Depression and religion
So, I was reading Wil Wheaton’s blog (because I’m a nerd!) and came across this post. It inspired me to write a bit about my own experiences with clinical depression and how religion, rather than helping, actually made the problem worse. By its nature this post may be a bit confessional, and deal with potentially sensitive issues so for the sake of anyone who doesn’t want to read about depression, I’ve put it under a cut. You can just enjoy this picture of a sloth instead.
For everyone else, read on:
A common line of religious ‘thought’ when it comes to atheists who have depression is that the two are causally connected: either they are atheists because they’re depressed or they’re depressed because they are atheists. Of course, if you believe that only God can give happiness, this makes some sort of sense. It is, however, wrong. Statistics are sometimes trotted out that religious people are happier than non-believers, but the reality is a bit more complicated than that.
Depression is something I have lived with all my life, and being deeply religious for years did not magically make it go away, in fact I think it exacerbated the problem. Religious faith didn’t stop me feeling terrible, and no God swooped in to stop my various suicide attempts or comfort me afterwards.
Self-hate was a big part of my depression experience, and the morbid state of near-permanent guilt created by the Catholic Church and its emphasis on sin, sin, sin, sin, sin and more sin made me hate myself even more. Confession and religious retreats gave a temporary uplift, but the feeling soon faded again. I read of the ‘dark night of the soul’ and tried to bear depression as a burden God had (for his own mysterious reasons) given to me, but the very idea that God would cause me to have this suffering was horrible.
As a good Catholic, it was to the priest rather than the doctor I went with my troubles. Over the years, I was told a variety of lies and excuses about my depression: that it was a blessing (apparently) to bring me closer to Christ’s suffering (er…thanks, God), that I was being ungrateful to God by being depressed (like I chose to feel that way), that I was depressed because my sin had isolated me from God (so why was I still depressed after praying constantly?), or even that depression was caused by Satan and his demons oppressing my soul. Seriously. Not once did any priest, monk or nun ever suggest that I might have a treatable mental illness and I should go to a doctor.
Not. Bloody. Once.
The Satan thing scared me the most. I would lie awake in utter terror of demons possessing me and every time I had a bad day I was more and more afraid. I completely bought into the belief that these things were real. I even had a Franciscan priest perform ‘deliverance ministry’ over me, which is basically the closest to an exorcism you can get without getting a Bishop involved. Guess what? It didn’t help. Nor did more prayer and Bible reading. Nor did the excesses of fasting, penance and even self-flagellation I was driven and encouraged to do by people I trusted.
Not to mention how obviously, mind-bogglingly stupid it was to suggest ‘corporal mortification’, basically holy self-harm, to a depressive. Well done, there, guys. Well done.
These non-answers led me into an ever darker spiral of self-hatred, guilt and fear.
Depression had nothing to do with my intellectual journey to atheism, but atheism has had an effect on my depression. And a good one at that.
When I finally came to realise there was no God, no devil, no demons and no original sin, I was actually able to look at depression logically for once. I studied it and read the psychological literature that enabled me to see depression as a mental illness related to serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain, not a spiritual consequence of sin or Satan’s meddling.
So finally, after a few more years of trying to tough it out by myself, I went to a doctor. I took some tests and was prescribed an SSRI, which I now take daily. I was afraid of medication, worried it would turn me into a zombie, but the truth is so far removed from the fears. Thanks to science and medicine, not religion and superstition, I can now get up in the morning and look forward to the day. I can plan for the future. I can look myself in the mirror and be happy with who I am. I can live without constant hate and fear in my mind.
Atheism has allowed me to see depression for what it is: not a character flaw, sin or evil force, but just faulty brain chemistry which can be treated by scientific, evidence-based medicine instead of prayers, rituals and incantatons.
For me, it wasn’t God who got me through the hardest times, and it isn’t God who gives me happiness today. It’s my wife, Georgina. She was, and is, my support, my strength and my rock. It’s no exaggeration to say that without her, I probably wouldnt’t be alive today, and I certainly wouldn’t be happy. Real flesh-and-blood love beats divine ‘love’ any day.
If you have depression, anxiety or any other mental illness, or you think you might have, then I’m not going to tell you not to talk to a priest if that’s your thing. I’m sure there are many good ones out there who have some counselling experience. But please don’t listen if they tell you it’s your fault, or it can be cured by prayer. And please, please, also go to a doctor. I know it can be scary, but medication can work and it isn’t anything to fear.
Some good resources on depression can be found here:
Thank you for reading,