Something like once a year, I spend a night wanting nothing but to curl up and die. It’s not that I think of killing myself, though way back it did come to that – just that those nights, under what feels like the crushing weight of conscious thought, I long not to exist. Some hungry pit in my chest drains all colour from the world, refusing to swallow the rest of me, and being awake hurts. Social contact becomes like prodding a cracked rib, everyday tasks an uphill slog: I sit for what feels like an age trying to find the will to tie my shoes, fall apart making tea. These are, I’m acutely aware, insane things to find hard – because I am insane.
At twenty-four, the dark spells come and go quickly. When the worst hit, I fight the urge to smash myself to bits – to skin my knuckles on the wall, claw at my forearms, beat my head against the window pane till either cracks – but nowadays those fits of self-loathing happen years apart. (The last, in April, was my first since university.) Most days I’m fine, and it feels like yesterday the urge to self-destruct lasted months rather than hours. I was ten when I first wanted to die, fourteen when I decided how, fifteen on first attempting it. Nine years and counting without incident, it seems to me, is a good run.
For the short time I took them on the quiet, antidepressants only did so much, but atheism has helped me no end. You might expect me to report that as a churchgoer, being called a sinner in a hopeless world did my head in; actually, hope was the problem. As a believer in the risen Christ, it can be hard not to feel ashamed of existential gloom, as if the grace of salvation has bypassed you through some fault of your own. There must, I felt, be some turmoil in my soul if being saved didn’t make me feel any less wretched, some failure in my faith that warranted further self-punishment. As an atheist, I feel differently.
As an atheist, I don’t think my soul’s in turmoil – or that I have one, or that my bad days mean anything except that my brain sometimes lets me down, as other people’s hearts and joints do them. As an atheist, I’m aware I don’t really hate myself – that the will to expire some nights is a malfunction of the circuitry, not evidence of self-knowledge – and rather than feeling inadequate, I’m amazed the software works as well as it does. Writing a blog on a brain best evolved for climbing trees hundreds of thousands of years in the past feels like being a BMX rider, performing stunningly agile feats on a bicycle that looks designed for a five-year-old.
In adulthood I’ve come to terms with the jerkbrain – not caged or slain the beast, but trained it not to savage me in exchange for being allowed to vomit on the carpet once a year. I’m still confused when asked if I’m happy, unsure what people mean, what the answer is and how to find out. The mark of sanity for me has become the lack of a conscious emotional state – not being frigid or numb, but simply being. Days when I don’t instantly know how I feel are my best days. That calm neutrality, I’m glad to say, is now the norm, yet it can prove isolating: in what feels like a world of emotional hyperexpression, even being well alienates me.
Alcohol and religion have much in common, including that people who find out I abstain tend to assume some formative trauma. In the first case, the truth is just that I’ve never wanted to be anything less than totally sober: the composure everyone seems so desperate to lose is something I worked for years to achieve, and mind-altering drugs are the last thing I need. Atheism strikes me as sobriety in spiritual form, a stance with no obligatory euphoria, in which it is okay to feel small, meaningless and unhappy – the only worldview that doesn’t require I deny my insanity. This is, I think, part of why humanism turns me off.
I recently watched Chris Johnson’s documentary A Better Life, which counters the religious right’s portrayal of atheists by interviewing seventeen on the subject of happiness in a world without God. It’s a well-made film that achieves its goals, with contributions from several people worth noticing, and yet I find the messages of hope and wonder don’t resonate. With their rejoicing mascot and exuberance, humanists seem desperate to prove they too can achieve ecstasy – failing to ask how religion’s culture of joy might have its flaws before trying to live up to it. I’m not drawn to blissed out atheism – I want a philosophy that validates me.
I’ve heard many an ex-believer say that after they lost faith, funerals got harder, then got easier – harder because they could no longer deny death was real, easier because they no longer had to. For me life is sometimes a bit like death, difficult, dark and inescapable – and while this outlook is delusional, it’s also my reality.
I’m done denying reality.