The Recovering Catholic

Life after leaving the Church

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:

NHS (UK)

NIMH (USA)

Mind.org

Royal College of Psychiatrists

Thank you for reading,

R.

Single Post Navigation

5 thoughts on “Depression and religion

  1. Pingback: Dealing with depression | Endless Erring

  2. Good blog. I have a lot of anxiety as well and I think religion is a huge problem of it. I’m also a Catholic and have beaten myself up mentally and have tried to be perfect like Christ. I tried suppressing all of my sexually thoughts, and that didn’t turn out very well. Original Sin is just a way for religions to make us feel guilty for being human.

    I also thought that praying or saying the rosary would help, but it didn’t. I have some fears about medication, but am really considering it now. I think a huge mistake that the church makes is that if we have suffering, it must somehow be bringing us closer to Christ. They never seem to think it might be natural or caused by something other than spirits. In fact, we are even told to enjoy our suffering as it brings us closer to God. I personally think that’s stupid. I think religion has hurt me more than helped, which is why I’m really considering leaving the Catholic Church.

    • Wow, it’s been a long time since I wrote anything here, I’d almost forgotten this blog existed, but I’m glad you found it. Since writing this post, I have been on SSRI medication and am now off it, self-treating my depression with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (lots of self-directed free courses can be found online, if you’re interested).

      I think you’re probably right that religion contributes to your anxiety, I completely sympathise and well remember the perfectionism of ‘trying to be like Christ’, and it doesn’t work, as you have found out. Prayer only works if you believe it enough (it’s basically a placebo). Meditation might be an alternative, as it has the same features of prayer/rosary (quiet, stillness, contemplation) but can be practiced in a completely secular and non-religious way.

      I was pretty scared of taking pills too, but I can attest that they definitely helped me and often they’re not something you need to take for the rest of your life. I’d suggest having a chat with your GP if you’re considering it.

      I really hate the Christian attitude to suffering, as if it’s something to celebrate. Even if you believe in God, why would he want us to suffer? It doesn’t make sense at all and is very harmful. Of course, I would recommend leaving the Catholic Church, but then I am biased! I think it’s a very corrupt institution. You can, of course, believe in God and be a Christian without being a Catholic.

      I wish you all the best wherever your path leads you!

      • Do you have any links to specific self-directed CBT courses? Those seem really useful. :)

        Right now I’m trying nature/alternative methods to treat depression, but it’s good to know that meds have helped you. I’m really nervous about them myself, though it’s looking like I might have to go down that route after all.

        Wonderful post by the way, it’s helped put some things in perspective for me. Thank you for writing it.

      • Hi, thanks for commenting. It’s been ages since I wrote this, but I’m really glad it has been helpful.

        There’s a bunch of resources on the NHS website that might be useful: http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/Pages/self-help-therapies.aspx

        I used the ‘Living life to the full’ one which was helpful. As for the meds, they’re nothing to fear. Depending on how your depression works, you might not have to be on them long-term. I was on SSRI tablets for about 7 months or so, and then slowly weaned off them with my Doctor’s help.

        Hope you find something useful in the resources and don’t worry about talking to a Doc if you need to.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 27 other followers

%d bloggers like this: