Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Living with depression

Like Robin Williams, I perhaps don't give off the vibe of someone with depression, but it's definitely there. It can be incredibly frustrating, because depression induces sadness without justification. Or sometimes it induces something worse than sadness: emptiness. It feels hollow and meaningless. It feels like "blah." Like "meh." Like overbearing blandness that you just can't swallow because it is so flavorless. Even sadness is better than that, because at least sadness is feeling something. Perhaps that's why the "unjustified" sadness is so frustrating. Sadness feels appropriate when it is justified. Sadness is healthy when it comes out of empathy or grief (such as grieving the loss of Robin Williams, or feeling empathy for his daughter Zelda). It's the empty sadness that is frustrating. This isn't the good kind of emptiness that Buddhists strive for. The good kind is a connected sort of emptiness, a unity with all around you; you're "empty" of anything (I believe this is what they call "ego") that would block you from being in harmony with and accepting of your surroundings. Depression is the opposite, a disconnected emptiness that isolates you from everyone and everything. Rather than enjoying the sensation of flowing like a stream, you simply feel detached, like life is just happening all around you, happening to you, but you are not really a part of it. You are flowing, but not because you want to. You are just going through the motions, if you're lucky enough to at least do that instead of feeling completely paralyzed and unmotivated to get up and do anything. Depression is a very lonely thing to experience.

I'm not ashamed to admit that I take Lexapro for my depression. (Actually I take the generic version, but I'll refer to it as Lexapro.) Lexapro does help me, and I encourage anyone suffering from depression to talk to your doctor about how you feel, and consider medication. In the past I've also taken a combination of Prozac and Wellbutrin. I believe Lexapro helps put me in a state of mind that is more capable of appreciating the world around me. I love the smell of trees. I love feeling the wind on my face, and blowing my longer-than-ever hair around. I love the sound of running water, and of birds chirping, and of the kids in my 'hood playing basketball. I love feeling alive and being a part of this beautiful world. It is a gift, a privilege, to be alive. If you have a hard time appreciating the magnificence that is all around you, even though you conceptually know it is there, then you might benefit from medication.

Music also helps me tremendously, as does having a social support system. Participating in the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus and in the Oakland East Bay Gay Men's Chorus has provided both music and social support for me, for which I am continually grateful. Singing or playing the piano can put me in a calm and serene, even meditative state. It makes me feel full, instead of feeling empty. I love harmonizing with other singers. It makes me feel at one with those around me. Making or listening to music is, for lack of a better word, sufficient. It doesn't have to be for some greater or future purpose, although it can be. But music creates a moment that is satisfying, a moment of contentment, a warm memory that can lend strength and inspire.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love hugs. Perhaps now you know why. A simple hug from a friend is a huge boost. Any kind of physical contact is beneficial: an arm around me, giving or receiving a shoulder massage, or a simple handshake. Cuddling up with a gay friend; it isn't even necessarily romantic or arousing. It's just human connection. I really noticed my affinity for touch while on my Mormon mission in Argentina. It's common for missionaries to hug each other in a fraternal/brotherly way. I loved that. It's common for Argentines to greet each other with a simultaneous single kiss on the cheek. I loved that. When I don't have regular physical contact with people that I care about, I begin to feel detached. From humanity, from sanity, from reality. Touch brings me back in touch. Wordplay intended. Touch grounds me in reality. Sight, hearing, and smell are all wonderful senses, but they do not give me the same sense of foundation that touch does. I believe Lexapro lifts the mental hindrance in my ability to feel joy in those other senses, but whether on or off the meds, touch has always acted as a powerful antidote to my depression.

Talking, writing, and sharing my experiences also helps me to process my emotions (or lack thereof) and connect with the people around me, even if nobody reads it. Talking to a therapist has been a tremendous boon at several key times in my life. This blog is incredibly therapeutic, as is a private journal. Having a serious chat with a friend or loved one is invaluable.

Alone time, when executed properly, can also be very helpful. This is the paradox of depression. The solution seems to be connection. So why not just love-bomb the depressed person? Because sometimes social situations feel like too much. Like one who is accustomed to the dark stepping into a bright light, too much of a supposedly good thing is overwhelming and toxic. Sometimes I just need to be alone to process my thoughts and feelings. Sometimes too much connection is too much to handle. If you want to help someone with depression, don't force your help upon them. Offer it, and be gentle. Sometimes it feels like the cogs of my mind are turning, whirring, buzzing, but accomplishing nothing. Those are often times where being around people makes it worse, because I have to conjure up my social interaction skills on top of the other busy brain processes that refuse to be relinquished. Alone time allows me to meditate and to calm my mind.

In summary, some of the tools I use to cope with clinical depression are: medication, music, human touch, communication, and meditation. I live a good life, but sometimes I reach a state of mind where I can't see it. Sometimes I forget, I hit a low, I feel like the outlook is bleak and will never get better. I hope that through regular and even scheduled application of these tools, I will continue to consistently pull through the lows, which in hindsight, are always temporary. It is so hard to see that during the low points, though.


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

"Love the doubter, hate the doubt"

I'd like to address a religious topic today regarding doubt. On several occasions, I've seen some variant of the following question posed towards a Mormon audience:

"I don't quite believe everything the church teaches. I have doubts about some fundamental claims of the church. Am I still welcome here?"

The response is, of course, a resounding, love-bombing yes. Nobody is perfect. Nobody is completely free of doubt. Of course you are welcome here.

But there's a catch. They don't say it directly, but it does leak out indirectly. You can be here and we will help you through your doubt. You can be here and this will be a place to help you overcome your struggle.

In other words, you can be here, but the only option for people here is to work on eliminating doubt. There is no option for selecting to believe some of it. It's all or nothing. If a question arises and you reach a different conclusion than the church, then you are the one that is wrong. You must eventually come to believe that the Book of Mormon really did come from an ancient record of the Native Americans, engraved onto golden tablets. You must come to believe that god really does inspire the leaders of the church, except of course when he allows them to do weird stuff like denying blacks the priesthood.

And so, similar to the oft-repeated phrase, "love the sinner, hate the sin," I suggest the following phrase to describe this attitude: "love the doubter, hate the doubt." Doubt is considered practically on the same level as sin. It is something to be eradicated. It is something of which one must cleanse one's self.

And so to the doubters of the world, I would advise you thusly: The answer to your question is "no." You are not welcome there. Not if you bring your doubts with you. Not if you are unwilling to fall in line and abandon your critical thinking skills when contemplating the church's history, doctrine, or policy. Not if you would like to truly speak your mind, or to encourage others to do likewise. Not unless you are ready to be assimilated. Defying the status quo will not be tolerated.

You cannot fit into the Mormon narrative while harboring doubts. You cannot openly reject any of the fundamental truth claims of the religion and expect to be welcomed with open arms. The narrative is that you are working on it. You are struggling. You are trying to get to a point where those doubts just go away, or you just don't care about them any more. The narrative is that you are working on your testimony. The narrative is that you will eventually come to fully agree with the prophetic and apostolic utterances delivered every six months at General Conference. The narrative is that you will suspend your disbelief, permanently. The narrative is that you are having a hard time, but you will set your doubts aside and tow the line. You are expected, as was Lot's wife, to never turn back and question your commitment. And if you receive your endowment in the temple, you will, in fact, commit everything that you own and everything that you are to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Joining Mormonism is like turning onto a one-way street. Reversing your decision is not part of the narrative. Reconsidering your commitment, or leaving the religion, is not in the narrative. There is no graceful exit. You will be branded a sinner. You will be branded an apostate. You will be branded a doubter. The kind that isn't welcome until you change your attitude.

This is my reaction to Kate Kelly's excommunication. It's a viewpoint I already held, but it has been reinforced by this particular example, as well as the church's public statement: that it's okay to "ask questions," but not okay to come to the wrong conclusions.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Reason first

I vaguely recall once being instructed on how one could teach a certain religious concept. It involves a visual demonstration, consisting of something like a narrow tube or container, a small wooden figurine of Jesus, and various other small items. The pupils are challenged to fit all of the items into the container. However, the container, the Jesus figurine, and the other items are crafted in such a way that you can only get everything to fit if you "put Jesus first."

It's a contrived example, as many lessons like this are. It isn't meant to illustrate the intrinsic meaning of the teaching, it's simply meant to function as a mnemonic: to make it memorable, to make you reflect on it more often. "Jesus first," and ideas like that, are a fairly common notion among religious people. Mormon apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf supplied a similar meme which made its rounds on Facebook and Twitter: "doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith." Or, to state it more simply, "faith first."

This idea is a generalization of what I call the Mormon axiom. In a Mormon theological system, it is assumed that "the church is true," and all other arguments must either rely on, agree with, or conclude with this assumption. In many faith-based schools of thought, one must honor "faith first," everything else can only fill in the blanks after faith has had its overriding say.

I've been thinking about this for a long time. I'd like to explain my thoughts on why, in the realm of theology, putting faith first does make everything else fit. I'd also like to explain why I chose to put reason first, and faith second, in my life. The short answer is "ex falso quodlibet." ("From falsehood, anything follows.") The long answer is the rest of this blog post.

The reason faith first makes everything fit is quite simple. It is because the power of this assumption is excessively strong. When you put faith first, you can come to any conclusion, no matter how absurd. For example, if you truly believe that there are men on earth that speak for God, then if those men told you that you were living in the Matrix, you would believe them. Another example: all of your sensory perceptions come under question, when your faith dictates that the devil has otherworldly powers of deception. What is real? What is a lie? When faith comes first, it's all up in the air. And that's how faith-first logical systems make everything fit. That's how they have the power to "explain everything." The corrupting touch of this overpowered axiom simply obliterates any argument that might get in its way, and can also vacuously fill any void.

Consider my views on homosexuality. It's quite easy to construct a fairly convincing faith-first argument to counter what I said. All you have to do is disregard my personal perception and experience, to relegate it to second-class status in comparison to the dictates of a given faith. When a holy man proclaims in the name of God that homosexuality is wrong, then in a faith-first mentality (where faith is placed in that particular holy man's claims to speak for God), there is simply no room to argue. God has spoken. Who are you going to trust? Me, or God? In faith-first fashion, you may obliterate my views in one of many ways. Perhaps I am lying about what I felt. Perhaps I have been deceived, or I have misinterpreted my feelings. According to a Christian faith-first point of view, I should "trust not the arm of flesh," and instead, I should place my trust in God. According to modern Mormon teachings, I should resist my desire to court men, and rest assured that God will help me through the ensuing difficulty.

I am perfectly capable of choosing to put faith first. My desires are not so overwhelmingly strong that I cannot control them. I do not feel my hand has been forced in the matter of whether I put faith first. I did not choose reason before faith in order to cave in to my desires. Why, then, wouldn't I choose faith first? In some regards, my life would be much easier. I wouldn't be in such an awkward position with my Mormon family and friends, who knew me as a faithful member of the church for most of my life. I wouldn't have to reconcile those years with myself. I was a believer for a long time, and now I feel somewhat detached from that believing person that I was. It's difficult, and strange, to make this transition.

I'll tell you why I made this choice. It is due to the feeling of logical unsoundness that comes with faith first. It is the burden of carrying an axiom that is too powerful. An old Latin phrase, still used in formal logic today, is "ex falso quodlibet," which means, "from a falsehood, anything follows." When I find myself noticing that "anything follows," I must become suspicious that a falsehood has crept into my set of assumptions. When I looked at the world without my faith-first axiom, suddenly, a lot of things made a lot more sense to me.

So I chose to put reason first, while faith takes a back seat. The result of this is that Jesus no longer fits into my beliefs. I still think that many of the teachings attributed to Jesus fit quite well. I am free to adopt those as appropriate, but I choose to no longer unquestioningly elevate any particular person or supposed deity above myself.

Perhaps I do put faith first. But not faith in Mormonism, or any other person or authority. No, instead, I put faith in myself first. In my ability to reason, to think, to perceive. In the importance to be authentic, to be true to myself. This is what I will call the "axiom of pride." In the future, I will discuss how this relates to the LGBT movement historically, and what gay pride (and the axiom of pride generally) means to me.

Not all religious schools of thought fall victim to the perils of "faith first." Even Mormon missionaries will tell you to try their religion for yourself, and see if it feels right to you (fully expecting that it will, of course). So I'm not trying to slam any religions when I say that "faith first" is bad. I am just trying to point out a disturbing trend that was very fundamental to the way I used to practice Mormonism. The superpowered nature of "faith first" makes it very dangerous, and I feel that holding that view robbed me of authenticity and replaced it with conformity.