Depression and Christianity

A few months ago I was diagnosed with something called major depressive disorder. It wasn’t a surprise; I’d been battling feelings of despair, sleep loss, depressed mood, and suicidal thoughts for a long time prior to the diagnosis. There was one suicide attempt made while I was in college, but the control I’d exerted over my life since then helped lull me into a false sense of security about the dangers of my illness. At that time I was diagnosed with some sort of depressive disorder, but I was able to avoid medical care. From then until now, I thought it was normal to have to just handle my own demons in silence.

Leaving to go to law school in 2009 only made what I thought was normal worse. I’d uprooted myself from a support system I’d built on my own to go hundreds of miles away. Vowing to not make the same mistakes I’d made in my undergraduate studies, I threw myself into learning the law first and taking time for myself last. Moreover I kept myself distant from my new law school colleagues and neighbors, preventing any sort of new support framework from helping me in the future. When my law school held a seminar on the abnormally high rate of depression and anxiety in law students and lawyers, I deluded myself into thinking I was fully aware of what dangers were in store for me. For someone who’d battled suicidal tendencies previously in his life, I didn’t take the threat as seriously as I should have.

When I passed the bar exam and couldn’t find a job to start paying back the mountain of student loan debt I’d acquired, things unraveled quickly. I ate little, slept less, worried constantly, and began meandering to a dark place I thought I’d never go again. Soon errant thoughts of being better off dead became more insistent, and then insistence turned into seemingly justified and reasoned arguments in favor of the irrational. Without anyone immediately on hand to help me, I became lost in preparation for the unthinkable.

Fortunately my plans at a humane end for myself did not end up successful(though not for a lack of trying on my part). Reaching out to family, I moved back home and begun the process of trying to piece together my psyche and my life. I’ve done plenty of proverbial “soul searching” for want of a better term; the last seven months has seen a deluge of uncomfortable and painful realizations, as well as several small triumphs.

What my depression has to do with Christianity.

One of the first things I recognized was that my depressive thoughts had taken over my life to the point that I was incredibly deluded in thinking I was a worthless person. Although to my depressed self I was justified, taking enough time to look at things objectively produced different conclusions. This process ended up taking control of itself, and when I was finished I realized that I could no longer entertain any unquestionable thought without risking my life.

So I turned this critical process on my faith.

The results led me to finally reject Christianity’s hold on my thoughts.

A major underpinning of Christian teaching is that Jesus died for everyone’s sins. This sacrifice occurred because everyone is tainted with sin for one guy’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden. As a result, everyone is worthless and deserves eternal punishment in Hell.

When people are sufficiently cowed by this message, the proselytizer delivers the so-called “Good News.” Because Jesus took one for Team Humanity, no one has to worry about Hell as long as they believe Jesus is the Son of God. What a relief! Here’s a message that I’m doomed for an unproven eternity and a message that I’m off the hook! Naturally it’s supposed to engender relief and gratitude, followed by church attendance and more news on how God wants me to live my life.

For someone with depression like mine, the first part of the message(damnation) is all I get to focus on. Sure, Jesus got nailed to a cross to bail me out, but that only goes to reinforce how bad I am as a person. I’ll never be good enough, even if I try. Pretty soon I stop caring about the second part and just dwell on how terrible I am. Then come the implications of Church doctrine: that everything bad in my life is because of some personal failing. And when I think it can’t get any worse, I realize that the only good things in life come from God. So ultimately I believe that: (1)I’m a bad person; (2) Everything bad in my life is my fault; and (3) I’m not responsible for ANY good thing in my life.

Taking the time away from my emotions let me see how Church doctrine fueled my anger at myself. Here I was, thinking I was worthless for nothing. I didn’t give myself credit for what I’d achieved in life. My reasoning was constantly focused on how God had saved me from myself, and not on how I’d actually saved me from stuff outside my control. From that point on, it was easy to reject Church teachings.

The misery did not stop there.

It’s not enough that I had to reject the irrational belief that I was unworthy of love or mercy. I live in an area where almost everyone around me believes it. Not only do they believe it, they count on it. Like the article I linked suggests(and two other articles here and here), sometimes people use faith as a shield to justify disorders or even emotionally abusing people.

Taking a long look at my family life, I realized that I was subjected to abuse as well.

It was emotional abuse, that special category of abuse that nefariously escapes public scrutiny because it is difficult to label and examine. Christianity and its dogmas of self-sacrifice, turning the other cheek, accepting pain, and many more only served to make my growing disorder worse. Every time I was told I was worthless, a burden, guilt-tripped into doing things, punished, berated, ridiculed, and humiliated what invariably followed was a lecture on how not only did I deserve such treatment, but also that I needed to endure such treatment even if it was wrong.

In other words, no matter what I had to accept the fact that I needed to be abused.

What makes all of this worse is that the people who still attempt to use my emotions against me need me. They need me around, to talk to, to feel good about themselves. They don’t need me to talk about my problems, or sort through the wreckage of my mind. And this state of affairs is the way it should be–because Christ wants me to sacrifice myself for Him. What I still become frustrated with is that I know my family loves me, and I am grateful for what good they have done, but I still must suffer serenely. After all, I have to talk to my blog instead of them.

Eventually I came around to the notion that I had to abandon my irrational thinking, that I needed objective justification not just because it is reasonable, but because it was the only defense I had against a powerful urge to kill myself. Discarding one false idea after the next, I found my religious principles were going too. I couldn’t fathom being kind to people while chastising homosexual people for who they are, so I got rid of the hatred. I was supposed to believe God created the world in 7 days while learning how science explained a several billion year process, so I gave up on creationism. I realized I wouldn’t believe someone starting a new religion today while blindly accepting some ancient texts two thousand years old, so I stopped reading them.

Then I realized that I’d rather be called a good person than a good Christian. That thought makes me feel far better about myself than thinking God slaughtered his kid for me. Rejecting the notion that I was damaged because some schmuck ate some fruit from a particular tree freed me to finally think of myself in a positive light. The best part of this is that I don’t want to go back to ancient texts and having to associate myself with irrational hatred.

What a long, strange trip its been.

I write all of this to better understand myself and to offer some wisdom to those who may be suffering too. Communication is one of the best things our species has evolved–opposable thumbs being close with it–and sharing thoughts is better than keeping them bottled inside. If religion has helped you when you need it most, I commend you for being able to overcome your adversity. But if religion is an empty promise to you, if you realize that it protects unjust actions towards you that you cannot bear, I invite you to discard that which does not serve you.

I promise, the world will not end with your faith. Enjoy life for what it is, and I will celebrate life as well for as long as I am able.

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8 thoughts on “Depression and Christianity

  1. What a an excellent post. I can relate this post on many levels. Beginning with I, too, have MDD and was diagnosed two months ago with it. I also currently do not have a firm belief in my religion which is Christianity and tend to stay in my thoughts and disregard God. But I do have faith just not sure in who or what to honest. So like you said I am enjoying life for what it is.
    Sending positive vibes your way -Phoenix.

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    • Thank you for the vibes, Phoenix, and the comment!

      I once had a faith that I did not define much. It’s like I went from Christianity to an idealized Christianity. My step to acknowledging I am an Atheist came mostly when I finally explained to a family member that I did not share her faith. For whatever reason, I could not make that final step until I said it out loud although I’d mentally arrived at my destination months prior to that point.

      I am following your blog now, and I shall read your thoughts with great interest. In the meantime, I would like to extend the following invitation to you: consider at your leisure the possibility that you can have faith in yourself. Admittedly it’s a terrifying, confusing, awe-inspiring, and liberating thought all rolled into one neat little package. But your capacity to wish a complete stranger well hints at what you are capable of.

      I wish you the best in your journey–Sirius

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  2. Oh how sad, Sirius. This reminds me of a video I watched only the other day. It was Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience and he spoke about how organisations like Alcoholics Anonymous and their 12 Step Plan that rely on the individual giving over their life to a ‘higher power’ are highly dubious. As Matt points out, this encourages the sufferer (whether be an alcoholic or a depressive or someone suffering from chronic anxiety – like me – or an agoraphobic) to believe they can’t help themselves, that some external power must be relied upon.
    The major flaw in this is, of course, what happens when the person loses their ability to believe in whatever ‘higher power’ they thought was helping them out.The alcoholic twists the cap off the bottle again. The ‘believer’ gets back down on their knees. Both become enslaved, now without any external means of ‘salvation’.
    The proposal that, as Christopher Hitchens used to acerbically point out, we are told we are born broken and commanded to be whole, is a vile one. I’m not sure who – apart from Catholics – believe in original sin any more. It is and always was an obscenity largely dreamed up, I imagine, by sexually frustrated men in cold-as-charity stone cells. And who, other than a twisted mind, could imagine that punishing one person – even unto death – for the wrong-doings of another was a morally defensible thing to do. You can imagine the hullabaloo that would rise, even from deeply Christian mouths, were that to ACTUALLY happen in a civilized country and especially if the whipping boy were a fundie believe in Jeebus!
    Be gentle with yourself, dear Sirius. And don’t be afraid to seek chemical treatment. It’s a first aid measure … not a life sentence. Only a masochist drags a broken leg around rather than getting a cast put on until the bone starts to mend. The cast can be … squirm … cast off once the healing has begun. The strength of the leg can be rebuilt with patience. So can your emotional resilience.

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    • Excellent thoughts! I am currently on an anti-depressant, which helps with some aspects. Therapy is going on for the other parts, and that treatment is proceeding slowly. You mentioned that you suffer from chronic anxiety; I hope things are going well for you in your struggle against it.

      There was also the comment on original sin that I wanted to elaborate on a little. Lutherans-or at least Missouri Synod ones and Wisconsin Synod ones-believe in original sin. Its getting swept under the rug so to speak because of how unpopular the implications are, like in many other faiths. There are whole schools of thought and arguments developed to assuage the minds of Christians who don’t like what original sin does. One example I can think of is a preacher who said he didn’t care about what happens to the souls of unborn children who die. He graciously let his compassionate Father in Heaven make that call, as if he never heard “The wages of sin is death” before. Sadly, the idea of original sin is still out there, but it hides behind other thought.

      Finally, thank you for the video! Matt is a good speaker. I wish my Internet wouldn’t get angry with me when I try to embed video and upload pictures, else I’d have more of his stuff around.

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