Living With Depression: Trust

I’m going to do a series of posts on what it’s like to live with chronic depression, beyond the DSM symptoms that you always hear about. I want to help people understand.

I’m in a particularly good position to do this now because my depression is technically in remission, which means that I no longer fit the diagnostic criteria for it. I’m fine. I’m even sort of happy. However, the complex effects that nine years of depression has had on my thinking style, beliefs, and personality are still there, as are (probably) whichever genetic and neurological risk factors caused this whole mess to begin with.

However, not having a depressive episode means that my thinking is clearer and it’s easier for me to talk about this calmly.

A caveat–none of this is meant to generalize to everyone with depression. Don’t read this and apply it to your friends and loved ones who have it. Instead, perhaps, use it to start a conversation.

So, trust. In one way or another, it’s the backbone of all human interaction. You have to trust that your friends won’t share your secrets, that your partner won’t cheat on you, that your colleagues will pull their weight on the project, that your babysitter will take good care of your kids, that the clerk will give you the correct amount of change, and so on.

People who haven’t studied much psychology might think that trust is based on a conscious, logical appraisal of the person you’re interacting with. But in fact, trust is based on emotional responses to others, and a lot of the time we’re not even aware of those responses.

Although emotions get a bad rap for being “illogical” and for interfering with people’s lives, they–more so than conscious, “logical” cognition–are what help us make good decisions. Fear, of course, is the best example, since it helps people stay out of trouble. So does disgust.

But positive emotions are important in that way, too. For instance, we don’t really choose our partners based on how much money they make or how attractive they are or how many children they want to have; we choose them based on how they make us feel.

So, mood disorders like depression cause emotions to disconnect from experiences, so to speak. As Andrew Solomon wrote in The Noonday Demon, “Grief is depression in proportion to circumstance; depression is grief out of proportion to circumstance.”

When I was depressed–and, to a much lesser extent, now–feelings happened to me in a completely arbitrary way. The changing leaves made me feel grief. Being unable to talk to my family made me feel shame. Relatively minor inconsiderate actions, which would merely annoy a healthy person, threw me into a rage.

I learned not to trust my feelings. Often people made me uncomfortable and I’d chalk that up to depression, forcing myself to keep them in my life. This led to continued discomfort at best and abuse at worst. Then, infuriated at the situation, I would overcompensate and kick people out of my life who had merely messed up, as everyone sometimes does.

I learned not to trust others. Even the most well-intentioned person could–completely accidentally–send me into a depressive funk with a single teasing comment. Once a guy misjudged his feelings for me and led me on for a few weeks, and I was depressed for a year and a half after that. And I can’t even count the number of people who argued with me a bit too forcefully for me to avoid jumping to the conclusion that they must hate me from the depths of their souls, and so I cut off contact.

I can’t trust people anymore because I know that anyone–even the most kind, considerate, good person–can unintentionally make me cry for hours or hate myself for months.

And not everyone I meet is a good person.

I learned not to trust myself. If my brain lies to me all the time, how can I? Cognitive distortions make it nearly impossible to know when I’m thinking clearly and when I’m not. I used to keep a list of the most common ones in my binder to remind myself, but it didn’t really help.

Without emotions that are more-or-less based on reality, trusting myself and others is nearly impossible. I can’t tell whether a certain situation is bothering me because it’s a bad situation or because I’m freaking out over nothing. I can’t tell if I don’t want to get a PhD because I really don’t want to get one, or because I feel like too much of a failure to even try. I can’t tell if someone is really lying to me, or if I’m just assuming the worst because that’s what you kind of do when you have depression.

Difficulty trusting others is usually considered a character flaw or weakness. For me, though, it’s a symptom of a mental illness. It’s also an adaptation, because I’ve been too trusting in the past and I’d rather be safe than sorry–that is, than risk a relapse because I let the wrong person in.

The important thing to remember is that people who experience depression this way aren’t distrustful because we’re cynical or misanthropic. It’s because without healthy and adaptive emotional responses, it’s nearly impossible to know who to trust. It is also impossible to trust ourselves.

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[guest post] You Are Not Alone: A Shared Story of Depression

Seth returns again to talk about the response he received to his speech about depression and spirituality. (This is his third guest post. Hmm, maybe he should get a blog already!)

A few days back, I wrote a piece titled “The Dharma of Depression,” wherein I talked about the experience of depression and the way my spirituality has interacted with that. I must confess myself quite overwhelmed and flattered with the response that it’s gotten.

But I’m not here today to toot my own horn. There’s plenty of other times to talk about how awesome I am. No, the thing that’s stuck out to me about the response I’ve been getting is how many people have said that I spoke to a personal experience in their lives. By contrast, I’ve only had one person tell me that they’ve never experienced what I was talking about.

This is important.

It’s important because depression is an incredibly lonely disorder. One of the many thoughts that depressed people tend to get stuck in is the idea that they’re completely alone—maybe there are people who care, but there’s nobody out there who understands what they’re going through well enough to be able to help them. This has been my experience, and it’s also something I hear a lot from other people who talk about the experience of depression. What seemed to be happening in response to my piece, based on the comments I’ve been getting, is that having somebody describe an experience similar to the one they went through suddenly challenged this sense of isolation and opened up the possibility of somebody else being able to relate to how they felt.

What’s ironic is that even in the middle of this isolated feeling, there are many more people
than you’d expect going through a more or less similar experience. Certainly, for me, there were more people than I could’ve imagined even just among my immediate friends group who could relate to my pain. I expected two or three people in my audience to be familiar with the feelings I described; based on the number of people who have talked to me, I’d rate the actual number to be closer to fifteen or twenty, out of no more than fifty.

So. To those of you who are all too familiar with the feelings I described, I have something to say to you. And despite my usual tendency towards wordiness, I’m going to be as concise and blunt as I can, because it’s incredibly important for you to understand.

You are NOT alone.

You are NOT some kind of emotional freak.

Most importantly, you are NOT a hopeless case.

You have a problem, yes. But this problem is not unique to you. It’s not a problem that
everybody will understand, but neither is it a problem that nobody will understand. It is a problem that has been lived through. It is a problem that has been studied. It is a problem that, at this very moment, thousands of individuals are working to find a way to treat.

You can find support, and you can find help. I know there are bad breaks and well-meaning idiots out there, but if you just hold on and keep looking, you will eventually find somebody who understands what you’re going through. There are more of them out there than you think.

You can survive this.

Seth Wenger is a senior neuroscience major at Earlham College and a practicing Buddhist. He can usually be found on Facebook, snarking about life, current events, and politics.

Faith is not a Mental Illness

I’ve been seeing a disturbing tendency among atheists to compare religious belief to mental illness. Sometimes this comparison is made explicit, as in this article. Other times, however, the comparison is more implicit–for instance, when words like “crazy” and “delusional” are used to describe religious people or their beliefs (hi Dawkins).

These comparisons are inaccurate and offensive to both religious people and people with mental illnesses.

First of all, being religious is a choice. Being mentally ill is not. While it’s a bit arguable whether or not faith itself is a choice–I certainly can’t make myself believe in god, but perhaps others can–the existence and success of religious proselytism proves that choice is at least part of the equation. Only a completely ignorant person, on the other hand, would attempt to proselytize mental health (although it obviously does happen).

Regardless of whether or not you can choose to believe in god, you definitely get to choose whether and to what extent you observe a religion (unless you’re a child, but that’s different). People with schizophrenia don’t get to choose which hallucinations they have and how often. People with OCD don’t get to choose their compulsions. People with phobias don’t get to choose which phobias they have or how they manifest themselves.

Second, suggesting that religious people are mentally ill is sanctimonious and offensive. It insinuates that they are incapable of consciously and purposefully choosing to be religious, and that their religious beliefs are just as meaningless as a symptom of mental illness. It reminds me of when I used to bring up concerns with friends who would respond, “Oh, that’s not such a big deal, you just feel that way ’cause you’re depressed.”

As I mentioned, being religious is a choice. For most people, it’s a choice made with one’s own best interests in mind. Comparing that to a schizophrenic delusion is a wee bit condescending.

(Of course, delusions that are religious in nature do exist. Some people with schizophrenia believe that they are possessed by religious spirits of some kind, that they have spoken to god, or that they are the messiah. However, this is vastly different from the way most religious folks experience their faith, and is obviously a symptom of mental illness.)

Although I’m an atheist who kinda sorta wishes religion didn’t exist, the fact is that it does, and I refuse to believe that all of the billions of religious people in the world are just mentally ill. No, they’re onto something. It’s just not something that I’m interested in myself.

Finally, these comparisons trivialize the suffering that people with mental illnesses experience. The distinction between mental health and mental illness is not that mentally healthy people do not believe in supernatural things and mentally ill people do. The difference is that (most) mental illnesses interfere with the person’s functioning and make them feel, well, bad.

Religion, for all its flaws, often does the opposite–it provides people with community, teaches them to behave morally and charitably, and helps them cope with illness, death, and other challenges in life. (A caveat: I’m talking about religion at its best, not at its worst, and these same effects can be found elsewhere.)

So when you imply that the definition of mental illness is believing in things without evidence, you miss a lot about what it’s like to be mentally ill. Namely, you ignore the emotional pain, cognitive distortions, thwarted goals, ruined relationships, physical fatigue, and all the other things that are part of the experience of mental illness.

There are many interesting, intelligent, and non-offensive ways for atheists to argue against destructive religious ideas (for instance, here’s an example I read today). Calling religious people mentally ill is not one of those ways. Let’s put that kind of useless rhetoric back on the shelf where it belongs.

[guest post] The Dharma of Depression

My friend Seth, who has guest-posted here before (read it, it’s awesome), returns to talk about depression and Buddhism.

Note: The following is a transcript of a speech given at the weekly College Meeting for Worship at Earlham College.

Good afternoon, and thank you all for coming. It means a lot to me that people have come to hear me talk about this.

For my entire adult life, and most of my adolescence, I have struggled with depression.

Sorry to drop the heavy stuff on you right away, but this must be understood if anything is to come of the rest of my talk.

In many ways, I have been very lucky. I have never had to take medication; I know people who have. I know people who would not be with us today if they hadn’t had medication. I know people who are no longer with us. I have attended memorials for those people in this very meeting house.

Depression is a terrible, terrible disease.

Other diseases ravage your body; depression ravages your mind. It tears away at you will, your hope, at everything that makes you, you.

Let me be clear about this: depression is not sadness. 24/7 sadness would be incredibly obvious to everybody around you. But depression is much more insidious than that, and in my experience, it often takes your friends and loved ones by surprise when it crops up.

So what is depression, then?

Well, I obviously can’t speak for everybody, but here’s my experience:

Depression is being trapped in a slow, steady downward spiral of negative thoughts. Depression is thinking that the biggest mistake you made all day was getting out of bed. Depression is the feeling that you’re slowly falling to pieces, and the inability to pick yourself back up and put yourself back together. Depression is the irrational yet inescapable idea that your life means nothing to anybody, and that nothing would change if you just suddenly vanished from off the face of the earth.

The worst thing about depression, though, is that it devours the very resource that is necessary to fight it: your willpower. Sure, maybe you know that you should try talking about it to a friend you trust, or make an appointment to see a councilor, and that might help. But how in the world are you going to do that when you’re lucky just to have the ability to pry yourself out of bed in the morning?

All this is very important to understand. Partly for my story, because this is what I mean when I say that I was depressed. But also because you may well meet somebody suffering from depression in the future, or maybe you already know somebody who is. It will help both of you if you have at least some idea of what they’re going through.

But back to my question, because for far too many people, it isn’t rhetorical. How do you fight something that destroys your ability to fight?

Like the experience of depression, the key to overcoming it is different for each individual person. For me, the key was faith, which is why I’m here talking to you all today.

It may surprise some of those here that know me when I say that I consider myself a deeply religious person. Part of that is probably because I’m not extremely outspoken about my religious beliefs, and when I do talk about them I tend to frame them as a general philosophy about the world rather than a spiritual belief. Part of that is probably a cultural tendency to assume that “religious” means Christian, or at least Abrahamic, which I am neither. Nor is the religion I wound up devoting myself to the same one I was brought up with. Nevertheless, I consider myself religious because my personal philosophy and sense of morality are, if not directly taken from my religion’s teachings, very much in sync with them.

Allow me to explain.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About College

It’s been rather quiet around here lately.

I’ve just started my senior year, and with that came a lot of reflection–what I want this last year to mean, how I can improve on the years that came before it, and, perhaps most importantly, why it is that my time at Northwestern has been so fucking painful?

I may never know the answer to that question, honestly. I have a few answers, but I don’t have the answer. The answers seem so banal when I list them, and they cannot do justice to my experience here: the depression, the social atmosphere, the pre-professional orientation, the year wasted in journalism school, the quarrels with the administration, the lack of adequate mental health services, and so on and so forth. None of these things, on their own or in any combination, can explain it.

I still remember the pervasive sense of loss I felt when I realized that I was never going to get what I came here for. That beautiful, glossy image of college that I’d been sold would never be my experience. Some days I love this school, but I will never be able to look at it with that fondness with which most older adults talk about their alma maters.

But the truth is that it’s not just me. This time is not universally wonderful. It is not the best time of everyone’s lives. For some people, it is a sad or boring or lackluster time. For some it isn’t really a big deal either way. For others, as we were reminded so horribly last week, it is a tragic time.

What we talk about when we talk about college matters. While I don’t think we should be unduly negative, we should not be unduly positive, either. Painting college as an unequivocally wonderful time–implying, therefore, that if you aren’t having a wonderful time, you are to blame–doesn’t do anybody any good, except perhaps for those who stand to gain from increased tuition revenues.

When we make college out to be the best four years of our lives and push all the unpleasant stuff under the rug, we let down students who are suffering. We let down those for whom the stress and loneliness triggered a mental illness. We let down those who suffer from substance abuse problems, and those who have been robbed, harassed, stalked, and assaulted. We let down those who can’t keep their grades up, who see their friends post Facebook statuses about their 4.0’s at the end of every quarter and think they are the only ones. We let down those who can barely afford to be here. We let down those who miss their families every day. We let down those who have been bullied or taunted because of their appearance or identity–because, yes, that happens, even on a “liberal” campus like ours.

Does this stuff suck? Yeah. Is it unpleasant to talk and read about? Yup. I don’t care.

Here are some things I went through while I’ve been at Northwestern. I’ve been depressed. I’ve been suicidal. I’ve cut myself. I’ve taken antidepressants. I’ve been so tired I couldn’t sit up. I’ve broken down crying in the garden by Tech. I’ve been harassed and assaulted. I’ve been bullied. I’ve been robbed. I’ve lost close friends. I’ve failed tests. I’ve had panic attacks. I’ve tried to starve. I’ve hated myself and the world and wanted to quit.

And then I got lucky, and I found a second family and figured out what to do with my life and got good at the things I love to do. I found feminism and atheism and activism. I got lucky. But I will not shut up about what college was really like for me, because to do so would be to abandon those who haven’t found what they need here yet, or won’t find it ever.

A few weeks ago, a writer for xoJane wrote a piece called “When College Isn’t Awesome.” She discussed her own decidedly not-awesome experience and then published the stories of others. When I read it, I found myself wishing that it had been written years ago, when I was a freshman. The author wrote:

While reflecting on my less-than-picture-perfect college adventure, I asked other folks to share their own stories of college-era emotional and psychological struggles. My hope is that some suffering student will see this post and feel less alone. Maybe she or he will even be more inclined to reach out to the student counseling center, friends, or other resources for help. Or maybe she or he will just feel less like a freak for wanting to stay in bed and cry while seemingly everyone else excitedly skips off to the football game.

That is exactly why I keep talking about how difficult these past three years have been for me. It’s not just because it’s a relief for me to share my own story rather than trying to keep it to myself. It’s also because I want others to know they’re not alone.

What we talk about when we talk about college matters.