Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Blog Has Moved!

Hello all,

If for some reason you've come across this blog in your adventures, you should know that I've moved the blog to a new Wordpress address, which can be found here:

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Evil Demon - Depression and Perception

I shall suppose that some malicious, powerful, cunning demon has done all he can to deceive me...I shall stubbornly persist in this train of thought; and even if I can’t learn any truth, I shall at least do what I can do, which is to be on my guard against accepting any falsehoods, so that the deceiver – however powerful and cunning he may be – will be unable to affect me in the slightest...

-Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy

The Evil Demon is a concept in Cartesian philosophy. In his philosophy, Descartes argues that he cannot know if there is actually an external world, or if an evil demon more powerful than him is deceiving him to believe there is an external world when in reality there is not, or that the external world is vastly different than what he perceives it to be.

Initially it sounds absurd, but think of how our eyes work. We don't actually see things in the world, but rather the nerves in our eyes receive the light bouncing off those things, convert them into electrical signals, and then deliver those signals to our brain which produces an image in our mind. It's possible that our eyes are malfunctioning, and that we're not seeing what we think we're seeing. The same is true for other senses. We might not actually be hearing the things we think we're hearing, or feeling what we think we're feeling. For all we know, we're all actually just brains in vats having all these sensations delivered to our brains, which lead us to believe we're perceiving an external world that isn’t actually there.

I don't find it particularly useful to believe that the external world is a vast illusion created by an evil demon or that we're brains in vats. Not the least of which because we don't have any other reality to think we're actually living in, and also because believing that the reality I perceive doesn't actually exist kind of makes this whole blog-writing enterprise just feel silly. However, the idea of how our perceptions dictate how we understand the world is very useful when thinking about mental illness.

Perception is everything. That's not just a pithy saying. Perception is literally everything. Or at least everything we perceive (which depending on your philosophy might be everything anyway). We don't see the world without light entering through our eyes and getting interpreted by our brains. We don't feel things without our nerves transmitting electrical signals based on what we touch, which are then interpreted by our brains. And we don't draw conclusions about the world without drawing them with our brains.

Mental illness is, among other things, a disease of perception. A disease wherein the way we see the world is different from how it actually is (or at least a close approximation to how it actually is). With mental illness, we observe the world, and draw conclusions from those observations, in ways which can differ radically from the observations and conclusions of more "healthy-minded" people.

Since early adolescence, I have struggled with anxiety, particularly as it concerns valued relationships. I have a tendency to overthink and overanalyze every small detail of interactions, down to the exact order of words in sentences. Often with that analysis I come to believe that I have done something to bother or annoy other people. For example, if, say, Dave the hypothetical person doesn't respond to a text message I send in as timely a manner as I would like or expect, I become convinced that there was something in the last message I sent, or in my recent behavior, that led to Dave not wanting to speak to me. It did not matter if I could not think of any particular example of this supposed bad behavior, or if I didn't see anything particularly offensive in my previous text. Nor did I consider that maybe the reason Dave wasn't responding to me was because he was distracted by something else, wasn't at his phone, or simply didn't think the text was one he needed to respond to. I was convinced I had done something wrong, and that he was reacting to that.

Thought leads to action. I believe that I have done something wrong, and this leads to me profusely apologizing, or continuously engaging in "checking" behaviors, to make sure I hadn't done anything wrong. Time and again, Dave responds to these apologies and checkings with confusion--he did not think I had done anything wrong, and was surprised that I was apologizing. If anything, it was the constant apologizing and checking that was more problematic than any perceived mistakes I had made. I don’t need to go further into detail on that, I’ve described it well enough before.

The reality of what was going on was radically different than how I perceived it to be. In reality, I hadn't done anything wrong to Dave. But I perceived that I had. With the evil demon, Descartes thought it possible that he might not be living in the world he thought he was, and his perceptions were lying to him. It is the same with mental illness. We don't live in the world. We live in a torture chamber contained entirely within our own heads, where we see the world through filthy lenses and distorted mirrors. The worst possibilities, unlikely though they may be, become distressingly real. And because of how real they become to us, we feel we have to act on those possibilities, often with unpleasant results.

The question which should be asked of any person with depression or other mental illness is "why do I think that the way I view the world is right?" As I discussed last week, mental illness is in part related to habit, and how we perceive the world is one of those habits. Instead of perceiving the world in the dismal terms that come so easily in our mental illness, we can instead attempt to perceive them in a more positive, or at least neutral, light.

So with that in mind, I send a message to my hypothetical buddy Dave, and he doesn't respond in as timely a manner as I would like. My first response to this is to think "he's not responding to me because he hates me, or because I've offended him." However, I could also think "maybe he's not responding because he hasn't seen my message or he forgot about it."

Both my first response and my second response are valid ways of looking at things, because both are theoretically possible. The kicker is that we don't know which one is true. The truth of the matter is ambiguous, at least until we can talk to Dave and find out, and even then there's no guarantee that we'll get the right answer. The difference between the options is that one of the ways makes me feel like crap, and the other makes me feel more understanding of Dave and of myself. So why not go for the more positive possibility?

Alternatively, some may argue that the positive outlook is risky. If we try to view things in a more positive light, we run the risk of deluding ourselves. Which is true, but it works both ways. Viewing things in any light, we run the risk of getting things wrong, simply because reality so rarely conforms to our expectations. And I would argue that viewing things in a negative light is the greater risk, because not only are we more miserable, but we are more likely to act on that misery, which tends to lead to similarly miserable outcomes. I've talked before about the importance of hope, and it applies again here. If I believe Dave hasn’t responded because I’ve offended him, I become distressed and want to apologize, which may bother Dave. If on the other hand, I choose to believe that Dave must have forgotten about the message, I allow myself to feel content, and do not apologize for anything, because I’ve done nothing to apologize for!

The point isn't to believe one option or the other. The point is to remember that you don't know the answer, but are assuming the one that makes you miserable. Either could be possible, only one possibility actually is. I don't know which, or if it's even one of the two possibilities I'm consideringc (for example, it could very well be that Dave is actually a hypothetical person and therefore is not capable of responding to my text message at all). I view the negative possibility as reality, and thereby act on it, to potentially damaging results. Of course, no matter how we react, the outcome might not always change. What changes is how we feel, and how we behave in response to those feelings.

Perception is key. In fact, it's not just key, but also lock, door, floor, wall, and the rubber stopper on the floor that keeps the door from banging into the wall and ruining the paint job. Our interior world is the thing which we can most control, even if it doesn't always feel like that. We can't always change the world. But there is a world that we can change. Our world.

If there is any advice to take from this post, it's this: if you have mental illness, be it depression, anxiety, or any other condition that you suspect might impact your view of the world, doubt. Doubt what you believe about the world, about yourself, and about others. Doubt what you think you know. Doubt your intuitions, your first reactions, and your common sense. Doubt your reasoning and your justifications. Doubt what you think about the future, and doubt what you think about the past. Doubt that life is as bad as you think it is. Doubt every way of looking that has harmed you or made you unhappy. Because there is a pretty good possibility that the way you're looking at the world is wrong.

Monday, May 19, 2014


“We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar.” - William James,

In 1965, Martin Seligman and his colleagues were conducting an experiment that involved giving dogs electric shocks, because this is what scientists did before the idea of humane treatment of animals came into vogue. They split the dogs into two groups. One group would be able to press a panel to stop the electric shock, and one group would be kept in a harness and unable to do anything to prevent the electric shock.

They then placed the dogs within an area separated from another area by a low fence. On the side of the fence which the dogs were placed on, the floor contained an electric charge, while the other side of the fence did not. The fence was low enough that the dogs could easily jump over it to the shockless floor. 

The dogs which had been able to stop the electric shock quickly jumped over the fence to the other side, while the dogs which had been unable to stop the electric shock simply lied down and did not attempt to escape the shock. Because they could not escape the pain before, the dogs did not think they could escape it then, and so they didn't even try. 

Martin Seligman coined this phenomenon "Learned Helplessness". Learned helplessness is the idea that when we are unable to improve our well-being in some areas, we grow to believe that we cannot improve our well-being in others. To some degree it's a logical response; we can't escape this pain, therefore we can't escape other forms of pain.

Depression is, in part, a habit.

Which is not to say it's not other things as well. Depression is an incredibly complex condition with poorly defined boundaries. The exact combination of factors which lead into depression--be they habitual, neurochemical, psychological, philosophical, spiritual, or otherwise--vary from person to person. Today, however, I will focus primarily on the habitual side of depression.

Our lives are made up of habits. Every thought, every feeling, every action done reinforces itself, so that it is easier to do the next time. This can be used to good extent, obviously. When we begin driving, we spend a lot of time looking at the road, and feeling every turn and sensation, which ironically makes us less likely to notice obstacles on the road, because we're overloaded with information. Yet after enough practice, the basic components of driving become so easy to do we hardly think of them, and our mind is free to focus on the road in front of us (whether we actually do that is another story).

At the same time, however, it can similarly be used to bad effect. When we think certain negative thoughts, for example, it becomes easier to think those thoughts in the future, and harder to argue against them. Over time, the thoughts can come so easily that it's as if we don't think them at all, the thoughts are just there. And when we don't have the resources to try and argue against them, the thoughts seem perfectly reasonable, for we don't have any alternative or them.

What Martin Seligman showed with the experiment, among other things, was how habitual ways of thinking in the past inform our present habits. Many of us have had occurrences in the past where we were hurting and couldn't stop from hurting. For some people this may have had to do with upbringing. For others it's related to trauma. For others it was simply the depression. Regardless of the cause, we hurt, and we could not stop it. We felt powerless.

Over time, we grow used to that feeling of powerlessness. It sinks into our minds and changes the way we think of things. The sense of powerlessness moves from its point of origin to other areas as well, into the parts of our lives that have nothing to do with the hurt. We feel not only powerless in that one place, but in other places, like with keeping friendships, holding down jobs, or working for our lives to improve. Even when removed from the hurtful environment, those habits stay with us as a remnant

It's this concept of habit that is related to the idea of the "hedonic treadmill", or happiness set-point. The idea is that though certain life events may temporarily change our feelings, we generally return to a certain state of happiness over time.  However, this set point can change. Richard Davidson, for example, has argued that, because of the neuroplastic nature of the brain, happiness can be cultivated just as any other habit can, such as through counseling, physical exercise, and meditation. Research has shown that engaging in small but consistent activities such as religious practice and exercise can improve one's overall levels of happiness. Martin Seligman, who you may remember as the dog-electrifier from earlier in this post, is one of the leaders of the positive psychology movement, which asserts the capacity for individuals to change their ways of thinking,  and has written numerous books on the subject.

What this all means is that our happiness, and by extension our depression, need not be set in stone. We may not be able to control all factors which contribute to our depression, but we can control how we think and what we do, and their effects on our overall well being cannot be understated.

Which then leads to how to approach it.

The above image is called the Cognitive-Behavioral Triangle, which is the foundation used in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). What the triangle shows is that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all interrelated, with each informing the others. If we feel a certain way, for example, we may think a certain way. If we think a certain way, we may behave a certain way. And if we behave a certain way, we may feel a certain way. And so on.

CBT is closely related with the idea of forming habits and breaking them. By feeling a certain way long enough, we reinforce the thoughts that initially led us to those feelings, and in turn reinforce the behaviors that also stem from those feelings, and so on. This applies to both helpful and unhelpful points. What's important is that we can interrupt the unhelpful cycles of thought by replacing some unhelpful thing within the triangle with a more helpful thing.

Suppose I wake up feeling depressed. I don't have any particular reason for why I feel depressed, I just do. But while I'm depressed, certain thoughts are easier to think, namely negative or pessimistic thoughts. "This day is going to suck" or "I won't be able to get anything done today". By thinking those thoughts, I in turn reinforce the sense of unhappiness. Which reinforces the negative thoughts.

On the other hand, suppose I wake up feeling depressed, but rather than allowing those negative thoughts to come unresisted, I challenge them. I may not be able to stop the "this day is going to suck" thought, but I can respond to it with "I don't know how the day will turn out but I can still do my best in my current situation, which can improve my chances of getting a possible outcome." Wordy, perhaps, but it's challenged my first thought with a more hopeful, reasoned thought.

Similarly, suppose I'm applying for a job. My first thought may be "There's no point in doing this, I'm not going to get the job anyway", and I may be inclined to not write my resume.  But a thought to respond to that might be "I may not get the job, but I definitely won't get the job if I don't try." And then push myself to write the resume and submit it. I may still not get the job, but I've provided an alternative to think instead of the pessimistic thought I originally had.

That's just two examples, and I am far from an exhaustive reference on this subject. There are books upon books on CBT, and many therapists are specially trained in it. Worksheets and other resources are available online. And of course, this is not the only method of therapy or habit-breaking available.

But what's perhaps most important to note is that this method and any other method cannot be done inconsistently. It must be performed constantly and doggedly. Habits are tough to break, and it'll be all the harder to break a habit if it's not tackled with enough energy and commitment. It'll require a lot of hard work, and at times it will be a real pain. But the outcome can be very, very positive. We can, if not rid ourselves of depression, then improve how we respond to it. We can make our lives better, not by changing the world around us, but by changing ourselves. We can learn to approach the world in a different way, a way that is affirming and empowering to us.


The Depression Habit Spiral

Monday, May 12, 2014

Explaining Depression: The Apple and the Tortoise

If that title sounds like a bad rip-off of an Aesop's Fable, rest assured, it'll all be explained a few paragraphs down. Sort of.

Depression, in many cases, is about perception.

Ask yourself what it's like to be depressed. If you're anything like me, you'll use a lot of sense-related verbs. When you have depression, things feel bleak. They seem hopeless. When I actually am depressed, I don't just think that things feel bleak, or seem hopeless. When I'm depressed, things are bleak, and are hopeless.

With depression, the tools we use to perceive and interpret the world are not functioning correctly. We perceive the world in dismal terms, that we have no future and are unlikely to get good outcomes, and that nothing we do can make a difference, among other things. And because we perceive the world that way, we come to believe that is how the world actually is.

That's one of the reasons why people who are depressed, in a lot of cases, struggle to believe they have depression. Other people may tell them they have depression, and that what they're feeling isn't true, but it is very hard for a depressed person to believe that, because their feelings exist in direct contradiction of what the other person is telling them. The other person may say things aren't as bleak as the depressed person thinks, but the depressed person feels like they are that bleak.

Imagine trying to convince someone that the apple they are holding in their hands isn't actually an apple, but is actually a tortoise wearing a straw hat. No matter how hard you reason, argue, beg, and assert, the other person is very unlikely to believe that they're holding a hat-wearing tortoise. When they look at what's in their hands, they see an apple. When they touch it, they feel the shape and texture of an apple. When they smell it, they smell an apple. And when they bite it, they taste an apple (as to how the supposed tortoise feels about being bitten, well, best not to think about that).

Now imagine telling the person holding the apple/tortoise that the reason they think it's an apple is because someone has put a mind-control chip in their head causing them to perceive tortoises as apples. Most likely, the person would be somewhere between amused and insulted. How ridiculous is it that someone put a tortoise-to-apple mind-control chip in their head, when it's so clear to them that they're holding an apple in their hand and not a tortoise! People tend to trust their own senses. For the most part that's a good thing, as it was probably the main reason we're not still living in caves. It becomes a problem when the things they're sensing are unnecessarily infringing on their lives.

The best way someone could be convinced that they have that mind-control chip in their head is if a lot of people, whom they trusted, told them that is exactly what is happening. Loved ones and medical professionals would have to line up and explain to them that a mind-control chip is in their head. If the person's still doubting, they might ask questions like when the chip was put into their head, how it works, and if they can't get good enough answers to that, it's all the easier for them to doubt.

And even after telling them all that, and giving convincing reasons, the person might still resist believing, because of how disturbing the thought is that they're wrong.  If they have such a chip in their heads, that means that the apple they perceive in their hand was never an apple at all. That they were wrong the entire time. That there is actually a tortoise in their hand (and given how long the tortoise has been there through all this, it's probably gotten hungry and started chewing off a few fingers). It's easy to believe what you already believe, especially if your feelings back it up. Changing what we believe is tremendously uncomfortable, especially if our faculties lend themselves to what we already believe, and more so if the new way of looking at things makes us feel weaker, less intelligent, or simply duped.  So for the most part, we try not to do it.

It's important to remember that depression (because we're talking about depression again) says nothing about how strong we are, how smart we are, or how good a person we are. All depression says is that we have depression. And what depression has done to us is make us see things in a way that's different than how they actually are.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Worry, Anxiety, and Uncertainty

I've been told I overthink things.

To some degree this is little more than a loveable quirk (at least I hope it's loveable). I often take things I've observed, and try to dissect them as much as I can, often to the point of absurdity.

Recently, for example, I noticed that I had been reading more works of nonfiction than fiction. I was fascinated with this, and brought it up to my friends. I asked "When did this happen? Why did it occur? Do fiction books just not interest me as much anymore? Was I ever really that into fiction books?" For my friends, the reaction was mostly a combination of bemusement and exhaustion. It wasn't the first time I'd overanalyzed something as simple as me changing my preference of literature.

Unfortunately, my tendency to overthink isn't limited just to little things like that. I overthink everything. I dissect them, analyze them, ruminate over them. Often I overthink the things I fear might happen, or the things I don't know. And then I overthink them more. And more. And more.

Other words for it are anxiety, and in extreme cases obsession. It can be found in OCD, ADHD, and GAD, among doubtless many other conditions. The point is the same: there are thoughts, and I cannot let them go.

Let me give an example. For as long as I can remember, I've been afraid of brain damage. I fear it happening to me, and I fear the effects it could have on my personality, my beliefs, and my relationships with other people. I fear the philosophical possibility that if I suffer brain damage, that I cease to be myself.

I'm sure many other people have these fears from time to time. The difference for me is the immediacy and intensity with which I feel them, so that I feel not that brain damage might happen, but that it will. Several weeks ago, I spent an entire afternoon caught up in these fears of brain damage. I researched philosophical theories of the relationship between the mind and brain, theories of personality and the self. In my fear I bought a book how to live with brain trauma. I began feeling psychosomatic sensations in my head, minor throbbings and lightheadedness, and became paranoid that these were the precursor of an aneurysm, or an unnoticed concussion. All of this culminated in a point where I had checked myself into the school mental health counseling services, and broke down in despair over what brain damage might do to me.

I have not had brain damage. There was no reason for me to assume I had that likelihood in the near future. My family had shown no previous risk for strokes or the like, and I was not engaged in any high-risk activities that would put me at risk for brain damage. Even if I did suffer brain damage, there was no reason to believe it would affect me in the horrid, personality-effacing ways that I feared it would. All of that didn't make a difference to me. It could happen, there was nothing to prevent it from happening, and therefore my mind interpreted that it would, in the worst possible way.

That's an extreme example, but the same phenomenon occurs again and again in my life. These questions include, but are not limited to:
  • Is there a God? (And other philosophical questions)
  • Does someone I care about really love me?
  • Do I really love the people I think I care about?
  • Do I have some early stage of cancer right now but don't know it yet? 
  • Is this future event going to turn out the way I want it to, or  fear it will?
A common thread throughout is that all of these questions are things there are no easily knowable answers to. Take love for example. I want to think I love other people, but how do I know truly? Is there some test I can take to verify that the emotion I feel is love? What if I'm only convincing myself I'm feeling love? What if there's no such thing as love? I don't know, so I try to dissect every feeling, every thought, analyze it and reduce it, and ask myself "is this love? Am I feeling love?"

Unfortunately for me, there is no answer to this, or at least none that our society currently knows. Philosophers have been debating love for thousands of years, and if I were to take a guess, I'd say they'll be debating it for thousands of years more. We can put our stock in one view of love or another, but in the end there's no way we can guarantee that we have the right idea.

And that's where the anxiety comes in. Anxiety is about trying to get certainty in things we can't be certain about. We want to know about our future, about our relationships, about God, as clearly and certainly as we know the time of day. We want certainty, but we can't get it, so we become miserable thinking about the things we can't be certain about.

Often, when faced with this anxiety and uncertainty, our first response is to double down on our desire for certainty, often through checking behaviors. We try to do what we can to be as certain as we can be, even if what we can do doesn't actually leave us any more certain. A person afraid of catching disease may frequently wash his hands. A person who is insecure about their relationships may constantly apologize to other people for some wrongs they think they have done. Someone who is worried about whether there is or is not a God may spend a great deal of time reading philosophical works on the divine in search of an answer.

Unfortunately, all of these techniques are temporary solutions, and often can be more problematic in the long-term than they help in the short term. If someone feels they have to constantly wash their hands to prevent from catching disease, they build up the fear of the disease in their mind, and become increasingly anxious the longer they go without washing their hands. Someone who constantly apologizes for perceived wrongdoings in relationships may tire his loved ones through constant apologizing, ironically making the success of relationships less certain than if he did nothing at all. And with philosophy, well, men have been debating these things for thousands of years. We haven't gotten a certain answer yet, and continued readings of philosophy will only make that uncertainty all the more pronounced.

Yet for the anxious mind, what else can they do? When I have felt acute anxiety over something, I feel like the only thing I can do is, if I cannot be certain, to get as close to certainty as I can. Yet there's only so close one can get to certainty. No matter what I do, there will always be a gap between what I know and what I want to know, and there is no way to bridge that.

The only option, then, is to accept it.

When I first heard that suggestion, I bucked it as hard as I could. I couldn't imagine accepting the things I feared would happen, because in my mind that was as good as allowing them to happen, to admit defeat and give into the real possibly of my worst fears being realized.

But the possibility was always there. Most of the time, worrying about those fears doesn't prevent them from occurring, it just make the interim until/if they occur all the harder to bear. No matter what I do, no matter what I think, the things I worry about can still happen. I may get cancer. I may lose my loved ones. I may get brain damage and may through brain damage have my personality inexorably erased from existence.

But so far, none of those things have happened. So far, all that I have done is worry about them. And worry. And worry. My quality of life has been lowered over things that have not even happened yet, if they happen at all.

One may still be resistant about giving up their anxiety. One may argue that their anxiety has been useful, where by worrying about things they then do things to prevent the things they worry about from happening. And that may be the case for mild anxiety.

But for more severe cases. Cases like my own, I've found the exact opposite.

Often when I worry, I don't prevent the things I fear from happening; I make them all the more likely. By fearing bad outcomes to such a severe extent, I impair myself, and reduce my ability to function properly. When I've worried about a test or an assignment, I become paralyzed with fear, and avoid starting the project, or working on it as much as I should, because of how deeply I associate the project with the uncomfortable fear of failure. With friendships and other relationships, I become so worried about losing them that I no longer able to function normally in them, in the ways that started those relationships in the first place. I become visibly anxious and uncomfortable around them, and the other person does not want to be around someone like that, and so they begin to drift away. Which causes me to become more anxious. Which causes them to drift away.

Maybe for some of those cases, my anxiety didn't make things worse. Maybe in some of those cases, my anxiety had no effect on what was going to happen, or even delayed it. Maybe in some cases, my anxiety has actually prevented some of the things I worry about from coming to fruition. I can't think of any, and I seriously doubt there were more than a few, if any at all, but it's possible.

It's still not worth it.

I'm afraid of many things because I fear they will ruin my life. But anxiety has already done that for them. Anxiety has taken away my ability to enjoy the world from day to day, and has left me in constant fear of the future. Anxiety has made me paranoid and insecure, constantly worrying that I'm doing something wrong, or putting myself at risk. Anxiety has curled up inside of me like a parasite, and eaten me up from the inside.

And I want it to stop.

We can't always change the things we want to. We can't always know the things we want to. In those cases, all we can do is accept.

Accept all the things we do not know, and cannot be certain about. Accept that we will not get the answers to many of our questions for a very long time, if we ever will. Acknowledge that we are suffering greatly in our anxiety over the things which we do not know, and that worrying about them is unlikely to change the outcome of the things we worry about (they may even make the bad outcomes we worry about more likely!). The things we are afraid of may happen, and if/when they happen, they may be very hard to deal with. But we cause ourselves a great deal of misery now about something that hasn't happened yet, and may never happen.

Do we want to live in a world where we're constantly worrying over the things we don't know? How much better could our lives be if we could acknowledge the things we don't know, accept that the worst may happen, and still strive to live the best lives we can at this moment in time?

Jonathan Grayson, author of the book "Freedom from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder", from which I've drawn a great deal of material for this post, said in his book that "Living with uncertainty means choosing to cope with whatever may happen. There is no alternative." He is right. We have no other option, save to continue to suffer and agonize over the countless things we do not know, and that is no option at all. To get better, and to free ourselves from our anxiety and obsessions by no longer letting ourselves be in fear over them, is the only option we have. And we can begin the process now.

Monday, April 21, 2014


There are few things crueler in the world than feeling alone. All the pain and suffering in the world can be endured if we have others to share the load with. Alone, those burdens are frightening and all the more terrible.

I've felt alone. I've felt alone with other people around me. I've tried to talk, to communicate, but my ignorance and anxieties make me feel limited and distanced. I've felt alone in my depression, where the illness itself works to isolate and separate me from the rest of the world, and convince me that others do not love me. I've felt alone late at night, when there's no other voices to be heard but my own, and the things that it's saying are more than I can handle. Today I felt very alone for a very long time.

In my experience, loneliness is is accompanied by hopelessness.  Odd, considering we deal with problems by ourselves all the time, and most of the time we do them with no trouble. But when I think of myself as being by myself, the situation becomes much more difficult. The difference seems to be between being alone and feeling alone. It's the difference between not having others around us but still feeling their love and support, versus feeling like we're the only ones taking on the weight of the world.

We need to know we're not alone. We need to know that others are there to help us. We need to know that what we have struggled with others have struggled with. We need to know that out there, somewhere, is someone who cares about and values us as we would like to be valued.

But sometimes it's very hard to find that.

For those of us who have had traumatic experiences, who have had problematic childhoods, or who have dealt with the isolating experiences of mental illness, it can be very hard to feel like there's someone out there who can understand us. There are many solutions to this, and I would encourage everyone who feels this to look for what works for them.

But here is something that works for me:


Yesterday morning , as I was preparing for the day, I felt very depressed. I wouldn't call it despairing, but things felt empty. I wasn't sure why I was doing anything, what it was all going towards. The future felt narrower, and I felt smaller.

In the end, what got me out of this slump was not any philosophical tract on "revolt against the face of despair" or whatever. The feeling did not suddenly go away. No medicine removed it. Instead, I was inspired by an anecdote from Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, whereby Frankl, while suffering in a concentration camp, is able to inspire himself to continue on by thinking of his wife. The quote is wonderful, as is the whole book, and is included below:
We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor's arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: "If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don't know what is happening to us." 
That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
Like Frankl, I thought of those I loved. I thought of my closest friends and loved ones, past and present. People who still cared for me and those who I knew no longer did but whom I still cared for nonetheless. I thought of their faces, of precious moments spent with them. I thought of wanting to make them happy, and I realized that the way to best make them happy was if I was happy, or at least as close to happy as I could be in the present moment. I could show my love for them by extending that love to myself, and willing myself to endure the suffering I was feeling now.

And that helped. The pain lessened somewhat, and what pain remained became easier to bear. It did not go away, but things became just a little bit easier, in part because I was able to take the pain and bear it in the context of something beyond myself I realized I was not alone. I was part of a larger world, filled with others who were affected, changed, by my presence and my actions. My pain became not simply something I was bearing for my own sake. It became something I bore for the sake of others as well. There's something very empowering in that.


That was just one technique. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It's good to have multiple techniques at our disposal, as sometimes one does not help us but other does so.

But no matter what, we need to remember that we are not alone. Orson Welles once said that through friendships and relationships we give ourselves the illusion that we are not alone. But I think it is loneliness that is the illusion. True, each of us lives only in our own bodies. We can only ever see what it's like in our own heads, not the heads of others. And yet we do believe that others are around us (at least most of us do). We feel them and speak with them in our lives. And we care about people, and we believe they care about us, through the things they have done for us, the ways they've helped us get to where we are now. We can all think of people who have helped us. Fred Rogers made use of this to great extent in his acceptance speech for the Daytime Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award, and I encourage you to watch it:

"No man is an island", as John Donne said. We are part of something much greater than ourselves. Everywhere on this world there are people like us, who see through eyes as we do, hear the world as we do, and think as we do, though their thoughts may take them to different conclusions. Whatever we feel, we can know that there are others who have felt the same. When we hurt, there are others who have hurt the same ways as well. Each of us feels and thinks and experiences in our own unique ways, but though the details may be different for each of us, the core of them is the same.

Maybe we are alone. Maybe each of us is an island. Hell, maybe Hilary Putnam is right, and we're all just brains in a vat that believe we are making these connections. I choose to believe that we're not. I choose to believe that though we may feel very alone at times, and though we may not be as close to others as we'd like to be, we're never truly alone. There are always ways for us to connect, and feel that connection, though sometimes they might be very hard to find.

I'd like to end this post with the paragraph immediately following the quote from Victor Frank's Man's Search for Meaning above:
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw that truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth - that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, which his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way - an honorable way - in such a position man can, though loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory."

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Courage To Be Vulnerable

Consider this article, which discusses how men, because of societal gender expectations of being stoic, strong alpha-males, often hide their mental health difficulties from others in an attempt to appear in control, and in doing so fail to reach out for the support that they need, and see their mental health deteriorate as a result:
One of the things I've found is that men have a difficult time talking about and getting help for their mental health or if they're feeling suicidal. There seems to be some societal pressure that says "You're not a true man if you don't have it all together, all the time."
I would argue this is true, but that it goes beyond men. I would argue that everyone feels that pressure to hide their mental illness from others, along with other perceived deficiencies in appearance, our health, or our character.

There are reasons for this. Mental illness stigma is very present in our society, and we fear we will be rejected or misunderstood by others we care about because of that stigma. More than that, it seems simply human nature to want present ourselves as the best possible version of ourselves. We are inclined to hide our own flaws and issues, partly because in doing so we believe we make others more affable towards us, and perhaps also because in hiding them from the public eye we are able to, in some degree, deny to ourselves that we have them.

Hiding one's personal struggles is not always a bad thing. In some situations, we do need to keep our problems, mental health or otherwise, hidden from other people. We feel little to no compunction to hide family stresses or financial difficulties at work, in a business meeting, or when we are giving a speech, if for no other reason than that we would expect the same of anyone else in such a situation. Too often, however, this is stretched to our friends and loved ones, and we feel we have to hide our struggles from them as well.

Time and again I have seen people, even those who have experienced mental illness in the past and gotten help for it, afraid to disclose their current struggles. I myself have been guilty of that sometimes--if I think that I have been generally improving, and then I have a bad depressive episode, there is a powerful fear that my recovery has stopped, or that I will go back to feeling worse. Never mind that I've had such feelings numerous times before--and that very often every depressive episode can feel like the worst one--I feel like I can't let anyone know, for fear of frightening them, or for fear of admitting to others and to myself that I wasn't doing as well as I thought I was, or that by simply talking about it, I will make myself worse by acknowledging it.

The result is that I keep my struggles balled up inside of me, trying to fix them myself so that no one else can see what I am struggling with. Sometimes I end up managing whatever problem I'm having and get better. Other times the problem continues to gnaw away at me until I have no choice but to make the problem becomes visible on its own--often in the form of a breakdown.

But when I do open myself up to others, very often I find the reaction is not a pushing away from me (though sometimes that is the case), but an understanding, an acceptance, and a willingness to help. I think something we forget about a lot of times when we are considering hiding our problems from others is that our loved ones do want to help us. They want us to feel good and be happy, and they want to contribute to that. While we might be worried about burdening them with our own problems, often times it can make them feel good because we've exposed our problems to them, and let them into our inner world so that they can help us.

Obviously, this does not apply to everyone. For people who have unhealthy relationships, relationships where the other person routinely demeans them and makes them feel bad about themselves, or otherwise constricts their ability to live a healthy life, telling such people risks causing more harm than good. The very foundations of those relationships aren't built upon a desire to help us in the first place. And of course, there is the recurring fear that even if we do reveal our problems to people who love us, that they will dismiss our problems and, though they do not intend to do so, nonetheless hurt us.

And unfortunately, they might. There are no guarantees. Some people may believe that we are overreacting, or being self-centered, or whatever the myriad of other reasons people give for why mental illness isn't mental illness, or why our problems don't matter. To some degree it's fear of thinking of someone they love as being one of those oft-maligned stereotypes they see in the media, as well as numerous other reasons I don't feel I have the understanding to talk about. They may turn away from us, or dismiss us, or even think less of us. We can't control that.

Nonetheless, very often letting others in to our own issues provides a way for us to get better. It allows others to understand how we are struggling, and understand how their own behavior affects us, and try to better accommodate us.  It allows others to give us advice, and opens us up to new perspectives which we may not have thought about, either because it was simply something we hadn't considered or because we were so distressed we didn't have the breathing room to consider other options. Sometimes just knowing that others know, and understand to some degree, is comforting and therapeutic on it's own, making us not feel so alone.

In the end though, we can't be certain how another person will react. And since most of us are used to hiding our problems inside ourselves for quite some time, it can be very difficult to open ourselves up, to show ourselves at our most vulnerable and able to be hurt, and ask that others help us.

Some may consider keeping one's internal problems wholly inside themselves a show of strength, but I would argue the opposite--hiding one's troubles is a sign of fear. Fear of appearing weak. Fear of having loved ones think poorly of you. Fear of thinking poorly of yourself.

A greater show of strength is one which emphasizes that we are not nearly as strong as we'd like to be--that we are flawed human beings, and we need other human beings to support us.

I am talking about the courage to be vulnerable.

I am talking about the courage to open oneself to other people, flaws and all, and risk being hurt by them. Not because you will be hurt, but because by doing so you allow them the opportunity to help you, and to connect with you in a deeper way. You show to yourself that you are willing to take a risk, in the hopes that you will get better.

It is not easy to say to another person, "I have a problem", but it is so crucial for us to do that. There are some battles we cannot always fight on our own, where we need the love and support of someone else to get us through it, and the only way they can give us that love and support is if they know what we are going through.rld