Content Note: This article is about my experiences with depression and anxiety. I’m not a medical professional or psychologist, so if you’re worried about your own condition, I strongly advise you to visit your doctor. This article is not intended to be medical advice.
I often wonder what it feels like to die, to give up on everything; to finally feel the release of this tortured frame of my body and be free. It’s a thought I’ve had many times in my life. Despite my successes, my family and friends, and the passions that animate my curiosity, the creeping darkness of my own mind still haunts me.
To know these feelings is to know depression, at least how it manifests in me. I’ve lived with clinical depression for over ten years, and clinical anxiety for three. Alongside the darkness and thoughts of death, I also experience episodes of intense worry, regret, and self-destruction. These moments paralyze me, make me feel the urgency of my body. The constant wrenching in the stomach, the deep and stentorian beats of my heart. This combination makes it very hard for me to relate to people, especially ones whose easy-going nature and calm demeanor often aggravate my own intensity.
I try not to take it out on them, of course. It is not their fault I am who I am. I am the product of biology as well my environment. My family has a history of depression, often undiagnosed. My father’s depression, of which his undiagnosed case catalyzed the end of his marriage to my mother, still creates in him an inner turmoil. Today, he does seek treatment for it, but as I do, lives with the lingering emotional scars. However, I’m unlike my father in that I’m an extrovert and desire the approval and attention of others. These interactions are a great source of strength.
I have what is called dysthymia, or low-grade depression. It doesn’t appear like other forms of depression do, where you have long-bouts of completely debilitating experiences. Instead, this type of depression smolders under the surface, constantly picking away at you for weeks or months before you have a bad day, month, or even year. You still function, but you battle fatigue, irritability, and loss of attentiveness. In my experience, I often have a poor temper with regards to my episodes. Things will wear on me all day until the smallest thing sets me off. Whether it’s my wife asking me to do something, dropping an item on the floor, or forgetting a task that was important, these send me into a sort of mania that makes me really unpleasant. I have to be talked down from these moments, and thankfully for me, I have a partner who is patient and understands my symptoms.
My depression started when I was 15 years old, about a year into some major life changes. My parents divorced, my father and I moved away from my mom and sister, and I started life at a new school. The first year was pretty great; I gained new friends, found new hobbies, and improved academically, but then a series of misfortunes triggered my first bout with serious depression. I suffered a break-up, being kicked out of my band (due to my increasing moodiness), and was struck with a serious sinus infection that lingered for months. These experiences awakened a melancholy that was brewing all my life. I had an intense childhood that left me with mild trauma. Emotional, verbal, and rare, but very real physical abuse from my past played over and over again in my mind. I blamed myself for the pain that I took, for the breakup of my parents’ marriage, for the poor relationship with my sister. I had a complete breakdown of my self-esteem and personal growth.
It was around this time that began to study religion. I tried to grab on to something, anything that might help me understand what was going on in my mind. I studied the Bible (the book of Ecclesiastes and its poetry still fills me with comfort) as well as Buddhism. I began to meditate and tried to seek answers to my all-encompassing problems. Despite some semblance of recovery, it didn’t really help. It wasn’t until I understood the science of depression that I began to understand my condition. This discovery, alongside other reasons, also led me to my abandonment of religious belief in 2009.
At the suggestion of my doctor, I began taking anti-depressant medication, Lexapro. It was a low dose, but I had to take it every day. Lexapro is a SSRI, or a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. People with depression and anxiety often have problems with the neural framework of their brains; serotonin, a neurotransmitter, is blocked from performing its task as a mood regulator. A SSRI signals in on these serotonin irregularities and helps to normalize the neurotransmission process. In doing so, it helps to regulate mood. I took it as a teenager, spent a few years off of it, and then resumed it in 2014.
The catalyst for resuming the medication was the second major depressive episode in my life, now more pronounced due to my anxiety. My anger, sadness, worry, and impulsiveness began to get the best of me. While my grades were good in college and I was excelling in my professional life, I often came home a shattered wreck of a person. It made me have serious relationship problems with my girlfriend and I found it absolutely exhausting performing even the most basic of activities. I finally had a period of intense panic attacks and breakdowns, especially once I began graduate school, which convinced me to resume my medication and begin another period of talk therapy.
I began seeing a talk therapist during my first depressive period in high school. While he was helpful, I think he thought I was just a moody teenager in need of friends rather than a seriously depressed person. It wasn’t until I began my relationship with my girlfriend (now wife), rebuilt my self-esteem, and climbed out of the hole that I realized that I really didn’t need to see him anymore. Also, the sessions were rather expensive, and our finances also motivated my decision.
I resumed talk therapy, this time with another therapist, in 2014, after the second round of depression with added anxiety. He was a very helpful and kind listener, who respected my lack of religious belief, encouraged me to follow my passions, and gave advice as to how to alleviate some of my symptoms. While I no longer see him, I’m in the process of finding another therapist. I’ve also continued meditating, this time focusing on the practices of Mindfulness.
So, if you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with atheism? For me, everything. When I lost my religious inclinations in 2009, I began to explore the world as it is, not how I wanted it to be. I no longer expected the world or the universe to care about me, because they don’t. The person who is calling the shots in your life is you; atheism is the realization that your life belongs to you. It doesn’t belong to the state, it doesn’t belong to the church. It’s yours to make worthwhile. This was a revelation to me (pardon the religious phrasing). Once I realized that my life was mine to mold as I wish, I had a renewed sense of purpose that reinvigorated my self-esteem and helped me with my depression and anxiety.
This is what a secular, atheist, and broadly humanist outlook on the world has given me. When people say that life is purposeless without God, they are working with a poverty of ambition. When you understand that life is precious, that each moment can be used to laugh, to love, to live, to speak, to think, and to be down once in a while, it gives you the resolve to be better. Realizing that chemistry, biology, and society, not sin or karma, were responsible for my depression and anxiety gave me the necessary tools to live a fulfilling life. As the author Andrew Solomon once wrote, “The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality.” Vitality is what we should strive for, not mere contentment. I’m not happy every waking moment of my day. Hell, no one is. But what I am trying to be is vital, thriving, and dedicated to my own values.
For those who suffer from depression and anxiety, it can get better. There are people who love you and will support you if you ask for their help. There are medical and psychiatric professionals who are there to help you get better. The world can be a beautiful and rewarding place if you face it head-on and not cave to superstition or wishful thinking. Clear and honest reasoning about your own troubles is difficult, but in doing so, you can combat almost any inner struggles you have. My atheism has helped me understand and then care for my depression and anxiety, because I’m not waiting for someone to help me from the sky. I know it’s upon me to take the path that I know will make my life better. It isn’t easy, nor is it the be-all, end-all solution, but being a reasonable person in an often unreasonable world will push back the inner demons. It did, at least, for me.