Depression, Faith, and Staying Alive

10 February, 2012 § 6 Comments

I’m not religious or, for that matter, particularly spiritual. If pressed on my beliefs I will say I’m an agnostic or a theist. But I don’t really think beliefs matter very much. In terms of practice, I attempt to actively practice kindness and to not become involved with evil, to the point where that’s possible (my game Drifter’s Escape can be seen as an exercise in how to relate to evil). But ultimately I don’t have a serious practice. In terms of community, I try to seek out moral intellectuals, but I don’t have a serious community.

What I do have is faith. I’m not sure whether it’s the same sort of faith that is felt and expressed by the religious, but I can’t really think of any other word for it. I have faith because, as a depressive, my options are that or die.

Depression is a rough disease. The first thing that it does is it sweeps away any notions you have of the supremacy of the rational, conscious mind. Depression strips these illusions: willpower, the self, reason, and decision making. When you’re depressed you know, at a fundamental level, how terrible living is and you know, at the same level, that it will never get better. When I talk about “fundamental level” I mean “like how you know how to breathe, or how to keep your heart beating.” Depression exists at that level of gut instinct that you just cannot cognitively override and cannot say no to.

Consequently, there are places, in depression, where suicide seems very, very rational and completely natural. I’ve been there, although I’m not now, thanks. How can you survive this?

One means is by establishing rational, conscious safeguards (“If I start feeling suicidal I will call my friend X”) which is good and I strongly encourage anyone with clinical depression to do. But that’s … treating the symptoms at best. It doesn’t really provide any sense of comfort, and it doesn’t really make your day-to-day life less dismal.

For me, and I think not only for me, there is something else that lets me survive, which I am realizing is faith. Not faith in a higher power, but faith that things can get better, even though every fiber of your being tells you that this is wrong, that clearly things will not get better, I find myself able to hold in blessed cognitive dissonance the idea that things will get better. I don’t know how. There’s no rational path from here to there. They just will, somehow.

This makes no sense. It’s irrational to believe it, particularly when one has treatment resistant or untreated depression. But it’s not really about belief, in fact, often I don’t believe it. It’s some other underlying cognitive force.

Too often, we try to reduce faith to beliefs, and judge beliefs based on some sort of binary truth value. If you have the luxury* of living entirely in your conscious mind, and entirely within a particular American culture of the self, this can seem to be the case. But the options to me, as someone who is chronically depressed, are not that. I can be rational — give in to my knowing that things are terrible and will always be, and die, or I can have faith, and live.

Religious people? Is it anything like this, for you?

* In all honest, I would say that this is as much a tragedy as a luxury. But I have self-bias, of course.

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§ 6 Responses to Depression, Faith, and Staying Alive

  • The way I see my depression is very clinical: I start crying all the time if I stop taking an SSRI, so I don’t try to do that anymore. The side effects can make life very frustrating for me, but I really like not crying all the time.

    The thing about faith is that it’s very demanding. I don’t get people who are just “G-d [see: jesus] is there for me all the time and it is awesome. He loves me and forgives me no matter what I do and this relationship has no strings attached whatsover. Just like real life relationships with people.” While that, theoretically , is true, um, there’s plenty of times (more often than not) when it doesn’t feel like He’s there at all. He’s clearly a very fairweather friend. If He were not G-d and just an actual person I would have found someone better years ago. But He is G-d. And in Judaism He makes wild demands that take up a lot of your time and sometimes it seems like you’re getting nothing for it. But if I gave up on religion, I think my life would be much more depressing. I can’t be sure about that, but I can be pretty sure it wouldn’t make me any happier, and I feel I should generally choose paths that do not lead to unhappiness if I have the choice.

  • bankuei says:

    Religious people? Is it anything like this, for you?

    I had a couple of experiences in my life which cemented faith as an experience. Mind you, that didn’t tell me how all the world works, what the afterlife is like, or what any particular belief system is exactly correct, other than a) organization to the universe and b) the existence of a spirit/soul after death.

    (That said, I don’t think most religious people are in this same space at all. They very often have crises of faith and need to shout a lot to convince themselves of what they’re trying to believe…)

    That classic, “This too shall pass” is what I remind myself, not as a matter of faith, but as a matter of rationality, to get beyond shitty places. I KNOW things can always get worse, but I have to make the choice to remind myself that things can get better too, within this world.

    The other side of it, is also, thinking about the people from my youth who didn’t get to make it – who got murdered, died in accidents or other things. That life is precious and I have it, so I try to use it and enjoy it.

  • Hey Ben, thanks for sharing.

    So, I’m religious. But I’m kinda not. The label doesn’t matter to me; I used to think believing in & acting on the teachings of Jesus was the Most Important Thing, the thing that brought some kind of spiritual and literal salvation. I don’t know if I quite believe that anymore, and it doesn’t really matter–the way I think about it now, like you, “belief” isn’t the important thing.

    I’ve realized my spirituality has nothing to do with intellectual assent to various propositions put forth by a church or an ancient text. But faith, yes. Faith is an important thing. Paul Tillich (a progressive/liberal theologian of the mid-20th century) talks about faith as “the state of being ultimately concerned”, that is, being concerned with what is truly Ultimate, or Infinite, or whatever. The content of that concern (Christianity; Islam; believing that things will get better because you just fucking need to; whatever) isn’t the most important thing. The most important thing, the thing that makes it faith, is reaching out to the ultimate (or, as you say, beyond the rational).

    You said, “often I don’t believe it”. Tillich also talks about how doubt is encompassed in the act of faith, is an intrinsic part of it, actually. I’m just going to quote him, because I think this is great and relative to your experience, especially the part after the ellipsis:

    “Faith is certain insofar as it as an experience of the holy. But faith is uncertain insofar as the infinite to which it is related is received by a finite being. This element of uncertainty in faith cannot be removed, it must be accepted. And the element in faith which accepts this is courage….Courage as an element of faith is the daring self-affirmation of one’s own being in spite of the powers of “nonbeing” which are the heritage of everything finite. Where there is daring and courage there is the possibility of failure. And in every act of faith this possibility is present. The risk must be taken.”

    Anyway, I don’t know that I’m making sense; Tillich’s thought is complex, and while I’m excited about it I don’t feel like I’m communicating it well or even have the best grasp on it.

    I suppose I’ll leave it at: Yes, the way you describe your faith is very similar to the way I see mine.

  • changisme says:

    To me, my religion is more like a pact (or a small-c covenant?) with God. I once made this promise as a young girl, then I will honor my promise to respect him and seek him out. Even when there are many doubts about him, I will remember, I have once made a promise. Once in awhile, I will look back and see I had seen a lot of hope through the eye of faith along the way, but these small treasures are not what really sustains the relationship. Because of this, I would say it’s quite different from your experience of faith, in that mine isn’t what is sustaining my life. On the other hand, it is similar in that, it’s also not rational, and the sheer irrationality of it is what allows it to hold on.

  • Ben, I really appreciated reading your thoughts on faith and surviving in this world. I’m probably what you call a religious person, although I cringe at the label, I’m a follower of the Christian faith. I think that there is a paradox inherent in faith, I might define faith as hoping towards something that hasn’t happened yet. Like you mentioned having faith that things will get better even when you don’t feel that way at all. For me when I’m depressed, my faith might be a little different than yours because at my intention is to connect with God, or whatever is beyond our rationality.

  • Darla Magdalene Shockley says:

    I am emphatically not a religious person, so I can’t speak to that. However, I am a mentally ill person, and your writing here really made me think. I’ve never thought of what I do as “faith,” but when I first read this, I thought “Man, he’s right, it IS like faith!”

    But then I re-read it today, and I’m not so sure. I have said in the past that I “trust myself.” I’m bipolar, and part of what it’s like for me is that when I’m in one state, it’s difficult or impossible for me to even remember the other state. Not only what it feels like to be in another state, but even events that happened, sometimes. (Kind of like how you maybe remember that you moved as a small child, because you remember remembering it, or you remember talking about it, but you don’t have actual memories of the move itself anymore.) It’s really hard to believe that I was ever depressed when I’m manic, and vice versa. Often I wonder whether I just made it all up–maybe some therapist was overly-suggestive, or something, I don’t know. (And it’s difficult to believe I was ever stable from a depressed or manic state.) Anyway, when I’m stable especially, I tell myself to remember that I have these states. I remind myself that I usually need 8-9 hours of sleep per night, and if suddenly I only need 3-5, I’m probably in a manic state (or about to be), no matter how “normal” I feel. Even if it seems like it’s always been like this. (Depression is a lot harder to recognize for me until it gets really bad, unfortunately.) I remind myself that I have to think about things rationally and make decisions intellectually no matter what “feels” right and no matter what I “know” is right at the time. I have rules to follow (rule 1: do not do anything life-threatening). I follow them because I remember PROMISING myself that I would feel like it was a bad idea, but really I should listen to them no matter what.

    Anyway, I think the effect of that is pretty similar to what you’re talking about, but it’s actually a lot more like your “if you feel suicidal, call X” rule, only much bigger and more complex.

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