[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.

On Taking People’s Word For It (Or, When Not to Argue)

“You’re not really depressed, you just get sad sometimes.”

“You’re not really a lesbian, you’ve just had some bad experiences with men.”

“You’re not really an atheist, you’re just questioning your faith. You’ll find God again.”

Why do people say these things?

Everyone I ask seems to have a story about a friend or family member who just cannot accept what they disclose about themselves and insist that it’s not true–without any evidence.

From a skeptical perspective, that bothers me. Most of the time, when someone makes a statement, it’s possible to (intelligently) dispute it. If someone states a fact–i.e. “It’s 70 degrees outside”–you can dispute it if you have evidence against it–i.e. your thermometer reads 80 degrees. If someone states an opinion that can be supported by facts–i.e. “Mitt Romney would be a good president because he has business experience”–you can counter it with an opposing statement that is also supported by facts–i.e. “Mitt Romney would be a bad president because his ideas about fixing the economy would actually worsen the situation for the middle and lower classes and also because he is a huge lying douchecanoe.” (But I digress.)

However, if someone makes a fact-based claim that they have firsthand knowledge of and you do not–i.e. “I don’t believe in God” or “I am a lesbian”–you cannot argue. Sorry, but you can’t. You have no evidence.

You can, if you want to be an asshole, tell them that they’re going to hell or that you find that appalling or that you hope they change. But you cannot claim it isn’t true.

(Likewise, feelings are not up for debate. If someone says they’re sad, then they’re sad. If they say they feel embarrassed, then they feel embarrassed. “But you don’t really feel that way–” Yep, they do.)

But what if you have a Real Legitimate Concern that it’s “just a phase,” or that they’re misinterpreting things somehow?

First of all, examine where that concern is stemming from. Is it because, in your heart of hearts, you really really don’t want this person to be who they say they are? If so, you should probably keep your Real Legitimate Concerns to yourself, because you may* be a bigot.

If it’s because this person has a history of going through “phases,” it’s more reasonable of you to gently express your concern, but be kind about it. Most people stop going through phases eventually, and this could be it.

However, even if it is a “just a phase,” that doesn’t make it any less legitimate. As people grow and mature–this is a process that lasts a lifetime, by the way, rather than stopping at some arbitrary age–they change. Religious people may become atheists; atheists may become religious. Political identities change. Mental health changes. Even sexual orientation and gender identity can change. That doesn’t mean that a person’s past identities were fake or “lies,” and even if you believe that what they’re telling you now will not always be true, the kind thing to do is to affirm who the person is right now.

And if you’re “disagreeing” with what someone says about themselves because you’re concerned about possible repercussions for the person if they identify that way (such as being bullied for being gay or ostracized by family for being an atheist), remember that the onus is never on victims of prejudice to hide who they are. It’s on the rest of us to learn how to treat them like human beings. If you’re spending your energy on trying to get people to hide who they are when you could be spending it on encouraging people not to be bigots, you’re doin’ it wrong.

Depression presents a special case. When someone discloses to you that they are depressed, it may be extremely tempting to try to persuade them that they’re not “really” depressed because you think that this will help somehow. However, you can’t will an illness out of existence anyway, so you might as well accept what they’re telling you and try to be supportive. For many people (like me), identifying themselves as “depressed” is a relief, because the alternative is to believe that it’s just your personality and that you’re destined for a life of misery. That’s a topic for a whole other post, though.

In general, asking questions is better than making statements when someone’s telling you something personal–it shows that you don’t presume to know more about their experience than they do. However, there are definitely right and wrong ways to go about it. “So how did you realize you were a [insert identity here]?” is worlds better than “But how do you really know you’re [insert identity here]? I mean I had a friend who said they were [insert identity here] but they changed their mind later/were only doing it for attention/were just going through a phase! Are you sure?”

Remember, though, that it’s not the person’s job to provide you with Sufficient Evidence that what they’re saying about themselves is true. Sure, people lie about themselves sometimes. But presuming that someone is lying when they’re actually not is a pretty easy way to ruin a relationship.

If you have someone in your life who insists on disagreeing when you disclose something about yourself, here are some of my favorite ways to respond (warning: snark may not be suitable for everyone):

  • “Interesting. How did you learn to read minds?”
  • “You’re probably right, you know me much better than I know myself. Tell me, am I hungry right now? Should I go eat?”
  • “How do you know that?”
  • “Actually, yes, I really am [insert identity here].”
  • “Citations or GTFO.”

*You may! I said you may! That doesn’t mean you are. It’s a distinct possibility, however.

1 + 1 = 2: Why I’m Not Looking for My “Other Half”

I was listening to music today when I noticed something odd about the lyrics to many of the songs:

Give me a reason to fall in love

Take my hand and let’s dance

Give me a reason to make me smile

Cause I think I forgot how (Meiko)

 

Who doesn’t long for someone to hold

Who knows how to love you without being told

Somebody tell me why I’m on my own

If there’s a soulmate for everyone (Natasha Bedingfield)

 

You got a piece of me, and honestly

My life would suck without you (Kelly Clarkson)

 

Before you met me, I was a wreck

But things were kinda heavy

You brought me to life

Now every February, you’ll be my valentine (Katy Perry)

 

Look into your heart pretty baby

Is it aching with some nameless need?

Is there something wrong and you can’t put your finger on it

Right then, roll to me (Del Amitri)

If you pay attention to these songs, it seems that romantic love is something that “saves” you from loneliness and misery. It’s not just in our music that you see this sort of thing, either. Plenty of movies and novels are based on the premise that one or both of the people in the love story are lost and broken until they find each other, and there’s a reason, I suppose, that we talk about “finding our other half.” My parents, too, always told me that once I fell in love I would not be depressed anymore, and used my ongoing depression as “proof” that I didn’t really love my boyfriend.

In a way, this seems like an extension of the rescue trope in our love stories. Typically, it’s a woman being rescued by a man, but you see the story play out the other way around, too, with the woman “rescuing” the man from workaholism, domestic ineptitude, skirt-chasing, substance addiction, emotional numbness, and even, apparently, a propensity for BDSM. All ills, it seems, can be cured by falling in love with the right person.

I used to buy into this myth completely. The fact that I had depression and few genuine friends probably fueled my acceptance of it, as did the fact that in our culture it’s freakin’ everywhere. I told myself, “I can never be happy if I’m single,” and believed that once I was in a stable relationship, I would immediately feel understood and loved–and thus would finally begin to understand and love myself.

Well. I don’t buy this anymore. (I also don’t buy the other extreme, which is that “you must love yourself in order to be loved” or whatever. People with self-esteem issues are capable of having relationships, thank you.) At one point I took stock of my life and realized that I’m single and…happy. I would still like to have a significant other sometime soon, but not because they will make me “complete.” I already am.

I now believe that the fundamental “unit” of humanity is not a couple or a family, but a single person. Nobody can ever be as close to you as you are to yourself, but you can choose to make connections of varying degrees of closeness with others. After all, if we’re all “meant” to be half of a couple, why are many people genuinely happy being single? Why do some people choose to form triads or group marriages? Why do some people find happiness as single parents? Why are some people’s greatest loves their friends, not their spouses?

Now that I’ve realized that I don’t “need” a partner, it’s sometimes difficult to articulate why I nevertheless want one. I don’t need to be “saved” from anything, and I don’t think that a relationship would (or should) change my life in a huge way. Now that I have lots of good friends, I don’t need much emotional support from a partner (or from any one person), and now that I don’t have depression, I don’t need much emotional support anyway.

If you were to imagine relationships as a mathematic equation, the traditional one would be 1/2 + 1/2 = 1 (or, perhaps more paradoxically, 1 + 1 = 1). I like to think of them as 1 + 1 = 2. Two people in a relationship are still two people. They still have (or should have) their own personalities, friends, hobbies, careers, and lives. (In my view, they should have their own last names and bank accounts, too, but I suppose that’s not for everyone.)

They also still have their own problems, because you can’t cure loneliness or depression or insecurity or boredom by adding into the mix another person and all of their own issues. I think a relationship between people who consider themselves whole is by default healthier than one between people who consider themselves fractions.

[storytime] At The Edge Of The Known World: What It’s Like To Consider Suicide

Somebody, somewhere in the world, kills themselves every 40 seconds.

Set a timer on your phone or watch for 40 seconds. When it beeps, another precious, beloved life is gone.

Yesterday, September 10, was World Suicide Prevention Day. Although suicide prevention entails important things like improving mental health screening and treatment, increasing access to mental health services, and decreasing the stigma of admitting and treating mental health problems, I think there’s another part that we usually miss when we talk about prevention. And that part is understanding what being suicidal is really like.

Those who kill themselves (or wish to do so) are not selfish.

They are not weak.

They are not simply having a bad day.

All of these tropes about suicide, and many others, are wrong.

I can only speak for myself, not for any of the other millions of people who have struggled with this most ultimate of dilemmas. But for me, at least, here is what it was really like.

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