We talk a lot in the atheist/ rationalist/ skeptical community about how life can be made better by leaving religion and embracing rationality. And we talk a lot about wanting to get that message out into the world.
Today, I want to talk about a very specific, personal, pragmatic example of this.
A little over a week ago, I got some bad news. My dad had a second stroke: he’s stable right now, and he’s doing okay, but they don’t yet know whether he’s going to recover his pre- stroke level of health and mobility. (Which, ever since the first stroke a few years ago, was already pretty bad. And which, frankly, wasn’t that great even before the first stroke.)
I have a lot going on about this, obviously, some of which I’ll probably wind up writing about here over the coming days/ weeks/ months. But here’s what I want to talk about today:
I want to talk about depression, and the difficulty of perspective. And I want to talk about how rationality has helped me deal with it.
I’ve dealt with mild to moderate depression off and on for much of my adult life. It’s mostly situational: it rarely comes on for no external reason, but once it’s triggered, it can be hard to shake, even when the external trigger has passed. I’ve had it pretty well managed for a while now, but it’s something I always have to pay attention to, and many of the routines of my life — getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, making sure I get out of the house and outside on a regular basis, etc. — are deliberately designed to keep it at bay.
The news about my dad’s stroke triggered a pretty bad episode of it. I had a day when I couldn’t make myself leave the house, and could barely make myself get off the sofa, and was stress-eating in a way that I haven’t done in years. I had another couple of days where I was more functional — i.e., able to leave the house and go to work — but I felt like a zombie. I felt like I was sleepwalking. I felt like my head was wrapped in a wet sock. Sleep didn’t make me feel rested… but I didn’t want to do anything but sleep.
I’m doing better now. I’m often sad, and tired. I often feel restless, and have long stretches where, no matter what I’m doing, I want to be doing something else. I’m more easily irritated by small irritations than usual. My attention span isn’t great, and it’s sometimes hard to work and write. But I’m feeling alive, and awake, and present in the world, and able to experience pleasure a fair amount of the time. I have days of waking up and not feeling rested and feeling like I just want to go back to bed… but if I get enough sleep and not too much, I also have days of waking up refreshed and happy, and feeling like I want to get out of bed and start getting stuff done.
So here’s the weird thing, the thing I want to write about.
When I look at the two or three days when the depression was gripping me really badly… they look bizarre. I can understand the “feeling bad” part, of course — I still feel bad now — but the overwhelming sense of hopelessness and paralysis seems distant and weird. When I’m not in the grip of it, it’s hard to understand how I could ever feel that way. It doesn’t make sense.
And during the two or three days when the depression was seriously gripping me, non-depression also looked bizarre. There’s a vicious circle with depression: intellectually, there are things you know you can do to feel better, but finding the energy or motivation to do them feels impossible… and if you don’t do those things, the depression doesn’t pass… and if the depression doesn’t pass, you don’t have the energy or motivation to do the things that make it better… I felt like I was trapped in a tar pit. And even though I knew, intellectually, that I hadn’t always felt this way, that I wouldn’t feel this way forever, that there was a big world outside the wet sock wrapped around my head… I couldn’t see it. It didn’t make sense.
In both the state of depression and the state of non-depression, it’s hard to have perspective on the other.
And that’s where rationality comes in.
Because of my participation in the atheist/ skeptical/ rationalist communities, I am steeped in the habits of rational thinking. I’m not a perfect rational thinker, of course — nobody is — but I know about cognitive biases. I know how emotions color perception. I know that the perspective I’m seeing the world through at any given moment is not necessarily the most accurate one. I know that I’m not always rational… and I can take steps to counteract this. And because of my participation in the atheist/ skeptical/ rationalist communities, these habits of thinking — and of acting — are becoming second nature.
Which makes it much easier to act in a rational manner to take care of my mental health… even when I can’t immediately see any reason to.
When I’m feeling depressed, and am feeling entirely unable to see the possibility that anything could ever make me feel different… I can still know, rationally, that this is not the case. And because I’m in the habit of trusting my rational mind, I find it much easier to take action to make myself feel better. I can make myself get up off the sofa and go outside: not because I can feel any point to it, but because I know, intellectually, that there is a point. I can drink a big glass of water every couple/ few hours: not because I have any appetite or desire for it, but because I know, intellectually, that it will help wake me up. I can take a long walk before I go to work: not because I take any pleasure in it, but because I know, intellectually, that it will alleviate the depression. Etc. I’m in the habit of trusting my rational mind… even when I don’t have any immediate ability to see the point.
And when I’m not feeling depressed, and when the experience of depression seems distant and bizarre and like it could never grip me again… I can still know, rationally, that this is not the case. I can still know, rationally, that I am vulnerable to depression. And because I’m in the habit of trusting my rational mind, I’m better able to take action that keeps the depression at bay. I’m better able to get regular exercise, to eat a healthy diet, to spend a good amount of time outside, to minimize my alcohol intake, to minimize the amount of TV I watch, etc. — because I know that if I don’t, the depression is likely to come back. I’m in the habit of trusting my rational mind… even when my short-term mind doesn’t see the point.
And when I’m in a state like I am now? When the worst of the depression isn’t immediately upon me, but I know that I’m much more vulnerable to it than usual? I can take action that’s appropriate for that as well. I can see that, while it’s usually okay to skip exercise now and then, I now need to get at least some exercise every day. I can see that, while it’s usually okay to take an occasional day off from my healthy eating patterns and just indulge my taste buds, I now need to be extra vigilant about foods that make me feel groggy. I can see that, while it’s usually okay to pass on social engagements, I now need to force myself to get out and see people. Etc. I can see these things… and I find it much easier to act accordingly.
I’m in the habit of trusting my rational mind.
And that’s making this bad situation less bad, and more manageable. It dragged me out of the bad depression I was in a few days ago… and it’s helping me stave off another recurrence.
I’m not saying that atheists are always better able to handle depression and other mental illness than believers. I have no idea whether that’s true or not. I’m saying that — for me — atheism, and the rational thought processes that led me to atheism, and the habits of rational thinking that the atheist/ rationalist/ skeptical communities encourage, have made me better able to handle my depression. I’m saying that the ability to think rationally makes people’s lives better. It is making my life better.
And for that, I am grateful. I am grateful to the atheist/ rationalist/ skeptical communities, for helping me to be more rational, and for helping me make rational thought an everyday habit. This is helping immensely. I am grateful to these communities for getting that message out into the world, so that I could hear it.
And if anyone ever wonders why I do the work I do… it is, in large part, because I want to pay it forward.
P.S. Thanks to JT Eberhard for his insights about this topic, for the example he’s been setting in writing publicly about mental illness, and for his friendship during a shitty time. I owe you one, dude.