[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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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.

You’re a Racist

And a sexist, and probably a homophobe, too.

But it’s okay, so am I.

In fact, research shows that almost everyone shows signs of prejudiced attitudes. The Implicit Association Test, a psychological test designed to measure the strength of subconscious associations that people have, suggests that even people who openly profess not to be racist or sexist actually are, deep down.

When you take an IAT, you use a computer program to categorize words into two different categories, usually by pressing one of two keys as quickly as possible. For instance, the categories might be “Black” and “White,” and the words you have to categorize might be either pleasant or unpleasant in nature–such as “safe” and “unsafe.” In one round, you’ll be asked to categorize the pleasant words as “black” and the unpleasant words as “white,” and in the next round you’ll do it the other way around. (It’s actually a bit more complicated than that, but you get the idea.)

The software measures how long it takes you to press the right key to categorize each word, and research shows that people are quicker to categorize unpleasant words as “black” rather than “white.”

IATs are extremely valuable tools for psychological research. They’ve been used to study stereotypes and prejudice in all sorts of categories, including race, gender, weight, and others. The IAT seems to be difficult (if not impossible) to fake or “game” in any way. You can try it here.

There’s other evidence aside from the IAT that suggests that prejudice is shockingly common and deeply ingrained. You know that racist trope about not being able to tell people of another race apart? Well, apparently, that begins at the age of nine months. A recent study shows that while five-month-old babies could still distinguish faces just as well whether they belonged to their own race or to another, by nine months, they had become much better at distinguishing faces of their own race.

I don’t know if effects like these are caused by nature, nurture, or a mix of both (probably the latter). There’s evidence that prejudice is taught to us by society, but there’s also evidence that it’s an inborn trait that we evolved in order to distinguish friends from foes.

However, even if prejudice is completely biological (which I doubt), it doesn’t really matter. In addition to our tendency to sort people into groups, we’ve also evolved brains that can override our basic instincts. We are capable of going on hunger strikes for a cause, resisting the urge to have sex with someone we find attractive, overcome phobias of heights, snakes, and elevators, and ignore our natural revulsion for blood and disease and become doctors.

There’s no reason, then, that we should not also be capable of unlearning prejudice.

Research like this is why I think that we should take some of the stigma away from words like “racist” and “sexist.” Most people don’t want to be branded as bigots, even if they knowingly hold some attitudes that are bigoted. So the response that most people will make when accused of racism or sexism is “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT OF COURSE I’M NOT A RACIST/SEXIST SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE BLACK/WOMEN.” The response should really be, “Wow, I guess I haven’t really worked on getting rid of my prejudice.” After all, prejudice is something we all have at least a little bit of.

We should acknowledge that fact rather than pretending otherwise. Even people who write constantly about bigotry and how to end it–such as me–hold subconscious (or even conscious) bigoted attitudes. The difference between people who care about social justice and those who don’t is not that we’re not bigoted at all and they are; it’s that we consciously work on correcting our bigoted views and they do not.

For instance, when I’m walking down the street at night and I see a black man and I involuntarily get scared, I force myself to ask why. And whenever I ask myself that, the answer is always that I’m scared because I’ve been taught to be scared, not because there’s anything to be scared of. And I don’t cross the street to the other side.

So when you realize that your mental image of a scientist is always a man, or that you feel disgusted when you see a fat person on the bus, or that seeing a man holding another man’s hand or wearing a dress (or both!) makes you uncomfortable, don’t just let that feeling be. Don’t assume that your feelings are always true. Question them, and you might be surprised at what you find.

We are all bigots in some ways. But some of us are more bigoted than others.

Abortion and Suicide: A Spurious Link

In South Dakota, it is now legal to require doctors to tell women seeking abortions that they are putting themselves at risk for suicide.

This move is brilliant from a PR standpoint. Unlike banning certain types of abortions entirely or, say, forcing women to undergo invasive screenings that are medically unnecessary, this seems completely apolitical when you first look at it. Don’t people deserve to be informed if they may be increasing their risk for suicide? Don’t we all agree that suicide is a Bad Thing?

However, something tells me that this is actually another attempt to scare women out of (what should be) a normal, socially acceptable medical procedure.

First of all, the inconvenient truth here is that credible research consistently shows little or no link between abortion and poor mental health. One 2008 study reviewed the literature and found that the only studies that seemed to show such a link had very flawed methodology, whereas the studies that were well-designed showed no links. (Damn liberal academics!) And here’s another study that showed no such links. And here’s a thorough debunking of a study that did claim such links:

Most egregiously, the study, by Priscilla Coleman and colleagues, did not distinguish between mental health outcomes that occurred before abortions and those that occurred afterward, but still claimed to show a causal link between abortion and mental disorders.

In other words, that study actually tried to use mental health pre-abortion to confirm a hypothesis about mental health post-abortion. This is simply not how you do science. And it’s especially bad here, because according to the American Psychological Association, guess what the best predictor of mental health post-abortion is?

Across studies, prior mental health emerged as the strongest predictor of postabortion mental health. Many of these same factors also predict negative psychological reactions to other types of stressful life events, including childbirth, and, hence, are not uniquely predictive of psychological responses following abortion.

That’s right. Shockingly enough, the best predictor of mental health is, well, past mental health. And poor mental health predicts poor response to all sorts of stressful events, of which abortion is only one example. Another one being, for instance, childbirth!

Compounding the bad science here is that, unlike physical side effects,suicide isn’t something that just happens to you suddenly and without warning. People don’t just suddenly wake up one morning and decide to kill themselves. Suicidality is a complex process that involves factors like genetics, family history, environment, social support, mental illness, and life circumstances. For instance, here are some things that, according to research, actually increase one’s statistical risk for suicide:

As you can probably surmise, not all of these correlations are also causations. While mental illness and drug addiction can actually cause suicidal behavior, being intelligent and being LGBT probably cannot. In the latter case, the causative culprit seems to be (surprise surprise) institutionalized discrimination and homophobia. Before I get too off-topic, let me point out the irony in the fact that, despite this well-known risk faced by LGBT youth, I don’t see any of these pro-lifers advocating for an end to homophobia.

That’s why something tells me that nothing about this court ruling actually has anything to do with suicide prevention.

Although the court’s ruling does at least acknowledge that abortion probably doesn’t cause suicide, it nevertheless states that “conclusive proof of causation is not required in order for the identification of a medical risk.” This is probably true, but it only makes sense from a physical health standpoint. If studies show that people who get a certain elective medical procedure are much more likely to, say, experience headaches or nausea or numbness, you don’t necessarily need a causative study to conclude that there’s a reasonable chance that these symptoms were caused by the procedure (assuming, of course, that there was no illness present that might be causing them). Furthermore, there’s a difference between saying “This procedure may cause you to experience cramps and headaches” and saying “This procedure may cause you to kill yourself.”

The truth is, mental health doesn’t work that way. A person who gets an abortion might experience mental side effects because of the stress of having gotten pregnant accidentally and been forced to decide what to do, perhaps without the support of a partner or family. Furthermore, any invasive medical procedure can be stressful and worrying for many people–especially one like abortion, which is consistently portrayed as more painful and dangerous than it really is.

And this is all made even more complicated by the fact that the faulty studies in question were actually studying mental health before the abortion. Perhaps a person with poor mental health is more likely to seek an abortion in the first place–say, if they feel that they aren’t mentally capable of raising a child at the moment.

Ultimately, decisions about what to tell a patient should be left up to the people who know most: doctors (with, of course, a reasonable amount of regulation to prevent malpractice). If a doctor can tell that a person seeking an abortion is going through a lot of mental distress, then that doctor may want to gently recommend counseling and perhaps give out some hotline numbers–and training doctors to recognize signs of mental health troubles is always a good thing.

But doctors should not be mandated to fearmonger to their patients. They should especially not be mandated to serve a pro-life agenda.

For the Last Time, You Can’t “Turn” People Gay

Credit: Office Depot

Of all the pernicious myths about homosexuality that just won’t die in our society, the idea that it’s a “choice”–and, consequently, that it’s possible to “turn” people gay–is one of the most frustrating.

That myth got trotted out again in response to the announcement that Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation is partnering with Office Depot to create a line of back-to-school products that feature empowering messages. Part of the proceeds from the sales will go to the foundation, and Office Depot has also donated $1 million to it.

The products will be stuff like post-it notes, sharpies, and bracelets that say things like “Be Brave,” “Be Yourself,” “Be Involved,” “Be Accepting,” and so on. But for the Florida Family Association, which obviously had to take a stand against this because it has the word “family” in its name, they might as well say “Be Gay,” “Be Lesbian,” and “Be a Flaming Homosexual”:

Thousands of kids who might have otherwise worked through their pubescent sexual identity issues will be inspired to accept the wrong choice based upon this unscientific, emotionally charged propaganda.

What’s brave or kind about telling thousands of sexually frustrated teens that they were Born This Way when a high percentage of them would have ended up taking the straight heterosexual path for life?

Please urge Office Depot to rescind their one million dollar pledge to Lady Gaga’s Born this Way Foundation.

Let that sink in for a moment.

First of all, I would just love to know how telling kids to “be brave” and “be yourself” is somehow telling them to be gay. Are gay people more kind, brave, accepting, involved, and amazing? If so, sign me up!

Second, when are these people going to stop clinging to the idea that homosexuality is a choice? It’s ironic that they fling around words like “unscientific” when it is precisely their stance that is unscientific. Although some people have claimed that they choose homosexuality (for instance, the so-called political lesbians of the second-wave feminist movement and, more recently, Cynthia Nixon), most LGB folks seem to disagree.

In addition, the American Psychological Association–which may know a thing or two about psychology, I’m guessing–has written that “no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.”

A corollary to the idea that homosexuality is a choice is that homosexuality can therefore be “cured.” Gay conversion therapy is touted by many anti-gay conservatives, but it has been thoroughly discredited by science. Not only does it not work, but it can also be deeply harmful. The father of modern psychiatry himself has apologized for once backing it.

So, homosexuality is not a choice. It cannot be cured. Therefore, it follows that you cannot convince someone to become gay. Even if the Office Depot products did literally command kids to be gay like I joked, and even if they wanted to be, they still couldn’t just make themselves gay.

Third, I’m not sure why groups like FFA persist in believing that there’s any reason for anyone to choose to be gay. Have they looked around lately? Same-sex couples can’t get married in most states. LGBT people are still discriminated against in countless ways as they go about their daily lives. Crap like this is still believed by many people (it hurts to link to that page). Oh, and hey, read about this horrific assault on a gay woman in Nebraska, whose attackers carved slurs into her skin.

Fourth, the fact that these conservatives oppose not only same-sex rights but also anti-bullying measures, empowering campaigns like this one, and teaching kids that gay people aren’t Evil is very telling. Extremely telling. Specifically, what this tells me is that they believe that if bullying and hate crimes are a deterrent to homosexuality, then the ends justify the means.

This viewpoint should terrify you.

That is why, when an anti-bullying bill came up in Michigan, Republicans insisted that “religiously motivated” bullying be excluded. That is why Mitt Romney has consistently opposed anti-bullying legislation. They not only think that homosexuality is a choice, but that it is such a terrible choice that whatever verbal and physical abuse you suffer as a result is justified.

On a lighter note, if homosexuality is really something that “sexually frustrated teens” choose despite the prevailing stigma and discrimination that they will face (and despite, you know, the fact that they can’t choose it), perhaps there is something very awesome about homosexuality that the Republicans just won’t admit.

That, or they’re really just grasping at straws now.

For what it’s worth, I’ll be going to Office Depot as soon as I can and buying up as many of these things as would be reasonable.

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