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Sep 26 2011

Depression, Rationality, and the Difficulty of Perspective

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.

40 comments

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  1. 1
    Jon Jermey

    I suffered depression and paranoia for a couple of years due to an undiagnosed thyroid condition, and I still have to be alert to stress or other conditions that can trigger bouts of irrational behaviour. I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone, but it did teach me three things:

    1. The brain is an organ like any other. It can get sick and go out of whack like any other, and it can be treated with drugs or diet or even exercise like any other. I don’t feel the slightest guilt about providing my brain with the chemicals it needs to function normally, any more than I feel guilty about rubbing liniment into my back when it gets sore.

    2. From the inside, your brain always looks normal. As the one with the viewpoint, you get to judge where the problem lies, and it’s always easier to blame the world than yourself. We have an overwhelming predisposition to externalise our problems and seek out scapegoats and other reasons why things are going wrong. It takes a real effort of will to shift your perspective and see your troubled mind from the outside. Most people need outside help for that. Some people never make it even WITH outside help.

    3. You should listen to and trust the people who love you. I put my family through hell for a long time because I was convinced they were part of the problem, not part of the solution. I should have listened and trusted more. Probably we all should.

    My reasons for atheism are similar to yours: I think the experience of being right and sane and balanced is inherently good, and worth spreading as far and wide as possible. My personal experience of just how deluded a brain can become has only confirmed that. There’s no soul in there to keep you rational when your biochemistry acts up; you have to find a real solution.

  2. 2
    Alexandra

    This is a great post. Thank you.

  3. 3
    Sneffy

    As a female, bisexual, atheist feminist who just went through her first round of situational depression this post is a bit like looking into my future – and it doesn’t look too bad. Thanks for the hope :)

  4. 4
    Maria, the other one

    Spot on.

    When I was going through a rather heavy episode and trying to name my feelings, I realized that it would have been incredibly easy to consider myself a heavy sinner called by god to repent – ridden by guilt and self-loathing as I was. Heck, I was even tempted (well, so to speak) to call a priest! I also noticed that when one is, in essence, desperately crying for help, the spiritual vultures are all too eager to fill the void. For all I know I could have ended up in the woo circus or a creepy cult. My atheism, and the shreds of rationality I could muster, saved me.

  5. 5
    cholten99

    > 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.

    Indeed, spot on. I suffered form quite serious depression for a while many years and and it’s only in the last few weeks that it’s tried to start reasserting itself. Just as you say, when I’m ‘down’ I can’t imagine ever feeling any other way or, for that matter, ever *having* felt any other way.

    However, I have the luxury of knowing that this is just a ‘bad neurochemistry day’ and that while the problems I have can seem insurmountable and will still be there the next day I know that by then they will seem relatively minor.

    Yes, exercise and diet help but mostly just knowing that this is just a temporary wonky-brain moment helps me get through.

  6. 6
    Ariel

    Greta
    As it happens, just yesterday I read a long paper about depression, with particular emphasis on how it is really hard for men especially, because of the cultural patterns which order them to be “strong and ready” all the time. You know, I read this paper as a piece about me. I fight with recurrent episodes of depression from early adolescence. And I’ve always had a serious problem with telling anyone about this. Oh, I understand the situation – I know that it’s one of those cases where the cultural conditioning is against you, but I found it extremely difficult to use this knowledge in practice. I’m a bit ashamed to say this (I will say it nevertheless) but the approach of the sort “Oh, you are depressed, so you are a failure” is still with me, somewhere in my mind, all the theoretical knowledge notwithstanding.
    I’m glad to hear that you are able to use your rational mind in situations like that – with knowledge giving rise to action on a very basic level; I think it’s great. If only I could do the same, life would become easier.

    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.

    Me neither. I used to be a believer quite a while ago; from my personal experience it looks like the ability to deal with depression depends more on your psychological makeup than on your belief system (which is to say that I haven’t noticed much of a difference in this respect between these two phases in my life). As a Christian, in my most depressive moments I was paralyzed with a picture of life full of suffering, fear, despair and helplessness. There was God of course, but in the worst moments he seemed so far and away. As an atheist, I have practically the same. Also the impulses which break the cycle come from the same sources in both cases: pills, other people, sometimes my own (usually unsuspected) reserves of inner strength. I can’t see much of a practical difference in my own case.

    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.

    I thought about this fragment. There is something here to which I can relate – this outlandish, weird feeling, yes. On the other hand, some conflicts are with me all the time, no matter what phase I’m in. How to explain this … hmm… when you contemplate suffering, hopelessness, death – ok, when I contemplate them – there are these two attitudes, which are … somehow valid to me whatever happens, whatever phase I’m in. One is: “life sucks, it’s just so full of shit”. Then there is a reply: “but there are so many valuable and beautiful things in your life; and note that it’s suffering and death that make them possible!” Then the angry retort comes: “oh, really? So the justification of these horrors is that they enable you to enjoy all this small pleasures in your so precious life?”
    Ok, the dialogue is in fact longer, but I will end with that. What I want to say is that in my life I don’t dismiss neither side of this conversation. Both of them formulate insights which are somehow valid and important to me. It’s a state of permanent dialogue, permanent conflict. In various phases of my life the accents may be distributed differently, but somehow I can always understand and (sort of) sympathize with both sides – a depressive and a non-depressive me.

    (All right, I probably wasn’t very communicative in this last part; so maybe it’s better to stop now)

  7. 7
    speedwell

    I am chronically low-grade depressed. I just got over the flu and I am dealing with the additional weakness and depression resulting from that. I know both these things consciously. I’ve been to therapy and been discharged; the treatable part of the depression has been treated and I’m at peace with it. The rest, well… when I don’t get a kick out of overseas travel the way I used to, my affect is flattening. I know this consciously too. It is easy to self-analyze, easy to feel like you’re doing the best you can under the circumstances; it’s difficult to look past the narrowing horizons and look forward to being functional again when even the thought of getting better seems like something fundamentally out of reach.

    But I’m glad you posted this; it gives me some tips. Like, for example, getting exercise, despite not having the energy to drag myself up a flight of stairs, going outside, despite having no destination in mind. Just doing as much as I can do, pointlessly, is better than not doing anything at all, pointlessly. Not trying to be sarcastic here, sorry. Every little bit, no matter how little, helps.

  8. 8
    Jules Cox

    I am currently in an outpatient program at a hospital for depression. While it is not a Christian program, it’s surprising (to me, anyway) how often God creeps in around the edges in group therapy. It’s annoying to me, not only because it’s absurd (references to ‘it all happens for a reason’ being the most common) but because there is an underlying assumption that we all believe the same thing, without those beliefs ever being discussed. It hasn’t been a hindrance for me, happily, because examining those hints of religious belief reinforce to me the real reasons I have embraced atheism – to not depend on a blind trust in the supernatural to pull me through hard times, to not justify a complex and contradictory theology for the sake of my own emotions, to not let someone else dictate to me what the nature of the world is (ok, nuclear scientists can dictate that, they have better equipment than I do.) I am so glad I got a firm handle on my own beliefs (thank you Greta, and thank you Richard Dawkins) before this episode began.

  9. 9
    pams

    I REALLY like this and, for me, it’s opened a new way to think about what you “feel” you should do vs. what you “know” you should do. Thanks!

  10. 10
    jtradke

    Hi Greta – Have you ever read/heard anything about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? It’s pretty similar to what you’re describing. My familiarity with it is primarily through the book “Feeling Good” by Dr. David D. Burns. To me, it’s the skeptic’s approach to depression and mood problems. Like in one part of the book he goes through 10 different cognitive distortions (I found a copy of them here: http://healthymind.com/s-distortions.html) that people tend to make. And if you have any sort of skeptical background, these distortions look a lot like logical fallacies, only applied to common thought patterns. Very interesting and helpful stuff!

  11. 11
    Enkidum

    A related story, I’m not sure if it qualifies as depression, but it definitely qualifies as rationality lifting me out of unhappiness. I’m a first time commenter here, so apologies for writing such a long post.

    I was brought up atheist from day one, and have had precisely one period in which I seriously considered the existence of god, which lasted, on and off, for almost two years. It was not fun at all.

    The trigger was shame and a hefty dose of LSD (this was a while ago). I won’t go into the details, but basically I was caught out having lied to a friend while tripping balls, which is obviously going to screw with your head.

    Being a rather self-centered snot-nosed teenager, I started kind of mentally folding in on myself, and went through a several hour period in which I essentially felt like I was on cosmic trial. It wasn’t entirely clear what the purpose of the trial was, or even that it was a “trial” per se, but I was being judged by powers I couldn’t even begin to comprehend. I sometimes thought it was a sort of sci-fi situation in which a council of wise aliens or future time-travellers or whatever was trying to get me to explain myself, but more of the time it was just God. A vengeful, angry, and rather disappointed god.

    I won’t go into all the gory details, not least because this was almost twenty years ago and I don’t remember them. But one thing is that I started becoming convinced that all the times I’d previously taken acid (yeah, maybe I was doing it a bit much) had been opportunities for me to understand and accept whatever Great Cosmic Truth was there for the grasping. And I’d failed to do that, and was wasting my time by treating drugs as just an opportunity to get high rather than as an opportunity for self-improvement.

    The thing was I wasn’t able to grasp what this Great Cosmic Truth was, but it was a huge moral failing on my part that I had failed to grasp it in the past. It wasn’t just that I was feeling guilty about lying to my friend, and that my subconscious was trying to tell me I was probably doing too many drugs. Oh no, this was DEEP. And I was in serious spiritual trouble. Or, uh, something like that.

    At any rate, this all become associated with the phrase “a previous trip” for me (can’t remember how, but it did). And even after I came down and calmed down, this cosmic shaming was still sort of background noise in my life. I went around with this sort of buzzing in my head, and a full-blown episode could be triggered, and occasionally was, by various factors, including if I ever heard the phrase “previous trip” – which happened more often than you might think, at least 3 or 4 times over the next year or so. And it tended to happen when I was smoking pot, and when I was hanging out with the same friend. None of these episodes were ever nearly as bad as the original, but they were pretty terrifying.

    Anyways, to cut a long story short… After more than a year, probably closer to two, I had a sudden realization. I didn’t know what it was precisely that I was supposed to grasp, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t ever going to grasp it. And God, or whatever, wasn’t about to tell me. And it suddenly occurred to me that God was an asshole. He was angry at me for failing to live up to some standard, failing to understand something, but he wasn’t going to tell me what the problem was or what I could do to solve it. He just wanted to beat me up without giving me a way out. And seriously, fuck that guy. (I can’t remember precisely, but I’m pretty sure he was male.)

    I’m pretty sure this understanding was related to Orwell’s essay Such, Such, Were the Joys, which I had read years previously, in which he talked about his childhood perception of being inherently sinful, it being his fault, and there being nothing he could do to change it.

    Putting it in this perspective didn’t immediately wipe out the episodes, but after that they never had quite the same force. And they just kind of withered away. I’m sure if I dosed myself again (been a looong time) and someone said the words “previous trip”, and I was feeling emotionally vulnerable, it would come flaring back, even today. But I think I would be able to think about it a little more rationally, and realize that this had a lot more to do with my subconscious than with any external angry father.

    Sorry, that was longer than I expected. I hope it wasn’t too much of a chore to read.

  12. 12
    AnnieA

    Is there a reasonably-objective way of diagnosing depression without relying on previous personal experience? Because I feel like this pretty much all the time, and I don’t remember feeling any different in the last 20 years or so.

    Basically, hope is a very limited commodity that comes at a slow trickle and must be carefully guarded if I don’t want it to evaporate.

    Unlike you, I’m lacking any evidence that things could be different.

  13. 13
    inflection

    While it’s not the same thing as depression, I remember applying a similar thought process to losing weight.

    I was 324.5 pounds at peak weight, and I remember thinking that if I stayed like this I was going to have a heart attack and die by the time I was 40, not to mention have a crappy life until then. I looked around at the various diets and thought, “These things are fluff and magical thinking. There can’t be anything more to it than chemistry and biology. You can’t beat physics.”

    So I started calorie journaling. I budgeted X calories and stuck to it, reading calories off the side of boxes and cans, and weighing fresh foods and consulting a chart. I weighed myself, stuck to the budget, and weighed myself again a week later, with the intent of altering the budget to change my rate of weight loss if it was less than a pound per week. No exercise changes required, other than making sure I got a steady amount of moderate exercise (walking to work daily, as it happens).

    As it turned out, I didn’t need to change the budget at all, because I was already losing weight. I kept that budget and eventually lowered it a bit when I got so thin that I was using fewer calories in my daily activities. Over the course of three years I lost a pound a week on average, and hit a goal weight of 160 pounds (BMI “normal”!) almost exactly three years later.

    It may seem ridiculous to attribute this to atheism, but I wrapped up my dedication to materialism with my potential success in weight loss. I trusted the numbers, and kept at it even in weeks where nothing seemed to be happening. No “lettuce negates the Snickers” self-deception allowed.

    Not as major as depression, perhaps, but a major life change for me. Just wanted to say that I shared your experience, in a way.

  14. 14
    Greta Christina

    Is there a reasonably-objective way of diagnosing depression without relying on previous personal experience? Because I feel like this pretty much all the time, and I don’t remember feeling any different in the last 20 years or so.

    AnnieA @ #12: If you feel like this pretty much all the time, and you don’t ever remember feeling any different, I urge you to see a medical doctor. Yes, depression can be diagnosed — it’s an illness, with a recognizable constellation of symptoms — and it can be treated.

    Just doing as much as I can do, pointlessly, is better than not doing anything at all, pointlessly. Not trying to be sarcastic here, sorry.

    speedwell @#7: That doesn’t seem at all sarcastic. I totally get it. And in fact, I think it will help a lot. If I’m feeling resistant to exercising or going outside and am feeling like there’s no point, I think it will help to remember that there’s no more point to lying on the sofa than there is to getting up and going for a walk… and getting up and going for a walk stand a chance of making me feel better.

    And everyone who’s been commenting: Thanks. The empathy and support are really helping. I’m grateful.

  15. 15
    Christine

    I agree, rational thinking helps. I have suffered from mild to severe depression since age 12, but I did not seek help for it until I was 25 (I’m now 35) because I saw depression as a personal failure or a lack of faith. I thought I must not be praying hard enough or trying hard enough. When I finally did seek help, it was because my depression was so severe, it was a matter of life or death.

    When my anti-depressant started to work, it was like a revelation. I felt like I had been seeing the world in black-and-white for so long, I didn’t even remember what color looked like until then. That experience showed me that depression was a biological problem, not a character fault. The fact that something physical could so profoundly affect my perception really changed my worldview. I didn’t need prayer. I needed Zoloft. I really wish I had been taught THAT as a child, instead of “the power or prayer.”

  16. 16
    Wendy

    Wow. Timely post. After being depressed every day since I was a child (despite lots of therapy), I have finally achieved a state of non-depression in the last two years! Yay! Until a couple of weeks ago, when my newly-acquired mental health took a situational beating.

    Your observations are spot on–for me, depression begets depression. So, thanks for the great post, and now I’m gonna get a drink of water and go for a walk.

  17. 17
    Lisa

    Christine, I could be your experience twin, except I started Zoloft at age 18.

    Greta, thank you for writing this.

  18. 18
    Blobulon

    Greta,
    I’m so sorry to hear about your dad. It’s horrible to see someone you love be hurt.
    Thank you so very much for writing about your depression and your coping strategies.
    Thank you also for your entire blog. You’ve helped me a lot.
    Cheers.

  19. 19
    pajamapaati

    Thanks you Greta – that’s a very frank and important post.

    +1 here. Technically I was probably bipolar.

    Long story short: working with one particular therapist helped (I had worked with others that didn’t). Almost the hardest part was getting myself to that person: when I was sunk in depression the challenge of making that initial contact seemed way too much, and when I was 101% on top of the world I had ‘better’ things to do. But I must have had enough rational thought going on to make that connection at some point when I was still wading through the muddy shallows of a depression.

    Some of the things she got me to do one can also find in Richard Wiseman’s “59 seconds” and elsewhere. There’s an exercise in counting one’s blessings for example: simple, quickly and easily performed, clinically proven effective!

    Another particularly effective change was getting me to adopt a more erect posture. (I recalled a Charlie Brown cartoon relevant to this and just found this blog!)

    Some of this stuff is DIY-able. Probably all of it is, in theory, but in practice it’s probably about as easy as doing your own dentistry*. Which gets me thinking we really need a good, rational, evidence-based system of psychotherapy. I don’t know if there is one? CBTs maybe? The person I worked with described herself as an NLP practitioner, but the ‘NLP’ bandwagon has been jumped on by so many woo merchants that it’s a pretty unreliable label these days (see e.g. this discussion).

    So, anyway, not got any great answers here, but we get there by having good questions, right?!

    —————————————————————–

    * FWIW my dentist says he has a colleague who *does* do his own dentistry!

  20. 20
    Jim Randolph

    This post reminded me of a letter from Stephen Fry which I’ve always found helpful. http://www.lettersofnote.com/2009/10/it-will-be-sunny-one-day.html

    Thanks.

  21. 21
    'Tis Himself

    Thank you for this post, Greta. As a situational depressive I can definitely relate.

    Sorry to hear about your dad. Sic transit gloria mundi.

  22. 22
    Flimsyman

    First off; so sorry to hear about your dad. All our thoughts, and hoping for the very best.

    Secondly, thank you for writing this. I’ve been struggling with depression for the better part of a year, since I quit smoking. It literally never even occurred to me that changes in my behavior (like with exercising, which I’ve been slacking off) could potentially help with some of those symptoms. You very literally paid it forward, as directly as possible. I’m off to google for suggestions. Again, thanks.

  23. 23
    ozymandias

    This resonates very deeply with me, Greta, because I suffer from depression.

    I say depression made me a skeptic. I had to learn not to trust my intuition, because my intuition said I’m a useless person who deserves to die. I had to learn Occam’s Razor, because I have to check for evidence about whether my friends all secretly hate me. I had to learn logical arguments, because I had to logically argue myself out of the idea of suicide. Skepticism, for me, is literally an issue of life-or-death. The habits of mind I learned fighting depression are habits that made me an atheist.

    If not for rationality, I would be dead now.

  24. 24
    ethyachk

    I have dealt with depression all my life. It is pernicious and stubborn and sometimes, even when I’m doing everything right, I lose to it. I am aware of it, I take the right meds, I work out, I eat fairly well, and take steps to keep my thoughts in the right place. Depression still wins some battles. Sometimes it’s obviously approaching and I can fight it off; sometimes I don’t realize depression is upon me until it’s too late.

    Looking out from depression, remembering what life is like when I’m not under its curse, may be the worst part of all. I remember when conversations that pissed me off would have just made me laugh; I recall enjoying going out with my friends; dinner with my parents could be fun rather than a dreadful responsibility. Being able to see how things are different is so frustrating, and knowing that I can’t just make it better is doubly so.

    What made the difference for me was the instruction of rational thinking via CBT. Looking depression dead in the eye and finding those little breaks in its armor and fighting back using all the tools logic and knowledge gave me helps immensely. I came to logic and rationality naturally, but applying it to myself took help. I think skepticism helped immensely, since it was my skepticism of traditional psychotherapy that led me to CBT, and ultimately to the help I truly needed.

    Greta, knowing that you have struggle with life like I do sometimes makes what you write all the more powerful. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  25. 25
    AnneS

    This really resonates with me – as a lifelong sufferer of depression (I remember having symptoms at the age of three, which is as far back as my memories go) from a family of mentally ill people, rationality has been my salvation. Way better than waiting for imaginary beings to make you feel better.

    On bad days, just being able to tell myself over and over again that the crushing sense of despair is the result of faulty brain chemistry is helpful.

  26. 26
    Psych-Oh

    Thanks for sharing your experience. Albert Ellis would have loved this post.

  27. 27
    Eric M. Cherry

    I just watched the McGurk effect video at Starts with a Bang, wherein a man saying “ba” can be made to sound like “fa” just by changing the video of his mouth movements. That failure of our brains to correctly perceive reality seems parallel to how depression warps everything.

    In the video, the scientist points out that knowing all about the McGurk effect doesn’t help overcome it. Our brains favor the sensory data over any input from our rational minds, and that’s just how it goes. Likewise, we can know all about depression, and how much does it help? A little bit, anyway. See Speedwell’s Maxim: If acting and not acting are equally pointless, then avoiding pointlessness ceases to be a factor, so get off your butt.

    This might be where finding language for mind-brain-body-physical bits comes in handy. When our body and brain are conspiring to produce a wretched mental experience, we could really use some terms for things like Speedwell’s Maxim (tools of thought) and Greta’s habits (reflexively trusting her rational mind). Without such terms, we wind up telling a person with a depressed body and brain to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

    – emc

  28. 28
    feste

    I understand the depression part of this all too well, and can throw something else in there: I have schizoaffective disorder, which is basically schizophrenia plus a mood disorder, in my case Bipolar I.

    When I’m at my most paranoid, when all of the auditory hallucinations and commands come on strong, I feel more… I don’t know if religious is the right word, but I do feel more agnostically inclined than in my stronger moments. It’s easier to believe that you’re being punished by something supernatural when that’s what your mind is telling you.

    Just a little side story…

  29. 29
    laughingmadly

    thank you, thank you. today has been a difficult day. reading this has helped, so much of it is so familiar it hurts a bit. when people ask how it feels or how i feel like when I’m depressed I want to hand them a copy of this and say “Greta says it better than I can, this, this is what its like.”

    I am months into one of the longest (but not deepest) depressions I’ve had. I’ve started therapy and its helping but shedding the “wet sock” (what an apt description!) takes time and work. I have never thought about how my atheist/skeptic world view could be of benefit to my mental health beyond the removal of superstitious fears and magical thinking. but what a wonderful revelation to readjust my inner dialogue such that the inner voice that tells me it would be good for me to get up, out of bed, outside and move around is in fact the voice of rationality and not the voice of my mother telling depressed teenage me to get out of bed on a Saturday morning, when all I want to do is pull up the covers and sleep through the whole weekend. I know now she was right, it would have helped then, as it does now. but even though I’m 30 now, when I’m depressed I still feel like teenage me, sullen and irrational, and I still want to tell “mom” to leave me alone and go away when I’m feeling like that.

    So the idea of replacing that “mom” inner voice with the voice of the rational adult that I have become in my not depressed times is downright wonderful.

    I am now going to go take the walk I’ve been putting off for almost a week.

  30. 30
    WMDKitty -- Survivor

    *hugs*

  31. 31
    Wendy

    Gee…look how many depressed people you inspired to take a walk today. You’re like a skeptic Jenny Craig!

  32. 32
    NathanDST

    I battled suicidal depression for years, and yes, it’s hard to really understand how I could feel that way when I look at it now. But, I still have to watch myself, and constantly be aware of things that may be leading me to another period of depression. I have to be able to notice patterns of thought and behavior that are leading down that depression road, and work out what will help me move in a different direction. I hadn’t thought of it previously as being rational, but maybe it is.

    Anyway, thank you, and I hope your father does well.

  33. 33
    Andrew

    I understand in this article that you are saying rationalizing can help, but for many people, it feels IMPOSSIBLE to rationalize when you feel that low.

    And Rationalizing can cause feelings of guilt too. Because it’s kind of like:

    “Intellectually, I know I should feel this way or do this certain thing, BUT I DON’T FEEL THAT WAY! And I don’t have the energy to do that thing!”

    It is really hard to understand how some one depressed is feeling when you are not feeling that way yourself.

    I think it’s really good that you can help yourself by rationalizing. Is it like you have found in your self stronger, deeper truths about life that outweigh the lacks of truth in depression?

    I was in and out of depression for about 5 years, but now I haven’t been depressed for over a year and feel like I can handle it.

    But I do remember at one point that no matter how much I tried to intellectualize or rationalize anything, it didn’t work.

    I felt extreme guilt and worthlessness in the fact that I didn’t feel the way I SHOULD. ha

    Anyway, I could ramble on for years here.

    Thanks for this article! I enjoyed reading it.

    Andrew.

  34. 34
    LadyBlack

    Just wanted to say I know what you’re going through. It’s a pain in the ar$e but I hope you find your way through the black cloud. Day by day it seems to me that suicide is a rational choice, but rationally I know that can’t be the case. I’m still waiting for myself to realise that.

    Good luck, please keep talking to people, it sometimes puts fears into perspective. And people can make you laugh unexpectedly.

    Thanks for the link to the Stephen Fry letter, it made me cry, but it also said what I wanted to say. A lot better.

  35. 35
    Mara Jade

    ….Thanks, Greta.

    I’ll try harder. ._.

  36. 36
    vivi

    I’m not sure if it’s like a lagit ilness or whatever, but, ever since I can remember, I’ve been really, really paranoid. For example, I (to this day) often get intense feelings that others are able to hear my thoughts. At times I feel completely sure they can. But, same as you, I try to keep in mind that rationally there’s no possiblity for this to be true, and it helps A LOT. Basically, it’s the only thing that keeps me functioning some days.
    :)

  37. 37
    System

    Try and write concisely … there are hardly any takeaways from your boring entry

  38. 38
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    I’m not sure if it’s like a lagit ilness or whatever, but, ever since I can remember, I’ve been really, really paranoid.

    It can be. Which one is something you should talk to a competent psychologist about.

  39. 39
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    Try and write concisely … there are hardly any takeaways from your boring entry

    That’s probably because you didn’t bring anything to it.

  40. 40
    Mike Caffery

    I’ve taken to labeling myself more ‘agnostic’ than ‘atheist’ these days. I feel, with most people, there’s a tendency to see ‘atheist’ as being too certain of things that I don’t necessarily feel certain about. While I don’t ‘believe’ in a god or gods, I certainly don’t feel certain as to their non-existence. I just don’t see any good evidence at the moment to support the idea.

    Not knowing has actually helped me somewhat with my lifelong depression. I don’t know how common I am but much of my depression is existential in nature. A sadness, a frustration that Life is what it is. I agree with the great Julian Barnes, I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.

    That’s a long-winded, lot of blustery talk to get to my point. Sorry about that. Just wanted to thank you for writing about depression. Those of us who battle Churchill’s infamous ‘black dog’ need to talk about it more I think. And, if rationalism has helped you…I say, that’s a pretty awesome thing.

  1. 41
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    Grief Diary, 10/8/12 | Greta Christina's Blog

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