Some Thoughts On Depression, and Why Self-Care is So Hard

(Content note: depression. Obviously.)

I’m currently pulling out of a depressive episode — not a horrible one, but not a trivial one either. I’ve been looking at one of the shittiest aspects of depression — the self-perpetuating nature of it, the fact that the depression itself kills my motivation to do the things I need to do to help pull out of the depression. And I think I have a new insight as to why that is. (For me, anyway — not sure if this is true for anyone else.)

Depression is generally a motivation-killer. But for me at least, it’s not an equal-opportunity motivation-killer. It does reduce my motivation to do much of anything — but it’s especially murderous when it comes to my motivation to do self-care, to do the very things that would make me feel better. Exercise, eating well, meditating, masturbating, going outside, seeing people — these are the things that are hardest to do when I’m depressed.

And I think the clue is in the phrase “make me feel better.”

hand holding ivyExercise, eating well, meditating, masturbating, going outside, seeing people — these are all things that make me feel better. But they are also things that make me feel, period. That’s not some sort of goofy coincidence. Feeling better means feeling, you know, something. To some extent, self-care makes me feel better because it makes me feel something.

And feeling is exactly what I don’t want to do when I’m depressed.

Depression, among other things, cuts me off from feeling pretty much anything. It disconnects me from my emotions. Hell, it disconnects me from pretty much everything. At its worst, being depressed feels like being wrapped in thick layers of cotton wadding, which little or nothing can penetrate. Emotion, physical sensation, other people, even my own basic experience of my own consciousness — all of it feels distant, unreachable. This disconnection is a core defining feature of the illness — and it also serves a function, if it can be put that way. I get depressed when there are things happening in my life that I can’t cope with. For me, depression gets triggered when I have two or more horribly stressful things happening in my life, and my brain goes, “Nope. Too much. To hell with that. Not gonna experience that. Time to shut down.”

So when I’m depressed, things that make me feel better are things that I resist — because I don’t want to feel anything at all.

It’s often said that the most dangerous time for a dangerously depressed person is the time when they’re just starting to feel a little bit better. When depressed people start to feel a little bit better, two things happen. We’re feeling something at all — which means we’re actually deeply experiencing the shitty depressed feelings instead of being cut off from them. And we’re starting to feel motivated again — which, if someone is dangerously depressed, can mean they now have the motivation to hurt themselves, something they might not have had when they were in the deepest part of the pit. (This is one of the reasons suicide risk goes up in the first few weeks that people are on anti-depressants — and thus, it’s one of the reasons people need to be monitored very carefully during this period.) I’m not dangerously depressed in that sense — I’m not suicidal, and I’m not self-harming except in the sense that when I’m depressed, I don’t always take care of business and my self-care sucks — but I do experience this “Holy shit, do I really feel this bad?” thing when my depression starts to ease and I’m starting to feel a little bit better.

When I’m feeling okay — when I’m not in a depressive episode — these self-care things aren’t a struggle. In fact, I actively enjoy them. Exercise, eating well, meditating, masturbating, going outside, seeing people — these are some of my greatest pleasures, some of what make me feel most alive and most connected to the world. But in one of the shittier paradoxes of depression, the very fact that they are deep pleasures, pleasures that make me feel alive and connected — that’s part of what makes me push them away.

***

I’m not sure yet how to apply this insight. But I’ve found in the past that having some intellectual insight into how my depression works — and what works to pull me out of it — does help. It’s not a magical cure-all, but it does do some harm reduction. As I’ve written before: The habit of skepticism, the habit of knowing about cognitive biases and the ways our brains deceive us, makes it easier for me to trust my knowledge of what’s really real rather than my lying depressed brain. It doesn’t make me feel any better in the moment — but it gives me a lifeline, something to hang onto, a sense of trust that I won’t always feel this way. Sometimes, when I’m depressed, it’s like riding out a bad drug trip — it’s like, “I can’t see it at the moment, but I know this isn’t going to last forever, so I just have to hang in there and feel like shit until it lets up.” So I’m trying to document these insights, in the hopes that the next time I have a bad episode, I’ll have yet another lifeline. The more I can remember, “Depression lies, and in my case one of the biggest lies it tells me is that I’ve always felt this way and always will,” the easier it is to ride it out.


Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPGComing Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

The Pros and Cons of Caring Deeply About Other People’s Suffering

This piece was originally published in The Humanist.

The Pros and Cons of Caring Deeply About Other People’s Suffering

Minuses:

Symbol_thumbs_down.svgYou get to suffer. When you care deeply about other people’s suffering, you suffer too. Not as much as they do, generally, but you still suffer. You feel a small piece of what it feels like to be homeless, to be a suicidal gay teenager, to be sexually assaulted, to be beaten for being transgender, to have your teenage son shot for the crime of existing while black.

You don’t get to go for the big bucks. Unsurprisingly, there’s not a lot of money in caring about other people’s suffering. Unless you’re very, very lucky (like if you write a song about other people’s suffering that goes to Number One), the best you’ll probably do financially is to be reasonably comfortable. And even if you do get lucky, you’ll probably turn around and plow a good chunk of your good fortune into alleviating the suffering you care about.

You get to waste a lot of time. You get to spend a lot of time trying to persuade other people that the suffering right in front of their faces is real; that the people who are suffering shouldn’t be blamed for it; that working to alleviate suffering isn’t futile. (When I was writing about misogyny recently, and was asking people to say something about it, I saw people seriously argue that speaking out against misogyny was a waste of time, and that nobody’s mind would ever be changed by it.) This isn’t a waste of time, in the sense that it often is effective, and it does amplify the work you’re doing and get other hands on deck. But it’s a waste of time in the sense that it’s valuable time spent arguing for what should be obvious. It’s valuable time that all of you could have spent just doing the damn work.

And when you’re persuading people that suffering is real and that they should give a damn, you get to feel just a little bit guilty about it. As you’re desperately trying to pry open other people’s eyes, you get to feel just a little bit bad about the life of suffering you’re exposing them to.

You get to feel guilty. You get to worry about whether you’re doing it right, whether you should be working on something different, whether you could do better. You get to feel vividly conscious of the ways that you, yourself, contribute to other people’s suffering: buying products made by exploited labor, banking with banks that exploit the poor, driving cars that spew greenhouse gas. Every time you don’t take action, every time you don’t help, every time you don’t donate money or don’t volunteer time or don’t hit “Share” or “Retweet” on the fundraising letter, you get to feel bad about it. And every time you do donate or volunteer or spread the word, you get to worry about whether you could have done it better, or whether you could have done more.

You get to feel helpless. A lot. Once you open yourself up to other people’s suffering, you quickly become aware of just how much of it there is, and how little you personally can do about it. You get to feel overwhelmed. You get to be vividly aware of the fact that no matter what you do, no matter how much you work and sacrifice, at the end of your life there will still be a massive amount of suffering in the world. I sometimes think the helplessness is worse than the guilt, that the guilt is a defense mechanism against the helplessness. Feeling like you could have prevented suffering gives you a sense of control, makes you feel like you can prevent it in the future. As crappy as it is to feel like you could have done something and didn’t, I think it’s sometimes harder to feel like there’s nothing you could have done.

And you never, ever, ever get a break. You never really get a vacation; you never get to retire. When you do go on vacation, you think about the lives of the people who clean your hotel rooms and wait on your tables. You leave generous tips, and feel how inadequate that is. It’s like the red pill in The Matrix: once you’ve swallowed it, you can’t un-swallow it. Once you know, really know, about other people’s suffering, you can’t un-know it. You have to care about it, and feel it, and feel guilty about not doing enough about it, and feel helpless over how little you can do about it — for the rest of your life.


Symbol_thumbs_up.svgPlusses:

You get to have a life that matters. [Read more…]

Should We Care What Other People Think?

“Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.”

—Lao Tzu

In modern American culture—and in many cultures in many ages—there’s great admiration for the trailblazer, the inventor, the social reformer, for those who defy public opinion to speak the truth as they see it. (As long as they defy the right opinions, of course.) If you Google the phrase “care what others think,” the first page of results (as of this writing, on my computer) gives nine links and five images—and with one exception, all of them either passionately argue that caring what others think is a terrible idea, or they give suggestions on how not to do it. And I get that. After all, the trailblazers and defiers are the ones who make history, who change the world with their new ways of seeing and doing. As a card-carrying member of the Strong-Minded Independent Thinker Task Force, I admire that too.

But as an independent thinker who questions truisms and social norms, I want to question this one as well. I understand the desire to reject conformity and defy public opinion. Boy, howdy, do I understand it. But as a catch-all guideline for how we should all live our lives, “Don’t care what other people think” is far too simplistic.

As a matter of pure practicality, it makes sense at least sometimes to care what other people think. To give an obvious example: If I’m preparing for a job interview, I need to put at least some thought into what my potential bosses will think of me. Humans are social animals: we live in an intricately interconnected piece of social machinery, and we depend on other people for our survival and happiness. Being aware of how we’re perceived by others is part of what makes that work. If other people see us as arrogant and unfeeling, disorganized and flaky, or shortsighted and reckless—and we don’t realize it or don’t care—we’re going to be in trouble.

There’s a social justice angle to this as well. When other people have power over you, you bloody well have to care what they think. In some cases, your actual life might depend on it. Not caring what other people think is a privilege. It’s a whole lot easier when you have power, wealth, or other advantages—even to a relative degree.

But apart from these practical concerns, it’s important, at least sometimes and in some ways, to care what other people think. It’s important for one very important reason, one that should matter to humanists and freethinkers and skeptics: other people are a reality check.

*****

the humanist coverThus begins my latest Fierce Humanism column for The Humanist, Should We Care What Other People Think? To read more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!


Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPGComing Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

Depression, and Revisionist Ret-con Time Distortion

(Content note: depression. Obviously.)

So I’ve been in this weird place in recent weeks, or maybe not so weird. I’ve been in this place with my depression where I have good days and bad days. I have days where I feel entirely fine — more than fine, actually, days where I feel good and happy and productive and joyful and engaged and connected and optimistic. And I have days where I can’t muster the motivation to work or shower or dress or leave the house. Because these days are coming in somewhat rapid succession (that’s unusual for me — I tend to slip in and out of my depressive states more gradually), it’s giving me a unique opportunity to observe some things about my depression. And here’s something I’ve noticed:

dali clockWhen I’m depressed, my brain sometimes does this weird thing with time. When I’m having a thought or feeling that’s pessimistic or despairing or otherwise depressed, my brain goes back and rewrites my memories — so I think I’ve always felt like this. It writes a revisionist, retroactive-continuity version of my life, in which I have always felt like this. And it filters my perception of possible futures, so it seems obvious and self-evident that I’m always going to feel like this, forever.

The specific example that made me want to write about this: I was having this experience, where every time I had a moment of happiness or joy or connection, it would quickly be shot through with an intense consciousness of mortality. “Sure, you’re happy now — but remember, someday you’re going to die, and everyone you love is going to die, and everything you’re experiencing is going to disappear.” And these moments of consciousness of mortality weren’t just fleeting bits of awareness of the obvious. They were intense, they were powerful, they were painful, and they obliterated whatever pleasure I was experiencing. It was, unsurprisingly, extremely upsetting, and extremely hard to deal with.

And I wasn’t just having this crappy experience. It felt as if I had always had this experience. It felt as if every moment of joy I’d ever had in my life had been shot through with an intense consciousness of death. And it felt like this would be true for every future moment of joy, for the rest of my life. [Read more…]

A Less Simplistic View of Evil: The Jasmine Storyline in “Angel,” And Why People Do Awful Awful Things

Content note: This post contains significant Buffy the Vampire Slayer content. However, I think it’ll be of interest to non-Buffy fans. If I’m wrong, and you read it anyway… well, that’s five minutes of your life that you’re never getting back. Also, it contains spoilers about a TV series that ended over ten years ago. Sorry.

Why do evildoers do evil?

For obvious reasons — the Charlie Hebdo shooting, the NAACP bombing, Ferguson, and just all the awful shit that’s been happening in recent days/ weeks/ months/ years — I’ve been thinking a lot about evil. I’ve also been re-watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” lately, along with its spinoff show, “Angel.” (I promise this isn’t a non-sequitur. Stay with me.)

jasmine 1Right now, I’m in the Jasmine storyline in “Angel” — the storyline about the magical being with god-like powers who wants to turn the Earth into a blissful paradise with no conflict, hatred, war, or poverty, and whose very presence instantly makes people (a) blissfully happy, (b) loving and accepting of each other, and (c) intensely devoted, worshipful, and obedient of Jasmine’s own god-like self. I’ve written before about how this storyline is a metaphor for religion and theocracy. But I was thinking again about why I like this story arc so much, and I realized:

It’s a realistic and insightful exploration of why evildoers do evil. [Read more…]

The True Meaning of Christmas

I’m reposting a bunch of my holiday posts, as a part of a holiday tradition thing. Enjoy!

So what does Christmas really mean?

war on christmas book coverAmong all the traditions of the holiday season, one that’s becoming increasingly familiar is the War on the Supposed War On Christmas. In this tradition — one that dates back to the sweet olden days of overt anti-Semitism — the Christian Right foams at the mouth about the fact that not everyone has the same meaning of Christmas that they do, and works themselves into a dither about things like store clerks politely recognizing that not everyone is a Christian by saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Because in the mind of the Christian Right, it somehow disrespects their faith and impinges on their religious freedom to share a country with people who feel and act differently than they do.

Okay. Insert rant here about how the Christian Right isn’t actually interested in religious freedom and respect for their faith. They’re trying to establish a theocracy. They don’t care about religious and cultural plurality. They don’t care about the fact that winter holidays mean different things to different people, and that different people celebrate different ones and in different ways. They don’t care about the fact that not everyone in the country is Christian, and that lots of people who do call themselves Christian are actually pretty secular in both their everyday life and their celebration of the winter holidays.

No, scratch that. They do care about it. They think it’s bad.

But that’s not actually what I want to talk about today.

In the face of Bill O’Reilly and company screaming hatefully about the true meaning of Christmas, I want to talk — in true grade-school essay form — about what Christmas means to me.

Because I actually like Christmas.

lighted treeChristmas; Solstice; Hanukkah; Kwanzaa; Festivus; “the holidays”; whatever. I don’t have a strong attachment to any particular name or date or occasion. Any mid-winter holiday around the end of December will do. Lately I’ve been calling it either “the holidays” or “Santamas” (in honor of what Bart Simpson has described as the true meaning of the holiday: the birth of Santa). I was brought up culturally Christian, though, with Christmas trees and Santa and all that, and I do tend to refer to it as Christmas at least some of the time.

And I love it. I always have. I know it’s fashionable to hate it, and I get why people get annoyed by it — but I don’t. I love it. It’s one of my favorite times of the year.

And here’s what it means to me. [Read more…]

Some Thoughts on Spending Christmas Day Alone

I’m reposting my previous holiday posts, as part of my holiday tradition thing. Enjoy!

I’m not spending Christmas Day alone. I’m spending it with Ingrid. I’ve spent Christmas Day with Ingrid for as long as we’ve been together: sometimes with her family, sometimes just with the two of us. And I love spending Christmas with Ingrid, whether it’s with her family or just with her. I’m greatly fortunate in my in-laws — I like them as well as loving them — and we have a whole set of wonderful traditions both silly and touching: some from her family, some that I’ve brought to the table, some that Ingrid and I have created for ourselves. And of course, I’m fortunate beyond words in Ingrid.

But I was single for twelve years before I fell in love with Ingrid. For ten of those twelve years, I was very happy to be single, was single very much by choice, was actively and adamantly resistant to the idea of not being single.

And during those years, I almost always spent Christmas Day alone. I could have visited my family, but I chose not to: I preferred to see my family at times other than Christmas, without the stress of holiday travel/ high expectations/ December in the Midwest. And I could have visited any number of friends who were having Christmas Day gatherings. But I didn’t.

Because when I was single, I loved spending Christmas Day alone. [Read more…]

Seven Reasons for Atheists to Celebrate the Holidays

This piece was originally published on AlterNet. I’m reposting as part of my holiday tradition thing.

grinchIt’s often assumed that the atheist position on what is politely termed “the holiday season” is one of disregard at best, contempt and annoyance at worst. After all, the reasons for most of the standard winter holidays are supposedly religious — the birth of the Savior, eight days of miraculous light, yada yada yada. Why would atheists want anything to do with that?

But atheists’ reactions to the holidays are wildly varied. Yes, some atheists despise them: the enforced jollity, the shameless twisting of genuine human emotion to sell useless consumer crap, the tyrannical forcing of mawkish piety down everyone’s throats. (Some believers loathe the holidays for the exact same reasons.) But some of us love the holidays. We love the parties, the decorations, the smell of pine trees in people’s houses, the excuse to eat ourselves sick, the reminder that we do in fact love our family and friends. We’re cognizant of the shameless twisting and mawkish piety and whatnot — but we can deal with it. It’s worth it for an excuse to drink eggnog with our loved ones and bellow out “Angels We Have Heard On High” in half-assed four-part harmony. (In fact, when it comes to the holidays, atheists are in something of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position. If we scorn them, we get called Scroogy killjoys… but if we embrace them, we get called hypocrites. Oh, well. Whaddya gonna do.)

So today, I want to talk about some of the reasons that some atheists love the holidays: in hopes that believers might better understand who we are and where we’re coming from… and in hopes that a few Scroogy killjoys, atheist and otherwise, might be tempted to join the party. (If not — no big. I recognize and validate your entirely reasonable annoyance at the holidays. And besides, Scroogy killjoys are an important holiday tradition.) [Read more…]

Intransitive Gratitude: Feeling Thankful in a Godless World

I first published this on Thanksgiving 2011, and have decided to make it a Thanksgiving tradition.

thank youIf you don’t believe in God, what does gratitude mean?

I don’t mean specific gratitude towards specific people for specific benevolent acts. I mean that more broad, general, sweeping sense of gratitude: gratitude for things like good health, having food to eat, having friends and family, the mere fact of being alive at all.

I started thinking about this when I was watching the “Thanks for Skepticon” video that the Fellowship of Freethought Dallas put together, where they asked participants at Skepticon 4 to say what they were thankful for. Most of the folks in the video — myself included — took the question at face value, and spoke of our intense gratitude: for science and medicine, for friends and family, for jobs in an unstable economy, for trees, for the very fact that we exist at all.

But some participants — specifically PZ Myers and American Atheists president David Silverman — questioned the entire assumption behind the project. Silverman simply reframed the question: instead of saying what he was thankful for, he spoke about who he was thankful to. And Myers took on the entire enterprise directly. He said that asking people to be thankful for something was an attempt to “anthropomorphize the universe.” He said there were lots of things he liked — being alive, his wife, his kids, squid — but he wasn’t going to express gratitude to the universe, since the universe wasn’t capable of expressing any gratitude back.

Hm. Interesting point.

So this video — and the subsequent discussion of it on my blog — got me thinking: If you don’t believe in God, does it even make sense to say that you’re grateful for stuff? Not to specific people who did specific nice things — that kind of gratitude makes sense, obviously — but just general gratitude for the good things in our lives? Does the emotion of gratitude have to have a specific object, a conscious actor who made choices that affected our lives in positive ways? Or can we feel grateful without an object?

Is there such a thing as intransitive gratitude? [Read more…]