Response to the Response to Libba Bray

 

Theferret.com recently posted a response to Libba Bray’s description of what it’s like to live with depression. You can find Bray’s post here, and the response here.

 

As someone who’s recently started writing about their own depressive issues, the exchange interested me. As people with mental health concerns become more vocal, and more visible, it’s inevitable that they will also become more vocal about their disagreements. TheFerret doesn’t pull any punches in his criticism of Bray’s personal story. He calls out what he considers catering to a “Good Depressive Citizen” trope: the disingenuous tendency to write about depression in a way that distances it from yourself:

write a Very Articulate Post detailing your pain…

…but do it from a distance. Write about it in a sad, somber tone. Do not evince an ounce of self-pity. Hold this odious disease at a distance. End it with a triumphant note that yes, you too can fight back!”

 

The pressure to keep silent about mental health problems is real, and the author of the above statement has every right to be angered by it. The tendency to try and distance oneself from something like mental health is a serious problem, and one of the reasons that so many people with treatable conditions don’t seek out the help they need. But my issue with this response lies mostly with how Libba Bray’s comments are criticized:

 

Now, I’m not kidding, or being in the least sarcastic, when I say that Libba has written a wonderful post. That is part of what it’s like to be depressed, and she expresses it well, and eloquently. It helps, and I am glad she wrote it. But notice how carefully she speaks. She doesn’t say what, if anything, she is depressed about – and she’s a good enough writer that that omission is clearly on purpose.

 

Because she knows how to be a good depressive citizen.”

 

My initial reaction to that statement was a tirade of my own, which I’ll spare you. Not because the public must be protected from my feelings at all cost, but because anger, while valid and cathartic as it can be, is not always the most helpful response. What is helpful for people working through their mental health problems, is keeping the following in mind:

 

 

 

1: People set their own degree of disclosure.

 

Criticizing someone for not stating what’s triggered a specific mental health struggle (setting aside that triggers and episodes aren’t always reducible to one identifiable cause), is like criticizing an amputee for not wearing a sign explaining how they lost a limb. No one is entitled to know the details of your private life or health, and people reaching out for help don’t need to be subjected to some sort of litmus test for expressing their pain correctly.

 

2: Stigma is not the fault of the stigmatized.

 

A lot of the anger in the response to Bray’s post seems to be directed at her for being stigmatized. While the “Good Depressive Citizen” is a very real social pressure, someone who falls into it (and I’m not convinced Bray has), isn’t some sort of traitor to the rest of us; they are someone looking for a way to express something our culture doesn’t give us much practice or forgiveness for. It’s only to be expected that the attempt is awkward. The response to Bray seems to be confusing anger over the state of our culture with anger towards Bray for being caught in it.

 

3: Pain is always individual.

 

Having the same problem, health, personal, social, etc. doesn’t dictate that the experience is the same for everyone that has it; especially with mental health. People with depression may have a lot in common, they may fit the statistical profile, or they may be an outlier. Regardless, depression is always experienced individually. It’s always deeply personal, and it always requires a complex and individualized coping strategy. The idiosyncratic nature of mental health experiences is the reason we need different voices about it. We need to hear the anger and frustration just as much as we need to hear the hope for recovery. There is no “correct” way to express experience with depression, other than honestly; and choosing to be calm and articulate in order to do it isn’t a sign of dishonesty.

 

4: In-fighting never helps.

 

The issues listed in the response to Bray are real; there is little to no forgiveness for someone who publicly demonstrates their mental health problems. There is a lot of pressure to remain silent about them. There is an inexhaustible supply of judgment and ‘advice’ doled out to people dealing with their mental health. There is certainly a tendency to label people as ‘crazy’ or ‘unstable’ when they admit their own struggles. Those of us with mental health have enough trouble with people who expect us to justify our problems; we don’t need to attack each other over how we choose to deal with it. Instead of that, why not focus all that energy on making our culture safer for people to be open about their problems? Simply criticizing how someone chooses to express their own pain only contributes to the heaps of judgment already piled on top of them.

 

Depression

Depression & Existential Crises

I’ve been battling depression for approximately fifteen years. I like to think that I’ve built myself a type of arsenal against it. I’m used to some of the more intense symptoms, and with time, practice, and help, I’ve found my ways of managing them. For example: I experience self-destructive impulses pretty regularly, but I’ve got a litany of coping strategies that work for me, and while it’s always unsettling, I don’t have any worries about actually indulging them. I’m also getting better at sifting my symptoms from reality. This is never going to done with. But I’ve at least learned that when I feel an overwhelming sense of guilt for accidentally breaking one of my Aunt’s glasses and start to think I’ve ruined her entire life and thus become unworthy of her love, that I might possibly be in the middle of a depressive episode.

I’ve developed a tough hide over the years with regards to my health issues, and I’m proud of it. I’m not frightened any more of my illness, or of being stigmatized by others because of it. I don’t think I have to apologize for being sick, or hide the fact that I’m sometimes in pain. As hard as punching back against depression is, the fact that I’m still here after a decade and a half means that I must be doing something right. But I’ve run into a problem. If all goes well, in the next few months I’ll begin taking medication for the first time in my life, and the idea has brought up concerns I didn’t know I had. I don’t mean the standard risks. I’ve researched those and taken what precautions I can. I don’t buy the argument that medication will somehow re-write who I am and I’ll be compromising my soul or true self or some other such garbage. I know that depression isn’t who I am, that it’s gets in the way of things, instead of constituting some foundational part of me. But, you see, that’s actually the problem.

My issues started when I was very young. I didn’t have time to figure out who I was before I started fighting this. I’ve had to learn that haphazardly; sifting through all the wreckage caused by my illness, finding broken chunks of what healthy me would look like, and slowly piece them together. Even with all the progress I’ve made, there’s a thought nagging at the back of my head: When I start taking medication, my best-case scenario is that I meet a part of myself for the first time.  I’ll find myself in uncharted territory again, and I may have to re-learn everything, including how to be me.

The unvarnished truth is that this scares the hell out of me. I don’t have an answer for this situation, and as much as I hate to admit it, I don’t know what to do.

 

Depression

Depression, Meaphors, and Old-School Gaming: Part II

 

As I mentioned in my previous post, Depression is a disorder that has a lot of metaphors attached to it, but not a lot of cultural understanding. Interestingly, computer games are becoming a useful tool for promoting awareness and empathy for clinical depression. I previously discussed Fixation, a puzzle game with a story built around it; Another game I’ve found striking is Every Day The Same Dream.

 

 (this discussion contains spoilers, click the link above if you want to play first.)

 

This game could best be described as minimalist. The graphics are simple (but beautiful) and there are only three controls: forward, backward, and action. The limited scope works wonderfully, since it revolves around a suicidal man desperately trying to change his life, who has no idea how to do so. There are only a few screens in this game: home, elevator, traffic, and work, with a few others that have to be discovered. The challenge of the game, since there are so few controls, is to discover what it is you can do differently. There are only a handful of changes that can be made, and one of them entails jumping off the roof of your work building. If you discover all of the changes, you get a closing scene where you catch someone who looks a lot like you also jumping to his death.

 

This is controversial, and like Fixation, I would not recommend this game to someone looking for an uplift, but I’m enthusiastic about it myself. The reason for this is the interpretability of this game. It’s non-linear, and the changes can be discovered in any order. This leaves it open for discussion, and creates individual narratives for the player. From my play-through, I took away that this man is struggling and feels alone, and doesn’t realize that someone he sees every day is going through the same thing. In this way, the game makes a powerful argument for the necessity of a more open acknowledgment of depression and suicidal ideation. It wonderfully captures the feeling of isolation and helplessness for someone facing these issues, and addresses the possible result in an emotionally complex manner.

 

 There are a lot of things I could say about this game, but I would prefer if people played it came to their own conclusions. I would love to see a discussion about it below, and will leave this question for anyone who wants to answer it:

 

 Does the shock value of this game (incorporation of suicide) help or hinder dialogues about depression?

 

 

Depression

Depression, Metaphors, and Old-School Gaming: Part One

As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m currently receiving therapy for my depression issues for the first time in my life.  The decision to get help necessitated another difficult decision: whether or not this would be public knowledge.  As I’m sure anyone reading this is aware, there’s a lot of misinformation about mental illness and health in our culture, which contributes to negative stigma for those dealing with it. I’m convinced that an important way of combating this is open discussion, but believing that is a lot easier than acting on it.   Even though I ultimately decided to be open about my own issues, I still struggle with that decision.  One of the issues I’ve run into in working through this,is that depression seems to have an overabundance of metaphors attached to it.

“It’s like drowning.”

“It’s like Suffocating.”

“I feel like a ghost.”

“Imagine being buried alive.”

I have mixed feelings about this. On the surface, the number of metaphors is a good thing, because it means it’s being discussed. It’s also true that these metaphors have a certain accuracy to them, at least for certain people. But their limited nature can make clear communication difficult for individual people, and lead to damaging stereotypes; especially the idea that depression is strictly an emotional state, affecting only “emotional” people.  People untouched by clinical depression, and without extensive research on the subject, usually don’t understand the variability and pervasiveness of depressive symptoms.  Metaphors are often necessary to communicate these things, but it’s difficult to find one that is both accurate, and not overused to the point of meaninglessness.

The challenge then is finding metaphors that communicate something of both the objective causes and subjective experience of depression, while also referencing the variability of its idiosyncratic manifestations; not an easy task for a complicated disorder. One I’ve found very useful, interestingly enough, comes from a video game.  Designed like a classic platformer with great puzzle aspects, the game Fixation addresses the difficulty of navigating symptoms and treatment in daily life.  One beautifully simple way it does this is by designing its obstacle-course puzzle levels like the main characters house.  The struggle to get through each level, requiring increasing ingenuity an effort, occurs alongside the character’s discussion of her symptoms, and attempts to help her friend with her own.

My only complaint is the ending.  This game is a prequel to another game, The Company of Myself, which is pretty dark.  By necessity, the ending of Fixation needs to fit this tone, so I don’t recommend either game to someone looking for an uplifting experience.  However, Fixation is still a very effective humanization of depression, anxiety, and what it’s like to navigate those problems.  If any of you have time to play it, I’d love to hear your opinions.

Question of the week: have any of you found an innovative example of mental health being addressed in a productive way?

 

Depression

Places of Exile

 

I haven’t written anything for this site in a while, and despite the fact that I could fabricate any number of plausible excuses, the truth is that I’ve been dealing with mental health issues. I feel very strongly that mental health is something there should be more open dialogue about, but I can’t say that it’s easy or comfortable to talk about my own in any detail. There’s a beautifully insightful quote by Albert Camus that captures the difficulty of facing these issues: “We all carry within us places of exile”. He was discussing revolution, but what strikes me about this quote is how much it also applies to those struggling with mental health, especially depression. I’ve struggled with depression for most of my life, but it’s only been this year that I’ve pursued actual treatment for it. What I’ve discovered is that all that stuff people say about the first step being the hardest, an asking for help taking courage, is all more true than I believed.

Here’s the thing about depression: It really sucks. It’s difficult and frightening, and getting help for it isn’t just a choice you make once. Every time you have a meltdown in therapy, or fear it isn’t working, or just don’t feel like going, you have to make that decision all over again. Every time you face those parts of your mind you were afraid of looking at, or have a relapse, or wonder if you even deserve help, you have to decide to receive it for the first time again. And you have to do this knowing that as much work as you’ve done, you’re still taking that first step; that taking it will last much longer and be much harder than anyone would want. Add to this that while you’re waist-deep in your own psychological muck, there will never be a shortage of people telling you that you’re exaggerating the problem, that it’s all in your head, that you’re weak for seeking out help and delusional for thinking you need it.

But here’s the other thing about depression: it always makes you feel more alone than you are. Despite how much time you’ve spent in exile, and how complete you believe your isolation to be, there are millions of people in the same place as you. There are people who will understand you better than you could believe; who will respect the courage and strength it takes to live your life. And as hard as it is to keep picking yourself up and move forward again, it can be done, and it is worth it. If anyone reading this has their own struggles with depression, or any mental health issue, please know that you have my admiration and esteem. Weather or not you’re being treated, the fact that you’re still standing is the best hope that I have for myself and others like us. You’re an inspiration, and you deserve to be recognized for it.

Instead of asking a question, like I usually do, I’d like turn any discussion over to you, to share any stories or advice about your own experiences you feel comfortable sharing.

Religion

The Problem with Cherry-Picking

 

In my previous post, I attempted to clarify some confusion caused by differing views on biblical interpretation. Today, I’d like to address another subject that often complicates this further; Selective interpretation, otherwise known as cherry-picking. Here’s the thing about it in Christianity: everyone does it to some extent, but many of us are unaware of it. Most reasonable people will admit to points of confusion in their own attempts to interpret scripture, but others will become very defensive. Much like the assertion that “The bible is true” can mean several different things, “Cherry-picking” has its own problems associated with it in conversations about belief.

 

Here’s a personal story by way of explanation: As a teenager, I took biblical knowledge very seriously. I’d read the entire Bible multiple times; I competed in a competitive biblical study program; I could recite entire books verbatim in King James English. I prided myself on knowing scripture, and was more than willing to discuss my religious views. But if someone brought up cherry picking, my first response was to feel deeply insulted. The reason for this was that I was raised in a literalism tradition, and when someone asked about cherry-picking, what I heard was this:

“You haven’t read the Bible for yourself.” or “Why are you lying to me about your beliefs?”

 

In reality, what was usually being asked was: “To what degree are you a literalist?/Do you agree with the traditional interpretation of passage xyz?”

 

I won’t try to excuse my own defensiveness, it was the product of immaturity and arrogance. The reason I bring it up now is because my biblical knowledge actually made it harder to get over. Because I was well-versed in biblical literature, it was easy for me to dismiss alternative views. It took me a long time to realize that I, like everyone else, organize information according to my own agenda because I was swamped with information. I see similar things happen a lot among my fellow Christians. Some of the most hard-line literalists are also the most educated about he contents of scripture and its historical context. The problem of creating productive dialogues isn’t as simple as educating people.

 

I don’t believe that I have a final answer to this problem. At this point I’m very open to suggestions. Apart from that, the question I’d like to leave you with is this:

 

In your opinion, is there an equivalent to dogmatism in the secular community? If yes, what is an appropriate response?

 

Religion

Types of Biblical Literalism

One of the most interesting aspects of my own religion, for me at least, is the way different sub-groups address biblical and moral interpretation. I don’t simply mean the interpretations themselves, but the way different methods complicate cultural dialogues. As I mentioned in my introductory post, most non-theologians who adhere to Christianity often use phrases like: “I believe the Bible is true”, or “The Bible is the word of God.” But what is actually meant by this assertion varies widely. This leads to the spread of both Pluralistic Ignorance and False Consensus. These two psychological phenomena deserve a series of their own, but right now I’m concerned with the harm they cause.

I’ve often seen my fellow Christians hold back on voicing their actual beliefs when they believe they are in a minority. I’ve also seen them not bother to explain themselves when they assume everyone knows what they mean. As a result, many promising Transfaith dialogues can easily break down in early stages. I realize that a discussion of biblical interpretation can be uncomfortable for people like myself, who are aware of their own lack of expertise. It can also trigger a host of defense-mechanisms, especially for someone new to Transfaith dialogue. But as uncomfortable and difficult as the process may be, open discussions are crucial for building a more equal society; they are also crucial for personal growth. In an attempt to foster both, I’ve made a very brief list of degrees of Biblical Literalism below. The terms I’m using are my own, and the descriptions are based on how I perceive them to work on a cultural level, not as a theological treatise. My hope isn’t to persuade anyone of their respective validity, but to encourage more accurate and useful conversations for people engaged in these discussions.

 

Hardline Literalism: Everything described in the bible is not only completely factual, but a portrayal of the only proper social order. It is given directly from god, and has an objective meaning. Individual interpretation is merely a result of human fallibility, and is an obstacle to be overcome.

 

Historical Literalism: The bible is an inerrant historical account, dictated by god for the purpose of moral instruction. It also contains direct commands and revealed truth from god with an objective meaning. However, the words and actions of other biblical figures are open to criticism/interpretation.

 

Informed Literalism: The bible contains excellent historical insights about ancient culture. Some details may have degraded through time and linguistic interpretation, but the situations and people described were real. Individual interpretation is encouraged when based on careful study, but the words of god, especially those of Christ, must be treated with utmost respect.

 

Mythical Literalism: The actual events described in the bible may or may not have happened, but they portray real moral dilemmas, as well as intricacies of the human psyche; much like Greek mythology. Studying the bible aids self-knowledge and moral reasoning, but any claim to an objective meaning, or perfect understanding, is arrogant at best. Educated interpretation is the best anyone can do, but the life and words of Christ act the lens through which most of the interpretation happens.

 

Non-Literalism: This is sort of a free-for-all. Adherents may or may not accept the divinity of Christ, but generally use his life and words as the gold-standard for morality. The words attributed to God are usually seen as reflections of the age’s moral reasoning, rather than divine commands. The Biblical stories are interpreted more like literature than theology. This category encourages individual interpretation, and allows the most dissenting opinions on morality.

 

The above list is incomplete at best, and it’s not always possible to separate the examples I’ve given. Some denominations or other church communities have a preferred approach to interpretation, and others allow room for multiple methods. Some even employ different methods for different parts of scripture. This is part of the reason assertions of faith in the bible can be stumbling blocks in conversations. Since so much of this problem rests in perception, I don’t think a perfect solution exists, other than patience and hard work; but I would advise my fellow Christians not to take it for granted that other people understand all their terms. I’d also like to promote awareness in the secular community that uniform statements don’t always express uniform beliefs. Hopefully, this can lead to more productive conversations. To that end, here is this segment’s question, directed at my non-religious colleagues and commentors:

 

Given the problem with “The Bible is true”, do you see an equivalent problem with common expressions in the secular community? If so, what advice do you have for overcoming it?

 

Religion

New Series: Cherry-Picking, Projection, and Biblical Literalism*

 

Trans-faith dialogue is important, even imperative, to the progression of social equality. Open forums allow ideas to be discussed critically, and by their very existence strengthen attitudes of respect for individual rights. But creating and maintaining open dialogue isn’t easy; The cost of leaving your own ideas open for criticism is that you are always leaving yourself open too. Personal beliefs often have deep emotional resonance, and even the most level-headed of us can become defensive and anxious when confronted with our own knowledge gaps or imperfect reasoning. Another problem, is that clarity isn’t easy either. Most of the people most passionately engaged in cultural dialogues about belief are not formal theologians or philosophers, and while this isn’t a negative situation, it can create problems. Perceived community in particular, is a problem that I often run into myself. In terms of my own experience, I’ve frequently heard fellow Christians use identical phrases to express widely different beliefs; specifically, phrases like: “I believe the bible is true”. On the surface, this appears to have a very narrow meaning, but in reality it doesn’t. Phrases like this create a lot of confusion because of the perception of common meaning, both on behalf of the speaker and the audience.

 

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be addressing common stumbling-blocks such as the above example, from my own perspective as a religious individual. I’ll also conclude each section with asking my Skeptic colleagues and commentors if they believe there is a counterpart in non-theism, and their advice for that situation.

*My Thanks to Dan Linford for sparking this topic.

 

Religion

Christianity & Skepticism: Pardon Me While I Preach to the Choir

Being a religious individual, I know I don’t qualify as a Skeptic with a capitol “S”. While I fervently support skeptical inquiry, and work towards many of the same goals as the skeptic community, it would be misleading to call myself a Skeptic. However, I also feel that I am also misleading by describing myself as definitively not one.

Here’s an analogy to explain what I mean: I do not describe myself as a Feminist. I much prefer the term Egalitarian. My reason in abstaining from the Feminist label is not rooted in any objection to their goals, but because of the specific focus they have. Egalitarianism has a different, less specific focus, and while it overlaps with Feminism in significant ways, has its own approach to social ills.

 

I am not a Skeptic in the same way that I am not a Feminist. While I have the highest respect for both groups, it is still somewhat inaccurate to count myself as one of them. The reason for this ramble, is that just as Egalitarianism overlaps Feminism, I think there is an overlap between Christianity and Skepticism; at least, I think there should be. One of the most common criticisms I’ve heard in my life as a christian individual is that religion is inherently irrational and hostile towards open inquiry. It’s always difficult to hear this without becoming defensive; mostly because while I don’t think this in inherently true of religion, the reality of it often is.

 

Religion is not science. It deals specifically with subjective questions that do not have an objective solution. There are plenty of people who would disagree with this, but that’s a different topic altogether. The questions of whether or not God exists, or if people have a soul, are in my opinion fair game for logical examination, but beyond human ability to answer with finality. However, the implications of these questions usually land much closer to the realm of quantifiable properties. When life begins may be a controversial question, but the progression of life is observable. The psychological ramifications of prayer, and whether or not it effects reality, is also testable under the right circumstances.

 

Because of this, Skepticism is not only beneficial, but an invaluable tool for the religious; for exactly the same reason it’s invaluable for anyone. The fact that Christianity has inherently subjective questions at its core does not absolve us of the responsibilities of intellectual integrity or rational cohesion. If anything, it should give us a greater sense of responsibility to subject our ideas to logical examination. History is full of examples of what happens when we don’t. That’s not a history I want to repeat.

 

To that end, here are today’s questions:

 

In your opinion, what would a more skeptical approach to Christianity look like from within Christianity?

 

How does someone wanting to be a better Skeptic get started?

 

How do different ideological groups establish a truly open and equal discourse?

 

Religion

Coming in March: Christianity & Skepticism

I couldn’t be happier with the lively discussion occurring in my most recent posts.  There’s a lot beings discussed there that I could write several more installments on, however, I’m forced to set it aside due to travel plans.  I’ll be absent for the next week and a half, then continue with the next part of this series in early March; hopefully, no later than than the 7th. I’ll be discussing points of intersection and conflict between Christianity and Skepticism, and whether or not they pose any benefit to each other.