Six Months

Every New Year’s Eve, I write a post about the year that’s about to end. When I was younger, I mostly used these posts to talk about significant things that had happened to me (getting a boyfriend, losing a boyfriend, getting into this or that program or college, and so on), explain what I’d learned from them, and make resolutions for the future.

Looking back over my resolutions from past years is kind of sad for me now. It’s both unsurprising and depressing how many of them concerned random metrics that I’d allowed the world to value me by–GPA, weight, stuff like that.

These were always the resolutions that I was never able to keep.

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions anymore, mostly because my resolution would be the exact same every year: do better, be better.

Over the last few years, the theme of depression has completely taken over these New Year’s Eve posts. In 2010 I wrote about being diagnosed and recovering. That was the first time I wrote about depression publicly, and I’ve continued doing so ever since.

In 2011 I wrote about relapsing and trying to find a way to carry on. At the end of that post, I wrote this:

A few days ago. I’m walking near Union Square in Manhattan. The sun has nearly set and the wind is chilling. I hear a man begging for money.

“Can you spare some change?” he’s saying, over and over. The passerby walk past him and he says, “That’s okay. Maybe next year.”

I put a dollar bill in his cup and he says, “God bless you, miss. I really mean that.”

He says happy New Year, and I say happy New Year too.

And then I continue on my way.

Maybe next year.

Today I returned to that exact spot. Not on purpose or anything. I’m in New York for the week and that spot just happens to be located next to my favorite bookstore in the world, the Strand.

And even though it was cold and I’m not in a particularly good mood today, I realized: the “next year” that I’d been dreaming about has come to pass. That year was 2012.

The end of December marks six months since my depression symptoms suddenly abated last summer. Psychologists seem to agree that at the six-month mark, remission officially becomes recovery. I don’t know what this means other than that I get to say that I’ve recovered.

I feel like I should have some Good Insights about how to recover from depression, but I really don’t. Medication helped me deal with the worst of it, but it stopped working after a while. I never managed to find a therapist that helped, but I’ll keep looking.

There were a number of amazing things that happened to me this year, some of which I attribute to my recovery. However, the interesting thing is that they all happened after my symptoms stopped, not before. Stuff like getting involved in the atheist movement, meeting my best friends and my partner, growing my blog and moving to FtB, finally deciding what I’m doing next year (getting a masters in social work), and so on. My life has changed so drastically over the past six months that I sometimes wonder if recovering from depression somehow opened me up to let all of this in. But I don’t know.

People who suffer from depression are constantly being exhorted to Look On The Bright Side and Be Open To Love and all that stuff, but here’s the thing–I was unable to do any of these things until my symptoms had eased up. I would never have been able to be outgoing enough to meet all the awesome people that I’ve met, and although I’ve been a good writer for a while, it got much easier to handle criticism and promote my blog once I didn’t feel depressed anymore. And while I hope my partner would stick with me if I had another depressive episode, the person I was half a year ago probably wasn’t someone he would’ve been interested in. Sad, but true.

I’d bet that the connections I made after I recovered are a large part of the reason I’m still doing so well, though. Without them, maybe I would’ve relapsed quickly. My writing, my friends, my partner, and even all the random acquaintances I’ve made while blogging are like a large safety net, giving me something other than myself and my moods to focus on when I’m not doing very well. My future, which is starting to clear up and coalesce into an actual set of plans, is always on my mind, reminding me that the college life I’ve never liked is finally ending soon.

I wish I could tell you how I got to that place I was at six months ago, ready to connect with the world in a genuine way for the first time in years. Maybe the illness had just had enough. Maybe I started getting enough vitamins or something and some random chemicals in my brain balanced out. I don’t know.

More likely, though, all the stuff I was reading and writing was finally going to my brain. While feminism certainly can’t cure serious depression, it really got to the roots of a lot of the issues I was having that were contributing to my depression. For the first time, I started to understanding that, yes, I can be serious. I can be critical. I can be passionate. Being these things doesn’t keep me from being a kind, loving person that others can actually appreciate, and it doesn’t have to make me an outcast. In certain social circles, of course, it does. But fuck those social circles. Seriously.

Feminism also showed me what I can expect out of my friendships and relationships. I don’t have to put up with the mean-spirited jokes, I don’t have to accept the shrugs and cold shoulders and eye rolls. I don’t have to deal with people who cancel plans at the last minute and treat me like their own personal therapist without ever offering any support in return. I don’t have to pretend to laugh at sexist, racist, and homophobic comments made “ironically.”

And so I stopped. For a while, this meant I had less friends and had to be more picky. This is fine. As it turned out, I left just enough space in my life for a loving, loud, affirming bunch of feminists to walk right in and become my dearest friends.

There are times when you need to compromise. I don’t expect to have the perfect job in the perfect city any time soon, if ever. I will probably always have a bit too little money. If I find a good enough apartment in a good enough neighborhood for a good enough price, I’ll take it. The thrift store clothes will do just fine.

But when it comes to friends and lovers, I will not settle. Ever. Again. When it comes to my writing, I will say what I want.

My happiness now does not come from the academic achievement I used to yearn for. I never did lose that weight. Those resolutions were all bullshit. When I see people getting these things, I sometimes reflexively feel jealous and then I remember:

I have beaten an illness that consumed my mind for nearly a decade, and I beat it without any of that stuff. For six months now I have been happy, sometimes so happy I could cry, without any of it.

The clock will tick on, six months will turn into seven and then eight and then more, and maybe someday I will lose count of how long it has been since I found myself again.

Happy New Year.

20130101-022556.jpg

New Year in New York.

How It Feels To Shed Your Skin

Being a young and mobile person is a bit like having a never-ending case of whiplash.

I don’t have a single identity or home or social circle; I have many, and I’m constantly leaving one for another and feeling like the skin that has been grafted onto my preexisting skin is being ripped off and the resulting wound is replaced with another.

There is my life at school, which is the busiest and most visibly meaningful (but actually probably the emptiest) life of them all. There is who I am with my family in Ohio, and who I am when I visit my intended future home, New York City. I am someone else entirely apart from all these people with my long-distance partner (first one, then another) when one of us is visiting the other.

Leaving each of these is like heartbreak. At that moment it feels like nothing is deeper and truer than who I am in this place, with these people, at this point in time. I tell myself over and over that once I get to my destination I will become that person and it’ll feel normal again, but no amount of telling it makes it feel true. It is always like leaving myself and becoming someone else, someone I don’t want to be. And upon arriving I briefly experience the sickening feeling of having become someone I dreaded becoming just a few short hours before, across a few state lines or perhaps a two-hour flight away. That feeling squeezes me by the throat and then finally slinks away and I grow comfortable and complacent in my new (old?) skin.

Shortly before leaving I often grow aloof and distant from the people I’m with, and this breaks my heart even more. And probably theirs. It pains me, but it seems better than letting myself stay close for those final hours, which would mean letting them see me collapse in tears as I imagine being torn away from them by whichever car, bus, train, or plane is doing it this time.

There is a certain courage that you need to let someone wipe your tears away, and it is a courage I rarely have these days.

The reason I need courage is because there is so much to be afraid of. People misread the particular mix of emotions I feel when I’m leaving and assume that I must be pathologically attached to them or confused about where I “belong” (why the hell do I hate Ohio so much but invariably lose control of myself when leaving it?). The truth is, yes, I get very attached to people. But I don’t think there’s anything pathological about the way in which I get attached. I think the difference between me and people who aren’t depressed is that, sometimes, the way you keep from being depressed is by choosing not to acknowledge the enormous amounts of pain and pleasure that others can give to you, and living as though you are truly independent.

Whose way is better? I can’t say, but I know that I’m incapable of ignoring the bonds between myself and the people I love for the few hours it takes for me to leave. And because I can’t ignore them, having to sever them over and over and then splice them back up and sever them again, every couple of months, feels like the worst thing in the world.

Someone pointed out to me recently that the same theme keeps coming up whenever I tell the story of my life, how I came to be so depressed, and how I eventually (mostly) recovered. That theme is disconnection. My worst misery is when I feel disconnected from people, society, and life itself. It’s when I feel misunderstood by the people close to me or when I feel like an outsider (this happens often to me; if you read my previous post you can see a little snippet of it). Or when I feel like I just don’t understand the people around me and why we can’t seem to agree on anything, or when I feel like I have no traditions to give shape to my life, or when I feel like I’m not “fully” any of the things that I think I am–feminist, atheist, Jew, Russian, Israeli, woman, student, activist.

(In my better moments, I realize that, well, of course I’m not “fully” any of these things. Nobody can possibly fit some hypothetical Aristotelian prototype of any of these things. The very nature of such identities is that the pressure to belong and conform is significant and that we will always wonder if we’re really measuring up to what we’re “supposed” to be.)

On the other hand, the greatest happiness I’ve ever known is feeling connected to people and ideas and places. It’s the feeling I had at Skepticon. It’s reading a brilliant book or article and feeling completely in sync with the author. It’s holding someone I love close. It’s discovering that my partner and I both hate Michael Cera and love Los Campesinos! and agree on virtually every ethical and political issue that we care about.

Given this, it’s not very surprising that I have such difficulty with transitions. Of course, everything is ultimately temporary and change is part of life for everyone, but this much temporariness and this much change is just too much. That whiplashy feeling I get every time I have to switch identities and hop across state lines is a sign that someone like me just isn’t made for this lifestyle.

I have strategies to help me cope with it, of course. I always carry things from one place to another to help me remember who I am when I’m somewhere else. I have stacks of notebooks from other times. I almost never recall old memories.

Mostly, though, I write. Telling you this right now is the only thing that’s helping.

A while ago, I wrote that the happiest day of my life up until that point had been my older brother’s wedding, because I got to spend a whole day focusing entirely on other people and not on myself. My new sister-in-law read it and replied that she felt much like I did when I was younger and that once you grow a bit older and start to settle down, it gets easier. Not necessarily because Change Is Bad, but because people like me are at a stage in our lives where we are basically required to focus on nothing but ourselves. Our education, our needs, our desires, our constant criss-crossing of the country in search of opportunities. Once you’re able to turn that focus outwards at other people, that feeling of disconnect subsides and real, lasting happiness–not the kind you might get from parties or straight As–can take its place.

I hope she’s right. I hope that after I’ve finished all of my degrees and chosen a city to live in, life will stop jerking me around like this every few months. I hope that I can finally build a network of friends and acquaintances that will be more or less stable. I hope that the people I spend time with will have known me for longer than a few months. I hope that my work will feel more meaningful than my schooling.

I hope, because tomorrow I will rip myself out of one skin and shoddily sew myself into another, and the person I am right now, as I write this, will already be just a distant memory.

“Home”

This week I learned that depression and writer’s block together is a scary thing, as writing is my primary way of alleviating depression. Then I realized that the reason I couldn’t write was because I was refusing to write the piece that was trying to come out. When I finally let myself “feel the feels,” this is what resulted.

In the dark and the stillness, the floor of my family’s house creaks and groans.

I have this ritual whenever I come home. Or, as I should probably call it, “home.”

I walk through the whole house and find all the things that are different. Like that game where you look at a picture and then you look at another, nearly identical picture and you have to spot the changes.

One time they had a new machine for juicing citrus fruits. They made fresh juice out of it. Now they make it for me every time.

Another time they had new bookshelves for me to look through. New photos, almost every time, of a little brother and sister who grow up without me now. This time they took apart the kids’ bunk bed. They’re too old for it now; they sleep on their own beds now.

Next time, maybe, they’ll have their own bedrooms.

Things will fall apart and be replaced. New gadgets will appear, charging next to the landline phone. There will be middle school textbooks, high school textbooks, someday. There will be other things, things people need as they grow old, things I can’t think about without literally weeping.

The floor will creak a bit more each time.

Before I left for college, my parents promised me that they’d never clean out my room and turn it into anything else. “This will always be your room, your home,” they said.

They didn’t lie. The only ways they alter my room is to clean it after I leave from my visits, always in a hurry, always leaving behind half my stuff and dragging away other stuff; or when my mom wants to borrow clothes that I left behind. I’ll come home and see her wearing something I’d long forgotten and she says, “Oh, I took this. Hope you don’t mind!” I don’t.

When I come “home” my room is almost the same. Entering it is like reentering the world of my high school self, although I can never really feel or understand that world again. I was so alone. Politically conservative, overly romantic, unable to put a name to the dark moods that often consumed me. The worst was definitely still to come, of course, but I already had a glimpse of what I was in for.

The only source of continuity, really, is writing. Even in high school I was known for that. A very different type of writing, sure, but writing nonetheless. My notebooks and journals fill my old room.

Nearly half a year ago my depression suddenly remitted. Before that, coming home was a treasure. It wasn’t “home” back then; it really was home. I lived for those school breaks. I daydreamed about them in class, at the gym, while I took walks. Nothing felt better than dropping my bags at the bottom of the stairs and taking that first tour of the house, playing the “What’s Different?” game.

After the depression was over, everything changed. Home doesn’t feel like home anymore. It’s merely “home” now.

Now coming “home” feels like being ripped out of my skin and put into another one. Sometimes it triggers a brief depressive episode; the rest of the time it just feels numb. Every object in the house seems to tell me stories about impermanence and decay, even as the house is gleaming and beautiful as ever.

I don’t understand the girl who once lived here. I don’t even want to. But sometimes, what I wouldn’t give to be her for just one more day.

The more this happens the less I want to come “home,” and the more the guilt builds and builds. My mom saw me crying and assumed it was about my finals (as it had been earlier), and I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it’s because I have no home anymore and I don’t belong anywhere and no matter where I go I just can’t come home.

It’s like everything comes at a price. This seems to be the price I pay to be free–mostly–of depression in my day-to-day life. Religious folks might say, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” I say, sometimes shit happens. Sometimes this is just how brains work.

And, sometimes, people grow up. Some people will always cherish returning to their childhood homes and swimming through those memories. But I, it seems, just can’t do that. I love this house and the people in it so dearly but it’s not home anymore. That breaks my heart.

Now I know that if I ever want to come home again, I can’t go back. I can only go forward.

Onset

[Content note: depression]

In a few weeks, I will pass the nine-year anniversary of the onset of my depression.

I could figure out the exact date if I wanted to, because I know it was on Thanksgiving. But I won’t, because I don’t want that date to become frozen in my memory forever.

I don’t think most people can get it down to a single moment like that. In fact, there’s probably quite a bit that’s spurious about my interpretation of things. Really, my depression probably began with my genetics, or with the cognitive distortions that I already had even as a little kid.

But, that said, there was a moment after which everything changed. I’ve never really written or spoken about it until now.

I used to dance ballet. I was pre-professional and often performed with our local professional troupe, as did plenty of other kids and teens. That fall, I was cast in The Nutcracker, in the role of Clara. That’s the main role. It was an honor so momentous for me that all of the successes that followed it paled in comparison. I still remember standing in the center of that stage with over two thousand pairs of eyes all looking right at me. I will never forget. I will never experience a feeling like that again.

That year, I was in seventh grade. School was becoming challenging for the first time, and I was starting to feel the stress that would become like blood in my veins for the next decade. There were honors classes now. There were actual papers to write. They seem so easy now, of course, but at the time I felt a little bit terrified.

I’d gotten a few C’s on tests, which was new for me. I wasn’t too concerned yet. Until that weekend.

Thanksgiving. We were driving up to northwestern Pennsylvania to see family friends. That drive was always beautiful; I sometimes miss it now. The Appalachian Mountains are underrated.

There were only a few weeks left of rehearsal before opening night of The Nutcracker. After Thanksgiving, there would be dress rehearsals and tech week. And then I would take the stage.

So I was in the car, me and my family. My little brother, now old enough to talk to me about science and girls, wasn’t even a toddler then. My little sister didn’t exist yet.

I mentioned the C’s on the tests.

My mom was appalled. She said something like this: “If you get another C on a test, you have to drop out of The Nutcracker.”

She can’t have been serious, now that I look back on it. She just can’t have been. It would’ve ruined my family’s relationship with the ballet company and I’d probably never be allowed to perform again. It was just ludicrous, a punishment inconceivable in severity for me.

But that possibility didn’t even occur to me. I took her at her word. At that moment, everything changed.

I felt that I had lost all sense of control over my life. Something so important was suddenly jeopardized by random numbers in red ink. My homework seemed to laugh at me.

I quite literally lost my mind. Not in the sense of “going crazy” as we think of it, but in the sense that my mind became an alien to me.

The things it did to me that year. I cried and cried and cried. On Sunday nights especially, as I dreaded going back to school. If I got a grade worse than a B at school, I suffered for the rest of the day, through the rest of my classes and then several hours of ballet, until I could come home, tell my mom about it, and be vindicated. She would tell me that it’s okay, I just have to do better next time, and I would nod and leave and probably cry more.

My entire sense of self-worth became contingent upon my parents’ approval, and their approval seemed to me to be contingent on those arbitrary marks on a report card. And although I’ve long moved on from grades as the markers of my worth, I remain shackled to the opinions of others–of my family especially.

It was the longest winter. The music I listened to that winter–mostly classical–still rings in my ears sometimes and reminds me. Everything was colored with those tears, that roiling anxiety in my stomach, the shame of being imperfect.

I was twelve years old.

After that school year, the Thing–I didn’t know what to call it then–mutated and grew. I gradually learned not to stress so much about school, a lesson that serves me well these days. But the Thing grabbed hold of everything in my life, tainted every relationship, sunk its ugly tentacles into every crevice it could find.

In high school the Thing mostly manifested as a preoccupation with the idea that people might not like me. In college, I stopped caring about what people thought and instead became convinced that my life is ultimately meaningless and that it doesn’t matter if I live or die.

The Thing has changed quite a bit since I first met it nearly nine years ago. For one, I call it depression now, as that is what it is. I know its signs and a few strategies that help keep it at bay.

It’s not that everything was good before that Thanksgiving in 2003, and it’s not that everything was terrible afterwards.

But that weekend was a bridge. It was a bridge between nonclinical dysfunction and a worsening, mushrooming psychopathology. It was a bridge between childhood and–if not adulthood, then something other than adolescence.

They say that we lose “innocence” when we have sex for the first time, or when we move out of the house or start paying for our own upkeep. I lost my innocence when I lost my mind.

I had pulled back the corner of the rug and finally seen what had been swept under it.

What was under it was terrible.

[storytime] How I Quit the Senior Thesis

Ever since I was little, I held a belief shared by many gifted kids–gifted kids who grow into overachieving teenagers and then sleepless college students and then budding doctors, lawyers, engineers, researchers, businesspeople, or just those legions of people who wear tailored suits and work in tall office buildings in lower Manhattan and do stuff with money on computers or something.

That belief was this: you must do everything you are capable of. Anything less than that, and you’re “selling yourself short.”

You must participate in every science fair. You must take every honors class. You must play every sport your body can reasonably perform. You must accept every social invitation you are offered. You must matriculate at the most elite college to which you are accepted. You must have as many majors and minors as you can fit into your schedule, and you must have as many leadership positions you can get yourself accepted for.

So last spring I applied and got into the honors program in psychology. This meant that I would spend my senior year designing, carrying out, and writing up my own research study. At the time I was still under the impression that I wanted to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology, so this was obviously something I felt I should do.

I was at least mildly excited about it, at first, or at least made a good imitation of being excited. I don’t remember which it was anymore.

But in any case, things soon deteriorated. I discovered that I would not be able to do the study I originally designed about the stigma of mental illness–a topic I care deeply about–because none of the faculty members who study it were able to advise my project for various reasons. I tried to find a different lab to work in, but literally every single professor whose work I found interesting–and there are quite a few–was either already advising too many other honors students or had a requirement that you needed to have worked in their lab first or whatever.

So I ended up in a lab that deals with something I knew little about and that had very little relevance to my future career–cultural neuroscience. Fascinating stuff, but difficult and unrewarding. I couldn’t understand half the words that came out of my adviser’s mouth. What little willingness I had to go through with the program faded away. But still, I did not quit it.

The reasons I gave myself and others for not quitting are interesting mainly due to their blatant inaccuracy:

  • I felt that the department would be annoyed with me, but that’s silly since I was told I could withdraw at any time, and besides, if I quit that would free up resources for others.
  • I worried that this would somehow hurt my chances for admission into graduate school, which is even sillier because I’m applying to do a masters in social work, where nobody will care about my lack of research experience (particularly not in cultural neuroscience).
  • My parents told me not to, but so they did with journalism, and I quit that anyway and never looked back.
  • And, perhaps most importantly, I thought that quitting would make me a failure, even though that’s just obviously false.

As it turns out, what it came down to wasn’t any logical reason, but rather a sense of obligation, an invisible hand shoving me forward into doing things that I have no interest in and that bring me little or no benefit.

It is incredible to me how powerful that force was. I have always stubbornly persevered when it comes to getting the things I want, but apparently not getting things I don’t want is a different story.

Several agonizing weeks went by and then The Weekend happened. The Weekend was this past weekend. I saw an amazing speaker talk about microaggressions. I spent hours with friends. I laid around in bed in the mornings. I had a friend visit–someone I care about deeply and am now proud to call more than just a friend.

And at one point, I was sitting in the living room looking at my two bookshelves, which are full of unread books that are calling my name. (A small sample: When Everything Changed, Microaggressions, Outdated, Delusions of Gender, Sex at Dawn, and Thinking Fast and Slow.) I often wonder when I’ll be able to read them. But this time, for some reason, the question took on a new urgency: Seriously, though, when the fuck am I going to read these amazing books?

And it hit me that for the first time, academics doesn’t have to define me anymore. It doesn’t have to be My Thing. I don’t have to throw myself into the work to forget the fact that I have no real friends and no actual meaning to my life, because suddenly, I do.

I have new friends all over the country who are quickly starting to feel like old friends. I have my writing and this blog, which is growing in popularity and bringing me even more good friends and interesting people to talk to. I have the work that I do with sexual and mental health–I could write a whole post about the projects I’m working on and how much they mean to me. I have a new partner I adore, who supported me through this decision rather than pushing me to do and be everything.

This city, this city I used to hate so much, is growing more beautiful and homey to me every day. We spend our weekends out in its streets and thrift stores and cafes and apartments. As the weather grows colder, my heart grows warmer.

The thing is, I can do and be a whole lot of things. If I really wanted to, I could do this thesis. (I could also get a PhD, which I recently decided not to–a decision that parallels this one in many ways.) In the grand scheme of things, a year is not that long of a time to do something I don’t like and don’t need (assuming, of course, that my mental health would survive the year-long onslaught, which I doubt).

I could toil away at it and add another line to my resume, not because this will help me get into a social work program or accomplish any of my actual goals, but just so I could feel a little bit smarter and more accomplished.

But why?

Life is just too fucking short.

It’s too short for this kind of crap.

And so I quit.

[storytime] An Abridged List of Lies I Was Taught as a Child

  • Money and success will make you happy.
  • Being beautiful is an obligation.
  • Being fat is the worst thing that could happen to you.
  • College will be a magical la-la land where you will finally be happy.
  • Men don’t like strong, opinionated women.
  • Being gay is wrong.
  • Never ask a guy out.
  • Never have sex with someone you’re not dating seriously.
  • Casual sex will make you depressed, and a slut.
  • Intelligent people are better than nonintelligent people.
  • Your parents know best.
  • Family comes before friends.
  • You should be willing to sacrifice anything for your family.
  • Fitting in is important.
  • If you’re upset, you’re probably being too sensitive.
  • Your friends should come from your cultural/ethnic/religious group.
  • If a guy likes you, he will let you know. And if he doesn’t, he’s a wimp anyway.
  • Your career should be as high-powered as possible.
  • Your husband should make as much or more money than you.
  • It’s okay to let men do things for you rather than learning how to do them yourself.
  • Never, ever trust another woman. She will stab you in the back at the first opportunity.
  • If someone doesn’t like you, you should probably ask yourself what you’re doing wrong.
  • If your boyfriend is unhappy, you should try to make him happy.
  • Politics doesn’t matter anyway.
  • Everyone can tell how many men a woman has slept with just by looking at her.
  • Your clothing should always “flatter” your figure.
  • Sex can only be one of two things: Dangerous, or Special and to be saved for The Right Person.
  • Getting ahead is more important than sticking to your principles.
  • You can always just choose to be happy.

I learned these things as a child and a teenager. Now I’m an adult and I finally get to reeducate myself. A decolonization of the mind, so to speak.

Most of these lessons have been proven false by experience and common sense.

What lies were you taught as a child?

Because I Am An Atheist

A few months ago, blogger Ian Cromwell wrote a post about how atheism has affected his life and titled it “Because I am an atheist.” In the comments section, others left their own “Because I am an atheist” stories. Then my friend Kate wrote her own version, and now I’ve been inspired to write mine.

I’ve only recently started identifying with atheism. I’ve used the terms “humanistic Jew” and “secular humanist” to describe myself for a while, but it’s really just a matter of semantics. The nutshell version is, I don’t believe in any sort of god. I haven’t for a very, very long time, and the belief left me naturally, as though I’d grown out of it.

Fun happy disclaimer thing: This is a personal post. It’s about what atheism means to me. It is not an attack on your religion. Aside from this disclaimer, I’m not going to insult my readers’ intelligence by sticking in “but of course you don’t have to agree” and “of course you can get a similar experience out of religion too” and “I don’t mean to say that atheism is superior” into every paragraph.

So here we go.

Because I am an atheist, I get to develop my own moral code. Many people get their sense of morality from religion. That’s totally okay. But I relish the opportunity to create my own.

My morality is a sort of combination of utilitarianism and the Golden Rule. When I decide how to act, I weigh the pros and cons. Will this help someone else at very little cost to myself? If so, then I’ll do it. Will it help someone else at a great cost to myself? If so, I might do it if the cause is important enough to me. Is this act self-serving, with a potential for hurting the other person? If so, I probably won’t do it, unless I really, really need to.

That’s not to say that I always act ethically or that I never hurt anyone. At least, though, I get to own my actions whether they’re positive or negative. Regardless of the outcome, nobody made me do it. My holy book didn’t tell me to do it. My pastor/rabbi/what-have-you didn’t tell me to do it. I told myself to do it, and if it turned out badly, I can do better next time.

Because I am an atheist, my major life decisions are my own to make. I don’t have to get married. I don’t have to have children. I don’t have to give a percentage of my money to any particular cause or charity unless I choose to. I don’t have to belong to any particular organization.

Now, I do want to get married and have children, and I do want to donate money to certain causes and belong to certain organizations. But I’m allowed to change my mind. It’s not my “duty” to do any of these things, unless I’ve chosen that duty for myself.

Because I am an atheist, I am only accountable to the people I choose to be accountable to. If I screw up, the only people I need to apologize to are the people I’ve affected. The only people whose forgiveness I need is theirs, and my own. I don’t need to confess to a religious authority figure. I don’t need to pray for forgiveness.

Because I am an atheist, I can seek explanations for things in the physical world. For instance, I don’t have to believe that men are the dominant sex because God made it that way as a punishment for Eve’s sin. I can examine the evidence and form the opinion that it’s because males are naturally stronger than females in most species, and human gender roles developed from there. I can also decide that we don’t need these roles anymore, now that our lives aren’t a constant struggle for survival.

In my own life, I can find explanations that are empowering rather than disempowering. For instance, my depression wasn’t some sort of punishment from God; it was an illness caused by an interaction between my genetics and my environment, and I could overcome it. Although it was my responsibility to overcome it by seeking treatment and changing some things about my life, that doesn’t mean it was my fault that it happened. Just like if you slip and fall, it’s not your fault, but you are responsible for picking yourself back up. Not God.

Because I am an atheist, I can choose my own lifestyle. I can eat what I want. I can make my dietary decisions based on what’s healthy or what tastes good or what restaurant my friends want to go to.

I don’t have to stop doing the thing I love most for one day each week. I never have to disconnect from technology unless I choose to–and sometimes I do.

Decisions about sexuality are mine to make. Without religion, there’s little reason to consider any consensual sex act to be “wrong.” There’s only things I want to do and things I don’t want to do.

Because I am an atheist, I can trust science. Of course, there is still such a thing as faulty science, but the trademark of science is that it keeps trying to challenge and improve itself. So while individual theories might be disproven and individual studies might be poorly designed, I can trust the scientific project itself.

I don’t have to worry that new findings will contradict my beliefs. Of course, that’s exactly what they might do–but then I can just change my beliefs. I don’t have a huge, deeply personal stake in explaining things a certain way. Evolution doesn’t bother me. (In fact, it’s pretty cool.)

Because I am an atheist, I can question things. Since there’s no god to make the world the way it is, there’s no reason it has to be this way. Judaism, which is the faith I was sort of secularly raised in, does emphasize asking questions and learning, and I appreciate that about it as opposed to, say, Catholicism. However, in the end, you do need to believe in God. Full stop. Or else you’re a “humanistic Jew,” like me. You can question and seek “proof” for God’s existence (and many Jewish philosophers have offered up compelling and interesting rationales for this), but at the end of the day, you say your evening prayers and you go to bed knowing that someone’s watching over you.

Nobody’s watching over me. I’m watching over myself. And that’s fine by me.

When I Knew It Was Over

When I was a little kid, my favorite dreams were the ones in which I got something new–a toy I’d been wanting, some really cool gadget. (Kids are acquisitive that way.) I would wake up grasping for my new possession and feeling a tremendous sense of injustice at the fact that I couldn’t keep it after the dream was over.

Right now, I’m still dreaming the dream, hoping I never wake up and lose what I’ve just gotten.

My depression kind of has its own saga. I’ve had it since I was 12. It got much worse when I went to college. I got diagnosed and started taking anti-depressants and it got better. Then it got worse again despite the anti-depressants. Then I said fuck it to the anti-depressants and went off of them. There were a few good days in there in spite of that, to be sure, but it was always there.

That is, until a few days ago.

It’s well-known that depression can spontaneously remit sometimes, but I wasn’t expecting it to happen to me. Just a few short weeks ago I was strongly considering going back on anti-depressants and dreading the long, lonely summer ahead. I’d had many bad episodes recently, too many.

But then they started decreasing in frequency. I didn’t even notice what had happened until, ironically, an evening when I was sad. I had put on some sad music and was sitting around lamenting the uselessness of one of my romantic endeavors. There’s no chance in hell it’ll go anywhere, but I really like the person in question, and this sucks.

And then it suddenly hit me–I was sad like normal people are sad. I wasn’t crying, I wasn’t wondering why I’m such a failure in life and why everybody hates me and why I’m so ugly and useless. I wasn’t planning a lifetime alone and lonely. I wasn’t going down the list of every single person I’ve spoken to recently, analyzing our last conversation, and scanning it for clues showing that they actually secretly hate me.

I was just sitting around, kind of blue, listening to sad music, regretting the fact that this Thing isn’t going to work out, but hoping that someone else will come along soon. Like a normal person. A healthy person.

And that’s when I knew it was over.

The weekend after that–this past weekend–felt entirely new to me. All the colors were brighter, my senses were sharper. Little hurts rolled right off of my skin like water. I woke up in the morning looking forward to the day, whereas for the past year and a half, I’ve woken up every day thinking, “Fuck, another day.”

I could be happy sometimes when I was depressed, but only if I had a concrete, immediate reason. Now I don’t need one. I can be happy just because, sometimes. I can be happy just because I’m alive.

There are a few reasons why this might’ve happened now. Summer started and the academic stress went away. The weather is good. I can be outside now, go to the beach, take walks, explore the city, have a life outside of my tiny room. My friends freed up, too, and suddenly I started having plans with them all the time. It became possible to text someone in a moment when I was feeling down and have plans an hour later.

Besides that, I fell for someone for the first time in ages. Although that person is completely unavailable to me in more ways than one, it was a reminder that there really are people out there with whom I can feel a connection, despite my cynicism about these things. Nothing’s going to happen here, but I’ve already learned more from one unrequited crush than I have from the past year and a half of dating.

The final thing is that I started writing again. By which I mean, really writing–writing fiction–and not just these blog posts and the various other expository pieces that I do. I restarted a novel that I thought up two years ago but then stopped writing because I thought I wasn’t mature enough to write it. It’s a lofty project; its themes include grief, depression, suicide, marital discord, friendship, betrayal, love, and figuring out what the hell to do with your life. It doesn’t seem like an uplifting thing to write, but it is, and writing it once again has made all the difference.

For the first time in a while, I can be at ease alone. Whereas before I hated myself so much that I dreaded being left alone with myself for more than an hour or two, now my mind is a welcome presence. It writes stories for me, it promises me a bright and happy future. It points out birds and clouds and other things I used to ignore. It steers me towards my cheerful playlists, not my brooding ones.

I’m writing this now not just to share it with others, but because, as with coveted toys of my childhood dreams, I’m trying desperately to hold onto this feeling before the dream ends. Because it will. It always does. And when it does, I’ll no longer be able to understand how I could’ve ever written this.

And I’ll reread it and try to understand. I’ll remember to see my friends and to write more and to stay open to the possibility that someone will come along and change my entire life.

I’ll read this and remember.

So goodbye, depression. Until next time.

Goodbye Lexapro

[TMI Warning]

Today marks the end of an era of my life.

Today I took my last dose of antidepressants, and tomorrow, for the first time in a year and a half, I will get up in the morning and (purposefully) not take that pill again.

I went on Lexapro as a last resort in July 2010. I won’t go into all those details here since I’ve written about it before, but I’ll say that, at the time, I had no other choice. When a body has been critically injured, it enters a coma. I was in the mental version of that.

Lexapro did a lot of things to me, some expected, some not so much. I stopped crying every day and wanting to kill myself, at least for a while. I also became, according to my friends, more lively, more social, and visibly happier.

But then, there was the other stuff. Lexapro broke up the one meaningful romantic relationship I’ve had in my life. (Was it destined to break up anyway? Now I’ll never know.) It altered my values and beliefs for some time and turned me into the sort of person I would’ve hated a few months before. Now I’m back to my normal self, thankfully.

It was also a cruel helper at times. If I missed just a day of it, I’d be a wreck by nightfall. If I missed two days, the withdrawal symptoms kicked in, and they were horrible. I’d be dizzy, nauseous, barely able to walk, completely unable to explain to people why I was suddenly sick when I’d been fine just that morning. (“Sorry, I’m going through drug withdrawal” isn’t really an effective explanation for most people.) The worst symptom of antidepressant withdrawal has no official name, but depressives refer to it as “brain zaps.” They’re momentary sensations of being shocked or stunned in the head and they happen every few minutes or so, or even more often.

Theoretically, of course, there’s no need to ever miss a day of a prescribed medication, but when you factor in insurance issues, CVS’s constant fuckups, weird sleeping schedules, and other crap, it happens pretty often. I remember one awful time when I forgot to bring my medication back to school from break with me and I had to get my parents to ship it. Those were an unpleasant few days. Another time, my psychiatrist refused to renew my prescription unless I came in to see her, but I’d already be back at school by the time she had her first available appointment slot, and there was no way I could skip classes to drive six hours home to Ohio. She wouldn’t budge.

I’m not going to go into a whole condemnation of psychiatry or the pharmaceutical industry because they gave me back my life. However, I will say this: there is so, so much work to be done.

My psychiatrist prescribed me Lexapro after a nurse practitioner talked to me for ten minutes, and she for about five. She said that “academic stress” was causing my depression and that antidepressants would help me deal with it. She must’ve missed the part where I said that my depression started when I was 12 years old. She also apparently missed the glaring cognitive distortions and emotional issues I was having, and had been having for years and years. She oversimplified my problems and thus prescribed a simple remedy.

It took a while to even begin to sort out what the problem really was, and I’m still not there yet.

Some other things my psychiatrist didn’t tell me: the personality changes. The withdrawal symptoms. The fact that I was more likely than not to have a relapse (which I did). And, of course, the fact that you don’t really recover from depression. You only learn how to avoid it for bursts of time.

That was stuff I shouldn’t have had to learn through experience.

Now I look at that almost-empty bottle and I just can’t look at it with a sense of gratitude. I will never be an enthusiastic advocate of psychiatry, though I will continue fighting for the rights of patients to obtain complete information about medication and to make their own decisions.

I look forward to the end of that daily reminder of what I’ve lost. For the past year and a half, I have started every day by taking Lexapro and remembering that I’m not okay. Now I won’t have that anymore. Now I’ll be able to go half the day, maybe even an entire day, without thinking about that part of myself.

I’m not nearly naive enough to think that this is the end. For all I know, I’ll be back on the medication in a month. I’m almost certain that I’ll be back on it within the next few years.

But for now, at least, I’m done with it.

For now, the only things I’ll be taking in the morning are a multivitamin and a shower.

Normal, just like everybody else.

Days I've Been An Adult

[TMI Warning]

According to our culture and our legal system, I just became an adult.

That is, I just turned 21. Happy birthday to me.

Although 18 is the age of majority, 21 is the age at which we gain control over our own bodies by getting the legal right to pump them full of alcohol until we vomit everywhere and/or engage in inadvisable sexual relations.

Needless to say, I won’t be doing much of that, not on my birthday and not ever. But 21 is still an important age to me. Now I can bring a bottle of wine to a friend’s house as a gift. Now I can order a glass of champagne at a restaurant to celebrate something important.

I’m an adult today.

I’m an adult today, but I’ve been an adult many other days of my life. I want to reflect on those times now.

I was an adult on all the days I left my family behind, when I pretended that my family didn’t matter to me because that’s what adults do.

I was an adult on the day I fell in love with my best friend, and on the day when I left him two years later because it wasn’t right.

I was an adult on the day I sat clutching the phone for half an hour before finally dialing Counseling and Psychological Services.

I was an adult on the day I sat with my notebook and voice recorder, freaking because I was about to go talk to strangers, but I did it anyway.

I was an adult on the day I had my first panic attack and sat sobbing on a bench in downtown Chicago, punishing myself for all the things I couldn’t do.

I was an adult on the day I told my mom that I needed help.

I was an adult on the day my psychiatrist told my mom that I’d been cutting myself, and she turned to me and asked if it was true.

I was an adult on the day a careless driver totaled my car, with me and my little siblings inside. I jumped out of the car, my face stinging from the airbag, and carried my brother and sister off of the street, glass crunching underneath my flipflops.

I was an adult on the day I took my first dose of antidepressants, the first of many, and I was an adult on the day I decided that I didn’t need them anymore.

I was an adult on the day I turned down a paying job for the chance to volunteer in New York City.

I was an adult on the day I realized that I wanted to die, and I was an adult every single day after that, when I chose to keep living anyway.

I was an adult on the day I chose my major and my future career.

I was an adult on the day I told the world I have depression, and on every day I’ve done it ever since.

I was an adult on the day I had to tell a guy “no” for the first time, and when I realized how much worse things could’ve gone.

I was an adult on the day I had to tell my best friend what to do when I can’t stop crying.

I was an adult on the day I lost a close friend because of who I am.

I was an adult on the day I met my newborn nephew and wondered how there could be a whole person there that hadn’t even existed 48 hours ago.

I was an adult on the day I realized that I have enemies. I have enemies because I like to say what’s on my mind. That’s not a reason anyone should ever have enemies.

I was an adult on the day I realized that my little brother is growing up to be just like me, and the thought of that made me feel awful.

I was an adult on the day I realized that I could never believe in God again, and I was an adult on the day I begged Him for help anyway.

I was an adult on the day I knew that I never wanted to leave New York, and when I decided that I was going to return even if I had to crawl there all the way from Ohio.

I was an adult every day I opened up and gave someone new a chance.

I was an adult every day I sat at the kitchen table, waiting for my dad to drive me back to college, crying.

I was an adult on the day I realized that things were never going to be the same again.

And I was an adult today.

I know that anyone reading this probably thinks this is all really sad. They will probably wonder why I would choose to think about such sad things on my 21st birthday.

It’s because, sad as they are, these things give me strength. I feel prepared for an adult life because I have been an adult so many times already. While reflecting on happy memories feels nice, it doesn’t give me that feeling of inner strength, because everyone can deal with happiness. Not everyone can deal with despair.

I can.