A couple of months ago, I got a notice that someone liked one of my posts. It happens sometimes. (Why do you look skeptical?)
Because we’re both on WordPress, the email gave links to a few of his posts. I clicked one where he talked about reading his official diagnosis from his therapist, and it got him down. I knew what he meant. When I got tested for depression, the therapist was very helpful after the fact. But when I read the report, it was probably the most depressing thing I had ever read.
If you are considering getting tested for depression, I do want to encourage you to do it. It was very enlightening for me. But I’ll give you the same advice I gave this person: Do not read the report unless you absolutely have to. Keep a copy of it in your file cabinet, in case one day someone needs to see it, but DO NOT READ IT YOURSELF. It was written for other health professionals, with jargon that sounds much worse than it really is. Only two parts of the report will help you: The diagnosis (clinical depression, bipolar, whatever), and the recommended treatment. Nothing else in the report will be helpful to you. In fact, it may do more harm than good.
He said, “Amen to this. Focusing on the treatment is much more productive. Of course, being depressed, my mind enjoys wandering to the negative. Fighting it, one day at a time. Thanks for your perspective!”
That might have been the end of our exchange, but it sounded like he needed a little more encouragement, so I responded…
“That’s how it is with the depressed brain. Our vision tends to be dark, so we need to find light wherever we can. One thing I like about my religious tradition is it says our purpose is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever. God is for our joy and our recovery. So keep turning toward the light.”
I didn’t think I was forcing my religion on him. First I acknowledged a depressed brain does gravitate toward darkness. I know the same way he does, from experience. So I was just offering a bit of light I’ve found. I didn’t say this, but when I share with you something that’s helped me, I’m not trying to convert you. All I’m saying is this helped me. If it helps you, great. If it doesn’t, find something that does.
This was his response, and I’ll warn you there is some rough language in it.
“I’m glad you find strength in your religion. However, we are all a product of our circumstances. There is no god. And I think a part of us knows that this is true. There are about two billion Christians who believe to be blessed to the have true faith. Now replace ‘Christians’ with ‘Muslims.’ The truth is, none of us know what the fuck we are doing. All of us are just desperate for meaning.”
Apparently, it was not received the way I intended. Of course I wanted to smooth things over, so I said,
“Whatever you believe or don’t believe is fine. I don’t subscribe to any idea of one and only one way or one and only one truth. Even with my faith, I have felt lost at times. As you say, we are all desperate for meaning, so I just want to encourage you to find your source (or sources) of light and meaning.”
I’m writing now because it needed more of a response than I could put in the Comments. I think he expressed something a lot of people are thinking. Even if they don’t believe with assurance that there is no god, like a genuine atheist, they do sometimes wonder, “Is there a God? I mean really? How do I know?” So to address this, I want to break down what he said.
- There is no god.
- A part of us knows this is true.
- All Christians believe they have the true faith. So do Muslims. [Implied: which one is right?]
- None of us knows what we are doing.
- We are all just desperate for meaning.
I’m not sure how numbers 4 and 5 mean there is no god. To me, they just sound like a description of the human condition and point out the need for a good recovery program. So what about 1-3?
There is no God, and everyone really knows it. They’re just afraid to admit it. He might really believe this. If someone honestly believes there is no god, I have no quarrel with that. However, I know these are the kind of thoughts a depressed brain will tell you. That’s one thing everyone needs to understand about depression. There is situational depression, and there is clinical depression. My tests showed that I have clinical depression, and that means my brain wasn’t producing normal levels of natural antidepressants like Serotonin and Dopamine. And a brain like that will make you have depressed thoughts, even if there’s no reason for it. It shocked me, but it also helped me understand my life. My sister said she had always experienced me as depressed. Even at times when I thought I was happy, I felt some underlying sadness that wouldn’t go away. I finally understood why. I was living with a depressed brain.
The depressed brain will speak with the authority of ultimate truth, and it will be easy to believe. It’s like Poe’s Raven. The narrator in the poem is depressed. A raven flies into his house. The raven can speak, but only one word: Nevermore. The narrator asks questions that need positive answers, and he’s asking a bird that can only say, “Nevermore.” You see the problem there? No matter what he asks, the bird’s answer will always be, “Nevermore.”
The love of my life has died. Will I ever be happy again? Nevermore.
When will God stop hating me? Nevermore.
Will the Cubs win the World Series? Nevermore.
On that last question, what if an overzealous Cubs fan who lived to see his team win the World Series asked the Raven that question two weeks ago, and because of the bird’s answer, killed himself? That’s crazy, you say. No one would kill themselves over their sports team. Have you seen sports fans? But you see the irony. Three weeks ago, it could have appeared to be true. But the bird isn’t speaking “the truth.” It does not even know how to give positive answers. It’s the same with the depressed brain. It says things like, “You’re worthless. No one loves you. There is no god and everyone knows it. Everyone’s dishonest. You screw up everything. God hates you. God has abandoned you.” What does your depressed brain say to you? Like the Raven, that’s all it knows how to say. So never take your depressed brain to be the ultimate truth. You are just as likely to get “the truth” from a Magic 8-Ball.
One of the most important things I heard someone say when I was at a low point in my life was, Don’t believe your feelings [or thoughts] when you’re depressed. Your feelings will tell you God does not love you. God has abandoned you. You are all alone in this world. But God’s word says I will never leave you nor forsake you. God so loved you that He gave His only Begotten Son. While we were yet sinners [i.e., worthless], Christ died for us. That is true no matter what you feel. Feelings will change according to circumstances, but God’s word is always true in any circumstance.
But when the depressed thoughts come, it’s so easy to believe them. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because it comes from our own mind, so we automatically assume it’s the truth. My own mind wouldn’t lie to me, right? WRONG! It lies to you all the time. And when it assaults you with dark thoughts like these, you are in a battle like what Paul described in 2 Corinthians 10:4-5.
(For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ (KJV).
This is true no matter what religion you are. In order to stop the dark imaginations from taking over your mind and your life, you need to have the tools and weapons to fight against them. When De-elevator attacks you (I’ve started calling the depressed voice in my head De-elevator, as in Prince’s song, “Let’s Go Crazy”), you need to fight back. Ephesians 6:10-18 is the famous passage about the Whole Armor of God: Faith, Salvation, Truth, Peace, the Word of God – these are powerful armor and weapons in the fight.
If you’re not a Christian, you don’t read the Bible, that’s fine, but you’ve got to find something, some power and authority and truth that is greater than your own thoughts and feelings. And whatever your greater truth is, it must be based in love, or it will fail. That is the only saying of any religion I hold to be absolute truth. God (or the higher power) is love (1Jn 4:8).
If you say, “Which God? The Christian God? The Muslim God? The Jewish God? Some pagan God?” I say, When it comes to recovery, that is the wrong question to ask.
As a Christian, Presbyterian to be specific, I would love it if everyone believed in the same God I do. But history has shown over and over you cannot force everyone to believe the same way. Any religion can resonate with some people, but there has never been any religion that resonates with everyone. In order to live together, we all have to make room for people who come from a belief system or culture that’s different from our own. This is one reason I’ve found Alcohlics Anonymous’s 12 Steps to be helpful. I can’t name off all the 12 Steps, but I always remember the first three.
- Admit that you are an alcoholic (or addict, depressed, or whatever you seek to recover from).
- Believe in a higher power.
- Submit your life to your higher power.
Notice in those second and third steps, they don’t say believe in the Christian god or Muslim god or any particular god. They don’t even say, Believe in God. They say, Believe in a higher power, i.e., some power greater than yourself that you can trust to help you on your journey of recovery. Your higher power does not have to come from any particular religion. It doesn’t even have to be a god in the traditional sense. Most forms of Buddhism, for example, have no formal belief in God, but any Buddhist I’ve met still believes in a power greater than him or herself.
The reason for the higher power is if you could recover under your own power, you would have done it by now. But your own thinking and your own power got you where you are. It’s like you found yourself in a pit, and someone handed you a shovel and said, “Dig your way out.” You dug and dug and instead of getting out, you got further and further down the hole. Then it hit you. Digging was only getting you deeper into this pit. You look up and see you are in too deep to climb out. Your only way out is to find a higher power, i.e., someone at the top of the pit to throw you a rope so you can climb, and maybe to help pull you up if you are too weak to climb all the way. For me, that person at the top is God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and the rope is the way of all-inclusive love that Jesus taught.
So who or what is that higher power for you? Once you’ve identified that, you’ll be able to see the rope He/She/It/They have thrown down to you and start to climb out.