Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Winter Depression and Depression in Winter

My theory about solstice holidays is that people need to be cheered up and reminded that the long dark nights are over and the days will start getting longer.  It doesn't really matter how you couch it in theology, lights are part of the magic somehow.  Hannukah has the menorah.  Christians have Christmas lights.  The cult of Mithra believed the sun was born on December 25.  The Hindu calendar begins on the winter solsticeRomans believed the happier times in the past were when there was no winter, so they celebrated Saturnalia, when the length of the day reverses and starts getting longer.

When I showed up for college in Northern Wisconsin the RAs warned us that the winter is incredibly depressing there.  I was totally skeptical, but by my fourth year I was convinced. Besides the brittle, unforgiving cold and wind, the days were just a bit shorter in winter than they had been at home. 

Fourteen years later after yo-yo-ing in mood and weight and energy, I was diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder.  I participated in a study of the prototype of the light visor that is now standard treatment for SAD and jet lag.

I remember when they fitted me with my test visor.  The light seemed rather dull to me, and I thought "oh crap, I got the placebo!"  I went along with the protocol because they promised me proven treatment afterward for free.  By the end of a week my mood had totally changed.  To someone who doesn't have SAD this probably doesn't make sense, but the only thing that explains it for me is that it was winter on the outside but summer on the inside.  I never knew that other people didn't feel the same way.  Of course, in normal Spring the change is gradual, but it's very definitely a different feeling from winter for me.

I have since bought a light box, a desk lamp for work, and a visor for home and  travel.  But over the years there have been a few really, really deep depressions that weren't related to the change of seasons.  I just don't bounce back from grief very well, apparently.  The first really bad one was after 9/11.  I became homesick for the East Coast and it just didn't lift.  I had started on Prozac in grad school because my schedule was so crazy I couldn't follow might routine with lights.  In June of 2002 I finally went to a shrink because I'd expected my mood to lift by then and it kept getting worse.  That's when I was switched to Effexor.  I felt better in a little over a week and by the end of the second week I wondered why I'd been so sad.  The next time was the loss of my beloved dog in January of 2005.  That time the grief just hung on and wouldn't lift for the whole year, but it did lift the following Spring.  In December of 2007 my job was eliminated and I felt really betrayed because I'd worked my ass off there.  I asked my doctor about changing my dose of Effexor because winter was the WORST time for me to have a devastating loss like that.  She increased it, and I also went to therapy.  By the Summer I was feeling a lot better.

Science comes through again!

Now, considering my history with depression, and my family history of schizophrenia, you can imagine how pissed off I get when believers assert that atheism causes misery.  The corollary, of course, is that their religion protects them from depression.

It's just not true, but it does appear to be:

In fact, of Protestants who do not attend church at least weekly, mainline Protestants are more likely than evangelicals to say they are very happy...

David Myers, a psychology professor at Hope College and author of The Pursuit of Happiness, said people who attend church regularly tend to be happier partly because church provides social support.

"Humans have a need to belong, to be connected in close, caring relationships, and North America's 350,000 congregations are a significant venue for social support," Myers said. "If something bad happens, like a devastating sickness, you stand a good chance of getting love-bombed by your faith community if you are an active member of it."

Around here that "social support" is an almost obsessive level of participation.  One of my friends has "meetings" several times a week and goes to weekend retreats and week-long classes.  Another basically has no social life at all outside of his church and family.  One of my co-workers is married to a pastor, and she leads youth group meetings, takes the girls on "Chrysalis" weekends, and of course plays church league softball.  The love-bombing in the evangelical church is a powerful tool not just for "happiness" but also for creating an unhealthy dependence on the church.  The more wrapped up they are in the church, the more devastating the loss would be if they quit.

When something dire happens to someone in this type of church, they do indeed have a network of social support, but it has to be something dire not a mental illness or a depression.  Like, if your relative is in a helicopter en route from her accident scene to the hospital, an alert goes out and everyone drops everything to pray for her safe arrival.  I can just imagine pagers and Facebook pages going berserk over these things.  And then the person arrives safely, and everyone texts and posts and calls everyone else to say how great God is that he heard their prayers.

I never have the heart to ask them whether their pastors admonish them for not praying hard enough at the funerals of those who God doesn't choose to save.  They are my friends, after all, and they have the good manners not to tell me that they're praying for me, so I return the favor.

One day last year a coworker said she'd met the head of the local atheist group and "she seemed really happy," as if that was some kind of total impossibility.  She didn't know I was an atheist, so I piped up and said that I have been a lot happier since being an atheist because I don't have to worry about some higher power reading my mind and passing judgment on every little thing I do.  Not to mention, it's very comforting to know that when my life is over it's over.  No boring Heaven.  No boring Hell.

I have considered asking my few atheist friends here if they'd be willing to start up a group that could fill that social support niche.  We could also do some charitable activities, which the churches here have a monopoly on.  We would never be able to raise enough money for our own homeless shelter but we could find something helpful to do.  The Universalist-Unitarian "church" has filled that role for some atheists around here but I consider them the opposite of atheism.  They believe all religions are equally good rather than my view that all religions are equally bogus.

Anywho.... depression is caused by genes, winter, grief, and loneliness.  It's not caused by disbelief unless believers shun non-believers and refuse to offer them the same kind of friendship and support they offer each other.  I suspect they also shun people within their church who belie the fantasy that belief confers happiness.  It may address some existential fears, but it doesn't cure clinical depression.

The Pew Report finds a few patterns but what they fail to note is the commonality amongst the happiest people: a feeling of control over their lives.  People who have more money are happier than people with less, but that money doesn't translate to goodies and luxuries; it translates to having the power to influence the events of our lives.  Rich people can travel to visit distant relatives, pay for expensive treatments for themselves and their pets, live in a home that they haven't had to compromise on, etc.  Likewise, the lack of a difference between retirees and employed people reflects the fact that both choose to be in that status.  The unemployed are less happy, because unemployment is not a lifestyle choice, at least for people with phones.  Presumably, the Pew survey wasn't able to reach people who willingly choose to live in a cardboard box under a bridge.

So the second part of the happy religionist formula is that religion gives people a feeling of having more control over their lives.  They have assured their afterlife will be happy by saying the right things and forcing themselves to believe the right things (or by choosing a church whose beliefs match their own so that they can feel righteous and "safe").  They have the power of prayer to affect outcomes, and when God in his "infinite wisdom" decides to do the opposite, they rationalize away the disappointment.  Those that can't manage to rationalize away the hurt just leave.  They either find a church with better love-bombing, lower standards, or a more realistic approach. Or they go away completely.

This is the source of the "angry atheist" myth.  "You're just angry with God (for not doing what you told him to do)" is one of the Christian mantras.  It's an accusation, really.  "You didn't rationalize as well as you should have, or else you'd still be coming to church" is what they really mean.  It's projection of course.  They work very hard at swallowing disappointment and betrayal themselves, so they think you were just less successful at it.  I have known people who left their church out of anger or disappointment, and then "got saved" and returned.  These people perpetuate the myth.  They just don't want to admit that there are angry Christians, so they call them atheists.

So... we're potentially more isolated, and we feel more powerless to change events.  Those things could exasperate a depression compared to a Christian, but we're not angry at a non-existent being and we're not worried about going to hell for feeling sad.  All humans are equally prone to clinical depression or any other problem, and lacking a fairy tale or love-bombing community, we do have a bit of a struggle, it seems.  But... I have come through the tough times without prayer and without wishing there were a supernatural force that could solve all my problems if only I said the right words.  Some churches have "counseling" that might be helpful, but so do health plans.

Having come through it and now being on the other side of depression, I can say that admitting that I need help to get over it is the "first step," but also not an admission that I need magic.  Religion doesn't offer magic, just the illusion of magic.  Strip away the fairy tale and whatever good they do comes from people caring about other people.  That's why they're losing their hold on society.  Atheists can be just as caring as church-goers, and now that we're more open, we can find each other more easily and find (and offer) that support even if we live in Fundytown.

 I hope you have a happy, or at least non-depressed, Thanksgiving, my American atheist pals. 


Infidel753 said...

It figures an animal that evolved in the tropics would be subject to depression in the winters at high latitudes. Look at the Tanzania-Kenya-Ethiopia belt where most of the fossils of proto-humans have been found -- that area is right on the equator. Wisconsin is a bit of an alien environment, really.

Something to think about for the futurist types who dream of having a house on Mars (I used to know somebody like that).

Fashionably-questionable visors aside, there are natural anti-depressants available. Prozac isn't for everyone. I was put on it earlier this year but the side effects were too disturbing to continue.

I never have the heart to ask them whether their pastors admonish them for not praying hard enough at the funerals of those who God doesn't choose to save.

That's the drawback of thinking you can do magic. Everything that goes wrong is your fault.

Good point about religion creating a sense of control and community. I also wonder if perhaps religionists are less willing to report feeling depressed to surveyors, since they think they're supposed to be happy.

krissthesexyatheist said...

I'm totally convinced that my abusive asshole dad suffered with depression and never got treated. So that is why I have genetics to thanks for my current state. I'm really thinking about getting one of those super attractive hats. really 'sexy.'

Thanks LA.


ps. Was' Infidel, nice to see you around the atheist blogosphere.

LadyAtheist said...

Infidel, I totally agree about the equator being our true "home." I think the thing that made it possible for us to spread to the north is the hypomania of summer to make up for it, and the fact that hunkering down and eating carbs in winter is not a bad idea in winter. The people who got SAD in winter would be the ones doing the heavy lifting in summer.

I think the evangelistic community feels a lot of pressure to be happy. You're probably right about them not reporting unhappiness to Pew.

The prototype of the visor was even worse! It looked like something out of Frankenstein's lab! Fortunately, you can use it at home for 30 minutes every morning and never have to wear it outside. Actually, it's kind of hard to see beyond the visor unless you're watching TV or using a computer, so wearing it out is not a good idea.

LadyAtheist said...

Kriss, my dad had some kind of problem too. My bro got my mom's schizophrenia, so I'm grateful all I got was depression. Still, it's no fun.

In college I started smoking the winter of freshman year and each winter I increased my daily "dose" until I was a 2-1/2 pack a day smoker my senior year. I realize now it was self-medication trying to ramp up my mood and energy with stimulants. Coffee, too.

The visor is def my favorite of my light gear. I hope it helps you.