We talk a lot in the atheist/ rationalist/ skeptical community about how life can be made better by leaving religion and embracing rationality. And we talk a lot about wanting to get that message out into the world.
Today, I want to talk about a very specific, personal, pragmatic example of this.
A little over a week ago, I got some bad news. My dad had a second stroke: he’s stable right now, and he’s doing okay, but they don’t yet know whether he’s going to recover his pre- stroke level of health and mobility. (Which, ever since the first stroke a few years ago, was already pretty bad. And which, frankly, wasn’t that great even before the first stroke.)
I have a lot going on about this, obviously, some of which I’ll probably wind up writing about here over the coming days/ weeks/ months. But here’s what I want to talk about today:
I want to talk about depression, and the difficulty of perspective. And I want to talk about how rationality has helped me deal with it.
I’ve dealt with mild to moderate depression off and on for much of my adult life. It’s mostly situational: it rarely comes on for no external reason, but once it’s triggered, it can be hard to shake, even when the external trigger has passed. I’ve had it pretty well managed for a while now, but it’s something I always have to pay attention to, and many of the routines of my life — getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, making sure I get out of the house and outside on a regular basis, etc. — are deliberately designed to keep it at bay.
The news about my dad’s stroke triggered a pretty bad episode of it. I had a day when I couldn’t make myself leave the house, and could barely make myself get off the sofa, and was stress-eating in a way that I haven’t done in years. I had another couple of days where I was more functional — i.e., able to leave the house and go to work — but I felt like a zombie. I felt like I was sleepwalking. I felt like my head was wrapped in a wet sock. Sleep didn’t make me feel rested… but I didn’t want to do anything but sleep.
I’m doing better now. I’m often sad, and tired. I often feel restless, and have long stretches where, no matter what I’m doing, I want to be doing something else. I’m more easily irritated by small irritations than usual. My attention span isn’t great, and it’s sometimes hard to work and write. But I’m feeling alive, and awake, and present in the world, and able to experience pleasure a fair amount of the time. I have days of waking up and not feeling rested and feeling like I just want to go back to bed… but if I get enough sleep and not too much, I also have days of waking up refreshed and happy, and feeling like I want to get out of bed and start getting stuff done.
So here’s the weird thing, the thing I want to write about.
When I look at the two or three days when the depression was gripping me really badly… they look bizarre. I can understand the “feeling bad” part, of course — I still feel bad now — but the overwhelming sense of hopelessness and paralysis seems distant and weird. When I’m not in the grip of it, it’s hard to understand how I could ever feel that way. It doesn’t make sense.
And during the two or three days when the depression was seriously gripping me, non-depression also looked bizarre. There’s a vicious circle with depression: intellectually, there are things you know you can do to feel better, but finding the energy or motivation to do them feels impossible… and if you don’t do those things, the depression doesn’t pass… and if the depression doesn’t pass, you don’t have the energy or motivation to do the things that make it better… I felt like I was trapped in a tar pit. And even though I knew, intellectually, that I hadn’t always felt this way, that I wouldn’t feel this way forever, that there was a big world outside the wet sock wrapped around my head… I couldn’t see it. It didn’t make sense.
In both the state of depression and the state of non-depression, it’s hard to have perspective on the other.
And that’s where rationality comes in. Continue reading “Depression, Rationality, and the Difficulty of Perspective”