracking rude jokes about how they were “depressed their favorite TV show got canceled” or other BS jokes. Then there were other nasty comments about how depression was just weakness of character, and people just have to “get over it”.
That was just the commentary on depression as a diagnosis. But then the poster came back (maybe a day or so later) and said that it turned out the new member of the real-life group was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. So cue mass hysteria in the group. Lots of people saying that the poster should boycott, or plaster physical posters all over the ritual space or local community areas, about the “dangers” of mental illness in ritual. It was really quite ugly all the things that I read. Lots of nasty comments about how that new member should be permanently banned from all local events.
And look — I know that is all extreme.
Because I’m part of some pagan Facebook groups now that are very open, polite and welcoming to those with mental illness of all stripes. I’m very open about my own struggles, and 90% of the time in my current groups I have zero problems. I’m in no way saying that everyone in the community causes problems for those of us with mental illness. Not at all. The majority of the time I’ve had very inclusive experiences, especially over the last 5 years.
But there are still people who make things difficult. And let’s be honest–the pagan community has a metaphysical hard on for “natural” and “homeopathic” and “alternative” treatment options. Medication and doctors are all just Big Pharma–a scam to get you removed from all your money and to cause all sorts of trouble. There’s lots of talk in pagan groups about how you just have to pray, or meditate or take a bunch of herbs to will away any health problems.
Cancer? Herb it away! Depression? Pray it away! Muscle aches? Alternative treatment!
All of this is not to disparage any alternative treatment or natural options that are well-thought out and done with proper doctor or medical supervision; or even using herbs or any other kind of treatment. When it’s done right, and under proper supervision, well that’s just fine on all fronts. I’ve no problem with any of that. I’ve had my doctor recommend alternative treatments for me in the past.
There is a hell of a lot of alternative pushing in terms of mental health in the pagan community though. Lots of “pray away the depression”, or take xxx herb to stabilize your mental health. Lots of meditate or use these salt lamps, or use xx crystal and sleep with it to get rid of whatever problem you have. And this comes at the detriment of real, valuable, and yes chemical treatment by medical professionals. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen someone come into a pagan group asking for a cure or treatment for their problem, and when they are told to first go to their doctor and clear all “mundane” possible reasons — they scream about wanting magic cures. Forget clearing their actual medical health first, oh no, first jump to the magic and the woo.
So I get blow back from this. Because I will admit that I am bipolar and OCD, and I take medication to control these; as well as some counseling and general talking. I make no bones about the fact that my brain is chemically imbalanced. I need medication almost all the time–minus a few short spurts of time where I can control it without medication–and without medication my brain is imbalanced. I do not function without proper medical treatment. You would not believe though how often I get told that I just need to stop taking my medication and focus on whatever the latest fad pagan-flavored ‘treatment’ is. Because this will of course magically cure the chemical imbalance in my brain, something I’ve been treating and dealing with since perhaps the age of 5-6 years old.
I’ve no need to justify my treatment, I know that. But even now, when things are generally good among the community where I chill out, things pop up. I got a message on my tumblr from someone anonymous today while I was at work; which is in itself a bit amusing considering I don’t think I’ve posted about my bipolar or OCD in quite some time, and it’s been a while since I specifically addressed my religious beliefs:
You should be ashamed to be calling yourself pagan. You’re not a real pagan if you are sick and taking medication for some mental bs. stop lying and saying you’re pagan.
It’s good for a laugh; to be honest. I don’t care about them thinking it; and I’m certainly not willing to bother responding on tumblr. It’s really hilarious. I’m just amused that someone thought so strongly that they need to call me out for being “fake pagan” just because I am not neurotypical.
Which just brings me back around to: being mentally ill in the pagan community is not fun. It’s a pain. And even though things are getting better, there are still problems. Today was just a little reminder that the community still has issues.∗