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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