This piece was originally published in The Humanist.
What is it like being a humanist with depression?
I’m going to preface this right off the bat by saying: I am not a doctor. I am not a therapist. I am not a mental health care professional, or indeed a health care professional of any kind. I’m just talking about myself here, and my own experiences. I freaking hate it when people give me unsolicited amateur medical advice about my mental health, so I’m very careful not to do that with other people. If you have depression — your mileage may vary from mine. Take what you need from this, and leave the rest. (And if you’re not already doing it, get professional help if you possibly can.)
So. Caveats are in order. What is it like for me to be a humanist with depression?
As regular readers may know, I’ve been diagnosed with clinical depression. My form of it is chronic and episodic: I’m not depressed all the time, I’m not even depressed most of the time, but I’ve had episodes of serious depression intermittently throughout my adult life. I had a very bad bout of it starting about a year and a half ago: I’m pulling out of it now, but my mental health is still somewhat fragile, I still have to be extra-careful with my self-care routines, and I still have relapses into fairly bad episodes now and then. And I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to be a humanist with depression, and how these experiences intertwine.
I do have plenty of self-torments with my depression, self-perpetuating vicious circles where I make myself feel guilty over the illness and its symptoms. But religious guilt is not among them. What’s more, my humanist acceptance and celebration of sexuality, and my resistance to religious sexual guilt, helped me prioritize sexual function when I was picking medication, and helped me be blunt and unashamed with my doctor about how important this was to me.
So I’m not tormenting myself with religious guilt about my depression — and neither are the people around me. Being an outspoken atheist who’s deeply embedded in godless communities has its advantages. My family and friends are almost all non-believers, and the ones who aren’t know better than to load religious guilt-trips on me. Plus, nobody in my life is telling me to pray, or to align my chakras, or to seek any other religious “treatment” for my medical condition. Atheists and humanists aren’t always perfect about dealing with depression — we have the standard human failings, as well as a few special ones of our own (I’ll get to those in a moment). But for the most part, we accept that mental illnesses are, well, illnesses, and we deal with them as such.
But because one of my humanist values is honesty, and recognizing reality for what it is, I’m also going to acknowledge this: There are times when humanism doesn’t help with my depression. There are even times — infrequent, but they happen — when it even makes it harder to handle.
What’s more, while humanists don’t handle other people’s depression with religious crap, we have our own cultural quirks — and some of these have a lousy effect on how we deal with mental illness. A lot of non-believers tend to think that because we’ve gotten the right answer to one very important question (“are there any gods?”), therefore we’re smarter than everyone else, and are right about every other question. We tend to think that because we’re generally better informed about science than the general population, therefore we’re in a position to educate everyone we encounter about all the science things we have even a passing familiarity with. And when we do this, it seriously screws with how we handle other people’s illness and health — including mental illness and mental health.
I have been handed some unbelievably arrogant, clueless, insensitive crap from non-believers about my depression. I have gotten a bellyful of unsolicited amateur medical advice: badgering me about how my treatment program is obviously wrong, patronizing and belittling me about what an idiot I am for thinking that my health care providers and closest companions and I might understand my illness better than a random stranger on the Internet. (For the record: Badgering, patronization, and belittling are not good ways to approach people with depression.) And I’m far from alone in this. Humanists also tend to be familiar with scientific language, which makes our arrogant and clueless amateur medical advice seem that much more persuasive — thus making it that much more dangerous.
And finally: Humanism doesn’t always help with depression because sometimes nothing helps. Depression is a tough nut to crack. Treatment isn’t simple: for me, and for many people, it involves medication, therapy, help from family and friends, and a whole arsenal of self-care techniques, including exercise, socializing, meditation, spending time outside, eating well, getting the exact right amount of rest and sleep (not too little but not too much), doing the exact right amount of work (enough to feel engaged and productive without getting exhausted), and more — often when we least feel like it. It basically involves throwing every mental health care technique against the wall, and hoping that one or more of them sticks. What’s more, one of the lousiest things about depression is what a vicious circle it is: some of its ugliest symptoms include the loss of motivation to do the things that alleviate it, not feeling like you deserve care and treatment (which makes treatment harder to pursue), pessimism about whether treatment can be effective (ditto), and the inability to even recognize the illness for what it is. Depression is treatable, but it can be hard to treat. It’s not a philosophical failing. It’s an illness. And a humanist philosophy isn’t going to treat it, any more than it could treat diabetes or cancer.
Humanism can’t treat depression. But it’s helping me pursue treatment. It isn’t perfect, it’s sometimes problematic — but it helps more than it hurts. And for that, I’m grateful.