Polyamory: To Try Or Not To Try?

Reader poglodyte left a comment with some questions on a post about polyamory I wrote a few weeks back. I decided to answer it in a separate post, because I’ve been meaning to write about some of these things for a while and I figured others would find it useful too. So, while this is sort of addressed at that particular person/question, these are all things I would like to say to people in general.

Here’s the whole comment:

Hey Miri, I dig your blog and have always enjoyed the discussions of polyamory, but now the issue has taken on a more personal turn for me.

I’ve been married for five years, and my wife has recently shared her interest in polyamory with me. We both grew up in Christian patriarchy, so neither of us has much sexual experience outside of the other, even though we were atheists by the time we got married.

Logically, I don’t have a problem with going poly–we’re atheists with no real reason to commit to monogamy, and we’ve talked about the possibility of other partners in the past–but emotionally it’s another story. I’m worried that she’s going to find a better partner, and I’ll gradually be replaced as the boring, stick-in-the-mud husband. Part of the issue is that she’s way more social and outgoing than I am, and I have far less opportunity to meet people (I work full time from home and am also working on my thesis), so I think I’ll be left behind once she sees how much fun she can have with other, less hermitty people.

I understand that a lot of these feelings come from a place of insecurity (and, if I’m being honest, probably a little Christian purity culture baggage thrown in for good measure), but that doesn’t make them go away.

At the same time, the last thing I want to do is stand in the way of my partner’s happiness and try to dictate what she can and can’t do with her body. I just don’t know if being poly will make me happy; I can’t wrap my head around sitting at home while she has a great time with her other partners, let alone feeling compersion. Yet she seems to be excited about the prospect of me dating other people, which makes absolutely no sense to me; it tells me that she doesn’t particularly care what I do, that my actions aren’t important. Am I just being selfish and clingy to feel this way? Is there an easy way to just “get over” it?

There are a few separate issues/questions wrapped up in this post, such as:

  • Does being poly make it more likely that your partner will leave you for someone else?
  • Should you try polyamory (mostly) for the sake of a partner who wants to?
  • Do you have to experience compersion in order to be able to be poly?
  • Is there a way to get over insecurity?

I don’t like to give advice to people because I don’t consider myself qualified to give advice on anything except fun things to do in New York. However, as someone who used to be in this boat in a few ways, I think I can offer a perspective that might be useful.

[Read more…]

Camping Trip Mornings

My favorite moment of any camping trip is the first morning.

I wake up in my tent having finally made it through a spooky and often uncomfortable night–air mattresses and sleeping bags are not my thing–and feel relieved. I can hear dry leaves and twigs crunching beneath footsteps, the thud of hiking boots on dirt and gravel. Water pours from a spigot nearby as someone fills a kettle or washes their hands. There are sleepy conversations, debates about breakfast and pleas for the kids to brush their teeth. Having never been camping with anyone besides my family and their boisterous, colorful friends, I’ve only ever heard these discussions in Russian. Camping, like baking, knitting, and skiing, happens in my native language.

Outside the smoke curls lazily from campfires that finally collapsed shortly before dawn. Pale morning sunlight filters through the canopies of the trees, catches the drifting smoke, stumbles over the tops of the tents, and finally lands in my little sister’s hair, glowing golden, as she pulls me over for breakfast.

The picnic tables almost sag with the weight of the food and drink. Last night’s empty bottles line the tables, but so do this morning’s omelets, sausages, bread, cheese, hardboiled eggs, bagels, fruit, and tea. People shove food into my hands. Water from last night’s apparent rain runs off the blue tarp that hangs over the tables, and I find a dry spot to sit with my paper plate.

And as I look out from my perch at this small piece of the world, the things that seemed so treacherous in the dark just last night–the things you trip over, the things you step into, the things that cast creepy shadows in the firelight–now look boringly normal. The perilous trek to the campground toilets now reveals itself as a short and simple path. The black water of unfathomable depth that I saw at the edge of the flashlight’s beam is just a pond. Dragonflies flit over it, and a frog croaks at its edge.

In the morning, everything suddenly feels safe and familiar again.

When I feel scared, uncomfortable, and alone, I sometimes think about those camping trip mornings, and about how the exact same things can seem so much safer in the sunlight. This visualization that is also a memory calms me down. I think about the transformation that happens at sunrise that first day, of threatening to friendly, strange to familiar.

That transformation is mirrored in my own life to a frustrating degree. People I once held my tongue around and felt anxious with become my closest friends. Streets I explored cautiously, my eyes darting around as though searching for threats, become streets I walk down proudly, yet casually. Things that seemed burdensome and inconvenient to do become routines: ignorable at worst, comfortable at best.

It may not sound like something you’d describe as “frustrating,” but I do, because I can’t seem give myself permission to not be okay with everything immediately. Why couldn’t I have immediately recognized that person as the lovely friend that they are? Why didn’t I see these streets as my home? Why couldn’t I always do these things easily and automatically?

It’s just not how my brain works. I’d venture to guess it’s not how most people’s brains work.

I wish I were someone who craved novelty, who relished the unfamiliar, who reveled in uncertainty. Someone who could cherish their memories without feeling desperate to relive them. But I am not that person. I want it to feel like the camping trip morning all the time. I want to wake up and realize that I know exactly where I am, mentally and physically. I want to stumble outside, rubbing the dreams from my eyes, and see the people I love there waiting for me.

And most of all, I want to feel that these are acceptable things to want.

Depression and Self-Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a term you probably know, but if you don’t, it refers to the act of telling and convincing someone that their feelings or perceptions are not really true. In the context of interpersonal relationships, gaslighting is considered to be an abusive behavior, as it can render people incapable of trusting themselves and their own judgment, instead placing an undeserved trust in the gaslighter.

Cognitive distortion is also a term you probably know. It refers to a set of maladaptive mental habits that people with mental illnesses tend to have. (The Wikipedia list is useful, and I discussed some specific examples in this post.)

A cognitive-behavioral approach to mood disorders involves teaching the client the difference between thoughts and feelings. A lot of people will say things like, “I feel like a failure.” The therapist’s role is to remind them that “I feel like a failure” isn’t actually a feeling, but a thought. “I feel like a failure” is really “I think that I’m a failure.” The therapist may ask, “How do you feel when you have the thought that you are a failure?” The client may say, “I feel hopeless,” or “I feel miserable.” Hopefully, the therapist can help the client see that a lot of their thoughts are actually cognitive distortions, and that there are more helpful and realistic ways to think about the same things.

That’s the standard CBT frame that’s used in all the training videos I watch in school. But the reality, at least for me, is a little less tidy. Sometimes feelings come seemingly out of nowhere, and while I know there is a reason for them (and I usually know what the reason is), there was no proximal cause for the feeling. There was no maladaptive thought.

Sometimes I see a partner with someone else and I just feel awful. I don’t think, “I bet they’re going to leave me now,” or “That person is way cooler than me,” and then feel awful. I just feel awful. Is it because I trained myself to feel awful on cue, as a conditioned response? Maybe. Others would argue that feeling awful is a “natural” response to seeing a partner with someone else, though I disagree. Regardless, the feeling comes immediately and without any stimulus other than seeing the thing.

Sometimes I have to leave my family after a visit and I become extremely depressed. (I will have to do this in a few days. I’ve already had a few breakdowns about it.) I don’t think, “I WILL NEVER SEE MY FAMILY AGAIN” or, slightly more realistically, “It is Terrible and Bad that I have to leave my family.” I just think about the mere concept of leaving and instantly collapse in tears. (To wit: there is nothing less undignified than collapsing in tears while sitting on the toilet, but that just happened to be when I remembered about my flight home. It happens.)

Last year I wrote about some things I had learned from depression, including two slightly/seemingly contradictory maxims: “Not everything your brain tells you is accurate,” and “Your feelings are valid.” You can read that post to see what I meant by these things, but the jist of it is that depression can teach you to be more skeptical about some of the stuff going on in your brain, but also that you get to feel how you feel without passing judgment–or having others pass judgment–on it. Some would say that feelings can’t be “wrong.” They can be crappy, or not useful, or distracting, or whatever, but they cannot be empirically inaccurate or morally wrong.

However, this is where reality gets murkier than these convenient teachings. Feelings aren’t wrong, per se, but they can be premised on exaggerated or inaccurate fears or worries. I feel bad when my partners like people who I think are Better than me. But what is “better”? Can I really accurately say that someone is “better” than me, rather than maybe better at certain things and worse at others? And isn’t the whole point of polyamory that nobody has to leave anyone just because they’ve found someone “better”?

I feel depressed when I have to leave my family and go home to New York. But I know I will be just fine and quite happy when I get there. I know this because I’ve gone through it many, many times now. There is no reason to feel so depressed I can’t get out of bed for two days. Yes, it’s sad to say goodbye to your family. To me, personally, it is slightly tragic, even, that I can’t live close to them the way people usually do in our culture. But it is not that sad. It is not weeping-on-the-toilet-bowl sad. Few things in my life are objectively that sad.

These are far from the only situations like this that I experience; it happens all the time, every day. I get very frustrated. “No feelings about feelings,” a friend of mine says, not as a rule, but as an aspiration. I can’t make it work.

So I start gaslighting myself. “That’s not true.” “That perception is just wrong.” “That’s false and you know it.” “There is no reason to be upset right now.” “Your hypothesis that that person is somehow objectively better than you is premised on nothing but a pile of turds.” “THAT FEELING IS WRONG AND YOU SHOULD IGNORE IT FOREVER.”

Cutesy slang about jerkbrains and badfeels aside, what I’m now doing is very serious. Now I have abandoned a defensive stance and taken up an offensive one, with which I will battle the Wrong Feelings and vanquish them in a burst of light. Gaslight.

What happens when you teach yourself not to trust your own perception? How many toxic people become “just difficult for me to deal with because I’m so insecure and oversensitive”? How many untenable situations become marginally acceptable because “I’m only miserable about it because my brain lies to me”? How many injustices become annoyances to shrug at because “I’m just pessimistic about everything and don’t realize how good life is”?

People tell me that I’m so good at setting boundaries, but sometimes I wonder how much shit I have patiently accepted because I thought my brain was lying to me. In any case, I’m very glad I discovered feminism at the same time I discovered that I have depression.

Somewhere between “Your feelings are bad and you should feel bad” and “Your feelings are an accurate barometer of external reality” lies a vast unexplored land of feelings that are excessive but useful, of feelings that don’t make any sense but that alert you to an issue that needs to be explored, of feelings that can be discussed with a partner to build trust and intimacy, of feelings that have been spot-on many times before but have simply outlived their usefulness in this new and happier life you have built.

I wish I could really believe that feeling things is okay.

Of Ethics, Feelings, and Skyrim

I’m currently visiting my family in Ohio, which means catching up on all the gaming I’ve been too busy for during the last five years. My 12-year-old brother and I have a nice symbiosis going: he has a Windows machine, which meant I could install Skyrim on it, and I have a purchased copy of Skyrim. So we take turns watching each other play.

Kilkreath Ruins. Creepy, yeah? Well, maybe you just had to be there.

Kilkreath Ruins. Creepy, yeah? Well, maybe you just had to be there. Credit: Ekulylnam

Last night, while I was adventuring through the Kilkreath Ruins on a quest from the Daedric Prince Meridia, my brother remarked that he found the cave scary–the creepy noises, the unidentified black mist near the ground–and that started off a discussion about the emotional effects of games and how we feel about them.

My brother said that he’s actually glad that the game is making him feel things again. He has previously played it on Xbox (claiming, in fact, that he “beat the game”), but he said that after a while, he stopped feeling bad when people died or feeling scared by the parts that were meant to be scary. But he prefers to feel those things even though they don’t feel good, because otherwise he worries that he’s becoming unempathetic, somehow cruel. This, he said, is why people should be careful about letting little kids play games: you need to make sure they don’t get used to not feeling things.

I hadn’t actually thought of it that way before, though it seems obvious now. I had always been frustrated by how deeply I felt things that happened in games, and how much that actually restricted my gameplay. My ethics as a game character are not very different from my ethics as a real-life person: I don’t steal (unless, hypothetically, it’s vitally important), I don’t fight anyone who doesn’t fight me first, I try to avoid injuring innocent people with splash damage unless it’s totally unavoidable, I try to persuade people rather than bribing or threatening them, and I don’t hunt wild animals (except the ones that attack me).

But despite everything my brother said, we soon discovered that our styles of play are actually quite different (besides the fact that I play slowly and deliberately whereas he tries to get through quests as fast as possible, a difference that he had already remarked upon in frustration many times). After the Meridia quest, I ended up doing another quest in which I was falsely accused of multiple murders and ended up in a prison mine with people who had attempted (and failed) to recapture the city from people they thought were oppressing them. Together with them, we escaped from the mine, since they all turned out to be very capable mages.

Outside the mine, the escaped prisoners were confronted by prison guards. I had planned to fight alongside them, but here my brother started insisting that I kill the prisoners instead. Why? Because they have really good armor, I wouldn’t get a bounty, and I could kill them easily now that I had my own armor and weapons back. I said, “But they already gave me a set of that armor as a gift.” My brother said, “But it’s really expensive and you could make 10,000 gold just from selling all of theirs.” I said, “But I have other ways to get gold.” He said, “But it’s so easy! Just kill them!”

I knew one thing for certain: I had absolutely zero desire to make 10,000 gold by killing these men. At that moment, there was nothing I wanted to do less than to kill them. The idea just felt bad.

And so I told my brother, “Remember how you felt so scared of the cave you asked me to turn the sound down, even though you knew it was irrational? That’s how I feel about killing the men. It would make me feel bad. The point of playing a game is to have fun. That would make it very un-fun for me.”

He immediately stopped trying to convince me to kill the men and never brought it up again.

It’s true, refusing to kill the men was an irrational choice. Within the game, there were no disadvantages to killing them, and one huge advantage to killing them. But outside of the game, the advantage seemed so small–what’s 10,000 gold, really?–and there was also one glaring disadvantage–the fact that I would feel crappy and uncomfortable, partially defeating the entire purpose of playing the game to begin with.

Earlier I might’ve found this frustrating. I thought that I let myself get way too affected by virtual things. I’m the sort of person who would treat even a fairly rudimentary robot as I’d treat a human or a non-human animal.

Now, having had the first conversation with my brother and the subsequent moral dilemma with the prisoners and the guards, I started to think differently about it.

After all, we (I include myself in this) are more likely to think of it as a feature, not a bug, when we experience emotional reactions to things like films and shows and novels. (That, in fact, is what I reminded my little brother when he called me crying after finishing The Little Prince, and again when he called me crying several years later after finishing Flowers for Algernon.) Playful teasing outside, feeling terrified or very sad during movies is pretty standard. Why not in games?

Maybe it’s because we assume that the point of film and literature (as a fan, not a scholar) is to be absorbed into a story. The point of games, some might argue, is more tangible: to shoot stuff, to solve puzzles, to build cool things, to become the best. Stories may matter in games, but they don’t matter the way they matter in films and novels.

And there are definitely games I would play purely for those tangible aspects. I don’t get emotionally invested in the story of my SimCity creations (though maybe some do). I care slightly for the plight of Fez’s Gomez, who has literally had his entire world as he knew it torn to bits, but mostly I’m just there for the cool puzzles.

Persuade, intimidate, or bribe: Skyrim's eternal moral dilemma.

Persuade, intimidate, or bribe: Skyrim’s eternal moral dilemma.

But with games like Skyrim, I come for the fighting and stay for the interesting narrative, and that generally means starting to feel immersed enough in that world to feel bad when people die needlessly in it. The experience of considering (and strongly rejecting) the idea of killing the escaped prisoners for their valuable armor reminded me of something I think I already knew: that much of ethics, at least for me, is based on automatic emotional responses. Stealing feels bad. Threatening feels worse. Killing needlessly feels even worse.

There must be ethical systems out there that rely on something besides emotion and that still result in minimal harm to other people, but they feel alien to me. In any case, I doubt that those systems would transfer over to virtual worlds. Why bother?

Sometimes I wonder if other people feel that way, and if other people end up playing about the same way that they live (give or take a few magical abilities and badass warhammer techniques, of course). If there are gamers who feel bad when they kill NPCs, I wouldn’t expect them to ever say so, because nobody seems to talk very much about the emotional experience of gaming in general, and because of the hypermasculine culture of it.

But for me–someone who has no interest in participating in or belonging to any sort of “gaming community” and who wouldn’t even take up the label “gamer”–it doesn’t feel like a big deal to say that games make me feel things. Not just general things like excitement or fear, but specific things, like I feel sorry for that man who died even though he’s just a bunch of 1’s and 0’s. Or I wish I didn’t have to kill that dragon; it would feel much better if we could just be friends. (That one might be influenced by the fact that I recently saw both How To Train Your Dragon movies and really liked them.)

And now I’ve finally decided that I like it that way. It’s more rich and fun that way, even with the bad feelings too. Like my brother, I like myself better when I feel those things. Embracing that irrationality feels more human to me.

On Gender, Misattribution, and Kendall Jones

I’ve been a little preoccupied with travel and conferences lately, but now hopefully I’ll have more time to write. If you donated to my conference fundraiser, look out for a post thanking you and summing up the conferences, as well as any posts you may have requested.

For now, here’s a Daily Dot piece about Kendall Jones, the Texas cheerleader who’s become, by some accounts, “the most hated person on the Internet” for posting photos of herself with animals she killed in Africa. The rest of the piece cites some cool research, so you’ll want to click through to it.

Observing all of these responses that have been pouring in over the past few weeks, pro golfer John Peterson tweeted, “I support Kendall Jones. If it was a 60-year-old overweight dude posing with his African kills, no one would talk.” While Peterson doesn’t sound like he has a problem with hunting (indeed, his Twitter bio says, “If I could get paid to hunt, id be doin that”), he correctly notes that men who hunt don’t seem to garner such a reaction.

In fact, a Virginia Democrat—not on the ballot but seeking Eric Cantor’s House seat—named Mike Dickinson even publicly offered $100,000 to any “ex-boyfriends” who could provide naked photos or “sex stories” about Jones. (There, I hope, go his electoral dreams.)

First of all, using misogyny—or whatever noxious mixture of elements causes our cultural panic about women, sex, and nude photos—to abuse someone who’s done something wrong is not any sort of justice I believe in. Second, I’ve never heard of anyone bribing people for nude photos of a man, at least not as some sort of convoluted punishment. That threat is used against women and those perceived as women exclusively.

At the same time as the Democrat’s nudie pic requests went viral, a Facebook page popped up calling for Kendall Jones’ death.

I don’t want to say that the Internet hates Kendall Jones just because she’s a woman. To say that would be to conveniently ignore the cruel things that she does in order to make a point about sexism.

A more accurate way to interpret this might be that the Internet hates Kendall Jones because she’s done cruel things, but the only reason everyone even took notice of those cruel things is because Kendall Jones does not look or sound like the type of person we expect to hunt animals for sport.

Normally, the idea of trophy hunting isn’t one that most people, even those who generally care about animals, have much of an emotional reaction to. Some find it acceptable or even laudable; others mildly disapprove—but not enough to have strong feelings about the issue. It wouldn’t surprise me if seeing someone unexpected participating proudly in trophy hunting triggers a negative reaction that people then attribute to the person’s actions rather than their identity.

After all, it takes a lot of self-awareness to notice and think, “Huh, I seem to be having a very strong reaction of anger and disgust when I see a young attractive woman posing with animals she killed, but not when an older man does the same thing.” Most people will instead think, “Wow, I’m very angry about this. It’s disgusting to kill animals for fun like that.”

Most people who experience such a reaction would simply assume that it’s being caused by the most obvious thing: the pointlessly killed animals. They forget all the times they encountered the idea of men hunting animals for sport—because those encounters didn’t register on such a high emotional level.

Read the rest here.

Depression Is Not Sadness (Again)

[Content note: mental illness, depression, anxiety, suicide]

When I think about the frequent charge that therapists and psychiatrists and those who work with them are trying to “medicalize” “normal” emotions like sadness and fear, I think that people don’t really understand how emotions like sadness and fear can be distinguished from mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.

I’ve tried to explain this to many people multiple times, in person and through writing, and so have many other people with mental illnesses as well as professionals in the field. Yet people continue to conflate emotions and illnesses, or rather to assume that mental healthcare advocates are conflating them. It’s often difficult to continue engaging patiently with this claim.

Even those who are knowledgeable about illness and disability make this error. In an otherwise-fantastic blog post about the medical model of disabilityValéria M. Souza uncritically cites this very inaccurate view of antidepressants:

In The End of Normal: Identity in a Biocultural Era, Lennard Davis affirms: “A drug would be a prosthesis if it restored or imitated some primary state that appears to be natural and useful” (64). Davis makes this statement in the context of his argument that SSRIs are not “chemical prostheses” for depression, since happiness is not a “primary state” of being and since there is compelling evidence to suggest that SSRIs do not actually work (Davis 55-60).

I’ll address the SSRIs-not-working thing first since I have less to say about that and it’s not as relevant to this post. The reality seems to be more that SSRIs work well for some people but not at all for many other people and we haven’t really figured out why they work for some people but not others, or more specifically, which types of people they work for and which they don’t. And on a personal note, I’m a little tired of being told that SSRIs “don’t work” when they’re part of the reason I didn’t try to off myself four years ago. There is compelling evidence to suggest they do not actually work and there is compelling evidence to suggest that they do actually work, so I’m comfortable saying that the jury’s still out on this one.

More to the point: antidepressants are not meant to cause “happiness” because depression, the illness they are meant to treat, is not defined by a lack of “happiness.” Depression involves a constellation of physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms that make happiness very difficult or even impossible. These symptoms have a number of other deleterious effects which vary for different people. There are many ways depression can ultimately “look,” such as being unable to get out of bed, being unable to hold down a job, bursting into tears several times a day over tiny inconveniences or in response to nothing at all, losing your sex drive, being unable to sleep, having to sleep over 12 hours a day, having severe memory loss, losing the ability to enjoy any previously enjoyable activity, experiencing complete emotional numbness, obsessing over death and suicide, physically hurting yourself, or attempting suicide.

Maybe being “happy,” whatever that even means, isn’t a “primary state,” but I would argue that being able to live a relatively normal life in which you can go to school or have a job, have relationships with people, and not want to kill yourself is a “primary state.”

Being treated for (and, hopefully, recovering from) depression does not give you extra things that other people don’t have, such as constant happiness and optimism. It gives you what everyone else has had all along, which is a reasonable and age-appropriate amount of control over your emotional state and the ability to create your own happiness if you want to and make the effort.

By the way, you can definitely be miserable and unhappy without having a diagnosable mental illness, but it’s rare to find a person whose unhappiness is truly caused entirely by their own voluntary actions. Depression can also develop as a result of voluntary actions; for instance, if you have a number of career options available to you but you choose an extremely stressful and mind-numbing (but perhaps lucrative?) option, you might end up becoming depressed because of it. At that point, your best bet might be to find a way to make a career change, but it’s likely that you’ll also need therapy to help undo the maladaptive mental habits that the situation has created. (Medication might help too, but in a case like this I’d personally recommend therapy first.)

I think a better way to explain the difference has been that, at least in my experience of mental illness versus mental health, there are things that mentally healthy people can do to significantly increase their level of happiness, whereas people who are going through a bout of mental illness can rarely make a huge difference just by stopping and smelling the roses or making more time to play with their kids or enrolling in a cooking class or whatever. They can maybe make a small difference, but it’s unlikely to reduce the mental illness symptoms themselves. I used to get so frustrated at things like The Happiness Project and other initiatives of that sort, until I finally realized that they weren’t aimed at me because happiness would literally not even be a possibility for me until I treated my damn mental illness.

(That said, things like that can be very useful for someone whose mental illness is in remission or otherwise low-grade. Right now, I’m not fully symptomatic for depression but I’m aware that it can probably come back at any time, so I do a lot of things to keep my mental health strong to try to avoid it coming back.)

It’s difficult to tease out all the complicated interactions between mental illness, mental health, and happiness, and of course it varies for different people. In my experience–which includes my personal experience, my interactions with friends and partners, and my studies and clinical experience, here it is in a nutshell: untreated/unmanaged mental illness makes happiness virtually impossible to achieve. Treating or managing your mental illness, whether through medication, talk therapy, or personal lifehacking, helps make happiness possible to achieve. But the work of achieving it is still yours to do. No drug or therapist can just give you happiness.

And most people with mental illnesses realize this. I haven’t met anyone who was just like “I wanna go to the psychiatrist and get a pill and just be happy always forever.” Most of us just want to stop crying all the time, or stop having panic attacks whenever we need to interact with new people, or stop having intrusive and scary thoughts of killing ourselves, or stop lying awake for hours each night because we can’t stop imagining all the bad things that could happen to us.

“Happiness” is the cherry on the sundae of mental health. You need to put the ice cream and the syrup and the whipped cream in the cup first.

(I’m not sure what it says about me that in reality I actually despise maraschino cherries and always ask for them to be left off my sundae. This is an analogy that was definitely intended for the presumably more normal people who will read this.)

If you still think that what we call “depression” is just an attempt to medicalize “sadness,” then you don’t know what one or either of those things are. So I’ll illustrate with an example of an internal monologue I have had when I was sad, and one I have had when I was depressed. The subject is the same, but the emotional response isn’t. See if you can figure out which is which!

I really wish I had a partner. It’s lonely not having anyone to come home to and it feels crappy seeing all my friends with their partners even though I know I should be happy for them. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just not that attractive or likable as a person. It seems like I’m the only person not dating anyone. I hope I meet someone soon, but I don’t know when or how that will happen and I’m not that optimistic about it right now. 

I really wish I had a partner. I feel like a complete worthless failure because literally everyone else I know is seeing someone and I’m not. I’ll probably never find anyone and I’ll just be lonely for the rest of my life and there won’t be anyone to call 911 if something happens to me and they’ll find my body in my apartment days later because nobody gave enough of a fuck to check on me. Not like I blame them. I’m so ugly and stupid that I don’t know why anyone would even want to hang out with me, let alone go out with me. Everyone’s probably pitying me because I don’t have anyone and everyone can tell that it’s because I’m completely pathetic. I feel like I might as well not even exist because what’s the point of going through life alone and unloved?

One of those is a sensical reaction to lacking something in your life that’s important to you (a romantic relationship); the other is over-the-top. The emotional response in the second example is disproportionate; it doesn’t make sense to leap all the way from “I’m sad because I wish I had a partner” to “I’m a worthless failure and will die alone.”

That second monologue contains a number of characteristic cognitive distortions associated with depression, such as all-or-nothing thinking (I have to have a partner or there’s no point in even living), disqualifying the positive (the good aspects of my life are irrelevant; it’s all bad because I’m single), mind-reading (everyone must be pitying me), fortune telling (because I don’t have a partner now, I will never have one), catastrophizing (something bad will happen to me and I’ll die alone in my home because nobody will help), personalization (it’s completely my fault that I don’t have a partner; none of it comes down to chance or being in the wrong environment or anything else), and emotional reasoning (I feel like a failure because I’m single; therefore I definitely am a failure).

While mentally healthy people do make cognitive distortions too, mental health is a spectrum: the more you’re able to refrain from thinking in these harmful ways, the more mentally healthy you’ll (generally) be. If you look at the first monologue, you’ll see some slight distortions, like the fear that you’re unlikeable or unattractive just because you happen to be single, or the perception that you’re the only person not dating when that’s obviously not true. But only in the second example do these irrational thoughts become all-encompassing. And, importantly, only the second example involves thoughts of death and suicidal ideation.

Note also that in the first example, being single is causing sad feelings, whereas in the second example, the emotional responses are not primarily caused by the singleness. Perhaps being single is the immediate trigger of the extreme sadness and negativity, but what’s really causing it is depression. A depressed person who is miserable about being single will not stop being miserable if they stop being single; they will usually be miserable about other things. That’s exactly what happened to me back when I was having that monologue. I’d inevitably get into a relationship and then be miserable because I didn’t think my partner liked me enough, or because I was worried about school, or because I felt like all my friends hated me, or because I hated myself, or just because.

Depression can trick you into thinking that you’re depressed “about” something. You’re probably not. You’re depressed because you have depression, and luckily, you can treat it.

Sadness, on the other hand, is about things. You can be sad because you’re single or because you got a bad grade or because you hate your job. Sadness is a normal, healthy reaction to experiencing things that you don’t like. It’s a useful and important emotion because it tips us off to situations that we should try to change if we can. Sadness can prompt us to take a step back and think about things and how we would like them to be better.

Medicalizing sadness and medicating it away would probably harm individuals and also our society as a whole. It would make things pretty boring. Isn’t it great that antidepressants and therapy are not actually trying to do that? Isn’t it great that we can help people avoid catastrophic, paralyzing, life-ruining sadness and fear like the ones associated with mental illnesses, while helping them get in touch with healthy and situationally appropriate sadness and fear? That we can help them understand their emotions and use them to change themselves, their lives, or the world, without having their lives completely governed by them?

Indeed. Depression is not sadness. Anxiety is not fear. Nobody is actually trying to eradicate sadness and fear.

~~~

At Skepchick, Olivia has a great take on this, concluding that:

I do think that it’s important to address our societal phobia of sadness, grief, and pain. But the way to do that is not to throw the mentally ill under the bus by implying they are running from their negative emotions when they seek out treatment. It also doesn’t mean casting shade on the few tools for treatment of mental illness that we actually have evidence are effective. A diagnosis of depression does not say “this person is too sad”. It says “this person can’t function the way they would like to because their emotions are consistently out of control”. There is a world of difference between those two statements.