Navigating Depression: A Warning from a Wise Woman

with Marion Woodman

“My Subaru was stuck in mud, sliding downhill backwards into a garbage-filled swamp. I was in the driver’s seat, but when I tried to drive forward, the car slid farther back. As my tires and car sank deeper in the muck, I didn’t know if I could save the car or myself.”

 I woke up terrified, but knew the dream mirrored my despair about not getting an exciting job I’d been promised.

A few weeks later, I went to a dream workshop with Marion Woodman. I’d gone to my first workshop with Marion in 1988 and this was in 2004. Remembering the dream, I began sobbing. I didn’t want anyone to talk to me or touch me. I wanted to disappear.

Subaru: the vehicle that got me around in life

The next morning when the workshop began, Marion looked directly at me. “So, what’s going on, Elaine?” she asked.

I told her the job I’d counted on had fallen through and broken my self-confidence. I told her how I’d struggled with debilitating depression on and off, but especially when I was a freshman in college and had tried to drown my feelings in vodka and beer.

One Saturday night in 1964 when I was stumbling drunk, a group of guys chased me around their fraternity house. Instead of raping me, they took me to my dorm, but I knew depression had brought me close to a precipice. I was in danger with no one to protect me and I hadn’t protected myself. The car dream reawakened a similar helpless despair.

Marion Woodman, 2005 (photo by E Mansfield)

Marion looked at me with piercing blue eyes and said in her deep belly voice, “You have to be careful, Elaine. You can’t let that energy take over.” I knew she was right.

After the workshop, I gave depression a voice in my journal and wrote Active Imagination conversations between my ego self and my feelings. It helped to hear what depression had to say and understand how it was undermining me. I did more psychological work with Marion and other teachers and depression kept a distance–until my husband was diagnosed with incurable lymphoma in 2006. I worked hard to help him live, but after 18 months of caregiving through crisis after crisis, I dreamed of a starving baby girl. In that dream, it was my job to save her.

My painting of holding my dying husband, from a dream 3 months after his death

 

As I cared for my husband, I’d neglected my own psychological needs. I heard the warning. No matter what Vic needed, I had to tend the starving baby and the woman sinking in muck, so I contacted a Jungian dream therapist. She and my dreams supported me through Vic’s dying. Ritual held me up when I sank toward despair, and I remembered Marion’s warning.

When I felt the undertow of grief or depression, I heard her voice telling me to pay attention and ask for help.

“You have to be careful with that energy.” I won’t forget.

***

Do you sometimes have debilitating moods? How do you manage them? What helps you get through life’s challenges such as this year of pandemic? For another article about dealing with depression, see Grief and Depression: Are They Different?  For an article about Marion Woodman, see Falling in Love with Marion Woodman: 2003.

31 Comments
  1. Your post is so relatable. How fortunate to have the perceptive Marion Woodman during your moment(s) of dire need. I see such compassion and empathy in her face.

    I remember feeling debilitating depression when I was a young wife and mother. It seemed that more money coming in or help with the babies & housework would fix my woes. My monthly cycle I believe played a role back then. After 3-4 days the mood would lift, thank God.

    Nowadays when I feel a blue mood coming on, I charge into action, which may seem a strange reaction. The last time I felt down, I scrubbed both bathroom floors, on hands and knees, a good posture for prayer. A chapter from the book of Psalms helps too: the Psalmist usually follows a lament (and there are many) with praise and gratitude. The knowledge that my dark moods, though recurring, are temporary helps me cope.

    You respond to dreams with self-awareness, a good thing. I believe your art too is a constructive way to vent grief, which reminds me of a quote from Dr. Colin Parkes: “The pain of grief is just as much part of life as the joy of love: It is perhaps the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment. To ignore this fact, or to pretend that it is not so, is to put on emotional blinkers which leave us unprepared for the losses that will inevitably occur in our own lives and unprepared to help others cope with losses in theirs.”

    Your posts always help me to reflect, this one especially. I must add: during the pandemic, walks in nature have been restorative, a life-saver, really.

    Thank you, Elaine!

    • Dear Marian, we are stuck when we have young babies and sometimes we’d like to get unstuck, but they need us day and night. I understand charging into action but I’m not as good at it as I used to be. Kneeling over the garden is a good posture for prayer and submission which is also needed. We’re human! The Psalms are a perfect balance of lament and gratitude. Sometimes I think gratitude is the very best tool I have. Yes, Vic is dead and I lost my hearing, but what good fortunate to have a long wonderful marriage and many years of good hearing and beautiful bird songs and friends who are willing to speak slowly and clearly so I can hear them without stress. What good fortune to have meditation and inspired writing and poetry. And to live surrounded by nature as we both do and to have a strong spiritual foundation.

      I agree art is another way I handle grief. I love the quote you share and always remember another quote although I don’t remember who wrote it: “Grief is the way love feels now.” After all these years, Vic is still here in deep love with a small ache of longing. I am fortunate. Sending you love.

      • Deep loving and longing, the best sentiment for times like these. Thanks for understanding my thoughts here and for adding yours! 🙂

        After I sent off my reply, I remembered my darkest time: 18 months in a travel trailer to keep our family together as Cliff launched his art performance career all over the Southeastern US. I was all for the idea because it would be good for his career and for the children. I didn’t realize the price I would have to pay in isolation and no relief from child-care. I recently wrote about it in an essay titled: The Geography of a Journey, Confinement in a (25 foot) travel trailer. I nearly went crazy.

        • Marian, my feelings were similar when Vic and I moved to Hamilton, NY when he got a terrific teaching job at Colgate U–but I was pregnant and had a 3 year old and knew no one and wanted to be in my home (where I still live now). I was not a happy camper, but in time we worked out a manageable compromise. So much about making a marriage work is about patience and learning the art of compromise.

          • Now, we have become the wise women we have always admired.

            If I just knew then that the tough times would be stepping stones for experiences and understanding I could share, the hardships would have been easier to bear. So much for the human condition!

          • I was told this, but had to live it. That’s the good part about growing older.

  2. You introduced us to Marion. She was a wonder. Thank you so much.

    • She was a guiding light for so many of us, Harriet. I’ll always be grateful to her and our community of women friends who also learned from her and loved her.

  3. Thank You for this thought provoking reflection .” You have to be careful with that energy ” is wise advice .

    My own experience over many years has been characterised by periods of progressive disassociation which at times has led to a Depression where I could barely think or lift my head off the pillow . Each time when I have recovered some functioning and resumed my job and family responsibilities I have felt as though I have left a part of me behind. I have been fortunate to have been able to find support from 2 very trusted therapists ( most recently, a Jungian therapist), which has sustained me through these times .

    Oddly this history of disassociations has perhaps helped me during the Pandemic as I am used to managing day by day. Fortunately I do experience jewels of light and contentment through doing small gardening jobs and through poetry . These gifts help sustain me , though their arrival is unpredictable and at times it feels that all my efforts are crumbling away. So far, my own efforts, good support and moments of grace have helped prevent me being immersed in “that energy” which seems to feed on me.

    I do think that it is probably a lifelong task , “being careful of that energy”, as it seems like it is a part of me that will always be there. Thank you again for your reflections. I hope that you and your loved ones remain safe and well. Gary

    • I’m sorry you go through this, Gary, but hope having a Jungian perspective helps. There are jewels in the Underworld for those willing to dive–with precautions. I imagine I will always grapple with this energy, but it’s much less of a problem than it was when I was younger. I have tools now and less shame. I can write, paint, garden (I’ve always had that one), read mythological stories about dealing with the Underworld and do Active Imagination so the depression can’t hide and go underground to cause more trouble.

      Having hearing problems taught me to be comfortable when alone and my two dogs have been great pandemic pals. Also a Zoom mythology group and dream work and a writing group. I now have to figure out how to climb out of my protected cave and meet the world in person again. For me, “being careful with that energy” didn’t mean avoiding it or repressing it, but meant not letting it go unconscious. Marion Woodman’s approach was to work with our moods, dreams, and depressions with painting, movement, mask making, journaling, etc. I’m so grateful for her teaching and for all I continue learning in my mythology class of 10 women. It’s an amazing and supportive group. Wishing you well in every way with a lush growing season ahead.

  4. Dearest Elaine,

    Oh my Goddess! That dream painting of Vic lying upon your body took my breath away! It’s simply beautiful, almost beyond words.

    Your powerful “stuck in the mud” dream/nightmare even frightened me! And so a descent into dark despair on waking felt almost inevitable. As luck would have it though you attended Marion’s workshop that morning, thus thankfully, you had a place to take it and what a life-saving warning that wise woman gave you as she steered you back from those deadly swamplands of the soul.

    And yet, I wonder as I do when a terrifying nightmare visits, what needs to die in us so that another part of us can live? I write this because in writing this reply I’m reminded of wanting to “go home” (to die) many times in my life up until I approached midlife where one day this desire abruptly disappeared following an “anchoring to the earth” ritual with an exceptionally gifted shaman one magickal day.

    Two years later as Vic became ill, I wonder if you thought … hmm, so that job wasn’t right after all. And this is where your own descent has helped many others as they grapple with depression and grief following the death of a loved one. And on that note I have recommended your beautiful, heartfelt book “Leaning into Love” to many clients all of whom have expressed how much the sharing of your story has helped them immensely.

    What helps me when I dip aside from poetry, is often music and dance. And when I’m down the beach and out of earshot from others, I will sing to the sea, to the birds and all the washed up shellfish that glisten along the shore. When I was a child I would sing to the cows and the sheep on the farm where I grew up, to the birds too. In woodlands, I will lean into the most ancient tree I can find, heart to heart, and seek counsel.

    Love and light, Deborah

    • Dear Deborah,
      Plenty was dying at that time about my role in the world. I had designed and been accepted to offer a program on bone health at a new health organization in Ithaca combining medical offices and a large gym, plus a spa and more. In the hiring process when we had done everything except sign the contract, they didn’t tell me they had decided to have the hospital physical therapists run the bone health program, so I waited, called, called again, was ignored. It was humiliating and disrespectful–so I felt crushed. Looking back, it doesn’t feel like a big deal, but I was crushed and took a nose dive. Vic was loving and supportive and never tried to talk me out of my feelings. He just listened. I didn’t consciously want to die. Looking back, I know I was angry as well as depressed and turned that anger on myself.

      I let it go in time, but the biggest letting go was to catch myself before depression pulled me under. Maybe this was a practice session for losing what I truly loved the most–Vic. I was so grateful to have a dream therapist during Vic’s last months and I still talk with her twice a month to discuss dreams. My descent with Vic was long and deep, but it didn’t feel like a personal failing or that I was inadequate for the journey I had to take. I had known how to be supportive to Vic, so had to learn to support myself in the same way. His constant refrain to me for many years was, “If you love yourself half as much as I love you, you’ll be OK.” Those are words to remember.

      Thanks for recommending my book, dear Deborah. You have no idea how much I miss music, but this crazy hearing with one cochlear implant and one hearing aid makes music dissonant. I sometimes sing to myself and to the forest, whistle to birds, and dance in the kitchen. Bird songs are simple tones and I’m grateful they’re pleasing to my hearing apparatus, along with peeper frogs and other natural songs. My best medicine is to go to the forest to lean into the red oak near where Vic asked to have his ashes buried. She’s a wise old tree and gives me lots of support and good advice. Yesterday I saw the first butterfly of the season in the woods–a Mourning Cloak Butterfly, named after the capes worn for grieving in the past. She was beautiful–brown wings with a white border and sapphire dots. Google “Mourning Cloak Butterfly image” and you’ll see an image of her. Sending love, light, and hopes for spring as we have a spring snowstorm on the way.

      • What an appalling way to treat someone, no wonder you felt crushed at the time! Depression is often described as “anger turned inside out” so your feelings made sense. How kind and compassionate of Vic to just listen and not judge. And then I read, “Maybe this was a practice session for losing what I truly loved the most–Vic.” Oh, Elaine, I lack the words.

        “If you love yourself half as much as I love you, you’ll be OK.” Wow! These words I will remember always my dear friend (I’m writing them into my notebook as I type), as in another situation in my life right now, these are exactly the words I needed to hear today and provide the answer and solace I’ve been seeking! Thank you so much for sharing them.

        I love what you say about trees! Yesterday I learnt on discovering a tree first ask if you can approach because trees are polite beings. Next, lean in with your heart, make a connection with your heartbeat and the heartbeat of the tree. Then ask the tree to take from you anything that you don’t need and then for the tree to give you back anything you do need.

        What a brilliant way to develop one’s relationship to trees I thought. I think of you in your woods often, leaning into your beloved Red Oak. I’ve checked out the butterfly you mention. Wow, they’re stunning! I don’t think they visit the UK. In the last week that I’ve seen my first butterflies too, two beautiful Peacocks.

        • Yes, people are appalling and they were probably ashamed and didn’t want to face breaking their promise. The gym still thrives in Ithaca, and I still avoid it. In contrast, when Vic died, I was surrounded by compassionate support, from friends but also from Marion Woodman who wrote at least once a month. She believed in handwritten letters and hers helped me so much. They’re all on my altar.

          Vic who was not treated tenderly or kindly by his mother or his nuns became the sweetest of partners. He said I taught him how to love–but I think he taught me. We taught each other by never hiding our feelings and being vulnerable to each other. He said those words to me often for many decades, and especially his last few years. They are a healing and unforgettable blessing to be passed along.

          I’ll ask my trees. They are friendly (you don’t see the tree photos I post on FB–a massive beech yesterday), but I haven’t asked them if it’s OK to lean and drip tears on them. So I’m back to a Vic memory: Before his body was ashes, Vic and I stood on opposite sides of the red oak near where his ashes are now buried, leaned our hearts into the tree, and stretched a little to grasp each other’s hands. We did that often. I weep remembering. (We don’t have Peacock Butterflies, so I just looked them up. They’re flashy and bright. What big pseudo-eyes you have, my dear. Sending love across the sea. It snowed two inches here last night. Happy April Fools Day. It would be gorgeous if it were January–but it will melt in a few days.

          • What a beautiful memory you’ve shared. How wonderful it is to think of you and Vic with your arms outstretched to meet the other while surrounding and embracing the red oak. Oh, how the Goddess and Her Green Man comes to mind … as three heartbeats beat as one! I’ll take a look on Lin’s FB re beech.

          • I’m waiting for Beltane to share the Goddess and Her Green Man again.
            “Wait a while my dear Green Man
            while May ignites her heartfelt plan
            here let us love all over again,
            from bud to flower to leaf we’ll reign”
            Sending love.

  5. Just what I needed to read this morning. Thank you, Elaine.

    • Thank you, Joan. Life isn’t easy and it’s been a tough year. (We have a few inches of snow on April Fool’s Day to put icing on the cake.) I hope you are well, safe, and finding joy in the small things.

  6. I’m glad I saw your post Elaine – I’m not often on Twitter and yet this is where I saw it. So wise in all ways – a beautiful post. I agree with Deborah about your painting.!it is soo tender. Be safe through the spring snow storm – I think April is known as a ‘capricious’ month? Love across the oceans –

    • Thank you, Susan. I’m glad you saw it, too. I subscribed to your posts so I get notices and since I’m often behind in responses, I need that email reminder. We got two inches of snow last night so not the 8 inches they forecast a few days ago. I put out special bird treats and they came flying in and Disco got another chance to play her favorite game of hide the squeaker ball in the snow and then stomp until it squeaks. The weather becomes more erratic every year, but I think we’ll have to get used to it. Last week it felt like June. Today it feels like January. Be safe and careful and well. Both my sons have vaccines now as do I, and I’m grateful we all have some protection from the worst of covid. Of course the culture wars continue here but Pres. Biden is more skilled than we knew at keeping everyone calm. I’m grateful for that, too.

  7. Our minds are good at taking our fears and projecting them as reality. It is hard to sit with our uncertainty and doubts and despair and not give in because they seem so real. And wise words about not giving in to that energy. It’s interesting, and telling, that you were not just sliding back into a swamp, but one that was filled with garbage. On my first reading, I got caught up in the feeling of sliding backwards into a swamp, and the terror that would hold for me. The garbage, I suspect, is what we have dumped there over the years. I am so thankful that you had Marion.

    • Thanks, Mark. Marion was a wise one with surprising responses. She knew I had to become more conscious of how I rejected myself and stop stuffing my feelings (throwing them in the swamp?) or letting them color my sense of self-worth. She trusted I’d do the work to become more conscious. In retrospect, I was angry and not good at facing or working with anger–with the college boys, about my father’s death, about the lost job opportunity. So anger turned on myself became despair. It was past time to take my power back and feel my own strength–and I’m still working on it. Marion pointed out the right path.

  8. Oh my goodness, you have told a lot in just a few short sentences. I think that was a lucky time to have such a wise friend like Marion Woodman. Although, I’m a little confused about your “running away from men…? Was that a dream or real, or it could be another story itself! The dream in the car is familiar to me because I had such dreams in my youth so often.
    The painting of your dream with Vic is fascinating, and at the same time heartbreaking.
    And it is wise advice: we have to be careful with those Energies. Thank you, dear Elain, and have a leisurely Easter time.

    • Aladin, I was fortunate to spend time with Marion Woodman, to go to her workshops and share dreams with her. She was a strong guide for many years, even though I didn’t see her often because she taught in Canada. Each time I saw her was a revelation.

      Ah, the men. It’s my first awareness of letting depression put me in danger. I was drunk which is a dream-like state, an 18 year old college kid, dealing with depression by drinking. I was fortunate those boys took me home and didn’t take advantage of my helpless state, but I understood I had made myself vulnerable. I still didn’t ask for help for a few years, but I became wiser about self-protection and the danger of sinking into the mud of drunkenness. The first paragraph about the car sinking in the swamp was a dream.

      Take good care of yourself, Aladin, and I hope covid is backing off a little in Germany. I think we’ll be dealing with this a long time, but I’m grateful my sons and I have been vaccinated–even if we’ll need more vaccines later. It’s a start. We have a late snow here, so the spring flowers are covered. It feels like January, but maybe by Sunday, the weather will warm enough to bring a sense of rebirth.

      • Much appreciated, dear Elaine. I hope too that this horrible time goes by. Here is getting cold again, with snow. Just like winter! But it is April, and the man says it is changing permanently. In the hope of better times. With Love, Aladin.

        • Spring flowers are blooming here and the color always lifts my spirits. I often wonder what Marion Woodman would say about these times.

  9. Thank you for another beautiful, heartfelt post, Elaine. Your ability to be so honest and vulnerable in your writing is a very special gift. Writing that carries the weight of truth can be transformative. I’ve been mildly depressed off and on for much of my adult life, but except for one lengthy “dark night of the soul experience” that pretty much turned me inside out, I’ve been spared the worst of it. No black dogs. Just the occasional “blues” as my mother used to call it.

    I treasure a letter Marion hand-wrote to me about my second book. It felt like such a precious gift. Her benevolence and wisdom were boundless.

    Thank you also for your constant reminders of nature’s restorative powers. I’ve never seen a mourning cloak or peacock butterfly. I’m still hibernating (writing and reading) here in Florida so haven’t seen any butterflies yet. My granddog Izzy is coming for a sleepover today while her family goes to Epcot (everyone has been vaccinated) so she will take me out for walks and I’ll be on the lookout for some.

    I can’t wait for my summer in the Smoky Mountains where we’ll spend much more time outdoors and there will be plenty to photograph. I can’t wait to try Deborah’s practice of asking for permission to approach and lean into trees. I already have a few in mind. Especially one very stout and grizzled tulip poplar crone whose bark is the most glorious piece of art!

    Happy Easter wishes for you.

    • Thank you, Jeanie. I miss Marion’s Crone wisdom, but her leaving means we need to find our own wisdom.

      About depression and “going under,” I have a Pluto (Hades) – Venus conjunction in my natal astrology chart. Liz Greene says it’s the aspect of the Persephone initiation. I agree.

      I have to go outside because of the dogs–and I like their guidance in this realm. It’s good to see the world, even when it’s uncomfortable. I have every kind of winter clothing you could imagine. Masks work. I know you love the mountains. I already told another friend about Deborah’s idea to ask a tree before touching it which seems to give the tree an equal individuality. I like that. Like all of nature, they’re vulnerable to human whims. Tulip poplars are so gorgeous.

      Blessed Easter and Spring Renewal to you. My son and I will prepare the soil in my small vegetable garden and then go to his new place so I can see the transformations he’s making. Spring is slow this year. I’m ready for warm weather and my sun hat.

  10. Just popping back Elaine to say how wonderful it is to read all your replies and to share that the tree greeting I mention is one I heard on a recent video by my favourite astrologer Pam Gregory and not my own. I love this greeting though and have used it three times in the past week. Love and light, Deborah.

  11. Dear Elaine,

    I find myself deeply moved by both your painting and your wise words. I remember first discovering Marion Woodman in my early 30’s, when a dear friend loaned me Addiction to Perfection. I have learned so much from Marion since then, and she led to me to the world of Jungian dream work and therapy. I can only imagine what it was like to work with her in person.

    Although I have been incredibly fortunate to have never faced a debilitating depression, I have known its flip side, anxiety, quite well. Towards the end of my second pregnancy, I stopped being able to sleep at night (except for a few hours), and ended up not being able to keep my weight up. It was such a terrible time as I wanted so desperately to protect the baby growing inside me (I was lucky to be able to). This level of anxiety as I prepared to give birth to a female awakened in me the need to learn to love and take care of myself in a way that I had never known before. It has been, and will continue to be, lifelong work. Vic’s words to you are, indeed, words to remember: “If you love yourself half as much as I love you, you’ll be OK.” I, too, have been blessed with a long, wonderful marriage which, I believe, has made it possible for me to do this work.

    As for Mourning Cloak Butterflies, it is one of the few species of butterflies I have identified. For some reason, they seem to land on humans more than any other butterfly around here, so it was easy to identify them from their distinctive (and gorgeous) markings. Yes, spring is here! (with only a momentary flurry of snow this past week and not the couple of inches you had) May warmth and spring blessings be coming your way!

    • Anne, that’s the first Marion book I read, too. It was a privilege to work with her in person. Every workshop felt like an initiation. (I wish I’d taken more notes on the dreamwork I did with her.)

      I’ve never been so anxious I couldn’t eat–I go the opposite direction and try to smother anxiety with food, but I’m resisting that approach and didn’t gain weight during the pandemic. I’m grateful I love staying home, but now I have to learn to be in the world with less anxiety. That’s the gift of complete vaccination. I’m aware of variants, continued risks, and the problem with a few people I know who refuse vaccines, but both my sons are vaccinated and my hearing already keeps me out of restaurants or noisy group events.

      I’m glad you’ve had a loving marriage which is so important when we struggle with health. I often long for Vic to be here to help me through the hard days with Meniere’s Disease, because I know how patient and kind he would be. What a gift if was and still is.

      Spring stalled here with crocus blooms and glory of the snow. Not a bad place to stall on these coolish sunny days, and no snow for a week! The bluebirds are late this season, although I’ve seen a few. None have claimed a nesting box or started building a nest. I hope soon because I love watching them through my binoculars. Spring blessings and beauties to you.

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