So you (also) are engaging with depression?’

Sara Jolena Wolcott, M.Div.
9 min readFeb 14, 2024

I recently received a letter from an older woman in my community who is struggling with depression. It prompted me to write a long response. The person to whom I wrote this letter subsequently said that I should publish it, as she felt it was clear, and might help other people as well.

Dear friend -

Your letter has made me think about how many people I know who actively or occasionally struggle with depression and anxiety and existential questions about what they are doing with their life. I do, too.

I do hope you find better medications. Meds can be really helpful. Sometimes, they are the only thing that helps. Sometimes, it is hard to know if they are helping at all. The process of finding the right medication can, in and of itself, be really hard, throwing the mind into all sorts of strange places.

There are many forms of depression. These days, it is increasingly understood that some forms of clinical depressions are deeply neurological. It is not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong. You are not a failure because of it. And it is often not possible to just “snap out of it.”

And then there are other forms of depression which we seem to have a bit more agency over. And so many forms in between. I can’t tell, from here, what is your experience. I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist. But your letter is prompting me to write a longer response back.

From my own experience, I know that the “demon” of depression is not easily kept at bay. Regular, “basic” things can help — regular walks, plenty of sleep, regular visits with friends, regular food, not too many spikes (of sugar, etc.) because that can lead to really bad ‘downs’ which can be really harmful. I think you know all these things but it probably doesn’t hurt to say them again.

When I read your letter I see a lot of positive things are happening in your life, and you are searching for a, “so what” and a, “what now”? So what if the garage is finally clean and the house is in better shape than it has ever been? All of which took a huge amount of work and energy and money. So what if you go out with your friends? So what if you have lots of people who love you? And where will all that take you? You are getting older, true. What is there to look forward to — but more deaths and loss and pain and suffering, and less capacity — mental, language, physical?

And you are not even getting into the state of the world! I can fill in some of that for you. We are living in a country that is culpable of genocide of people on the other side of the world, both islamophobia and anti-semitism are on the rise. Gun violence is up. I was a teenager when the Columbine shootings happened. The streets were flooded with people who said “never again”. School shootings have happened many, many times in the last two decades. I know someone who went to the school in Albany where there was recently a shooting near a synagogue. The people in Buffalo who lived near the grocery store where there was a shooting well over a year ago are not yet “recovered” from that horror.

We are moving into an election year of two (older white men) whom most of the nation does not want. Most people are dreading this election cycle more than most election cycles. How has the election process become so discouraging, filled with hatred, and with “candidates” (if that’s even the right word) that most people really don’t like?

Our climate is in a terrible state. The winters are too warm and the summers are hot and the glaciers are melting — so much faster than predicted. In an everyday kind of way, people are easily sick, the plants are confused about when to grow and air conditioning is increasingly deemed necessary, for all that it just makes the overall problem worse. The issue here is not only that all the signs are getting worse. The issue is that there have been years — decades — lifetimes — of people who have worked on these issues as activists and lawyers and investors, and it is easy to wonder if all of that action is doing any good when one of our two main political parties is galvanizing around a man who says his first act in office will be to “drill drill drill”? Where did the message that to care for one another is to care for the earth go missing? Who didn’t get the memo — I saw it on every billboard, in every classroom, in every town hall meeting, for years.

And then there is physical and mental illness. I’ve just started reading Gabor Mate’s book “The Myth of Normal.” It’s very interesting. Chronic illness and mental health are now “normal”. That means the issue is not with the individuals. It is with the culture/society. (I’m not sure if that’s super helpful for you right now.) He talks a lot about trauma. You might appreciate it.

And I hear your loneliness.

Loneliness is a hard one. I was reflecting the other day, when someone I know was talking about loneliness, about how easily I could have the narrative “I am alone.” I could create a long list of ways in which I am alone. That could easily lead to loneliness and deep discouragement. I choose not to make that list. Most of the time, that’s not the story I tell myself.

Why not? I realized that many, many years ago, I made a conscious commitment not to feed that story. At the time, my framing was that I was in a conversation with God and we made an agreement that I would not walk this path alone. And so I started searching for all the ways that I am not alone. I started looking for how God was helping me.

I think I’m trying to point to something here — not just that being human can be really depressing, but that there is a certain extent to which moving out of depression/anxiety takes something. At least for me it is something of a practice.

It includes choosing, “which wolf do you feed.”

There is a gaping, drowning hole of loneliness and depression that a lot of people know all too well. It can pull you under, suck you so far down that no matter what your friends or loved ones tell you, you can’t hear them. All you can see is the empty bottomless pit of despair. It’s the sandworm in Dune and the slimy black dark hole in Star Wars. That moment when you look over the edge and there it is, reaching up, waiting to take you. To consume you.

Or you can find another way.

That sounds easy. I think for some people it is easy — they see the scary demon and they stay out of its path. Some people don’t even seem to know it is there — they live on another planet, I suppose.

But for all of us who live on a planet with these kinds of scary monsters who will happily gobble us up, we have to actively find ways towards something else. It rarely happens without a fair amount of effort. Continuously.

People recommend gratitude lists. Sometimes I scoff at that — if you are in a deep depression, gratitude lists are kinda dumb. But over time, with intention and practice and other things, they can make a drop.

Gratitude can be a life-saver.

Ideally, we want to find a way to close up the hole in the love bucket, so that when love comes in, it doesn’t just flow out again. That might include changing core beliefs/stories about who we are, and about life itself. It might include physical changes. For many, it is a spiritual process- which is to say it entails an encounter with a Mystery that doesn’t always “make sense”… but at the same time is what can carry us through. In such cases, it is experienced as not something we “do”, but rather that there is a force that can do it for us, if we are open to that Bigger Love.

And for some people, they never find a way to close it. We both know people for whom their love bucket was never fully patched up. Their death was hard. Hard for them. Hard for those who loved them.

I think it is worth the effort to keep patching it, to keep seeing if there are more ways to close that hole, even if it seems the patches wear off.

I can get depressed too. Mostly I’m grateful but that doesn’t mean the thought is never there. Despite years of my own form of practice, there are still times when I wonder if I have “failed” at this precious life that I have been given. I don’t meet so many of our culture’s milestones, for all that my life is, in so many ways, so extraordinary. Does it matter if I don’t have The Things (house, car, marriage, children, vacation rental, retirement plans?) What makes which part important? Does it matter? What matters? Why does it matter?

(There are many, many things that matter. They don’t tend to be in the category of “The Things.” Although what’s within those things — a sense of place and belonging and multi-generational community and a sense of a future are integral for what matters.)

I talked to an old friend the other day. She looks like she has her life together. A wonderful marriage; her parents who help take care of her super-smart kid; she lives in a beautiful home in the midst of an incredible community of friends and neighbors. We talked on the phone and she just cried and cried. Key members of her family are going through terrible divorces. Awful things are being said, things that should not be said, not to and fro such kind and tender and wounded souls. Old patterns that she thought were resolved long ago are clearly… not. The children, the next generation, are upset and confused. She feels like a failure, and exhausted, and drained, and so, so, overwhelmed.

How am I supposed to do all this? She asked.

I don’t think anyone ever said we are, I tried to say. You are not alone, I said. Yet the distance between us is several mountain passes and a few rivers and many orchards…her soft sobs on the other end of the phone sound so close, but still I cannot hold her. Maybe even if I could hold her, even then, I might still be too far away.

Despite all of our mishaps and failures and depressions, here we are. And where are we, anyways?

Several friends stayed over last night. They told me this morning how exquisite the sunrise was. Yes, I said, we get the most beautiful sunrises.

As I write this, the wind is fierce as it blows around the house. The birds at the bird feeder come and go and live and die and create new birds and are adorable and funny to watch. The squirrels and the birds chase the seeds. And we get to witness it. To participate. Hopefully to aid it a bit, just a bit, once in a while.

To -do lists are never done. That is not their nature.Yesterday I washed the dishes. Today I will wash the dishes. and pack. and clean. and organize things. I will not, today, fix the broken screen door, or the fireplace, or the bathtub.

It is cold and windy today. The wind howls outside of the window. The trees are bare. The grass is brown and just a tiny bit green. This is not a time for outward growth. It is February. Under the soil, the seeds are turning. Spring is coming. it will not be a normal spring because normal no longer exists. But it will still be a spring.

I look forward to seeing you soon.

Sara Jolena Wolcott hosts the ReMembering and ReEnchanting Podcast, and offers courses, retreats, and spiritual direction for people at the intersections of decolonization, climate change, spirituality, and crafting new formations for a climate changed world.

www.sequoiasamanvaya.com or www.sarajolena.com

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Sara Jolena Wolcott, M.Div.

ReMembering and ReEnchanting our world. Retelling Origin Stories and other myths and truths. Entrepreneur, legacy advisor, and unconventional minister. Healing.