Saturday, February 27, 2010

On Faith and Depression

I think I've mentioned my personal experiences with depression a few times in the past. However, I suspect that for the purposes of this post, I'll have to give a bit more background information for what I'm about to say to make any real sense.

So. I started having unexplained fits of moodiness that were unusual even for a teenager when I was thirteen years old; I called them a "soulless calm", where I felt nothing but emptiness and the dull knowledge that later, I'd be in for a heck of a lot of emotional pain. I was never quite sure what brought them on. I could just be reading in the library, taking a walk on the school grounds (which were rather nice), taking notes in class or sitting at the lunch table with my friends and having a good time, and then—WHOOSH!—I suddenly felt blank. They disappeared for a brief time when I was fifteen—this roughly coincided with the beginning of my involvement with my former pipe band and the community choir that I'm still with twelve years later, and I don't think that was by accident. Eventually, though, they returned, and this time I did feel something, and that something was crippling emotional pain. I could actually feel it, a dull ache somewhere between my heart and my throat.

Most of the time I just tried to ignore it; I had more important things to think about, after all. I had classes to go to, homework to do, lessons to take, musical instruments to practice and friendships to maintain. And I never thought about actually talking about it with someone, because my mother always hated the thought of negative thinking and at the time I wasn't really on good terms with my dad. My friends couldn't possibly understand, and I didn't feel comfortable with the thought of talking to a counsellor; at the time, trusting a stranger with the details of my rather painful emotional life was so unthinkable that I actually had a few genuine panic attacks at the thought of it.

I still do, actually; that's one thing about posting a blog anonymously that I really, really appreciate. Given the chances that anyone I actually know in real life will find this blog, read all my posts and realize that "Zillah" is me, the illusion of complete anonymity makes it possible for me to write frankly about things that I would not likely ever actually talk about in person.

Anyway, I bottled all of this up for years and managed to live a pretty fair facsimile of a normal life until things began to gradually fall almost completely apart about four years ago. I'll spare you the ugly details now; in any case, I've written of them before in at least one of the entries I've linked to above. Eventually, I slipped into a depressive episode that lasted the better part of three years and I haven't quite managed to get out of it yet, at least partly because I've been trying to live as normal a life as possible while dealing with it, especially since my mother's intense depression struck when mine hadn't quite gotten to its worst point, and I had to put my own concerns aside to help her. I'm doing a lot better lately, but let's face it—in spite of my now more-frequent days when I feel like I could take on the world, I still have quite a few when the most heroic thing I can manage is simply to drag myself out of bed, get dressed and feed the budgies and the cats, and even grocery shopping may not be in the cards.

Now, I've heard people say that faith and depression are incompatible; if you have faith, you can't become depressed, and if you're depressed, it means you don't have enough faith. But what these people fail to understand about depression is that it isn't so easily dismissed, and they also fail to understand that faith is not a shield against the problems that can lead to depression and despair. Faith can help you deal with them, I agree with that—but it can't cure them. Saying "I believe" isn't therapy. Trusting the Divine with one's problems won't necessarily correct any imbalance in one's brain chemistry that might lead to depression. It always annoys me to hear people say that if you're depressed, you're not trusting God(dess) enough; it's always seemed to me like there was an insult not-quite-hidden between the lines there. It's a form of smugness and even hints at self-righteousness; the person saying it has presumably not actually experienced clinical depression firsthand, and can therefore afford the luxury of saying that the faith of the person who is experiencing it is inadequate.

I won't say that my slightly odd kind of spiritual faith hasn't been helpful to me—it has been. In the words of someone else who sings in my church choir (and who didn't seem surprised when I admitted to her that I've struggled with depression), "It can't help but help." But it isn't the only thing that helps me to deal with it, and its presence will not prevent it from happening again. It isn't because my faith is inadequate. It's because depression is a mental disorder which has many causes, some of which are not yet adequately understood, and it has a way of sneaking in no matter what you do to prevent it. But it can be dealt with, and lived with, and it is not a poor reflection on the people who have it. And I am profoundly insulted every time I hear anyone say that people who have it don't have enough faith.

I'll put it plainly: without my many different kinds of faith—spiritual faith, faith in my friends, faith in my family and the faith that my life will eventually improve because of my attempts to improve it—I would not be here today. I cling to that on my bad days. It helps me to get through them. And because of that help, I cannot accept the idea that my depression means my faith is inadequate; my continued existence on Earth is proof that it is not.

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