In the fall I made this Sunflower photo the wallpaper on my phone, because Sunflowers help my heart feel lighter every time I see them. Especially the ones who’ve been shot through with hail stones, nibbled on by bugs, who’re looking a little worse for wear and tear, and still they shine relentlessly. I needed a reminder that even though I didn’t feel the tiniest bit shiny, shameless sparkle is out there to behold.
Depression is a wave that’s crashed over me periodically since puberty. As I write this I’m looking back over the various washouts and realizing that I’ve been a different person every time. Pubescent me was sure she was broken, and reaching desperately for the nearest bottle of pharmaceuticals. Young adult me was working hard to be someone she wasn’t, and was so disappointed by the failure. Postpartum me was grieving the loss of her former self, trying to manage an overwhelmed nervous system, trying to figure out what her life was now in a maelstrom of change. Today, I’m underwater, wondering who I’ll be when I pop back up.
Depressive episodes are inherently initiatory experiences. One doesn’t enter the Underworld and then return to daily life unchanged.* Even when you feel useless, stagnant, paralyzed, when joy and purpose elude you, a new road is slowly revealing itself.
Let me tell you a story with many versions in many cultures, a story that's much much older than the name of its heroine...
Persephone, daughter of Demeter, was lusted after and coveted by Hades, King of the Underworld. Through nefarious means, Hades managed to snatch Persephone against her will and drag her down to his dark home to be his bride. Persephone was devastated and disoriented, a miasma of grief surrounded her. Nevertheless, she was now Queen of the Underworld, winning the reverence and admiration of Hades and the Dead. She wielded supreme power, was backed up by and deferred to by her husband, and came to enjoy a surprising level of autonomy. As far as divine Greek marriages go, Persephone and Hades’s actually grew to be among the healthier examples.
Meanwhile on Earth, Persephone’s mother Demeter wasn’t having any of this. She longed for her daughter and fought for her return. Demeter withdrew her nurturing powers from the land, disguised herself as an old woman and lived anonymously as the servant of a mortal family. Because of Demeter’s neglect, the crops did not grow, and the land turned cold and dark.
When conditions on Earth became unbearable, Persephone’s return was negotiated. But just before she left the Underworld, Hades offered her a Pomegranate seed to eat. The taste of its sweet red juice filled Persephone’s mouth and bound her to her husband and the world she reigned over. Instead of ascending forever, Persephone would reside on Earth with Demeter for half the year, and return to rule the Underworld for the other half.
While Persephone is gone, Demeter withholds her powers of fertility and abundance, and when she returns, green growth and productivity are restored. This is how we’ve come to know summer and winter.
When we’re in the depths of depression we’re Persephone, having been dragged against our will into darkness. Hope may seem entirely lost. But we won’t stay here in the Underworld. Our gifts are needed in this life on Earth, and we’ll be resurrected to share them again when the time comes.
If you’re wandering lost and blind through the Underworld, there are a few things you must know:
This is not forever. There is life after the Underworld. Keep going.
You are not alone. All the best people have been to the Underworld and back, too.
Where you are is perfect. You need to be where you are in order to get where you’re going.
Ask yourself, What would the Queen of the Underworld do?
She would hold on to her autonomy. She would come and go from the Underworld while mastering both realms. She would see the gifts in the Underworld, and allow them to make her more powerful. She would eat Pomegranates.
My class on "Herbs for Depression" is available in Plant Medicine Circle.
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*Amanda Yates Garcia taught me to see depression (as well as life's other trials and tribulations) as an Underworld journey in her fantastic book "Initiated: Memoir of a Witch."